Living in Typogravia


Thomas Mann Baynes, Sake Dean Mahomed, c. 1810

by Chinmaya Lal Thakur

Indians in London: From the Birth of the East India Company to Independent India
Arup K. Chatterjee
New Delhi: Bloomsbury India, 2021. 542 pp

The book under review is a magisterial account of the encounter between the megapolis of London and the Indians who travelled there between the sixteenth and mid-twentieth century. Through two hundred odd ‘characters’ or historical protagonists, it tells the story of the way Indians built the city and simultaneously shaped the course of the anticolonial movement in their own country. Notable among the many students, entrepreneurs, lawyers, politicians, restauranteurs, nursemaids, poets and novelists that it refers to in this regard are Raja Rammohan Roy, Ranjitsinhji, Dadabhai Naoroji, Dwarkanath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Subhash Chandra Bose, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Nehru. Each of these individuals, according to the author Arup K. Chatterjee, constituted “the unborn trace of the history of a foreign face in the imperial city” or, what he terms, “living in Typogravia”. Living in Typogravia however, he argues, does not mean that the traveller cannot or does not experience “the aroma of London” (55). Indeed, these can and often do take place simultaneously, for Indians would not have been able to make and remake London in various ways over the last five hundred years or so otherwise.

In the sixteenth century, Indians travelled to London as slaves, servants, house helps and nursemaids. Progressively, Chatterjee underlines, they advanced beyond being perceived as inferior or exotic foreigners and came to constitute a significant segment of the city’s cosmopolitan ethos. In the process, they helped build London’s homes, postal services, national insurance system and the transport services with the assistance of Caribbean migrants. Each of the chapters in the book – whose headings follow the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play and whose segments are called “scenes” – reveal the various facets of this transformation in the way Indian travellers and the city of London interacted with each other over five centuries. The chapters take up several subjects including the trades that Indians carried out in the megapolis, their marital alliances, their role in the development of railways, their participation in legislative bodies, councils and associations, and their cultural activities like theatre and religious ceremonies. Cumulatively, they serve as richly detailed forays into the history of the encounter between Indians and London and help undermine the widely held assumption that the latter was an impervious and impermeable cityscape.

Given the wealth of historical detail and vivid description that Chatterjee’s book provides about Indians travelling to London over more than four centuries, its readers can easily look past its minor errors of typing and editing. I noted, for instance, that Louis XV becomes Louise XV a few pages later while the index refers to the philosopher Bertrand Russell as Betrand Russell. Similarly, the US Defence Secretary at the time of the 9/11 attacks is called Donald Rumsen instead of Donald Rumsfeld. It is difficult to overlook, however, some other stylistic, methodological and structural issues with the book. On p. 2, for instance, readers encounter the following description. It attempts to make a simple point, actually – that the past as such is unavailable to any (cultural) historian and it is important for them to be able to register its trace-like inscriptions without making the latter lose its singularity. Yet, Chatterjee gives in to rhetorical flourish and embellishment and the writing veers on purple prose.

Foretelling a chronicle is also chronicling acts of foretelling. Being foretold is like being whispered to follow a ghost. Following a ghost is like being followed by it. And to be followed thus is to be persecuted by the chase. What appears almost doomed from its beginning is to keep alive a séance—to speak to a ghost to speak with it, and to liberate it to its own speech. We are after a city of ghosts. In a certain manner of recognition, is not a city of ghosts also a ghost city?

There are several instances in the book where a reference to a prominent cultural theorist or philosopher to explain something about Indian migrants in London seems rather unwieldy. On pages 28 and 29, for example, Chatterjee wishes to make the point that Indians in London never felt at home while speaking the English language, even as they had distanced themselves from the language that their ancestors spoke. Consequently, they could neither identify themselves with their colonial masters nor feel “purely” Indian. Yet the point is prefaced with a not-so-useful description of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s challenge to the hermeneutic circle and Jacques Derrida’s critique of logocentrism (Newtonian methodology, in particular). This example, in fact, establishes the pattern that appears to largely underlie the discussion in the book. Its introduction – “A Chronicle Foretold” (1-70) – is in particular marred by instances of whimsical juxtapositions of short quotations or insights from major thinkers and theorists and some discussion about Indians in London. Consequently, neither the philosophical and critical insight is given its due by the author nor are the contours of its relationship with the lives of Indians in London clearly established. This makes the book sometimes read as an assortment of facts – facts which have been gathered through extensive archival and bibliographical research yet remain incoherently and idiosyncratically arranged.

