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A tale of highway robberies

A tale of highway robberies
Photo Credit: Outlook Traveller

JonathanGil Harris-- book The First Firangis is a tale of highway robberies with a twist--the dacoits and the victims being migrants to India during the reign of Shah Jahan

Venky Vembu
May 19 , 2015
02 Min Read

A juicy anecdote, set in 1656 (during the reign of Shah Jahan), of two dacoits waylaying a teenager near Delhi, sets the brisk tone for Jonathan Gil Harris’ book. Highway robberies may have been a common-enough occurrence in the badlands, but what lends this instance a curious twist, which goes to the core of Harris’ book, is the fact that all three dramatis personae—the two bandits and the young victim—were foreign migrants to India. The dacoits were Englishmen who were, in fact, in the employ of Shah Jahan as mercenaries, and the teenager was a Venice-born manservant of an Englishman who had only recently arrived in India.

All three men were strands in a larger story of migrants to India in the 16th and 17th century—from Portugal, England, Russia, Malacca, Flanders, among other places—who came either to escape poverty or religious persecution back home. In that sense, they were unlike the British ‘White Mughals’ who came to India two centuries later, who hailed from privileged backgrounds and were here to “conquer and command”. Many other pre-Raj migrants came as slaves or indentured labour, and nearly all of them served an Indian master, and ‘became Indian’, so to speak, in the way they dressed, in the food they ate, and in the language they spoke. They were the first ‘firangis’, which term Harris points out wasn’t just a generic name for a foreigner, but someone who had ‘become Indian’ and yet continued to be marked as foreign.

A firangi himself, Harris then lets us into the lives of an odd-ball cast of characters: a Portuguese physician who came to Goa to escape the Inquisition and wrote a treatise on tropical medicine based on his knowledge of Arabic and Indo-Islamic practices and his dialogues with hakeems; an English priest who too came to Goa and wrote an 11,000-stanza Marathi poem on the life of Christ; an inmate in Akbar’s harem who was either from Armenia or Portugal (it’s not clear), who had been captured by pirates and dumped in India; an English fakir who performed an oration to Jahangir in Farsi; and a Russian slave-turned-admiral who, along with a Flemish war-captive-turned-general, devised fortifications to protect Diu and Travancore. There are several others, and in a curious twist, Harris reveals that the Italian victim of the Shah Jahan-era mercenaries later became a traditional Siddha doctor in faraway Chennai.

Harris’ book is a work of forensic ethnography. Unlike with the ‘White Mughals’, there isn’t voluminous archival material about these ‘White Subalterns’, and yet he ferrets out a fair bit of interesting anecdotage (even if it requires some heavy-duty plodding to get to it), and elaborate details of how the subjects of his study may have dressed or what they may have eaten. He also brings a curious physiological perspective to the entire narrative, showing how the firangis’ bodies ‘transformed’ to adapt to the heat, the dust, the smells, the microbes, and countless such realities of living in India.

The First Firangis is a scholarly, yet enchanting, work that frames migration patterns to India against a larger global history. It explores what happens when foreign elements and local traditions engage in a dialogue. In the end, you’re left with new ways to think of what it means to ‘be Indian’.


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