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Adventures in Flight

N. Kamala

By Azhar Abidi
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2006, pp. 244, Rs. 350.00


The Passarola, or the great bird, was a flying ship that was supposedly a cross between a balloon and a glider, designed by a Brazilian Father Bartolomeu Lourenço in Portugal in 1705. Azhar Abidi takes this piece of information and weaves a tale of historical fiction based on the aviation pioneer and his brother Alexandre. This great flying machine actually takes off in the very beginning of the book starting a series of adventures as the two brothers try to overcome not only gravity but the deep prejudice of the Church in the person of Cardinal Conti who is just waiting for royal patronage to be withdrawn before he can bring in the Inquisition and charge the brothers with heresy and going against nature. As Bartolomeu says wryly the clergy is afraid that with flying high the brothers may find ‘Perhaps that the heavens are empty and there is no God.’ While we root for the two brave men, we can sympathize with the Cardinal who warns ‘Those who possess them (flying ships) will use them against those without. No city and no state will be proof against their consequences’. And it is a warning well foretold as it is later used even if minimally on behalf of the French against the Russians to rescue the king’s father-in-law!   The narrator is the younger brother Alexandre who follows his brother trying to emulate him, as a sense of heady adventures, unknown vistas and undiscovered lands and truths beckons him. His adventures with women are as varied as his flights. From the ranks of the nobility to the bordellos of Paris and Sao Paulo, his escapades are in stark contrast to his brother’s asceticism and complete dedication to his quest for the sublime experience not to be found on terra firma. And it is one such peccadillo of Alexandre’s that sets the rumour mills grinding leading to the Inquisition coming down on them as they make good their escape in the Passarola. They traverse the currents and the countryside of Spain and France before finding refuge in the land of Reason with the famous philosopher Voltaire. Louis XV offers them protection and the Académie des Sciences the project of mapping and charting the Polar routes. The king of course sighs for the old maps with dragons and centaurs that are incomplete but full of promise of new discoveries ...

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