15 June 2015
A Bengali cult classic gets a new lease of life in translation.
Afghanistan of the 1920s suddenly comes alive. Inns teem with seasoned traders and resonate with the din of foreign languages. Poetry sessions in Farsi induce raptures. The colours of a decade, long past, startle in their luminousness and vivid scenes surprise with characters that seem to breathe.
Though Bengali readers have long been acquainted with these descriptions it is only now that Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Deshe Bideshe, serialised in the Bengali magazine Desh in 1948 and published in book form the same year, has become available to a wider public.
In a Land far From Home – A Bengali in Afghanistan, an English translation of the book by former BBC journalist Nazes Afroz was published by Speaking Tiger Books in April, 2015. Afroz is a former senior editor and manager of BBC World Service for the regions of Central and Southasia. He writes regularly on Afghanistan and is a frequent visitor to the country. Afroz’s work is the first authoritative translation of Deshe Bideshe. A prior translation was done by Sasahbindu Chakraborty in 2005, but was self-published and remains largely unknown.
The book gives rare glimpses of Afghanistan through an eyewitness account of the key happenings in the country from 1927 to 1929, including the modernising efforts of King Amanullah and the invasion of Kabul by the Tajik invader Bacha-e-Saqao.
Fears of British censorship meant that it was not possible for Mujtaba Ali to write or publish such a work in the 1920s. “He picked up fascinating nuggets about Afghan lives and history, and kept on distilling them for almost twenty years as he grew in experience and knowledge, to eventually produce a classic like Deshe Bideshe,” writes Afroz, in the detailed introduction to the book. Though the book enjoys cult status in Bengali, it is virtually unknown in other languages. Afroz says, “I trace the origins of my interest in Afghanistan to Deshe Bideshe. I used to narrate stories from the book to my Afghan friends. People asked for English or Farsi translations. When they learnt there was none, I was urged to translate the book.”
The book drew attention because of Mujtaba Ali’s unique Bengali prose, which combined a conversational tone packed with cross-cultural observations, which were often very amusing. Mujtaba Ali was a polyglot and knew nearly a dozen foreign languages such as Pashto, German, French, Russian, Arabic and Farsi. He was also well-travelled and had lived in Afghanistan, Egypt and Germany and all this is reflected in his writing. Unforgettable characters such as Abdur Rahman, Dost Muhammad and his dialogues with people from different walks of life and nationalities have ensured that the book endures.
A Bengali in Afghanistan
Mujtaba Ali’s portrayal of 1920s is of a society with remarkably few class barriers:
The eight rich traders could have… spent a few thousand rupees in food and drink as well as gambling. Their servants would be there at their beck and call… Instead, they did not sit in a silo, creating their own coterie. The rich and the poor from the same caravan already knew each other. After getting some rest, they sat down to enquire about one another. In no time at all, they were engaged in easy banter. The difference between rich and poor was visible only in their clothing, but not in the way they were conversing with each other.
However, as Afroz notes, the role of tribal hierarchies in Afghan politics and society was important and he points out that some tribes, such as the Durranis, were more dominant. Mujtaba Ali also mentions the powerful Afridis, living on the border with Pakistan. “But tribal hierarchies do not operate like a caste system; people of different tribes visited each other socially,” he adds.
Deshe Bideshe provides interesting depictions of the Pathan people, their passion for story-telling, legendary hospitality, fierce resistance to the British and sense of independence: “In our country, cars moved in a straight line and people made way for the cars. But in Pathan-land, people walked as they liked and cars had to find their own way… A Pathan never made way for anybody. He was ‘independent’”.
While making a range of observations about Afghan life and society, Mujtaba Ali often contrasts it with the mores and mannerisms of the Calcutta Bengalis. Unfailingly humorous, these comments elicit more than a wry smile and do justice to the translation’s sub-title – ‘a Bengali in Afghanistan’. “You did not have to come to Kabul to discover that everyone would eat a plenty of food at an Afghan wedding. But the lesson was that they did not have the habit of wasting food like the ‘civilised Bengalis’”.
Afroz remarks, “Have you ever heard of a Bengali who went to Afghanistan and then wrote about it? The working title was ‘Home and Abroad’, a literal translation of the title ‘Deshe Bideshe’. The publishers and I were thinking of using an additional line such as ‘an Afghan journey’ – but there have been so many journeys through Afghanistan! So I thought the line ‘A Bengali in Afghanistan’ would be apt.”
