Firang Historian

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Academic Jonathan Gil Harris is writing the history of the poor Europeans, as distinct from White Mughals, who settled here and became Indian

Jonathan Gil Harris, a professor of English at George Washington University, is the author of many books, including Foreign Bodies and Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England (1998), Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism and Disease in Shakespeare’s England (2004), Shakespeare and Literary Theory (2010), Waking Dream of Paradise (2011), and the editor of at least four more, one of which is Indrography: Writing the ‘Indian’ in Early Modern England (2012). His latest and most ambitious project is about poor European travellers to India in the 17th century who became Indian without any evil colonial designs that Indo-European history attributes all European travellers of that time to. This forthcoming book promises to propose the outlines of another aspect of Indo-European history.

Q I must begin by asking you the most obvious question—what is your new book about? Is it writing back to Edward Said?

A The book is now called Tales of the First Firangis. In it, I tell the astonishing stories of seven European travellers to India before the time of the British Raj. These stories build on a series of articles that I published in the weekend magazine of Hindustan Times in 2011; they are less about extraordinary individuals or journeys than about South Asian cosmopolitan spaces—Mughal Hindustan, Qutb Shahi Golconda, ‘Hindu’ Vijayanagar, the Konkan coast—in which European migrants lived, and whose cosmopolitanism subsequent partitions of religion, nation and history have encouraged us to forget. As you suggest, Tales of the First Firangis seeks to offer a counterpoint to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said’s work looms justifiably large in understandings of European attitudes to Asia during and after the age of colonialism. But Orientalism’s long shadow has inadvertently concealed other modes of relations between the West and East. Said focuses on the literature and knowledge formations that accompanied the epoch of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries; as a result, he understands the English and French writing of the Orient as complicit with processes of European global domination. In contrast, Tales of the First Firangis considers transactions between the West and East in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, a time when European dominance was not yet an assured fact. Whereas Orientalism in Said’s account insists on sharp, photo-negative differences between Europeans and Asians, my project examines the possibility of unexpected blurrings and crossovers.

Q Who were the travellers who ‘became Indian’? What was your way/criterion of deciding whether a traveller ‘has become’ Indian and thus deserves mention?

A Specifically, I consider poor European migrants to India—servants, soldiers, masterless men, religious dissidents, simple traders—who to lesser and greater extents became Indian, whether by entering into service at the Mughal court or in its armies, by studying Sufism and Hinduism, by mastering local languages, or simply by consuming the khana here and finding their bodies transformed in the process. Early modern Europeans who became Indian are hard to track down, for the simple reason that most of them didn’t write, let alone publish, accounts of their experiences. Some of these early migrants can be glimpsed between the lines of pre-colonial travel narratives and the records of the Mughals. Take, for example, Thomas Stephens, also known as Tomas Estêvão, the English priest who briefly appears in Ralph Fitch’s report of his visit to Portuguese India (1585) and who was the author of an epic poem in Marathi and Konkani. Or, Augustin Hiriart, also known as Hunarmand, the Basque jeweller who is referred to in Jahangir’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangri (1624) and who probably designed the Peacock Throne. The stories of ‘becoming Indian’ that these two men’s lives suggest can, in part, be fleshed out by the experiences documented by other long-term European visitors to India such as Niccolò de’ Conti, Thomas Coryate, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, François Bernier and Niccolao Manucci, each of whom lived (and in some cases died) in India.

Q One of the things you propose to do is show the disagreement between Thomas Roe and Thomas Coryate. How did they differ and how historically important are they?

A As King James’ ambassador to the Mughal court of Jahangir from 1615 to 1619, Thomas Roe was deeply invested in his Englishness—to the point where he mandated that all members of his retinue wear English clothes in the scorching summers of Ajmer, a challenge given that English clothes consisted of multiple layers and heat-trapping materials like taffeta. Roe sought to create an English bubble around him during his time in India. It’s significant that he never learnt any Persian or Hindavi during his four years in Ajmer and Agra; and his diary also makes clear that he regarded Mughal culture as decadent. His brief was to secure trading privileges for the then fledgling English East India Company, which he did, and to that end he was one of the most important early architects of what was to become the British colonial and later imperialist project in India.

Thomas Coryate was a very different figure. Although he professed to be friends with Roe and even lived in Roe’s house for a time in Ajmer, he was much more open to Mughal culture and language. He had arrived in Ajmer virtually penniless after walking all the way from Europe, attired in Persian clothes. During his stay in Ajmer, he studied Turkish, Arabic and the local Hindavi dialect; he had also during his long walk become fluent in Farsi, the language of the Mughal court, to the point that he was able to deliver an oration to Jahangir outside the Akbari Fort in 1616. In the oration, he referred to himself as a “fakir dervish”: this strongly suggests that Coryate had followed the example of many Indian visitors to the dargah and lived near it as a beggar. Jahangir was greatly impressed by Coryate’s command of Farsi, and gave him Rs100—a large sum at the time. But Roe was scandalised by Coryate’s oration, which he considered unpatriotic inasmuch as it reduced an Englishman to an Indian beggar. Coryate in turn dismissed Roe’s angry response as mere “nibbling”.

