Monday, June 20, 2005

Mirza Abu Taleb goes to England

In Attia Hosain's book Sunlight on a Broken Column, about which I wrote a post earlier, there is a reference to "the sweet tongue of the true Lucknavi - delicate, flexible, rich in imagery, pointed with wit, polished with courtesy." The durability of the tradition Hosain was referring to is apparent from the Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb, an account given by an eighteenth-century Lucknavi nobleman of his visit - very rare in those days for an Indian - to England.

Abu Taleb was an unwilling adventurer: he left India in a pall of gloom and not on a sea of expectation. For some years he had been running back and forth between Lucknow and Calcutta in search of patronage, at which point he received an offer from a Scottish friend to journey with him to Europe. He writes:

After having considered his proposal for some time, I reflected that, as the journey was long and replete with danger, some accident might cause my death, by which I should be delivered from the anxieties of this world, and the ingratitude of mankind. I therefore accepted his friendly offer, and resolved to undertake the journey.

But as his ship set sail and his homeland fell back Abu Taleb's spirits soon rose, and he threw himself into the task of observing everything that was strange and significant about his journey. In fact, when he reached the Nicobar Islands, where the ship halted briefly and gave those on deck a chance to see the lives of the natives, Abu Taleb was so captivated that he began to think the thoughts that all of us think when we go on a pleasant vacation:

I was so captivated by the mildness of the climate, the beauty of the plains and rivulets, and with the kind of life and freedom which the men enjoyed, that I had nearly resolved to take up my abode among them.
When Abu Taleb finally reached England after several months at sea, he was very well-received there (curiously he does not make any report of having to face racism) and soon became known in social circles as 'the Persian prince'. While giving himself over to revelry and romance - he confesses somewhat coyly at one point that 'Cupid had planted one of his arrows in my bosom', and presents some atrocious verse in praise of English women ('Adorable creatures! Whose flowing tresses,/whether of flaxen or jetty hue,/Or auburn gay, delight my soul,/ and ravish all my senses') - Abu Taleb also made a close study of English government and society. He arrived in England in 1800, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, and the implications of the extensive mechanisation of production did not escape him. He remarks:

In England, labour is much facilitated by the aid of mechanism; and by its assistance the price of commodities is much reduced: for if, in their great manufactories, they made use of horses, bullocks, or men, as in other countries, the prices of their goods would be enormous…. [T]he great wheels of [iron founderies] are worked by steam, in a very surprising manner. In these they cast cannon, beat out anchors and do all other large work, which could not be effected by manual labour, the sledge itself being more that any man could lift.
And he is similarly perceptive of the subject of print technology, one of the pillars of modernity:

Of the inventions of Europe, the utility of which may not appear at first sight to an Asiatic, the art of printing is the most admirable. By its aid, thousands of copies, of any scientific or religious book, may be circulated among the people in a very short time; and by it, the works of celebrated authors are handed down to posterity, free from the errors and imperfections of a manuscript. To this art the English are indebted to the humble but useful publication of newspapers, without which life would be irksome to them. These are read by all ranks of people, from the prince to the beggar.
Abu Taleb was not always complementary about England - he devotes an entire chapter to criticisms of the English way of life, and he wrote an essay pursuing the unusual line of argument that European women actually enjoyed less liberty than did Asian women. The book ends when Abu Taleb arrives on the west coast of India in 1803 after four and a half years away from home, and, being 'very anxious to see my family' (of whom there has been no mention since the first chapter), returns to home and hearth in Calcutta.

Abu Taleb's Travels is available in a new edition from Oxford University Press. This page features a forthcoming edition of another book by an Indian nobleman who travelled to England in the first half of the nineteenth century: the Autobiography of Lutfullah - A Mohamedan Gentleman and his Transactions with his Fellow-creatures. Here, courtesy Arun Simha, is a brief history of early Indian newspapers, which began to proliferate a few decades after Abu Taleb brought back reports of them, and the look of some of the mastheads of these newspapers (the Asiatic Mirror, the Oriental Star, and so on) can be seen here.

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