Mahdi Hasan Khan (MHK) was among the outsiders Salar Jung I, Diwan of Hyderabad, brought in when he reformed the state administration. He belonged to Fathpur, now in Barabanki district, UP. From a prosperous Avadhi Shia family, he was educated at Canning College, Lucknow, trained to become a revenue officer and lawyer, and married Ellen Gertrude Donnelly, daughter of an Irishman living in Lucknow. He arrived in Hyderabad in 1883 with a letter of recommendation from Sayyid Ahmad Khan the day after Salar Jung died, was nevertheless appointed Chief Revenue and Judicial Officer for the area around Hyderabad, and rose rapidly to become Chief Justice, then Home Secretary. The title of Fath Nawaz Jang was conferred on him. In 1888, he was sent to London in connection with a case concerning the Hyderabad Mining Company. He kept a detailed diary of his year long travels. The journal was published in London for private circulation and later translated by his friend Aziz Mirza as Gulgasht-I Firang.
When he was away, the Diwan’s opponents attacked those perceived to be his men. They began with MHK whose wife was accused of sleeping with British officers to further her husband’s career. To his credit, he did not divorce her, even though he was dismissed from service in 1893. He returned to Lucknow where he started legal practice in partnership with Sayyid Mahmud, Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s son. Born about 1852, MHK died in 1904 and was buried in Fathpur.
MHK travelled through Egypt, England, Scotland, France, Switzerland and Italy, but is best on London: “It is a mighty nation, and London is a mighty city.” One could travel for miles without getting out of it; its streets were clean and wide, and “In the centre there is often a lamp-post on which is hung a board with the inscription, ‘Keep to the left’” (p.4). He describes newspapers as if he were Darwin on the Beagle seeing strange insects for the first time. In his view, this odd creature, the newspaper is chiefly meant to pass the time. He cannot get over the thousands of people walking to and fro, in the trains, in omnibuses, in the parks, and for whose convenience wide pavements have been built. But sometimes, he says, the roads get so crowded, a pedestrian cannot cross them without the help of a policeman. Theatres, music halls, art galleries, and museums are to him evidence of how highly cultured the British are, as are the parks, where “thousands of ladies and gentlemen” can be seen every afternoon, while on Sundays swarms of “poorer people” visit them. He shows no awareness of how recent these institutions of the democratized culture were. People are proficient on bicycles, which they ride for thousands of miles on the continent, and they are not scared to weave adeptly in and out of London traffic on them. Much of this is in the well-laid out preface to his journal. The journal itself veers between detailed descriptions and stilted vagueness (“This evening I went to a place out of town; the green pastures, with small rivulets here and there, and long lanes were very romantic. In such an atmosphere the dullest of men would become a poet.” p.123). The English are wonderfully courteous, and the higher the person’s class, the more gracious their manners. He is impressed by the poise of English women and children. Always comparative in his observations, he adds that Indian Muslim women and children would benefit from similar social freedom. Showing off technology via films was used by French colonial administrators after WW I to demonstrate to subject African nations the unassailable supremacy of white nations,1 and what really impresses MHK is British science and technology, as if it existed to make him admire the British more than he already did.
He comments more than once about Muslims abroad. Lascars on the steamer out were Muslims, so were servants he met elsewhere in Africa and England. Thinking of the time when Arab Muslims were masters of the world, he is distressed by the present fallen status of Muslims, although in his letters to The Times, claiming that he spoke for all Muslims, he opposed the formation of the National Congress, thus infuriating the Indian press, whereupon he wrote another letter, in which he said, “We Mahomedans are by nature the worshippers of Royalty and aristocracy — a most barbarous feeling, you will say, but there it is” (p.172). Having been rulers of India, Mohamedans sympathize with the British because they know what it means to rule such a various people; they also acknowledge that Hindus are superior to them in intellectual education, therefore neither can rule the other. By his third letter, he was raging against “a low-class of unprincipled” Englishmen who sought to be powerful by playing one community against the other; and that, he said, was why Indians were angry with the British. Presumably, sending a better class of Englishman to India would have kept the Empire intact.
MHK admired Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who, the note tells us, did a lot to further education for Muslims, women in particular. What it does not tell us is that Blunt, poet, traveller, and politician, jailed in Dublin in 1888 for his pro-Irish protests, was grandson-in-law to Byron, who, as we all know, is virtually the originator of British travel writing. Part of the excitement of studying the newly recognized genre of travel writing is how to classify the emerging archive and its astonishing statistics, e.g., between 1600-1857, about twenty thousand Indians of many different social classes travelled to Britain, but they were mainly lascars, coolies, and nannies, who left few written records (see p.xi).
It is still a new enough discipline to see whether useful definitions come out of comparing two writers. How, for instance, does Byron’s Childe Harold differ from MHK’s kind of travel writing? Byron and MHK are constantly aware that they have been to places their readers have not. They want to educate their readers about these places. It is not just the excitement of visiting new places that they communicate but also a sense of superiority the travels create in them. Still, Byron is not really a teacher type, whereas MHK definitely is. This is probably the difference between their travel writing. Byron’s musings in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage prevent it from being purely a travelogue. At least, they restrict readership, whereas MHK’s travel brochure type of writing extends the readership in space and time. A special education wasn’t required to follow it when it was first published, and 120 years later, it doesn’t need special reading skills or footnotes as Byron’s poem does.
MHK talks about a London that had become a well-settled large city. He doesn’t have a sense of how recently things have changed. How could he? His purpose is to document it for his countrymen who have not seen it and may never do so, so he presents it like a tourist guide, and newness becomes a thing perceived by an outsider, whereas when mapmakers of 1799, and even Byron a decade or so later, mention new roads, bridges, or buildings, “new” marks the change from the old, for London was being radically rebuilt at the time. Between MHK’s and Byron’s London lies the change from the late 18th century to something close to the 20th century. 1888 is a wonderful date. A hundred years after Byron’s birth, 200 years after Alexander Pope’s, it is the year T.S.Eliot was born. The next year, 1889, several 20th century icons were born: Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, Nehru, and my grandmother. By then London was being photographed so that Byron-style details (in Don Juan, the Shooter’s Hill description) were beginning to fall out of literature to be replaced by famous impressionistic accounts, such as T.S.Eliot’s in The Wasteland. MHK’s journal is in another genre altogether, the magnificent empirical mode of the Gazetteers invented by the 19th century English bureaucrat in India.
Only the best travel literature tempts the reader into digression, and it’s a pity that really careless proofing mars this lively book, but the question is, what makes it lively? What distinguishes great travel writing from the rest? How much of its greatness is to do with readers? Do readers who carry clear visual images of places in their heads put up with a greater degree of obfuscation on the writer’s part? Are writers who interpret places and experiences better than those who do not analyse so openly although they may describe things in relation to their own country or the experience of readers they have in mind? What separates 19th century travel writing from late 20th century travel writing? Is it the greater emphasis in the 19th century on the world out there? Or is it “a certain openness to surprise, an acknowledgement of the limits of the knowingness of the witness?”2 Now there’s a theme for a TBR issue.
Reference: 1 See Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film, trans. Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Random House, 1994), 3. 2 Amitav Ghosh, Foreword to Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, ed Tabish Khair et al (Oxford: Signal Books, 2006), ix.
Shobhana Bhattacharji is Reader in English, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.