There are some books that one wishes went on forever, for the vicarious experience offered is incredible. This is one of those. Long after the pages have been completed, the journey promises to stay in my mind.
It is now exactly a decade since Mishi Saran started on her journey – to follow a monk who had himself made a journey of over 10000 miles, 14 centuries before her time. Xuanzang, who I last met in my history text from school, the monk with the neat backpack.
The book hooked me right from the time the author described how she found a purpose – “an Indian woman with a Chinese craze, a Chinese monk with an Indian obsession, we had the same schizophrenia, the monk and I. It seemed logical to take the same road.”
The best journeys are those which traverse time and space in one stroke, and that’s exactly what this book does. Though in many ways, it could be described as a travelogue too, that would be utterly unfair. It is very much a personal journey for the author, a search for her roots, and identity.
As Mishi Saran travels across China and Central Asia, following Xuanzang’s path, her vivid prose blurs the boundaries that have been created in the modern era, and its easy to see the influence of ancient civilisations and regimes influence art, architecture, language, customs and thus life itself. And at the edges, where its not just cultures that collide, but religions too, as they are reshaped or recast in different moulds – Islam, Buddhism, Sufism…
The writing style forces one to make the journey with her, and I could see that there were actually three journeys unraveling simultaneously – the author, the monk, and the Buddha himself. All of them journeys with a purpose.
And amidst all the eloquence, it has obviously been a journey that required grit and courage.. And luck, which many a time failed the author. From places where children going to school needed visas and permits, to the posturing of a few contemporary students of Buddhism, to the origins of words that are still used in common parlance, and characters which seem to leap out of history pages – Ashoka, Kanishka, Chandragupta, the pages hold in them, tangential journeys for the reader.
The last part of the book, where the author gets to (almost) finally visit the territories crossed by Xuanzang in Afghanistan, is written a month before 9/11, and gives us a gripping account of Afghanistan under the Taliban, with glimpses of people who have perhaps yet to find peace. “I believed him. It was hard not to believe a man when you were standing in front of his blown-up home and staring at the ruins of his life. Whatever the story was, this was his truth.” Unlike fiction, one cannot console the self that the person and his story are imaginary. The last part of the journey does not add a lot with respect to the purpose of the book, but it’s a part that I’m glad the author chose to add here.
As a reader, I could relate to the author’s words in the last page “…I understood less, not more…. I had acquired this sadness”, and that is what makes this book one of the best I’ve read.