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Khan, Mirza Abu Taleb


Khan, Mirza Abu Taleb (1752-1806) is the best-known of the early Indian travel writers on the West, thanks largely to Charles Stewart's Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan (London, 1814, reprinted by Sona Publications, New Delhi, 1972), which is an English translation of the Mirza's Persian Musier Taleby fy Bulad Affrenjy ('The Travels of Taleb in the Regions of Europe'). There is also an entry on the Mirza in Elliot and Dawson's pioneering study, The History of India as Told by its Own Historians (Vol. VIII), where his full name is given as Mirza Abu Muhammad Tabrizi Isfahani. It tells us that he read thousands of historical treatises and wrote an abstract titled in Persian Lubbu-s Siyar wa Jahan-numa ('The Essence of Biographies and the World-Reflecting Mirror'). He also wrote 'several other treatises, a Biography of the Poets, ancient and modern', and a substantial amount of poetry.

Mirza Abu Taleb was born in Lucknow in 1752. His father, Haji Muhammad Beg Khan, a Turk born in Isfahan, had fled the tyranny of Nadir Shah of Persia and taken refuge in India, where he was befriended by Nawab Abul Mansur Khan Safder Jung of Oudh. On Safder Jung’s death Muhammad Beg Khan managed to escape to Bengal, where he led a respectable life till his death in 1768. Abu Taleb remained with his mother in Lucknow and was educated at the nawab’s expense. In 1766 mother and son joined Muhammad Beg Khan in Murshidabad. After the latter’s death Abu Taleb had to accept responsibility for his family. He married into the family of Nawab Muzaffer Jung and served him for several years.

On Asaf-ud-dowlah's accession to the throne of Oudh Abu Taleb was appointed an Amildar, a post that combined administrative, military and revenue functions. Forced to give up the post on the death two years later of his patron Mokhtiar-ud-dowlah, the nawab's prime minister, he became an assistant for three years to Colonel Alexander Hannay, Collector of Gorruckpur. Subsequently taking up employment again with the nawab of Oudh, he was instrumental in routing rebel zamindars led by Bulbudder Singh. But soon afterwards his fortune turned as his enemies, led by the minister Hyder Beg Khan, gained the upper hand. In 1787 he travelled to Calcutta to complain against them to Lord cornwallis. As Lord Cornwallis had to leave for the Deccan to lead the campaign against Tipu Sultan, it was four years before he could do anything for Abu Taleb. He warmly recommended Abu Taleb to Mr Cherry, Resident of Lucknow, and Nawab Asaf-ud-dowlah, both of whom received him kindly. Almost immediately, Lord Cornwallis left India, and the Resident and the nawab fell out; consequently Abu Taleb lost his chance of an appointment. He went again to Calcutta in 1795 and for three years. 'During the three years of expectation which I passed in Calcutta, all my dependents and adherents, seeing my distress, left me; and even some of my children, and the domestics brought up in my father's family, abandoned me'.

At this point came a proposal from a Scottish friend, Captain David Richardson, who was planning a trip home and invited Abu Taleb to accompany him. Richardson promised to teach him English during the voyage and to bear all his expenses.

Abu Taleb accepted the invitation, and the two friends embarked on a Danish ship on 7 February 1799. They encountered an east india company vessel that had caught fire and was abandoned. The Danish captain and his men plundered the ship and carried on, but at the Cape, where they had to stop, the law caught up with them. Abu Taleb and Richardson then took a South-sea whaler bound for London. The European nations were at war with each other, and consequently there were tense moments when they had to wait to see if an approaching ship was hostile or friendly.

The first European port of call was Cork in Ireland, where Richardson and Abu Taleb went ashore and were warmly entertained. At the house of one of their hosts Abu Taleb met Sake' (Shaikh) deen mahomed, an Indian who had settled in Cork, married and published an autobiographical work in English.

Learning that Lord Cornwallis was the King's representative in Ireland, Abu Taleb resolved to visit Dublin and call on him. On the overland journey to Dublin he was struck as much by the beauty and lushness of the countryside as he was by the poverty of the peasants, which he found to be greater than that of their Indian counterparts. He was so taken with Dublin and its citizens that he decided to linger while Richardson went on to London. One chapter of the Travels is devoted to an astute portrayal of the Irish character.