The differences between the two men are quite stark, and one can certainly see in Roe an antecedent of British Raj ideology. Coryate is a little harder to place ideologically; he was without doubt less inflexible than Roe, and more open to foreignness, though it is arguable that British colonialism was later to depend on such flexibility in order to get a foothold in India—it needed the Coryates who could learn local languages and cultural practices as a prelude to seizing power. But to read Coryate simply as a British matlabi rather than a transcultural fakir is to overlook how much he opened himself and his body to a completely new culture and climate. This exposure proved deadly in the end: reduced to abject poverty and suffering from long-term illness, Coryate died the following year of dysentery in Surat.

Q Is it possible for the White European to transcend his body and ‘become’ Indian?

A Of course there are limits to bodily transformation: one cannot grow a third leg, or a second heart. But our fixation on epidermal colour as the basis of an irreducible corporeal identity, whether White or Brown or Black, dangerously overlooks how much our bodies are constantly changing as our environments—cultural as much as climatic—change. Partaking of the cuisine of a different culture changes not just our tastebuds but also how we smell; speaking a new language necessitates using our tongues, lips and facial mu=scles in new ways; performing the gestures appropriate to a foreign religious or cultural community means using our bodies differently. We are constrained by the bodily habits and tendencies we bring with us from our ‘native’ culture and environment, so to that extent you are right—one can never fully assume a completely different identity. But travel from Europe to India in the time I am studying meant constantly adapting to novelty in ways that necessitated comprehensive work on the body, in much the same way an actor or an athlete has to train his ‘muscle memory’ to perform new tasks. It’s no coincidence that the word ‘travel’ derives from the French ‘travail’, meaning work. We may associate travel now with pleasure and rest, but in pre-colonial times, it was always work—work on the body as much as with the body.

Q You have dealt with the body politic in the past, and lamented that the early English traveller’s body has not been academically examined in ethnographic studies. Why this indiference?

A I think it has something to do with a seductive colonialist fantasy at the heart of ethnography itself: that Europeans are invisible subjects of knowledge, and non-Europeans are visible objects of knowledge. So the bodies of others are to be studied, and in the process, the bodies of Europeans doing the studying are always placed just out of the frame. It amounts to a kind of global outsourcing of Cartesian dualism: Europeans are minds, non-Europeans are bodies.

Q Is the book in a way a completely fresh and different look at Indo-European history?

A I’m not sure it’s entirely fresh or different, but I would like to think that I’m making a contribution that shakes up some of the shibboleths of the field. Too many books, including highly informative ones like William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, set the scene of Indo-European contact firmly within an imperialist context. And even books that cast their gaze back to the time before there was an empire can fall into the trap of presuming that any European in India was a proto-colonialist or proto-imperialist. Although the experiences of the travellers I am studying intersect with the historical trajectories that led to colonialism and European empire, they also suggest the outlines of alternate Indo-European histories that potentially unsettle our modern conceptions of religious, cultural, and ethnic identity.

Q You once famously said that the point where you differ from a writer like William Dalrymple studying similar topics is that while he has worked on the elite(s) becoming Indian, you have studied poor eastward travellers becoming Indian. So is the choice of the poor conscious?

A Dalrymple’s White Mughals—a book that I should stress I really love and admire—examines something like the process of ‘becoming Indian’ within a historical playing field that already presumes British power, not to mention colonialism and imperialism. In the period that I am working with, England was still a backward nation, far from the centres of power in Europe and even further from the world’s richest economies in Turkey, Persia, India and China. The migrants from England to India at this time came not looking to conquer but rather to escape certain vicissitudes at home—poverty, sectarian-religious violence, and so on. In some ways, many of the firangis who came to India at this time were more like migrants from Bihar or Bangladesh to relatively rich cities like Delhi; they were looking for opportunities denied them at home. So yes, focusing on poor European migrants was a conscious decision. Nearly all the firangis I examine, with some exceptions, started off poor, but not all of them ended up so. Augustin Hiriart was a poor artisan when he arrived in Agra in the 1610s, but his work for Jahangir and Shah Jahan made him rich.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier started off as a relatively poor child of Protestant refugees from Belgium, but his trade in Goloconda diamonds made him a millionaire. Others, however, stayed poor: Coryate died in poverty, as I said.

Q ‘ time in India has transformed me, changing how I speak, how I think, what I wear, what I eat, the music I listen to,’ you once wrote. Have you become Indian yourself?

A To answer your question, let me quote in full the passage from which that sentence comes (the opening paragraph of my article on Thomas Coryate):

‘Since my first visit to India over ten years ago, I have grown increasingly fascinated by the word firangi. To translate it simply as ‘foreigner’ doesn’t do it justice. The Hindi videshi is a world away, quite literally, from firangi, a Mughal-era Persian makeover of ‘Frank’ (or Frenchman). My former Hindi teacher, who favours a chaste Sanskritised language purged of all alien interlopers, grimaces whenever she hears the word. She considers firangi an impure term, a linguistic foreign body that has illegitimately become Indian. But that impurity is precisely what I love about the word firangi. And it is also why I consider myself a firangi, not a videshi. I am a foreigner, but I also am not: my time in India has transformed me, changing how I speak, how I think, what I wear, what I eat, the music I listen to. Slowly but surely, like the word firangi itself, main Hindustani ban raha hoon.’