Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review – The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris

I just finished reading ‘The First Firangis’ by Jonathan Gil Harris. 

This book does many things. Many.  

At the surface, ‘The First Firangis’ tells remarkable stories of heroes, healers, charlatans, courtesans, pirates and other shadowy foreigners from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who reached Indian shores centuries before the British Raj, with humbler ambitions and to finally leave ‘their bones in the subcontinent’. In spectacular vividness, the book brings those lesser-known firangis to life. I could see them, in royal robes or bare nakedness, in harems or in hiding, in ships or lying buried. I could see them bending over paintings or drinking coconut water; adorning their necks with jewels or slaying others’ with military skill. I could see those foreign bodies moving ‘across borders of geography, culture and language’ and becoming Indian. 

The book also re-creates those times, those bits of the Mughal period which find no mention in popular historical narratives of battles, annexations and mighty edifices. It took me to those forgotten lanes of Indian history where beggars were multi-lingual poets and highway bandits poor Englishmen in Mughal disguise. It welcomed me into forbidden rooms of palaces where feminine love and healing existed alongside hierarchy and politics. The book looked beyond codified History textbooks to show me the Literature of those times and views derived from a window of critique. 

And the book took me by surprise. As it busied me with its fascinating world of people constantly becoming by learning and unlearning, the book quietly slipped away from below my feet my own solidified idea of a pure identity. What does it mean to be a Punjabi Hindu? What is my racial identity? What does it mean to be Indian? Is there something called ‘authentically Indian’? In short, the book shook me as it took away from me my acquired definition of a historical self. While I read about the firangis’ process of acclimatization and becoming Indian, the book planted a storm in my head, interrupting my sense of identity, completely. 

So, what exactly happened when Jonathan Gil Harris, himself a descendent from a long list of migrants and now living and working in New Delhi, ‘traced the outlines of rather different modes of contact between firangi and desi’ by drawing on ‘modern day interludes’ of his own life?

His readers were encouraged to give thought to the following - the concept of body and bodily transformation; the problem of absolute identity; the idea of history hidden in ‘subjunctive’ art and finally, the relevance of connecting the past with the present. To examine each of these individually helps see how Jonathan answers ‘How can a firangi become a Mughal painter?’ with a detective’s eyes and ears which collate stray ‘echoes’ of history scattered around. 


Jonathan asks us to re-imagine the nature of ‘biography’ as a ‘story of bodily transformation in response to the specific challenges of new ecological, cultural and economic environments’, in order to make legible the lives of firangi men and women from pre-colonial times. For this he uses his own body as an archive of migratory imprints, making his own experiences the conceptual premise on which to rest these mini-biographies.

Re-locating meant the body interacting with alien elements – consciously or at a sub-conscious level. Garcia Da Orta, the Hakeem of Bombay and Ahmadnagar, is accidentally welcomed by the scent of a cargo of cloves and falls in love with mango in all its forms. Smells and tastes change him. By gradually being forced to move away from ‘proper’ bodily behaviors mandated by his religion and profession, Garcia ‘inhabits otherness’ – gastronomically, culturally, linguistically and religiously. 

The story of Thomas Stephens shows the complex bodily translation of an Englishman into a Konkani kavi. His passage to India entailed ‘the passage of India’s physical elements through his flesh’ – like coconut water, which finds prominent expression in his Marathi version of the Bible. ‘Is it still my body at all?’ is a question his body's transformation poses. 

The spatial mobility of firangi warrior slaves ensured intimate relations with the physical environments they fought enemies in. New skills and new reflexes had to be found, and a ‘muscle memory’ formed. Malik Ambar, the Muslim slave who grew to design Aurangabad, used his embodied knowledge of a new landscape, something that could have been learnt only after adapting to it. To acquire specific skills to master, a bodily modification had to be cultivated, of sitting a certain way, of using exotic tools, etc. 

A body became another by being clothed in specific ways too. Gifting robes and fabric was a part of  complex hierarchical relations of service and obligation. Bibi Juliana Firangi’s ‘tantalizingly elusive’ story of going from a servant to a royal confidant in Aurengzeb’s harem is a fascinating documentary on the transformation of her body. But it is Coryate’s change from a 'comical' firangi to the Fakir of Ajmer that really shows how ‘his body … become a palimpsest – a khichdi of skills, gestures and linguistic abilities from England and the subcontinent’.

But no matter who reached which part of India and when, the weather had to be weathered and the body had to change in order to abide by the laws of the climate, to survive disease and dysentery, storm and sunstroke. Each of these stories show how it was not just foreigners who arrived in India, ‘India arrived’ in their bodies too, challenging their physicality and eventually re-charting their sense of an identity.   

