Book review: Handle with Care by Shreya Sen-Handley
Travels with the kids
So, here comes a book that is something of a departure from others of its genre found on bookshelves today. This is a straight-up travelogue, one that falls back on tried and trusted tropes of travel writing: have an interesting place to go to. Tell of that visit in an interesting manner. Leave the end consumer, aka the reader, with all sorts of good feelings at the end of the account.
Sen-Handley duly ticks these boxes. However, in an age where travel stories are invariably chronicles of much derring-do or trips with a twist, Handle with Care reads like a collection of tales where the focus is more on the fit between the traveller and the place travelled, with the adventurous or disastrous stuff mentioned but not given any starring role. The simple trajectory of the book takes a little getting used to but is worth staying the course for.
This book is also a child-friendly book. Sen-Handley and husband travel with their kids, enjoy travelling with their kids, and she talks happily about what keeps their young travellers engaged or bored out of their minds. The opening chapters dealing with Pujo-trawling in Kolkata and doing a `Dino Snores` sleepover night at the Natural History Museum in London, the one detailing a trip to Disneyland Paris, tread a bland line with fairly routine descriptions of the places visited, things experienced, with a lot of airtime given over to musings on travelling with children. And after the family acquires a dog, the trips and the articles on the trips turn pet-friendly, too.
A deeper voice
Some chapters in, though, and it`s like the author starts to express herself in quite another voice. If the kids (and dog) are mentioned, they don`t take over the tale; poignant sentences that reveal something of her past and quite a bit of her current state of mind appear, all dovetailing with the beauties of the places she visits. Some passages would seem to be purely cathartic in nature, and the reader fully gets that.
Sen-Handley`s arc is a wide one, encompassing a lot in its span: places like Manila, Whitby, Nainital, NYC, Amsterdam; the constant `unserenity` of things and people during pujo in Kolkata; communing with critters in museums and out on the streets; how Bill Finger, Batman`s co-creator names Gotham after an English parish `where all are bereft of their wits`; tongue-in-cheek tips on how to choose a correct tripfella; bridge- spotting in London town, and more. Sen-Handley is chasing a sunshine trap most of the time, and most of the time, she finds one too.
In his blurb for the book, Ruskin Bond mentions the author`s attention to detail. This reviewer seconds that sentiment. Add to that attention to detail smidgens of the unexpected and the marvellous (like tracing a Durell path in Corfu), and it makes for passages which quite delight.
Then again, it must be said that some chapters are banal, the references to first and second spouses are a wee bit tiresome, but others are quite diverting. For my money, the chapter titled England and Wales: The Game is Afoot, was the best read.
This is old- fashioned travel writing before travel writing turned quirky. Hardnosed hedonist or even reckless adventurer Sen-Handley is not, an engaging travel writer she certainly is.
Handle with Care Travels With My Family (To Say Nothing of the Dog) By Shreya Sen-Handley. HarperCollins Books. Rs 399. Pages 259.
This appeared in the Sunday Express Magazine of 01 May 2022.