Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Book Related Tag And A Book Review..
Warning.. Long wordy post ahead.

I was tagged by Khushita.
Here is what I am supposed to do..

1. Grab the closest book.
2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence.
3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on the blog.
4. Put in also the name of the book and its author.
5. Tag three people.

So here goes..
He ignored my greeting entirely and asked Dr. Habibullah, “What religion is he?”
“He’s a Jahdui – a Jew,” said Dr. Habibullah.
“No, no. I’m an Esawi – a Christian.”
Name Of The book

Rory Stewart.

I am not tagging anyone. If any of you reading this feels like taking it up please do so.

The reason this book happens to be the closest book to me on the desk is because I have been unable to put it down during any free time I have had. I just finished reading it and it was on my desk, and it also was time to finish a tag.

I also read Lotusreads’s blog a while back and saw a post about reading a book a month for the year 2007. Well having a lot of books on our bookshelves that are to be read (TBR), I decided why wait till 2007? I had just read about “The Places In Between” on the NYTimes list of top 10 non-fiction books for 2006. I read the little blurb describing it and was enthralled and purchased it.

I am not good at writing and so am just gonna go with what I feel about this book. To any of you who believe that perhaps the best way to experience a country, place, people and their culture is by walking amongst them, or if you just love walking as a way of experiencing your surroundings will absolutely love this book.

The author as he starts his walk near Herat.

From the Times link
"You are the first tourist in Afghanistan," Stewart, a young Scotsman, was warned by an Afghan official before commencing the journey recounted in this splendid book. "It is mid-winter - there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee." Stewart, thankfully, did not die, and his report on his adventures - walking across Afghanistan in January of 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban - belongs with the masterpieces of the travel genre. Stewart may be foolhardy, but on the page he is a terrific companion: smart, compassionate and human. His book cracks open a fascinating, blasted world miles away from the newspaper headlines.
This book also differs from most travelogues in that they hardly go to a battle ravaged country let alone set foot in it leave walking from one end to another.

I used to be an avid trekker. Couple this with having grown up in India, and having studied the history of the region. India has also been influenced by the invaders who came from this land and their cultures. Some of the more obvious ones are in cuisine, architecture and language. I was reminded about this time and again as I came across words used in Dari that are common place in Indian languages. I have read in the past about Afghanistan seen documentaries about the country (before 911 brought it in the consciousness of America). I actually have a desire to visit it someday, not sure when that will ever happen. All these were factors that made the book even more fun for me to read, although this was often punctuated by sadness at the state of that once great country.

I have mostly been reading this book on the train, and even after I close the book, I can’t let go. The words, travels and his experiences stayed with me long after.
Rory Stewart’s writing style I thought is fairly sparse but it is precise and complete in the picture he paints for us of his 500 mile plus walk from Herat in Western Afghanistan to Kabul in the East.

The book begins with Rory’s arrival a few weeks after the departure of the Taliban and traces his journey from it’s beginnings in dusty, chaotic Herat then ruled by the warlord Ismail Khan, and a brush with Iranian agents operating there.

He also makes this journey in the steps of Babur, the first emperor of Mughal India, and as he discovers like him (Babur) he will make this journey on January and record it in his diary. Somewhere along the way he picks up a former fighting dog, who is likely part wolf and he names him “Babur”. Their relationship evolves along the way and this might not mean a lot until you realize that for the most part dogs are considered unclean animals in Islam, in Afghanistan they were in addition used mostly as fighting animals meant to fight other dogs. So while Babur is not used to being treated kindly, you can see how the dynamic of their relationship changes along the walk.

Unsurprisingly, the author does not encounter any women during his journey until he reaches the Hazara region. The only glimpses he catches are of veiled faces as they flash past an open window.

Reading the book I was also made me aware of the shifting loyalties of the various tribal chiefs, village heads and other people that he encounters. Some fought on the side of the Russians or against them as a part of the various groups, some of which are now working with or against the US. Interestingly while some that he encounters have clearly worked with the Taliban, they never admit it.

The author does not go in to much detail about what it means to be an Afghani for the people he meets. He does talk about rivalries between tribes and villages, things like the hatred of the Taliban for the Hazara. While we in the west saw the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas, almost none of us out here read about the mass killings and destruction of entire Hazara villages.

Reading the book at times I could not help but feel how hard it is for people here to grasp the fact that a multiethnic, multicultural democracy might be extremely hard (though not impossible) to take root in Afghanistan. This task has been made harder by Bush’s misadventure in Iraq where a lot of resources have got diverted instead of being spent in Afghanistan.

This feeling was further strengthened by the author's passages that describe the looting of antiquities from what might be the lost city of Turquoise mountain by the local villagers that are now ending up in the collection of American and European collectors and perhaps in museums. I was also moved by the extreme poverty of many of the people along the way and one wonders what democracy and freedom mean to people when they live on so little and their biggest worry is their next meal, not to mention the other factors like their culture, religion and tribal systems that come in to play.

There are numerous vignettes in the book, sad,funny, tragic and touching. Some make us aware of how little we know about some parts of the world, even parts where our soldiers are at war.
To get the complete essence of this book, you have to read it and my simple review of it does it no justice.

One would think the author must be nuts to have walked across a battle scarred country often with little more than the hospitality of ordinary, poor people to rely on and his own wits. But as the author says “I was indulged, fed, nursed, and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker and more vulnerable than me”.

