Our earliest Pravasis
by Indrajit Hazra

Hindustan Times, India
Sept 5 2004

Long before the Kumars had moved into No. 42 or Bombay Dreams wowed
West End, an Armenian lady from the Mughal court of Jehangir in Agra
married William Hawkins, an English representative of the East India
Company in 1609. Two years later, they set sail towards Britain.
Unfortunately, Mariam was widowed before she reached her husband's
land. But in between Hawkins' death and Mariam's arrival, she became
romantically involved with Gabriel Towerson, another Englishman
travelling on the ship. In London, the two married and lived happily
ever after -- or, at least, till Towerson returned with Mariam to
India in 1617, after which their marriage went to pieces.

What is revealing is that in her three years in London, an Indian
married (twice) to an Englishman -- something that in later centuries
may have been considered 'inter-racial' -- did not evoke any adverse
comments. In fact, like Mariam, there were many other Indians who
noiselessly fitted into the cubbyholes of class and gender of British
-- marrying Britons, keeping English servants, going to church. Like
the Cambridge-educated Guy Perron in Paul Scott's Raj Quartet three
centuries later, who feels a great affinity with the Indian Hari
Kumar, who went to the same public school as he did, pre-Company and
Company Raj Britain was class driven in its interactions with
Indians.

Counterflows to Colonialism traces Indian responses to Britain and
the interactions of Indians with Britons in the latter's 'natural
habitat' from 1600 to the year of the Sepoy Mutiny, a pivotal point
in the history of two cultures looking at each other. The book is
also about two other aspects of this gradually one-sided
cross-cultural exchange. Apart from providing rich streams of
narratives on the first Indian travellers to Britain and the 'first
NRIs', it also explores a much neglected part of British history --
the existence of a multicultural Britain that wasn't just a
pluralising gesture of what a country should be, but what a country
was. Fisher also charts how self-perception changed for Indians as
the mirrors available for viewing oneself overwhelmingly started
carrying the 'Made in England' tag.

The lay reader learns that in the British-Indian matrix, Indians had
not always been objects of scrutiny but also observers and of the
outsiders-turned-colonisers. The first Indians to travel to Britain
were overwhelmingly seamen, slaves and servants -- and wives of
Englishmen. (Exchanges between Indians and Arabs, Africans, Persians,
other Asians predate those with Britons, and the initial interactions
with Westerners were shared with the Dutch, the French and the
Danes.) Fisher delves into archival material to tell us what people
like Mariam, Catherine Bengall, John the Indian and many others faced
in a country that had not yet turned into the HQs of the British
Empire.

Perhaps the most rivetting portion of the book is the section that
deals with the Indians who went to vilayt to establish themselves as
teachers. One of the primary figures in this list was Mirza Abu Talib
Khan Isfahani who went to Britain during 1799-1802 intending to
establish a British government-sponsored Persian language training
institute. His writings, especially Masir Talibi fi Bilad Afranji,
detailing his experiences and judgments about British life was meant
for both Indian and European (Persian-reading) consumption.

The reason we know so little about the experience of early Indians
in Britain even at the archival level -- especially when compared with
the mountains of archival, historical and popular material about the
British experience in India -- may be pinpointed to one year: 1837.
Two years after Thomas Macaulay's 'Minute on Education' ("a single
shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native
literature of India and Arabia"), the East India Company changed its
official language for administration from Persian to English.

Almost overnight, Company colleges at Haileybury and Addiscombe (and
at the shortlived Fort William College in Calcutta) changed the
status of Indian teachers in England and in India forever. Out went
the earlier 'Orientalist' approach as championed by the likes of Sir
William Jones, who believed the key to better trade and administer
was understanding and using the Indian languages and cultures.
Instead, there was the new 'Anglicist' approach to India, a
proto-Neocon strategy of 'taming' a land with British values.

Fisher's immensely readable and scholarly book showcases the two-way
traffic that took place between two civilisations, and its gradual
mutation into a one-directional flow -- that is, until Bollywood
started correcting matters somewhat.

Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in
Britain 1600-1857
By Michael H. Fisher
Permanent Black
Rs 795