Travels in Old Asia review (originally published in the London Magazine)

14 May

Western travel writing on Southern Asia may have become a crowded market, but Eland Books has recently republished three of the finest titles in the canon. Dervla Murphy’s Where the Indus is Young is an arrestingly vivid account of one stoical woman and her even more stoical six-year-old daughter’s treks through the Karakorum Mountains of Baltistan, an under-explored province of northern Pakistan. Travels into Bokhara concerns the adventures of Alexander Burnes, the Scottish spy, polyglot and orientalist who is regarded as a prototype of both Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger. An altogether more humorous – but no less evocative – read is Travels on My Elephant, Mark Shand’s quest to discover India from the saddle of a flighty but affectionate elephant named Tara. Although these books differ in many ways, they share preoccupations with cross-cultural encounters, unlikely or unusual itineraries, and the impact of modernity on natural environments and ancient civilisations.

Originally published in 1991, Shand’s travelogue begins on the kind of whimsical note that one associates with the English gentleman traveller-writers of earlier that century: ‘I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant.’ After failing to buy an elephant from the wife of one of India’s greatest actors, Shand promptly heads to a small town in Orissa, follows a trail of dung to a camp of saddhus (holy men) and finds Tara, a young and fit – if malnourished – female of the species. It is love at first sight: ‘I knew then that I had to have her’. Recruiting a rum-sodden mahout (elephant master), Shand sets off on a six hundred mile ride to an elephant mela (market) in Bihar. Despite the centrality of elephants to Indian civilisation (we are told that throughout the 13th and 14th centuries AD, epic wars were fought to secure ‘superior breeds’ in Orissa), the sight of one being ridden in the India of the late 1980s by a half-naked Englishman causes children to panic, moped riders to crash and men to literally collapse with laughter. Such scenes prompt one to wonder how Britons might react to a half-naked Indian man exploring their country on the back of a shire horse.

Thus Tara becomes a symbol of the old India in conflict with the new. Perhaps the funniest demonstration of this is when she, a representative of the most traditional form of transport in the Subcontinent, encounters a typically contemporary coach load of Russian tourists. Amid the cries of excitement, Tara proceeds to steal a bottle of vodka with her trunk and empty its entire contents into her mouth.

But there is a serious overtone to Shand’s story too, a real melancholy about the destruction of India’s heritage. He shares his brother-in-law Prince Charles’s distaste for modern architecture and is saddened to find the once-grand Maharaja’s palace of Kheonjar looted and stained with graffiti; ‘an opulence long gone’.

Similar themes permeate Where the Indus is Young. One of the remotest parts of Southern Asia, Baltistan in the late 1970s is a society resisting progress, and this is to author Dervla Murphy’s delight: ‘my reactionary heart throbs with love for Baltistan’. Lack of outside influence has kept Baltis scrupulously honest, as Murphy realises when she is trusted to pay for some bootlaces by simply putting her money in an unsupervised box. When she opens the box she finds out that 500 Rupees – a considerable sum – is inside and that no-one would think to pilfer it. Homes are left unlocked and there is no need for watchdogs, ‘local standards of honesty being so high’. Every village Murphy and daughter Rachel arrive at they are showered with hospitality, even when the inhabitants are in ill health and have only meagre food supplies.

However, this is not a state of affairs that can last, as an enlightening discussion with a local Raja reveals. He is concerned that the central government in Lahore’s road-building and tourism development schemes will bring ‘disease-carrying’ aeroplanes and jeeps. Indeed it is the sudden approach of a jeep – a rare glimpse of modernity on a ‘rocky wall rising sheer out of the [River] Shyok’ – that causes Rachel’s pony Hallam to rear up and almost throw her over the precipice. This chilling moment will forever be engraved on her mother’s memory.

Alexander Burnes also travelled in the Indus region, although he did so some 150 years before Murphy and in very different geopolitical circumstances. The ‘Great Game’ between Russian and British imperial interests in Asia is afoot and Burnes is sent by the Empire to chart ‘a route so unfrequented’: the course of the Indus River beyond the borders of British India. His knowledge of local languages and customs, his talent for disguise (so effective that Turkmenistanis mistake him for an Afghan) and his literary skills (his cousin was Robert Burns, even though the surname is spelt differently) make him the perfect man for the mission.

