The Storyteller Firangi: An Interview with Professor Jonathan Gil Harris (Part 2)

by Nabina Das

Filed under: Blog, Nabina Das |

In Part 2 of the interview with Jonathan Gil Harris, Professor of English at Ashoka University, we further catch up with Prof. Harris’ stories of early pre- and colonial European migrants to the Indian subcontinent. Were these individuals seen as pariahs or white messiahs? Who were the European leegstretchers and dervishes? Prof. Harris’ new book The First Firangis: How to Be Authentically Indian, to be published by Aleph Books soon, answers these questions. He is interested in early modern understandings of globalization and the foreign, and how these have helped shape our knowledge and experiences of bodies, disease, commerce, time, and religious difference. Apart from having authored several books, Prof. Harris is also the editor of Indography: Writing the “Indian” in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2012).  Read Part 1 here.

ND: I recently read Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s account of Niccolo Manucci, the white Hakim ( Quite a riveting tale. In India of that period, that sort of medical practice – collecting human fat — appears audacious and dangerous. What do you say?

JGH: There was in fact a long-standing medical tradition in both Europe and the Arab world of prescribing mumia, also known as “mummy,” for a wide variety of ailments.  Mummy, the charred and fatty residue of human corpses, was believed to have extraordinary medicinal value.  It seems distasteful to us now, but perversely his suggestion that the qazi of Lahore take human fat to treat his cold may have been one of Manucci’s more conventional medical recommendations in his long and often unscrupulous career in India as a quack.  He himself admits that most of his medical knowledge was completely without merit.  But he also tapped into local medical traditions, including those of the south.  Later in life he acquired minor fame in Madras for his so-called miracle “Manooch stone,” which was made from lingam. The substance was not what one might think: no precious parts of male anatomy – human or divine – were damaged in its manufacture. This lingam was, rather, cinnabar, known to western chemists as mercuric sulphide. The substance was a staple of the siddha vaidyas, Indian doctors skilled in an antique form of Tamil medicine close to ayurveda and unani

ND: I understand Muslim communities were more welcoming to our first firangis than the caste-ridden Hindus. Is this why some of the European drifters found it comfortable to become fakirs – e.g. at the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer – than become mendicants at Hindu temples? Is there any record of overt animosity against the firangis from any quarters? And since we are talking of religious communities, I’m curious if Buddhism had any role in welcoming these newcomers.

JGH:  These early firangis rarely if ever encountered Buddhists and Buddhism, which of course by this time had more or less vanished from India.  Ladakh was close to inaccessible: the only Europeans to visit it were a Portuguese man named Diogod Almeira, who felt so at home he stayed for two years in 1600-02, and a handful of Jesuit missionaries. There was more traffic with Buddhists in what is now Burma.  For the most part, firangis met only Muslims and Hindus, and a smattering of Christians, when they came to India.  Yes, it’s true that caste Hinduism tended to regard firangis, particularly those who had travelled over the impure kala pani, as beyond the pale.  And it’s true too that India’s Muslim communities – especially those in the cosmopolitan ports of the west coast, the Mughal centres, and the cities of the Deccan Sultanates – were by and large more welcoming of foreigners.  That is why a drifter like the English eccentric Thomas Coryate, who lived in Ajmer in 1615 and 1616, could feel quite comfortable joining the ranks of the fakirs outside the dargah of Moinuddin Chishti.  But we should also not impose the seemingly absolute religious divisions of a later, more communal age onto the pre-colonial past.  The truth is that foreigners, like local Muslims and Hindus, lived in spaces where the borders between different religious communities were much more permeable than we might think them to be.  A good case in point is Sa’id Sarmad, an Armenian migrant who lived in Hyderabad and Delhi in the seventeenth century.  Though born a Jew, he became known both as a Sufi and a Yogi; his dargah outside the Jama Masjid is venerated to this day by Muslims and Hindus alike.

ND: The white migrants to India were not history’s favorite children in the sense that we hardly get to read about them in the traditional texts. You do mention that these folks also rarely wrote any diaries or biographies. Is there any mention of them in the folk medium?

JGH: I’m sure there is somewhere, but I have yet to find anything of the kind you mention!  The only “folk” reference I can think of is in the Urdu tradition of Dastangoi, a form of story-telling popular in north India until the late nineteenth century and derived from Persian narratives of the life of Amir Hamza.  In one Dastangoi cycle, Hamza’s chief trickster Amar Ayyar joins forces with Hamza’s nephew Rustam Alamshah and another trickster from Firangistan named Barq Firangi, leader of a multiethnic platoon whose members speak English.  This Barq Firangi is not a British invader, or even a closet imperialist, but a mischievous outlaw ally of the Urdu-speaking characters. 

ND: I asked that above question because in my childhood I remember reading a story about Sebastian Goncalves Tibao in Anandamela, a well-known Bengali children’s and young adult’s magazine. It was as though the notorious pirate had gone down well entrenched in folk memory…

JGH: It helped that he had Indian descendants to memorialize him!  Tibao married into Burmese royalty, which allowed him to shore up his power in the 1610s as the pirate-“king” of Sandwip, a small island in the Sundarbans.  He and the other harmadis of Sandwip were not colonists but nomadic freebooters whose identities were every bit as shape-shifting as the monsoon-drenched Bengali river-delta they’d chosen to live in.  Through a combination of intermarriage and cultural adaptation, Tibau and his pirate community became increasingly Indian.  The community provided mercenary aid in 1665 to Shaista Khan, the Mughal subedar of Bengal, in the conquest of Chittagong from the Arakans.  This resulted in the displacement of the pirates to a location upstream of Chittagong called Firangi Bazar (or foreigners’ market) that is still extant.  The name is revealing, for it traces the movement of the firangis from migrant freebooters to rooted, “authentic” desis.  The culmination of this can be seen in the Tibau’s and the pirates’ modern-day descendants – Bengalis with last names like D’Souza and Pereira who still call Firangi Bazar home.  

