Xanadu – the ‘stately pleasure-dome’ of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan – might seem an exotic subject for this column, but at the same time not so surprising, given my background and temperament. But I never expected it to re-enter my mind not directly because of Coleridge of John Livingston Lowes’s celebrated work of exegesis, The Road to Xanadu (1927), but because of my friend, the Bangladeshi writer and government servant, Hasnat Abdul Hye.
I first met Hasnat in 1989, when he contacted me in Oxford, met me over lunch, and wrote an account of our conversation in his Journal ’89 (Jatiya Sahitya Prakashani, Dhaka, 1991). He also described in the same book, meetings he had with Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Ketaki Kushari Dyson, and I remember that Ketaki took issue with the good-hearted but somewhat fanciful literary embroidery he added.
I myself didn’t mind being described as illustrating my ideas by drawing diagrams on a table-napkin, something I have never done in my life. Indeed, the way in which Hasnat blends biography, autobiography and fiction in his books entertains and intrigues me. His novel Sultan, published a few years ago in Bengali and in an English translation sponsored by the Goethe Institute in Dhaka, is an unusual blend of all three, with the ganja-smoking, animal-loving Bangladeshi painter Sultan brought vividly to life as only a novel can do. I never met Sultan, but I know other characters in Hasnat’s novelsuch as the writer Ahmed Sofa, and then the Director of the Goethe Institute in Dhaka, Peter Sewitz (who went on to hold similar positions in Calcutta and Delhi). So, haunting is Hasnat’s style, that whenever I’ve met them since, it’s been like talking to characters out of a novel.
Similarly, if I ever find myself treading the ruins of Xanadu, they will speak to me partly through Hasnat, now that he has written his own account of the placeXanadu: A Journey (Pen and Ink, Dhaka, 1999).
He sent me the book, in its Bengali and English editions, last year; but I’ve only recently read it, and in English only, not yet in Bengali. I was spurred to do so by a launch that was held at the Bangladesh High Commission in London on 13 June. Hasnat introduced not just Xanadu but also a collection of academic essays he has edited: Governance, published in Dhaka by the University Press Limited. He thus displayed his dual nature, as an imaginative writer and a distinguished civil servant, who has recently retired after rising to the position of Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh.
The launch was the first event of its kind to be held at the High Commission, and I hope there will be more. Mr. A. H. Mahmood Ali, the High Commissioner had organised it well, with Sir Colin Imray, former British High Commissioner in Bangladesh, rounding up the discussion of both books.
Are there connections between them? I haven’t yet had a chance to look at Governance, so I can’t say; but from what Hasnat himself said it seems he has gathered together articles that extend the notion of good governance far beyond what the Government can provide. In other words, his approach to the subject has been fresh, unconventional and imaginative, and those same qualities certainly characterise Xanadu.
For such a celebrated place, Xanadu (or Shang-du, or Yenshangtu, as it is called in Chinese) is still remarkably hard to find. It is only 100 miles north of Beijing as the crow flies, but to get to it by road involves a considerable detour to the west, through the towns of Zhang Jiakuo and Chaipai. It is not in China at all, but in Nei Mengu, the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia; and it does not appear on any Chinese map.
Before the twentieth century only four foreigners appear to have made it there: Marco Polo (who spent nearly twenty years in China, becoming an envoy in Kublai Khan’s service, and returning to Venice in 1295); Francois Gerbillon, a French Jesuit who accompanied the Chinese Emperor on a hunting trip to Xanadu in 1691; The Rev. Stephen Wootton Bushell of the British Legation in Peking in 1872; and Andreev Pozdneev, a Russian traveller who passed through in 1898. Even in the twentieth century, Hasnat calculates that his is only the sixth foreign visit, the others being by: Charles William Campbell, the British Consult at Uzho, in 1902; Lawrence Impey, an American diplomat in Peking; a team of six Japanese archaeologists who surveyed the site in 1937; the British travel-writer William Dalrymple, who got there in 1988; and the American Caroline Alexander, who was there about five years before Hasnat.
I have managed to get hold of Caroline Alexander’s book, and found it interesting to compare with Hasnat’s. (William Dalrymple wrote a book too, In Xanadua Quest Harper Collins, London, 1989, which I haven’t yet seen, but according to Hasnat Xanadu only comes in at the very end, and rather briefly, for Dalrymple was bundled out of the place by security police, and barely had a chance to see it.)
