History: FOREIGNERS AT HOME IN INDIA
An interesting take on subaltern history
Sebati Iyengar Delhi
As I browsed through the pages of The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris, the following hashtags raced through my mind— #History, #India, #BeingIndian, #ColonialIdentities, #Mystery, #Bodies. The last one seems a bit surprising, doesn’t it? And yet, the crux of the book rests in Harris’ exploration of how our bodies are fundamental to our identities, and how the changes they experience in new and unknown lands fundamentally change us.
The First Firangis is a popular history of the type that writer-researcher William Dalrymple has introduced to Indian readers over the past decade. In the vein of Dalrymple’s The White Mughals, Harris traces the lives of a dozen-odd firangis, or foreigners, who lived and made their mark in India from the 15th to the 18th centuries. But Harris’ subjects do not hail from royal families or have powerful antecedents. Rather, they established themselves in various professions through their intelligence and skill.
The book is an interesting take on subaltern history, since their stories can only be constructed through obtuse references in the annals of time. Doctors, warriors, poets, lawyers — they are all represented in this book, along with descriptions of how they adapted their existing knowledge and skills to the wealth of indigenous wisdom, local practices, and threats of India.
In capturing those lives, The First Firangis presents a fascinating story of how the world was shaped by religious forces—be it Jews, Old Christians, New Christians, Muslims, Persians— and how the interplay of these forces resulted in large-scale migration in those times. It is also unapologetically candid about the interplay of trade and power, dominated by the Far East, which led to many an enterprising European setting sail. These resulted in some of the firangis finding themselves in medieval India, and crafting their lives here; the boundaries of their social and private lives have been well explored. For example, in the story of Garcia Da Orta, the hakeem of Bombay, his public Christian persona is contrasted with his Jewish practices and connections that were handled secretively. This, along with the piecing together of the stories through passing references in historic texts or local folklore, give the sketches the flavour of a classic whodunnit!
Another intriguing feature of the book is the author’s attempt to trace the physical transformations that these historic characters must have experienced—whether that meant suffering from disease or seeking relief in natural remedies, learning to ride a horse or navigating local waters, dancing or sitting cross-legged to write, wielding a sword or swirling one’s tongue around an unfamiliar language. All of these have been explored in vivid detail, with the result that the reader gains a glimpse into the everyday challenges faced by Harris’ subjects, as well as the key events of their lives.
Perhaps the book’s weakest link is the rehash of the age-old question— what does it mean to be Indian? Harris’ answer lies in the continuous adaptation to the country’s many challenges. Beyond religion and skin colour, he argues that the firangis became Indian through the adjustments of their bodies and minds. Their presence transformed India as well, nudging it to adapt further and further.