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Fact & Fiction?

Romesh Bhattacharji

Edited by Geeti Sen and Molly Kaushal
Penguin/Viking and India International Centre, New Delhi,, 2005, Rs. 495.00


Travel writing is all about accessible places. But what does one do with a travel book that talks of journeys to the supernatural and the “cosmos”, when cosmos is not used in Carl Sagan’s sense of outer space? The supernatural is a one-way ticket, the bourn from which no traveller returns. It is impossible to verify the truth of the thing described. Supernatural journeys can be nothing but hypothetical and imaginary. Even for an armchair traveller such rambles are of no interest. Heroes, Pilgrims, Explorers has too many avoidable detours of this kind. If one is looking for a travel book like Ibn Batuta’s diary or of Eric Newby’s ability, this is certainly not it.       The attraction of the book is that it has introduced people who are not well known as travellers.  Sneh Jha’s essay on Babur, whom she describes as an “indomitable traveller” and “extraordinarily mobile,” is gripping. About forty years ago The Himalayan Journal (of all places) had a footnote to an article describing Babur as a tough traveller who declined to ride while crossing a pass in the Hindu Kush as that would demoralize his soldiers. Reading Jha one understands Babur better. She takes the reader beyond some prevailing misconceptions about him. We discover an alert, humane observer, which is a far more acceptable view than the dismissive “murderous hordes” one of Navtej Sarna, whose piece rattles off place names as if from a railway timetable.     At the other extreme from Sarna is Hari Vasudevan’s excellent article on the relatively unknown and amazingly determined Russian traveller Afanasii Nikitin, whose travels to and in India in the mid-15th century were a revelation to me and extremely absorbing.  The lengthy quotations analysed by Vasudevan are lively and correct one’s vague impressions about things. Similarly, Yogesh Sharma’s article on Francois Martin, a 17th century adventurer and traveller who died in Pondicherry in 1706 while he was its governor, is excellent. It is the few articles like these that have prevented the book from being banal and pretentious. Sharma chronicles Francois Martin’s amazing 2000 km long journey from the east coast of India to the west coast.  He went from Pondicherry to Surat at the height of summer, searching his way through Sriharikota, Bidar, Rajamundhry, and the just then established Mughal cantonment of Aurangabad. Bidar is described in greater detail in Hari Vasudevan’...

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