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Tag: Jan Fishan Khan

April 3, 2013 Posted by tahir in Books

New Releases from My Backlist

TS ebook series backlist

I’m very pleased to share with you the release of my travel backlist as ebooks. Each book has been updated with a new introduction, with the exception of Travels With Myself, my 2011 release. Trail of Feathers will also be available very soon.

Get your copy now: Read more

August 1, 2010 Posted by tahir in Travel

Raining cats, rats and dogs

In Mumbai…

Where I can’t remember the monsoon fiercer than it was yesterday. Torrents of water cascading down from the graphite sky… waterfalls ripping through the streets, pedestrians wading, pyedogs huddled miserably in doorways, traffic even more gridlock than ever.

How wonderful though to be back in this mesmerising city, one that I have watch change through twists and turns over two decades and more. The place is booming, although every layer of humanity can be found on each street corner. India defies description and sings to the imagination in ways that most countries could only hope to do.

This morning flying up to Delhi with Rachana and the kids… and planning to visit the Taj Mahal. In all the dozens of times I’ve visited India, I’ve never been there. In a strange way it all seemed too easy.

Overwhelmed with a childlike excitement.


The Starting Point

The point where I want to begin the story is the moment at which paper — that most magical aids to the spread of learning — was acquired by the Arabs. The second of the two great Islamic Caliphates, the Abbasids, ruled from 750 AD (after overthrowing the Umayyads), with their capital at Baghdad — having moved from the Umayyad capital of Damascus. Baghdad in the ninth century, a city of 800,000 souls, second city in the world to only Constantinople. It was ruled by the Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rachid.

The mixture of people in the city, from so many cultures – Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and Central Asia – created a blend of cultures as it had never really been known before. And they could all communicate through Arabic, the lingua franca of Islam, all equal under this new faith.

Harun, who’s known more for his Alf Layla wa Layla, ‘1001 Nights’, set about accumulating books in huge a private library. He loved poetry, music, learning. Whenever he heard of learned people, he invited them to his court. The idea of wisdom being rewarded spread, and scholars made their way from the corners of the growing Islamic world to Baghdad.

In March 809 Harun ar-Rachid was succeeded by his son Al-Amin, (but he was killed four years later, in 813, after going against the order of succession left by his father). His half-brother, al-Ma’mun, became Caliph, and it’s with him that our story really begins…

Like his father, Ma’mun was fascinated by learning, and was eager to know how the world and the universe worked. He built up the library founded by his father, and brought together scholars from every corner of the world, from known every religion, speaking every language. He dispatched messengers to bring to Baghdad every book, document, and sensible man in existence… and bring it back to his centre of learning, which became known as Bayt al Hikma… The House of Wisdom.


April 23, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Stick Needles in an Inflated balloon

You will need: One balloon, some needles or pins, a roll of scotch tape

I once met a Godman in Calcutta who was using a book of children’s conjuring and illusion to create miracles. The book he had in his possession was printed in 1931, and I’m not sure if this miracle was in there, but it might well have been. It’s a schoolboy’s favourite.

You take the balloon, blow it up, and stick one-inch bits of scotch tape in various places. Then, when the audience have turned up, and mustering theatrical flair, you ease the needles into the places where you have put the tape. The tape seals and rubber, and the balloon doesn’t burst.


July 8, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


Guilt is a big thing for me, a kind of grease that lubricates my life. Without it, I’d be sitting on the couch with my feet up, daydreaming. Or asleep, or gorging myself on ravioli with extra cheese. I don’t know why I feel it, deep in my bones, but the guilt’s always there. It grinds away, tormenting me day and night.

I never feel as if I’ve done enough work, or good enough work, or that I’ve exercised enough (which I never have), or that I’ve got enough going on. I’m the rat in the wheel spinning faster and faster. And however fast I go, it’s not enough. Because the guilt’s chasing me, reminding me that I could go even faster still.

 I look at other people and they don’t seem to have the same angst. Or if they do, they hide it very well. Rachana certainly doesn’t have it. Most of the time she thinks I’m mad. You see, she’s much calmer than me, and she gets stuff done, but without the anguish. While I hurtle to and fro in a frenzy… the guilt devil jabbing me with his trident, she drifts serenely through the day getting plenty done .

I sometimes wonder why I am like I am, why Rachana is how she is, and why everyone else is how they are. Is it natural programming, or something learnt? Nature or nurture?