Notwithstanding the wealth of historical detail that constitutes the narrative of Indians in London, it is also important to underline the significance of its central insight. In my estimation, the book admirably establishes that London has been made and remade by the contributions of various migrants and travellers at least over the last five centuries or so. Hence, it joins the league of other critical studies that highlight the truth that megacities all over the world – especially those whose pasts are inextricably associated with imperialism – have been built by travellers and migrants. Works such as Indians in London can thus be taken as foundational for undertakings that seek to study how megacities and the countries in which they are located choose to deal with their continued implication in networks of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The latter question, interestingly, has been explored in Sathnam Sanghera’s recently published Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Penguin Random House, 2021). Since I read this book at the same time that I read Indians in London, I could not help but appreciate that its insights about the (morphed) persistence of the British empire in today’s world make even more sense when seen in the larger context of Indian journeys to London in the past five hundred years. On p. 14, for instance, Sanghera uses the following words to explain why ‘empire’ continues to be so relevant even today:

Empire explains why we have a diaspora of millions of Britons spread around the world. Empire explains the global pretensions of our Foreign and Defence secretaries. Empire explains the feeling that we are exceptional and can go it alone when it comes to everything from Brexit to dealing with global pandemics. Empire helped to establish the position of the city of London as one of the world’s major financial centres, and also ensures that the interests of finance trump the interests of so many other groups in the twenty-first century. Empire explains how some of our richest families and institutions and cities became wealthy. Empire explains our particular brand of racism, it explains our distrust of cleverness, our propensity for jingoism. Let’s face it, imperialism is not something that can be erased with a few statues being torn down or a few institutions facing up to their dark pasts; it exists as a legacy in my very being and, more widely, explains nothing less than who we are as a nation.

Chatterjee’s Indians in London can similarly serve as a model for writing critical cultural histories of Indian travellers to other important cities across the world, cities such as New York, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, Berlin, Tokyo and Johannesburg. Not only do all these megacities have significant migrant and floating Indian populations but they have maintained cultural, academic and political contact with the world’s biggest democracy over centuries. In the same vein, the book can perhaps inspire researchers to write about the making of India’s own metropolitan centres like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru. All these cities have undergone crucial socio-political, economic and cultural transformation on account of the presence of migrants among their inhabitants. It would be an understatement to say that such endeavours are the need of the hour as India, much like different parts of the globe, is witnessing the rise and consolidation of a majoritarian imaginary – an imaginary that prefers ethnic, political, religious and cultural uniformity and singularity over diversity and plurality.

In conclusion, then, I would suggest that Indians in London seeks some indulgence from its readers – not just for its sheer scale and breadth, but also for its author’s garrulous style. For those who choose to look past such deficiencies, it is bound to provide a rich and detailed history of the way peoples from the Indian subcontinent have interacted with, shaped and reshaped the megapolis of London over the last five centuries or so.

About the Author

Chinmaya Lal Thakur is a doctoral researcher in English at the Department of Languages and Cultures, La Trobe University, Melbourne. His work concerns the representation of subjectivity in the novels of David Malouf. He has published a number of essays and critical reviews relating to postcolonial literatures, modernist writings, Continental philosophy, and novel-theory. He has also edited the anthology ‘Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reader’ for Worldview Publications, New Delhi. He holds an M.Phil. from the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for the dissertation ‘The Novel and Epistemological Critique: Reading Franz Kafka’.

Post Image

Detail from a sketch of Sake Dean Mahomed in his Shampooing; or Benefits resulting from the use of the Indian medicated vapour bath (1822).

Comments are closed.