The Autobiography of Lutfullah, A Mohamedan Gentleman and His Transactions with His Fellow Creatures (the original title of the book when it was first published in 1857) belongs to the popular genre of travel writing in the 19th century. The Travels of Dean Mahomet from the 18th century and Abu Taleb’s account of western civilization, Mair-I Talibi fi Bilad-I Afrangi have been recognized as important early Indian perspectives on the West. These memoirs were written by travellers and adventurers with a view to acquainting readers both Indian and European with the manners, customs, prejudices, religious and other cultural practices of different peoples. While contemporary European travelogues constructed an Orientalist other, Lutfullah’s narrative is remarkably free from any marked biases. As Mushirul Hasan remarks, Lutfullah’s work explores the West ‘without celebrating it or defaming it’. His responses to both the West as well his own society are rational and largely unprejudiced with a few exceptions, notably his position on the seclusion of women. Quite obviously the book offers a perspective on contemporary debates of secularism, tradition and modernity or India and the West.
Born in 1802 in Malwa, Lutfullah’s ancestors prospered under the patronage of several rulers including Allaudin Khilji and Aurangzeb, before the Maratha conquests led to the confiscation of their lands and allowances. The son of an Islamic priest, Lutfullah’s childhood was spent in straitened circumstances. Trained in a Quranic school he learnt the Book very quickly before being entrusted to a Persian teacher and was introduced to the poetry of the renowned Persian poet Shaikh Sadi. As he sought a livelihood under different masters and travelled far and wide in the country, he learnt Arabic grammar, Marathi, Gujarati and that ‘most difficult language’, English, apart from Hindustani and Persian. He was acquainted with Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and quotes Shakespeare and several Romantic poets. His grasp of several languages enabled him greatly in getting positions both at the courts of the Marathas as well as with the English civil and army officers. In 1844 he accompanied Mir Jafar Ali Khan, the son-in-law of Nawab Afzaluddin Khan of Surat to England, to assist him in petitioning the British Government, for a period of about seven months. Their party was welcomed by the English nobility and Lutfullah’s reply to Prince Albert’s enquiry about what he liked most about England was ‘the civility of the people of high rank and station’.
Lutfullah comes across as a keen and perceptive observer of men and customs and his work is extremely valuable as a first hand account of the first half of 19th century colonial India. Firmly rooted in his own community and culture, he begins by regarding the English as oddities (‘their jargon sounded harsh and wild’, their tight dresses ‘without any skirt to screen such parts as the lay of modesty has taught man to conceal’). However he soon begins to appreciate them for their governance which he considered superior to what was practised in the independent states. His commitment to his own traditions does not make him reject Enlightenment values of justice and fair play.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this narrative is the perspective on Hindu-Muslim relations during this period. There is little evidence of any animosity between the two communities. He mentions the presence of Hindus at Khwaja Sahab’s dargah at Ajmer, the numerous Hindu and Muslim followers of Sufi saints as well as belief in astrology among Muslims. It is only after ‘A lucky hour having been fixed by our astrologers for the departure’ that Mir Jafar Khan sets off from Surat to Bombay en route to England. Rescued by the brahmin priest Rajaram from certain death, Lutfullah is in a quandary when the former asks him to ‘make a prostration’ to his deity, Mahadeva. But he reconciles himself by touching the ground with his head, while simultaneously ‘bending my [his] little mind to the Almighty, the only God…’. Lutfullah recalls how he became a ‘good Muslim’ thereafter; yet the incident did raise doubts about all religions, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. He is critical of sati and infanticide which he sees as a violation of the pure and sublime principles of Hinduism. Equally he laments the practice of circumcision among Muslims, a practice not sanctioned by the Koran as well as the lax observance of Islamic duties which are mandatory among many Muslims. Lutfullah’s rational inclination leads to a fascinating exchange with his orthodox Muslim companions when on the voyage to England he observes that Kaba now lay to the East, according to the mariner’s compass. Ridiculing him for ‘too much reading in English books’, they wonder how it was possible that ‘Kaba, the most sacred house of God, which is the centre of the universe, should change its position!’. Lutfullah attempts to convince them by pointing out that even the Arab pilot of the ship faces East when offering his prayers, but it is all in vain!
In his range of interests and the depth of his understanding, Lutfullah was an outstanding individual for his times. His largely balanced and rational perspective during colonial times, the equal terms on which he engaged with the English and his introspective critiques of his own society holds many lessons for us today at a time when binary polarities, ‘us and them’, ‘India and the West’, Islam and Christianity/ Enlightenment values/ Hinduism, begin to entrench themselves. Additionally the book is a valuable addition to existing historical sources in English of this period.
Bodh Prakash, teaches in the Department of English, Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi. His research interest is Modern Indian Literature.