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The Lost Narratives Of A ‘Desire’

Desiring India: Representations through British and French Eyes 1584-1857, a recently published book, co-edited by Supriya Chaudhuri and Niranjan Goswami, has hit the headlines. It seems that the essence of this publication is hidden in the words of François-Marie Arouet, known to the world as Voltaire (November 21, 1694 – May 30, 1778), who had, once, said that the people of the West were more advanced than the people of the East in all aspects. The French Philosopher claimed that the Europeans had to overcome barriers, created by the Asians, to teach the latter their forms of language, culture, arts, et al. The only problem is that the Asians do not need the Europeans, but the Europeans need the Asians very much, he had stressed.

Here, the concept of need is very fundamental, as the Natural Resources and Wealth of the East have always been eyed upon by the West. The Europeans started concentrating on Asia from the 16th-17th Century, and their policies towards the East remained the same for the next couple of centuries. For looting the wealth, the Europeans had expanded their colonies in Asia, and then globalised their empires. The West did not set up their colonies in Asia out of curiosity, or because of their endless interest in exploring the East. The fact is that the European countries had colonialised several Asian nations, including India, in order to meet their needs. Here lies the root of Colonial History.

The publication, Desiring India, has made an attempt to discuss this desire in detail. The narrative of this desire was probably lost due to the usage of soft words in The Wonder That Was India (1954) by Arthur Llewellyn Basham or in Ronald B Inden‘s Imagining India (2001).

The main substance matter of this book has been described beautifully in its introduction. Before publishing the book, Editors Chaudhuri and Goswami organised a series of seminars on the English and French imperialist experience of India. Among the 12 chapters, the one written by Chowdhury is quite important. She narrated the story of the first English traveller who had arrived in India in the 16th Century. Ralph Fitch (1550 – 1611), a merchant of London and one of the earliest British travellers to visit Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, South Asia and Southeast Asia, had arrived in India in 1583, and stayed in the South Asian country till 1591. The chapter, penned by Chaudhuri, helps readers understand smaller narratives that are hidden in a larger narrative.

In the 16th Century, connectivity, made between the different parts of the globe, had changed the world. While England was going through the Era of Shakespeare at that period of time, Bengali poet Mukundaram Chakrabarti just breathed his last, after writing Chandimangal (a commentary on the socio-political scene in medieval Bengal), in the eastern part of India. Neither Chakrabarti, nor Fitch had any idea about what was happening in the world. Fitch had visited different parts of Bengal during his stay in India in order to explore business opportunities there. Describing 17th Century Bengal, French traveller Bernier mentioned: “The knowledge I have acquired of Bengal in two visits inclines me to believe that it is richer than Egypt.” Fitch, too, had noticed the rich natural resources of Bengal, although he had no evil intention as regards his business activities.

Contributors

In her essay, titled Canton to Calcutta, Associate Professor of Art and Music Histories Dr Romita Ray discussed Tea and Chinoiserie in a Colonial Garden. Both Ray and retired Professor (of English) Jayati Gupta narrated how the desire had changed the structure of Western factories and industrial civilisation in their respective essays. It was an amazing story of a different globalisation. From 1779 to 1816, Eliza Fay (1755/6 – September 9, 1816) had visited India by sea at least four times. One can find a great attraction towards the new globalised world in her travelogue. Desiring India may also encourage one to read John Hutnik‘s essay on Karl Marx’s Asiatic Mode of Production. Gradually, the Europeans had become aware of India and also of its natural resources. It was the root cause of their desire to conquer the Indian Sub-continent.

The Europeans also had much curiosity about the Asian women, and there is another complex form of desire hidden in this. Anna Becker‘s essay on Oriental Despotism and the Female Body is worth rethinking. The love for women of the Mughal emperors and its reflection in the art and culture, along with the reality of women’s oppression in the larger society, had a great impact on the minds of the Europeans. In her essay, Janani Kalyani V described the condition of the Indian widows in 18th-19th Century French drama and literature.

Meanwhile, Swati Dasgupta wrote on the role of Indian women in Sepoy Mutiny. This essay is slightly different from the central theme of the book. Similarly, Soumya Goswamy told the story of the discovery of Indian music by the French colonialists in an interesting manner, in the final chapter of the publication. His essay, too, seemingly deviates from the main theme.

India celebrates the 75th anniversary of its Independence in 2022. One can consider the year 1947 as the starting point of the Post-Colonial Era of World History. Experts are of the opinion that the Second World War triggered the end of the Colonial Era. Naturally, Desiring India presents an extraordinary narrative of events that had taken place more than 75 years ago.

In the 21st Century, book-lovers would love to read the narrative of one world’s desire for another world.

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