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Sunday, June 9, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Travel Books

No Duck, But The Quest Was Worth The Trouble

The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck: A Journey into the Himalayas and Down the Brahmaputra by Rory Nugent Houghton Mifflin, $19.95

In the 1960s, the Beatles went to India looking for enlightenment. In the 1980s, Rory Nugent went there looking for a duck.

No one found what he was after, but Nugent is one up on John, Paul, George and Ringo - he wrested this book from his efforts.

Nugent is a New York journalist who's in the habit of going on hopeless quests. He's done 4 1/2 solo crossings of the Atlantic (there has to be a story in that "half"), and he casually mentions "traveling along the edge of the Sahara searching for a rare desert bloom."

While hunting for things that can't possibly be found - in this case a duck last sighted in 1935 - he finds plenty of distracting sights along the way. "The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck: A Journey into the Himalayas and Down the Brahmaputra" is his account of them.

Clairvoyant Tibetan exiles, Gurkha terrorists, New Delhi brothel owners, holy men and hucksters, peasants and politicos - they all take Nugent by surprise.

He surprises them, too, with his duck-obsessions and his appearance. Totally bald and over 6 feet tall, Nugent attracted attention wherever he went.

His travels included a visit to the world's largest rhododendron forest; a failed attempt to cross the border into Tibet; an abortive induction into the mysteries of Tantric sex; and a perilous voyage down the Brahmaputra River (which drains the most heavily rained-upon spot in the world and carries almost twice the water-volume of the Mississippi).

He witnessed terrorist attacks, and kept a sharp eye out for the cultural anomalies that 20th-century trade and travel have facilitated. An ardent Jethro Tull fan in a remote Assam river port gives Nugent a headache with his ancient tape collection. An Indian diplomat tells how he learned English by watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" on U.S. armed forces broadcasts from Vietnam when his family was posted to Laos.

Nugent's material is always lively, but his prose is rarely more than adequate. His use of the present tense doesn't add to the immediacy of his account and can slow the action down to diary-like episodes when a sustained narrative flow might be more desirable.

He falls a little short in the character-depiction department, too. Readers see the sights, all right, but Nugent doesn't probe deeply into the individual lives that cross his path.

That isn't his purpose here, apparently. He's spotting species, not writing life stories.

Along with the terns, egrets, kingfishers, gulls, mynahs, swallows, plovers, etc., he comes up with some memorable sightings in the multi-ethnic chaos of India.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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