A bitter critic of British colonial rule in India, Mujtaba Ali studied in Rabindranath Tagore’s alternative education enterprise Visva-Bharati because it was not managed or recognised by the British. Deshe Bideshe vividly portrays his anger and humiliation over colonial rule. In the aftermath of the invasion and looting of Kabul by Bacha-e-Saqao towards the end of 1928, various foreign legations were arranging for their nationals to be flown out of Afghanistan. Mujtaba Ali discusses the situation with an Indian friend:
Everyone – the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Turkish, the Iranians, and even the Italians are taking shelter in their respective legations. Only you and I have no place to go to… Both of us agreed that the humiliation of a colonised country could not be felt fully until you went abroad.
Mujtaba Ali describes an encounter with Sir Francis Humphrys, the minister of the British legation in Afghanistan. The latter observes that it is not the responsibility of the British legation to look after the Indians; dismisses the rights of Indians and says he might be able to do something, but only as a favour. Mujtaba Ali retorts: “The aeroplanes have been bought with the money from India, the pilots get their salary from its coffers, the aerodrome in Peshawar is India’s property – in this situation we have no right?”
Later, he learnt that his name had been struck off from a list of Indians to be evacuated following the invasion.
‘The Great Game’
Indians had already started going to Afghanistan before Mujtaba Ali’s arrival in 1927. Afroz says: “The first Indians who arrived in Afghanistan were Sikhs and Hindus, possibly with Ahmad Shah Abdali, and controlled business and banking. The second category was the Muslims who left India in 1921 because they did not want to live in a country governed by the British, who had abolished the Caliphate in Turkey. There was a third category of a few hundred teachers like Mujtaba Ali.”
Mujtaba Ali was aware of these historical links, and therefore disappointed with the lack of Indian interest and writing on Afghanistan. He observed:
Some scholars in India had been sifting through the material from this country – through the lives of Mahmud or Babur – to write the history of the Pathan-Turk-Mughal era. But not a single Indian historian had yet travelled to Kabul, Hindukush, Badakshan, Balkh, Maimana or Herat to trace Babur’s life. They were not interested in writing the history of Afghanistan. Yet there was hardly any doubt that you could not complete India’s history without linking it with the history of Afghanistan.
Afroz claims that the lack of interest in Afghanistan on India’s part persists even today. “Mujtaba Ali felt this in the 1920s and it holds true even now. If the Taliban had not blasted the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, we would not have known about the imprint of Buddhism in Afghanistan,” he says.
Since Afghanistan was located on the Silk Route, it attracted people from all over the world. Mujtaba Ali wrote that people of at least 25 nationalities came to trade in Kabul’s bazaar. Afroz explains: “Afghanistan was located at strategic geographic crossroads between Europe, South Asia and West Asia and has been an important trade route since the time of Alexander. India was a major reason why the main powers established base in Afghanistan, and because of which the latter had to face invasions by Alexander, the Mongols, the Huns and the Sakas.”
One of the major conflicts that were unfolding in Afghanistan was the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain with India as the prize. The showdown of strength between Tsarist Russia and imperial Britain happened in Afghanistan as it was perceived to be the no man’s land that had to be crossed in order to reach India.
Though Mujtaba Ali does not use the phrase ‘Great Game’ in his book, he mentions a reference from an Afghan military officer:
I hear that Kabul is full of new green grass. But there is the British ram on this side and the Russian goat on the other. Both will overgraze the hills of Kabul if they get an opportunity… if the goat acts funny, the ram bleats to alert the whole world that the goat not only wants to overrun Afghanistan but the rice fields of India, China and Iran too.
Amanullah’s modernising reforms
Mujtaba Ali also documents the dynamics of internal political changes. Afghanistan, a British protectorate from 1881, became independent under King Amanullah in 1919. Amanullah’s rule is credited with initiating the first modernising reforms in Afghanistan, which Mujtaba Ali personally witnessed.
Amanullah had been to Turkey and was greatly impressed by the reforms undertaken by its ruler Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In his turn, Ataturk had been influenced by Europe. Since Turkey was a Muslim majority state, Amanullah felt he could apply Turkey’s experiences to Afghanistan. Like Ataturk, who banned the traditional fez topi in Turkey, Amanullah too banned the traditional Afghan shalwar and insisted that all men wear the dereshi (derived from the English word ‘dress’) – hat, tie and trousers.
