A twist to Chaucer's tale

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PASSING BY There is a Moghul tryst with the Canterbury Tales, writes R.V. SMITH

Y ou can find any number of reprints of “The Canterbury Tales” in Delhi now, but who brought the first copies of Chaucer's masterpiece to the Capital? The Franciscan Annals published by the Italian Capuchin fathers in the 1930-40s gave the credit to Captain William Hawkin and Sir Thomas Roe, English envoy to the court of Jahangir (1608-1615). In 1710, three years after the death of Aurangzeb, the Reverend Dr. Thomas Bray founded ISPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge), which popularised not only religious books but also some classical English Literature, including “The Canterbury Tales” and John Bunyan's “The Pilgrim's Progress”.

Then, in the 1960s, Dr. Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury, visited Delhi and Agra and delivered college lectures which highlighted the “gift of wonder”. He wanted the young graduates to appreciate it as a prelude to “the good life”. Dr. Ramsay was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Wife of Bath, one of the prominent characters of “The Canterbury Tales”, was a great favourite of the students not only because she was a merry widow like Begum Sumroo but also because of her vast practical experience of life. The gap-toothed lucky woman was among the 14th Century travellers about the time of the Tughlaks entertaining pilgrims to the shrine of St. Thomas ‘A' Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. It was on this saint that T.S. Eliot wrote his famous play “Murder in the Cathedral”.

It was interesting to note that the Rev Dr. Thomas Valpy French brought a copy of “The Canterbury Tales” for the students of St John's College, Agra, which he founded in 1852 under the Church Missionary Society. The CMS later set up St. Stephen's College, Delhi, as a sister institution. French was among those who took refuge in the Fort during the uprising of 1857. One of his children was also born about that time.

Back in spotlight

Lately, the wheel turned full circle with the spotlight back on Canterbury, if not its tales. This was due to the visit to Delhi of the Most Reverend Dr. Rowan Williams, present Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Church and in a way, of the Churches of North and South India which were once part of it. Dr. Williams, interestingly, is a former RAF pilot. The noted prelate's visit to Delhi was in connection with the tercentenary celebrations of the foundation of ISPCK. Dr. Williams led the thanksgiving and rededication service of the ISPCK at the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, once known as the Viceroy's church, because the British Viceroy attended Sunday service there. Earlier he used to do so at the St. James Church, built by Lt.-Col Skinner, in Kashmere Gate. But after the Capital came up on Raisina Hill the focus shifted to the newly-built Cathedral, near Central Secretariat.

Dr. Williams was also felicitated at a civic reception at Church Road. The ISPCK has its office in Madarsa Road, Kashmere Gate, whose CEO is an old Dilliwallah, the Rev Dr. Ashish Amos. He was the one in charge of the celebrations. The prelate also visited the Cambridge Brotherhood in 7, Count Lane, headed by Father Weathrall. Later he met the Prince of Arcot to renew medieval links.

Isn't it a curious fact of history that Chaucer's Canterbury “pilgrims” should have arrived in Delhi during Moghul days a long way from the time of the early Tudors? Dr Williams' visit has given it the 21st Century twist.




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