The world that Polier lived in while he was in India was a complex one. Though he never converted to Islam, he had become highly ‘acculturated’ by the time he moved to Faizabad, and had two Indian wives, Jugnu Begam and Zinat Begam. His personal habits had also adapted to life in India, and he could apparently speak Hindustani (what he calls urdu zaban) well, and also had some command over Persian. Besides his numerous writings in French and English, he left behind two letter-books in Persian, in which we have copies of his correspondence with a vast number of people, from humble domestic attendants to the great men of the times such as Najaf Khan. These letters were not written by Polier but by his scribes, notably a certain Kayastha from Bihar called Kishan Sahai. Still Polier commissioned, read and approved the letters drafted by these munshis, and to this extent they are ‘his’ letters. It was, of course, a bit pretentious of him to call the collection Ijaz-i-Arsalani, after the major prose work of Amir Khusrau, Ijaz-i-Khusravi (‘Khusrau’s Wonder’). But modesty was not an attribute of men like William Jones either.
Alam and Alavi have provided us a subtle and valuable source for the social, economic and cultural history of the early colonial period. The bulk of the book is made up of translations of letters from the Awadh period of Polier’s life, which while not literal in character are still close enough to the originals. From these, we get glimpses of Polier’s love of Indian pickles and spicy food, but we also can see his vast network of trade and patronage which involves a number of Bengali subordinates like Manik Ram Ganguli, as well as painters such as Mehr Chand. Their introduction, while exploring a number of facets of the materials, still leaves the possibility open of a further look into Polier’s world from the point of view of a history of mentalities. I was particularly struck by the letters to his two wives, written with all the patriarchal authority of a late Mughal notable. This is all the more ironical, for on his return to Europe in 1788, Polier left both women behind in India and married a well-connected European noblewoman.
Polier’s services to European Orientalism were several, both by way of acquiring the first written version of the Vedas to circulate in Europe, and in interpreting a number of other texts for his readers in Britain and elsewhere. He did all this while ensuring that his own pockets were never empty, and was a rather successful careerist. The authors of this book somewhat downplay this less-than-sympathetic aspect of his life, and one gets the feeling that they have succumbed to his raffish charm.
Polier’s second letter-book still remains to be explored, and there is also the matter of his dispersed art-collections. This book whets the reader’s appetite, and we look forward to the publication of a companion volume with the other materials.
(Sanjay Subrahmanyam has written Vasco da Gama: Life and Times, among other books on Indian history.)