March 17, 2009

Book review: "Himalayan Passage," by Jean Smith

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Himalayan Passage, by Jean Smith
Himalayan Passage
By Jean Smith
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-59548-650-2

As regular readers know, this fall I plan on undertaking for the first time in my life a major study regarding the history and culture of India, with me slowly adding titles to my reading list whenever I have a convenient excuse to do so. So how cool, then, that one of the books I received during a recent huge shipment by print-on-demand outfit iUniverse (and seriously, they sent something like eight books all in one big box, so keep your eye out for reviews of them all this spring) would happen to be the historical novel Himalayan Passage, which just happens to take the real events from the Akbar reign of the subcontinent's Mughal Empire years (roughly AD 1400 to 1700, the same as the European Renaissance), then twists them a bit to form a rousing adventure tale and love story. Because make no mistake, this is no scholarly tome, nor does it aim to be; in fact, its author Jean Smith is not a history professor but rather a veteran new-age Buddhist, one who's been traveling repeatedly for years through the Himalayans herself, and who obviously was inspired to write this as a way to give flight to the romantic thoughts she herself has had while in the region. So better maybe to think of this instead as a companion piece to those scholarly books out there, say for example the one on the Taj Mahal I just reviewed here a few weeks ago, a book that transcribes the vivid dreams of color and dance and desert heat that one has when reading the textbooks themselves; and in that, then, this book is stunning in its ability to transport the reader to another time and place, even if it admittedly has the habit of veering into chick-lit territory at times too.

In fact, maybe it would help to start with just the most basic history lesson about these times, just the absolute least amount of information you need to know in order to understand a novel like this (i.e. the same amount of information I know), starting with this fact: that until the British occupation of the subcontinent in the 1800s, what we now know as India, Pakistan and central Asia was not a small group of sovereign nations at all, but rather dozens and sometimes hundreds of constantly warring little kingdoms, empires, city-states and more (yes, just like Germany until the 1800s too). And that's why India is such a profoundly diverse place, despite everyone there now collectively known as "Indians" -- from the desert-dwelling Hindu nomads of the south, to the spartan, militaristic Muslims of the northwest, to the cold-weather "mystical hillbillies" of the northeast (next-door to such infamous Asian spiritual regions as Tibet and Nepal). For those who don't know, in fact, Ghengis Khan (or "Asia's Alexander the Great") comes from this rural region of central Asia himself, just north of the actual Himalayan mountain range, in his case eventually traveling east in order to take over China; it was some of his descendants who moved south and formed the Mughal Empire, which over the course of roughly 250 years ended up dominating at its height around 75 percent or so of what we now know as India and Pakistan.

But of course, this meant subduing all those dozens of small kingdoms (or rajas as they're known there); and one of the ways the Mughal emperors did this was by taking on dozens of official wives, one princess from each of these little fiefdoms, thereby giving that particular petty little territorial leader a new imperial title and new imperial power, an annual imperial stipend, regular access to the emperor (who after all was now his in-law), the opportunity to still rule over his local people and keep living in his local castle, etc. And so that's what Smith's book is about, a fictional look at one of these regional princesses from a far-north mini-kingdom, who is eventually sent to Delhi to be a part of the royal harem of "Ibrahim" (Smith's fictional version of a thirty-something Akbar). And this is very smart of Smith to do, because it gives her all kinds of things to talk about within this slim 200-page book, and thus keep the story rolling along at a fast clip; it's not only a look at her original simple mountain home, up in the Himalayans themselves, but also a detailed look at the machinations inside the Mughal court, a grrl-power look at a rebellious late teen not happy at all about this forced arranged marriage, plus a surprisingly erotic look at how she and Ibrahim end up falling deeply in love anyway.

It is what it is, and I'm not going to pretend it's anything else; I'm sure one of the reasons I myself was so charmed by it, for example, is precisely because I have a high interest in this subject right now, and am actively looking for excuses these days to be swept away by tales of silk saris and stone lattices, of midnight treks on panting Arabian horses through enemy territory, of epic family feuds worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. (For those who don't know, the empire fell apart in the 1700s over a series of family civil wars regarding succession; that's what allowed the French Empire to conquer the region so easily in the late 1700s, and then the British Empire in the 1800s.) Because make no mistake, Himalayan Passage has all of that, deftly mixing the melodrama with the actual dry boring details of the real time period, becoming by the end like a grown-up version of one of those David Macaulay "edutainment" books. And that's why I say that a novel like this makes for a perfect companion piece to a textbook covering the same topic; because the book is constantly touching on the real details from this period, but not in the full way a scholarly volume does, and of course let's not forget with many of the details fictionalized and changed, as to present a more neatly-structured tale by the end. And again, I think this was smart of Smith to do, because it then lets her play hard and fast with the actual historical account, in order to sometimes spice up elements of the story that otherwise would've probably been quite dull. Take for one example the "Star Room" from Smith's novel, a lush bedroom and sorta temple to carnality, located in the rooftop of the highest tower of the emperor's entire fortress complex; I have a feeling that it's based on a similar "royal bedroom" from the actual Akbar reign, but that the real-life room wasn't the romantically perfect little thing as the fictional one on display here. (Jewels embedded in the ceiling! The Kama Sutra painted in a big circle around the bed! A 360-degree panoramic view of the entire kingdom! Sheesh, who could resist an emperor's libidinous advances under circumstances like those?!)

I have to admit, for being a company that makes no real editorial decisions when it comes to which authors they publish, I've been pleasantly surprised and impressed by nearly every book iUniverse has sent my way over the last six months; and Himalayan Passage is no exception, which if I didn't mention it is also just as detailed a look at the major religions that compete for attention in that region as it is everything else. (In fact, this is mostly what Smith is known for, having already published eight nonfiction books in the past regarding the subject of Buddhism.) Although certainly there's a decent-sized crowd out there more apt to roll their eyes at such a novel, I myself was thoroughly entertained by it from nearly the first page to the last, and happily recommend it today to any fan of adventure tales, romance novels, or detailed looks at this fascinating period of history. More titles like these, please, iUniverse!

Out of 10: 8.8

Read even more about Himalayan Passage: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:51 AM, March 17, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |