Like the author, Mr. Harris, I, too, am a “firangi” (foreigner) married to an Indian, and based in Delhi.
Like the author, Mr. Harris, I, too, am a runner – this piece of information will make sense anon.
I haven’t met Mr. Harris, by the way, but we do follow each on Instagram, for what it’s worth.
And here endeth the disclosures.
“The First Firangis” is an intriguing, beguiling read, a fascinating, well-researched chronicle of the lesser-known foreigners who are part of the rich and tumultuous Indian story.
We are absolutely not talking about the British, here, the colonial overlords, who came to India for trade, stayed on to rule, and then withdrew back “home” to Blighty at Independence. Instead, Mr. Harris turns his scholarly lens on a cast of characters from the (pre-British) 16th and 17th centuries, men and women drawn from all over the world, and from all sorts of backgrounds, who somehow arrived in India and decided to stay on.
We meet Jews fleeing persecution, a Portuguese doctor, a Venetian artilleryman. We meet slaves and chancers, jewellers and mercenaries, and even a couple of European women who are part of the royal harems, though at different times.
Mr. Harris is a wonderful story teller and when he cannot find any further documentary evidence about his characters – for some of them were but minor players in history – he judiciously wonders aloud.
“If Mandu Firangi’s life is a vanishing vapour-trail, we are equally in the dark about the fate of William Leeds, the English jeweller who accompanied Ralph Fitch to India and was employed by Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri. What would have happened to Leeds after Akbar made the decision to abandon the city on 22 August 1585? Would he have the emperor and other members of the royal ‘karkhana” on the trip from Fatehpur Sikri to Lahore?”
Mr. Harris sketches in the backgrounds of his subjects, and tells us the details he is unsure about. He consults diaries, letters, and official records, he studies portraits and jewellery for hints and clues, and weaves them all into a complex portrait of some of India’s minor (but often flamboyant) characters.
He also debunks urban legends, like the oft-repeated one which tells of a descendant of the France royal family who currently lives in central India.
Mr. Harris is charming and polite as he picks such stories apart:
“The Bourbons retained their princely status into the first half of the twentieth century; however, the abolition of royal rank since Indian independence has affected their position, and they are now part of the working classes. The family’s current scion, a plump moustachioed lawyer named Balthazar Napoleon Bourbon lives in Bhopal. He made news in May of 2013 when he was visited by the French ambassador to India, who declared that “it is extraordinary to have a Bourbon here today!” Pictures of this very Indian ‘royal’, posing somewhat awkwardly with his wife and children, were circulated around the world.
It’s a wonderful story, with a stirring Slumdog Millionaire-type conclusion that catapults a humble Indian to a position of national and even global prominence. The only problem with it is that it is patently untrue. There isn’t one shred of historical evidence to indicate that Jean-Philippe Bourbon de Navarre ever existed: he has left no trace in either the Mughal chronicles or the French archives.”
Mr. Harris is fascinated by the process of assimilation through which these migrants inserted themselves into Indian life, sometimes changing religion, sometimes taking Indian names, oftentimes taking a local wife, and he counterparts these stories with his own experiences of becoming as Indian as we outsiders can become. He is conscious of the climate, of the food, of the language, all of which play a part in moulding emigrants, whether from the 17th or the 21st century. He inserts short personal anecdotes about his own experiences in India, which make for fun reading.
I laughed out loud at “On being interrupted”:
“In India, I am always interrupted.
For someone brought up in an Anglo-Saxon culture that respects the rights of (certain) people to finish expressing a thought without interruption, the rhythms of Indian conversation can seem non-dialogic and even downright rude.”
Note to self: whew, not alone in this, then!
And then there’s the running…I told you I’d get there anon.
Mr. Harris mentions his running group, and about the challenges of running in a city like Delhi – heat, pollution, noisily crowded roads for starters (for the record, I got sunstroke last week, running at 9 in the morning) :
“But the hot sun is not our only obstacle. Next to the Rashtrapti Bhavan, the president’s residence, lives a large colony of monkeys. The alpha male is an ugly, muscular piece of work who bares his fangs every time we run past him…
…Running in Delhi has been part and parcel of my experience of becoming Indian.”
This meticulously researched, eloquently written book is an innovative way of looking at history. We explore the pageantry and the history of India from the perspective of some of the bit players. The author is sympathetic towards his subjects, even if we only catch fleeting glimpses of them down the centuries.