Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In the Country of Gold-digging Ants

In the Country of Gold-digging Ants
2000 years of travel in India
Author: Anu Kumar

Reading through this book, I could not but exclaim every now and then loudly - "What were these travelers smoking?".

Some of the details described by the early travellers to sub-continent can give a run to various fantasy writers at work today. Take for example, the Russian traveller named Nikitin, who writes about a bird called 'gookook' - the occupant of the roof on which it alight is doomed to die. He continues that any one who dares to kill it will see fire flashing from its beak. My heart leapt a few beats and thought - Is this traveller describing about dragons? I always wondered why there was no description of dragons in Indian mythology (there were more snakes than any fire breathing bird in Indian stories). Or was the traveler too intoxicated and ended up mixing his own myths with some large Indian bird or was it just a case of Chinese whisper game gone crazily out of control. I hope it is the dragon - I always secretly hoped to find the missing dragon link between Western and Eastern dragons in India!

In the foreword of this book, Mr. Krishna Kumar, the Director of N.C.E.R.T, writes that we live in an entirely different world now. Travel for us is counted in hours, not in years. Some one scribbles and silly hopes of finding the missing link between dragons is accessible to almost every one instantaneously; it does not take centuries to get ones work translated and written on paper; No culture is too alien; no art form inaccessible. In world that is as far-fetched to us now as say Mars, there were a few intrepid travelers who overcame perilous journey over many years to visit the mysterious land of India to jot down their travel notes. One cannot but feel amazed by these men and women driven either by faith, money and inquisitiveness to explore new worlds and countries.

This book is a travelogue of 11 intrepid travelers to India over a period of 2000 years starting from Megasthenes (who described the fantastical gold digging ants to omnipresent Indian caste system as it existed during his time) to Alexandra David-Neel in 20th century (considered as the first woman to visit the forbidden Lhasa, Tibet and considered by some as a mystic). For good or worse, all these voices from such wide variety of travelers probably contributed to the idea about what is India. In spite of rather questionable facts being mentioned by these travellers, there seems to be a lot of similarities regarding their experiences. It is almost reassuring and disquieting at the same time that India is almost similar to what it was thousands of years back. India as described by these travellers was enigmatic, mysterious, multi-cultural, world of enormous wealth co-existing with poorest of people, world of great scientific achievements with millions of unlearned masses and so on. Nothing seems to have changed. If history is any indication, nothing will change in India.

Anu Kumar's presentation of history through the eyes of travelers to India is great introduction to the vast repository of Indian history. This book is a novel idea and demands to be included as part of the curriculum for every student in India.

History was never this fun; until I read this book. I am not sure if there can be better recommendation to this book than this. Read it.


Rachna Chhabria said...

Thanks Satish, for this informative post. I too use to wonder why there was no mention of dragons in Indian Mythology. That bird with fire in its mouth fits the description.

You all have a lovely blog here. All the best!


sathish said...

Thank you Rachna.

sandhya said...

Wow, Satish, this is a great post. I was laughing through it all. My daughter who was sitting by doing something looked at me at least three times, wondering what I was laughing at. Until I told her. Well, you've won over at least one kid with your very enjoyable review.

With you re including books like this, or better still, completely replacing the current books with books like this in the curriculum.

And yes, if that is how India has been described all those thousands of years ago, change is indeed slow in coming.

Choxbox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vibha said...

Enjoyed reading your descriptive post. Very well written and thanks for bringing out one more gem for us. I am wondering, how many books can I order this month!!

Choxbox said...

Love this book Sathish. The only reason I picked it when I first saw it was because I saw Krishna Kumar’s endorsement - for he is a gentleman I have the highest respect for, having heard him speak one time.

And what a treat it turned out be! I remember the bit where Megasthenes says there were gold-digging ants in India, a claim that was obviously not true. My (then) 8 year old and I had a long discussion on why he might have exaggerated his account and the whole deal about explorers and the kings who sponsored them. Was super interesting.

A lovely pick, and our kids are lucky to get such books and not just read about our past from textbooks.

artnavy said...

Intriguing book. Will need to wait just a while to get it for Anush -
but I cld get it for myself- I love history and if this makes it even more fun why not!!

Meera Sriram said...

I think I need to go back and read history through such books, am sure I will get a much better perspective and udnerstanding of ancient India! Thanks for this.

Anusha said...

Your review is convincing, enough, Satish. Added to the list (for myself!) You're right about the courage of the explorers, surely they were on something! We often have this discussion at home, when we spend hours preparing for travel, reading guide books, how could the explorers of yore just pick up and go, not knowing where they'd land or what they'd encounter...definitely, brave souls with fascinating tales to tell!

Poppins said...

Sounds maha interesting - and Chox are you sure there were no gold digging ants? :)

When will my children grow up and be able to enjoy these books. On the other hand, as Kodi's mom says- I can always read this book for myself.

Choxbox said...

@ K’s Mom: Never thought of it that way but its so true!

Apparently the bunch of folks (Spaniards I think) who first encountered the Arctic had no idea what would be there (obviously) and their ship simply got stuck in the ice. They were trying to find a ’short-cut’ to the Pacific and decided o sail North along the American coast. All of them sadly, froze to death in the desolate Arctic.

Read this in this fascinating book called The Book of Exploration by Ray Howgego.

utbtkids said...

I got this book in my bookshelf. Ordered it from Flipkart after I read the Vodafone nominations list . The husband transported it from India. Will pick it up as soon as I finish my current book.

starry eyed said...

Found this secondhand at the Blr Book Fair...starting to read it, thanks to your review Satish. Altho I think my 8 year old is a bit young to read it, we'll hold onto it for her :)

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