A stunningly artistic depiction of the Narmada river
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As one would expect of a book by two heavyweights of Indian history, this is a rigorous scholarly discussion, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a delightful read as well. In the introduction the authors declare their intention of reading their bouquet of texts with the grain rather than against it. They do not see this as a ‘return of the narrative’, since in their opinion narrative never really went away, and the recent trends in scholarship of treating texts like machines to be taken apart has never appealed to them. This frank admission is a tremendous relief to the reader who has waded neck-deep through many of the jargon-ridden texts produced by modern scholars.
So the two authors proceed to follow their travellers in detail along their routes, summarising their hardships, their observations and their moments of epiphanic delight. And what stories they are! Even those with a minimal interest in the period (1400-1800) will be fascinated by the sheer human quirkiness and drama of the travels of this bunch of diverse people. They include a nameless widow grittily pursuing her dream of pilgrimage to Mecca, a Sufi pir, a Russian trying to make it in an aggressively Muslim world of trade, a bevy of ambassadors and diplomats from the Persian and Ottoman courts, sundry functionaries of the Portuguese Estado da India and a solitary Frenchman (Tavernier). Few of the documents discussed have received much attention from academics in the field of ‘travel writing’, although they are well known to Persian scholars, and for this the authors gently chide the academic establishment for its Eurocentric and Europhone bias. They predict that their study will produce a different picture of Asia’s internal relations than has hitherto been held, and they come through on this promise handsomely. Indeed, in the context of the world of these voyagers, the flimsy solidarities of the so-called ‘Third World’ (to which Iran and India now belong) appear quite laughable. At the same time, the network of Persian culture and influence thrown over Asia by waves of migration and trade has knitted together the courts of India, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Thailand and provided a kind of magic carpet (if you will) for these sojourners to get about on, rather like five-star hotels provide little bolt-holes of English-speaking Western comfort for the modern-day tourist.
The vicissitudes of travel often bring out the human context of the beleaguered traveller. As the authors point out, complaint is one of the tropes in these writings, and then as now the traveller often finds relief from his sorrows by bemoaning his separation from friends and the state of his stomach. In between gripes, the new and unforeseen strike the consciousness of these people on the road with revelatory force, not least the culture, habits and architecture of Calicut, Vijayanagar and the Mughal courts, which they struggle to comprehend. And finally, the physical also parallels a spiritual quest that produces strange results, such as the Russian Alexander Nikitin who after four years in Asia cannot remember the name of God in his own tongue, commending his soul to Khuda and Allah, or Muhammad Balkhi who, in the company of Hindu yogis (and opium hallucinations), shaves his head and travels to Puri, chanting Hari Bol all the way. There are clear parallels between Balkhi’s journey and those of 20th-century hippies, not least because having followed his quest to Sri Lanka and back, Balkhi gets a job with the Mughal governor of Orissa and reinvents himself as a respectable nobleman.
This book is worth dipping into for the serious lay reader as well as the scholar, and will not intimidate anyone out of acquaintance with its wonders. The authors navigate us expertly through the rapids of translation, providing extensive paraphrases of the originals along with the Persian for key terms, thus giving a flavour of the original without compromising readability. A book worth having for many reasons.
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