‘Chasing the Monk’s Shadow’ and other Excerpts by Mishi Saran

Mishi Saran

Mishi Saran was born in India and spent the first ten years of her life in New Delhi. Since then, she has lived in Switzerland, Indonesia, the United States, China, Hong Kong and Korea. She is the author of the travel book-cum-memoir Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang.(Penguin, 2005). Her first novel, The Other Side of Light is published by HarperCollins India (June 2012). Ms. Saran writes in English and is also fluent in Mandarin, French and Hindi. Following an undergraduate degree in Chinese Studies from Wellesley College (USA), she worked in Hong Kong as a news reporter and as a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in a variety of international publications including the Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune, the South China Morning Post and the Asian Wall Street Journal. Her short stories have won awards and been broadcast on the BBC. Read her interview hereBelow you can read an excerpt from her published works. Courtesy: Mishi Saran.


In the faulty folds of my mind, the day that Kabir was shot dead has receded to a collection of shadows. The grey leafy forest around the bungalow. The briefer, darker blur of an elephant that bowed its head amidst the rustling bamboo, then vanished. A mynah in flight, its shape gliding silent over grass. The shadows cast by the swept-up pieces of my own broken heart.

It was an ordinary dawn on an unremarkable day. Lying in bed, I could see a grassy semi-circle of garden through the windows. For a crazed moment, the scene appeared soaked in shades of yellow. Perhaps that’s why, bewildered, I sat up, rubbed final ounces of sleep from my eyes and swung my legs over the bed. Then I walked outside to look for Kabir.

Each moment in my life led to that faraway lawn. A trillion billion seemingly unconnected events pulsed from the beginning of time so that I would be present precisely there, on that day, to watch Kabir die.

Every single day was preparation, even when it appeared otherwise.

It begins when I am standing in a doorway, my small fist in my Baba’s bigger hand; he is looking elsewhere and talking. Impatient, I disentangle my hand from the warm envelope of his and run down a crunchy gravel path. My legs pump, the wind buoys me.  

Something tears in my stride; the universe shifts a millimetre and I am flying through the air. I land on the ground, on my hands and knees. Broken bloodied skin, breath knocked out; I stare in wonder at the battlefield of my body and contemplate my new wounded status.

Behind me, the grown-ups have stilled and I hear Baba run down the stairs calling my name. In the milliseconds before pain, I consider.

Shall I cry? Shall I not?

Baba sweeps me off the ground, hugs me, smoothes my hair back. Gauging his distress, guessing at the severity of my own hurt, I decide.

My mouth opens hot and wide and I yell. Tears stream down my cheeks, dampening my summer frock. Somewhere there is another me, watching myself decide to cry, watching the blood soak into my sandal.

Thirty years later, when I learnt I was to leave the country, I knew immediately I had

to return to those inadequate shadows, to that miserable dawn.

Only this would set me free.


Darkness: that is what I will remember of the night we got the news of our departure. The penumbra began in my middle, then it spun and spread.

I half-heard our servant Sushila cooking our evening meal – the fuss of the pressure cooker, the clanking of pans. I heard my husband Akash, still in his work shoes, cross the terrazzo floor. I glanced down at my book. Jatayu, the old bird-witness, saw the demon Ravana kidnap a weeping Sita. Jatayu swooped, thrashed his wings and fought a valiant sky-battle, but Ravana swung his sword and lopped off one feathered limb.The torn wing whirled and drifted far below. Jatayu was left with a shoulder of raw flesh, exposed bone and a sense of the end. A final teardrop gathered in a bird-eye as he dropped, a bloodied mass through cloud.

The lights in our house went out.

Three separate sighs in three separate rooms. The ceiling fan slowed and stopped. I snapped the book shut.

‘Asha?’ I heard my husband call. I heard him fumble for candles, strike a match, curse and blow at burnt fingers.

I uncrossed my feet and felt my way through my doused house, fingers spread wide. I felt the corner of a carpet, the edge of a chair. This has always been my talent, to see the space between objects.

From a cabinet, Akash picked out glasses and a bottle of gin. In the flickering candlelight, his arms and elbows were jumping black shapes against a wall. My palms found his shoulder blades. He turned to me and flicked a strand of hair from my forehead. He was a burly man, clean-shaven, with the occasional hesitant manner that made people mistake his caution for indecision.

‘Tie that back, darling, you will swelter.’

Strange how I barely felt the heat that night, though my shirt stuck to my back.

We carried our drinks outside to the small balcony and leaned our elbows on the balustrade, as we had done a thousand times. This was where we had stood, right from the beginning – like a king and queen surveying their dusty empire. It was here that we said things we later realized were precious.

I leaned against my husband, lightly, because of the heat. From the way his body moved, I could tell he was pushing off shoes and socks, using one foot as a tool on the other and then switching. I heard him swallow his drink.

