Some weeks ago, while casually trawling the Internet for roadside information, I came to know of a person called Kashi Samaddar. Hes no Elvis, really. But as a travel enthusiast, I was so awed by his extraordinary achievement that I found myself groping for my jaw on the floor. Honestly, if I could emulate even a quarter of his accomplishments in this lifetime, I would consider myself blessed. Im sure many of you would, too.
A Bengali businessman based in Dubai, Samaddar — now in his late-50s — holds a Guinness record for being the first person to visit all 194 sovereign countries in the world. Having achieved this feat in 2009, he apparently continues to travel (these days to dependencies and territories), all of it on an Indian passport, and happens to be close to the 225 mark. If theres anybody in the world who can make Ian Wright and Samantha Brown look like frogs in a well, Samaddar — I reckon — is probably the one.
Anyway, while this odd nugget of information thrilled me no end, it also happened to flag off a train of thought in my head. Given that wanderlust is a Bengalis middle name, could Samaddar be a lone ranger when it came to making a habit of — to quote American naturalist John Muir — throw(ing) a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump(ing) over the back fence? For an intrepid community born with itchy feet, there surely must have been other trailblazers as well?
Ever since that day, I have devoted myself to compiling a list of Bengalis who — as pioneering travellers — have secured their pride of place in the annals of wayfaring and adventure. The initial findings have been so overwhelmingly compelling that I cant keep myself from sharing them with you right away.
As it happens, most of these itinerant personalities also wielded the pen with flourish, and I cant thank them enough for chronicling their odysseys for the knowledge and delight of generations to come.
I must start with Sarat Chandra Das. A 19th-century scholar of Tibetan language and culture, Das was among the first outsiders to ever set foot in the ancient forbidden kingdom of Tibet. Working as an undercover informant for the British government, Das undertook two perilous journeys on foot — in 1879 and 1881 — to the innards of the remote Tibetan plateau, often travelling under the guise of a native Tibetan, risking arrest, injury and inclemency, in the company of a friendly monk called Ugyen Gyatso.
The accounts of these daring journeys, written by Das upon his return, provided the first glimpses into an inaccessible, hostile and enigmatic kingdom that had never been surveyed by outsiders. Pick up a copy of his book A Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, and youll know what I mean.
The name of Bimol Mukerji comes next. Often dubbed Indias first globetrotter, Mukerji set out of Calcutta on his bicycle in 1926 on a round-the-world tour that eventually took him more than a decade to complete. Taking up a series of odd jobs along the way to finance his shoestring trip, Mukerji travelled across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas before returning home in 1937. Until I find substantial evidence that negates my assumptions, Im predisposed to think Mukerji was, in fact, the first person in the world to have achieved this feat on wheels. Mukerjis book, written in Bengali and titled Du Chakay Duniya, is a gripping account of his journey, and often makes you wonder if life is really worth toiling 10 hours a day in an office cubicle.
Other names to have cropped up during preliminary research include 20th century Himalayan rovers such as Prabodh Kumar Sanyal, author of cult titles such as Mahaprasthaner Pathey and Devatatma Himalay, and Uma Prasad Mukhopadhyay, a trekking enthusiast and author who wrote extensively about his plucky excursions into the mountains, Himalayer Pathe Pathe being the most popular title in his catalogue.
ose on their heels is author Mohanlal Gangopadhyay, who hitch-hiked through Czechoslovakia in the pre-World War II years and documented his sojourn in the book Charanik. And then theres Abadhut, whose account of a death-defying pilgrimage to the isolated shrine of Hinglaj in the inhospitable deserts of Baluchistan inspired the eponymous 1959 Bikash Roy film Marutirtha Hinglaj.
And so the list develops. Given the early spate of success, Im convinced its poised to run into several reams of paper as days roll by. In fact, in a communal vein, Im quite happy to make this an open-source project, so please feel free to chip in with your contributions.
The wackier, the better. Id be happy to hear of an oddball — if there indeed was one — who left his musty Shyambazar home with loose change in his pockets, only to become the first person to sail the Amazon. Knowing Bengalis, its not entirely impossible.
BAND OF BACKPACKERS
Sarat Chandra Das:
One of the first outsiders to set foot in ancient Tibet. A Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet provides a glimpse of his experiences.
Wrote Du Chakay Duniya, based on his round-the-world trip on a bicycle that took a decade to complete.
Prabodh Kumar Sanyal:
Trekking enthusiast and author of Mahaprasthaner Pathey and Devatatma Himalay.
Uma Prasad Mukhopadhyay:
Wrote about his excursions into the mountains. Himalayer Pathe Pathe is his most popular book.
Wrote about his hitch-hiking experience through Czechoslovakia in Charanik.
Wrote of his pilgrimage to the shrine of Hinglaj in Balochistan in 1955 and inspired the film Marutirtha Hinglaj.