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Travelogue As A Slice Of History

Sucharita Sengupta

By Syed Mujtaba Ali . Translated by Nazes Afroz 
Speaking Tiger Publications, New Delhi, 2015, pp. xxiii 308, Rs. 350.00


The painting of tall, grim-looking Afghans on the cover of In A Land Far From Home makes for possibly one of the most deceptive book covers. You’d believe that here is a heavy, boring, fact-addled tome on Afghan history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Syed Mujtaba Ali’s book, a travelogue that should be treated as a slice of history, is possibly one of the most delightful books ever written, and equally delightfully translated by Nazes Afroz from the Bengali original, Deshe Bideshe. Ali, fresh out of a privileged education and well into callow youth, takes up a teaching assignment in far-flung Kabul in the later 1920s. The early descriptions of the train ride from Bengal to the North are pretty much what one would expect from a goggleeyed first time traveller, who is able to note little more than changing landscapes. Soon enough though, he is gheraoed by Sikhs, who, in an interaction straight out of a stereotype, affectionately rib the Bengali for using his brains too much and his non-existent brawn too little. The Bengali too ribs the Punjabis for using their brains too little and their brawn too much, albeit silently and inside his own head. The exchange is hilarious, and by the end of it, everyone in the train are friends. This is the point at which Ali starts engaging with strangers, turning them into lifelong friends; and the point at which the writing starts moving beyond descriptions. Peshawar holds a languid adventure, if any such thing is possible. Ali is keen to reach Kabul, but speed is not the way of his Pathan friends. They keep him in Peshawar for several weeks, during which time, Ali learns all about hedonism. Soirees are lavish, filled with food, drink and music. Conversations are mini-cultural exchanges—the Pathans want to satisfy their curiosity about Bengalis and their strange ways, and Ali is handy in providing answers, none of which seem to convince the rambunctious Pathans. When it appears that Ali has had enough of the ‘good life’ in Peshawar, he is finally directed towards the sole bus that traverses across the treacherous Khyber Pass and into Kabul, one driven by an elderly, nearly-blind Sikh gent. In the four days that it takes the bus to reach Kabul, the author gets a sense of the significance of his journey. He was on the ancient Silk Route. ...

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