Book review: The Hippie Trail – A History by Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland
Reviewed by Sujata Raye
Title: The Hippie Trail – A History
Authors: Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland
The Hippie Trail is a long awaited book about the history of an era that still evokes fascination. While the ‘hippies’ who made the journey from the west to the east were ordinary people, to the people of the countries they passed through, they were not. They had fixed ideas about white women, formed from images in magazines and in films, and, sometimes, looked upon these visitors as intruders, ‘people looking for drugs and sex’; but that was not the truth, as the 57-58 interviews in the book tells the reader. By the time they finished their journey and returned home, the travellers themselves did not remain ordinary any longer. There were those who were fascinated by the Eastern religion, more specifically the development of Western Buddhism and Hinduism, and by practices like yoga, meditation and alternative medicine. Many looked at their journey as an inner journey; they were simply not interested in drugs.
There are many of those who were teenagers or young adults (in India), who lived through that era and are still around, who remember the unkempt hippies wandering around the cities. It was difficult to understand why they looked like they did, but this book gives detailed description of the difficulties the ‘white man’ faced in the tropical countries where the amenities they were used to, like drinking water and public toilets, were not easily available. They also had to carry light luggage, which explains their dirty attire. In a country where covering the breasts with the sari pallu was the norm, transparent clothing and the braless white woman evoked deep embarrassment amongst the female population while the males behaved as if they were at a free buffet.
The introduction is so well written that those who are unable to read the entire book will get a complete description of the era. The writers have collected material from extensive interviews and numerous newspapers, magazines and unpublished articles. The book is divided into five chapters that give details under specific headings: Drugs and the trail; Sex and love on the road; The hippie as tourist; The hippie as pilgrim; Representing the trail: Hideous Kinky and beyond. These detailed chapters that describe the travellers are immensely readable and informative; they educate the reader on how the era was a ‘new and original form of youth culture’, the ‘second wave of feminism’, ‘a vast unconscious international community’, who ‘travelled between the Age of Imperialism and the Age of Islamophobia’… One gets the explanation of the word ‘hippie’ in great detail, encompassing everything, from the origin, the connotation, the images associated with it, etc. A topic of debate amongst the young in that era, the subject of this book evokes nostalgia of a vibrant time for those who were growing up then.
What does the term ‘hippie’ mean? What was the purpose of their travels? Why did the hippie trail form through certain countries and not others? It was the hashish in Afghanistan, spirituality in India, Buddhism and drugs in Nepal; while drugs remain common to Pakistan and Iran too, there were many who did not take drugs at all. Travelling through this trail was more of an inner journey; an extraordinary account of many who ‘travelled from North America and Western Europe to various points east between 1957 and 1978. In the late 1960s, their route became known as the hippie trail. For many it was a life changing journey’ (Pg 2).
The hippies represented an original form of youth culture. The authors have given a detailed account of the trail which started, so to say, from Yugoslavia or Bulgaria, into Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Kathmandu in Nepal. It was marked by violence and danger, ailments, natural disasters and banditry. There are accounts of the new music, expansion of drug consumption, new political tendencies, new forms of spirituality that gave them a new sense of strength (sic). There was an eagerness to experience the East. They did not go to any ashrams; Buddhism attracted them more than Hinduism and the West was introduced to this through music, movies and written accounts.
To convey the readability of this gem of a reference book that should grace every bookshelf, one is tempted to quote from every second page – a well-written book with painstaking research and bibliography at the end of each chapter. The content is repetitive in places, but that might be unavoidable since the book is divided into chapters of hippies in their various avatars.
Gemie Sharif (Gemie has been researching for some time on ‘minority’ peoples: Bretons, Muslims, Galicians, Refugees; one of his publications is Women’s Writing and Muslim Societies, 1920–the present: the Search for Dialogue, UWP, 2013) and Brian Ireland (a cultural historian, freelance writer) are historians of modern Europe and modern America respectively. They interviewed around fifty six to fifty seven of those who actually travelled this trail and also sourced information through numerous published and unpublished articles and essays, taking five years to complete writing the book.
The book cover is attractive in bright colours. The photograph by Nattie/Shutterstock of a tie-and-dye fabric brings to memory all the descriptions of what happened on taking LSD – experiencing explosions of bright colours in the mind!
Sujata Raye is a journalist and freelance writer. She retired as executive editor of a children’s weekly at the Sakal Group of Papers Pvt. Ltd and has published features and short stories in Marathi. She is fluent in Marathi and Bengali.