Divya Shankar reviews Tales of a Voyager, written by Syed Mujtaba Ali in Bengali and translated into English by Nazes Afroz (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2023)
Sometime between the two World Wars, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Bengal’s most popular travel writer, set out on a ship from India to Europe via Sri Lanka, Suez, and Africa. On the way, he made friends, gathered stories, and narrated tales on history, sights to see, cuisine, languages, and societies of different nations.
Tales of a Voyager is an account that comprises all of the above, livened up by the author’s wisdom and his zeal for travel, adventure, and learning. Far from a conventional, fact-addled travelogue, this slim book feels like a tete-a-tete with the author.
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Know Thy Author
“What will you call someone who puts down his profession as ‘quitting job regularly’ while applying for his passport? The short answer is Syed Mujtaba Ali”, thus begins the book, Tales of a Voyager with the lines above from the translator’s introduction.
To appreciate this book, Tales of a Voyager wholeheartedly, to understand where the author’s wicked sense of humour, ability to laugh at himself, staunch faith in freethinking humanism and secularism, and cosmopolitan outlook stems from, a peek into his peripatetic life and luminous profile is essential. That the translator, Nazes Afroz offers this right at the book’s start is commendable.
The Voyager – On Water and On Land
As someone who traveled the world widely right after his graduation from the Shantiniketan, the author possesses many a tale in his kitty with which he regales us and two young men – Paul and Percy he befriends on the ship. The conversations between the trio have a jaunty vibe. There are tales of daring Arab seafarers and Portuguese goons called bombeytay, of a giraffe brought from Africa by the sea as a gift to the king of China from the king of Bengal, of the heroics of Mullah Muhammad bin Abdullah who fought the British for the Somalis’ freedom; tales marked by erudition and deep philosophy.
His love for diverse languages and cuisine leaves us in awe at times and drooling at others. We are also privy to his sensitive side when he talks of death that snatched his little brother from him when he was not even fully aware of what it meant. Abul Asifa, a fellow traveler who boards the ship in Sri Lanka, wears an oversized coat with pockets stuffed with confectionaries and carries a gold case for his cigarettes and visiting cards, he hardly talks but plans a thrilling detour to Egypt on land as their ship slowly inches its way through the Suez canal, pumps energy into the narrative.
Celebrating the Bengali ‘bhadralok’ spirit
“No one should doubt that Bengalis are far more timid than Arabs. But in spite of being a sea and not a bay, the Arabian Sea is far quieter than the Bay of Bengal.”
As we witness the restless wanderer in Syed Mujtaba Ali embrace the world with open arms without reservations, we realize the soft spot and pride he has for everything bangla. Be it in claiming that a Bengali meal satiates all kinds of taste buds, swearing by Sandesh and Rasgulla, imagining the smell of ‘phoron’ seasoning, comparing a night in Cairo desert in full moonlight to sitting on the sandbars in the middle of Padma river, thinking of maidan and Laldighi in Kolkata when touring Africa, loving Bhatiyali and baul music with all his heart and venerating Rabindranath Tagore, quoting many of his poems in this work, he epitomizes the bhadralok spirit and celebrates everything Bengali.
Recommended Reads : Translations: The Talk of Publishing Town
Published first in the year 1955 as Joley Dangay (literally meaning On Water and On Land), translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz, Tales of a Voyager, in the garb of a travelogue, is a slim and colourful discourse on history, philosophy, and a myriad cultures and languages. Peppered with personal anecdotes, the conversational tone adopted by the author makes this work of non-fiction extremely readable with an added caveat that it is nowhere close to a solemn, journalistic travel account.
That the book hits an abrupt end when the author chooses to abort his trip to Europe at Port Said and travel instead to Palestine is a minor grouse. Thanks to the translation effort that retains the jesty, casual flavour of the original, Tales of a Voyager allows access to the words of a great writer, polyglot, gastronome, traveler, and thinker to readers worldwide.
My belief is that all kind souls – be they Brahmin or Chandal, Hindu or Muslim, African or Nordic – are of a single species.
Have you read this charming and amusing debut novel of a simple life in a small hill town? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!
- In a land far from home: A Bengali in Afghanistan (Desh Bideshe in original) by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz
- On a Truck Alone, to McMahon by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha