IT WAS in 1948 that Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Deshe Bideshe (Home and Abroad) was first published. And even after these six-and-a-half decades, it remains one of the most popular books in Bengali. In Deshe Bideshe, Ali recounts his time in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he held a teaching position from 1927 to 1929. The book is widely acknowledged as one of the first travelogues written in modern India. So it is indeed a treat for non-Bengali readers that Deshe Bideshe has been translated into English. Titled In a Land Far from Home, former BBC journalist Nazes Afroz lets no turn of phrase, no pithy line penned by Ali slip through his near-perfect translation.
In a Land Far from Home is not a book that grabs you from the start itself. Ali keeps oscillating between turning his writer’s eye inwards and outwards almost rhythmically. So it reads more like a soliloquy peppered with welcome distractions in the shape of intermittent conversations with the people the author comes across during his travel to
and stay in Afghanistan. And through liberal doses of puns, cheeky repartees and colourful remarks, Ali builds a tempo that keeps you turning the pages.
Humour is plentiful in the author’s reminiscences. In fact, in the first chapter itself—train-bound to Peshawar (now in Pakistan)—he finds himself in the company of an Anglo-Indian man. After a cautious yet polite breaking of the ice between the two, there comes the time when they must eat. Ali’s fellow traveller brings out a huge basket of what he has been told by his fiancée is a home-cooked meal. The man notes, part in jest and part in pride, that his partner had cooked enough to feed an army. Ali, however, is taken aback to find that the home-cooked meal, dish per dish, is exactly the same as his own food that he had got packed at a hotel in Zakaria Street for the journey. He finds that the two meals taste the same as well. Ali writes that he vaguely remembers a ‘chubby Anglo Indian’ girl ordering everything that was available when he was buying his food. He almost asks this amiable fellow traveller of his for a description of his fiancée, but reins in his curiosity, noting that the man “kept looking out of the window pensively” as they ate and later retired with what the reader may assume was liquor, drinking it straight out of the bottle.
The delectably wicked humour aside, In a Land Far from Home is as much about Afghanistan as it is about Ali. It presents, in wholesome detail, Kabul of the 1920s. The author, young and idealistic then, peels apart the layers of the city through his conversations with a cross-section of its population. He adds his own footnotes to the city, as it becomes the epicentre of the churn that marked those years. With his keen sense of history, Ali has left the readers with powerful insights into the turmoil in the newly independent nation (King Amanullah had defeated the British in 1919 and had declared independence).
By the autumn of 1928, Bacha-e-Saqao, a Tajik brigand, had channelled the resentment of the dogmatic tribal heads against King Amanullah’s vision to modernise Afghanistan. Amanullah had opened up education for women and struck at the religion-imposed dress codes for them. As Amanullah is forced to flee Kabul after Bacha’s victorious forces parade in the streets of the city, Ali, in a rather uncharacteristically sombre fashion, talks of Amanullah’s elephant. The creature, maladjusted to the icy Afghan winters and poorly fed (with its likely diet unavailable in the country), walks in agony around the city, as Bacha’s followers decide to ride it one day on a whim. Ali notes that Amanullah had brought it from Tripura (neighbouring the author’s own native Sylhet in modern-day Bangladesh). When he talks of the elephant’s agony, is the author making it a metaphor for his own self? Or is it a lamentation of Afghanistan’s lost chance at modernity, a concept Amanullah lifted from Europe during his stay there and brought
to his country? Whatever it is, Ali leaves Afghanistan soon after Bacha’s ascension.