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Stranger in a strange land

A French businessman's accounts of travelling through 18th c. eastern India, writes Rahul Karmakar.

books Updated: Jul 29, 2008 19:04 IST
Rahul Karmakar

Adventures of Jean-Baptiste Chevalier in Eastern India: 1752-1765
Translated by Caroline Dutta Baruah and Jean Deloche
Rs 395 PP 203

One of the most happening years in Indian subcontinental history are those falling between 1752 and 1765. This chronological passage saw Robert Clive winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to establish the East India Company as a commercial power with military might on our soil.

It also witnessed Islamisation picking up pace in cult-crazy Bengal and Vaishnavism of the Sankardeva kind - packaged differently from the brand fostered by Chaitanya - sweeping across Assam, where the clout of the Ahom monarchy was on the decline. This interesting phase also happened to see a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, travel across Assam, Bengal and Tibet in a bid to expand the business of La Compagnie Française des Indes Orientales - the French East India Company Even if the latter buckled un . der the sheer force of the ‘English' East Indian Company , Chevalier has much to record and tell.

Chevalier was one of the most colourful French agents in India. He went on to become the Governor of the French colony of Chandernagore - this town in Bengal on the right bank of the Hugli remaining under French control right until 1949 - two years after his ‘adventures'. That he had recorded his travels in the form of a journal and memoir was discovered at the Bibliotheque de l'institut, Paris in 1926. Historian and Indophile Jean Deloche restored, edited and published these accounts in 1984 before he teamed up with Guwahati-based Caroline Dutta Baruah to translate it into English.

A hardnosed businessman, who could switch from being arrogant to being humble and back again depending on whom he was dealing with, Chevalier was no writer and certainly not one with an eye on the finer things of life. His adventures, thus, often lack the bite of, say those of 17th century French traveller in India, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, or the travels of the East India Company's employee and ‘inside/outsider' ‘Dean Mohamet across the country The interpreters' efforts to spice up Chevalier's journeys simply tries to retain the original flavour of his writings in French.

But Chevalier more than makes up for his lack of style with loads of information about areas few would dare to travel in those days. He writes of Assam, a ‘forbidden kingdom' ‘then - permission to visit the region requiring at least six months - and the people were hostile to all foreigners. He writes about an elephant sacrifice at the Kamakhya Temple; of how the Nawabs of Bengal would impose dual duties on merchants to ruin trade'; of how opium from Patna "is a lot finer and more profitable to sell" than the variety from Rangpur (in modern Bangladesh); of how tribal people processed local drinks using fermented rice; and how bairagis (ascetic beggars) became French intermediaries with the sovereigns.

Through his journal, Deloche says, Chevalier appears as an ‘Asterix in Assam', bold but impatient, fiery, full of Gallic notions of superiority and incapable of appreciating any other type of culture. "He simply missed the magic potion of the cartoon hero to make a feat of this journey."

Rahul Karmakar is Guwahati correspondent, Hindustan Times