New Delhi: It was in the 19th century that explorers and adventurers in this part of the world made a name for themselves. If you look at the list that starts with William Moorcroft and ends with Francis Younghusband, you will find very few Indian names.
Of course, there were the pundits, Nain Singh and Kishan Singh, whose travels into Tibet drew the world's attention, (Nain Singh was an avid writer of diaries; many of those have survived) but there seems nobody else before or after them.
That's because the exploits of Mohan Lal Kashmiri never received publicity.
For a good account of Kashmiri's life and work, you can read William Dalrymple's latest book, Return of a King (Bloomsbury, 2012), an account of the first Anglo-Afghan war.
He was born Mohan Lal Zutshi in 1812 in the Kashmiri quarter of Delhi. (Another resident of this mohalla was Ganga Dhar Nehru, a kotwal of Mughal Delhi. He had to flee the city after the 1857 mutiny. Three months after his death in February 1861, a son was born to his wife, Jeorani. He was named Motilal Nehru).
Kashmiri was appointed naib (assistant) to Alexander “Bokhara” Burnes and assisted the adventurer in his journeys across Punjab, Khorasan, Persia and beyond — Great Game country.
In 1839, against Burnes' advice, East India Company decided to install a puppet regime in Kabul in order to outwit Moscow in the region. It put together a large contingent, called the army of the Indus, to replace Dost Mohammad Khan with Shah Shuja. In its campaign, this army was helped immensely by the intelligence provided by Kashmiri's ring of spies, the so-called intelligencers.
The troops were able to storm into Herat only after Kashmiri found out that one gate had been left undefended. After the army of the Indus captured Kabul, Kashmiri kept providing intelligence reports that popular opinion was turning against the infidel occupiers. His advice was consistently ignored.
The consequences were dire.
Burnes, the deputy envoy at Kabul, had descended into a life of debauchery. The uprising against the occupying forces was sparked after Burnes abducted the mistress of a nobleman. He was murdered by a mob. Kashmiri, too, was caught but managed to escape death after another noble of the court intervened to save him.
Worse was in store for Kashmiri after the army of the Indus left Kabul to start its perilous journey to Peshawar and beyond. He raised debt through promissory notes to bribe the rebels and secure the lives of several English men and women. He was finally arrested for supporting the occupiers. Even in captivity Kashmiri remained resourceful and managed to smuggle out several letters to the East Indian Company garrison at Jalalabad. (By then, the army of retribution had begun its march into Kabul).
But his entreaties met with no reply. After the army of retribution had occupied Kabul, Kashmiri came back to India. Back home, he was derided by his kinsmen, perhaps on the suspicion that he had become Muslim. (He had taken a Muslim name for some of his journeys to Afghanistan and Persia, and is also said to have taken a Muslim wife).
And his employers refused to clear the debts he had accumulated. He died a broken man in 1877.
Kashmiri wrote three books on his travels and a biography of Dost Mohammad Khan.
A book on him (Life and Work of Mohan Lal Kashmiri) was printed in Lahore in 1943.
With Dalrymple's book, hopefully people will once again start to discover this intrepid resident of Delhi.