Poet Keki N. Daruwalla weaves words around history

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : History has its own magic. Novels that build themselves on a historical canvas, especially woven around events during the end of the 15th century and the 16th century, are more compelling because that was the time the world was truly becoming global, feels award-winning poet and short story writer Keki N. Daruwalla.

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“The 17th and the 18th centuries were not that great, but the 15th and 16th centuries were full of interesting anecdotes. The spice trade was booming. The Mamluks, slave soldiers of the Muslim sultans who were converted to Islam and trained as a crack force, fought the Mongols and even defeated the crusaders. Historically, Asia and Europe were in a ferment and it was an exciting period in world history,” Daruwalla, a former Indian Police Service officer, told IANS in the capital.

His new book, “For Pepper and Christ”, a historical novel, was released in the capital Friday by veteran journalist Mark Tully.

Daruwalla’s first novel – based on Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India for the spice trade and touching on the hunt of the Portuguese for the legendary Prester John – is set in the 15th century, when the Portuguese scoured the seas, collecting maps and sending spies along the Red Sea to find out how the Arabs carried on their spice trade with India.

“I decided on this period because someone told me an incident – a legend that is at the end of the book – sowing the seeds in my mind,” Daruwalla said.

The writer brings alive a world of tumultuous voyaging during the time of da Gama – an era when the search for spices triggered a passion for exploration. The meat butchered in autumn and eaten in winter stank and Europe was in desperate need of Asian spices to make their meals aromatic and “give the meat a new flavour”.

Legends of a magnificent Christian dominion nestled in the heart of the east and ruled by the fabled Prester John also generated intense curiosity about lands bordering the Indian Ocean.

Brother Figuero, a missionary, Taufiq, a sailor, Ehtesham, an artist, and three men of power, a Muhtasib, a Zamorin and an Abbott, go on a journey of discovery as the conflicts between Islam and Christianity intensify. Individual destinies of the voyagers collide and change in the process. While the missionary and the sailor are part of da Gama’s fleet searching “elusive spices and a legend”, the three men in power play out their parts in areas that they control – the souks of Cairo, Calicut under the Zamorin and in the Christian shrines.

The book, says Daruwalla, took him over 10 years to complete.

“I started writing in 1996 and then left it midway because of a family bereavement. But I decided to complete in 2006 when Penguin Books India signed me up for it after publishing a volume of my poetry. I finished the manuscript in 2007,” the writer said.

The amount of research that went into collating the data was enormous. “Bulk of it was done in Egypt. I went to Cairo for a month and visited the American University where I found the translations of the 15th century Arabian navigator Ibn Majid. Majid is known to have guided Vasco da Gama to India. I went through the works, culling material for my book,” Daruwalla said.

The book is also a travelogue, describing ancient navigation systems and places along the Cape of Good Hope in detail. “But I have never sailed,” says Daruwalla. “The only time I have visited Africa is when I spent six weeks in Zimbabwe.”

The writer, who was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984 and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987, has written two plays. “I plan to work on a book of short stories called ‘Long Story’, as soon as I finish revising my plays,” he said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])