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         Volume 11 |Issue 31| August 03, 2012 |


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Book Review

A Colonial Wonder

Ahmede Hussain

The Wonders of Vilayet
Mirza Sheikh I'tesamuddin
Translated by: Kaiser Haq

Here it is; a crucial book to understand the early post-colonial history of the Indian sub-continent. The discourse behind Mirza Sheikh I'tesamuddin's sojourn in Britain and France is a curious one. Moghul Emperor Shah Alam II, after nearly losing Bengal to the East India Company and heavily harassed by numerous enemies, sought the protection of Her Majesty's army. Lord Clive did not have the right to deploy British troops to save the beleaguered Emperor, who at that critical juncture in history was a shame of a King. Mirza Sheikh I'tesamuddin, an Indian nobleman, carried 100,000 rupees and a letter from Shah Alam II to the Queen of England.

The mission failed and what we are left with is this book, which is a gem for those who are interested in the history of writing back to the centre of colonial hegemony. Indian history would have been written in a different way had he been successful, but what I'tesamuddin saw and narrates give us an interesting insight into the way the Indians looked at their soon would-be masters, not to mention the perspective it throws before us into the wealth and might of the British society.

I'tesamuddin's wonder at the might of the British Empire is at par with JR Ackerley's in "Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal", where Ackerley, a young Englishman, describes his work at the court of a small Indian raja. Only that I'tesamuddin's book is the first of its kind, as Kaiser Haq writes in his introduction to the book:

The earliest Indians to reach Europe were probably lascars, but they didn't count, being illiterate and hence unable to leave literary traces of their extraordinary lives. It is generally believed that the first Indian to visit Britain and write about it was the great social reformer Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who spent the last two years of his life (1831-33) there, but my friend's great-great-great-great-granduncle, Mirza Sheikh I'tesamuddin, preceded him by over half a century.

But make no mistake. I'tesamuddin is not Caliban, he does not fret over any dream where the clouds open to show its riches, where he wakes to dream again. I'tesamuddin's strength is his power to observe, and in Kaiser Haq's taut, intelligent translation it becomes alive with ideas that are full of poetic insight.

I'tesamuddin, a quasi colonial, is full of racial prejudice. To him, White Woman epitomises a Superwoman, who unlike her dark-skinned counterpart, is the perfect manifestation of heavenly beauty on Earth. Curiously enough, I'tesamu-ddin’s idea, as Haq points out, we find repeated in Charles Baudelaire 'La Géante' in Les Fleurs du Mal.

Our narrator is full of admiration of the democratic values that he thought England upheld at that time. The power of the King and the democratic manner with which the court he thought functioned make I'tesamuddin's observation interesting:

If the King deems it necessary to wage war against any country he summons a majlis [meeting] of notables and standing bareheaded before it, makes an appeal: 'We are faced with a crisis. If you rise to meet it you will help preserve our sovereignty and add to the nation's glory.' The assembly rises as one man, makes obeisance, and replies: “We owe you full obedience and we are ready for any sacrifice to defeat the enemy.' But were the King to order arrogantly, 'Go and fight,' the assembly would curtly reply, 'We are not your slaves. Go and fight yourself.'”

I'tesamuddin is frank and at times ruthless in portraying the decadence of the Indian upper class and his admiration of the scientific advancements that the west had made at that time knows no bound. I'tesamuddin was not a colonial subject for the Moghul Empire was alive then, but he had seen the rise of the East India Company and by the time of his death, the Company had outrun the other European trading houses to make a firm foothold in India, making his life and observations so important to understand his time. What makes the book a must read is its historicity and the child's wonder with which he narrates the Others– a different kind of Others that they are – and exposes his own otherness.


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