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Review: For Pepper and Christ

Spices and history are the ingredients of this delectably written story about Eastern sophistication and Western ambition, writes Vijay Jung Thapa.

books Updated: Jun 20, 2009 22:16 IST
Vijay Jung Thapa

For Pepper and Christ
Author: Keki Daruwalla
Publisher: Penguin India
Price: Rs 399|

History is known to have its ‘big bang’ moments, when a small stray incident spurs momentous changes. The 15th century witnessed two such incidents separated by a span of six years: the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama’s journey via the Cape of Good Hope to India. Both incidents ushered in a brand new world of maritime exploration and finally led many centuries later to Western imperialism.

Keki Daruwalla’s lyrical novel sets out to capture the mood of the 15th century when Portuguese traders are stealthily watching Arabs carry out their spice trade with India. The scope of the book is magnificent as it captures the intrigues of maritime trade through the souks and lanes of Cairo, Mombasa and Calicut.

The narration, conducted through various protagonists, captures the stark ambition of the Vasco Da Gama journey amid pressure to cut out traders from Venice and Genoa who sold spices almost at the price of golf.

But pepper wasn’t the only motivation. There was also Christianity and the search for the kingdom of the mythical Christian King called Prester John. The Portuguese, in fact, had never heard of Hindus – and for them a kingdom, if it wasn’t Muslim, had to be Christian. So strong was the belief that when they landed in Calicut, they mistook the local goddess for the Virgin Mary and thought that Krishna was a colloquialism for Christ. Interestingly, it was an Arab navigator who leads Vasco da Gama to India — the East being far superior in global trade and maritime navigation at that time.

Daruwalla skillfully contrasts Eastern sophistication with Western ambition. The Portuguese, then a poor country of just about a million, come across as country boors — mean and bloodthirsty — their driving ambition leading them to desperation. The Indians (in the kingdoms of Calicut and Cochin), on the other hand, lived in sophisticated societies dealing with the luxury items of the time, silk, spices and ceramics.

In fact, Vasco Da Gama’s gifts for the Calicut king — hats, corals and four wash basins — provoked much laughter, and finally weren’t given at all. The flip side to this, of course, is that Eastern arrogance towards Europeans and a failure to see them as powers to be reckoned with.

If there’s one thing in the book that was irksome, it was the multiple narratives, which work well to move the story forward, but often distract the reader from Daruwalla’s elegant prose. But that said, For Pepper and Christ, is a book woven into history and ultimately a good read.