IN these columns we have discussed ‘The 10 best Urdu autobiographies’ (Jan 27, 2014) and ‘The 10 best Urdu novels’ (Feb 11, 2014). Today, let us have a look at some of the best Urdu travel accounts.
Keeping in line with the two previous pieces, the list is compiled in chronological order and not in the order of preference. Just like the previous ones, this list is based on importance, readability, relevance and cultural and literary values. I feel that a good book does not have to be the bestseller. Neither is a bestseller always a good book.
Dr Anwer Sadeed has mentioned over 400 Urdu travelogues in his book Urdu adab mein safarnama. Therefore, it is not easy to choose a few best travelogues of Urdu. But most of the early Urdu travel accounts can hardly make it to the list as for today’s reader they are not always a gripping read.
Beginning with Ajaaibat-i-farang, the fist Urdu travelogue ever, written in 1847, Urdu travelogues written in the 19th and early 20th century at times sound too concerned with extrinsic motivations. The reader feels that the author is too obsessed with the outer world and his or her impressions are lost somewhere under the heap of data that would be more suitable for a ‘tourist guide’ kind of book.
Some travelogue writers have even explicitly stated that the sole purpose of writing the book was to guide the future travellers and save them from the problems that the writer had to go through, conveniently forgetting that despite being a non-fiction work a travel account has to be a piece of creative writing. What they ignored is the fact that mere descriptions of roads, buildings and places of interest do not add much to a travelogue. Some of the Urdu travelogues of the early period not only sound too didactic but their language too at times feels dated.
It was not until the second half of the 20th century that Urdu travelogue writers were able to put the geographical and historical details and statistics about economy and demography in perspective. What a travelogue writer needs most, probably more than the ability to write, is a free soul and an intense desire to fly like a bird, without any itinerary or planned visits that enable you to mechanically tick off the items on the list of places of interest.
The early writers of Urdu travelogues rarely let their inner feelings interfere with the description of external world. But some travel accounts of that early period, such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Musafiraan-i-London, Shibli Nau’mani’s Safarnama-i-Misr-o-Rum-o-Shaam and Munshi Mehboob Alam’s Safarnama-i-Europe and Safarnama-i-Baghdad, give some creative touch to external factors and they still make a good reading. The reason perhaps was these writers basically had that flair for travelling that makes one a real traveller and travel writer.
So if you don’t find any travelogues from the early period in the list, try to read a few of them and you will be convinced that they did not merit inclusion in it. However, readers may amend the list if they don’t agree to it:
Nazarnama: Published in 1958 and written by Mahmood Nizam, it was probably the first Urdu travelogue that reflected the writer’s inner soul as well as the external world. As Dr Anwer Sadeed has put it, Mahmood Nizami owes a lot to Khwaja Ahmed Abbas whose travelogue Musafir ki diary showed the way to writing a modernist travel account.
Dunya gol hai: A natural humorist as Ibn-i-Insha was, his travel accounts reflect his keen sense of humour. His inimitable prose, combined with his ability to enjoy the incongruous and abnormal, made Dunya gol hai and his other travelogues, first serialised in a newspaper in 1960s, hugely popular. First published in book form in 1972, the book has run into many editions.
Dhanak par qadam: What made Begum Akhter Riazuddin’s Dhanak par qadam (1969) a smashing hit was her profound sense of wonder and the ability to draw pleasure from it. Reader can see the scenes from foreign lands through a women’s eye in a fluent prose peppered with a prudent dose of humour.
Nikle teri talash mein: Sometimes referred to as a collection of Maupassant-style short stories, this first book of Mustansar Hussain Tarar (1969) caught the fancy of readers for its elegant yet effortless prose and a wanderlust that hardly any other Urdu travel writer seems to have ever possessed. The only downside apparently is the writer being touted as a romantic hero.
Shauq-i-aavaargi: Young Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi was perhaps more extempore and more loveable. His wit and naughtiness seem to be at their peak in this book. With him readers discover a different America.
Basalamat ravi: Colonel Muhammad Khan was known as a humorist and this book (1975) only strengthened that impression. Today, few can write the ornate yet flowing prose that Colonel Sahib has written. His wit and positive attitude towards life make you love life.
Labbaik: Often labelled as blasphemous, Mumtaz Mufti’s book (1975) is an account of two journeys: the physical one that took him to Saudi Arabia to perform Haj and the other — the spiritual one — that he undertook for soul searching. This is a travelogue of a writer and intellectual who is seeking solace and deliverance but also wants to solve the mysteries of the spiritual world. During the journey he found more questions than the answers. The fact that the book is sometimes referred to as reportage has only added to the controversy that surrounds it.
Dar-i-dilkusha: Much underrated and almost forgotten, Sheikh Manzoor Ilahi’s this effort (1976) is an absorbing read. Though a couple of the pieces included in the book do not fall in the category of travelogues and may be termed memoirs, they too grip you. Quite contrary to the most of Urdu travel writers, Sheikh sahib tries to hide his own existence and opens to the readers the windows on the world.
Safar naseeb: Mukhtar Masood is known for his philosophic and thought-provoking ideas. His book (1980) is a testimony to it. With a deep knowledge of history and a profound love for culture, the book makes you look at the things from different angles.
Safar dar safar: If the travelogues of the 19th century were one extreme, this book (1981) by Ashfaq Ahmed is the other one: the physical journey to the Kaghan valley and the Saif-ul-Mulook lake with friends was not as long and thought-provoking as the mental journey that begins right from page one. Ashfaq Ahmed with him takes the reader, as usual, on a journey to the unknown lands, flying on the wings of imagination. It is an absolute page-turner that lets the reader learn so many new things.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2015