With Venetian explorer Marco Polo writing interesting notes about the southern parts of India (and Italian Christopher Columbus reading them on his historic journey across the Atlantic), the tradition of Europeans writing travel narratives about India is long. But it perhaps had a more formal start with the diaries of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to discover a sea route to India.
This tradition grew stronger through colonial times and continues to grow even today. Western travellers, anthropologists, linguists, historians, fiction writers and even politicians and diplomats have written extensively about the Indian Subcontinent. While some of the narratives are systematic and very convincing, even for the natives, others contribute to what Edward Said theorised as “Orientalism” — a representation of the Orient as it is not.
But what is more worrying than the misrepresentation of India on the part of Western travellers is the absence of narratives about the West by Indians. Eminent critic, poet and literary historian Najeeba Arif, in her exploratory study ‘The West in South Asian Muslim Discourse: A Study of Indian Muslims’ Travels to the West 1757-1857’ published in the Journal of Indology and South Asian Studies, laments the fact that “we do not find any equally elaborate account of the image and perceptions of the West and its social, cultural and political systems as perceived by the people of India.”
While Arif has painstakingly found and studied some such narratives written in Urdu and Persian, the number of travelogues written before 1947 remains very small. Most of those that are available are either so impressionistic that they hold very little academic value, or they are out of print, or not accessible to common readers and researchers because of their high prices — the five-volume Indian Travel Writing, 1830–1947, edited by Pramod K. Nayar and published by Routledge, is currently priced at GBP1,050, approximately Rs230,000.
An excellent addition to the very small number of Indian travel narratives about Europe from the colonial era is Syed Asad Ali Anvery’s Toofan Se Pehley: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary, beautifully translated by his daughter, novelist and journalist Rehana Alam, as Before the Storm: Travels in Europe. The original Urdu and English translation are published side-by-side in the same volume.
The book comes with a critical introduction by Kamran Asdar Ali, one of Pakistan’s leading anthropologists and a professor at the University of Texas, Austin. The introduction, together with the translator’s note, provides the reader with the necessary context, turning the travel diary into a travelogue.
A recent translation shines a light on a significant addition to the body of Urdu travel narratives about Europe from the colonial era
A graduate of the Aligarh Muslim University, author of Saheefa-i-Cheen — the Urdu translation of 19th century British astrologer Walter Gorn Old’s English translation of Confucius’s Book of History (Shu King) — and, at the time, an officer in the Indian Forest Service, 32-year-old Anvery embarked on a journey to Europe on April 10, 1939.
This was a time when the Indian rupee had more value than most currencies in Europe — one French franc was only five Indian paisas — and when the “Oxford University Union … was no better, in any way, than the Aligarh University Union.” It was a time when “religious people in France seemed to be no less superstitious than Indians”, when “Muslims were downtrodden everywhere”, when banks had begun to occupy locations of prime value and when the storm of the Second World War had not yet hit the world, but was just around the corner.
The primary purpose of Anvery’s visit was to attend college at the University of Oxford and, as part of his fieldwork as a forest officer, to see as many forests in Europe as possible. By virtue of the author’s taste for, and some training in, botany, the readers of Toofan Se Pehlay get to learn a lot about plants, lakes, canals, rivers, mountains, etc, though more in-depth botanical descriptions might have gone well with the essay and reports that Anvery mentions writing about the forestry part of an exhibition in Zurich, and about museums and research institutes.
But, apart from a scientist’s eye for jungles and geography, the author also possesses a critic’s eye for art, literature, history and society, which — despite the fact that he almost always sees things through the lens of a ‘cultured’ Muslim — enables him to analyse most of the settings, situations and works very convincingly.
His knowledge of these subjects is reflected in his intertextual allusions to history (“Henry VIII had many women killed” at the Tower of London); art (“I visited the Capitol, the steps of which were made by Michelangelo”); literature (“J. Fuseli had painted a scene from [John] Milton’s Paradise Lost”); religion (the Florence Baptistery where “a baby was being baptised”) and language and culture (the “obscene” language of Oxford students, that they used “so often that even the most vulgar of India’s Anglo Indians would get embarrassed”).
Through these travel notes, we also learn of the author’s own engagement with formal literary inquiry, as he receives news of the publication of his second book, Qateel Aur Ghalib [Qateel and Ghalib] in 1939 from India, while he was still journeying through Europe.
Anvery has a great appreciation for the way Europe memorialises its past with museums, statues, monuments, etc. He also makes some interesting comparisons of places, peoples and their cultures, which sometimes involve sweeping assertions; for instance, the palace at Windsor “was nothing in comparison to Versailles.” However, others are substantiated with brief evidence and examples: “the Mimizan beach was much better [than the beach at Nice]. No pebbles and the sand was not so fine as to fly up in the breeze and get into one’s eyes, like, I guess, the beach in Bombay.”
He contrasts European countries with the East, for instance by highlighting that, as he left Budapest for Constantinople, “easternism” increased. “Farming was unsystematic and sparse. There were almost no roads … I didn’t see a single car during the train trip. No machines were used in agriculture … Most of the people were barefoot.”
Poverty as a natural obstacle to the social and cultural development of a country is a reality that the discipline of postcolonialism is often criticised for not acknowledging. But Anvery is aware of this, as he rightly points out that “when people rose above subsistence levels, they turned toward culture, art, beauty and creativity.”
He also highlights “propaganda” art at Western museums by, for instance, criticising the representation of Tipu Sultan at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He also does not fail to mention the Koh-i-Noor in the Tower of London, and “the world’s largest carpet, made by the inmates of the Agra jail” that is laid out in Windsor Castle.
According to Najeeba Arif, most early Muslim travellers from India to Europe “showed their profound admiration and fascination towards” women. The first Urdu travelogue writer, Yusuf Khan Kambalposh (1803–1861), even went on to declare that “There were fairies all around, drinking and enjoying the company of their lovers. Had I been the king of India, I would have bestowed a state of my Kingdom on each of them.”
Anvery, on the contrary, notes and detests the commodification and objectification of women in Europe: “This deplorable state of femininity was appalling. India’s red-light areas were nothing in comparison … At least there, women didn’t have to run after men and be repulsed and reviled.”
Although the book is, as the writer asserts, “a compilation of short notes”, Toofan Se Pehlay is a significant addition to the body of Urdu travel narratives. It already has a lot to offer to historians, critics and anthropologists, but its value will increase manifold if annotations are added to it.
The reviewer is head of the Centre for Language Teaching at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, and author of Urdu novel Sasa. His most recent publication is Razm Nama-i-Gilgamesh.
He tweets @sheerazdasti
Toofan Se Pehlay: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary / Before the Storm: Travels in Europe
By Syed Asad Ali Anvery
Translated by Rehana Alam
The Times Press, Karachi
139pp. (Urdu) / 163pp. (English)
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 6th, 2021