Saturday, December 24, 2005

Baron Charles Hügel's travels through Kashmir and the Punjab

Nothing seems so unaccountable to the traveller from far distant lands, after a brief sojourn in a place where he looked for nothing but the wild adventures which crowded his waking dreams, as his own want of surpise at surrounding things: he discovers here, as everywhere, that in the manners of all nations there is a certain harmonious congruity which,inspite of national principles, is founded on the same universal laws of nature.

So wrote Baron Hügel in Travels through Kashmir and the Panjab (John Petherham, London, 1845) as he journeyed through North India in the 1830s. The book, needless to add has been out of print for more than a century, its printers Harrison and Co. of London, long reduced to subjects of historical curiosity for their role in promoting the novel in its printed form in England!!!

The Baron's travel diaries, originally in German, were translated by a Major T.B. Jervis, F.R.S. "under the patronage of the Honourable, the Court of Directors' of the East India Company" and published in 1844-5. The narrative begins on 6th October 1835 in Simla as the Baron receives from Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the perwana or royal mandate addressed to the governors of the provinces through which the Baron's travel route would take him.

The perwana was no ordinary travel document. In the baron's own words "this perwana is of as much, or more importance in India than our passports in Europe; for whereas our passports only give permission to travel through the state which grants it, a perwana commands the governors of every place to furnish the traveller with bearers, beasts, provisions, and, in fact everything he may stand in need of."

This list would be endless if Baron Hügel's entourage of thirty seven servants, sixty bearers, and seven beasts was any indication. There was a Hindu Sirdar-bearer or a personal attendant, a Musselman Khidmatgar or manservant, and a Masalchi or torch bearer, a Munshi or clerk, an interpreter, a bawarchi or cook with two assistants, a Hookahburder or pipe attendant, an Abdar or water carrier, a Durzee or tailor, a Chobdar or herald, two chaprasis or messengers with his name engraved on their breastplates (in Hindustani and Persian), two shikaris or hunstmen, two Paharis or mountaineers, two gardeners, two tent bearers and numerous other servants and attendants. They carried with them tents, preserved meats in tin boxes, wines and drinks, preserved fruits and sweetmeats and hookah.

The entire company traveled through Punjab crossing the Sutlej and across the plains of the Beas, and then into Kashmir by way of the old capital Ventipoor and thence on to Lahore. A map with the Baron's route traced out accompanies the narrative. They encountered rajas (kings), thanadars (local governors) and fakirs (medicants), female dancers and village folk. Charles Hügel's inexhaustible spirit and wanderlust together makes the narrative come alive. He chronicles in detail, the weather, the temperature, indeed every geographical aspect, in addition to the events around and about him. His delight, amusement, curiosity never cease; his eye for detail for the local traditions, customs and events remains vigilant.

The women of Panjab are celebrated, and not undeservedly, for the beauty of their shape, their feet and their teeth. To-day, when I came to the place where my tent should have been already pitched, I found nothing done, and on looking narrowly for the Kalasi, I spied him, in some bushes near, engaged in an very animated discourse with one of these fair ones.

And elsewhere:

As they pitched my tent close to a tank, I had again an opportunity of seeing a large assemblage of females taking their baths. Their costume here differs from that of the women in the Sikh districts of the left shores of the Sutlej; younger ones all wear blue trousers, which fit very close to the leg below the knee, while from the calf to the ankle they fall in numerous folds; over this they wear an ample petticoat, and above, a white cloth hangs down behind, fluttering in the wind.

Says Hügel of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, "In person he is short and mean looking, and had he not distinguished himself by his talents, he would be passed by without being thought worthy of observation. Without exaggeration, I must call him the most ugly and unprepossessing man I saw throughout Panjab. His left eye, which is quite closed, disfigures him less than the other which is always rolling about, wide open, and is much distorted by disease."

