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Strangers in a strange land

Strangers in a strange land
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First Published: Fri, Mar 04 2011. 07 30 PM IST

London port in the 1850s; National Maritime Museum/Flickr Commons
London port in the 1850s; National Maritime Museum/Flickr Commons
Updated: Fri, Mar 04 2011. 07 30 PM IST
Jehangeer Nowrojee and Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee’s Journal of a Residence of Two Years and a Half in Great Britain, published in 1841, is quite possibly the first Indian travel writing in English. Messrs. Nowrojee and Merwanjee had not travelled for the sake of travel, though. They’d gone to England to apprentice themselves to shipbuilders there, and bring back the latest techniques to their own shipyards. Once they were back, they wrote about their travel to, and stay in, Britain.
London port in the 1850s; National Maritime Museum/Flickr Commons
The Journal is great fun to read. The writers thought it would be useful for Indians who were planning to travel to England, and so it is much like a guidebook. But as guidebooks go, it’s an incredibly personal one, with Nowrojee and Merwanjee’s personalities poking through. There’s a palpable sense of wonder when they describe the astonishing new technology they’re witnessing—photography, modern factories and railroads, an interesting mix of anti-Jewish prejudice and conviction about the oneness of mankind, and most amusingly, a number of passages where they come up with detailed plans to replicate British businesses in Bombay (now Mumbai).
A lot of the Journal will be familiar even today, especially the bits where the authors talk glowingly about how the West is much better than India. Other aspects will seem dated, such as their respect and admiration for the British royal family. And others—especially the sense of joy and delight at the wonders of the Industrial Revolution—will seem like something which we ourselves can never achieve, in our hyper-connected world where little is new.
On that last count, Nowrojee and Merwanjee’s Journal is travel writing of the finest sort, for it shows us a world we didn’t know about and makes us wish we were there.
Being looked at in the zoo
During the whole time we were in the Garden, we attracted a very great number around us from the peculiarity of our dress, and we were objects of very great curiosity to the visitors,—as much so perhaps as the winged and four footed inmates of the place.
It was amusing to hear one call us Chinese, they are Turks says another; no they are Spanish, vociferates a third; thus they were labouring under mistakes, and taking inhabitants of British India for natives of Europe.
Musings on public transport
One of the first things that struck us with astonishment was the immense number of carriages of different descriptions, that are to be made use of in London for conveyance of passengers from one part to another, and the largest, which are called Omnibusses, first claim our attention…
Time travel: A pencil and watercolour sketch of 19th century London; Wikimedia Commons
It is very amusing to those who know London well to see how cunning and knowing the drivers of these vehicles (hackney cabs) look, when a stranger directs them to drive to any place not more than a few yards distance. Their thumb is placed to their nose and a twirl of their outstretched fingers announces to their brethren that they have “caught a flat,” to use their own words.
Having given the description of the public and private conveyances of London, we cannot conclude the subject without suggesting to our countrymen and proposing a plan for adopting the omnibus system at Bombay…. We have shown on a rough calculation that it is not an unprofitable speculation, and we most sincerely trust that some of our countrymen will weigh and consider the subject, and we are confident that this mode of conveyance would add a great deal to the physical comforts of the inhabitants of Bombay.
Indeed the undertaking is within the reach of a single individual, and we must observe that should our suggestion be put in practice, it will be necessary to obtain the sanction of the proper authorities for it, as well as their protection to the parties for the first few years against competition, as a reward for the first enterprise.
At Madame Tussaud’s
Queen Victoria had been crowned as queen of England on the 28th of June, 1838, and in the centre of the room there was an exact representation of the group that actually surrounded her Majesty at the time. We have, since that time, had the honor and pleasure of seeing her Majesty, and we can bear testimony to the very strong likeness. A very venerable and good-looking old man, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the head of the English Church, is just about to place the crown upon the head of the Queen. We are told his grace is a most correct likeness; and if we are any judges of human countenances he is and must be a very good man. He looks so placid, so humble, that if he is not one of the greatest of hypocrites, he is a man who, by example as well as precept, would teach people to live properly that they may die happily, and after death go to that place where good men, whether Parsees, Christians, Hindoos or Mahometans, will all be in a state of happiness superior to anything which we can have upon earth.
The Parsees are not amused by modern dance
It was the last evening upon which Taglioni, the favorite French dancer, was to dance in England, and an English friend who accompanied us very frequently asked us how we liked her dancing. He, for his part, was very much delighted with it, but to us it appeared of very little interest; and we were very much surprised to hear that for every night that she had appeared upon the stage she had been paid one hundred and fifty guineas!!!
It does appear so absurd that a dancing woman should thus take out of English pockets every night, for an hour’s jumping, more than would keep six weavers of silk, their wives and families, for a whole year. Had we not seen instances that convinced us the English were clever people, we should have thought them very foolish indeed thus to pay a dancing puppet.
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First Published: Fri, Mar 04 2011. 07 30 PM IST