Jonathan speaks from experience when he talks about ‘becoming another’ yet ‘longing for a core identity – an irreducible part of the self immune to transformation’. Identity, then, becomes more of a Work in Progress, much like the body, a fluid entity and forever in flux. 

The First Firangis’ attempts to disturb modern ideas of racial identity, ‘including the white of “white Mughals”'. How space, language, clothes, skill, names, allegiance and professions which 'conduced to multicultural curiosity’ transform not the just the body but the perception of self too. What Jonathan says for Orta is true for every firangi whose account this book carries – ‘Orta’s identity was not singular, but organized around fault lines that split and pluralized him … his lived identity not singular, but multiple.

While the book examines the etymology of the word ‘firangi’ it reveals to us, through its various ‘stateless shape-shifters’, how the tag of a ‘firangi’ served as a reminder that they were neither Indian nor nationals of places they left behind. This must have led to much mental turmoil. On the other hand, for those like Malik Ambar, the vakil-us-sultanat of Khadki, the reality of not belonging to a single space ‘was an empowering precondition of his ascendency’. 

The paradox ‘of moving yet settling’ which was at the heart of what it meant to be firangi in the 16th and 17th century India is also at the heart of this book. How else can we reconcile Manucci’s Hinduphobia with his embrace of siddha medicine as the Vadiya of Madras? Is a firangi then, ‘an identity at odds with itself’? A contradiction of sorts?

In such permeability of multicultural influences, the term ‘authentic’ loses its purity. The idea that someone foreign can become Indian makes you even ask what it means to be ‘authentically’ Indian? If ‘Indian’ is always becoming something new, can intolerant rigidity of identity hold its ground? ‘What if the ‘authentically Indian’ were to name not a pure but an impure condition?

After all, it took Jonathan, a ‘firangi’ who became an Indian, to not just show us our own Indian-ness but its foreign facets too. A “white” man’s voice, so to say, but one which could see things through an uncoloured lens. A fair voice. I’ll tell you why. 

The fair voice undoing the ‘white noise’

Jonathan re-opens fading parchments of history, critiques long-forgotten poetry and paintings, and cross-refers to Literature and Arts from across the globe to give us a perspective totally different from the ‘narrative of angrezi cultural, linguistic and racial supremacy’ that colonial accounts are wont to carry. He admits ‘Delhi has arrived in me, I mean that it has seeped into me and colonized me at a molecular level’. It is with this stance that he speaks.

He tells us how not just the Mughal customs but firangi customs were patriarchal too. That the English East India Company actively banned women from journeying to India by sea. He opens the doors of women’s zenanas to show us how they were not about ‘sexual talents that Western Orientalist imagination has traditionally attributed to it’. That a harem was something different from what the ‘white noise of male stories and fantasies about Mughal-era women’ created. 

Jonathan rejects some popular historical accounts as ‘patently untrue’ and lends credence to others by researching them with a magnifying glass. He even exposes how Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador of King James I to the court of Jahangir, wrote a narrative of ‘self-pity party’ by distancing himself as superior to Indians and mocking in awe the ‘Super-exceeding Pomp’ of the king. He freely gives examples of the ‘racist condescension that typifies 19th century colonist ethnography’.

In quip-rich irony he says for Manucci – ‘Manucci needed to adapt to the Indian weather to survive as someone who could complain to other Europeans about the duplicity and ignorance of Hindus and Mohammedans.

It is not a colonizer speaking but a man colonized by India. A man overturning Euro/Anglo-centric myths about the Orient. Laying the cards on the table, and even inviting Rushdie to see how real women of Mughal history are not mere 'tales about tales' but women with distinctive voices.


It gestures towards the work performed by Indian agents, human and non-human, in refashioning Christian orthodoxy into something anti-establishment, an instrument of colonialism into something anti-imperialist, and firangi flesh into something Indian’. 

This book also becomes a 'subjunctive' Mughal painting when we see its topical relevance. The book makes us aware about facts from our past which lie buried under the emphasis on purist identities and divisive ideologies based on religion or caste. Say, how Shivaji’s family history as much as his military tactics were very much the products of a multi-cultural, multi-denominational Deccan culture. Or how conventionally Mughal paintings “allowed” striking trans-cultural details where Ram and Sita both have blond hair. And how art in those centuries acquired a global self where artists like Mandu Firangi ‘borrows knowingly from a Christian-Italian convention to illustrate a Persian translation of a Sanskrit story’.

Here is a provocative thought from the book, as a parting note – 

No one single trajectory of Indianness – whether religious, cultural or linguistic – can go uninterrupted for long. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, one might even say that the ‘authentically Indian’ can never be identified with a singular trajectory but, rather, has always been a series of interruptions and creative responses to those interruptions.

The First Firangis’ is a book to possess. A treasure trove of stories and how they interrupt the most well-founded ideas of becoming, of belonging and of being, Indian or firangi, both.

