There are endless names shining through the annals of the Great Game that raged during the 19th century. Most of them are British and a few of them Germans who worked for the East India Company and later the government of India. On the other side of the divide are the names of some Russian stars.
Lost in the glare of these famous personages are not a few ‘natives’ who served British interests in this region. Since that was a time of limited knowledge about the great knot of towering peaks and high passes in the mountainous region comprising the Western Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges, exploration and map-making was of the utmost imperative.
Natives — Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs — trained in the art of surreptitiously measuring distances, keeping notes and drawing charts were let loose in high Asia. They travelled in the guise of mendicants and pilgrims and were collectively known to their British masters as pundits. Their work supplemented that of British explorers.
Even less known were the munshis (clerks) who travelled with British civil servants, diplomats and explorers. They were rarely mentioned by their employers and are almost entirely forgotten now. Mohan Lal was one such — though were he alive today, he would take serious exception to being labelled a munshi.
In fact, Lal was much more than that; he was a diplomatic officer. From a princely Kashmiri family, Lal was recommended by his father to the civil servant Charles Edward Trevelyan who had a hand in the establishment of the PersianCollege at Delhi. The young Lal was sent there to learn English as a supplement to his fluent Persian. The idea was that he should then be attached to the civil service. Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan, and Turkistan, to Balk, Bokhara and Herat, and a visit to Great Britain and Germany are Lal’s accounts of his travels, first published in 1846 and now republished.
As the narrative progresses, one realises that Lal was a person of gumption and diplomatic skill with a sharp understanding of human nature. Once done with his education, he was inducted into service and in December 1831 set out on a protracted and meandering journey through Punjab and Afghanistan into Bokhara and Herat. Though he does not state this, his mission, like that of his British co-travellers, none other than Alexander Burnes and Dr James Gerard, was to collect intelligence. This ranged from economic and commercial to geographical and military matters. In the 500-plus pages, Lal only once lets on about his map-making ability, though in Afghanistan he keeps an eye open for the military strength of the various forts and the passes that can or cannot be negotiated by artillery.
Lal comes across as an elegant person who was appalled by having to travel as a poor man in ragged clothes in order to avoid being robbed. This was a very real threat after crossing the SulemanMountains into Afghanistan. No journey between any two points was free of the fear of lurking robbers. If it was not outright armed robbery, it was the arbitrary levying of custom duties. And those who practiced neither, kidnapped the young and the old to be sold into slavery.
In his early 20s, Lal was a good looking young man, as evinced by the book cover, and was found attractive by men. In one instance he tells us that he refused to speak to the man who made an advance. Rather quaintly, he writes that the chief of Haibak (near Qunduz) “has a few evil habits, which I cannot describe minutely. He shuns the love of females”. But in Mashad, Lal is won over by the ruler’s “boy” with his “white cheeks and ruby lips”.
Lal’s first journey ends in 1834. Early the following year, Lal is despatched on a trip to survey the commerce and trade of Bahawalpur, Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Shikarpur. It is at the end of this investigative trip that he receives instructions to reach Hyderabad where Alexander Burnes was embarking on his river trip, ostensibly to deliver presents to Maharaja Ranjit Singh but in reality to explore the navigability of the Indus River.
And so it is back into the maelstrom that Afghanistan was becoming in a bid to replace Amir Dost Mohammad with Shah Shuja who was more amenable to British interests. But all diplomatic endeavours failed and seven years later, in 1841, the disaster of Kabul took the lives of many important Company men. Among them was Burnes, cut to pieces in his home in Kabul even as Lal valiantly tried to defend him. The price was imprisonment and the lingering uncertainty of a violent death for our hero.
But Lal makes it back to India. Here he is duly accorded laurels for his role with the Army of the Indus in Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul. It was, however, his diplomatic endeavours in Kabul as well as his courageous attempt to save the life of his friend and travelling companion that wins him the unremitting gratitude of the government of India.
Lal does not mention the debauched lifestyle of Burnes in Kabul. In fact, he makes a spirited defence of the attack on Burnes’ character by Charles Masson, a deserter of the East India Company army who was in Kabul shortly before the debacle.
Upon his return to India, Lal must certainly have submitted a detailed report of the affairs in Kabul but he does not permit his readers even a peek into that. Once done with his report writing, he applies for an 18-month leave to travel to Britain. Not only is that sanctioned, but in Britain our hero is feted by nobility and royalty alike. His travels finally end in 1846.
Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan and Turkistan draws remarkable parallels between the Afghanistan and Uzbekistan of the early 19th century and today. Ahmed Shah Abdali may have united that conglomerate of chiefdoms, each at the throat of the other, to give them the name of Afghanistan. But within five decades of his death, the mutual distrust and hatred of the chiefs had returned the country to its state of city nations, each ruled by its own warlord and brigand chief. Even today, Hamid Karzai is known as the ‘mayor of Kabul’. Those who dream Pakistan’s foolish dream of ‘strategic depth’ will be well served by a reading of Mohan Lal’s travelogue.
The reviewer is a travel writer. His last book, The Apricot Road to Yarkand, was published in 2011.
Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan, and Turkistan, to Balk, Bokhara and Herat, and a visit to Great Britain and Germany
By Mohan Lal