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In A Land Far Away From Home

Syed Mujtaba Ali; (Translated by) Nazes Afroz

Speaking Tiger

Pages: 262 Rs. 350

An extraordinary account by an eagle-eyed traveller

Syed Mujtaba Ali’s classic Bangla travelogue and memoir Deshe Bideshe gets a new lease of life, thanks to an empathetic and well-executed translation by Nazes Afroz, writes Payel Majumdar.

Payel Majumdar  9th May 2015

Syed Mujtaba Ali.

There are some books that become hand-me-downs for people brought up in Bengali homes. A tattered copy of Deshe Bideshe, a collection of short stories written by Syed Mujtaba Ali about his one-and-half year long stay in Afghanistan, is a common example of such a family heirloom. A copy came in the hands of Nazes Afroz, print and broadcasting journalist, when he was a teenager, and the book has been a part of his life ever since. He has now translated it in English and called it In A Land Far Away from Home.

In A Land Far Away from Home is a travelogue that documents Syed Mujtaba Ali's journey from Peshawar to Kabul across the Khyber Pass. Mujtaba Ali had travelled to Afghanistan from West Bengal in 1927, to teach at a provincial school. Mujtaba Ali does not just travel through Afghanistan, he travels through the length and breadth of its historical and mythical accounts, his curious mind looking for clues that bring India and Afghanistan's cultural connection to the surface. He spent his time there picking up various dialects, mixing with people in and around Kabul and learning their ways of life.

Afroz calls Deshe Bideshe a life-changing book for him, and over this odd century Deshe Bideshe has gathered what can be called a cult following — and it would be fair to list it among one of the first books recommended to a person new to Bengali literature.

His wit and visual prose draw for us a clear picture of Khyber Pass's journey from the late 19th century. "If a lazy man ever wanted to make a trip but did not want to go through the troubles of sightseeing, then the best place for him to go would be the narrow Kabul valley. Because, there was nothing worth seeing in Kabul." Mujtaba Ali is not all praises when it comes to Afghans, Pathans, Afghanistan or Bengalis for that matter. He scrutinises everything in his purview closely, and no observation goes without a quip, whether in the due course of his journey he has to sit on a mountain pass bound bus that has no headlights and a night-blind driver, or is cooked a dinner for six by his Afghani man Friday who insists on seven-eight courses during a single meal.

Mujtaba Ali is in Afghanistan at a crucial point in its history, during the time King Amanullah in Afghanistan abdicated, when confronted by a military coup by dacoit Bacha-e-Saqao. This was a period of change for Afghanistan. Amanullah's reformist policies had brought education for women in the country and support for the choice of not wearing the burqa, Russian, European, South Asian and Central Asian politics adding to the complications of Afghani politics. Mujtaba Ali etches out a picture lucidly, never droning on, and never being simplistic either. His life in Kabul is complete with adventure and intrigue as he slowly eases us in to the foreign and fantastic world of Afghanistan in the 1860s, its politics and culture, before bringing his readers to a gut-wrenching climax, right in the middle of the political crisis following Amanullah's abdication.

Mujtaba Ali etches out a picture lucidly, never droning on, and never being simplistic either. His life in Kabul is complete with adventure and intrigue as he slowly eases us in to the foreign and fantastic world of Afghanistan in the 1860s, its politics and culture, before bringing his readers to a gut-wrenching climax, right in the middle of the political crisis following Amanullah’s abdication.

Very few first-hand accounts exist of that period in Afghanistan's history as Nazes Afroz has mentioned in the Translator's Note, which makes the book even more fascinating, especially due to his bizarre connection with the Crown Prince Enayatullah, who happened to be his tennis partner at the time.

This is Mujtaba Ali's first book, the one that shot him to popularity. In translation, Afroz has kept all the little nuances of his language alive that gives Ali's writing its character, whether it's his comic timing ("His only quirk was that he could never sit still. He did not know what to do with his hands. He always fiddled with things and often broke them absent-mindedly. We removed every breakable object from the range of his long arms whenever he entered the room. I used to keep a bowl of whole walnuts right in front of him.") or his acute sense of history ("Take for example Balkh. Sometimes its original name was spelt as Balhika; sometimes as Baalhika and somewhere it has been spelt as Balheeka. Was that the same place Balkh, mentioned by Firdausi, where Zoroaster converted King Gushtasp in the Aveesta? Do the Kabulis get saffron and heeng from there nowadays?")

Syed Mujtaba Ali is an important figure in Bengali literature, not just because of his prolific writing, but also because he serves as a symbol against what he calls the "chauvinistic saffronisation of Bengali culture", and not least because he is very, very funny. (To understand the dearth of humorous books, look at Ali's short list of two and a half funny books in all of Bengali literature, not counting his own.)

 
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