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The pleasures of chasing a monk!
Nilanjana S Roy |
June 10, 2005
n 1893, Punch published a lighthearted bit of doggerel that is now notorious: A Lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts? / The notion's just a trifle too seraphic: / Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts; / But they mustn't, can't, and shan't be geographic."
They would. And could. And did. They climbed mountains, filed reports from war zones, took to ballooning and deep-sea diving.
And some, like reporter and writer Mishi Saran, invented their own quests.
Saran was born in Allahabad, but spent the next two decades of her life shuttling through six countries before settling uneasily in Hong Kong, finding comfort in its 'mixed up, cosmopolitan porridge'.
She had worked with the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, held on to her Indian passport all through. But, at 30, she was restless, unsure where she belonged, uneasily aware that history had been 'a troublesome deficiency' in her life.
Others have dealt with their angst in different ways: some find mentors, some turn to history's pages, some become pilgrims, some do the Kumbh darshan, some write books.
Mishi Saran did the lot. She found a 1,400-year old mentor in Xuanzang (Hieun Tsang), the Chinese monk, whose journey to India became an epic tale that still resonates down the ages.
"One way or the other, I would have tried to find my way home through history," Saran says. "Xuanzang just had such a startlingly similar bisection of his life that he seemed the perfect companion and guide in a quest that I had to undertake."
Chasing The Monk's Shadow: A Journey In The Footsteps of Xuanzang, that took Saran two years to complete, is the kind of book that makes your inner armchair traveller sick with envy. Saran followed the Silk Road through China, India and Pakistan, washing up in Afghanistan as the Taliban dug its heels in; she left Kabul a month before 9/11.
Saran was mistaken for an Uighur in Turfan, found more comfort in China's 'fraying edges' than in the centre, noted the similarities between Buddhist shrines everywhere, blundered through Kashmir. She tasted fermented mare's milk in Kyrgyztan and discovered a fraternity of pulao and pullov between Uzbekistan and Kabul; listened to stories of despair, hope, anger, bigotry, kindness in places as far-flung and as close as Bishkek, Mathura and Patna; saw four corpses hanging from a pole in Kabul.
She never pretends to be authoritative. You follow her learning curve on Buddhism and Xuanzang, and the naivete can grate. But it is balanced by her curiosity and openness and her stubbornness, her determination to find a way across closed frontiers.
After all that crossing of borders, Saran came away with a stronger sense of home -- 'I feel liberated,' she says, 'I finally see that I have many homes' -- and a deep scepticism of the idea of nationhood.
"My sense of nationhood, always very wobbly, has probably disintegrated further after this journey. My reading and my travel taught me that the boundaries of nations fade and slide through the ages and are redrawn at whim by whichever horseman or merchant happens to rule."
After 18 years of wandering, Xuanzang eventually went back to China -- a homecoming of sorts. Mishi Saran's 'solo wanderlust' is temporarily satisfied; now she's going home. To Korea, where her husband was offered a job recently. "We discussed it, and my heart started beating faster, and I found myself saying, 'Yes, why not'," she says.
You feel at home nowhere, chase a monk down history's byways, and return feeling at home everywhere. Sounds like a good plan to me.