It’s a rare book which may be described unequivocally as an absolute and utter delight. This is one of them. Arup Chatterjee’s Indians in London is an erudite, well-researched and comprehensive survey of a fascinating subject—four hundred years of Indian residency in London, beginning in 1600. This was the date that the East India Company was founded, but also the year when Shakespeare’s As You Like It was entered in the Stationer’s Register.
The latter is as important for this book as the former; Chatterjee imaginatively uses the five-act structure of an Elizabethan play as his framework in lieu of chapter headings, showing how people from the Indian subcontinent (Chatterjee includes those who would now be Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in his book) progressed from being a few exotic foreigners in Act I to members of a significant part of the beating heart of modern cosmopolitan London. There are entrepreneurs, politicians, lawyers, students, nursemaids, poets, novelists, the inevitable restaurateurs and even the odd princess, not to mention a sprinkling of dubious characters as well in this play, with a cast of thousands all playing their parts in the still-unfolding drama. Famous names abound, too; at one time Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, Swami Vivekananda, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru, to name but a few, all lived in London and made their marks there. You can even find out exactly where all these people and many others lived in London by consulting the helpful map and its key (list of names) at the beginning of the book.
The short prologue to the “play” begins with a burial in Westminster (1550), that of one Salamon Nurr, whose Indian name was likely Suleiman Noor, but about whom nothing else is known. In 1613 we read of a man named Samuel Mansour or Munsur marrying Jane Johnson in Deptford—his first name suggests that he may have become a Christian, but that doesn’t mean he was baptized.
And then the play proper opens. In December 1616, the year Shakespeare died, an Indian boy from Bengal renamed Petrus Papa or Peter Pope by King James I himself was baptized by George Abbott, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the still-standing church of St Dionis Backchurch in Fenchurch Street. He had been brought to England by Patrick Copland, an East India Company chaplain based in Masulipatam, who may have been the first English missionary in India, and who apparently felt that Peter, whom he called “talented”, could help in the education and conversion of his fellow Indians as a step on the way to making them “civilized”. This event, said to be the first of its kind, was attended by members of the Privy Council, officials from the East India and Virginia Companies and even the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Jolles.
There would be more Indian deaths and baptisms in the ensuing years, as Chatterjee’s helpful list records. However, that’s about it for Peter’s fifteen minutes of fame, for, as Chatterjee puts it, “his voice was the implacable silence of a lamb,” apart from one or two letters written in Latin to Sir Thomas Smith, the Governor of the East India Company and quoted by Copland in a sermon given a few years later. Returning to India with Copland in 1617 (presumably as planned) after about two weeks, Peter Pope passes into history as a bit actor in “the very first scene of the very first act of a mesmeric production, now unfolding.” Mesmeric it is, indeed.
The scope of characters discussed in Chatterjee’s book is monumentally wide (as is the massive bibliography); a reviewer must be restricted to mentioning those parts which are personally interesting. There is, in fact, a character for every taste from food to politics in this book. A great deal of space is devoted to food and restaurants, which are, after all, perhaps the two aspects of Indian culture best known to foreigners. In London alone there must be at least a thousand or more Indian restaurants after allowing for Covid- and Brexit-induced closures; even in Winnipeg, where I live, there are still at least thirty. The universality of Indian cuisine now easily rivals that of Chinese. Indian food, collectively and not always accurately termed curry, had been available at the Norris Street Coffee House since the 1770s, and of course there were other places serving it alongside English dishes as well as returned ex-colonial officials consuming it at home. Indian recipes appeared in cookery books, too, and some shops even sold curry powder.
The first Indian-owned and run restaurant, known as the Hindoostane Coffee House, was opened in London in 1810 by Sake Deen Mahomed from Patna. Sake Deen Mahomed (1759-1851) was a fascinating character; not only did he open a restaurant, but he also introduced shampoo (the word is Hindi in origin) and therapeutic massage to the English public, setting up in Brighton at just the time it was in its Regency heyday. He opened a bath house there and eventually rose to become official “Shampooing Surgeon” to both George IV and William IV, whose hair he presumably shampooed when they were in residence at Brighton Pavilion. That’s not all—he married twice (both wives were English) wrote an entertaining and informative autobiography (the first book by an Indian in English, published in 1794 and still in print) about his extensive travels in India with the Bengal army, tried his hand at being a doctor and dabbled with mixed success in various other entrepreneurial activities.
