If, like me, you believe that the Heart of a Nation is its people then you may be disappointed to discover this is less a tale from India’s heart and more a voyage of self discovery in which its people appear mostly as chai wallahs, shopkeepers and grinning flunkeys.
The Westerners Reece meets come off a bit better but rarely get described in greater detail than their name nationality and approximate age - even Jan, the Czech man she travels with for the last quarter of the book has only a minor supporting role, we never get to know him.
However for the first half of the book the absence of characters, likable or otherwise, is an advantage because Bindi Girl is a superb companion for anyone wishing to get to grips with India’s spiritual side, a subject on which Reece clearly has not just a sound working knowledge but a deep respect as well.
She steers us through the labyrinthine world of Hindu deities, the intricacies of meditation, yoga, Buddhism the vagaries of Rainbow gatherings and India’s curious enclaves of long stay Westerners.
Her spiritual outlook also allows her to be philosophical not only about the many of the downsides to foreign travel, insects, heat, disease but also the unpleasant situations in which solo female travellers sometimes find themselves and where most of us would become infuriated Reese simply checks in with her mental state and uses these incidents, to spring back into action like a form of spiritual judo.
As a writer she has considerable descriptive powers and her chirpy, personable style and uncluttered solo perspective work very well initially but as Bindi Girl unfolds and Reese’s plans, and purpose become less and less clear more pages are devoted to her dreams and thoughts, her relief at finding accommodation with decent facilities and staying in huts on beautiful beaches.
As her frequent descriptions of paradise blur into each other the latter part of the book starts to read less like an exploration of India’s heart and more like a round robin holiday email from someone with too much time on their hands. We also get very little feel for India as a country despite that fact that she regularly traverses great swathes of it by bus and train.
At the very end of the book she gives us a brief snapshot of some of the poverty and squalor that lies much closer to India’s heart than its beaches and temples but its not enough to make Bindi Girl live up to its title ambitious title and by the end we feel as relieved as she does that the journey is finally over.