When Salman Rushdie came calling...
One of the nominees for the English Non-Fiction award was Mishi Saran, author of Chasing the Monk's Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang. A journalist-turned-author, Saran wanted to become a doctor before life took her down some unexpected paths. The book documents her trail of the Chinese monk we know better as Hiuen Tsang, 1,400 years after he travelled to India to study Buddhist philosophy. It is an intriguing work, managing -- as it does -- to mix memoir with reportage, inquiry with adventure.
Dressed in a chic black sari, Saran was calm, composed, and extremely open to questions. It made sense, therefore, to ask her a few...
The thing that struck me most about your book was the tremendous amount of work involved. How did that process of tracing Xuanzang's well-documented path come about?
It happened the other way round. I was born in India and spent around ten years here, so I have this Indian heritage. I have also spent a lot of my adult life in China, studying the language and people, and I felt my life had this strange dichotomy -- this 'China-India' split. They don't have too much in common, so I was looking for a way to unify these two strange parts of my life. I had to go back in history to find the link. I had known about Xuanzang and his journey and realized he would be the perfect guide for this journey, considering his records of pre-Islamic India are among the most complete.
You speak of how a lot of what Xuanzang said still holds true. Was that a surprise? Didn't you expect drastic changes?
I didn't know what to expect, to be honest. In the beginning, for instance, when he comes to the kingdom of Kapilavastu -- where the Buddha lived before enlightenment -- he wrote of it being a deserted place, with villages lying waste. That it how it still is. His description matches it perfectly, even today.
What is the kind of work that goes into creating a travelogue?
I rarely read travelogues, so I didn't have a particular model in mind, or a particular way in which I wanted to approach it. My real love is fiction. I just wrote the way I responded to a landscape or town. All I knew, before I set out, was that the book would go back and forth, between the monk's story and mine.
Do you intend to attempt fiction at some point?
I do. The Monk's Shadow took about five years, and I have begun a work of fiction. I'm not sure where it's going but, as soon as I do, I'll let you know (laughs).
Image: Mishi Saran -- Not at all monk-like.