Good and bad old Uvudh

February 3, 2019

'Sair-e-Mulk-e Uvudh', a mauscript by Yusuf Khan unearthed by Najeeba Arif

Good and bad old Uvudh

During a visit to England on a research fellowship, Najeeba Arif, while rooting around in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, for old manuscripts, which were in a sense ignored, chanced upon a book of travel or reminiscence, both appellations relevant, by Yusuf Khan Kambal Posh. It was a surprising find.

Yusuf Khan was presumably the first traveller who not only visited England and some other countries in 1837-38 but also wrote in Urdu an account of his journey. I say presumably because so many Urdu manuscripts belonging to the 18th and 19th centuries have been lost or lie uncared for or undiscovered in private collections that nothing can be assumed with certainty. Perhaps we should wait for a few more decades and by then this neglected heritage will be completely destroyed to no one’s regret.

Little is known about Yusuf Khan. We don’t know where and when he was born or where he died. He passed away in 1861. He originally belonged to Hyderabad, Deccan and apparently was one of those restless souls who never stick to a place and are possessed by an interminable wanderlust. Soldiering was the profession he preferred and was most likely a mercenary.

His sole claim to fame so far has been his travelogue which can be termed quite entertaining. He was a free agent and apparently a likeable person. No one knew that he had written anything else. Now Najeeba Arif, much to her credit, has unearthed another book by him. In general, most of our literary researchers who go abroad come back empty-handed. The only exceptions must be Moinuddeen Aqeel and M. Ikram Chaghatai.

The manuscript has the look of a draft. Yusuf Khan may have intended to revise it. It has no title either. Najeeba Arif has dubbed it Sair-e-Mulk-e Uvudh (A travel through the State of Uvudh). With the recommendation of an English officer, Yusuf Khan had enlisted in the Uvudh army and was designated a subedar (a rank corresponding to a captain). He also saw some action which he mentions. The action was not against another state but only aimed at routing a well-fortified and headstrong band of brigands.

The book can be easily divided into two parts. The first is an account of what he saw in the countryside. The second is about the reception of the British Governor-General by Wajid Ali Shah. We see Kanpur, already a British cantonment, and Lucknow in all their pomp and glory. The details are exhaustive. It can be inferred that Yusuf Khan must have made copious notes. No one can recall so much so minutely unless blessed with photographic memory.

In the first part he paints a dismal picture of the countryside where, as he sees it, lawlessness, crime, extreme poverty and depredations of the state sepoys are rife. Was it actually so bad? It should be noted that towards the end of his published book, when he is back in India, he feels disgusted with what he sees around him. The early portion of the manuscript seems to be a carryover from his first book. The old axiom that you see only what you wish to see appears to be true.

Appalling as the crimes and destitution appear to us it should be remembered that things, equally unsavoury, are reported from Pakistan every day by the media, or for that matter from everywhere in the world. It must be said, without minimising the misdeeds, that there is a viciousness in human nature which will never go away.

Or maybe it was one of those years in which the vagaries of weather ensured a crop failure. Famines drive people to desperation. For instance, in Western Europe, in 1784 and 1785, a cold summer followed a big volcanic eruption in Iceland. The result was a long drought in France. All that mattered was grain. The soldiers raided the countryside and emptied granaries. Rural crimes rose as bands of desperadoes robbed the farmers. Large convoys needed military escorts. No need to castigate anyone if things were no better fifty years later in Uvudh.

Najeeba expresses some surprise at the contrast, so blatantly apparent, between the impoverished countryside and the buoyant affluence of Kanpur and Lucknow. The fact is that, despite all the indifferent governance, Uvudh was one of the richest places in India. The prime reason why the British seized it. In any case, the wealth of a province or a state invariably gravitates to the big cities.

However, she is right when she runs Yusuf Khan down for going into raptures about the welcoming processions, parades and pageants, completely forgetting the miseries that made such ostentation possible. Yusuf Khan, not a keen observer, is easily overawed by outward show. He never saw or didn’t care to see the seamier side of life in England and Europe. To put it bluntly, he was not perceptive enough to see through the façade.

Najeeba has edited the manuscript carefully, with a good introduction and a requisite glossary. In addition, there is a facsimile presentation, on a small scale, of the entire manuscript. It was not called for. Rather courageous on her part to include it. Manuscripts belonging to the 19th century are often not easy to decipher. It is a devil of a job to read them correctly. Barring a few errors here and there Najeeba has negotiated it successfully. I once saw an old prose romance in Urdu, probably written in 1810 or thereabouts, edited by a professor and riddled with errors. Some were so elementary that I could have corrected half of those misreadings without having a recourse to the manuscript. Funnily enough, the book was published by Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, Karachi.

To be fair, these old manuscripts, perhaps quite intelligible in days gone by, tax our ingenuity way too much. One reason perhaps why that, although there are thousands of Urdu and Persian manuscripts in India which need to be edited and published, nobody is willing to undertake the task. The scholars are scared at the possibility that they might make a hash of it. The fear is not unfounded. I have often insisted, to no avail, that instead of waiting for some scholars to turn up, who are both keen and capable, to make sense of what’s there -- fat chance of their turning up -- the only option left is to reproduce them as facsimiles. It is the easiest way to save them. The game is not worth the candle. Only devious ways please us.

Sair-e-Mulk-e Uvudh has been published by Pakistan Writers Cooperative Society, Lahore.

Good and bad old Uvudh