Comparative Literature Studies 39.2 (2002) 93-119
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English in India and Indian Literature in English:
The Early History, 1579-1834
1. Locating Indian-English Literature in History
The first text to be composed in English by an author of Indian origin was The Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honourable The East India Company, Written by Himself, In a Series of Letters to a Friend, which appeared in print in two volumes in Cork, Ireland, in 1794. 1 Din Muhammad had emigrated from India a decade earlier at the age of twenty-five, probably had converted to the established Protestant church in Ireland shortly afterward, and had married a young woman from the Anglo-Irish gentry. At the time when he wrote his book he lived in Cork in comfortable financial circumstances, supporting his wife and children by working as a domestic supervisor on a large estate. His marriage as well as his employment gave him access to the city's upper-class society, then the most prosperous in Ireland after Dublin's, thriving on maritime trade with the newer colonies of the British empire. In early 1793, when he advertised a proposal to publish his work by subscription, and personally visited prominent families in southern Ireland to raise money for the venture, his social status as an immigrant Indian was sufficiently secure, as Michael H. Fisher remarks, for "a total of 320 people [to entrust] him with a deposit [. . .] long in advance of the book's delivery" (Travels 137). The appearance of the two-volume edition the following year evidently enhanced "his personal prestige among the elite of Cork," and though the work attracted "little lasting attention from the British public," it contributed at least tangentially to his distinction in [End Page 93] later life in England, where he resettled around 1807 and worked as an entrepreneur until his death in 1851 (Fisher, Travels 141, 179).
Din Muhammad's biography and literary career inevitably raise a number of historical, interpretive, and theoretical questions. How did he achieve the proficiency in English and the broad acculturation to British and European ways of life that he possessed when he migrated to Ireland as an adult in the last quarter of the eighteenth century? How did he acquire the sophisticated knowledge of eighteenth-century English literature and print culture that seems to be encoded in his epistolary travel-narrative and autobiography set in early British-colonial India? What social, political, and economic conditions in Patna and the Bengal Province before his time, and between his birth in 1759 and his departure in 1784, could have prepared him for the transformations he underwent after immigration—a linguistic shift from Bengali, Hindustani, and Persian to English, a religious shift from a mixture of Islam and Hinduism to Protestant Christianity, and an occupational shift from subaltern soldier to household-manager, writer, restaurateur, and innovative physical therapist? What role, if any, did his literate Indian multilingualism play in his thinking and writing in English, or in his representations of India to an Anglo-Irish audience at that early date? What were his purposes in composing and publishing his Travels with such close attention to detail, why did he choose to cast his material in the epistolary travelogue form, and what larger historical and cultural dynamics did he initiate? Was he merely an anomaly, or was he representative of an entire class of phenomena that had just begun to take shape in his lifetime and was to accumulate a great deal of cultural momentum over the next two centuries? In any case, what made his extraordinary life-story between 1759 and 1851 possible in the first place?
Some of these questions can be answered by digging deeper into the particulars of his career and background, but when we do so we discover that the man as well as his published writing can be reconstructed historically only as the direct or indirect causal effects of a...