The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 27 Jan 2006

Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
In a couple of recent posts, I talked about the lucky finds you can have when you browse at random in strange libraries. Sometimes the finds don't turn out so well.

I'm an employee of the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the best fringe benefits of the job is that I get unrestricted access to the library and generous borrowing privileges. A few weeks ago I was up there, and found my way somehow into the section with the travel books. I grabbed a bunch, one of which was the source for my discussion of the dot product in 1580. Another was Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, written around 1806, and translated into English and published in English in 1814.

Travels is the account of a Persian nobleman who fell upon hard times in India and decided to take a leave of absence and travel to Europe. His travels lasted from 1799 through August 1803, and when he got back to Calcutta, he wrote up an account of his journey for popular consumption.

Wow, what a find, I thought, when I discovered it in the library. How could such a book fail to be fascinating? But if you take that as a real question, not as a rhetorical one, an answer comes to mind immediately: Mirza Abu Taleb does not have very much to say!

A large portion of the book drops the names of the many people that Mirza Abu Taleb met with, had dinner with, went riding with, went drinking with, or attended a party at the house of. Opening the book at random, for example, I find:

The Duke of Leinster, the first of the nobles of this kingdom honoured me with an invitation; his house is the most superb of any in Dublin, and contains a very numerous and valuable collection of statues and paintings. His grace is distinguished for the dignity of his manners, and the urbanity of his disposition. He is blessed with several angelic daughters.

There you see how to use sixty-two words to communicate nothing. How fascinating it might have been to hear about the superbities of the Duke's house. How marvelous to have seen even one of the numerous and valuable statues. How delightful to meet one of his several angelic daughters. How unfortunate that Abu Taleb's powers of description have been exhausted and that we don't get to do any of those things. "Dude, I saw the awesomest house yesterday! I can't really describe it, but it was really really awesome!"

Here's another:

[In Paris] I also had the pleasure of again meeting my friend Colonel Wombell, from whom I experienced so much civility in Dublin. He was rejoiced to see me, and accompanied me to all the public places. From Mr. and Miss Ogilvy I received the most marked attention.

I could quote another fifty paragraphs like those, but I'll spare you.

Even when Abu Taleb has something to say, he usually doesn't say it:

I was much entertained by an exhibition of Horsemanship, by Mr. Astley and his company. They have an established house in London, but come over to Dublin for four or five months in every year, to gratify the Irish, by displaying their skill in this science, which far surpasses any thing I ever saw in India.

Oh boy! I can't wait to hear about the surpassing horsemanship. Did they do tricks? How many were in the company? Was it men only, or both men and women? Did they wear glittery costumes? What were the horses like? Was the exhibition indoors or out? Was the crowd pleased? Did anything go wrong?

I don't know. That's all there is about Mr. Astley and his company.

Almost the whole book is like this. Abu Taleb is simply not a good observer. Good writers in any language can make you feel that you were there at the same place and the same time, seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard. Abu Taleb doesn't understand that one good specific story is worth a pound of vague, obscure generalities. This defect spoils nearly every part of the book in one degree or another:

[The Irish] are not so intolerant as the English, neither have they austerity and bigotry of the Scotch. In bravery and determination, hospitality, and prodigality, freedom of speech and open-heartedness, they surpass the English and the Scotch, but are deficient in prudence and sound judgement: they are nevertheless witty, and quick of comprehension.

But every once in a while you come upon an anecdote or some other specific. I found the next passage interesting:

Thus my land lady and her children soon comprehended my broken English; and what I could not explain by language, they understood by signs. . . . When I was about to leave them, and proceed on my journey, many of my friends appeared much affected, and said: "With your little knowledge of the language, you will suffer much distress in England; for the people there will not give themselves any trouble to comprehend your meaning, or to make themselves useful to you." In fact, after I had resided for a whole year in England, and could speak the language a hundred times better than on my first arrival, I found much more difficulty in obtaining what I wanted, than I did in Ireland.

Aha, so that's what he meant by "quick of comprehension". Thanks, Mirza.

Here's another passage I liked:

In this country and all through Europe, but especially in France and in Italy, statues of stone and marble are held in high estimation, approaching to idolatry. Once in my presence, in London, a figure which had lost its head, arms, and legs, and of which, in short, nothing but the trunk remained, was sold for 40,000 rupees (£5000). It is really astonishing that people possessing so much knowledge and good sense, and who reproach the nobility of Hindoostan with wearing gold and silver ornaments like women, whould be thus tempted by Satan to throw away their money upon useless blocks. There is a great variety of these figures, and they seem to have appropriate statues for every situation. . .

Oh no—he isn't going to stop there, is he? No! We're saved!
. . . thus, at the doors or gates, they have huge janitors; in the interior they have figures of women dancing with tambourines and other musical instruments; over the chimney-pieces they place some of the heathen deities of Greece; in the burying grounds they have the statues of the deceased; and in the gardens they put up devils, tigers, or wolves in pursuit of a fox, in hopes that animals, on beholding these figures will be frightened, and not come into the garden.

If more of the book were like that, it would be a treasure. But you have to wait a long time between such paragraphs.

There are plenty of good travel books in the world. Kon-Tiki, for example. In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl takes you across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. Every detail is there: how and why they built the raft, and the troubles they went to to get the balsa, and to build it, and to launch it. How it was steered, and where they kept the food and water. What happened to the logs as they got gradually more waterlogged and the incessant rubbing of the ropes wore them away. What they ate, and drank, and how they cooked and slept and shat. What happened in storms and calm. The fish that came to visit, and how every morning the first duty of the day's cook was to fry up the flying fish that had landed on the roof of the cabin in the night. Every page has some fascinating detail that you would not have been able to invent yourself, and that's what makes it worth reading, because what's the point of reading a book that you could have invented yourself?

Another similarly good travel book is Sir Richard Francis Burton's 1853 account of his pilgimage to Mecca. Infidels were not allowed in the holy city of Mecca. Burton disguised himself as an Afghan and snuck in. I expect I'll have something to say about this book in a future article.

[ Addendum 20171024: On rereading this, I discovered that I have since learned who Mr. Astley was: he invented the circus, in its modern form, and is quite famous. So the questions I asked about Mr. Astley's surpassing horsemanship can at least be answered, despite Mirza Abu Taleb's failure to do so. ]

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