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THE ACCIDENTAL WRITER WHO TRAVELLED FAR

In the Footsteps of Afanasii Nikitin: Travels through Eurasia and India in the Twenty First Century By Hari Vasudevan, Manohar, Rs 1,195

This book is a record of a mainly overland, 47-day expedition in 2006-7 from north Russia to present-day Karnataka of three vehicles and a motley complement of passengers including the author. There were manifold objectives: to evoke memories of the Russian trader-traveller, Afanasii Nikitin’s journey to India between 1468 and 1474, described in his memoir, Voyage Beyond Three Seas, and to draw broad-brush comparisons over a range of topics between the traversed terrain then and now. As Hari Vasudevan observes, this project is “neither history, travel account, or reflection on politics, but somewhere is all these”. Indeed, the book is substantially more than these; there is great scholarship revealed by Vasudevan, not least in the learned end-notes to each chapter, sustained throughout by a fine turn of phrase — thus, Nikitin was “an accidental traveller, an accidental writer and an accidental legend”. The book comments on the whole gamut of sociology, history, geography, literature, historiography and connections with India, along with descriptions of the places visited.

This book comprises two chapters of introduction and four of travel diaries. Vasudevan’s analysis of the historical context of the locales visited is unsurpassed, while comparisons between times past and the present are accurate and often poignant. Nikitin is celebrated in Russia as an exemplar of Russian derring-do and not as a living bridge between the two countries. No manuscript survives of his work. We cannot guess his age or status. He was attacked twice by looters and bandits and lost all his possessions even before he left Russian soil. Proceeding undaunted, he spent time in what is now Iran and continued his search for trading opportunities with the Bahmani territory of India where he adopted the name, Iusuf Khorasani. He remained there for four years. Piously Christian Orthodox in religion, he was intensely lonely, assailed by attempts to convert him to Islam and greatly preoccupied with maintaining adherence to his faith. Shipwrecked on the way home, he was diverted to Somalia and Ethiopia, taken hostage by Turks who robbed him of his belongings, and reached Smolensk via Trabzon where he died, ironically only a few days travel time from home in Tver. Nikitin’s text deals more with India than the other lands he passed; he considered Bidar the ‘capital of Muslim Hindustan’, and was curious about Hinduism, since Islam was familiar to Russians of his time, Orthodox Christianity and Islam having already coexisted for 200 years. As with Marco Polo, the considerable corpus of fiction and film around Nikitin over the years “leads to wild guesses rather than intelligent conjecture” due to the paucity of data about the traveller. Vasudevan’s book makes the reader want to read Nikitin’s own work, and there can be no greater tribute than that.

Scattered over various parts of the book are illuminating short histories of the Orthodox Church, Russia, the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. Vasudevan notes that in modern Russia “outside government, seldom were [there Indo-Russian] initiatives of note”, the new Russian generation was “narrow-minded, poorly educated and aggressively nationalist, primarily open to American and European ideas”. Borders were “almost as contentious today as they were then … the security of transit was always in doubt”.

There are several historical and sociological contrasts noted — with India today, with pre-and post USSR, with Nikitin’s time and now, and the general history of Indio-Russian relations in almost every sphere of human activity. While there is no uniform pattern followed, the structure of the narration is roughly as follows: the history of a particular location, reference to Nikitin’s stay there, human connections between that place and India both historical and modern, visits to certain sites with their historical background , and references to relevant literature and historiography.

The differences between then and now, pre- and post-Soviet times are usually unsurprising —“we inhabited a common world when it came to everyday necessities, which had not been the case in the days when we were committed to a common socialist cause… unlike the days of Raj Kapoor, when the genre was widely watched … the Hindi film now catered to a niche group”. And “Russian Orthodoxy, while assertive, was exclusive and insular. It betrayed little interest in Orthodox Christianity elsewhere let alone Christianity in India to which it was technically related.” At Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birthplace, “Lenin was not the flavor of the day…[there was] a tale of public neglect...and Lenin would have to fight for his place on the tourist itinerary”. In the North Caucasus, the forms and origins of Islamist militancy are examined, and in Iran, “the continuous attempt to focus on ancient history … was outside the concerns of the prevailing regime”. The Indian segment at the end of the expedition again underlines the lack of historical sense among the authorities and people of this country — “in India the past lay in ruins, but it remained”.

Continuously the question arises why the author, with his expertise, found it necessary to peg this remarkable book around a not very remarkable expedition, especially since no one other than Vusudevan could have authored this book. Certainly there are amusing sketches of his fellow-travellers, with candidly unflattering but obviously restrained asides. There are also shafts of delicious humour: arriving famished at a Kalmyk reception committee bearing the traditional bread and salt miles from anywhere on the open steppe, Vasudevan wryly notes that the value of this “was now far from symbolic”. But did we need to know about traffic mishaps, the state of hotels en route, who ate what and when, parking and film-making problems and internal arguments? The overall mood evoked of the journey is one of haste, confusion, hunger, delays, lack of time and money. A human touch is conveyed, but at the cost of interrupting an otherwise splendid narrative, to which the reader impatiently returns. The answer lies in what readership this book is addressed to, and remains ambiguous. In this otherwise excellent work, the expedition obtrudes and the author has not always successfully integrated the multiple strands of the enterprise. It was probably beyond anyone’s ability to do so. These limitations do not detract from this often fascinating history fashioned by Vasudevan’s profound knowledge and the felicity of his writing.