This book made me curious about two things. First, of course, was the title: what in heaven could it be about? The second, after I had read the jacket blurb. Why on earth don’t Indians write books like this? Remember that Englishman William Dalrymple, who digs into all sorts of forgotten papers from the past 500 years and produces wonderful accounts of our own history?
The author of this book is from New Zealand, and has lived for two decades in the US. He teaches Shakespeare. And he has produced this terrific account of The First Firangis, i.e., the first European foreigners who decided to settle in India 500 years ago — and down the years since then.
The book tells the stories of dozens of firangis who turned up in India for a job and then stayed on.There were women too, but usually in harems. Each individual story is fascinating. The attention to detail is stunning, even if the style is a shade more academic than required for a book like this.
What does the word firangi mean? Quite literally, says Harris, it means a mixture of the Hindi videshi (alien) and pardesi (outsider). He says it has come down from the Mughal era when they used the Arabic word farenji to denote people from France. But it was also used to describe all Christians.
Eventually, it became the word for all white Christians although other ‘foreigners’ could also be firangis. Here Harris has introduced his own meaning: foreigners who have become Indian but are not regarded by Indians as Indian. But one thing is for sure: for all genuine Indians, it is a derogatory term. However much ‘authentically’ Indian a foreigner may become, if he is white and Christian, he will remain firangi, an object of mild derision.
Harris, however, doesn’t say what happens to a firangi’s descendants, such as the Eurasians and the Anglo-Indians. Do they get accepted or not?
He answers the question somewhat obliquely in his penultimate chapter titled ‘On being interrupted.’ The key to being an Indian, it would appear (at least according to Harris) lies in the ability to interrupt while others are speaking. Let me quote: “Exchanges between Indian friends often involve finishing the others’ sentences, cutting them off, or abruptly changing the subject at hand … Indian conversation feels more like a rough-and-tumble game of hockey with many clubs swinging — or more accurately, a game of hockey with many balls being simultaneously whacked.”
He suggests obliquely that a foreigner can’t become a true Indian, and will perhaps remain a stupid firangi forever until he has learnt the art of handling persistent interruption.
In another chapter, the coda takes the form of a note, not just on clothing, but re-clothing as well. What you wear in India is important, he says, and tells us about his favourite dress, the black pathan suit. The firangis of old also went native, as it were. But that really isn’t the point. The real point is the Indian custom of gifting clothes, including second-hand ones. To quote once again: “My cook wears several of my discarded shirts and jackets. I am pleased that I can give him clothes that he needs; but even as my gifts have created an intimacy between us, they have also cemented the class difference between us. By re-clothing him, I bind him more firmly into a hierarchical relationship of obligation to me.”
Then he tells the story of two firangi women who lived in a Mughal harem. They had to participate in the ritual of giving and receiving clothes, which must have been fun except that the rituals inducted them into another perhaps less pleasant hierarchy. They had to “use their bodies in accordance with the often stern prescriptions of the Mughal court.” He doesn’t tell us what these prescriptions were.
Another little addendum at the end of another chapter is about the Indian practice of renaming. Most other parts of the world use nicknames, says the author, but in India “it is a compulsion.”The Mughals used renaming to elevate the status of an artisan or some other menial to the status of a servant of the Court. These nicknames, he observes — quite wrongly in my view — force the people on whom they have been bestowed to “do things they would not otherwise do.”
In his own case, says Harris, a Punjabi friend has given him the wholly Punjabi name of Gillinder, and Gillu. The former is for formal occasions and the latter for more ‘sporty’ ones, he says.