ND: Speaking of the first firangis and the available records on them, I came across this fascinating account of Tom Coryate of Odcombe, England, in Dr. Angus Vine’s book at Stirling University, Scotland. Elsewhere Charles Nicholl mentions that in his travels as a “legstretcher”, Coryate had reached Mandu. Would you tell us a little about what he was doing there?

JGH: Coryate is that rare phenomenon: a seventeenth-century visitor to India who sought to document everything he did while he was here, including living as a fakir in Ajmer and giving an oration to Jahangir in Farsi.  He kept copious records of his long journey, on foot, across Asia to Agra and Ajmer – though most of these have now disappeared, as he stored them at places he stayed at along the way, and only a handful of the letters he sent back to England have survived.  The last of these is a note he wrote to his mother from Agra in October, 1616.  We know he died shortly after reaching Surat, again on foot, in December 1617.  What Coryate was doing in the intervening fourteen months is largely shrouded in mystery, but we do know that he was in Mandu in November 1617.  The English East India Company’s ambassador to the Mughal court, Sir Thomas Roe, was in Mandu with the Emperor Jahangir at that time; he records taking 35 rupees from Coryate on the understanding that Coryate could draw the same amount from the English factory in Surat.  Coryate had relied on Roe’s charity often during his two years in Agra and Ajmer, even though Roe was clearly annoyed by him.  I presume the indigent Coryate had stalked Roe all the way to Mandu in the hope of getting more money from him; and, the bill of exchange he received from Roe shows that he clearly had Surat on his mind as his next destination.  On the one hand this is a little surprising, as Coryate’s express aim in coming to Asia was to visit Samarkand so he could see Tamburlaine’s tomb, and he was always looking for ways to get there.  Surat was a stepping stone not to Samarkand but back to England.  On the other hand, you never know when homesickness can strike the most hardened traveller. By the end of 1617, perhaps, the ever-curious Coryate – who had opened himself up to the cultures, languages, and foods of India like few other visitors – had finally had enough and just wanted to go back home.

ND: You’ve said that most of these migrant Europeans came from the lower strata of the society. Among them Odd Tom Coryate, however, would be an exception. An Oxford alum minus a degree, he certainly enjoyed the privileges of the court and had befriended prominent poets and authors of his time. How would you explain his transition as the roaming fakir?

JGH: Coryate may have had the benefit of a degree and temporary employment at King James’s court, though he was always a socially marginal figure even in his native England: he came from something of a provincial backwater in Somerset, and his diminutive size and ruddy face branded him as something of an oddity.  This marginality may have been what fuelled his almost insatiable desire to get outside of England – first to the European continent, which he spent many months walking in, and then to Asia. In the process, he not only got out of England; he got out of himself as well.  There was little that was recognizably English or middle class about Coryate by the time he reached India.  When he arrived in Ajmer, he was wearing Turkish and Persian clothes; he was also speaking fluent Farsi. He had also been eating little, living on the equivalent of two English pennies a day after being robbed of most of his money in central Asia.  During Coryate’s time in Ajmer, he was repeatedly dependent on the kindness of others.  He wrote that he would never forget Jahangir’s act of generosity in feeding 5,000 poor people “kitcherie” from an “immense brass pot” at the Dargah Sharif of Moinuddin Chishti. It is almost certain that Coryate himself was one of the poor fakirs that Jahangir fed. 

ND: Manucci’s account of the Mughals is one of the ways we get to know about lives and times back then. What were Coryate’s letters home all about?

JGH: Coryate’s letters were largely about Thomas Coryate.  He was an incorrigible self-regarder.  In many ways, his letters read like any modern Facebook feed: they are full of self-important status updates, shout-outs to tagged friends, and snapshots of him in exotic locations – four of his letters from India were published with an engraving depicting him on top of elephant, as per his express instructions.  I keep looking for a non-existent “like” button beneath it.

ND: The narrative of the colonial project has been stereotypically about the rulers and the colonized, with little reference to the oppression within the Indian society of the lower castes, tribals, women, and other marginalized communities. I wonder if our first firangis were seen as pariahs or white messiahs.

JGH: Definitely not messiahs.  But not quite pariahs either.  Most of the firangis I study have left only the faintest trace, if any, in the historical record.  Often we have to deal with the archival equivalent of mere ripples and vapour trails.  This is hardly surprising given that many of these migrants were illiterate.  And even when they weren’t, it was only very rarely that they or the people they met thought to document their experiences.  Coryate is a rarity in this regard.  Instead, we find hints of their lives in the records of others – powerful people whom the firangis served as soldiers, physicians, and artisans.  Here I have been greatly influenced by one of the most important intellectual movements to have emerged from India in recent decades, the school known as Subaltern Studies, associated with the scholarship of Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others.  Subaltern Studies built on the Italian political philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the subaltern to refer to the oppressed and the poor classes; it did so to tell history from below, from the perspective of non-elite groups largely effaced by the official record.  Although the school followed Gramsci in understanding the subaltern to be a global category, its leading scholars’ emphasis on South Asian peasants and tribal peoples has contributed to the term becoming in some Western circles a synonym for non-elite Indians.  Yet we can equally tease out a subaltern history of firangis that doesn’t quite align with the imperialist and colonialist trajectories of official history.

ND: What next? More new stories …

JGH: Who knows?  This particular story hasn’t ended yet!