On January 10th, 1795, a very tired caravan arrives in Beijing. The travelers have journeyed from Canton on an accelerated schedule through harsh terrain in order to make it to the capital in time for the Qianlong Emperor’s sixtieth anniversary of his reign. The group is led by two Dutchmen: Isaac Titsingh and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, who are there to represent the interests of the Dutch Republic at the imperial court. It’s a momentous occasion, especially after the disastrous British Embassy from George Macartney two years earlier.
Spectators at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1611 thrilled to the scenic realism of the Tempest. In the opening scene, a ship founders to the cries and alarms of her drowning sailors. But among those spectators some would nevertheless invest their private fortunes in the first ships to be sent by a newly chartered trading company to the farthest known seas. They were the initial investors in the East India Company and their ships were destined to reach Japan.
The tendency to view post-Mughal India’s relationship with the wider world primarily through the lens of empire has spawned a voluminous literature on the global entanglements of the Raj and the networks, activities and writings of a few key Indian figures spearheading the assault on empire. Yet as the French historian Claude Markovits points out in his new book India and the World, considerably less work has focused on the global travels and overseas sojourns of Indian traders, indentured laborers and sepoys (soldiers) that did not play a crucial or eloquent part in this “from empire to nation state” story.
Vijay Gokhale retired as India’s Foreign Secretary in 2020 after nearly four decades in the diplomatic corps, specializing in China, including a posting as Indian Ambassador in Beijing, experience much in evidence in his recent thoughtful and surprisingly frank book on Sino-Indian diplomacy.
Most of our understanding of the Mongol Empire begins and ends with Chinggis Khan and his sweep across Asia. His name is now included among conquerors whose efforts burn bright and burn out quick: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and so on.
Injustice produces indignation at those responsible for it. Shrabani Basu’s The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer is filled with indignation as it tells the story of the investigation, prosecution, conviction, and partial pardon of George Edalji, a British lawyer of Indian descent who served three years in prison for crimes (mutilating animals and sending threatening letters) he did not commit. It is a tale of racial prejudice, an inept judge, a biased chief of police, and an obstinate criminal justice bureaucracy. But it is also the tale of men who saw injustice and worked persistently to right a terrible wrong. Included among those men was the creator of the fictional master detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
They gaze at you, the fashionably-attired youths of Esfahan, from a distance of 300 years. Swaying like cypress trees, their tresses floating in the air like clouds, their faces surrounded by peach fuzz, they smile like the Gioconda and with more mystery. Who are these young men and what do they say to the viewers? After the lucidity of the great 16th-century Persian and Mughal painters like Behzad and Sultan Mohammad, who painted kingly battles and hunts, the 17th century brings us the works of Reza Abbasi and Mohammad Qasem, and their ambivalent but sexually-charged portraits of young men and occasionally young women.