In an act of what the travel writing scholar Graham Huggan calls ‘shadowing’, Burnes compares his own experiences of these lands to those of his hero, Alexander the Great, some two thousand years previous. At first, the comparisons are unfavourable. With an almost Byronic nostalgia for the oriental civilisations of yesteryear, Burnes regrets the ‘gradual decay’ of the ‘celebrated’ ancient city of Tatta, its beguiling architecture, substantial silk industry, and fertile land having tragically ‘passed away’. Earlier on in the journey, such an attitude seems to go hand-in-hand with patronising judgements about contemporary Asians (‘the cringing servility of the Indians’/‘ignorant barbarians’), but the more Burnes sees of this part of the world, the more impressed with it he becomes. By the time he reaches Kabul he is moved to declare, ‘I do not wonder at the hearts of the people being captivated by this landscape’. To the erudite and open-minded Chief of Kabul he even goes as far as to admit that he has become something of a cultural hybrid: ‘I informed him … that I was an Englishman, and that my entire adoption of the habits of the people had added to my comfort.’

Much the same can be said of the other two writers. After seeing India astride his darling Tara, Mark Shand falls in love with Indian wildlife in general and with Indian elephants in particular. Of visiting the eccentric Eurasian enclave of McCluskiegunge, he writes, ‘perhaps the term Anglo-Indian represented what I was when I rode in’. Dervla Murphy starts integrating into Balti culture as soon as she arrives, embracing the ascetic lifestyle – dried apricot diet and all. Meanwhile, it takes Rachel several gruelling experiences – including a fall into a glacial torrent – before she is ‘completely adjusted to the oriental way of life’.

From great travel writers we should expect great powers of physical description, and this trio does not disappoint. Dervla Murphy is a little hard on herself when she claims that words cannot do justice to the sublime wonder of the Karakorums, as she consistently succeeds in rendering the otherworldly formations of the frozen landscape in the intensely detailed and lapidary style she is rightly famous for:

Much of the track was covered with thick sheets of ice, and

waterfalls had become towering, transparent columns,

surrounded by the bizarre elegance of giant bouquets

of icicles formed around clumps of thyme. Fantastically

convoluted masses of ice hung from roadside rocks…

 

In a similar vein, Mark Shand has a nature lover’s eye for the delicate balance of Southern Asian ecosystems, and how – at least for the time being and in certain locales – peasants in ‘bright lunghis of emerald green’ can live in harmony with ‘piebald and blue’ kingfishers and ‘clumps of bamboo and palm trees’.

Alexander Burnes’s cartographic expertise may have won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he is equally adept at bringing to life such sumptuous spectacles as Maharaja Runjeet Sing’s meeting with Lord Bentinck, the Governor-General of India. Burnes writes beautifully of gold and silver-clad noblemen, ‘a lofty arcade of yellow silk’, ‘the richest carpets and shawls of Cashmere’, and a velvet tent ‘glittering with every ornament’. The event concludes with the Maharaja offering the British fifty-one trays of lavish gifts, as well as the finest horses and elephants.

These three books may have been written in different historical moments, but their observations remain of interest today. Burnes, in particular, is sometimes prophetic. He discerns a kind of globalisation taking hold in the ‘commerce extending uninterruptedly over such vast and remote regions’ and upbraids both the African and Islamic slave trades for breaching ‘human rights’. His curiosity about Southern Asia’s melting pot of unique cultures and subcultures prefigures the work of modern travel writers such as William Dalrymple, who fittingly provides the prologue and epilogue to this edition of Burnes’s book. In the afterword to Travels on my Elephant, Mark Shand explains how he set up the Elephant Family, a charity that is still campaigning for the conservation of Asian elephants today. As for Murphy, it would seem that Baltistan has changed little in almost forty years, and its ‘diamond-brilliant summits’ and ‘fearsome peaks’ not at all.

(Originally published in the London Magazine Feb-Mar 2013)

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