Sunday, November 16, 2003

Pathetic strider’s five minutes of fame
Chetna Keer Banerjee 

The Long Strider
by Dom Moraes & Sarayu Srivatsa. Penguin. Pages 359. Rs 425. 

The Long StriderIt takes two to tango. So one would believe about Dom Moraes and Saryu Srivatsa’s new literary partnership that sways rhythmically back into 17th century India and then swings forward into the present. Their one-step backward and one-step forward novel The Long Strider alternates between being a reconstruction of Thomas Coryate’s 5000-mile walk to the Indies from a hamlet in England and a travelogue about the authors’ own trips to the places this British eccentric lived in or passed through.

As Moraes mentions in the preface, writing a book on Coryate’s travel to India had been his childhood desire. Ironically though, his dream took shape ages later when the prospect of death loomed large over him after being diagnosed for neck cancer. This book thus became a race against time, starting with a feverish search for sponsors and scholars who could lend some flesh to the skeletal material available on Coryate. The decision to have Srivatsa assist him in this prodigious task stemmed from a desire to lift the book beyond a biography, to correlate it with contemporary India. To offer, in Moraes’ words, a "comparison between India then and India now." Hence, while Moraes undertakes the reconstruction of Coryate’s walkathon—on the basis of the strider’s own writings, anecdotes furnished by historians, the memoirs of English envoy Thomas Roe, etc — Srivatsa keeps a diary of the authors’ travels on the strider’s trail. The narrative thus leaps back and forth in time to show the reader the India Coryate saw then and the India he would have seen today.

As the raconteur’s lens zooms in on the 17th century English countryside, Coryate emerges from the shadows — of a stark, wintry evening as well as anonymity (in the eyes of a lay reader) — to stand out as an eccentric dwarf with long legs who vows to walk to the Indies, not for wealth but to gain immortality by becoming the "first man to write of those places." His desire to undertake such a perilous journey only gets reinforced by an urge to make an impression on the ravishing Lady Anne Harcourt .

The shades of lunacy in Coryate, which lead him to lead life off the beaten track, figuratively and literally, are brought out through interesting anecdotes. Leaving his father’s corpse unburied in a cave for six weeks, delivering an impassioned speech scoffing at the Koran and Islam right outside a mosque in Multan—these and other incidents bring out the manic quality in Coryate. It is this very eccentric streak that made him undertake a hazardous 5000-mile walk through the lofty Hindukush mountains and the blazing Arabian desert to meet a disillusioned, illness-consumed end in the port city of Surat in Gujarat.

As the authors trace Coryate’s footsteps, first to his native Odcombe village in Somerset, they not only find sponsors for their book but also have a brush with people and places that evoke the life and times of the son of that soil. After they fly back home and follow Coryate’s road map into India—Delhi, Agra, Ajmer, Pushkar, Varanasi, Mandu and Surat — for most part they are assisted in their research and travels by a Muslim called Juzer, who had also helped an editor friend of Moraes pen an extensively researched book. Described as "an odd fellow, but rather meticulous", Juzer’s real utility lies in providing access to data as well as scholars and experts who can throw more light on Coryate. As a source of information himself though, Juzer’s contribution is confined basically to working out dates of Coryate’s travel or routes he may have taken. He furnishes calculations like whether Coryate would have seen the Kumbh Mela, the widows of Vrindavan and so on. He becomes essentially the authors’ window to the customs, rituals and practices of modern India.

Though the facts gleaned from some scholars, like Prof Habib of Aligarh Muslim University and Dr Ram Nath, an authority on Mughal architecture, imbue the book with useful insights into Coryate’s encounters, the idle ramblings of wayside yogis, pujaris, etc rob the narrative of fleshiness at places. Likewise, the authors’ forays into the Mathura-Vrindavan circuit and Pragpur-Jwalamukhi segment yield little about Coryate and appear to have been propelled more by conjecture than any known links with the ‘long strider.’

As for Coryate’s own sojourn, from a spirited, energy-suffused mission it gradually limps into a tired struggle for survival. His dream journey begets him only ridicule and disappointment, no recognition. Dismissed as a beggar by Emperor Jehangir and shunned as a liability and nuisance by the envoy of the East India Company Thomas Roe, he has little to sustain him in the land of his dreams. Its strange ways and sights — the burying alive of a Muslim whore, the burning of a widow along with her dead husband, the hair-raising brush with an agori (corpse-eater) — begin to scrape at his nerves. Its climate, food, fever and flux first sap his energy and will power and finally consume him. As Coryate cringes with pain, his suffering almost runs parallel to Moraes’ own sickness as the narrative heaves to an end.

The rewind-fast forward structure of the book does bring out some pointed contrasts as well as similarities between Coryate’s Indies and contemporary India. The poverty, the caste system and the religious practices bind the past and present in an invisible thread. This thread is stretched a bit far at times though, when the authors look for Coryate’s footprints where there are none.

As a team effort, the ease of the authors’ literary strokes makes this work flow effortlessly along the time pendulum. Their individual flourishes, distinct yet in tandem, make this book a noteworthy jugalbandi between a biographer and a diarist. And it earns for Coryate those five minutes of posthumous fame that this land denied him in his lifetime.