Book Review for “Travels in Transoxiana-In Lands Over the Hindu-Kush and Across the Amy Daria”

Book reviewed by: Mr. Aditya Joshi, Intern, PIC

It is no longer fashionable to use the term ‘Transoxiana,’ the ancient name referring to a region and civilization located in lower Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern-day Uzbekistan and parts of Tajikistan.
Geographically, it is the region between the rivers Amu Darya to its south and the Syr Darya to its north. This land mass, situated beyond the river Oxus has however, not featured prominently on the tourist circuit and for obvious reasons! A long spell under the Soviet system took a heavy toll of its economy, institutions and the potential of its people. An unstable neighbor to its south – Afghanistan; rising unemployment and unmet aspirations among the youth and a below-par economic performance during the long years of isolationist trade policies, sucked the spirit from the land which the author rightly describes as the ‘crucible of mankind.’
This book, published in 2006, is a true labour of love from the author who had spent close to five decades in active politics and had a ring-side view of major developments which have shaped our nation today. It is a travelogue, and the routes undertaken by him are typical of the man. While other sundry politicians may easily have given in to the siren call of the West, Mr. Singh preferred the road less taken. This trip was taken when the author served as the leader of opposition (between 2004-09) and travelling without diplomatic privileges makes both the author and readers aware of the precarious condition of the erstwhile Soviet republics.
Central Asia is the stuff of legend and the book rightly begins with a detailed account of Mr. Singh’s visits to the ancient cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. It is worth mentioning that most of the foreign invaders who conquered parts of north India arrived in waves from these barren inhospitable lands and the author writes a fascinating account of Changez, Taimur and Babur, which forms the primary fodder for the initial part of the book, setting it right in the middle of Central Asia’s most seductive feature – its nomadic and violent history.
Along with presenting readers with an account of everyday life in the land of ‘dialectical materialism,’ the author’s intense dislike for the Soviet system of governance is a constant theme running through this book. This region is largely inhabited by pastoralists / nomadic herdsmen and is hardly a tourist paradise. With minimum accommodation, unreliable transport and bureaucratic red tape, the failures of the state are laid bare before us.
The author claims to be the first Indian tourist to visit some of the remote towns and regions in years. Apart from the regular tourist attractions, his travelogue includes obscure places like Ferghana, Khiva, Kokand, Ashkhabad, Kirgiz and Irkutsk in Siberia giving the readers a glance into the everyday life of its people, their ancient customs and culture, their collective struggles and the fascinating geography, all of which drew him to this ancient land.
‘Travels In Transoxiana: In Lands Over the Hindu-Kush and Across the Amy Darya’ brings with it a plethora of observations about a rugged region which is often neglected by the masses. Its true potential can only be unlocked when we drop all preconceived notions and allow ourselves to be immersed into its ancient glory, its monuments and architecture and above it all, its inhabitants who have always nurtured goodwill for the people of Bharatvarsha. This book may have been published a decade and half ago, but is a welcome addition to every reader’s bookshelf.