It began with the music of the night. On a visit to Jaisalmer in 2006, Patrick Jered was woken from sleep by what he first thought was the whine of a predatory insect. Looking out into the moonlit night, he saw that it was a boy perched on the parapet of the walled city, playing a stringed instrument, like a fiddle, “It was like the desert was singing to the night.”
Back home in Amsterdam and his ho-hum 9-to-5 job, Jered, an amateur guitarist with a passion for music, began to track down the name and provenance of the instrument he’d heard in Jaisalmer.
It turned out to be the ravanhattha, so called because it was made of the arm (hattha) of Ravana, the king of demons and the philosopher-king of Lanka.
Assuming gigantic form, Ravana tried to shift Mount Kailash, abode of Shiva and Parvati. In the attempt, he crushed his arm and turned the mutilated limb into a stringed instrument—which some claim is the precursor to the European violin—which he played to honour Shiva.
For more than 500 years, a nomadic Rajasthani priestly sect called Bhopas, which worships a desert god named Pabuji, has been the sole custodians of the ravanhattha, and the legends and folklore associated with it.
Jered took four months’ leave in 2010 to pursue the trail of the instrument with a view to writing a technical treatise on its history. In India, however, the would-be author discovered that a well-known Indian musicologist, in a yet-to-be-published work, had already done what he planned to do. His quest ended before it began, and Jered found himself totally directionless.
Then a fellow resident in a Jaipur guest house—a Frenchman who years ago had been initiated as the chela of a local spiritual guru—suggested that instead of having had his goal taken from him he’d been given the priceless gift of liberation from predestined objectives and was now free to write whatever sort of book he wanted to write, or whatever book would write itself through him.
So using the ravanhattha and the stories surrounding it as a lodestar, Jered begins his journey without maps, weaving together a picaresque tale which seamlessly blends ancient myths with the gritty realities of modern India.
His footloose and fancy-free wanderings take him from remote dharamsalas in Rajasthan to the “world’s worst hotel” in Delhi’s Majnu ka tilla, a Tibetan refugee colony, from the Jaipur Lit Fest (where he hears his travel writing hero, William Dalrymple speak) to Swami Rock in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, the reputed site of Ravana’s resplendent palace.
Along the way he smokes ganja in the resounding vastness of the Thar Desert, enables an adolescent cycle-rickshaw driver to get an education and have a shot at a better life, and encounters the usual suspects in the form of corrupt cops, officious babus and importunate touts without which no Indian narrative would be complete.
Jered’s lively prose and eye for descriptive detail make for an enjoyable read shorn of the mawkish sentimentality that is only too often found in an increasingly popular genre that might best be described as a backpacker’s guide to the Indian galaxy, which finds an avid readership of armchair travellers who prefer such vicarious passages to India to the real thing, with its heat and dust and constant threat of Delhi belly, made all the more menacing by the almost total absence of toilet paper.
The author confesses at the end that his offering “wasn’t a travel book, it wasn’t a history book, it wasn’t really about Indian beliefs or mythology … It was a bit of a lot of things and sort of none of them in particular.”
Jered leaves the reader with a hint that what might be called a peripatetic potpourri might well have a sequel or two. More power to his writing hattha.