Publisher: Aleph Book Company
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The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris is a collection of stories about Westerners who arrived in India before British colonisation had taken over, and who assimilated themselves into the Indian landscape, becoming ‘Indian’ as they did so.
Many of these firangis arrived as missionaries, but others were simply down-on-their-luck wanderers who happened to land in an exotic country and decided to make it their home. They became healers, artists, court jesters, highwaymen, courtesans – you name it.
What Worked For Me
The accounts, for the most part, are intriguing. Niccolo Manucci, a servant whose master dies on the way to meeting the Mughal Emperor, was robbed in the jungle – by two other firangis! He then wandered all over India before settling down as a vaidya. Christian missionaries took a calculated decision to accept the casteism in Indian society, so long as they could spread the Lord’s Word. Jesuit Roberto De Nobili, an Italian missionary in Tamil Nadu, went so far as to adopt the Brahmin sacred thread and shave his head! Bibi Juliana Firangi started out as a servant and became a royal confidant in Aurengzeb’s zenana.
Personally, I found Harris’ insistence on his theory that “As firangis arrived in India, India arrived in them” getting a little irksome after a while. This might not be a universal quibble… many readers might appreciate the academic discussion behind the stories – but I confess, I was looking for something more piquant from the book. For example, Ismat Chughtai’s book ‘Lifting the Veil’ has a story about a British officer who ‘goes native’, takes his (very willing) maidservant as a mistress and then stays on in India. That piece of fiction made me root for the ‘big, bad, firangi’ much more than Harris’ real-life stories did. A case of Art being superior to Life, I guess!
Interesting, well-researched, articulate. If you’re interested in the subject, this is probably a great choice for you. If not, as in my case, you will find that the idea of the book is more exciting than the book itself.
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