Geneva Diaries #62

Burnes and The Great Game, Goa, Gauguin, Dalrymple and Afghanistan

12/2/14

Dear Roger,

I’m finally back in Delhi after all my adventures. Goa was glorious, I love weather, the semi rural atmosphere, the palm trees of course and the balmy beaches, like Gauguin I’m afraid I’m headed for a tropical dreamland. I am seriously thinking of moving bag baggage and all!

Goa: https://www.pinterest.fr/cosmosnala/goa-india/

Tropical Dreamland reminds me of Paul Gauguin, the French Post Impressionist artist -(See below painted on his first trip to Tahiti):

By The Sea: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/qwF_p9DsSxWadw

Paul Gauguin / Public domain

See below my images from the Paul Gauguin exhibit at the De Young Museum in SF: A Landscape in Tahiti that reminded me of the Goa countryside.

It was a truly delicious time, where I found I could live, lounge and wander town wearing just my bathing costume and little else, perhaps a sarong and that worked beautifully. The comfortable sea breezes throughout the day seemed to complement my ideal body temperature, and the fresh sea food prepared in both Goan and French styles on the shacks by the beach made it a treat worth waiting for. The cherry on the topping was that I was surrounded by books I couldn’t wait to devourer, with promises of a hundred exciting conversation where you Roger are always somehow magically present expressing your opinions. I have deconstructed/reconstructed (perhaps an alter ego with pieces of all that I know of you) you to follow me on all my journeys and participate in all these animated discussions between the author, I, me and myself. So all in all it was fabulous fun.

The only danger I discovered was that I was slowly slipping away from the world of men to into the world of books. We spent a lot of time meeting and socializing with friends but I would run to back to bed anxiously to pick up where I last left off in case the armies had crossed the Khyber pass without me! Yes, I was reading The Return of the King: The battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and mentally could not put it down till I turned the last page.

See below The Return of the King: The battle for Afghanistan introduced by William Dalrymple:

“Anyone who is ignorant of history is destined to carry on repeating it”

Interestingly enough I had just finished the Buburnama, the diary kept by Babur, the founder of the great Mughal dynasty in India before I left for Goa and my mind, body and soul was embroiled in the 13th/14th century politics of what appeared by endless revenge, retribution, pillaging, murder and assaults to either claim, retain or conquer lands by men who appeared to live on horseback. As I read about the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Afghans, the Hazaras and the Mongols like Babur who have both the blood of the Timurids (from Tamerlane) and the Mongols (from Ghenghiz Khan), I realized how close to home(India) I had come as these ferocious and fiercely independent tribes had left their imprint in many ways other than by blood (many north Indians can be traced to these tribes) through the millennia by plunder and by conquest and rule. I was finally able to see the many interconnected pathways that connected Balkh, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kabul, Kandahar, Peshawar and Delhi. We were all so much closer than we appeared.

Baburnama: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baburnama https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/babur/babur1.html

However, another bizarre occurrence happened, I found as I made my way to the end of the Baburnama, I came to the part where upon the instigation of Ibrahim Lodi’s mother, Babur gets poisoned by his Hindustani cooks, and doubles and wretches in pain which continues till the point where he is unsure if he will survive the poisoning, I find myself in a similar state just the night before I am to embark upon my trip to Goa. I am doubled out with anguish, my stomach has bloated and I find myself crying out in agony. It was the most severe case of food poisoning that I had ever experienced and I survived it by crawling to the chemist just before they shut and taking the strongest doze of antibiotics available. As I lay in my sweat I found myself echoing Babur’s words (which seemed so brutal at that point) at the wretched cooks at The Indo Chinese restaurant that were responsible for my state: “QUARTER THE F*CKERS!!!”. I guess some of that Central Asian fire lives on in the most unlikeliest of places/people.

But Roger, the story does not end there, the mystery deepens. After my idyllic ten days in Goa of sea surf and good food, I found myself once again merging into my book. I was there in person with all the prominent personas of the Raj that had so vividly colored William Dalrymple’s Return of the King1839-1842. The period of the Raj is a time that I live in even now, even today, as that is a part of me since I was essentially raised by my grandparents who were so much a part of it. It was a very easy cover to slip into, and I lived in it for most of my time in Goa. I found myself an integral part of the Great Game, and was very excited by it. I yearned for the company of Alexander Burnes, Charles Masson, The British East India Company’s explorer and adventurer who deserted and went underground to re-emerge in Afghanistan uncovering a treasure trove of Bactrian and Buddhist antiquities and coins.