Alexander is an accomplished academic writer, and her book is not just about Xanadu, but about journeys to three other places that may have influenced Coleridge’s imaginationnot directly, of course, but through the literary sources recorded in his Notebooks and unearthed by John Livingston Lowes. Although at Xanadu she falls ill with a fever, and has to cut short her visit, her travels are well-funded and generally painless. To get to Xanadu, she flies from Beijing to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia; then in a smaller plane to the town of Xilinhot; then proceeds by car to Shangdu. She makes equally efficient, flying visits to Kashmir (joining the pilgrimage to Amarnaththe possible source of ‘the caves of ice’ of Coleridge’s poem) and to Mount Abora in Ethiopia; describes the jungles of Florida (which she has known since her childhood, and which Coleridge knew through William Bertram’s Travels through North & South Carolina .. etc., 1791); and ends with a visit to Exmoor, where Coleridge wrote the poem. She reasonably argues that the Lyn river there may have given Coleridge a more immediate source for his ‘deep romantic chasm’ than any of his reading.
Her book is informative and readable, but there is very little sense of journey or adventure in it; nor does she convey her own personality. Indeed, she confesses to embarrassment at the travel-book genre’s traditional tendency to cast the traveller as a romantic and adventurous hero, with ‘cultural superiority to the country visited and a global access denied indigenous people’.
Hasnat’s book is certainly not imbued with a sense of cultural superiority; nor does he project himself as a hero. But his journey is certainly an adventure, and although it may not be all that long in time or distance, the reader feels at the end that he really has travelled with him. Indeed, I can think of few travel-books I have read that convey so strong a sense of journeying.
I can think of three main reasons for this. The first is that he makes us very aware of his background as a member of a race and a nation that is not at all associated with travel or conquest or adventure. He makes none of his arrangements himself, leaving everything to Chinese friends of his hosts on an official visit to Japan. They have been told that he wishes, if possible, to visit Xanadu during a stop-over in China on his way back to Bangladesh, and it is they who lay on the car, the driver, escort and interpreter. By placing himself utterly in their hands, he subjects himself and the reader to an unpredictable mystery tour.
Secondly, he conveys vividly and humorously the discomfort, frustration and boredom of being cooped up in a small car with people who have no conception of his motivation. Communication even with the interpreter is difficult, for her English is confined largely to monosyllables: ‘What drink? Your habit?’ etc. His companions seem largely oblivious of his need at times to answer calls of nature, and he also starts to be mightily troubled by soreness in his buttock caused by a rusty nail he sat on before leaving Dhaka. To get to Xanadu in the end, after a circuitous journey, with guides who do not themselves know the way, is a relief and a triumph.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Hasnat is impelledfar more deeply and emotionally than the dryly analytic Caroline Alexanderby his love for Coleridge’s poem. He wants to go to Xanadu because of ‘Kubla Khan’for no other reason, though he knows that the ruins, if he finds them, will bear very little relationship to Coleridge’s opium-induced fantasy.
As he crosses the golden, winter steppes of Inner Mongolia, wrapping himself up in layers and layers of clothing against the bitter wind, he approaches not a real place but a ‘landscape of the imagination’; and his greatest discovery, as he wanders round the largely flattened ruins of the palace in the piercing sunshine, comes just as he is about to leave. He sees a group of horses near a newly-built guest-house, thinks they would make a good subject for a photo, follows them, and stumbles on a magical small river. The interpreter tells him it is the ‘Shantu River’, and initially attaches no importance to it; but to Hasnat it is Alph, and his lyrical description of the ‘sacred river’ is mystical in its intensity:
The blue river, meandering through a vast expanse, is bordered with silvery snow, sparkling like a diamond-sequined evening gown flaunted by a model with a figure of gold….. Descending on this otherworldly scene is the tranquility of the primeval evening, when almost nothing stirred. Even the north wind blows so gently, as if under the spell of a supernatural force.
The book ends where his story began: with poetry. For the interpreter Liu Aiping, who has generally been so obtuse about his feelings, suddenly understands, when he tells her that it is a poem that has brought him here:
‘A poem? You came here for a poem?’ Her hand clasps my arm tightly. I reply, looking wistfully at the flowing river, ‘Yes, for a poem.’ Liu speaks gently, looking at the distant horizon, ‘You are a poet, a strong poet.’
It’s good to know that a senior civil servant in Bangladesh can also be ‘a strong poet’. And I’m glad he got to Xanadu, and wrote about it, before tourists start to fill up the new guest-house.
Published in The Statesman, Calcutta (2000).