It must be a little of both.

But then how ever did the guilt get into my genes?  Did I have guilt-ridden ancestors, hounded like me through history? And if so, how did they fare? And the portion that’s learnt… by what lessons and encounters could all that guilt have eased into my head?

So here I am, intoxicated with guilt, so greatly so that I’ve resorted to writing a blog about my preoccupation. If there’s an upside it’s that I’m often coaxed on to do things that I don’t want to do, but that I know the guilt devil will be thrilled with.

Once in a while I get so overladen with guilt that I can’t do anything at all. I just sit there on the couch fretting. I pretend that I’m thinking, or working on an idea, but I’m not. The other day, our maid Zohra found me in the sitting room staring into space. I tapped a finger across my lips pensively as if I was coming up with a big thought. She looked at me hard, narrowed her eyes.

‘You are not thinking of anything at all,’ she said.

‘But I am, really I am.’

‘No,’ replied Zohra. ‘I can tell.’


‘Because your eyes are bloodshot,’ she said.





July 4, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


Calcutta. Perhaps you have been there, and if you have not, pack your bags, get a ticket and be on the next flight. Because if you have not experienced Calcutta, you have never lived.

By the way, I can hear you asking why ‘city’ is even on this list. The reason is that humanity is urbanising, and it may be good or it may be bad, but it’s reality. And if you want to know about urbanism, Calcutta’s the greatest teacher in the world.

I first went there when on the trail of an Indian magician called Hakim Feroze. He was an austere man with high ideals and a rawness that put fear into people… all people. And he had the ability to see through layers of life, through truth and fiction, as if he were wearing X-ray glasses even though he was not. He is dead now, and the world is a far less interesting place without him. But the city which he loved and knew better than anyone else seethes on.
Go to Park Street. Find a cafe. Sit down and prepare to spend the entire day there. This is the only way to get to grips with a place — by observation. I have been to India a gazillion times and have not yet been to the Taj Mahal. I am sure one day my feet will arrive there, but not yet. I am far more interested with what’s really going on in places like Calcutta.
So you have your fresh lime soda with sugary syrup on the side, and you are watching, and you are thinking to yourself, ‘this is a madhouse and there’s nothing orderly… it’s chaos!’ But look again. There’s a grand system, systems on systems, people on people, ideas on ideas. Invention, genius, logic… all of it crammed into a few hundred feet of pavement.
Indeed, the pavement of Park Street has more life on it than entire cities elsewhere. There are people pressing clothes with irons filled with coals. There are dhobis doing laundry, and people extracting gold from the dust swept from jewellers’ shops; and there are rag pickers, and pavement dentists, and pick-pockets, and pye dogs and stalls where your watch can get fixed, and typists and stacks of used romantic novels sold by the pound, and there are beggars old and young and, if you’re very lucky, you’ll even see a woman with a cow.
The magician used to send me out into the mayhem (that’s when I still thought it was mayhem) and he’d tell me to search for insider information. He said, in his oblique way, that insider information made a magician great. So I’d go out and sit about and watch and watch and watch.
And after a while I’d notice a system… like the baby renters (you see that in Calcutta you have to pay a fee to the dons for the best begging spots in the middle of town. And by the time you have waited — long waiting list —  for the best spots, you are far too old to have a baby, so you have to rent one. And it’s good news because the parents get paid for having their squawking children babysat)… or a system like the woman and the cow.
The woman and the cow took me months to decipher. But ask any Indian and they see it immediately and, when you see it, they smile. A woman sits on a street corner with a cow and a pile of fresh leaves. From time to time someone, a passerby, stops, pays a tiny coin to the woman, so that he can feed the cow. By doing this he will have a greater chance of reaching heaven. 
But look again. It’s not as simple as you might think. The woman doesn’t own the cow. She’s owned by the milkman, who’s done with it after milking’s finished at four AM. He doesn’t want to have to look after the animal while he’s doing his rounds, so he rents it… to the woman. She takes the cow to the corner, (and of course pays a little something to the dons for the spot), and people pay her… so she makes a living. But it gets better and better: the milkman’s happy because his cow gets fed and he gets paid for having it fed, the passersby are delighted at having the chance of going to heaven, the woman’s thrilled because she has a living… and the cow, well, she’s ecstatic at all the delicious food and attention.
Pure genius.