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Art. I.—Life of the Amir, Dost Mahommed Khan of Kabul ; with his political proceedings towards the English, Russian, and Persian Governments, including the victories and disasters of the British Army in Affghanistan. By Mohan Lal, Esquire, Knight of the Persian Order of the Lion and the Sun ; lately attached to the Mission in Kabul. 2 vols. Longman and Co. 1846.
In the preface to these volumes, Mohan Lal, Esquire, informs us, that the history of Dost Mohammed, which he intended to have given to the world, grievously miscarried in manuscript. Instead of enriching the literature of the West, it was doomed to pass no further than the collections of Akbar Khan, whose filial piety, doubtless, set a right value on so inestimable an addition to the family records deposited in the Balla-Hissar. If, as “ the whirligig of time brings in its revenges,” this manuscript, with annotations by the Amír himself and his accomplished son, should ever fall into the hands of a British Publisher, it will assuredly be one of the most interesting contributions to Oriental history, which the present century has seen. We are afraid that we can not say as much for the counterfeit now before us.
Akbar Khan, knowing their true value, having resolutely refused to restore the stolen manuscripts, “it was afterwards out of my power,” says Mohan Lal, Esquire, “ to collect such satisfac
tory accounts as would place the circumstances of the Amír's • life in a chronological series; and I, therefore, fear that these 'volumes will, on many occasions, be open to censure for misplacing the occurrences and the subjects contained in them.” This is, indeed, a startling confession. The reader is called upon, at the very outset, to make every allowance for a liberal use of that strange figure, which rhetoricians know as the votepoy Tepotepov ; and which in vulgar language is sometimes described as “putting the cart before the horse.". Nay, more than this
, we are not only called upon to make allowance for dates, but for things misplaced, the “ horse's head where the tail should be”-almost literally following the example of the accommodating showman, by telling us that we may take the
lion for the dog, or the dog for the lion-Shah Sújah for Dost Mahommed, or Dost Mahommed for Shah-Sújah, as we please. We pay our money and we take our choice.
Historical accuracy being thus set aside, as of impossible attainment, Mohan Lal, Esquire, doubtless, determines to compensate for this important deficiency, by extraordinary graces of style—the excellence of the manner atoning for the imperfections of the matter. Not at all; Mohan Lal, Esquire, assures us, that he does “not for a moment pretend to boast of the value of its information, eloquence, or style.” “On the contrary,” he adds, “I am fearfully con'scious of abundant errors, both in grammar, idiom, and, above
all, of repetitions; but when I tell the public, that I am
a stranger to the customs, manners, and, in a great measure, ' to the language of the English, and that I have written ' the MSS. and published these two volumes in a short
space of time, without the assistance of a friend, as I had
expected, I feel assured that I shall be excused on account ' of these great deficiencies.” If Mohan Lal, Esquire, had been under any obligation to the British public to deliver himself of two bulky volumes of letter-press, it might, with some propriety, have been pleaded, in excuse of all deficiencies, that he had been robbed of his materials, and was ignorant of the English language—in fact, that he had not anything to write about and did not know how to write, if he had. But we are not aware that any such obligation existed; and, therefore, we cannot recognise the validity of his excuses. The facts, which he alleges, might be accepted as undeniable apologies for not writing at all; but they form no excuse for writing badly.
It is true, however, that Mohan Lal, Esquire, appears to have labored under the impression, not only, that he was bound to write in a foreign language, of the grammar and idiom of which he was confessedly ignorant, a biography of a man of whose career he could obtain no satisfactory account, but that he was under an imperative obligation to perform the feat within a certain time. “ Whatever portion of the MSS.," he informs us, “ of these volumes (excepting about one hundred • pages in the beginning) I was able to write every day, went • to press immediately in the same way; and this will plainly • account for errors and repetitions." This hand-to-press authorship, in ordinary cases, is the result either of the urgent necessities of the writer or the eager impatience of the public. Mohan Lal, Esquire, is anxious that the former supposition, being derogatory to his knighthood, should not find ingress
into the reader's mind; he therefore explains in his preface, that he has not profited by his authorship.
