Book review

The First Firangis: How foreigners became Indian

This book is a fascinating series of stories of recycled identities.

Giambattista Vico, a Neapolitan philosopher from the late seventeenth century, suggested that it was ‘from Jove that the muse begun’. Jove, or Zeus, is the Greek god of thunder, and the cracking of thunder, its sudden irruption over the tapping of rain, startles the body and jolts it out of position, constellating in an instant a horizon of questions. What was that?

And how shall we call this feeling of sudden alertness, the darting of the eyes prompted by roaring skies? What can we contrast it with to articulate its practical significance? The blast of thunder, in other words, drops a topic around which the body is to regain its composure through gesturing, through talk, and even through ‘fantasia’ (as Vico himself described it): in other words, through cultural innovation. The body is the site of questioning to which our cultural imaginations are prompted to respond.

It is therefore from Jove (as thunder, as a phenomenon of erupting presence appearing before us) that the muse (of culture) begins its song. This feeling is surely familiar to anyone who has journeyed, crossed, landed or returned to India: a strange puzzlement and dis-orientation that urges a search for new cultural resources to re-situate oneself in this place that suddenly clings to the body, that contaminates and transforms it. Jonathan Gil Harris’s book The First Firangis offers an imaginative journey into precisely this predicament: the travail of arriving in India and being invaded by it, to the point of ‘becoming Indian’.

Garcia da Orta

Harris unpacks this experience by sketching a series of portraits that are as unclassifiable as life itself. Take the Portuguese doctor Garcia da Orta, a patriotic participant in the colonial enterprise, according to official biographies. Contrary to that polished portrait, however, Garcia da Orta was himself on the run from religious prosecution as a Sephardic Jew whose lineage meandered in the multicultural terrain of Andalucia in Spain. Once in India, he took to experimenting with medicinal and edible plants and fruits, developing hitherto unknown (to him) embodied affinities. As these things go, those newly found attachments eventually led Garcia da Orta to gain a certain interest in other medical traditions beyond the Greek-Galenic one he was originally educated into.

Harris’s picture of Garcia da Orta, in the end, offers up a more poliedric and contested individual than a superficial reading, aligned with colonial hagiography, might suggest. He appears buffeted by currents the most disparate: entangled in political ploys, in the looming danger of religious criminality, in the curiosity elicited by the ‘strange things’ that he encounters (such as his beloved mango) and which prompted re-thinkings, appropriations, original insights, plural identifications.

Niccolò Manucci

For the Venetian artilleryman-cum-physician Niccolò Manucci, the tussle is even more glaring between a grandiose self-narration as a ‘European’ in early colonial Madras and the simultaneous discovery and adoption of local homeopathic remedies through a mix of improvisation, empiricism and gastronomic experimentation undertaken with his body. The body’s transformations, as it is imprinted by - and inscribes itself into - a new environment, contaminate and complicate crude depictions of Manucci as either a “white communalist” or a pragmatic multiculturalist.

For others, like the indentured soldier-slaves who rose through the ranks of local armies (and sometimes became thorns in the side of colonial conquistadors), bodily transformation would come to be a matter of re-wiring one’s fighting skills to new terrains, or of translating them to combat at sea or in the backwaters of Diu or the Kanyakumari coast. Through portraits such as these, bodily transformation appears less a matter of pure and simple enculturation, and more one of skilful translation and re-invention: many of the firangis Harris describes were able to make the most, in the new landscape, of the cultural resources their bodies had already imbibed in their place(s) of origin, with which they were able to harmonise their newly acquired affinities and attachments.

Not just assimilation

Becoming Indian, through their stories, is a far cry from pure and simple assimilation, and bears instead the flavour of an active and ongoing creolisation: an insightful treading on the shifting grounds of cultural innovation. In other words, the nomadic bodies of these early modern border-crossers were, first and foremost, ‘transformative element[s], both adapting to and subtly altering [their] environment with each movement’.

The First Firangis is therefore about becoming Indian as much as it is about the becoming of India: less monolith and more zone of admixture, where a plurality of cultural traditions grow into each other inextricably, evading purified notions of nationhood. Culture as living and moving is too thick to be neatly boxed. On this reading, “India” conjures a plane of folds and pleats, so restless that it can only be described through the movement, the becoming, that slices it and connects it producing infinite variations: ‘[i]n their artful border crossings’ - Harris observes - ‘by resisting any purely foreign or purely local identity - [firangi migrants] were also, in a very real sense, authentically Indian’.

From becoming Indian, to the becoming of India, Harris’s account ultimately rings true to becoming in general, as an ‘ongoing process of fleshly alteration’. In this sense, The First Firangis can be read as a courageous affirmation of cosmopolitanism, as a commitment to eschew reified views of identity, and towards a holographic appreciation of culture that be able to yield infinite detail and endless motion before the careful observer/creator/participant.

