Manchan's Travels

Author, documentary maker, gaelgoir and intrepid traveller Machan Magan talks to Village about his new book, an account of a journey around India.

Machan Magan credits his youthful appearance on the cover of his new book, A Journey Through India, to his Peter Pan existence. Now in his mid thirties, the Dublin born writer, television documentary maker and international traveller has studiously avoided the trappings of adulthood such as a mortgage or children in favour of “getting to know the world”. This endeavour has been aided by his willingness to live in a house built of straw-bales for a several years, and also his endless globetrotting.

Having escaped the concrete drabness of UCD, he lived in Africa (the subject of a book he is currently writing), then Europe, South America, and India, where he was living in a hut in the Himalayas when he received a call from his brother “The Tiger”. Through a mixture of bluff and bluster, the Tiger had wrangled a contract from the newly created Irish language television station TnaG to make a documentary on India, with Machan as presenter.

The making of this documentary is the theme of A Journey Through India. The blurb makes it sound like an acid-fuelled journey through the sub-continent, a kind of Fear and Loathing in New Delhi, promising murderous environmentalists, sex-obsessed yogis and mind-reading children. The introduction of the book does little to dispel this impression, with our narrator talking about the places his mind had reached through life as a hermit in the mountains – “the no-man's land connecting grasshoppers to blades of grass to the wind that blows on both”. We are quickly introduced to one of the main protagonists of the book, a sexually confused local boy called Tara, who Manchan decides to save from his violent family by bringing him to Delhi, where things get even stranger. The other inhabitants of the Himalayas are either lost Westerners or hardy locals, all high as kites on the local cannabis or the opium in their tea.

In conversation with Village, Manchan wondered what would have happened him if his brother had not called him away from this place. While many of those around him had dropped out, he was expanding his consciousness and enjoying life, ensuring he was open to all experiences, such as drinking his own urine, for medicinal purposes. He was totally unemployable, but had no intention of changing. Not realizing he needed to be saved, along came his brother, and the Irish language.

The documentary was to be presented wholly through what Magan describes in the book as “an awkward, inexact, barely fathomable, semi-dead language”. While a true Gaelgoir, he feels Irish makes sense only when he speaks his dialect in its context, in the Dingle peninsula. In Dublin for example, he feels alienated speaking his Irish. When making the documentary he was worried about using Irish to describe India, as for him it is an earthy language that focuses on depression and oppression, not much use for speaking of the enlightenment and new-age experiences he had had there.

Magan has since gone on to make several documentaries for TG4, including one where he tried to travel around Ireland using only Irish, an entertaining but largely unsuccessful endeavour. In 1996, when making his first travelogue for the fledgling station, he foresaw the possible rejuvenation of the language through this new medium. While TG4 has been successful, he now feels that Irish must find “a new context” if it is to prosper, and sees hope in Irish children, who do not associate the language with hardship.

These feelings about Irish did not prevent him and the Tiger from documenting everything from the Indian metropolis to the scorpion infested deserts, interacting with Indians who feel that all humanity is one, leaving little room for personal space. The variety they encounter, from goat herding nomads to Gucci-clad teenagers, the sexually ambiguous hijra to the high-society dames, is investigated by our guide with an open attitude, as he tries to understand the whirl around him. This occasionally results in rambling paragraphs on topics like gender or globalisation, but they never last long, and we are always quickly brought back to the melee of the Indian streets.

The book is more focused on people than places. Magan tells us that he always tries to discover the “national consciousness” of a country he documents. In A Journey Through India he does this, to such an extent that the book could scarcely be used as a travel guide to the physical side of the country, but is a fascinating introduction to the minds of the people.

Manchan's Travels: A Journey Through India, by Manchan Magan is published by Brandon.
Available on 4 September 2007, €14.99