‘Caravans’ by James A. Michener
Reading James Michener is like learning Geography with a brilliant professor who can bring the most arid of things to life. ‘Caravans’ is set in the rustic Afganisthan of forties or fifties. Ellen Jasper, a non-typical American woman, who got married to an Afghan engineer has disappeared somewhere in that mysterious and dangerous country and her parents haven’t heard from her for some time. Mark Miller, working for the American Embassy, is sent on a search mission to find what happened for her and to bring her back, if possible.
His journey, along with his aide Nur, who is supposedly an Afghan spy, takes the reader through the arid and beautiful desert land that Afghanistan was and still is. The people and the incidents on the way reminds us of a pre historic era rather than early / mid twentieth century. Most of the characters remained a mystery to me. Nazarulla, the Afghan engineer whom Ellen got married to , the imperious Shah Khan and his ‘modernistic’ son and many like them seem to be caught helplessly between two times and cultures. The character of Ellen was the most baffling, that she is running away from a boringly structured and predictable life is understood. But, what she wants remains as much a mystery to her as it is to the reader. She also seemed a bit callous to me, moving from one man to another in her search for some elusive thing in the horizon.
The two characters that I loved were the gypsy leader Zulfiqar and his beautiful daughter Mira. Zulfiqar has no qualms in using others for his agenda and Mira – she is one of those pure souls that knows only to love and without conditions. She knows the limitations of falling in love with someone who is so different from her, yet she choses to enjoy each moment for what it is worth. To me, she seemed to be the antithesis of Ella.
What made me love the book is the sheer depth of the narrative. Michener takes you on a journey into the interiors of a forbidden land, through its vast and beautiful drylands, its strange and barbaric customs and in some places you get a glimpse of why certain things are the way they are. One cannot but think again and again that what he describes wouldn’t be that different from what we hear of Afghanistan today.
More than the book, it was the note to the reader that intrigued me. It gives us a view of the country in the late sixties and early seventies. The author says, “Few nations have experienced a more spectacular growth and change during this period than Afghanistan….Foreigners have been visiting this country with ease and frequency….In 1959 women were allowed, even encouraged, to dispense with chaderi in public”…..so difficult to believe isn’t it ?
Makes it even more sadder when you think of the present situation.
How little we know of people and places….
Verdict – If you are someone who loves detailed narratives of people and places, specially the Middle East, this is a book that you will enjoy immensely. Michener is a story teller who sure knows how to keep his reader’s attention with him. The thoughts come later.