Recycling identities

In view of this, Harris’s study strikes one as the recollection of a multiplicity of chameleonic practices, through which individuals, as far back as five centuries ago, managed to recycle themselves into new identities. A bit like Levi Strauss’s bricoleurs, they mastered the craft of tinkering with whatever bits and pieces were available to them from a range of different cultural environs, in order to come to inhabit a niche of their own.

Within the common process of negotiating a mishmash of disparate belongings and bodily transformations, however, the lives Harris depicts are nonetheless highly differentiated. Think, for instance, of the range of bodily transformation that our cultural bricoleurs had to endure: having to cope with the heat while eating coconuts and writing poems in Marathi is very different from the trajectory of an indentured soldier-slave, which is in turn different from that of a female member of the Mughal harem, like Bibi Juliana Firangi.

The story of Juliana Firangi

Bibi Juliana Firangi was a Christian Armenian woman who became part of Akbar’s court in the late sixteenth century, and whose story of becoming Indian entails chiefly the skilful execution of highly ritualised practices (kneeling at Church, moving around in a heavily-jewelled ornamental dress in the Mughal harem) which leave little space for the ‘creative reinvention’ that led other firangis to leave behind ‘a treatise on medicine, an epic poem, a fortified city, a water-supply system, a memorable painting, or a beautiful throne’.

Granted, of course, that selective omissions from archival recordings of the time may also have played a role in gendering her story as somewhat less relevant to the unfolding of his-story: we only have better information about a later firangi member of Aurangzeb’s harem, Juliana Dias Da Costa, on the grounds of her accession to traditionally male achievements, such as landowning. Still, Bibi Juliana Firangi’s story aptly shows the other side of the process of becoming Indian, namely its path-dependence upon the differential horizons of opportunities encountered by the motley crew of firangis that Harris focuses on.

Firangi-ness

This, of course, is not so much meant to smuggle through the back door the leitmotif of specifically white privilege, which the book perceptively unpicks. Precisely, the firangi-ness of Harris’s characters does not preclude important differentiations in the possibilities for creative reinvention available to them, which go from flourishing expressed through the production of some artefact or other cultural product that is enduring and original, to the more mundane coping at the bidding of others, as in the case of Bibi Juliana.

The point of including a story like hers seems to me to be about sensitising the reader to those figurations of power that one only becomes aware of, as boundaries, as one is held back by them in the process of orchestrating one’s social position in a novel cultural milieu: it’s not just a matter of becoming Indian, then, but of what kind of Indian one manages to become, and what station of Indian-ness one finds it accessible to grow into. The First Firangis, therefore, not only detaches Indian-ness from some congealed notion of culture, frozen in ritual and immune to creolisation and syncretism. It also pluralises it along the many lines of privilege that demarcate, then as they do now, different stations of entitlement and exclusion.

Fluid prose

Last, but not least, the book is written in engaging prose that weaves a highly detailed tapestry around these lives: Harris definitely succeeds in offering a full-bodied flavour of the kinds of currents these early firangi travellers to India must have attempted to mediate. Beneath the fluidity of the prose, however, is also a perceptive academic sensitivity that resonates with the aims of post-human scholarship, at least insofar as it overcomes the centrality of the disembodied, disembedded human, and focuses instead on the body, itself understood as a multiplicity.

The firangi body, through Harris’s pen, breaks out into a “collective human entity” of bodies (in the plural), entangled in a gesturing jam where they cue and follow each other, as in an impromptu dance figuration, in search for workable passages ahead through the “social fabric” they assemble, and in concert with a larger physical environment.

In sum, The First Firangis challenges and empowers us to use the author’s - as well as our own - arrivals and traversings as devices to elicit empathy and first-person intuition of the process of becoming (Indian), as it unfolded for a motley crew of wanderers, refugees and drifters as far back as five centuries ago. It is a telling of biographies, of writings-in-the-body, that in turn elicits a powerful awareness of the ongoing inscriptions in our own bodies. And of the possibilities of messing with and creolising notions of normality and whiteness, of Indian-ness, and of the foreign by casting each one of us, from Garcia da Orta to Harris himself to you, the reader, as agents of cultural change, at once transformed and transforming the ecologies we are mangled with.

One leaves The First Firangis with a sense of the effervescent power of cultural imagination to make and unmake the worlds we inhabit, yet a sense that is not divorced from an understanding of the challenges that dot this process of negotiating the conditions of our cultural inhabitations. For this reason, as Vico would perhaps have it, this book is nothing short of fantas-tic.

The First Firangis, Jonathan Gil Harris, The Aleph Book Company.

Luigi Russi is an academic sociologist, firangi migrant and apprentice tribal, currently based in Shillong.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.