A native’s voyage to England

By Hasan Abidi

Travelogues are now a popular genre in Urdu literature. Noted story writer, Ghulam Abbas, had once remarked that anyone who is capable of writing a letter can also write a story. This encouraging remark, coming from an acclaimed writer, sent a wave of enthusiasm among all those who could put pen to paper, but were frustrated as the true meaning of that enigmatic remark later dawned on them.

Rather, they found easy access to and more appeal in writing travelogues. An ordinary commuter, while recalling his wanderings, can become a tourist, an excursionist or a globetrotter by stretching his imagination to the farthest end. Travel writing does not demand the use of any technique of form. He/she can describe the unseen and the unknown — the rich harvest of day-dreaming.

Heavy volumes based on travel accounts are now available at book shops, but I doubt it if many readers have come to know about the first safarnama written in Urdu and its author, Mirza Abu Talib, who also chose to write ‘Londoni’ with his name.

Mirza Abu Talib Londoni, his father a Turk from Azerbijan, was born in Lucknow in 1752 A.D. and brought up in the court of Nawab Shujaddoula of Oudh. There, he learnt the art of statesmanship, court manners, languages and poetry and soon developed friendly relations with officials of the East India Company and also Lord Cornwallis, the Governor General.

Mirza Abu Talib’s voyage from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to England started on Feb 7, 1799. After reaching England, he was received by the King himself and was honoured at a reception in the palace with ministers and the parliamentarians sitting around, giving him due attention and respect.

His stay in London stretched over two years and he returned to Calcutta on Aug 4, 1804. It is interesting to note that during his return journey, when his ship reached the shores of France, the noted French general, Napoleon, expressed his desire to met him. But Mirza politely excused himself due to shortage of time.

Actually, England and France were constantly at war in those days and the noted Indian scholar, perhaps, did not like to be misunderstood by the East India Company officials back home.

Mirza Abu Talib died in 1806, while working as an administrator in Bundelkhand (North of India) and was buried at Lucknow. His travelogue, originally written in Persian and later translated into other languages, is rightly considered as the best among the travel accounts written in the 19th Century. Its English version was printed in 1810, much before the original Persian text, and a French translation followed the next year. Brief text from it was published in German in 1814.

The travelogue Talebi der Belaad-i-Frenji (Talib in the Land of Englishmen) carries many surprises for its readers. This scribe is indebted to Dr Sarwat Ali who wrote an introductory note on the Urdu text and introduced the enigmatic personality of Mirza Abu Talib to the readers. It may be noted that Mirza Abu Talib launched his adventure about sixty years before Sir Syed visited England. His travel accounts later compiled and published under the title of Musaferan-i-London lack in details when compared to those described by Abu Talib.

Abu Talib’s popularity in the social circles of England was based on his cheerful and endearing nature. He was a poet with a refined sense of humour, master in the art of repartee and table talk, sociable among all sorts of people, including ladies who had begun to like him and invite him to dinners.

During his stay in London, he keenly observed the English way of life, their value system, morals and manners. He studied their growing economic system, also their administration and education. He described the fazail-o-razael (good and bad manners) of the English, some of which are noted below:

1. The Englishmen zealously guard their honour and self-respect.

2. They show great respect for talent and skilled workmen.

3. They are law-abiding and never transgress the limits of laws and prescribed manners.

4. They prefer the modern lifestyle over old manners. With a change in style and fashion, they discard old things, dress, furnishings, furniture, etc, to buy them anew and at much cost.

5. Most Englishmen are sincere and firm in their social commitments, always in search of knowledge, inclined toward ingenuity and experiment, quoting the great scientist Newton in that regard.

As for the evils of English society, Abu Talib was pained to see that they were more and more attracted to philosophy, having less faith in religion and the Day of Reckoning.

Secondly, after gaining material success, they had become haughty and arrogant. They were wedded to material wealth and loved to have more of it. They would spent a long time in washrooms and normally dressed four time a day, from morning till night.

Abu Talib also visited a school, met some wards and parents, and was impressed by their system of education. Their wards, he noted, were usually treated with love and respect. Physical punishment to boys was discouraged.

The Indian scholar, a keen and critical observer of English society, wrote his travel accounts meticulously and is therefore rightly taken as the first traveller and travel writer of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent.

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