• Besides the ' great expense,” he says, “incurred by the publishers in
bringing out my late travels and these volumes, I beg to • state, that about £300 has been disbursed by me in employ' ing a copyist, paper, and some of the portraits; a fact which • will exonerate me from the imputation of having published ' them, merely with the view of benefiting myself by their • sale.” It remains for us, then, only to suppose that a belief in the eagerness and impatience of the public, must have provoked the breathless rapidity with which these volumes were written. But with all due submission, we think that the public might have been induced to wait whilst Mohun Lal, Esquire, was taking a few more lessons in the English language.
When a foreigner, writing in our own vernacular, appeals to "the generosity of the impartial community," and entreats forgiveness “ for the blunders of every description which may disfigure the pages” of his “unworthy volumes,” it would seem to denote a degree of churlishness, by no means creditable to the national character, if we were to deny him the clemency he solicits.
But the case of Mohun Lal forms an exception to the rule, by which a certain amount of critical immunity is granted to such offenders. It is true, that he is a Kashmerian by birth; but he is an English author of fifteen years' standing. He has been reading, and speaking, and writing English, long enough to have obtained some knowledge of the grammar and idiom of the language. He has been familiar with English people for nearly twenty years, two or three of which have been spent in England. Ordinary quickness of apprehension and a very trifling amount of application might have enabled him, in half the time, to overcome the difficulties of the English language and to avoid grammatical and idiomatic blunders, of which there is not a boy of fourteen, in the Free Church Institution or the Hindu College of Calcutta, who would not be heartily ashamed. It would be a palpable injustice to all concerned in the education of the natives of India— from the Court of Directors to the most subordinate teacher in one of our schools—if we were not to enter a caveat against a not unnatural supposition, which may have found entrance into the public mind at home, that Mohan Lal's volumes are a noticeable example of the good effects of European education in the East. The truth is, that the composition before us, is very bad of its kind—it is immeasurably inferior to what scores of native students in our public institutions are capable of producing; and it is because we are unwilling, that such short-comings should discredit the teaching of the able men engaged in the work of public instruction, that we cannot admit the claims of Mohan Lal's writings to be regarded as good specimens of Indian English, or any other kind of English with which we are acquainted. Such writings, indeed, have not ceased to be a curiosity only because it is still curious, that one who has, for nearly twenty years, been in familiar intercourse with the English people, and during the greater part of that time attached to an English bureau, should have acquired such imperfect proficiency in the English language. But these are not the curiosities which we delight to contemplate. *
And yet, we do not wish it to be inferred that the volumes before us are absolutely without value. They are, to a certain extent, valuable as containing many incidental illustrations of the character and customs of the Affghans; many anecdotes, which, though apocryphal when considered in connexion with the personages introduced, are interesting, because nationally, though not personally, characteristic; and a few traditionary stories, which, if dates were affixed, might be accepted as contributions to authentic history. Nor is this all that can be said in favor of Mohan Lal's volumes. The author devotes a considerable portion of his work to a narrative of the events immediately preceding the deposition of Dost Mohammed, and the subsequent unfortunate career of the British in Affghanistan. He held, throughout the whole of this time, a subordinate but a confidential office under the British mission, and he enjoyed many opportunities-opportunities of which certainly he has not made the most—of ascertaining the truth regarding many mixed questions of considerable historical importance. That he has not thrown much new light on spots of the great field of political inquiry, which had previously been but dimly illumined, we attribute rather to a want of discrimination-an absence of all capacity to discern the important from the unimportant, than to any over-weening caution, any want of candour, any desire to suppress the truth. There is occasionally a naivetè in the revelations of Mohan Lal, which goes far to engender, in our minds, a conviction of his good faith. Thus, at page 188, vol. 1, speaking of Abdul Rashid Khan, he
* It is now no secret that the memoir of Ram-mohun Roy, in No. VIII of this journal, was the production of a native gentleman. We point to it, in preference to others from native sources, because, being of a biographical character, it may more fitly be contrasted with the work before us, in respect not only of the correctness of its style but the clearness of the narrative, and the luminous arrangement of all the details.