One of the most formative of my travel experiences came in October 1988, when I and my BBC crew had just embarked on a re-creation of Phileas Fogg’s journey, Around The World In Eighty Days. The problem was that Phileas was fictional and we were doing it for real. After a run of very bad luck, our series was saved from possibly terminal disaster by the Al Shama, a dhow travelling from Dubai to Bombay. The captain and crew nearly all came from the coastal town of Mandvi in Kutch. They were friendly, hospitable and generous, and I promised that one day I would see them again. But as happens, time races on and the next time I heard of Kutch it was for all the wrong reasons. In January 2001 a powerful earthquake shook the area, causing enormous damage and thousands of deaths.
It was not until the autumn of 2008, almost twenty years to the day since our voyage on the Al Shama, that I finally kept my promise and visited Kutch for the first time. The capital Bhuj still bore the scars of the earthquake; the graceful Jubilee Hospital was in ruins, and the magnificent Durbar Hall was a dusty wreck, but the spirit of the people was resolutely un-broken. In Mandvi I met up with Captain Suleyman and others who’d helped us across the Indian Ocean two decades earlier. We shared much laughter, and some sadness, as we watched the original film together, and then I was taken on tour of shipyards where dhows are still being built. Kutch always held a place in my imagination and having now seen the real thing and met some of the people who live there, I know it is a very special place. It’s location in the extreme north-west corner of India, with mysterious expanses of salt flats like the Rann of Kutch, melting into the Pakistan border, gives it a singular appeal. As does its sturdy maritime tradition, with old methods still producing good ships.
Having admired Michael Thomas’s book on the indigenous tribes of Orissa, a similarly fascinating but less visited part of India, I was delighted to hear that he was turning his humane and curious eye on Kutch. His strong, beautifully composed black and white photographs and his concise, well-informed text give a vivid and easily digested insight into this remarkable corner of India. The richness of its history, the beauty of its buildings, and the indomitable spirit of its people are all captured in these pages. Michael Thomas’s unpatronising and unpretentious style suits the material perfectly. This is Kutch how I would like to remember it, and how I would like others to see it for the first time. But not, I hope, the last.
Actor, Author and Traveller