Lit for Life

The Indian firangi

Jonathan Gil Harris. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Jonathan Gil Harris. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

Jonathan Gil Harris traces the history of some of the first foreigners to set foot on Indian soil

Think Indian history, and what comes to mind immediately is centuries of the British Raj. But Jonathan Gil Harris took the audience to a time before that — a time when foreigners came to India not to conquer and command, but to escape persecution and trials.

In an illustrated talk titled ‘The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans and Other Foreigners who became Indian’, Harris spoke about how many Europeans travelled to the subcontinent in the hope of living better lives and how they adapted to the new conditions in various ways.

"Going back to the 16th and 17th century, white people served Indian masters as not just indentured servants but also as slaves. After coming to India, they became Indian themselves, from the clothes they wore, to the food they ate. They converted to Indian religions, fell in love with Indians and had Indian children," said the Professor of English and Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University, who was dressed in a fun, graphic-print shirt and spoke in a broad New Zealand accent.

So what did it mean to be Indian? Harris said, “Being Indian meant different things in different regions. There are far more multicultural places than we are inclined to believe; like the Konkan coast, which became a haven for Catholics running from the Protestants, and for Jews escaping from the Spanish Inquisition and the Sunderbans delta area became a hideout for the pirate communities.” A constant traveller to India over the past 15 years, Harris recently became an “Indian” himself by becoming a permanent resident.

Explaining the term firangis, Harris said that it originated from the French word franc, which turned into the Arabic ferenji before reaching its current avatar, which broadly meant anyone who came from a Christian country. Bringing in a Chennai connection, he said, “It was even adapted in Tamilas Parangi, which is where you get Parangi Malai, or St. Thomas’ Mount from. Niccolo Manucci ran away from Venice as a teenager and lived in the area for 34 years before he died in 1720.” Known locally as Hakeen Nikhilo, he was a venerated Siddha practitioner, and was most famous for treating impotence using mercuric sulphide.

Harris also spoke in depth about two other firangis: Thomas Steven, a Catholic dissident, who became an evangelist of the benefits of coconuts and Juliana Dias da Costa, a Portugese slave girl who rose to become the principal political advisor for Shah Alam. This multiculturality is seen in architecture and art as well, he said, ending with, “India has always been firangi, and firangis have always been Indian.

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 8:03:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/jonathan-gil-harris-traces-the-history-of-some-of-the-first-foreigners-to-set-foot-on-indian-soil/article6799350.ece

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