In 1799 the Lucknawi nobleman Mirza Abu Taleb, facing many troubles at home, set sail for Europe. Taking careful notes of what he saw not only on his destination, England, but also on stopovers at Turkey, Malta and Baghdad, he produced among the first – and still among the best – travel books by an Indian writer.
Abu Taleb’s account conveys the wonder of the newly emergent Industrial Revolution (“The English carry their passion for mechanics to such an extent that…a very complete engine is used even to roast a chicken”) and directs an astute eye upon British culture, morals and manners, and politics (“Liberty may be considered as the idol, or tutelary deity, of the English”).
But the real charm of the Travels is that it is a two-way account: Abu Taleb’s travels allow him to consider not just British society but also properly assess the strengths and weaknesses of his own. He is constantly questioning, assessing, comparing – what makes the English this way, and Indians that? Every page resonates with Abu Taleb’s peculiarly candid charm (“Although I am by nature amorous, and easily affected at the sight of beauty…I never met with a Frenchwoman who interested me”). And Travels even establishes that the more things change, the more they stay the same – at one point Abu Taleb speaks about being stuck in a traffic jam on Oxford Street.