Tartary…. An old, old memory recalled

Last week, I went to one of the bookshops I frequent – after a long hiatus occasioned by financial and time constraints – to see if anything interesting had come in.

Well I found quite a few – there were some which I could not keep off, while there were others which I left for my next visit, banking on the “strong” reading habits of all those living in this city. 

I finally came down on a slightly obscure book by yet another Western journalist based in India which appeared promising, two from the Very Short Introduction series that I decided I ought to have – one was Privacy, and the other Neo-Liberalism… I had to let Forensic Science and Islamic History wait for the next trip as there were more copies available, but only one of Privacy and Neo-Liberalism was something I wanted immediately.

However, the issue was between the fourth. I had almost selected a Tom Holt novel, when my eye fell on another book…. which actually is the reason for the post and the rest all mere waffle. This book was one that I had had the opportunity to pick up earlier – some three years or so – but (quite fooolishly) passed on…. This time too I would have left it but I just picked it up and flipped through it….. And I was hooked. There was no way I was going to leave it this time.  So the Holt went back to the shelf and I bought Robert D Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.

Why did I get entranced by the book and find it so hard to let it go?  I asked myself the question too. The second part of the title could offer a clue. Ever since I read a 1930’s edition of Inside Europe by John Gunther…. way back in the late 1980s when I was still at school, I have been interested in the Balkans…. an interest which increased after I first read Dracula.

But more than that, it was the first part of the title that has evokes earlier and stronger memories. The wordof Elizabethan era extraction – Tartary, to be exact. Way back, over 25 years ago, I remember reading a book of poems, prescribed for us in school, called Panorama. By the time, I had to go through it, it had been extensively revised but I retained an older edition… the property of a cousin, which had some works excised over time from the collection I had. One of them was called “Tartary” and I was deeply impressed by it, particularly the images it evoked. I learnt it by heart and even now, more than two and half decades, thousands of books and ten and thousands of poems and lyrics I still had it rooted in my memory…..

Perhaps, it was among the first poems that created an abiding impression on me…. the others were Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (on which I wrote recently) and “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All three I remembered…. thus beginning the tradition of stuffing my big head with all sorts of information, of no immediate relevance (so as my parents, my sister and some more might say). 

But what is Tartary? and what was the poem? Read on for more details.


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