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A passage to London

August 30, 2010

Akbar Allahabdi, the most prominent of Urdu poets known for their humorous and satirical poetry, once said

Sidharen shaikh kaabe ko hum inglistaan dekhen ge Wo dekhen ghar khuda ka hum khuda ki shaan dekhen ge

This can roughly be translated as Let the sheikh depart to Makkah, I would rather go to London; for he intends to see God's home, I God's glory.

London was indeed a magical place in those days, especially for people from a country like India which was long behind its times. In the eighteenth century, a few adventurous souls that travelled from India to England were spellbound by London's grandeur and glory. Fewer wrote travel accounts, but those who did were, almost invariably, all praise for the land and its capital. One of the earliest travel accounts of London written by an Indian, according to Dr Anwer Sadeed, is Sair-i-Talibi. Written by Meerza Abu Talib Khan, it is in Persian — as Persian was the official and one of the literary languages of India back then — and full of couplets eulogising Haseenan-i-London, or London's beauties. Abu Talib set forth for England in 1799 and returned to India in 1801. His trip became so famous that he was popularly known as Abu Talib Londoni (or Londoner) — a nomenclature resembling the one prevalent in the subcontinent that allowed name tags denoting the native town of a person, such as Dehlavi, Lukhnavi, Lahori etc. But some believe that even before Londoni, some had been to the place and had written about it “Shaikh Eitesamuddin,” says Prof Asghar Abbas, “had visited London in 1765 and in his travelogue declared London as 'the world's best, most populated and a cultivated city'”.

Which was the first travel account written in Urdu? The question has varied answers.

Dr Ibadat Barevli thought it was Siyahat nama, written by Nawab Kareem Khan who went to London in 1839 as an emissary of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to plead on his behalf in a case. But Prof (Dr) Tehseen Firaqi proved that Taareekh-i-Yousufi alias Ajaibat-i-farang by Yousuf Khan Kambal Posh was Urdu's first travelogue. Although his travel account was published in 1847 from Delhi, Kambal Posh had left India in 1836 and reached London in 1837.

One of the important Urdu writings describing the nineteenth century London, its people and atmosphere is Syed Ahmed Khan's travel account named Musafiran-i-London. Syed Ahmed Khan, popularly known as Sir Syed, left for London by ship on April 10, 1869. During his travel, Sir Syed would write back home and his pieces were published in Aligarh Institute Gazette. He intended to get it published in book form but the plan could not materialise though it was reprinted in Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaaq. Finally, about a century later, Shaikh Ismail Panipati got it edited and Lahore's Majlis-i-Ttaraqqi-i-Adab published it in book form in 1961.

Recently a new and improved edition of Musafiran-i-London has appeared from Aligarh. Prof Asghar Abbas, a well-known Indian scholar respected for his lifelong attachment with and research work on Sir Syed and Aligarh, has compiled it. Comparing Sir Syed's travelogue with the ones written before him, Prof Abbas says that Sir Syed's travel account cannot be put alongside the others that take the readers to an unseen and unheard of land and impress them with the tales of its beauty. Sir Syed's intention was neither to sing paeans to London nor to marvel at its grandeur. He wanted to study the land and its culture as a thinker, reformer, historian and educationist. Rather than dreams, he believed in awaking world. He was in search of an identity for his native land and wanted to find a way out of the political and cultural trauma his fellow beings were passing through. The subcontinent at that time, Prof Abbas thinks, was torn between the east and the west and Sir Syed was looking for a way in which to resolve the difference. And his travelogue truly reflects the agony he was going through.

But this edition is quite different from the previous one. Shaikh Ismail had compiled Musafiran-i-London with the help of Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaaq, Hayat-i-javed (Sir Syed's biography written by Haali), Sir Syed's lectures and his letters. But Asghar Abbas has edited this new version with the help of Aligarh Institute Gazette, the earliest source. He feels that the two early chapters of the travel account were sent by Sir Syed from Aden and Egypt. Not only has he excluded the six articles included as appendices by Shaikh Sahib's edition but Prof Abbas has also added some very important portions of the travel account hitherto not published in book form. The new edition includes some very important articles as well that serve as source material for any research scholar working on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan as they present the opposition and hatred Sir Syed had to face in response to his endeavours to modernise the thought process of his fellow countrymen. What has added more value to the book is the inclusion of meticulously written footnotes with a glossary of unfamiliar words.

Prof Asghar Abbas had long since been working on this book and it is surprising that there was no photocopying facility available when he began work on this project and he had to handwrite almost the entire manuscript from the magazine's old files with the help of some of his colleagues at Aligarh University. Whether one agrees with Sir Syed or not, one has to concede that the book is testimony to his sincerity, keenness and scholarly vision. To have the feel of it, you will have to read the book — published by Educational Book House, Aligarh — but considering the postages that the Indian and the Pakistani postal authorities have started charging, the cost might be five times higher. One could only wish that some Pakistani publishers would get the book published here — with due permission, of course.