Short Book Review: The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris
SBR: Through the life stories of finragis who came to India before the British supremacy was established in the subcontinent, often to escape religious persecution, legal embroilments or economic misery, The First Firangis is one of those books that help us see the history of the regular people, not exclusively that of the rulers and the elites. However, the author’s attempt to define ‘biography’ as a story of bodily transformations, and using this as an excuse to fill up the chapters where the actual information is scarce with speculations about what happened to those firangi bodies, gets annoying after a while. The biological changes, and the philosophical question of whether a ‘body’ is something unchangeable and constant that defines a person is interesting. But I wish the author was not obsessed with making that the unifying arch in his stories of various firangis becoming Indians. They stand quite well on their own. Where the information was scarce, smaller chapters or combined chapters would have been fine.
To read or not to read: Anyone interested in the nuances of history should read this book. But the book seems to use the White Mughals by William Dalrymple (as an inspiration, but also) as a standard for what it is NOT about. So, you would appreciate it better if you read White Mughals before this.