'The First Firangis' is an Aleph Book Company publication, 2015

[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]


  1. Thorough review, as always, Sakshi! Your statement about " slipped away from below my feet my own solidified idea of a pure identity" - caught my attention mostly in this review. When it comes to the issues of Indian identity - pure, authentic, acquired or whatever other label we may want to give to it - my own evolving understanding is that the debate about what is authentic and what is not arises mostly because we don't see the whole thing from within the Indian thought which compels us to not only be concerned about an ongoing process of 'forming' an identity but also of 'transcending' it at the same time. So the fluidity, plurality, hybridity are all part of this constant process to begin with, but they are incomplete without transcending. Because we don't know our own way of seeing in its fullness, we rush off to create divisive discourse based on 'fixed' identities.
    I found the quote you share at the end quite interesting. I am not sure what I make of this at this point (without knowing the context in which it appears). But for me personally, when it comes to understanding "Indian-ness" a thought I had heard years ago at a conference has stayed with me -- there are more Westerners in Indian bodies today just as there may be more Indians in Western bodies. What this speaker was speaking of was that Indian-ness has to be found not in the body but in a way of being.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book.

    1. "an ongoing process of 'forming' an identity but also of 'transcending' it at the same time." - Beloo, this book is about exactly this; transcending identities you were born with and acquiring new ones. While bodily transformations are emphasised it is but natural that the mind 'evolves' and 'mutates' into another being too. You are spot on as to why we rush to 'create divisive discourse'. Exactly why I say this book is relevant.
      "there are more Westerners in Indian bodies today just as there may be more Indians in Western bodies." - If this is what you believe, and going by your scholarship in this area, I strongly recommend this book to you.
      You're a thinking individual. You will enjoy it.
      Thank you for being here.

    2. All that is good, Sakshi, but what will I do of all those other books lying untouched on my shelves everywhere in the house :) Too many good books to read, too little time. Thanks for recommending, will probably pick it up. Where there are 50 waiting, 51 will also be ok!

  2. I am going to say what I have asaid always on your review post .. awesome :) you sure read well and then review it well tooo :)

    when I write a book it is coming ur way :)


    1. :) Hangover of trying to score university marks over others' works for five years.
      Waiting for your book now! :D

    2. WOWOWWOW ... REALLY did i manage to convince you to bring that thought in your mind that i am good enough to write a BOOK ... WOWOW

      I am goood .... (in making up) he he he he he :)

      Dont worry I will never put you through a nightmare like that ,you can have a sigh of relief now .. Go on breathe :) :) :)

  3. Omg,.. what a review.. I am so interested to pick up the book and experience all of that you felt..
    And I love your reviews.. I read reviews only at your place. You are so damn good at writing book reviews.. Love it love it love it totally....

    1. Oh please stop now before I go up onto Cloud 9 and refuse to come down. Such effusive praise! Thank you, girl! :D

  4. How wonderful that Delhi arrived in the author. Am curious to read about his insights. What comes through in your review is that he's combined his sense of belonging, knowledge of Indian history and his creativity and imagination to write the book.

  5. He has used his own body, and the transformations that it underwent, as a table top to place his narrative on. The book is the insight he personally drew, and then went on to see in the larger perspective of the first firangis who came in.
    Thanks for reading, Khoty.

  6. Wow! what a review! I cannot wait to read 'The First Firangis' now and it's on top of my Amazon wish list :-). The genre of 'Popular history of India' is pretty much missing and most of books on Indian history are serious, academic type.

    While good authors are an asset to a city or a country, I believe good reviewers have an equally important role to play. I often notice the reviews from young Indians on online magazines and newspapers (Economist, HT, TOI, Indian Express, Economictimes, etc) and most of them are extremely poor and ignorant. There's a big difference in quality of book reviews you find on by western reviewers Vs reviews on or by Indian reviewers. I feel guilty myself for not devoting time to write a review for a book I may be really impressed with (my selfish desi habits, I suppose...). Your thorough review was a welcome surprise! I noticed you reviewed this book on Can I request/suggest that you share your review of this book as well as others on all possible sites -, World needs to know of new generation of readers as well as reviewers from India!

    Coming to The First Firangis, I have read a similar book called 'Early travels in India' which is story of first few Britishers (from 1530 onwards I think) who came to India - William Hawkins, Ralph Fitch, Thomas Koryat,...I also plan to read Sam Miller's 'A Strangs Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes'. Do check these out if this topic interests you.


    1. Wow! Thank you for a wonderful comment. Good to have found you as a reader of my reviews. More importantly, delighted to know there are others who believe (about reviews as well as books) what I do. I had shared your comment on FB, and I found many like-minded people there too.

      Thanks for the Amazon suggestion. I did go and post some important ones there. And thank you for a priceless list of book recommendations. Your scholarship shows! :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...