He also strove to diminish the influence of religious leaders in the Afghan military. Mujtaba Ali ponders over and reacts to these reforms. On the law enforcing dereshi, he writes:
I was incapable of describing the dereshis worn by the people on the streets. Kabul city teemed with men wearing all manner of torn, dirty, oversized and small jackets, trousers, plus-fours and breeches… the Europeans were out to see the fun. I was so ashamed to witness that; I had never considered Afghanistan a foreign country.
The new policies for women and the myriad reactions to them were also captured by the writer with poignancy. Amanullah established schools for girls and sent them to study medicine in Turkey. In Kabul, about 2000 girls had started attending schools wearing the burqa where they even started playing basketball and volleyball. Mujtaba Ali’s friend Saiful Alam remarks: “I don’t mind if they don’t learn anything; at least they have come out of the closed confines of the harem into the open air and are running around joyfully. Isn’t that enough?”
Amanullah’s wife, Queen Soraya, was the driving force behind the education of girls in Afghanistan. King Amanullah’s mother is also described as a strong character who helped him come to power through her machinations. However, many women in Kabul chose to stay behind the veil.
When Amanullah gave Afghan women the choice to leave the burqa, Mir Aslam, another friend of Mujtaba Ali, recounts a conversation with his wife: “I told my wife, ‘This is your chance to go out with kohl in your eyes and make a round of the streets of Kabul without the veil.’ But brother, you wouldn’t believe it! She threw the big metal pot at me.”
In response, Mujtaba Ali says: “Amanullah has done the right thing by cutting the shackles. A wife is to be tied down with love and heart.”
His friend counters: “The purpose of the heart and love is a matter for the youth. Can a sixty-year-old tie a sixteen-year-old with his love and his heart? For them there’s only the nikahnamah the burqa and the tail of the turban.”
Afroz observes, “What Mujtaba Ali does not mention is that Amanullah wrote a constitution for Afghanistan in 1923. It was an eight-page written document and is considered one of the best written constitutions. It provided for equal rights for minorities and women. Education was mentioned as a fundamental right.”
When Bacha-e-Saqao invaded Kabul, the religious leaders saw their opportunity, denounced Amanullah as ‘kafir’ and gave Bacha the crown. In Deshe Bideshe, Mujtaba Ali voices doubts about the part played by the British in the insurrection against Amanullah. He also points out that when Bacha-e-Saqao and his men attacked Kabul the British legation was left unharmed. Intrigued by similar other observations, Afroz explored the matter further. As a part of his research, Afroz accessed the telegrams sent by Humphrys in Kabul to Whitehall and noted that the British were evidently unhappy with King Amanullah getting close to the newly-formed USSR and accepting military assistance from them.
In the telegram sent on 14 January 1929 to London where Humphrys writes: “I am taking special precaution tonight. The Hazrat Sahib of Shor Bazaar and Muhammad Usman Khan, ex-Governor of Kandahar… have sent me a message that they will remain to protect us against chance thieves on a night when excesses may be expected.”
This leads Afroz to the logical question: why would the rebels take personal charge to save the British legation, who were the sworn enemies of the Afghans just a decade before.
This and other telegrams, coupled with Mujtaba Ali’s doubts about Bacha-e-Saqao’s easy entry into Kabul, make Afroz conclude: “It only deepens the doubt of a possible British role in the rebellion through some of the important religious leaders who were instrumental in inciting the tribes against King Amanullah.”
Besides unravelling history, one more challenge for Afroz was to retain Mujtaba Ali’s linguistic style and keep the wit intact during the translation. Retaining the Afghan and Bengali flavours too proved to be quite a task.
In a writing career spanning almost a quarter of a century, Mujtaba Ali wrote novels and short stories till his death in 1974. His works continue to be widely read and translated. Even as In a Land far From Home – A Bengali in Afghanistan has been published, a collection of his short stories titled Chacha Kahini, based on his time in Germany, is in the process of being translated. While translations of his ramya rachana (anecdotal story-telling) are bound to attract book-lovers, academics and researchers stand to benefit from them too.
~Urvashi Sarkar is a freelance journalist and currently works in the development sector. She can be found on Twitter @storyandworse