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Richard Burton: The Indian Making of an Arabist.

Richard Burton: The Indian Making of an Arabist by Simon Digby. Orient Monographs, Jersey Island (UK), 2006. 72 pages.

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This slim volume consists of the annotated text of a lecture on Sir Richard Burton (1821-90) delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society, London, by Simon Digby, the recipient of the Sir Richard Burton Commemorative Medal in 1999. It is only appropriate that a 19th-century British traveller, scholar, and translator should be reassessed at the turn of the 21st century by another British traveller, scholar, and translator, who is not as much a celebrity as Burton was in his time but as legendary a figure in our academic circles. I can think of no one more qualified to write about Burton than Digby both because of his lineage (he belongs to a British family whose association with the subcontinent goes back beyond Burton's time), and his prodigious knowledge of Islamic culture. He is the only living scholar I know who is both an Indologist and an Arabist.

Although Burton's fame rests mostly on his contribution to the history and culture of Arabia and Persia, and his adventures in those lands, in this book Digby has concentrated on the early training of the scholar/adventurer in his few years (1842-49) in India, which in fact was the crucible for the making of many British Arabists in the 19th century. In a few strokes he has sketched a lively portrait of the romantic hero's remarkable facility with languages (he learned almost a dozen in seven years], his cunning and restless spirit, his indefatigable industry and wide-ranging scholarly interests (as his writings indicate], the richness of his imagination, and his vulnerability as an imperialist with a distinct superiority complex.

As is well known, the boldest adventure of Burton's life was to go in disguise on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which has particular resonance today. By the end of his Indian sojourn Burton declared: "It was always my desire to visit Meccah during the pilgrimage season.... So to this preparation I devoted all my time and energy...." As Digby writes, "He had now acquired linguistic skills, a fund of knowledge regarding the behavior of individuals in Islamic society and skill in role-playing that impelled him towards the climacteric of his life, the journey to Mecca."

The highly readable essay of only 36 pages supplemented with 20 pages of extensive notes and references packs a lot of punch and is both erudite and entertaining.
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Author:Pal, Pratapaditya
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Words:411
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