The first firangis – Jonathan Gil Harris – Book Review


thefirstfirangisGoodreads blurb: The Indian subcontinent has been a land of immigrants for thousands of years: waves of migration from Persia, Central Asia, Mongolia, the Middle East and Greece have helped create India’s exceptionally diverse cultural mix. In the centuries before the British Raj, when the Mughals were the preeminent power in the subcontinent, a wide array of migrants known as ‘firangis’ made India their home. In this book, Jonathan Gil Harris, a twenty-first-century firangi, tells their stories.

These gripping accounts are of healers, soldiers, artists, ascetics, thieves, pirates and courtesans who were not powerful or privileged. Often they were escaping poverty or religious persecution; many were brought here as slaves; others simply followed their spirit of adventure. Some of these migrants were absorbed into the military. Others fell in with religious communities—the Catholics of Rachol, the underground Jews of Goa, the fakirs of Ajmer, the Sufis of Delhi. Healers from Portugal and Italy adapted their medical practice in accordance with local traditions. Gifted artisans from Europe joined Akbar’s and Jahangir’s royal ateliers, and helped create enduring works of art. And though almost invisible within the archival record, some migrant women such as the Armenian Bibi Juliana and the Portuguese Juliana Dias da Costa found a home in royal Mughal harems.

Jonathan Gil Harris uses his own experience of becoming Indian through the process of acclimatizing to the country’s culture, customs, weather, food, clothes and customs to bring the stories of these shadowy figures to vivid life.

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At the outset let me confess that I was extremely piqued by the title of the book and its blurb primarily because most of what I know about Indian history before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was what I had read in my history books and the occasional Amar Chitra Katha during my younger days. And on the one off instances where I had the opportunity to read up about this fascinating period of Indian history, I was more than taken aback by the interesting set of circumstances that our country found itself in during these days, especially the days before The East India Company and its British employees arrived on the scene here. And it wouldn’t be too much to tell that this book more than satiated my curiosity in this regard, and in the process has kindled a newfound interest in this period of Indian history more than ever before.

While the book itself tries to tell the stories of a seemingly disparate set of individuals with only the common thread of them having settled down in India, the book at its core has India, Indians and more importantly ‘Indianness’ and what it takes to actually ‘be an Indian’ in more than one way. The author very cleverly hooks the readers in by narrating his own initial experiences in India and his own home-grown methods to cope with the country and its effect on his mind and body. And by cleverly using the human body and the travails it undergoes in a new environment as a metaphor for the ‘firangi’ experiences in India, Jonathan Gil Harris goes on to chronicle some of the lesser known foreigners in India.

What follows are my observations about almost all the individual foreigners’ experiences that the author has chronicled in this book, but be assured, no ‘spoilers’ have been given away.

The first two chapters deal with the subtle yet noticeable influence of Indian food and more specifically fruits on the ‘firangis’ Garcia De Orta and Thomas Stephens, while the next chapter deals with three warrior slaves Malik Ayaz, Chinali and Dillanai and their respective stories as to how they found their way into the armies and the hearts of their Indian masters.

The story of Malik Ambar and his contribution to the origins and growth of guerrilla warfare in the North Deccani regions of Maharashtra is the next chapter while the stories of the Naqqash and Javaheri in Jahangir’s court where the firangis exhibited an exemplary knowledge and appreciation of the  fine Mughal arts of painting and jewelry making is quite a nice chapter.

The chapters on the two firangi women, both named Juliana make for interesting reading, although not quite as interesting as some of the earlier chapters. But this is made up by the wonderfully interesting story of Thomas Coryate, who was as much a performer, as a traveler and one of those rare firangis who managed to assimilate as much of the local cultures that he encountered throughout his travels, or ‘travails’ as he termed them.

An interesting character who went by the name Sa’id Sarmad Kashani, who among other things was most notably remembered for the nudity which he embraced for almost the entire second half of his life. This particular firangi’s story has more than enough meat in it to pique the attention of readers who are philosophically and spiritually inclined.

What follows is a small yet interesting story of a firangi pirate king Sebastian Goncalves Tibau from the eastern coastal city of Chittagong in Bengal makes for some interesting reading, especially for those who enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies like I did.

The whimsical story of Nicolas Manucci who seems to have harbored quite the ‘racial’ hatred against all non-Europeans but still managed to successfully lead quite a colorful life in India over the course of at least four decades or so. So much so, that he seems to have become more ‘Indian’ than any of the other firangis mentioned in this book.

To conclude, I reproduce one of the last few sentences in this book “one might even say that the authentically Indian can never be identified with a singular trajectory but, rather, has always been a series of interruptions and creative responses to those interruptions” and this, in a nutshell, is what this book is all about; the earliest firangis who came to India for various reasons via various routes but stayed on despite all the interruptions they faced and thrived to become ‘authentically Indian’ which reflects the author’s own life, personality and choices in so many ways.

Click on the following link to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link].

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Disclaimer: The publishers offered me a review copy of this book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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