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The Hall of a Thousand Columns; Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Oh my Lord, I thought, he has lost it. The first of his travel books that followed the footsteps of the world-traveller Ibn Battutah (the Muslim Marco Polo) was brilliant but he's lost it with this second volume. What is he doing floundering around McDonalds in Gulf shopping malls while waiting for some Thor Heyerdahl/Tim Severin-like authentic Arab dhow to emerge from the docks. I have learned to loathe ŚReplica travel writing' with its obsessive desire to plunge back into a lost era of technical know-how, whether it is hobbling a caravan of camels or checking that you have the right period sheets and sails on your replica 14th century yacht. It also always involves the routine breaking of a series of breathlessly self-imposed deadlines.

I shouldn't have worried. On page 19 Tim is suddenly awakened to ring up a travel agent and book a seat on an aeroplane to Delhi and abandons all attempt at Śreplica travel'. And then suddenly, we are up, up and away, on a genuine quadruple track Tim Mackintosh-Smith roller-coaster of historical, linguistic, geographic and spiritual inquiry.

On one level, The Hall of a Thousand Columns follows a conventional literary trail, as Tim tries to unearth any surviving evidence of Ibn Battutah's (IB) 14th century as he travels across the length and breadth of India; be they jails, gilded halls, tooth-tombs, living descendants or miraculously age-old hermits. Though even here, the triple perspectives he offers up through the pithy observations of his chosen travelling companions, a flatulent saint-loving local driver and the artist Martin Yeoman, allow for a rich texture of multiple perceptions.

On another level, it is also an exploration of IB's real nature, that combination of uplifting mystical and geographical inquiry with arse-licking toad-ism, that makes him such an intriguing character. This conflict is graphically exposed in the clash of loyalties between the munificent Sultan Muhammad Shah of the Hall of a Thousand Columns and a poor holy sheikh. Indeed, Tim shares many of the traits of his hero, and proves himself just as much a Sufi groupie and a collector of sovereigns as old IB. There are interviews with Dervishes and wise Pirs, the impoverished, dying but immensely dignified old Zamorin as well as the bright-eyed but inscrutable Bibi of Cannanore that could have been dropped straight from the pen of Leigh-Fermor. In the seventh floor apartment of another grandee, Tim is regaled by a line that could burn a hole through the whole of Burke's, "Timothy", he said, regarding me as through a microscope, "I am descended from the Sun" while another digression (on the significance of wafers) allows Tim to remember, that, "an old friend of mine, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury's Apokrisios in Belgrade, was given wafers when he called on the Grandfather of the Albanian Bektashi Dervishes." Even Anthony Burgess would have been impressed. However, for both Tim and IB, there is never any doubt that they are on the side of the holy sheikhs, however much they might also enjoy hob-nobbing with the Sultans. Indeed, this weakness becomes ammunition in the sniping war between the Marco Polo-philes and the friends of Battutah. For if it all comes down to character, better to be the slim shadow of the highly flawed IB than share in Tim's assessment of Marco Polo: "He himself is a void. The eponymous mints are well named."

But this is only the half of it, for interwoven with the real time journey of Tim through India is an inquiry into the nature of Islam of India, in both its medieval origins and in its present embattled state. This is a highly topical issue, for India's hundred million Muslims are trapped between the well-funded text-dry orthodoxy of the Islamic Middle East and an indigenous fundamentalism that preaches for a pure Hindustan. The great worth of this book is that from out of this quandary Tim offers up an alternative path. He maps out the histories of a precious breed of Muslims who proudly learned their spirituality from Hindu holymen and who proselytised through charity, music and a religion based on love. Translating the ancient hymns addressed to Khrishna so that they could be addressed to a new audience in Urdu, praising a ŚHe' who at one and the same time could be both Allah, the Prophet, Imam Ali, the beloved and Shiva. These syncretic visionaries, just as much as their Hindu counterparts, suffered from the tyranny of the great Sultans at Delhi, who often proved to be at their most ruthless when dealing with their Śown' Muslim mystics. For instance, IB's sheikh, whose only crime had been to refuse a place in the royal court, had his hunger strike brutally curtailed by being force fed gallons of watery shit until he was ripe for execution. In our day, Tim's own hero, a forthrightly secular Muslim professor (the IG of the dedication page) also proves himself to be good to be allowed to survive his time.

His zest and enthusiasm carries all before it, combined with such a stream of thought bubbles, irreverent observations and tangential camp snippets that there is hardly a page in which you are not both creasing your brow in disagreement and then chuckling in delight at yet another idol overthrown. Some of his over-ripe word constructions, "fateful moxibustion', Śsported epizoic epaulettes', Śthe joy of sects', Ścourt catastrophere' might fall clanging to the floor, but such is the rate of fire that others strike true. Few of us who have waded through Arabic panegyric verse and the neglected marble monuments of the sub-continent in commando soled boots, will be able to resist borrowing the new definitions of Śphonetic fallatio' and Śmerde-magnets'.

But beneath this funny, cultured, humane and highly idyosncratic travelogue there is also a darkly tragic theme. Tim is also an unusually honest writer, who even confesses to telescoping time, to allow himself to construct a single narrative from the three separate visits that he made to research the Aliyah chapter. I also had the opportunity to test the text on the ground while travelling up the Malabar coast a couple of weeks ago and found his observations to be unfailingly accurate, illuminating and in one case uncannily prophetic. Sitting beside the shore on Boxing day, having just read about the creation of the port of Cochin from out of a medieaval storm and the sinking of Battouta's ambassadorial squadron en route for China, the text was then made quite startlingly graphic by the tail end of the Tsunami washing up the Cochin back-waters.

The only untruth I could detect was on page 118, when Tim speculates on how the people "who bother about such things (there are about three of us all told) have always wandered what IB looked like." Since Mackintosh-Smith has got to work, there are now many thousands of us who have also began to speculate about IB. For my part I have began to see that IB's obsessive descriptions of Sultan Muhammad Shah might also be a code for indirectly addressing his own Moroccan sovereign. For Sultan Abou Inan also proved himself to be another overpoweringly munificent patron, who had also seized the throne from his own father and would also send IB off on another near-death diplomatic mission. But for this, and China too, we will all have to patiently wait for the next volume.

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