Check Masson in Encyclopedia Iranica: https://iranicaonline.org/articles/masson-charles), and Vitkevitch https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Prosper_Witkiewicz

Vitkevitch was a Russian/Polish Orientalist explorer and diplomat from a Polish/Lithuanian nobility who was sent by the Russians for hard labor to the steppes in his youth as he was a part of the nationalistic rebellion and the incredible story of how he found a way to educate himself on the language customs and traditions of the peoples of the steppes and Central Asia, salvage his destroyed life to reach the top of his career. Last but not the least the story of Alexander Burnes, this British explorer, diplomat, part of the British East India Company with his very colorful personality. His journeys through central Asia to Bukhara which brought his fame, his explorations/survey of the Indus river with the pretext of delivering horses to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, his knowledge of Hindi and Persian which allowed him to travel in disguise undiscovered across these regions. His role in the Great Game and the last but not the least, his passion for pursuits of pleasure, especially the dark eyed beauties of this realm  that often appeared to take precedence over rationality and judgement. 

With my mind swirling with the stories of these incredible adventurers who had often taken the alternate path to journey and discovery and seemed to be lit by a fire within to uncover discover and explore these strange new lands, unexplored systems and customs, I could hardly be blamed for slipping right in. Yes, slipping right in and embracing this colorful persona of Sir Alexander Burnes, robed as an Englishman in oriental garb and spouting Persian and Hindustani in the markets of Kabul and Bukhara and evading discovery. I found myself befriending Ranjit Singh, and building a relationship with Dost Mohammad who was the emir of the ruler of Afghanistan at that point. I found myself embroiled in the Great Game, send clandestine information to my compatriots (Wade and Macnaghten) in India urging them to support the present regime and deterring them from thoughts of invasion and regime change which was to ensue and resulted catastrophic First Anglo Afghan War which resulted in devastation and defeat with and army and camp followers of close to 18,000 persons being reduced to a single survivor. William Dalrymple does attempt to draw parallels between that futile deadly war with no plans for exit with our current situation in Afghanistan but I found the more absorbing narrative were the actual personas in this grand theatre. 

Tell me Roger if it is fair that all the fun seems to be had by the boys, they go out and explore, adventure, unravel, learn new languages and explore unknown cultures. Well, I was not going to be left behind, I saw myself everyday as Sir Alexander Burnes, and even incorporated a bit of that “Angrezi accent” to more fully realize it. All the pieces fit, I was as fiery, as passionate as smart and interested as any English explorer. That Solar Tope would fit well on my head and I was steeped in all manners food culture and mannerisms of the Raj I couldn’t be a better fit.

See this iconic symbol of The Raj, the Solar Tope below:

https://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/sun-proof-sola-hat/

I share once again an image from my family album embodying the Raj – The Maharaja of Mysore (in white) is sporting a solar tope, my grandfather is the one with the gun of course.

V. Viswanathan and The Maharaja of Mysore

However, after all the chemical from the excess antibiotics etc etc had worn off I awoke one morning and saw a groggy image in the mirror which almost made me scream…I saw a dusky oriental face with unkempt shoulder length hair and large dark almond eyes. EEEK, I, SIR Alexander Burnes had metamorphosed into one of the dark eyed beauties I had spent my life pursuing! I could not believe it, and washed my face vigorously. The image remained stuck on the mirror. I then looked down and found to my horror enormous breasts. They were attached to my body. I tried to jump up and down to dislodge them but they seemed to move with me. I quickly changed without looking at myself and charged out of the house for dinner. As I reached my favorite shack La Plage in Goa:

La Plage-Goa: https://lbb.in/goa/culinary-landmark-la-plage-arambol-beach/

I found myself happily dozing back into my world my dreams adventure and intrigue where I was a highly respected member of the Great Game. I dozed off looking at the ocean, when some English voices on the table next door woke me up. I jumped up to go to the rest room when one of the dashing guys from the table next door looked me up and down with very appreciative eyes…That was the last straw. I heard myself shouting in my mind I am Sir Alexander Burnes, yes S-I-R Alexander Burnes and you are looking at me as though I am some oriental nymph that has emerged from the ocean. Do you not recognize me young man. He seemed to smile as though he had heard me and returned to his table. Fortunately for me, as i thundered down to earth and embraced my self “as is” I saw to my relief that my brother and the rest of my group of friends were still around had decided not to disturb me from my self induced delirium as they had done through the vacation.

I wish I could say that it all ended well. You see the The British-Indian army had yet to retreat from Afghanistan and as they were chased and slaughtered, buried in snow and trampled over in these remote and blistering cold passes of the Golan and Khyber by the very tribes they has so disdainfully antagonized, ones who were the traditional protectors of the man journeying though these uninhabitable and brutal lands. The snow accumulated, the winds howled, their provisions were lost, frostbite set in, man cannibalized fellow man, many howling and praying to be relieved of their agony.