The moon was a dim, veiled crescent. A few stars punctured the dark scrim of sky. Below, a stray bitch trotted by, her meagre dugs swinging. A passing scooter briefly lit her eyes to ruby red.

‘I like this moment, stolen from the lights,’ I said, to break the silence.

Akash inserted a thumbnail between his teeth and chewed it.

‘Something new,’ he said, indistinctly.
‘What,’ I said, thinking of Jatayu’s fall, of the oceans.
‘We need to move to Australia. I’ve been offered a job there.’
All I could see of him was the sheen of sweat on his forehead, his eyes smudged as in an incomplete painting.

‘We’ll be well paid. What do you think?’

There are silent moments in a marriage, when the direction of the future is shaped; when agreements are made in a wordless sphere and realizations surface without warning.

That night, my surprise and fear fell away, the calving of a glacier in spring. Akash wasn’t asking for my input, but he liked to give me the illusion of choice. We’d talked often of our stretched budget. This would mean an upward bump for his career. We could save money to support our families – mostly Amma.

I pressed an index finger to my forehead and drew it across my damp eyebrow. The pearled sweat gathered at the end and trickled down the side of my face.

I turned towards Akash and felt him take a step towards me. His arms assembled behind my back. Bundled against him, my cheek pressed against his top shirt button.

‘I don’t know how to leave,’ I mumbled. ‘What about my job? To start with.’

‘You can take your camera. You will find a path there. Photographers photograph no matter where they are,’ he whispered into my hair.

‘You’re trembling.’

I felt like Jatayu, falling through the air. Shorn of my supports, snatched from my pebbled history, who would I be?

I had to tell Amma about our departure, but it was a few days before I could go see her. She lived in a first-floor flat in Defence Colony, not far from us and near where she had moved when she got married. It took me longer than usual to drive there in the traffic. When I arrived at her house, she was watching the news, as she did every evening. I flung myself on the sofa by her and leaned my head back. She patted my arm, not taking her eyes off the screen. Then she frowned and leaned forward in indignation.

‘Amma, we have some—’
‘Oof, this makes me so angry,’ she said.
On the TV screen, the anchor outlined the summer’s drought. His voice floated over

images of thirsty states, a cracked earth. Somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, a woman was lowered on a rope pulley into a well. The cameras tilted to follow her journey to a hollow at the bottom, where a few cupfuls of water had pooled. She tried to coax drops of the muddy, tepid liquid into her earthen container.

‘Did you see, they have declared a state of emergency?’ Amma said.

‘Yes, I saw the paper.’

‘What is this country coming to? Politicians fill their swimming pools and poor people go thirsty.’

‘Amma, listen to me.’

I lifted Amma’s hand to my cheek. Skin gathered loosely around the joints, veins pushed up the skin like underground roots, running over mountain bone-ridges and skin valleys. Nails groomed, but unpainted.

‘Amma. Akash and I have to leave India.’

She turned to me, slowed and stopped. She pulled her hand back from mine, muted the TV. Then she held a hand to her chest, as though she had walked into a storm, shielding her heart.

I was brief and to the point.
‘When do you leave,’ she said.
‘Let me see. June, July, August.’ I lifted three fingers.
‘So quickly. Just like that.’
She cupped my face and gazed at me, as though she should store up now lest she

starve later. Then she gathered me into her arms and rocked and rocked.

Over her shoulder, I watched images flicker silently across the screen. The anchor put his hands together and bowed his head in farewell, credits rolled up the screen, and he receded into the distance.

  1.      NON-FICTION EXTRACT (from Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the

 Footsteps of Xuanzang)

647 AD, Chang An

These days, there were moments before ink brushed paper when Xuanzang, Master of the Law, sat with his face half in darkness and wondered who would understand.

He had to force himself to trace the words on paper.

When he closed his eyes he saw with another vision a rivulet in a village where a boy bent to poke the bed and dig for snails. Or a figure running, but away, so that he saw small heels kick up dust in a lane. He heard the child panting and as if in sympathy, his own lungs tightened.

The creature vanished.

The monk picked up his brush again, but then rested his chin on his hand and stared at the sky outside his cell window, the setting sun turned it lilac, streaked with orange and pink and gold.

China had moved on, carried without resistance on the rollers of time, imperceptible up close. Only those who returned from long journeys saw.

How changed the people from his past looked, at least those that remained. They were reminders of their youthful selves, but someone had penciled in gray hair, drawn a flap of skin at a throat, shaded under eyes, traced lines on the sides of a mouth, painted sorrow over pupils.

Did they mirror his own ageing?

He felt his way around the city like a blind man, groping for signs and textures vanished into memory. The city and him were like strangers meeting at a tea-house, glancing up for a sign of recognition and finding none, staring back at their cups. This would be his curse, to lose something vital and be unable to explain what he had gained.

