Reading “In Xanadu”

The name said Xanadu, and I thought of cold, inhospitable terrain. I imagined reading about hardy people on the difficult Mongolian steppe; vast swathes of cold desert, men in flowing clothes singing khoomei music and playing string instruments. I also thought of monasteries seemingly floating mid-cloud, prayer flags fluttering in the wind and giant prayer wheels.

Clearly, my idea of Xanadu was Shangri-La, Tibet and the Gobi desert all rolled into one. I hadn’t heard of Coleridge’s poem, and so didn’t dream of fecund, river-watered plains or trees bent under the weight of flowers. Why, I didn’t even expect it to exist in the physical sense in contemporary trappings. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu opens in Israel. I was slightly disappointed: weren’t we in entirely different territory, mysteriously charming though the workings of the less common denominations of Christianity sounded? But Dalrymple effectively quelled any misgivings I might have had: right from the word go, keen observations and a wry sense of humour infuse life into this 20th century journey that traces Marco Polo’s expedition along the Silk Road.

An undergraduate at Cambridge, Dalrymple managed to obtain funds and official-sounding letters to help his way through bureaucracy-loving, permit-demanding Asia. With first Laura, an intrepid young woman with thousands of connections, and later ex-girlfriend Louisa for company, he set off with a phial of oil from Jerusalem, hoping to carry it all the way to their destination, Xanadu. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo went on a similar expedition, one of the ends being the conversion of the Mongol Emperor Kubla Khan to Christianity. In 1986, certain detours from the original route were inevitable, thanks to the political situation. From Israel, a roundabout way took them to Syria, then Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and China, before finally depositing them in a nail-biting finish at Xanadu, Inner Mongolia. It isn’t an easy journey, travelling as they do sometimes in coal-laden trucks, packed trains and filthy buses, sometimes on the run from the authorities as well. Diarrhoea strikes, tempers fray, but the travellers’ natural inquisitiveness stands out. Dalrymple’s fondness for Islamic architecture is evident in his careful observation of mosques along the route.

There is an undeniable charm in the unexplained: anything wrapped in thick veils of obscurity is fascinating, if only for its puzzling quality, no matter how commonplace its original purpose might have been. Dalrymple explored places and people who didn’t stand out remarkably in academic research or an ordinary historical piece: “Yet how many people in Europe have ever heard of the Seljuks? Their obscurity adds to their glamour. The academic machine has never been able to subject them to the learned overkill that has taken the joy out of so much Western art. Long may it stay that way.”

This intense curiosity marks Dalrymple’s journey, right from his interest in Seljuk history to his eagerness to meet the few Nestorian Christians- victims of Turkey’s skirmishes with Armenia- surprisingly still surviving in Kashgar. One of the moments that stands out for me is Dalrymple’s excitement at discovering, on looking out of a train window, that the river flowing alongside is actually the Euphrates. The Euphrates! Long-dead civilisations come alive, figurines glimpsed merely as very inky, smudged pictures in History textbooks reappear from their dormant corners. This was exactly how I felt at the British Museum, when I saw artefacts from Asia Minor, from Hammurabi’s court, when I got muddled over the Hittites and the Assyrians. That I know very little about them strengthens their capacity to attract.

In Xanadu is Dalrymple’s first book and my second of his. I read Nine Lives a couple of years ago, and while I found it very interesting, I wished it had less of the chronicler in it than the writer. In Xanadu, on the other hand, written when he was twenty-two, sounds more impulsive and fluid. It seems to make quite a few sweeping generalisations (in cases where all the people of a town are ugly or boring, for instance), which Bryson does too but in a very different way. It could be me, sometimes mistaking innocuous observations for colonial slights, but I think a bit of the self-important Western scholar comes out in it; a tinge of the British sahib, perhaps. That said, it is very engaging, and more than made up for my initial disappointment (caused entirely by my ignorance). Two more of his books lie in wait on my shelves, plump and alluring.

I felt a strong personal connection with Dalrymple as I read, if only for the reason that he used Berwick as a comparison for size: assuming he is talking of the Sussex village, how many “tourists” in England would have lost their way and ended up there on their way to Newhaven? I know Berwick has only one platform and two trains every hour- enough to give me an estimate of its size and importance. When he talks of the edicts of Ashoka near Mansehra in Pakistan, I know what he means: I have seen similar rock edicts at Kalinga in Orissa. Does this even remotely mean that I can hope to catch Dalrymple up some day? Sadly, unless I develop a taste for camping out in remote areas without pucca bathrooms, give up being vegetarian and stop being carsick even on the smoothest highways, it is going to be very hard work. But I live in hope.

PS: I wish the India edition had a nicer, more relevant cover than this. It is a pretty shade of blue, but the picture of pigeons taking flight in front of the blue mosque at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, beautiful by itself, just doesn’t go with a journey on which Dalrymple wasn’t really anywhere in its vicinity. You can do better, Penguin India!

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