See below an excellent article by The Guardian:

In addition, there runs through this story a disturbing undercurrent of relevance. “The closer I looked,” Dalrymple says, “the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day.” 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/23/dalrymple-return-king-athill-review

Prior to this departure Alexander Burnes heroically (some may claim naively) gave shelter to a slave girl mistress of the the Afghan leader who ran away from her master. Burnes refused to turn her over despite the agitated calls of the clamoring mob that had gathered around his home adding further fuel to the smoldering fire which culminated in the storming of his residence and his lynching at their hands. 

Thus the blizzard, biting cold of these passes, with the political follies and bad planning and leadership resulted in the almost complete massacre of the entire British Indian army and camp followers numbering an overwhelming 18,000 barring a handful. And as my ghost journeyed with them and saw to my horror all my premonitions come true. I returned from Goa with a dreadful cold and fever and have spent the last six days cuddled up in bed in my familiar surroundings as ME. 

What do you make of it Roger, that is my adventures?

Love and hugs

Purnima

PS: Do check out The Asia Society presentation by William Dalrymple: https://asiasociety.org/video/william-dalrymples-return-king-complete


On Monday, January 27, 2014, Roger Stevenson wrote:

Dear Purnima,

 It was such a delight to get your long and fascinating tale of metamorphosis into Sir Alexander Burnes, but I was disturbed by your encounter with food poisoning.  What a  frightful experience !  Fortunately, you made it to the pharmacy in time !

 And how I envy your time in Goa.  It has always held such a mythical and mystical attraction for me, but now that we have decided to abandon South East Asia, I fear that I will never again be close enough to Goa to envision visiting.  I shall have to be content with living it vicariously through your eyes and in my mind, as is the case with so much of what I dream and yearn for these days.  We were at the weekly Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai last night where a kilometer-long street is blocked off to traffic so that hundreds of local artisans selling a vast array of items from T-shirts to leather handbags to essential oils to iPhone covers made from local woods can share the street with musicians, street food peddlers, Australian Didgeridoo players, blind musicians,  occasional performances by swaying, jumping Hari Krishna devotees, street massage parlors where you can get a 60-minute foot massage for under $10.00 AND great hordes of tourists of all nationalities, but increasingly huge numbers of Chinese who have been lured to Chiang Mai by an immensely popular Chinese film shot in the city (there are now several direct flights a day to Chiang Mai from three or four different Chinese cities).  As we push our way through the masses of humanity that clog the narrow street, I often find that I have gotten ahead of the rest of the group (the family love to shop at the market), so I stop and wait for them to catch up and spend the time watching the people milling around as they float from one stand to the next.  The occasional striking beauty of a feminine creature with deep, penetrating eyes never fails to make me yearn for a time when I could actually dream of a chance of getting to know her, but now I can only dream and fantasize.

 I was struck by your question: “Tell me Roger if it is fair that all the fun seems to be had by the boys, they go out and explore, adventure, unravel, learn new languages and explore unknown cultures.”

Of course, it isn’t fair.  The men of history – those you have dreamed of and lived among in your recent metamorphosis have indeed been men, but you are right.  The female historical figures who have made a lasting mark on the development of civilizations and cultures are really few and far between.  The Cleopatras and Catherine the Greats don’t come around very often, but there are the occasional figures like Amelia Earhart , Karen Blixen, Maria Curie (sorry all my examples are from the 19th and 20th centuries).  I think our societies have to undergo profound changes before women will be accepted as great leaders, adventurers and explorers in their own right.

We have been following the misadventures of our old friend Shashi Tharoor.  I knew his propensity to tweet would eventually land him in a bit of trouble, and his wife’s tragic death is either a case of totally bad luck (karma???). What’s your take on the whole affair?

We are also in the throes of getting ready to make the move to Southern California.  The family left this afternoon and they spent the past six weeks here with us, the final two busily packing and boxing up their belongings that will be shipped with ours.  The house looks rather barren at this point with most of the pictures and decorations taken down from the walls and piles of carefully sealed and numbered boxes in several rooms.  We leave Chiang Mai on Feb. 27th, will spend three days in Kuala Lumpur, then fly to Hanoi for five days before flying back to Chiang Mai to pick up the rest of our luggage.  We then will fly to Paris on March 10th where we will spend three weeks before we leave for Los Angeles on March 31st.

Take care and do be careful where and what you eat. I also hope that your terrible cold is better, although it did mean that I got a wonderfully long and tantalizing email.

Giant hugs,

Roger

Roger Stevenson

167 M. 4.  T. Huaysai.  A. Mae Rim

Chiang Mai 50180 – Thailand

PURNIMA VISWANATHAN

Published by Purrnima

Travel Writer - Art Blogger - CyberSmurf

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