These and other descriptions of the Maharaja's zenana, the dancing girls, and of the Hindu and Sikh temples and depictions of life in Lahore and Amritsar, give a glimpse of life in the Northern provinces of India in 18th century. Although he does touch upon the political climate, the rule of the East India Company or Company bahadur and the princely states under British suzerainty, his experiences during his travels and his frank, sincere observations of royal and rural life in India is what form the bulk of this fascinating read.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Of Afghans, Begums, White Mughals and Women travelers on Their Own

The great poet Robert Frost had once said "I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Two women who took the road less traveled by were Fanny Parkes and Rosetta Forbes.

Forbes, an Englishwoman, made travel history when, in 1935, traveling alone and using every conceivable means of transportation, she made it from Peshawar to Samarkand and beyond. In Forbidden Road: Kabul to Samarkand -- The Classic 1930s Account of Afghan Travel (The Long Riders' Guild Press 2001) she documents the trials and tribulations of her journey through the hills and rocky terrain of Afghanistan and Russia.
Here's a sampler
To travel with Afghans is a pleasure and something of a humiliation. I am referring to lorry travel, which is a test of manners and character. Unfortunately, few Europeans can do more than remain patient and polite after a dozen hours jolting over a bad road and a good many more doctoring a recalcitrant carburetor or tying on chains that slip with every skid. But the Afghan regards all these matters as the concomitants of an ordinary existence and, unlike the Westerners he admires and distrusts, he has no quarrel with life.

But Forbes was unfazed about the discomforts and dangers of the journey. What she saw was the splendid natural beauty, the majestic monuments built by the Sultans, the kindness, simplicity as also the craftiness of the locals, and of their resilient humor amidst of chaos and misery.

Forbes’s experiences and encounters among the various cultures make for an entertaining read. While in Mazar-i-Sherif in Afghanistan she sits coyly sipping tea and maintaining respectful distance from the menfolk as is expected in traditional Islamic cultures, life in Bokhara in the Soviet Union is a complete turnabout. Here an Uzbeg officer's sharing her rundown bathroom with a “Do not disturb yourself, Comrade, I will use the other tap,” is nothing out of the ordinary.

Wife of a junior British official in charge of making ice in Allahabad, Fanny Parkes arrived in India in the 1820s. She fell in love with India. Traveling to Agra and Delhi and interacting with local begums and ranis, Fanny quickly picked up Indian customs and languages. She spoke fluent Urdu, often wore Indian dresses and was a regular visitor to the zenanas of the nawabs of Oudh. She befriended many royals; among them Baiza Bai, the deposed Maratha queen of Gwalior. However this led to her alienation from English society and her Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque was not well received. Far more popular in British circles were the writings of the Eden sisters. Sisters of the then Governor General Lord Auckland, Fanny and Emily Eden's works were reprinted and ran into several editions. In contrast, Parkes' book did not enjoy a second edition.

Fanny Parkes' work was resurrected a few years ago by none other than William Dalrymple. Dalrymple's own delvings into colonial and imperial history portray a very vibrant and intermixed world of the Company Raj- a world where a large fraction of Britishers married local mughal and hindu women and where children from such unions were raised as both muslim and christians.
With an introduction from William Dalrymple, Parkes' writings now appear in their new avatar as Begums, Thugs and White Mughals-the Journey of Fanny Parkes (Sickle Moon Books, 2002).

To add to this trilogy of women travelers of yore is the story of the very recent:
A Woman Alone: Travel Tales from Around the Globe (Eds. Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick and Christina Henry de Tessan.Seal Press, 2001). This collection
showcases stories of women traveling solo to almost every corner of the world. The experiences range from crowded trains of India and the bandit-infested
Thailand to the loud and colorful Las Vegas and the hills of primitive

The first question that comes to mind of course (and one that these women often encounter) is "why alone?"-and in tale after tale, comes the same resounding answer. Their love of travel, their independent minds and the wish to enjoy the moments of solitude.

Adventure, thrill and excitement abound throughout. While a nun writes about her challenging experience of traveling safely through bandit infested Thailand, another narrator talks of this fearful experience of being chased by dogs in Bali.
The camaraderie between women emerges unquestionably in some of these tales. Like the one in which Thalia Zepatos describes her train travel in India in a ladies' compartment, where she makes many friends and the group amuses itself by adorning her with their jewelry.

