“On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India.”
Twenty-one years later, in January 1963, when the continent of Europe lay frozen in the grip of one of the coldest winters in modern times, a young Irish woman, Dervla Murphy, climbed onto her bicycle in the French city of Dunkirk and set off for India. Her journey is remarkable not just because it took her across Western Europe, through the Balkans, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan (with a detour into the Himalayas) and finally India - but because she made it alone.
Today there are twice as many humans on this planet but there are few who could make that journey and write about it so well. She says that it is a popular fallacy that a woman who makes such a journey must be ‘very courageous’. She quotes Epictetus: “For it is not death or hardship which is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.” She explains that because the possibility of physical danger does not frighten her, courage is not required. ‘When a man tries to rob or assault me or when I find myself, as darkness is falling, utterly exhausted and waist-deep in snow half way up a mountain pass then I am afraid – but in such circumstances it is the instinct of self-preservation, rather than courage, that takes over.’
In snow-bound Serbia, a truck, in which she takes a lift, slides off the road and almost over a cliff. Despite a head injury she sets off, alone to get help but is attacked by wild dogs or wolves. ‘I stumbled, dropping the torch, then recovered my balance, and found one animal hanging by its teeth from the left shoulder of my wind-cheater, another worrying at the trousers around my right ankle, and a third standing about two yards away, looking on, only its eyes visible in the starlight.’ She slipped off her glove, pulled out her revolver, flicked the safety catch and shot the first animal through the skull and the other through the ribs as the third fled. All the while ‘I was possessed of the curious conviction that none of this was true, while at the same time all my actions were governed by sheer panic.’
When in Azerbaijan a young policeman armed with a revolver locks her in an empty house and tries to rape her she disables him, makes off with his trousers and escapes concluding that it is the only country that she would never wish to return to. Though she had to survive great danger on many occasions it is a sad reflection on our world that such a journey would be considered suicidal for a European today when the Christian world seems intent on reviving the Crusades. Western interference, the proliferation of weapons, and the growing disparity in wealth has done its work. One can only hope that the innate goodness of people will eventually prevail and Islam, so often reviled in the west, may help. ‘One must applaud Mohammed’s commonsense,’ she writes, ‘in prohibiting alcohol among his followers; if they stopped at pubs as often as they do at tea-houses the populations of the Islamic countries would long since have exterminated each other.’
The Afghans have suffered more than most in the forty-eight years that have passed. She dedicates the book to them, describing them as hardworking but easy-going, good-humoured but not talkative. ‘An Afghan man often sings quietly to himself for hours on end. He also loves bird-song and flowers, is very sensitive to natural beauty and on the whole treats animals well. Most of all, he loves his children, who may well number up to thirty if he can afford four wives.’ Though hot-tempered and uncontrollably ferocious when roused, once a dispute is settled without loss of honour on either side the Afghan man embraces his opponent and they sing a duet. She writes of the Afghan man as being ‘indifferent to hardship, on which he has been nurtured, he endures acute pain without a moan, and he is among the most fearless of soldiers. In short, he is a man after my own heart.’
In Northern Pakistan she is puzzled by the apparent harmony of so many Muslim arranged marriages, which she concludes are as likely to succeed as what they refer to with undertones of curiosity and disapproval as our “love marriages.”
‘I’ve asked several women if they did not feel deprived of a natural and inalienable right when someone else made for them what is the most important decision in most women’s lives. To this they replied, ’No it is our business to choose the partners for our children, not for ourselves.’
She can’t help but accept that four parents in frank consultation are more likely to arrange a more lastingly satisfactory match than two hot-blooded young things who can’t see the trees for the sex. Most of the women she spoke to described the pattern of their marriages as being one of growing love and understanding on both sides – which contrasts starkly with so many modern western marriages which increasingly seem to travel in the opposite direction.