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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ten Thousand miles without a Cloud

We come across books in so many ways, at times we know about the book or the author, at times it has recently been the bestseller or won a prize like a booker, and we go in search of these books.
Some books also come in search of us and rarely a few them are priceless gems.
This book would fall in that category; if I had seen it in the library I wouldn’t have been interested as the title itself was a little strange and long
TEN THOUSAND MILES WITHOUT A CLOUD with a picture of the Chinese author ShunShuyun, it wasn’t particularly inviting but this was recommended by my friend Singh the chief librarian of Ekm public library who knew my reading taste had a partiality to travelogue and reality rather to pulp fiction.
So I took the risk and plodded on.
We all have heard of Hsuan Tseng the great Chinese traveler to India, a meticulous chronicler of the era he lived and a monk whose foot itched to travel.
I knew now he was called Xenshang in china and was revered as a deity who brought back the Buddhist scriptures from the birthplace of the Buddha, India and translated them to his native Chinese.
His was no mean a fate as he had to travel incognito against the wishes of the Chinese emperor through deserts, great mountains, barren wastelands inhabited by bandits and nomads, he had to face climatic extremes and physical illnesses, enter strange kingdoms not all hospitable, he saw unbelievable sights, underwent punishing rigors, was feasted by great kings, insulted by some, there were attempts to maim and kill him but he took all this with the equanimity of one whose purpose was single and whose mind was enlightened ,he returned a hero and a God to be rewarded by the same emperor who forbid his travel and lived to a ripe age completing his task .
The author herself born in communist china had her childhood during the cultural revolution where religious thoughts were prohibited, but the presence of a loving grandmother who fed her on stories of Buddhist deity Guanying and the great monk who went to India made deep impressions on her subconscious which was never erased by the shallowness of communist brainwashing.
Years later she became a scholar in Oxford and felt she owed it to her grandma to retrace the steps of the great Hsuan Tsen and the book is an attempt to do so.
She meticulously follows the same route with the comforts of modern travel by trains, motorcars and planes; one wouldn’t expect her to do the silk route on top of Bactrian camels of course.
She travels through China, central Asian countries, Afghangistan where she is shocked at the wanton destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas by the fanaticism of the Taliban, Pakistan and later drives on the cauldron of religions India where she goes to Bihar and Patna to reach Bodhgaya and the Bodhi tree, She too feels a spiritual calmness at this quest and could imagine what the great monk would have felt, later she visits the border of Nepal where the Buddha had gone into nirvana at the ripe age of eightysix ,
She descends to down to warm kanchipuram in tamilnadu and then returns back trying t keep the route of the monk.
The writing is interesting and absorbing, one wouldn’t call it a great travelogue but the sincerity shines through and one gets glimpses of a great past otherwise missed
A good read
Filmmaker and writer educated in oxford born and schooling in china during Cultural Revolution
Buddhist grandma stories on guanying and xuang yang known here as heun tsang

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