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CHASING THE MONK'S SHADOW: A JOURNEY IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG By Mishi Saran, Penguin, Rs 495

When the Austrian mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer, escaped to Lhasa from the British PoW camp in India where he had been interned during World War II, he embarked on a remarkable adventure that would be immortalized in his 1953 classic, Seven Years in Tibet. It is this sensational memoir that comes to mind as you pick up Chasing the Monk's Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang. A few chapters into the book, and realization dawns that Mishi Saran's account of her journey in the wake of the famous epic voyage to India by the seventh-century Chinese monk-scholar, Hiuen Tsang, is no less unique.

Given the scope of the book and the commitment that shines through in every sentence, the blurb ' summarizing the book as a chronicle of the experiences of 'an Indian woman with a China craze' following in the footsteps of 'a Chinese monk with an Indian obsession' ' does little justice to the dedication, intellect, erudition, spirit of inquiry, eye for minutiae, impressive research and uncompromising honesty that have gone into its writing. So facile a definition not only trivializes the moments of physical hardship, self-doubt, loneliness, terror, homesickness and wrenching heartbreak that Saran braved ' 'wandering', like Xuanzang (as he is now known), 'in a vast, alien landscape' ' but also seriously underplays the grit and humour that helped her to survive them.

Then there's the power of her prose. None of the superlatives on the inside flap of the book's jacket prepares you for it. Though it occasionally trips on a strained metaphor, Saran's style is delicate, evocative, incisive, in turn, and ' at the risk of irking flag-bearers of women's emancipation ' feminine, filling with its subtle flavours the breach created by a slackening in pace, as she lingers, on the legend of the Buddha and the imagined musings and recorded experiences of the Chinese monk 'with the horizon in his eyes'. For a Western readership hooked on the Dalai Lama and things Oriental, these details are certainly useful, but the Indian reader may find himself chafing at the bit, eager for the author to cross over from Xuanzang's era into her own.

How infinitely rich those experiences are ' rendered with insight, sensitivity and an acerbic wit that comes as a delightful surprise from someone who, by her own admission, is dangerously inclined to weepy outbursts. It is impossible not to be moved by Saran's anger and sadness as she describes how international aid agencies in Islamabad and Jalalabad operate like rival corporate giants, their employees living and working in 'gleaming, lavish' oases of plenty, while a mere trickle of funds percolates down to the Afghans. Here, evidently, is a woman with the courage of her convictions, challenging in print the integrity of powerful global institutions like the United Nations. The bonus, however, is Saran's poker-faced irreverence, as she writes of the Frenchman in the 'business' referring, during cocktail conversation, to the 'World Bonk', and tops it up with a deadpan quip, 'which sort of summarized it all'.

Many such memorable moments are scattered throughout the narrative that threads together places as diverse as Xian ('more an assault than a city'), Bishkek ('plastered with something dubious'), Tashkent ('a place'that'threw its weight around'), Kashmir ('it was like locking the sea in a box'), Peshawar ('anything could rip through the town and alter its destiny') and hauntingly tragic Kabul under the taliban regime. Each of these cities has its hidden dangers, ethnic tensions and potpourri of cross-bred peoples and cultures, stirred into an intoxicating, often explosive, cocktail by the heavy hand of history and politics.

On Girnar Hill in Junagarh, Gujarat, Saran had experienced a fleeting sense of fulfilment at 'a task completed'. A month before 9/11, however, having irrevocably lost the monk's trail and 'a fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity' in the turmoil of an Afghanistan in deep trauma, she returns home. Steeped in sadness and 'drenched in cynicism', she comes back to a life that she envisages in the following terms: 'I will get married, have children, get old, quietly die in my bed watching the sun set.' Much later, she wonders if she 'had imagined it all'. This book is a precious reminder that her pursuit of the monk's shadow was not in vain.

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