Eventually Abu Taleb reached London on 21 January 1800, and for the next two and a half years led a life devoted almost entirely to pleasure. He was very much a bon vivant and was lavishly entertained by the aristocracy, becoming something of a celebrity. As he himself sums up his life in England: 'I may perhaps be accused of personal vanity, by saying that my society was courted, and that my wit and repartees, with some impromptu applications of Oriental poetry, were the subject of conversation in the politest circles. I freely confess that during my residence in England I was so exhilarated by the coolness of the climate and so devoid of all care that I followed the advise of our immortal poet Hafiz, and gave myself up to love and gaiety'. Once, when he accepted an invitation to an entertainment at the Vauxhall Gardens, the newspapers reported 'that the Prince Abu Taleb would honour the gardens with his presence on the appointed night'. Whenever he went to Court (he was received by the king) or called on one of the Princes or a minister of state the press would report the event, invariably describing him as 'the Persian Prince'. Abu Taleb avers that he never assumed the title, 'but I was so much better known by it than by my own name, that I found it in vain to contend with my godfathers'.

Besides the nobility, Abu Taleb also cultivated the friendship of numerous personages eminent in the arts and in trade and industry. He sat for six portraits, one of which was painted by Northcote the Royal Academician, who had also painted Mirza Sheikh I, and met Debrett (of Peerage fame), Christie the auctioneer, and Wedgwood the chinaware magnate.

Much of Abu Taleb's account of England is understandably routine, aimed to give his compatriots an impression of its varied aspects. There are chapters devoted to the arts and sciences, mechanical inventions, the lifestyles of the different classes, the system of government, the East India Company, the judiciary, the financial system, the defects of character and the virtues of the English. A chapter follows these on Europe, dealing especially with England's conflict with France and another on England's overseas conquests. In the latter too, England's rivalry with France features prominently.

Abu Taleb's comparisons of east and west are likely to be of particular interest to many, as they evince a mind capable of methodical and sustained argument. Interestingly, to give just one example, he argues that appearances to the contrary, Indian women enjoyed greater freedom than Englishwomen. He also devoted a separate essay on the subject; translated into English by Captain David Richardson, it was first published in the Asiatic Annual Register of 1801, and subsequently appended to the Indian edition of Travels.

Readers will also enjoy the sections in which Abu Taleb writes in a lighter vein, for instance when he confesses to being 'by nature amorous', or describes his flirtations. Others may enjoy the samples of verse, his own as well as others', scattered in the book. Soon after reaching London Abu Taleb wrote an ode to the city; it is printed in its entirety and is remarkable for its use of the daring conceit of describing his fascination with the city to conversion to a new faith. As for the censure this may arouse, 'If the Sheikh of Mecca is displeased at our/ conversion, who caresFoodgrain' His life is now devoted to the 'British Fair'.

Instead of returning the way he had come, Abu Taleb decided to take the largely overland route through France, Italy, Turkey and present-day Iraq. He set off from London on 7 June 1802, armed with a letter of introduction from Lord Pelham, a minister in the British government, and finally arrived in Calcutta on 4 August the following year. A third of the Travels is taken up by the account of the return journey, and evince the same sharp critical powers that he showed in dealing with England. His observations in France convinced him that the French would 'never gain the superiority over the English'.

His reception in France was cordial, though; he met two famous Orientalists, M Langley and M De Sacy, and was invited to call on M Talleyrand, the Foreign Minister, and Napoleaon Bonaparte himself, but was prevented from doing so by a sudden illness. He met the Turkish sultan and presented him with a rare Arabic dictionary. It is worth noting that he points out several flaws in the Turkish people, comments on the Turkish persecution of Arab subjects, and at the same time condemns what he perceives as the extremism of the wahabi movement.

On his return to India Abu Taleb obtained an appointment as Amil of a district in Bundelkand, a position he occupied till his death in 1806. The East India Company settled a pension on his wife and family. His son Mirza Hussein Ali, who was employed at fort william college, saw the Persian edition of the Travels through the press. As scholars pay increasing attention to records of cultural interaction, the book will attain the status of a classic of its kind. [Kaiser Haq]