Riding on the recent wave of books about persons, mostly of European origin, in India, by among many others, William Dalrymple, Ashley Cohen and Sam Miller, Harris gives us short takes on fourteen assorted foreigners who made their way to India in the early colonial period, occasionally to escape poverty or persecution at home, and stayed for long periods, sometimes till death. Taking one of several politically-correct sideswipes at colonialism, Harris informs us that becoming Indian at that time did not suggest any cultural degeneration, and we are told hundreds of Portuguese other ranks and East India Company officials converted to Islam… though apparently not to Hinduism. Like his mentor Dalrymple who has written a puff for this book, Harris is an indiscriminate admirer of everything Muslim Indian.
Harris’ characters were among the first to acquire the appellation firangi. Firangi is a fungible term, but in the author&’s definition, refers to a white Christian migrant who became Indianized yet continued to be identified as a foreigner. Many of these firangis seem to have met, or known of, each other, and contributed to the folklore. Among the book&’s cast of characters are Garcia de Orta (1500-1568), a Portuguese Jew converted to Christianity, a botanist, medical man, and author of Colloquies. Thomas Stephens (1550-1619) was an English Jesuit, fled Elizabeth I&’s persecution, in India from 1579, author of a Marathi poem ‘Story of Christ’. Malik Ayaz (d. 1522) from Southern Russia served the sultan of Gujarat in the 1470s, became a naval commander, governor of Diu and defended it against the Portuguese. Chinali (d. 1600), was a Chinese from Malacca who became Muslim and finally Christian and served a Muslim warlord in Kottakal against the Portuguese — which Harris bizarrely describes as an authentically Indian resistance to European colonialism.
There was de Lannoy (b.1715), a Catholic from Flanders, who arrived in 1740 with the Dutch East India Company, and served under a Hindu Travancore maharaja, one of the rare Hindus found in this book. The author states that Hindu caste restrictions would have been onerous for this man the locals dubbed Dillanai, though Harris makes no mention of any restraints in a Muslim environment. Malik Ambar (1548-1626) was a habshi rather than a firangi, whom the author elliptically calls “both an Ethiopian and not an Ethiopian”. Served the peshva of Ahmadnagar and sultan of Berar as military governor, and fought Mughal emperors Akbar and Jehangir. By the early 18th century, these African habshis had disappeared from India, having intermarried with local women. There was Mandu Firangi, a person listed, and no more, as one of Akbar&’s retinue of artists who contributed to the Persian version of Ramayana. “We know absolutely nothing about Mandu Firangi or his life” states Harris disarmingly, though producing a chapter on this spectral figure. Augustin Hiriart (1580s-1632) was a French jeweller and military inventor, designer of Jehangir&’s thrones for Navrouz and perhaps Shah Jehan&’s Peacock Throne.
Then come two females, Bibi Juliana (d.1598) and Juliana Dias da Costa (1658-1734). The former, Armenian, was on the extreme obscure edges of Akbar&’s harem; the latter, Portuguese and devout Catholic was consulted on politics by Emperor Bahadur Shah and awarded lands around Delhi which still bear corrupted versions of her name. There is more substance in describing Thomas Coryate (1577-1617), English adventurer and travel writer; and since there is more data, this sketch is more interesting than most of the others. Sarmad Kashani (1590-1659) Armenian Jew and pederast, became a naked Sufi, seer, and poet. Spiritual adviser to the agnostic Dara Shikoh, he was executed by Aurangzeb. Sebastiao Tibau (b. 1580s) was an unscrupulous Portuguese salt trader in Sandwip who took control of the island and used it for piracy and intrigue in the Bay of Bengal. Finally there is Niccolo Manucci (1638 -1720), Venetian, artilleryman, homoeopathic doctor and writer of a 5-volume Mughal history. He fought alongside Dara against Aurangzeb, served a Rajput king as artillery captain, joined Shah Alam in Calcutta and was an intermediary with the Portuguese and between the English and the Mughals. He had a dispassionate opinion of India and Indians, which an outraged Harris dismisses as ‘slurs’.
Harris displays unquestioned learning, versatility and powers of research, but weaves a narrative from such an acute scarcity of data that much of the narrative is far-fetched and hugely speculative. Thus in one paragraph you read “it is uncertain how…it is impossible to say…may have… may have helped…as may have”. Therefore the text unsurprisingly wanders into countless asides and digressions, and much space is taken in showing that there are no reliable reports — which rather defeats the purpose of the book. A florid style cannot hide the fact that slim evidence leads to fabrication, which Harris euphemistically calls a ‘subjective tour’.
If this book was written as humour or irony, it would have been more successful, since the author on occasion displays a certain dry wit; or as a semi-fictional story with the same characters. Alternatively, an unvarnished straight-line narrative without speculation or digression may have served the subject-matter better, though the book would of course have been much thinner.
Harris is fond of the term ‘multiculture’ and later, ‘cosmopolitanism’, both used with numbing frequency in retrospective definitions about India, a land of migrants, and anachronisms for the time written about. In didactic mode, he is also much taken by etymology and anthropology, and given to lists — of adjectives, professions, names. He uses demotic Indianisms like aam admi, which he then proceeds to translate, and ‘sticky wicket’; and employs Hindi/Urdu words — sometimes as often as thrice in a single paragraph — when English translations would serve as well. And there is juvenile slang — ‘foodie’, ‘dodgy’, ‘stash’, and ‘stint’.
The author is intrigued by the effect that India has on the mind and body, physique, senses and tastes, and he introduces each chapter with subjective experiences which are a further distraction. Few readers are likely to be convinced by his attempts to explain, in tedious detail, the effect of India on a foreigner in regard to diet, energy level, and physical and mental attitudes. These interpretations are less relevant to the book than the author believes or the autobiographical chapter headings would suggest.
For whom was this book written? The author is not sure and the editor has failed to guide him about his market. But one saving grace is that the work is modestly priced.
The reviewer is India&’s former Foreign Secretary.