He came back to China a hero.  They hailed him.

Or did they flock from curiosity? Did they come to his feet to bow and learn, glean wisdom from the dust on his hem, or to gape in secret at this quiet shaven man with the horizon in his eyes and the oddest gestures picked up from his Indian friends.

That head waggle.

The monks of Chang An caught him scooping rice from a bowl with his fingers. Eyes flicked in surprised glances, but nothing was said in deference to his greatness.

India had drenched the monk, transformed him. Leaving India, he thought he had lost what he needed to breathe, he was caught between worlds, born of one space, imbued now with others. It came to him that he would be an outsider for the rest of his days.

* * *

It had to have happened this way.

I needed it to have happened this way. History had been a troublesome deficiency throughout my life. I railed and swore and stamped and cursed that I could not have been there myself, to see with my own eyes. Of Indian history, I knew nothing. It is not taught on the syllabi of international schools in Southeast Asia or American undergraduate colleges, nor can one find it in airline magazines.

In my dismembered state, I realized I would simply have to do it myself. How did Indians know they were Indian? Their hearts swelled at the sight of the tricolor. They stood with their hands on their hearts and sang the national anthem with a tear at the corner of an eye. They loved cricket. Most of all, they knew what happened in their country in the years before they were born. The history seemed key.

An Indian woman with a China craze, a Chinese monk with an Indian obsession; we had the same schizophrenia, the monk and I. It seemed logical to take the same road.

In this quest, I would dig into the rubble of the past, sift through 1400 years and forage for the debris of the monk’s journey. On that road between China and India, perhaps I could find a history that belonged to me, a past and a present. What was true? What was false? And what did it have to do with me?

Is not history just one woman’s truth – as she chooses to tell it?

Stumbling for clues to Xuanzang, picking threads to submerged stories, I snatched time from the Hong Kong job and flew to Beijing. I was sniffing for the monk’s trail, for my student days, for a road to India.

That day in April, the poplars showed off tight new shiny leaves. Overhead three pigeons flapped and alit on a balcony coop. Through the haze of traffic fumes and dust blown in from western deserts, spring struggled.

As it happened, there was a society in Beijing, devoted to the study of Xuanzang.

“Why didn’t you come to us before?” The Chinese scholars were stooped, white haired.

“I came as soon as I knew you existed.”

Off a trafficked boulevard, Beijing turned on itself, vanished, leaving a lane with willow trees, a bicycle bell trill, a hint of coal dust.

Huang Xinchuan and Sun Baogang, China’s eminence grises of Indology ushered me through plastic flaps that kept out April sandstorms. In a restaurant, by a window, we sipped jasmine tea in bowls.

“I remember India,” Sun said. “The parrots in the trees. Hundreds of them.”

“Xuanzang is very important to China.” Huang looked stern. “He came back from India to serve our country. He was a patriot.” Aiguo. I explained the problem.

“We can help you,” Huang said.

He reached into his bag and handed over a photocopied sheaf. It was a time line of the monk’s life, a breakdown of his route to India, a list of places; their seventh century names and their current ones.

I sipped the jasmine tea and felt its delicacy in my throat. I thought of my Hong Kong studio where at dusk I watered the dieffenbachia on the tiny balcony and at night watched the lights shine off the harbour’s water. The persistent hum of the mosquito at the back of my head grew stronger, like interference on a radio.

My hosts explained that kingdoms, even rivers, swelled, shrank and shifted after the monk went west. Cities had collapsed, left crumbs. The monk’s journey now meant facing China’s western deserts, broken off Soviet republics, warring Muslim nations, one Himalayan kingdom and a great swing through India.

The scholars were persistent.

“Make sure you mention he was a philosopher, and a great traveler.”

“Please add that he was an expert in causality, in logic, also don’t forget, a geographer. And a skilled debater.”

The old Chinese men thought back on their days in India.

“To understand China you must see India’s influence,” Huang said.

“Many, many Sanskrit roots and concepts have shaped us.”

“Xuanzang is the spine of China.” Sung leaned over the table and prodded his back, to illustrate.

Outside the wind bobbed red round lanterns strung along the street, their tassels whipped and swung. Huang rummaged once more in his bag for telephone numbers across China, contacts, handwritten with a fountain pen on sheets of paper saved from conferences.

“These people will assist you, once you get there.” He paused. “But beyond China’s borders, we cannot help.”

Dusk settled. The tail end of winter carried a snapping wind. The two men waved goodbye and walked into the dark. Through a park, boys bent elbows and raced on roller skates. On an overhead pass, headlights swept by. I scrambled for certainty, but found only phantoms of the past, and one monk’s words left for history to ponder.

In these lay the faintest of beginnings.

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