Khalaa Kay Uss Paar Safar: Eric Shipton Ki Shohra-i-Aafaaq Kitaab ‘Blank on the Map’ Ka Urdu Tarjuma
By Muhammad Abduhu
Green Heart, Faisalabad
436pp.

In the 1930s, maps of the northern Karakoram and, to its north-most, of the Aghil and Kunlun mountain ranges, were largely empty white spaces marked with the tantalising word ‘Unsurveyed’.

The few details that existed were the result of Herculean efforts by men such as explorer George Whitaker Hayward (1860s), who lost his life in his endeavours; topographer Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen (1860s); geographer Kenneth Mason (early 20th century) and a handful of other men. Even so, these details were generally sketchy.

This was long before satellite imagery became a mapping tool. It was a period when surveyors had to physically enter the regions, painstakingly take measurements with theodolites from high altitude stations and plot each and every feature on the plane table. Expeditions were understandably cumbersome, requiring large complements of equipment, rations and porters to carry it all.

In 1936, Ceylon-born Englishman Eric Shipton was 29 years old and an accomplished mountaineer. He and his lifelong friend Bill Tilman — 10 years Shipton’s senior — planned a major expedition “on the back of a [used] envelope.” This was to become famous as the Shaksgam Expedition, 1937. Making up the rest of the party were Michael Spender and J.B. Auden, each a brother to a famous poet.

An Urdu translation of one of the masterpieces of mountaineering and exploration work is as much a reader’s delight as the original

In late May 1937, the expedition crossed the Great Asiatic Watershed in the central Karakoram region — since labelled Muztagh-Karakoram — to descend into the Shaksgam River valley, sandwiched between the Karakoram in the south and the Aghil Mountains in the north.

Over the next three months, the four surveyors and their core group of Sherpa porters remained cut off from the rest of the world, as they climbed peaks and took measurements and bearings to transfer an unknown physical world on to paper.

The result of this expedition was Shipton’s matchless work, titled Blank on the Map. Published in 1938, the book is celebrated to this day as a masterpiece of mountaineering and exploration work.

Arguably the greatest mountaineer-explorer of the 20th century, as a writer Shipton is admired for being a master of the understatement, giving no more notice to a perilous situation than a dry “we got into difficulties.” His sense of humour is equally subtle.

Though a bible for mountaineers and trekkers all over the world, Blank on the Map is virtually unknown in Pakistan. Shipton’s lament of 1937, that men were indulging in the sport not because they enjoyed it, but because they wanted to be famous, rings very true for Pakistan today. Ignorance of Shipton’s achievements and his profound humility has deprived us of so much.

Unlike conventional Urdu travel writing, where the author feels duty-bound to corrupt names, Abduhu takes pains to correct commonly mispronounced place names.

Instead, we have Urdu travel writers who make a big deal of something so mundane and ordinary as walking up the little hill in Skardu on which the fort of Kharphocho stands. With nothing else to imbibe and build upon but the trash churned out by such self-important writers, the ordinary trekker walks in an intellectual wilderness.

Like formula Pakistani films, the so-called adventure travelogue in Urdu has the hero battling imaginary perils while running into young damsels who assure him that he is the first Pakistani to be seen in that wilderness. In a word, Urdu travel writing is a joke, a miserable one that imparts not a jot of geographical or historical knowledge of the area.

Muhammad Abduhu, a young mountain walker of remarkable capacity, hails from Faisalabad and holds the honour of walking some difficult and rarely attempted passes and glacial traverses. In Pakistan, he is arguably the one and only person who engages in high altitude mountain walking not, as Shipton lamented, to be famous, but because he enjoys this noblest of sports and wants to see and know what others have discovered before him.

In 2018, Abduhu’s first book, Khurdopin Pass: Purkhatar Raaston Per Safar [Khurdopin Pass: Journeys on Dangerous Routes], appeared as a refreshing departure from the rubbish that made the staple for trekkers who read only Urdu.

The book, redolent with Shiptonesque reserve, tells the story of a dangerous crossing of a high, glaciated pass in the Karakoram Mountains between Baltistan and Shimshal. Here, for the first time, readers find geographical and historical information hitherto not within their reach. One also reads of the exploits of earlier explorers. Other than a daily diary of walking from one stage to the next, the wealth of knowledge makes Khurdopin Pass a delight to read.

About three years ago, Abduhu undertook a momentous work which I thought would never be accomplished: a translation into Urdu of Shipton’s Blank on the Map. Recently published under the rather appropriate title Khalaa Kay Uss Paar Safar — literally ‘Travel Beyond the Empty Space’ — the book is as if Shipton, having returned from the dead, were himself writing in Urdu.

Unlike conventional Urdu travel writing, where the author feels duty-bound to corrupt names, Abduhu takes pains to correct commonly mispronounced place names. One that surprised me is his rendering of Biaffo Glacier which, on maps, is incorrectly written ‘Biafo’. Whereas the latter pronunciation has no meaning in Balti, ‘Biaffo’ means rooster, or any male bird, and that is how Balti people pronounce the name. Clearly, Abduhu kept his eyes and ears open while travelling.

We have also seen translators alter meanings or insert their own interpretations, but not so with Abduhu. He faithfully preserves Shipton’s philosophy, humility, sense of humour and reserve. Had Shipton been alive, he would surely have commended his translator.

However, this should not be taken to mean that the writing is a direct translation from the original. In fact, the purity and exactness of Khalaa Kay Uss Paar Safar reveals a deep understanding of English and a greater grasp of the Urdu language, making the translation as much a reader’s delight as the original.

Abduhu’s book contains maps from Shipton’s original, including one showing Bill Tilman’s survey and mapping in the Biaffo and Sim Gang glacial complex. There is yet another one from 1939, and also several black-and-white images from the original 1938 publication of Blank on the Map.

Interestingly, these images are not part of the Shipton omnibus, published in 1990 and containing all six of his books. This shows that Abduhu has done some serious research to produce this masterful translation of a truly great adventure travel book.

Khalaa Kay Uss Paar Safar needs to be read by all trekkers for the joy of being in the high places of the earth, following the trails marked out by great men and women of the past. It is a must read also for the armchair traveller.

The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of several books on travel. He tweets @odysseuslahori

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 15th, 2023

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