Sake Deen Mahomed is just one of the many colourful characters in this book, but he may also be seen as typical of many of the Indians who came to make their home in London—hard-working, enterprising and irrepressible. His story comes at the beginning of the 19th century, which was the time when Indians in London really began to make their presence known there. In spite of the fact that Indians had been present since the mid-16th century, it was not until then that they became “recognized”, in the sense that people became interested in their food, merchandise and customs. As Chatterjee has it, “Indians shaped the peripheries of London since Shakespeare” but it wasn’t until the apex of the British Empire that they moved further into the city and eventually became part of the “establishment” rather than exotics precariously existing on the verges of society.
The 18th century is well-known as the century of “nabobs”, Englishmen who, after living and working in India, amassed enormous fortunes by fair means or foul, which they brought home with them, displaying their wealth by building lavish houses, exercising political influence and amassing collections of art, jewellery, and anything which nowadays we would term “bling”.
Along with the nabobs themselves came Indian servants, maids, tutors and others, but, according to Mirza Sheikh Itishamuddin, the first Indian to write a travel-book about England (1766),
The English had never seen an Indian munshi before, but only lascars [sailors from India and South-East Asia] … and were consequently unacquainted with the clothes and manners of an Indian gentleman.
Indeed, the lascars and other socially disadvantaged Indians came to be seen as “the scourge of London, behind whom more immigrants took shelter.”
As the years passed, more travelers from India came to England, and back at home the Indian education system, under the aegis of the Raj, put Indians in touch with European civilization and culture, making them more informed about Western ways. “Spawned by English prose and poetry,” Chatterjee writes, “Indian universities provincialized European aesthetics.” At the same time, however, “Victorian London abounded in Indian drum-players, musicians, curry-powder sellers, snake-charmers, jeweller-hawkers” and the inevitable lascars, many of whom deserted their ships due to maltreatment or exploitation and took up residence in London, some eking out a living at the aforementioned professions. Their numbers had increased exponentially since the previous century; some took up with English women, with the result that the women, according to Chatterjee, “muttered a strange mixture of Cockney English and Hindustani, spiked with opium and alcohol,” and their children ended up as “the crudest anomalies of the great imperial racial miscegenation.” Albert John Mahomet, the son of one of these unfortunate women, was an exception; he managed to break out of the squalor to become a teacher and the first Indian to take up photography, and in 1894 wrote an autobiography entitled From Street Arab to Pastor. However, many lascars became homeless and needed the assistance of the Strangers’ Home, opened in 1856 by Prince Albert.
On the other end of the social scale, the later part of the 19th century saw the first Indian elected to Parliament, as Dadhabhai (later Sir) Naoroji took his seat for the Liberals in 1892, representing the borough of Finsbury Park. Other famous names appear in the annals of Indians living in London during the 19th century, including Queen Victoria’s infamous munshi Abdul Karim (he had the temerity to teach her Hindustani), the famous political and social reformer Raja Rammohun Roy and the businessman Dwarkanath Tagore, the poet’s grandfather. The latter wrote rather condescendingly that he “did not expect that I should be so much taken by this little island, but really London is the wonderful city.” He concluded enthusiastically, after meeting the Queen, that “if a man has wealth, this is the country to enjoy it in,” He had wealth, and went on to increase it by forging profitable partnerships with British entrepreneurs.
Chatterjee gives us so much detail and presents so many fascinating characters from this period that it’s impossible to sum it all up in a review; suffice it to say here that readers become immersed in the teeming cast of thousands in this play, which reads is more like a Hollywood epic (with lots of extras) than a Shakespeare play with a few characters!
While certainly a marvelous book, a few things point to a problem perhaps more with editing than writing. Richard Branson might be a little shocked to find out that he had executed Charles I (the putative executioner’s name was Richard Brandon), but Prince Albert would have been delighted with his elevation to King; Louis XV seems to have had a sex-change, appearing as “Loiuse XV,” Oliver Cromwell was not Lord Protector in 1649, Baron Sinha received a barony, not a baronetcy, and the American Secretary of Defence when 9/11 happened was Donald Rumsfeld, not “Rumsen”. The index has a few oddities, too; Queen Anne and Queen Victoria can be found under “Q,” but Kings are listed under their given names. Bertrand Russell appears twice, once as “Bertrand Russel” and again as “Betrand Russell”. The illustrations have no captions and have to be identified from the list at the beginning of the book. These points may not be earth-shakingly serious, but they do indicate sloppiness.
In spite of this, Chatterjee’s exciting book is a triumph of scholarship and a wide-ranging adventure leading us to come to a greater understanding of the evolution of one of the world’s most historically cosmopolitan cities.