New Delhi :How can a firangi become authentically Indian? Does this involve a psychological and cultural response only, or it may also involve physical transformation of body to new weather systems, germs, food and tropical diseases?
These are some of the questions Jonathan Gil Harris addresses in his new book: “The First Firangis”, through the remarkable stories of motley migrants to Indian sub-continent before the high noon of British Raj.
Intertwined with these stories of migrants, which include a curious mix of botanists, poets, healers, charlatans and fakirs, is the story of Harris’s own bodily transformation; the story of his becoming an ‘authentic Indian’.
“My own experience of becoming Indian,” writes Harris, showed how the ‘first firangis’ were imprinted and transformed by the external elements they encountered in the subcontinent.
Harris clearly distinguishes the choice of foreigners, who travelled to India, from William Dalrymple’s marvelously-depicted ‘White Mughals’, as the latter ones were mostly embedded in the colonial system, protected by it and often as well supporting it in one way or the other.
While the ‘White Mughals’ was set in the 18th and early 19th century, the travelers in this compilation experienced the vast Indian subcontinent in the 16th and 17th century, a time when they were often dependent on local Muslim or Hindu rulers and could not rely on the support of a colonial system.
As Harris argues, these travellers lived under Indian and not colonial rule. Often, they had little expectation of returning back to their far-way home countries, and hence were obliged to submit to local conditions.
Adaptation for these travellers, therefore, was not a free choice, it was a basic necessity.
Many arrived as slaves and servants, often fleeing poverty and religious persecution, while some came as adventurers or fugitives from the law.
Harris defines ‘Firangi’ as foreigners who have transformed themselves by their stay in India and have in this sense extended the meaning of India through cross-cultural contacts, “a migrant to India that has somehow become Indian yet continues to be marked as alien”.
Travelers, who are described in this book,published by Aleph range from eccentric persons like Thomas Coryate, who travelled on foot from Europe via Persia to India, held a speech to Mughal emperor Jahangir in front of his interview window, called jharokha, in Ajmer, rode on an elephant and lived for some time with the British ambassador Thomas Roe.
Coryate, the English fakir as he was called, kept good health during his journey, being exposed to many different environments, but dysentery killed him after he was invited by his fellow countrymen for a drinking session in Surat.