A 17-year-old boy from a poor family stows away on a ship, lands in a strange country where he establishes himself and finally dies at the ripe old age of 82. Sounds like one of those stories from the boys’ adventure books, doesn’t it? But, no, this is a true story: of Nicolo Manucci, the Italian traveller and author of Storia do Mogor .
This work forms the base of A Venetian at the Mughal Court: The Life and Adventures of Nicolo Manucci by Italian historian Marco Moneta. Translated into English by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone, the book is a page-turner.
Dara Shukoh’s army
In just a few pages, the stage is set: Manucci has stowed away, comes under the protection of the Viscount of Bellomont, who is on his way to Persia to seek help for Charles II. The two land up in India where the Englishman dies, leaving the young Italian all alone in a strange land, not knowing the language or anyone. Not that this deters the boy. Soon enough, he is in Dara Shukoh’s army, despite his lack of knowledge of anything military. The reader gets an eye-witness account of the fall of Dara Shukoh along with a shrewd appraisal of the prince’s character. “… was over-confident in his opinion of himself, considering himself competent in all things and having no need of advisers… Thus, it was that his dearest friends never ventured to inform him of the most essential things. Still it was very easy to discover his intentions…”
Once the prince is defeated by Aurangazeb, Manucci is back to square one. But, undaunted, he picks up new skills — medicine for one — and sets off to try his luck. Over time, Manucci travelled across India, to Bengal, Goa, to the Deccan, and down south to Puducherry, where he finally settled. Though he made attempts to return to Italy, these were not successful and he resigned himself to living in India. Apart from being multi-lingual — he spoke Italian, French, Portuguese, Persian, Urdu and Turkish — he also seems to have been a keen observer of cultural nuances and quick to adjust to changing circumstances. He began to study medicine, as this was a profitable vocation.
Manucci is definitely a larger than life figure and Moneta foregrounds him amid a range of dazzling figures. Apart from his interactions with royalty and nobleman, Manucci has many other interactions with people of many nationalities. There is an account of saving a woman from committing sati, which, as the author points out, has parallels with Phileas Fogg’s rescue of Aouda and may be a case of saviour fantasy.
Manucci was in India at a crucial moment in the country’s history; just as the Mughal power was beginning to wane and the Europeans were gaining a foothold. As an Italian, Manucci had no axe to grind with any of the latter, though he had several run-ins with the Portuguese.
I have no way of judging how good a translation this is but, read as an English book, the vivid language makes people come alive; there is a sense of watching history happen before your eyes. If you ever hear someone say history is boring, offer them this book. It is sure to change their mind.
A Venetian at the Mughal Court: The Life and Adventures of Nicolo Manucci; Marco Moneta, translated by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone, Penguin/ Vintage, ₹699.