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Caravans By James A Michener | Book Reviews

First published in 1963, “Caravans”, by James A Michener, is one of the first stories to come out of Afghanistan.

Written as memoir of an employee of the American embassy, it vividly captures the complicated Afghan life, in the post world-war II era. Today, when we think of Afghanistan, we invariably think of it as a victim caught in the struggle of world super-powers during the cold war, the struggle that finally led to militant movements and the way wars are fought on world scale. But, this book brings us back the memories of the time when the atom bomb had literally shocked the world.

Book Title : Caravans: A Novel of Afghanistan
Author :
Publisher : Random House (Paperback)
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We meet Mark Miller, a fresh ‘out of the war’ American soldier, as he starts learning his lessons as a diplomat, on his assignment to Afghanistan. Mark is given a special assignment of finding the mysterious Ellen Jasper. Mysterious, because Ellen Jasper is an American girl, who left her family and her country for a married afghan engineer named Nazrullah. When the story begins, Ellen has been missing for many months.

As a first step in his search, Mark goes to the uncrowned king of Afghanistan, Shah Khan. Shah Khan informs him that Nazrullah is posted at Qala Bisht, working on an ambitious dam project, and that’s where Ellen went with her husband. Mark decides to go to Qala Bisht. He is accompanied by Nur, a diplomatic aid cum Afghan spy. On the way they meet Dr. Stiglitz, a former Nazi who has now sought refuge in Afghanistan.

This journey exposes Mark to real Afghanistan, and he is shocked by the brutality of what he witnesses. These are supposedly the acts of justice: a woman stoned to death, a man brutally killed by his victim’s father as an act of vengeance, etc. As he travels through, he develops an understanding of the paradoxes of this ancient land, where the notions of modern civilisation just don’t exist.

He reaches Qala Bisht, an ancient marvel of a sculpture, and meets Nazrullah. Ellen has left Nazrullah, but there is no clue as to what for. Mark begins to develop a friendship with Nazrullah. Together, they take on the perilous journey through the desert in search of missing crew members from Nazrullah’s team. They do find the missing engineer, but with a broken leg and onset of gangrene. In desperation, they try to cross the desert with him, but he dies on the way and one of the jeep of their caravan breaks down.

Miller and Dr. Stiglitz take refuge in the caravanserai and Nazrullah and Nur go to get help. It is in the caravansarai, that Mark discovers the ugly truth of Dr Stiglitz’s past and it is here that they meet the group of enigmatic Nomads called Koshis, and to his absolute amazement –Ellen Jasper. Ellen has joined the Koshis, and is now with their leader Zulfikar. The Koshis offer to take Mark back to Kabul, and behind his back, practically steal every single part of his jeep. On the way, Mark learns the ways of the devious nomads and falls in love with Zulfikar’s vivacious daughter Mira.

But, Mark’s journey with the caravan of nomads does not end in Kabul. Instead, he is given a secret mission to travel further with the Koshis and find out that secret place, where all the nomadic tribes of Asia meet once every year. All the European governments have been trying to get this place for years unsuccessfully. And thus starts one of the most adventurous journeys of Mark’s life. What with everyone travelling in the caravan with a hidden agenda, the journey is bound to be interesting, surprising and dangerous.

A must read to get the experience of the era when there were no satellites, when the nomadic tribes could travel all over Asia without giving a single though to countries and borders, when life was much simpler and yet much more beautifully complex……………………..

P.S.: This novel was converted into motion picture in 1978, starring Anthony Quinn and Jennifer O’Neil.

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