The Uighurs of Kashgar - New Statesman
On writing twinned books (about the Indus and India):
Soon after I moved to Delhi, I had the idea to write two books. Both of them were shaped by the heat of a Delhi summer. The first was about a cool mountain river; the second about a chubby Hindu god. The river idea slipped into my mind while I was reading a translation of the Rig-Veda, India’s most ancient and sacred Sanskrit text. In my notebook, I wrote down the words ‘Indus’, ‘Aryans’, and ‘Alexander’. Those words led to journeys through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet, and archival investigations into the history of this river valley, once the celebrated territory of the Rig-Veda, and now the backbone of Pakistan. This was how I came to write Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River.
The second idea I had that summer, emerged fully-formed from a reading of another ancient text, the Mahabharata, India’s massive, devastating, adventurous epic about a warring family. I noticed something very simple and seemingly-overlooked about this epic. While popular versions of the Mahabharata included the framing narrative about how the author, Vyasa, called on the elephant god, Ganesh, to be his scribe, scholarly versions of the epic always excised this story. I began to wonder why. These thoughts led to my novel, Leela’s Book.
Delhi was the natural place for such reflections. The city was founded on Indraprashta, home to one of the epic’s warring clans; the piece of high ground where the Pandava brothers built their palace was walking distance from my home in Nizamuddin West. Archaeologists say the site, now known as Purana Qila (Old Fort), has been continuously inhabited from prehistoric times. Situated next to the Yamuna River, on a slight elevation above the plain, it is the natural place for a fortification, and thousands of years later, when Muslim leaders conquered the city, this was the place they chose for their capital. The Mughal emperor Humayan died at Indraprastha, tumbling down the steps of his octagonal library as he was looking at the stars. The last time people lived here was in 1947, when Muslims took refugee behind its massive gates, big enough for an elephant to pass through, waiting for a train to take them to Pakistan.
The Mahabharata does not just pertain to Delhi and its inhabitants, however. Since the time that it was composed, by a series of unknown people in ancient India, it has been continuously memorised, performed, retold and recited. There are ancient, scripted versions from Kashmir in the north of the country, as far south as Tamil Nadu. Despite its massive girth, it has travelled beyond the natural limits of India too. There are versions in east Asia. My earliest memory of the Mahabharata is of watching it as a young girl on television in England during the 1980s, in the abridged (but still gigantic) version by the theatre director Peter Brook.
Thinking about the Mahabharata in Delhi, I was struck by the absence of glory and glamour in its portrayal of India. It is uncompromising in its depiction of the difficulty of being human: of the bitterness and joy involved in living, and loving, and making one’s way in the world. When people speak about the Mahabharata, they often mention Draupadi, the Pandavas’ joint wife, who is humiliated by her husbands’ rivals. When Gandhi invoked the Mahabharata, it was to prove the ‘futility of war and violence’. He saw the bloodshed of Partition as a recasting of the epic’s terrible war, and compared the Muslim refugees to the Pandava brothers in their exile. Unlike the Ramayana, which is still being deployed by right-wing Hindus in support of a sectarian agenda, the Mahabharata seemed impervious to any such crude political agenda.
And so, it became impossible to ignore. On a visit home to London I bought the three volumes of the unfinished Chicago translation. On a journey to Calcutta I visited P. Lal, who was still 'transcreating' the epic when he died in 2010, and who had the slim volumes he published beautifully bound in multi-coloured sari cotton. At the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi I photocopied reams of text from the translations by K.M. Ganguli. I thought about the recording of texts in ancient times, about cultural inheritance and tradition, about the re-telling of well-loved stories.
But above all, I began to think about Ganesh himself, and how he felt at having being called upon to write down this massive book for its author. Did he like Vyasa’s story? Did he find the task daunting, or exciting, or thankless? The shelves of my flat filled up with the Mahabharata in its variant translations; but none of those volumes would yield up any answer.
Instead, a story about Ganesh, and subterfuge, and creation, took shape in my mind almost of its own accord, and every afternoon when I arrived home from the literary magazine where I worked, I sat down at the desk under my window, and wrote out the section of the book called ‘Ganesh’s Narration’. The heat of that summer was crucial, because it kept me there, under the ceiling fan, with just my imagination to distract me.
Since the very city I lived in, Delhi, was built around Indraprastha, the city and its mythologies became central to my story; as did the idea of womanhood in this culture where fierce goddesses and ancient matriarchies compete with other, more generally pervasive notions of feminine submission and piety. By the autumn of that year I knew two things: that I would have to leave Delhi for the Indus valley, and that in the meantime I would wind around Ganesh’s narration a modern-day story of the characters he had invented in a spirit of mischief and retribution.
Now that both books are written, I can see how much they fed into each other during the years I was travelling and researching and thinking. The very last journey I made for Empires of the Indus was to the source of the Indus in Tibet, a week-long walk north of Mount Kailash, which is also the mountain where Ganesh wrote the Mahabharata. I remember standing in the snow after the journey was over, looking at the stark outline of the sacred mountain – and longing for home. I found it strange that I now knew the Mahabharata better than Beowulf or Paradise Lost, and southern Pakistan better than northern England. While I was sitting in the English countryside writing my Delhi novel, I reflected on my stranger’s gaze: how useful it had been in the Indus valley, as in Delhi, and I wondered whether it was possible to look with those same eyes on the culture I had grown up with.