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INDIANS AT HEROD’S GATE: A JERUSALEM TALE by NAVTEJ SARNA

January 1, 2015

“That I gathered enough courage to make this attempt to unpeel the centuries…” perhaps is the essence of not just what the author Navtej did in putting together his latest work “Indians At Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale”, but also what it did to him and the reader as well.

“History sometimes leaves no traces” and certainly in what seems on the face of it a very mundane theme, the author’s engaging research finds the links and trails that lead us to a fabulous story.

“History sometimes leaves no traces” and certainly in what seems on the face of it a very mundane theme, the author’s engaging research finds the links and trails that lead us to a fabulous story. Soon after landing in Tel Aviv as the country’s ambassador he hears about Baba Farid’s Hospice in Jerusalem. A seed for the next book is safely lodged in the fertile and curious recesses of a creative mind.

It is the integrity, character and the conviction that reveals the several personae of the author, a man on an otherwise ambassadorial role knocking on the doors of ‘Zawiya al-Hindiya’ or the Indian Hospice, an Indian presence in the middle of old Jerusalem.

I was privileged to have gone sightseeing around the Holy City with Navtej while this book was in the making. As I read the book, each word takes me back to him narrating the story. It often meanders into the direction of our discussions. For instance, could Guru Nanak in his time, like Sufi Saint Baba Farid on his way back and forth Mecca, too have stopped by at the Indian Hospice?

It is not just an account of a care-taking family’s heroic deeds, in whose courtyard flies an Indian flag, amidst one of the most troubled spots in the world. Nor is it just an account of some 800 plus years of history around the lanes and by-lanes of the Zawiya but an inquisitive mind risking itself, seeking the threads to weave an extraordinary account, in a volatile backdrop.

Amongst many an unpeeling that go on in my head – as I read the account – are things from my long past, my visit to Israel and everything else. There is ‘Oh Jerusalem’; ‘Exodus’; Ben Hur; Ten Commandments; Bethlehem and the tour guide Isa who wonders why must I wish to visit the Church of Nativity if I am not baptized; Judean Desert; Masada; Dead Sea; Sea of Galilee; food, olives and wine at the Kibbutz; Marathi speaking Jewish driver-cum-guide; Retired tank commander’s (now a high profile travel coordinator; gave me an option of 14 languages to facilitate my tour!) woes with Indian tourists; Curious youngsters who had or wished to visit India; Stunning Mediterranean expanse off Herzelia; Haifa’s classy art decos; Zubin Mehta and his afternoon concert; Rampart Walk; Indian Hospice; and American Colony Hotel.

You could take a boat from Karachi to Basra and drive via Baghdad to Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was a magnet for the mystics and a must on the Mystic Route, wherever it started or ended!

Waves after waves of mixed feelings of times when there were fewer political boundaries, travel was far less complicated and despite its cycles of civilisational ups and downs it was not really a perennial hotspot of disruption. You could take a boat from Karachi to Basra and drive via Baghdad to Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was a magnet for the mystics and a must on the Mystic Route, wherever it started or ended!

The author paints his canvas on a man from Saharanpur, who due to a dramatic turn of events, lands in the Holy city of three major religions. All to become the Sheikh of a slice of India that has drifted miles away from the conscience of the subcontinent.  A refuge for Indian pilgrims right from the medieval times and its soldiers during the great wars. What a lovely depiction.

While Navtej in his modesty gives credit to the friendship, cooperation and knowledge of many people for making the book possible, he is silent and self-effacing in what else went into this creation. To the discerning eye the layers underneath the diplomat – be these the writer, journalist, historian, archaeologist, researcher and a statesman – would be hard to miss!

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