The world at his feet
The Long Strider is not just an account of a journey. It makes us take a journey inward, says ANNA SUJATHA MATHAI.
AT the Launch of this book by the British Council and Penguin, I had the delight of hearing Dom Moraes tell us the story of The Long Strider, drawing us into a circle of intimacy, with all the charm of an old world story teller. So, writing this review was a happy task.
In 1613, Thomas Coryate, a strange looking, freakish, dwarf-like man, with a heart large enough to take on the world, set out from his tiny Somerset village of Odcombe, on what was to be his final, fatal adventure. He had already written about his travels in Europe in his book Crudities. His extraordinary walk had earned him the title of The Long Strider.
Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa give flesh, blood and bones to a little-known legend. Moraes had read about Coryate, as a schoolboy. He had obsessively clung to his dream of writing about him. Coryate, a contemporary of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, John Donne, and others who frequented The Mermaid Tavern, wanted to walk to India, gain an audience with the Emperor Jahangir, and then travel on to China.
Moraes and Srivatsa both bring their considerable writing skills, their dramatic sense of history to make this legend live. They devise a unique plan, almost as arduous as the one chosen by our original traveller, Coryate. They travel from Odcombe, taking the very same route that he probably took. "We'll follow Coryate's route from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and into India, then all the way to Surat and his Tomb" says Dom to Sarayu. If Coryate was a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, they, with Juzer, their quixotic companion, rediscover a medieval India. Moraes' language, always clear, simple and luminous, revelatory as only poetry can be, is matched by some very fine writing by Sarayu Srivatsa, his co-author.
Srivatsa writes the Diaries, which start with their journey to Odcombe, which, as Dom points out is where all the English myth and magic came from the country of King Arthur and Merlin.
Srivatsa reveals a fine feeling for the telling detail, and a great sense of humour. Throughout, the local brands of "English as she is spoke" in various parts of India, add to the lively brew.
As several centuries, and a multitude of realities, form a palimpsest in the India of today, one almost finds the experiences of Coryate in the 17th Century, melding with Srivatsa and Moraes' in 21st Century India. Which is the real India? Coryate, struggling on foot, racked by disease, enters an India where the East India Co., under Sir Thomas Roe, is making its first tentative, strategic moves. The very same madness and lust for adventure and fame that possesses many a traveller to India, through the centuries, possesses the heart of this innocent-hearted traveller from Odcombe. Moraes writes about Coryate speaking to Ben Jonson about his beloved village: His face... "became as uplifted and transformed as that of a biblical prophet who had watched God walk at night among olive trees."
Taking a ship from London docks, Coryate headed towards Constantinople. Passing through the Holy Land, he joined a caravan sarai, and finally reached India. Poor and bedraggled, but always writing, dreaming of fame and glory in the purest hearted way, he travelled to Pushkar, Ajmer, Illahabad, Agra, Hrishikesh, Haridwar, Multan, Kashi. Coryate found shelter, briefly, at Sir Thomas Roe's settlement near Delhi and pleaded with Roe for a chance to meet Jahangir, for which he had studied Persian! He does meet the Emperor, but gets little help for the journey to China. The precious manuscript he had worked on, which he entrusted to an Englishman returning to England, to be delivered to Ben Jonson, is maliciously and casually thrown into a fire.
As our present-day travellers , guided by Juzer and a taxi driver whose choice use of the English language is unique, follow in the footsteps of our bedraggled, mosquito-bitten, sick 17th-Century pilgrim, they witness strange sights and customs, including a woman being forced to commit Sati. The most chilling of all the experiences is Coryate's discovery of the Agori, a primitive tribe, who used to haunt cremation sites, to eat the charred remains of half burnt bodies. This, and the descriptions of Kashi, and the still medieval city of Varanasi, with the holy Ganga River carrying with it the wreckage and waste matter of human life, are so disturbing that we must ask ourselves: Are we still caught in a medieval time-warp, from which there is no waking?
Moraes and Srivatsa have given us more than just an account of a strange journey. They make us take a journey inward, to ask ourselves some disturbing questions!
The Long Strider, Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa, Viking Penguin, Rs. 425.
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