The Australian adventurer in East India Company-ruled India served as the Rani of Jhansi’s vakeel and hobnobbed with Indian wheeler-dealers
By Dr Sanjeev Chopra
Or lying in the cold,
Find their own time,
To be told!
History is fickle
In what it decides to pickle,
To serve posterity, and
What it lets trickle, through its moment!
Amit Ranjan has shown that painstaking research and scholarship, the ability to pun and recollect rhymes from times bygone can make an ‘era’ come alive. Anyone trying to understand how the East India Company (EIC) imagined itself and the country it was ruling on behalf of a distant sovereign till 1858 should get to this book – for it holds a mirror to those times, and does not hide the cracks in the mirror as well as the frayed frame which holds the mirror.
He is not an outright rebel, but does not fit into the conventional Victorian space either for his writings are ‘feminist’ and far ahead of his times.
John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindustanee, Lawyer for the Ranee, resurrects the chronology, legend and scandal around the life of John Lang, the 19th-century Australian-turned-Indian, barrister-cum-author-cum-maverick, who in his short life of forty-eight years produced no less than twenty-three novels/serialised fiction, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry – making him the first substantial Australian author. While Ruskin Bond was indeed the first to have brought Lang out of the bushes by discovering his shrubbery-ridden grave in Mussoorie – and writing about him and his stories – the credit for the rediscovery of his corpus goes to the collaborative work of Rory Medcalf (of the Australian High Commission in India) and Australian scholar Victor Crittenden. This was in 2005, and from here Amit Ranjan takes over as the muse – for him as well as for Alice Richman, who was buried in the Pune cemetery, hundreds of kilometres from Mussoorie! The book also leads us to encounter some of the most notable characters at the time of the First War of Independence (for Indians)/Mutiny (for the British and their acolytes). These included the Rani of Jhansi who had engaged Lang as her vakeel against the EIC as well as the noted rebel Nana Saheb, whose portrait was curiously replaced by that of Lala Jotee Persaud – a contractor and supplier of provisions to the EIC.
The limerick for Mr. Lang is quite a succinct description of him:
There was a wayward wanderer,
O, that incorrigible squanderer,
Spirits he would drink
Spirited, he would think
That lonesome philanderer!
Ranjan also places Kim’s Kipling in the context of the Raj, and how Lang differed from the most well-known Anglo Indian writer. For Kipling, ‘East is East and West is West’, and the construction of the Orient fed into the stereotype of ‘palaces that gleam like sapphires in the sun, strange bazaars filled with forbidding men of a hundred races, events which are conjured by witchcraft, threats of wild bandits who roam the Khyber Pass, and a strange land of princes and beggars and perfumed harem girls.’ Kim is a polyglot English orphan who works for an Afghan horse trader in Lahore and can camouflage himself both as a native and an Englishman. He is commissioned into the ‘Great Game’ where he manages to retrieve documents from the Russians as well as his lama mentor but the course of action which Kim will take – the spiritual path of the lama, or government espionage which will win him accolades and medals – is left to the reader’s imagination. Kipling thus creates the dichotomy between the spiritual East and the material West – and Kim is the crossover between the two. Lang, on the other hand, is quite different from Anglo Indian writers in that he shows the British for what they are: cunning, selfish, manipulative and ‘barbarians who dance with women who are not their wives’. He is not an outright rebel, but does not fit into the conventional Victorian space either – for his writings are ‘feminist’ and far ahead of his times.
Another character who stands out is Lal Singh, who Lang first met at Persaud’s house. It was Lang’s skillful defence of Persaud that made him and his journal, The Moffusilte, a legend in Anglo India. By this time, Lal Singh was a practising surgeon in Agra: a skillful medic, who could take off an arm or a leg with surprising dexterity. Lal Singh joined the court of Ranjit Singh as a treasury writer in 1832, but rose to be the Daroga-i-Toshakhana at the time of his sovereign’s death. He was soon the lover of Rani Jindan, and after a series of betrayals of most of his benefactors, including Gulab Singh, and after his secret letters were intercepted he was externed from Punjab and pensioned off to Agra. In Lang’s own words: “Notwithstanding his previous character – that of a sensualist and faithless intriguer: one, indeed who had not been constant even in his own villainies – I could not help liking the conversation, which was humorously enlivened with imitations of English officers with whom he had come into contact, and was entertaining to the last degree.”
Lang’s fortunes were intertwined with those of Persaud, a commissariat contractor par excellence who kept the British troops supplied with all the food and munitions they needed. Although he was charged with embezzlement in 1851, he won the case with Lang’s help and in 1857 he was the ‘one person’ who kept the British supply lines in order. He was then the ‘hero’ for the British, but he was also held in awe by the natives. After Lang won him the case, he presented his portrait to Lang, which the newspapers of the day thought to be that of Nana Saheb, and thus for several years the revolutionary’s frame was actually that of the person who collaborated with the EIC!
Lal Singh joined the court of Ranjit Singh as a treasury writer in 1832 but rose to be the Daroga-i-Toshakhana at the time of his sovereign’s death.
One could go on – and share so many anecdotes within anecdotes – for Lang not only knew his subject, he also had the great knack of making up a great story from run-of-the mill factlets. Bond, who wrote about him in his popular columns, calls him a ‘guppoo’ – an untranslatable word which means a teller of tales who revels in exaggeration and hyperbole–and Crittenden, his biographer, contends that Lang never told a story without improving it.
Ranjan, too, tells the story of Lang and his times, but he is not a guppoo, he has taken painstaking effort to back each of his statements and contentions with empirical evidence and record – a virtual kaleidoscope of the India before, during and after the epochal events of 1857!
(The author is a historian, public policy analyst, and Festival Director at the Valley of Words, Dehradun. Until recently,
he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.)