The Long Strider contains chapters that frequently switch back from 1615 to the 2000s, both periods that hold the reader’s interest, though for different reasons.
The Long Strider contains chapters that frequently switch back from 1615 to the 2000s, both periods that hold the reader’s interest, though for different reasons.

'The Long Strider in Jehangir’s Hindustan' book review: Reader stands both amazed and entertained, if not amused

The story of an English Marco Polo whose pursuit of knowledge about 16th-century India leaves reader both amazed and entertained.

The late poet and novelist Dom Moraes was apparently much taken with the account of the adventures of a man named Thomas Coryate of Odcombe village in Somerset, an enthusiastic trekker known in those parts as the ‘long strider’. Coryate took a long walk from England to Jehangir’s court in India, in the early 1600s. Some 385 years later, Moraes was motivated enough to track Coryate’s 5,000-mile journey and write about it with his co-author and companion, architect and writer Sarayu Srivatsa.

Together, Moraes and Srivatsa have breathed life into the bare bones story of an English Marco Polo, seeking information from Coryate’s own writing, anecdotal references and the memoirs of Sir Thomas Roe and Edward Terry; it was a project that took them three years.

Coryate was no aristo, military hero or a white nabob, though interestingly enough, he is credited with introducing the use of the fork and the parasol in England. He was a physically challenged poor Englishman, son of a rector, with an ambition that matched his long strides. He wanted to come to India, then go on to Tartary and Cathay, and write about his travels. This was a work that he envisaged would bring him renown at the English court of James I, as well as attendant fame and fortune.

By the end of this book, however, Coryate faces up to reality, and during this time, the reader has become so sympathetic to his endeavour as to feel a distant pang of disappointment for this adventurer.

The Long Strider contains chapters that frequently switch back from 1615 to the 2000s, both periods that hold the reader’s interest, though for different reasons. The times of the Great Mogul, as seen and observed with elegant literary flourishes, and the irascible, moody, brilliant and very ill Moraes—he had been diagnosed with cancer midway through this particular project—in languid pursuit of whatever he can glean of Coryate’s early life and nature.

Coryate died an obscure death in miserable ill-health somewhere in Surat, and his tomb remains something of a mystery. As it turned out, his benefactor Prince Henry regarded him as a court jester and Emperor Jehangir paid him no attention despite Coryate having learned Persian to converse with the Great Mogul. Most tragically of all, all his early writings, which he gave over to Richard Steele to take back to England and give to Ben Jonson, who Coryate was sure would see it into print, was a wasted effort as the uncaring Steele burned the sheaves of paper. “I have come for knowledge not for coin,” the Oxford-educated Coryate states firmly at one point, and the reader respects him for that. Eventually, some of Coryate’s accounts of his India sojourn were posthumously published in a 1625 anthology.

The Long Strider closes with a final adventure for the two writers, who are travelling in that first tourist and backpacker’s footsteps, as well as a small reveal, as all good stories must. If there lingers the impression that some of the authors’ condemnation of the past and present conditions of several parts of India carry the uppity tones of a VS Naipaul, it is hard to argue that the vignettes of squalor that Moraes and Srivatsa reveal to the reader don’t exist. In fact, the former says in the Preface: “We would speculate that the people were better off then than now. Today, communalism and consumerism affect too much of the population.”

All the details about Moraes in his last days serve as effective counterpoint to this reconstruction and reinvention of Coryate’s adventures, his trips to Agra, Ajmer, Delhi, Varanasi, Mandu; his meeting a host of interesting people in these places. The passages where Coryate is witness to a woman from the palace being buried alive, another describing a reluctant Sati, are chilling in its clarity.

Despite an overlong title and a cluttered front jacket illustration, this is one of the most interesting reads history buffs will stumble upon in recent times. At one point in the book, the writer Ben Jonson tells Coryate that writers must amuse or amaze (him). Thanks to Moraes and Srivatsa’s telling of Coryate’s India story, the reader stands both amazed and entertained, if not actually amused.

The Long Strider in Jehangir’s Hindustan

By: Dom Moraes, Sarayu Srivatsa

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 384

Price: Rs 499

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