Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Ibn Batutah Trilogy - Tim Mackintosh Smith

I’ve just emerged – yes, that’s the right word - from one of the most intense reads in a long time. Intense in length, and densely packed with information. For the past month, I have been travelling with Tim Mackintosh Smith, as he retraces the journeys of Ibn Batutah (IB), the fourteenth-century Tangerine traveller.

Spread over ten years, Smith’s travels have been chronicled in three volumes, Travels with a Tangerine, The Hall of a Thousand Columns and Landfalls. The first book starts in Tangiers, IB’s birthplace, and covers Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Oman, if I remember right. The second book is entirely in India and the third, is a more episodic narration of his journeys to Zanzibar, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China, Mali, Guinea and Spain.

As I have tediously and repeatedly mentioned, I like my information disguised as fiction. Even history, which I love, I love less when it comes in textbook form. TMS (for the sake of brevity) is an accomplished writer, however, who does not bore you for an instant. But I did feel overwhelmed at various points in during the journey. The first volume, Travels with a Tangerine, especially, was a difficult read, but only because this is a part of the world I am completely alien to. It just made me realize how Europe-centric my reading has always been, with North America thrown in now and then. But the Islamic world, North Africa, the Levant, these are regions I have no knowledge of. In fact, I cannot even claim superficial knowledge. And things are more complicated because TMS is following in the footsteps of IB, and the fourteenth century is also unfamiliar territory. For instance, in Egypt, it is not the country of the ancient pre-islamic pharaohs - the one that we are all so familiar with, that he visits - but that of Sultans and saints. So I had to deal with both historic and geographic dislocation in this volume. Both The Hall of a Thousand Columns and Landfalls were easier in that respect, but that respect only.

TMS has a simple, lucid style with self-deprecating humour and an understated yet keen sense of the marvelous. Still, there are cultural references and words that I needed to Google frequently. There is latin, French and Arabic thrown in frequently, but in the most unpretentious way possible.

Following in the footsteps of IB, especially when those footsteps have been obscured by time, is not easy. TMS sets off looking for tangible remnants in the places that IB mentions visiting, but these are few and far between. IB’s tomb in Tangiers, which he visits in the beginning, is probably a fake. Many of the monuments that IB mentions in his travels are either destroyed or renamed. Many of his co-ordinates too, are inaccurate. But occasionally, TMS does hit paydirt and finds a relic of IB’s times, intact. (Although strewn with turd in some cases: The hall of a thousand columns.)

The three volumes contain such a wealth of esoteric knowledge, that one reading is not enough. I enjoyed several accounts. In the first book, my favourite parts were set in Oman. Going to college in Kerala meant that you’d bump into, and even befriend several Gulf malayalees, as they are called, and quite a few of my friends were from Oman. They would tell me tales of mythical beings such as KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, all fantastic to my just-liberalized Indian ears. TMS’ Omani legends are quite different. His travels to Dhofar, particularly, made me want to go there.

In The Hall of a Thousand Columns, my favourite part (perhaps predictably) is when he goes to Calicut and meets the Zamorin (the ruler). IB’s ship had been wrecked on the coast of Calicut just as he was about to depart to China, and it was the Zamorin of his time who protected him. There is a goosebump moment, when the Zamorin’s nephew shows TMS a ruby necklace gifted by Vasco Da Gama. Not long afterwards, the Portuguese adventurer (and I use that word in its negative sense) slaughtered many locals as the Zamorin would not give the Portuguese exclusive trading rights. TMS talks of meeting the Arackal Bibi and a Muslim family, whose history is fascinating. It gave me a particular thrill when he talks of travelling by the country boats in Kerala, bound together with ropes not nails. Now this is something I have written about in many travel/resort brochures, knowing it was an old traditional custom, but not really understanding how far back it went, or where its roots really were.

The Hall of a Thousand Columns starts in Delhi, as IB was appointed judge to Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, the very same Delhi Sultan who was dubbed ‘the wisest fool’ and whose shenanigans captivated us in middle school. TMS also visits Daulatabad, the brief ill-fated, capital of Tughlaq’s empire. The spookiest moment comes when TMS identifies a sati ground mentioned by IB, somewhere in the heartlands of India. In Delhi, TMS also meets scions of ancient Indian families.

Landfalls chronicles a series of journeys. Each chapter takes you to a different Batutian destination. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed most in this book, because each was a perfectly crafted bit of goodness. There was something eerily beautiful about the Balafon performances in Guinea, and downright spooky about the ancient pagan sacrifices in the Maldives. The chapter on China was a revelation in that I had never thought of its Islamic past. Exceedingly dumb of me, but there it is. The ‘Ding’ episode is just the kind of historical serendipity that I adore: TMS meets a clan of Dings, and realizes that the name is a version of the Islamic surname, Al Din.

Over the course of the three books, TMS himself emerges as a likeable, humble and fun chap. In many ways he seems to be the antithesis of IB, who was famously a swaggering, libidinous profligate. In spite of the worst setbacks, his spirits don’t seem to flag. A lot of reviews mention the scatological slant to some of the writing, but it didn’t bother me in the least. What amazes me is how understanding and empathetic he is of Islamic history and culture, while still being able to maintain an academic distance from it all.

I know it’s not everyone's thing, but I shall still recommend it without reservations!


Dini said...

I had no idea you had started this blog again! Loved coming to this tantalizing review. So want to read this trilogy...for obvious reasons!!
Keep writing know you're amazing!!

shai said...

Hey thanks for that. I have always kept up with this blog, just that it's not frequent...a book has to move me that much for me to write about it! You must read it - I thought of you as soon as I began it.

deeps said...

umm would like to have a taste of it...
thanks for this write up anyway

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks for the great review. I will definitely read this! Like you I also prefer my history disguised as fiction.

Jay said...

Interesting. While on the topic of Middle East, Guy Delisle's Jerusalem is one of the best books I have read in recent times... it's travel writing in 'graphic novel' format! (It is available on Flipkart, if you can't find it in your library)

Jay said...

Off topic - in case you haven't, please read Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year. It's a celebration of reading and writing (and publishing)!