The narratives of the two women that travel to Central Asia, actually
Samarkhand and Mongolia, seem to bring alive images of the Middle Ages.
The endless arid plains and the tombs and minarets with the bazaars teeming
with people and merchandise seem so real.

There are travel tales from the Western hemisphere also. Of the gallant
Italian men that raise their glasses in salute to Dawn Jefferson dining
alone. Or of Chelsea's skydiving adventure in Vegas.

Overall this collection offers a unique insight into the world of solo
travelers. The obstacles these women face as they venture alone into
remote territory and how they tackle these with ingenuity is what makes their
journeys a memorable and learning experience.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is the first question one asks about a newborn baby? Closer home this may be rephrased as the first question after the ultrasound scan of the fetus. Is gender the one aspect of our identity that defines us more than anything else? Take the gender away and you are not you. Scary thought, huh !!!

Can gender be wished away? More than a century ago, the Bengali writer and feminist Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain had in her thought experiment Sultana's dreams designed Ladyland, a paradise where women after secluding their menfolk in purdah, made use of society's resources to enrich their own lives. Armed with education, science and technology they worked toward a peaceful world. Gender existed, but Sakhawat Hossein relegated the dominant and aggressor sex into the nether world.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness however is another gedanken experiment that approaches the gender issue from a refreshingly new angle. Rather than plan elaborate plots of gender equality Le Guin does away with the concept altogether. Individuals in her dreamland are not men or women but become so only during a small part of the year to reproduce. This switching back and forth is pretty random so that this month's Tom Cruise could be next month's Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or better still, Rock Hudson.

The plot is set in the planet of Winter where Genly Ai, an agent for the federation of Eukemen is on a trip. His assignment on Winter (also called Gethen in the language of its own people) is to convince Gethenians to join Eukemen, a collective federation of many worlds. Two dualities are missing on Winter or Gethen. First, Gethen is a planet of one season, that of extreme perpetual cold. Second these citizens have no defined gender so that they are neither male or female. Except when they need to reproduce.

Gethenian sexual physiology is strange. It works in active and inactive cycles. An individual is inactive or somer for 21 or 22 days. On the 22nd day hormonal changes initiated earlier by the pituitary kick in and the individual enters kemmer or active form. If she or he (let's for convenience sake call it IT) finds a partner also in kemmer, hormonal secretion peaks till a male or female physiology is established. It can now either give birth or be the sperm donating parent.

The fact that everyone between 17 and 35 or so is liable to be tied to childbearing implies that no one is quite throughly tied down here as women elsewhere are likely to be. What does this mean? Since a person can have either sexual role in all the kemmers of its lifetime "nobody is quite so free as a male anywhere"

The pluses are many. Because there are no preassigned genders there are no gender roles. Men don't have to work on being macho and women don't need to practice the delicate eye fluttering manoeuvres. Lack of gender means that there are no defined social roles either. No expectations that women have to be the caregivers and men providers. And since everyone can get to be a "mother", childcare is not the job of one gender. There is no gender oppression or subjugation and everyone is free to develop themselves as individuals. Above all one toilet can serve all. As if this is not enough, Gethenian society has no wars or conflicts. The compromised masculine role makes men (when they are men that is) toothless tigers. But it could be the cold too. A tour guide in Canada once told me that his country has had very few wars. "When you're freezing you tend to talk more sense," he had said.

Now the downside. Everyone needs two wardrobes (er....oops make that three namely male, female and neuter). Atleast until Gethen gets its Chairman Mao equivalent. Add to that cosmetics, lotions and the whole shebang. That is until the metrosexual equivalent arrives and both genders share the same make-up kit.

A thought provoking novel The Left Hand of Darkness covers new ground as it shows how evolutionary and social systems can interact in unique ways. It makes us pause and consider what could have been.