A translation of Syed Mujtaba Ali’s account of the Afghan milieu in Deshe Bideshe is timely and relevant, but trips on its omissions
During his visit to India in April this year, Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani acknowledged a cultural debt to India. He mentioned Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala—a short story about the unlikely friendship between Rahmat, an Afghan fruit-seller selling his wares in Calcutta and Mini, a five-year-old Bengali girl– as having contributed more to building a brand about his country than any advertisement could ever buy. In the light of that comment, a translation of Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Deshe Bideshe, a work of Bengali narrative non-fiction first published in 1948, could not have arrived at a more pertinent time. Called In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, the book is a vivid, sparkling account of Ali’s experiences in Afghanistan during a teaching stint there from 1927 to 1929, a period which saw the Afghan ruler King Amanullah introduce some well-meaning but patchy socio-economic reforms, leading up to the tribal coup that ousted him and led to his exile.
Before we start discussing the translation, a word about Ali though. Born in Sylhet in what is now Bangladesh, Ali (1904-1974) quit his schooling at a local British-run government school and travelled to Shantiniketan, where Tagore had set up Visva Bharati University. Immersed in the value system of this novel education hub, Ali became quite like his mentor, his vision humanist and international, his intellect and scholarship a fine mesh of Hindu, Islamic and European thoughts and traditions. An exhaustive note, provided by the translator Nazes Afroz at the beginning of the book, traces Ali’s career after the Kabul period, from his doctorate at Germany’s Bonn University to post-doc studies at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, and the numerous jobs he held, from heading bureaus for All India Radio to settling down as an academic at his alma mater Visva Bharati. A polyglot who had mastered 12 languages, Ali was also a champion of the language movement in (then) East Pakistan from 1947 onwards, arguing against the imposition of Urdu on a Bengali-speaking population.
Laced with cerebral humour and acute, detailed observations, Deshe Bideshe, in its original form, is a captivating read. Whether evoking the harsh, unforgiving landscape as one journeys along the Khyber Pass or a tranquil afternoon spent among the company of friends in the verdant Nimla Gardens in Kabul, Ali’s language is flamboyant yet poetic. The antics of his servant, the gigantic Abdur Rahman, in the act of serving an elaborate meal or polishing shoes, provides the bulk of the comic fodder that brings the narrative alive. Because his social interactions are diverse, from local weddings to foreign embassy gatherings to bazaar gossip, Ali’s understanding of the Afghan milieu strikes the reader as honest and accurate. What puzzles him is the increasingly frayed connection between India and Afghanistan, despite centuries of shared history and cultural heritage. Chastising the proponents of “Greater India” who keep harping on Indian influences among the ruins of Borobudur, Ali remarks, “Dead Borobudur came to be part of our family, but this very much alive Indian settlement had been relegated to the status of an outcast”.
There is no dispute about the timeliness of the book, since much of the problems that plagued Afghanistan nearly a century ago—a vantage geostrategic location, fiercely independent tribes, and unsuitability for imported notions of modernity—remain relevant today. Translating Syed Mujtaba Ali is quite a task, given the late author’s propensity to play around with his linguistic skills, importing words and phrases from other languages to create new images and metaphors. Afroz’s translation is bare-bones and literal, and while faithful to the spirit of the original, loses some of the charm on the way. Yet, there are certain editorial liberties taken that seem to defy any sense of logic.
While talking about the eventual defeat of the Hindu Shahi rulers of Afghanistan, Ali mentions that the remaining history of the last Hindu rulers of Afghanistan could be traced to Kashmir, with Kalhana’s Rajtarangini bearing their description. Afroz’s translation omits any reference to Kalhana or his work. Elsewhere, in a discussion of Tajik music in chapter 17, a reference to the Vaishnava Padavali, a collection of medieval Bengali poetry focused on the Radha-Krishna legend, is omitted, to be replaced by a vague-sounding “the greatest of love songs and poetries of the world of all ages”. Such discrepancies may not mar the overall texture of the translation but they leave an odd aftertaste in the mouth.