After praises to God and the Prophet here is some good news for the voyagers of endless oceans and wonders of the world, and explorers of desolate and magnificent destinations of deserts and mountains that, in these delightful times… a work known as Tarikh-i-Yusufi is written by a traveller to cities and nations, an honest and truthful narrator, an enthusiastic prose writer named Yusuf Khan Kambalposh … its second edition reaches its keen audience in the month of February 1898 (AH 1315 in the holy month of Ramadan), from the esteemed Munshi Naval Kishore Press under the generosity of its owner, courageous Munshi Parag Narain Sahib. May his steem remain forever!
The ‘Publisher’s Note’ at the end of the second edition of the Naval Kishore Press production of Tarikhi-Yusufi attests to the essentially non-parochial character of this iconic Lucknow-based Indian publishing house run by a Hindu proprietor. The invocation of God and the Prophet to start with and the acknowledgement, a little later, of the sacred auspices of Ramadan under which the book was being issued also testify to the syncretic character of the reading public which the publisher was addressing. A similar syncretism, or perhaps even a far-sighted cosmopolitan outlook, reveals itself, time and time again, through the narrative of the travelogue by Yusuf Khan who, from a very early age, was possessed by a desire ‘to go around the world, especially England, the only country of its kind.’
At the heart of his wanderlust, of course, is the dream of going to England, so much is his veneration of the English people and their ways. It is not surprising therefore that his description of the country, and its inhabitants, after he arrives there, always borders on the hyperbolic. For example,
… I wondered whether I was in the kingdom of London or had way laid into paristan (fairy land) …
London is an extraordinary city—garden-like, a treasure house of wisdom…
Similarly, he is totally overwhelmed by the sight of Queen Victoria and her mother when the two pass by him in a procession through the streets of London: Her highness Queen Victoria was accompanied by her esteemed mother, the two together looking like the shining moon and the radiant sun. About 18, she is an embodiment of beauty, modesty and purity… When the chariot came closer, I caught a glimpse of the resplendent face. It exuded divinity. I profoundly bowed to her. She gave me a benign look and smiled. Her mother also looked at me. I was extremely elated and kept praying for her; may her empire never decline, may it forever grow and excel!
Does this not make Yusuf Khan a craven worshipper of the British Empire, besides being an out-and-out Anglophile? Strangely not, for almost in the same breath with which he utters the panegyrics, he says, The British in India are a different lot. Their countrymen in England are very different. Dust has nothing to do with the pure world.
What is clearly missing in his discourse on Britain is a strain of critical discrimination between the individual Britishers whom he encounters during his visit and the institution of the British Empire.
However, there are other occasions and reasons on the basis of which he indicts the customs of the Britons, showing thereby an ability to distinguish between the positive and the negative aspects of their culture. In the course of a discussion on religion with a Christian priest, he staunchly defends both Islam and Hinduism, and accuses the followers of Christianity of being unable to live up to its noble tenets: … Christianity is itself a better religion compared to many others. But Christians do not follow its tenets. It is not for Christians to reform others before they have guided their own people to the right path. When these people would follow their own religion, others too would follow them and adopt the right path suggested by the pastors. How can someone preach to others what he does not practice? It is like someone drinking wine, but not letting his son do the same. Why at all would the son listen and stop drinking?
In this context, he upholds the conduct of Indian immigrants in London who, he argues, are ever ready to deprive themselves of pleasures so that they might save money to send to their parents back home in India.
By contrast, he maintains, the British youth …ignore their parents, though they have the resources and the ability to take care of them. They live happily with their beautiful spouses and have absolutely nothing to do with their parents.
His defence of the various rites and rituals of Hinduism and Islam is context-specific and displays an intuitive understanding of the sociology of religious practices. It is because of this perhaps that he refrains from religious dogmatism, and can interrogate some of the time-worn practices of the so-called Indian faiths. In fact, he is often much more scathing about Islamic norms than those of the Hindus. Most notable here is his diatribe against the strictures on Muslim women to don the veil in public spaces.
… Every man thinks this confinment behind the veil is a sign of purity. Actually, this is to prevent women from acquiring knowledge and skills. In my opinion, it is wrong to think that the veil is a sign of honour. If a woman is chaste and modest by nature, her honour will remain intact even if she sits among thousands of men. And an immodest woman, however confined she might be, will not stay away from committing immoral acts.
Yusuf Khan’s laudable concern for gender justice is not matched by a correspondingly egalitarian attitude in the arena of race equations. Quite in keeping with his by-andlarge obsequious stance towards those of Caucasian stock, he reveals an attitude of unadulterated contempt for those whom he categorizes as Abyssinian. His racism is of a piece with his transparent adulation of the master race within whose ranks he would definitely count the citizens of Britain to be most preeminent.
All in all, therefore, Yusuf Khan is a complex person—a British subject who, in the high noon of the Empire, is not in the least interested in challenging his subjection. For him, indeed, it is the kindness of providence that he should have been born under imperialism’s beneficent power, but because his heart is in the right place, his dissatisfaction with how the Queen’s men discharge their duties in the colonies makes itself manifest repeatedly in his narrative. For e.g.: … I was going around the hotel building when the Nile boatman came and asked for his reward. Hill Sahib abused him, beat him up and did not give him a single penny. I felt sad, but did not want to pick up a quarrel over a boatman. Some cruel and stone-hearted British go to Arabia and Hindustan and torment its people for no reason. As for the masses they continue to serve them fearing the King of England. They could not terrorize people like this in Britain. If Hill Sahib had beaten up a boatman in England, he would have been punched in his face, and would have ended up with broken teeth. But here people don’t have the courage to fight back.
Such curious sparks of anti-colonial sentiment too reside in the interstices of Yusuf Khan’s predominantly pro-colonial text.
Tapan Basu is Professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi.