April 22, 2015 1:05:28 pm
By Aranya Shankar
“I find firangi an extraordinarily elastic word. It is also an Indian word; one which is simultaneously foreign and local,” said Jonathan Gil Harris, describing why it was included in the title of his new book. Harris was in conversation with translator Arunava Sinha at the launch of his book “The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & other Foreigners who Became Indian” (Aleph Book Company; Rs 495), at India Habitat Centre on Thursday.
New Zealand-born Harris, who teaches English at Ashoka University and is married to an Indian, said his determination to find out about India through people like him became the inspiration for his book which talks about the migration of firangis to pre-colonial India in the 16th and 17th centuries. Through case studies of various travellers from Europe, Africa and Asia, who left their homeland to come to India, he explores his own process of becoming a “21st century firangi” in India.
“My first guide was Niccolo Manucci, a teenage runaway from Venice who arrived around 1653. He served as a mercenary in Dara Shikoh’s army and despite having no medical training, announced in Lahore one fine day, that he was a doctor and started practicing. He was accused of cannibalism because he thought human fat was one of the best medicines available to bring down sugar levels. He was also robbed by two English dakaits (dacaoits) in present-day Haryana. Later in life, Niccolo migrated to Madras and became a siddha vaidya (a practitioner of local Unani medicine),” said Harris.
In the book are “subaltern firangis” such as Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese Jewish physician who, to avoid religious persecution, became a Christian hakim in India; British Jesuit Thomas Stephens, who fell in love with Marathi and wrote a Purana called Kristapurana, and even Sa’id Sarmad Kashani; and an Armenian Jew, whose dargah still exists near Meena Bazar in Delhi.
Harris has a chapter called ‘On Interruption’. He spoke about how he was always interrupted in India. “The first firangis whose stories I have told here all had to deal with interruption in a myriad of ways. And in turn, the first firangis interrupted, and continue to interrupt, what it means to be Indian. No one single trajectory of Indianness – be it religious, cultural or linguistic – can go uninterrupted for long.”
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