Maybe the author is nuts but the end result of his long journey is surely a classic of a travelogue, one that will stay with me for a long while.

PS: I am going to try to read a book each month and try to write about it, lets see how that goes.


Sai said...

Another book to my TBR list! I read Lotus's post and thought of doing the same myself.

I loved your description of the book.

I am not a trekker but I admire people who do that! Did you trek with a group?

Sanjay said...

@Sai, Thanks. Trekked with a couple of buddies and everyone else sort of rotated in and out.

Shitrint said...

thank u very much for taking up my tag! and u got my spelling right! happens quite rarely! :P]

i had decided that i shall read at least 1 book in 1-2 weeks...but sadly that didnt happen. i am currently reading Rohinton Mistry's 'A Fine Balance'. i had been waiting to get my hands on this book coz ive heard a lot abt it and also coz it was on Oprah Winfrey's Top 10 list. i might do a review on it once i finish it!
tc! :)

Sanjay said...

@Khushita.. re your name. I usually try to get names right unless it's my typos, and your name is nto that hard compared to some I have seen. :)

I have no idea where I will find the time to read a book a month, but I will try. It might come at the expense of something else that I read. :). I will check out fine balance.

Shionge said...

Sanjay, thank you for sharing this book, I'll definitely check this out when I hit Borders.

I knew what you mean when 'you can't let go'...I've expereinced this with my last book 'Life & Death in Shanghai' - It was literally like being 'taken' in by the author, experiencing what she has gone through.

I want to 'go through' this and will grab hold of it, I'll let you know if I manage to grab it :D

Thank you Pal!

Nancy Willing said...

did you really post this at 4 AM!!

Sanjay said...

@shionge, thanks. I think you will love the book. I should check out 'life and death in Shanghai'.

@Nancy. Yes I begin my day a little before 4 AM. Before I make tea I actually publish the post, it usually gets written the day or night before.

Carrie said...

I think I may try this too. It will be tough while in school but I need to read something other than blogs and textbooks.

Aditi said...

ahh very interesting book.. u clearly enjoyed it.. =)

Lotus Reads said...

Sanjay, this is a really great review - you truly make me want to read Rory Stewart's book, besides, travelogues are one of my favorite genres! Oh well, here I go adding to my TBR's when the intention of the challenge is to make them make them smaller! ;)

Your choice of book made me think of the Indian movie "Kabul Express" - after watching a documentary on the making of the movie, I would really would love to see it.

Fuzzylogic said...

I have heard nothing but good things about this book,I'm trying still to get my hands on it.Your review has made me all the more eager to read it.This also reminded me of the book "Honeymoon in Purdah" by Alison Wearing,I guess you would perhaps have read it.It was also an eye opener about the actual state and the real life of people living in Iran.Books like these really open up to show us a world which lay hidden beneath the harsh picture shown by media.I will look forward to your book reviews!

moegirl said...

There are so many books to read and so little time. I'm wondering what Afganistan, Iraq and America will be like when my daughter is grown?

Sanjay said...

@Carrie. Good luck, its hard to find time but who knows you might.

@Aditi.. Thanks I really liked the book.

@Lotus Reads.. Thanks. The company of book lovers always makes for ever increasing TBRs. I will check out Kabul Express.

@Fuzzy logic..You will most likely love the book. Hope you get to read it. I will look in to Honeymoon in Purdah. You make a good point about books allowing us a glimpse in to life in countries in a way our media hardly ever does.

@Moe.. I wonder, maybe there will be books she will read about someday?

strings said...

Nice review. It's a good read.

deepsat said...

hey sanjay, nice post! didn't know you like trekking!

those books are pretty good!


Sugarlips said...

A searing review :)
You reminded me of the book "The Kite Runner" & the latest movie I watched "Kabul Express"
Just like other another book to my TBR list !!

Stay Beautiful...!!

Sanjay said...

@Strings/Deepsat.. Thanks

@Sugarlips..Thanks.I have to read the kite runner.

Diana said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. I'll keep my eyes open for it. Looking forward to reading your reviews of the books.

Shionge said...

Hiya Sanjay...'Life & Death in Shanghai' walked through the horrors faced by one brave Chinese woman Nien Cheng during the Cultural Revolution.

I've bought one for my friend Mark who visited me from the States and it has been a wonderful read for him as well.

Do let me know if you manage to get it, if not I would be most happy to send one over to you :D

Drop me an email at ok?

Have a blessed year Sanjay!

Sanjay said...

@Diana. You might like it. I bought my used copy from Amazon. The next book is on a competely different subject.

@Shionge.. Thanks for the info about the book. If I can't get it will let you know. You have a great year ahead too.

Intern said...

Sanjay, i read your post to realize our interests are very similar - history and culture interests me too ... a lot ...
Reading a book a month is a good resolution! I would like to revive my writing ... which has taken a backseat with all the spare time going to photoblogging.

* btw this year some awesome movies have been released ... plan to see Deamgirls soon.

Sanjay said...

@Intern yep.. great minds do think alike don't they? ;-)

Talking about movies, thats my post for Friday.

Id it is said...

Great review. I haven't read a travelogue since "The Blue Nile" and this is going to be my next one! Thanks.

Incidentally, the word "Herat" in Farsi means astonishment.
Happy New Year.

Teri said...

that looks like a good book. thanks for sharing.