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.


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