I encountered this book, when I was researching material for my post Of Foreigners & Their Blades; it all started because of the word: firangi.
The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian by Jonathan Gil Harris is a collection of stories of “foreigners.”
Harris uses the backdrop of the human body to write these twelve stories. This is a new way to look at history, through lives of people and how they adapted to foreign conditions and became natives so to speak. The author’s background as a professor of English literature shines throughout the length of the book. The cross-references to social and political dynamics in various regions offer an insightful context to the lives of the people we are reading about and the placement of these lives in these contexts, is done with care and thought. The scope and quality of research is on display, through the 300 pages of story-telling.
The book starts with good pace and is an enjoyable read, at least till you get to a fourth of the book. This far, I felt immersed in the stories, then, slowly the texture and style of the writing unravels. In the first quarter of the book, it was perhaps the well-peppered trivia — mostly etymological and place names — that distracted me from what was going on, in the book.
And what was going on in the book unravels itself in an introduction to a story, somewhere in the middle of the book, by Harris himself:
Stories and clothes are, if only metaphorically, closely related. As my phrasing in the previous paragraph suggests, stories are woven and unwoven; we say spin a yarn, or tease out a tale, or lose the thread of a narrative.
It took me a while to read ahead in the book after this statement. I kept going back and forth between the stories, that I had already read, and then proceeded reading the rest of the book. The mapping of the stories to the “human body” themes — arriving, running, renaming, re-clothing, swerving, weathering — felt forcefully fitted. It slowly starts becoming clear why. For most of the people whose stories are being told, the available information is scanty. There are many assumptions made (not necessarily unreasonable) to help the storyline. Connectors like: “we can only imagine”, “may have”, “could have been”, “while we do not know”, “we can only speculate”, are abundant. While this is acceptable when linking two disconnected facts, Harris often takes two far-away facts and connects them through a series of conjectures. At times, and perhaps because of the bodily themes, the story-telling seems contrived; the assumptions force-fitted.
The author almost demands that the reader situates and imagines the lives of these people through the author’s lens and perspective. To that effect, this book, which had much more potential to tell wonderful stories, stops short.
It is perhaps a happy coincidence that I am reading What Is History by E. H. Carr, while I write this review. I thought of The First Firangis, when I read:
Before you study the history, study the historian. […] Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment. The historian, being an individual, is also a product of history and of society; and it is in this twofold light that the student of history must learn to regard him.
If we regard Harris like Carr asks us, this book is a great read.