If it hadn’t been for the vagaries of a wandering life, Mishi Saran tells us at the outset of Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, she would not have written this book. Ms Saran was born in India, but she spent much of the remainder of her life abroad, and in the early years of the twenty-first century, she found herself immersed in a journalist’s life in China. That accident of geography quickened her interest in Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang, in the older English spelling), the seventh-century Buddhist monk who travelled from China to India and back, and whose subsequent detailed writing remains one of the richest descriptions of the subcontinent during that period. “An Indian woman with a China craze, a Chinese monk with an Indian obsession; we had the same schizophrenia, the monk and I,” Ms Saran writes. If she had been living in Lisbon instead, one imagines, she might well have chartered a ship and set off on the trail of Vasco da Gama.
Xuanzang left for India in search of a cosmic truth, while Ms Saran leaves to find herself; in some sense, those goals are one and the same. Worried that her peripatetic life has dulled her sense of identity, she convinces herself that retracing Xuanzang’s footsteps will help rediscover her own roots. Chasing the Monk’s Shadow is, most ostensibly and least enjoyably, about that rediscovery. Its other objective, however, turns out to be a real thriller: Using the ruins of Buddhist monuments like Hansel and Gretel used bread-crumbs, Ms Saran painstakingly retrieves a trail—and a world—that went cold centuries ago.
In AD 627, obsessed with mastering the Yogacara school of Buddhism, Xuanzang left his monastery in Xian. His route, circling north of the Tibetan plateau, took him through the Gobi desert, along the Tian Shan mountain range, into modern-day Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and thence to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In India, most famously, he became a scholar-in-residence at the university at Nalanda, and he toured the towns that prominently marked the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, where he was born; Kapilavastu, where he was raised as a prince; Gaya, where he attained enlightenment; Kushinagar, where he died. But Xuanzang also ranged further and wider, travelling as far as Assam to the east, Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu to the south, and Junagadh in Gujarat to the west.
Throughout Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, Ms Saran trains an intensely personal perspective upon these destinations, and her writing brims with a calculated rawness and honesty that mirror that vision. She doesn’t flinch from writing about the fear she feels when, for instance, she has to ride through the heavily militarised Kashmir valley or spend a night with unknown Russian soldiers in a lonely barracks on the mountainous border between Kyrgyzstan and China. She dwells on her relationships, past and present; she worries at her prospects of future happiness; she likes some of the people she meets and dislikes others. These reflections of Ms Saran’s are perhaps too fleeting and shallow to constitute a memoir in the truest sense of the word, but they impart some novelty to the places she visits and the experiences she has.
In its entirety, Xuanzang’s journey was so vast and diverse that it allows Ms Saran to dabble happily in various fields of inquiry, her mind always alert for links between the past and the present. In Central Asia, she traces the heritage of the ancient Indo-Persian tongue, clutching at stray Kyrgyz or Uzbek words that she recognises from Hindi. In the religious heat of Allahabad’s Kumbh Mela, she reflects on the enduring, often mystifying strength of religion. In tumbledown monuments across the region, she engages in archaeological speculation, combing digs with scholars to help visualise the unruined splendour of bygone kings or monasteries. Throughout it all, Ms Saran interleaves her material with lightly fictionalised scenes from the life of the monk. It’s a texture that takes some getting used to, because these dreamy vignettes sit so awkwardly with the harder realities of her travel. But more often than not, the technique serves Ms Saran well in humanising Xuanzang, who might otherwise have remained simply a long-dead touchstone for her narrative.
Thanks to a long bureaucratic struggle for visas, Ms Saran visits Pakistan and Afghanistan only at the very end of her journey, even though these areas lay in Xuanzang’s path into India. But her timing is, journalistically speaking, fortuitous; she travels through the Khyber Pass to Kabul, into the heart of the Taliban’s repressive Islamic regime, mere weeks before 9/11 forces the world’s attention to swivel towards that region.
In Afghanistan, Ms Saran is constrained by severe travel restrictions to step off the monk’s path, making for a muddled but not entirely ineffective end to her book. She interviews Taliban ministers and is swayed by their most basic statements, fulminates against the bloated aid agencies working in the country, and battles her own existential demons. But she also captures, in a patchwork way, the atmosphere of stifling fear and worry in Kabul, a city-wide keg of powder simply waiting for the match.
“Yeh tooti-phooti Afghanistan,” Ms Saran observes sadly from Babar’s tomb, unaware of how much more broken-down Afghanistan would become in the next 12 months. Although she doesn’t mention it, the coincidence of chronology is striking. Xuanzang made his long trek to and from India exactly at the same time as the birth of Islam further to his west, an event that would mould every one of the countries on his path, and Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular, beyond recognition.