It seems appropriate to begin with the book that is credited with being the very first one written in English by an Indian. Dean Mahomet’s Travels was published in 1793-94 in Cork, Ireland, following his immigration from India. The book covers a period of 15 years, from 1769 to 1784, and describes in painstaking detail his travels with the English East India Company where he served as an officer. Mahomet accompanied the Company on its travels along the Ganga, where it tried to bring people under its rule, and his account of these places provides a rich and fascinating record of many aspects of life in India during that time.
The definitive contemporary edition comes with an introduction and biographical essay by historian Michael Fisher, which helps contextualize Mahomet’s comments. Read today, the Travels offer a glimpse into the mind of an Indian servant of the British Empire, with all the duality that suggests.
Letters to an imaginary friend
Mahomet wrote the book in the then fashionable epistolary form, addressing a series of letters, numbered I to XXXVIII, to an imaginary British friend. He begins with a dedication to Colonel William A. Bailie, which along with the salutation he uses for each letter – “Dear Sir” – reflects the somewhat ingratiating tone of his project.
His audience was unambiguously British, to whom he attempted to explain India. At one point he suddenly launches into “an alphabetical explanation of Persian and Indian terms, not commonly understood in this country.” He explains how different castes are organised, the practice of chewing betel, the differences between Hindu and Muslim rituals, and other practices native to India at the time.
What stands out most when we read it today is the richness of detail with which he describes everything, from architecture to geographical location, from Muslim marriages to the process of making “loaf sugar.” Even though it was originally written for a British audience, much of its contents, and especially the level of detail provided, may not be familiar to Indian readers in the present, making this text an excellent source of information.
Mahomet’s memoirs begin when he is eleven, shortly after the death of his father, who served as a subedar in a battalion. While he lives in Patna with his mother, Mahomet is drawn to the royal palace where English soldiers are entertained regularly with balls, dancing girls and suppers.
Young Dean’s fascination for the life of the soldier is apparent. He appears charmed not only by their lifestyle, but also their appearance, and resolves to join them despite his mother’s resistance. He is taken under the wing of Captain Baker, who is to become a lifelong patron.
What follows is an enthusiastic account of his travels with the Company as it moves from one city to another, trying to suppress rebellions and expand its control over Indian territories. Mahomet describes each city – Benaras, Calcutta, Lucknow,Ayodhya, and so on – in minute detail, situating them by longitude and latitude, in relation to England. He describes the architecture, rituals, trades, history and other aspects of local life in a manner that may seem a little prosaic at first but is nonetheless a fascinating record of many aspects of contemporary life.
The narrative is not restricted to descriptions of places, however. He also mentions the adventures of the Company as it wages battles against Indian rulers and rebels on the banks of the Ganga. Some of these accounts are repetitive and might not seem particularly compelling. All right, I confess I skimmed through several of these. But the drama of the encounters does help break up the lengthy descriptive passages, as well as providing an insider look at the process by which the East India Company established and expanded control over Indian territories.
The memoir ends with Mahomet’s immigration to Ireland in in 1784. Fisher’s biography continues the story for those interested to learn what happened to Mahomet after he emigrated.
An Indian on India
The historical and literary significance of this work is obvious. It was the first time that an Indian, rather than a European coloniser and outsider, represented the country and people. As Fisher points out in his Introduction, “His very act of asserting his own narrative challenged European assertions of monopoly over representations of the ‘Orient.’”
Mahomet takes pains to portray his people in a sympathetic manner. But in so doing, he often ends up romanticising Indians. He speaks of the “innocence of our ancestors,” and points out that Indians are “devoid of every species of fraud or low cunning.”
Later, contradicting himself, he describes the villagers who rob the Company’s tents in the middle of the night as savages and animals. The “lawless aggressors” get their just deserts when their noses and ears are cut off by the “gallant soldiers.” Mahomet’s position as both insider and outsider, as both colonized Indian subject and servant of the British Empire, was clearly fraught and full of contradictions.
Inspiration at work
Fisher has pointed out that Mahomet copied sections of his descriptions from earlier travel narratives such as Jemima Kindersley’s Letters from the Island of Teneriffe…and the East Indies (1777) and John Henry Grose’s Voyage to the East Indies (1766,) which would be considered plagiarism today.
However, this is also a testimony to Mahomet’s erudition. He references classical architecture and mythology, for instance when he compares Indian gateways, to “the old triumphal arches of the Romans,” or Shuja al-Daula’s daughter to Lucretia. He weaves quotations from Seneca and Goldsmith, or texts such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, quite organically throughout his book.
These references to European literature and mythology naturally endeared him to his Irish – and English – audience. But they also demonstrate his exposure to those canonical works. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect an Anglophile officer in the East India Company to produce a work in English that draws less on Western traditions of writing.
Mahomet borrowed heavily from the prevalent genre of travel narratives. The India he portrays is a land of opulent palaces, mystical snake charmers and robust elephants. At one point, he says, “I shall now proceed to give you some account of the form of marriage among the Mahometans, which is generally solemnized with all the external show of Oriental pageantry.” But this celebration of the exotic is balanced by the precise and scientific nature of his descriptions. One such example is this account of how opium is made from poppy:
“The flower resembles a rose, and the stem which is commonly pliable, grows to the height of two cubits, and produces a kind of leaves (not unlike those of the lettuce) oblong, indented, curled, and of a sea-green colour. When it is full of sap, a slight incision is made on the outside, from which flow some drops of a milky nature. These drops soon congeal; and when moistened and kneaded with warm water and honey, become more consistent and viscous like pitch; after this process, the glutinous matter is made into small cakes fit for immediate use.”
The Travels of Dean Mahomet is well-known to many historians and British India scholars. But it is a book worth reading for anyone interested in Indian history or literature. An interesting study of how a writer can possess both insider and outsider status in a society, it is also a passionate attempt to represent India to foreign readers. But, most of all, it provides valuable information about the formative years of the British Empire in India, as well as plenty of entertainment through its rich and evocative details. This book, in more ways than one, marks the beginning of the tradition of Indian writing in English.
Oindrila Mukherjee teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She writes fiction and non fiction. You can follow her here on Twitter.
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