India has been attracting foreigners since times immemorial. Those were the times when arriving to India itself was a challenge. On their detour to India these foreigners must have picked up many things on the way. They brought this baggage to India and interspersed it in the Indian soils. They also picked up Indian habits. In the process their bodies underwent changes in order to adapt the climate, culture and landscape, all of which was alien to them. Jonathan Gil Haris’s the first firangis documents the stories of such adventures.
These firangis had diverse backgrounds. So we have healers, soldiers, artists, robbers, beggars, ascetics, pirates and courtesans. They had diverse background. Some were slaves who were bought and sold. Some were migrants who were inducted in the armies. Some like Father Stephen came to spread the word of God, learnt Indian languages for the same and ended up falling in love with them. Indeed Father Stephen’s story is the most interesting story in the collection. I am well versed in Marathi language. So the poetry of this Father, who obviously learnt Marathi after arriving in India, left me spellbound. How can a foreigner develop such a good command over Marathi, understand the regional metaphors and intricacies and incorporate them in a poetry form which was by then a prerogative of Saints, is a question which continues to haunt me.
Another story which I liked was that of Thomas Coryate, a travelwriter, whose travel writing in the words of the author was more like of facebook page updates, who found begging in Ajmer lucrative and used his education in dramatics at the Eruopean Universities to the hilt to earn maximum alms. The book underlines that unlike their western counterparts the Indian slaves got an opportunity to move towards the higher ranks by their dexterity.
None of the historical characters in the book have left any autobiographies. The author culls out information about them from a variety of obscure sources and makes use of his considerable story telling skills to bring them to life again. While narrating the stories of these men and women, he tells us many anecdotes about their contemporaries as well as the prevailing socio-economic and geographical conditions of the country. Some stories like that of Bibi Juliana appear too far fetched. The author admits that there is very little information available about her. He uses the best of his imagination to recreate her. The author himself is a foreigner migrated to India. He uses the changes in his own body on arrival in India to draw parallels with the colourful characters in the book.
This is not an easy read. You have to read the book with great concentration or you will lose sight amidst many characters from many nationalities with the ever changing dynamics between them. This book is unique for it offers something new, something different, which is poignant, riveting and inspiring. These characters may not be heroes or heroines, but they have definitely contributed to shape the plinth on which we stand today. This book is highly recommended.