This essay was originally published in The Caravan.
It was 2002, four years before the Jaipur Literature Festival kicked off in Diggi Palace, when I was picked by the British Council to be a part of a small band of Indian reviewers and authors invited to see what the fuss was over the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the writers who massed at Charlotte Square Gardens. Most of us book-lovers had spent the 1990s with our noses pressed up to the thick-glassed window that separated home and abroad, knowing that, since we lived in India, we would rarely meet the foreign writers whose books we loved so much.
As a fledgling book-reviewer at the newspaper Business Standard in Delhi, I couldn’t believe my luck when the British Council offered to cover the cost of air tickets and the stay in Edinburgh. My husband and I did some frantic calculations—he had just quit his job in order to kick-start a career in freelance writing, and we had just spent the year’s furniture allowance on, predictably, books—and worked out that if I was very sensible, I would be able to afford meals in Edinburgh, as well as a few days in London if I cast myself upon the charity of friends.
Perhaps it had been foolish of me to try to squeeze in a trip to London, but the temptation had been irresistible. Who could possibly come so far and not drop by Daunt’s bookstore, visit the streets where Charles Dickens had taken his brisk, long, restless walks, and try to see the city through the eyes of the generations of Indians who had visited and sometimes settled in it, from unknown, unnamed convicts and labourers to famous writers such as Dean Mahomet, Toru Dutt, and, closer to our time, Salman Rushdie?
On the bus from Edinburgh to London, five hours into the ride, I was miserably hungry. It was only genteel starvation, but I’d blown my cash in Edinburgh on music tickets and books, and had skipped meals for two or three days. This was a common problem among our small group from India—all of us went a little crazy when we saw the abundance of books in the stores, compared to the relatively thin stacks back in Delhi, and we went unwisely, but oh-so deliciously, from famine to feast, spending far more than any of us could afford.
London was an indulgence, I knew that right from the start, but it’s only at this point that I wondered if I had made a big, big mistake. Broke, cold, wet, miserable, hungry, sleepy—perhaps I should have just gone back home.
My passage to England was so unlike the swashbuckling approach of a man I had started to adore, across the passage of centuries. I wished I had half the resilience of Sake Dean Mahomet, the first Indian writer to attempt a full-fledged book in English, and the intrepid founder of first a coffee house and then an unabashedly Orientalist spa in Brighton.
On 2 February 1810, Mahomet put out an advertisement in the London paper the Morning Post:
Saik Deen Mahomad, manufacturer of the real currie powder, takes the earliest opportunity to inform the nobility and gentry, that he has, under the patronage of the first men of quality who have resided in India, established at his house, 34 George Street, Portman-Square, the Hindostanee Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club. Apartments are fitted up for their entertainment in the Eastern style, where dinners, composed of genuine Hindostanee dishes, are served up at the shortest notice … Such ladies and gentlemen as may be desirous of having India Dinners dressed and sent to their own houses will be punctually attended to by giving previous notice.
Mahomet was an enterprising young man, who grew up at the height of the rule of the East India Company, and came out of Orissa after one of its great famines. His portrait startled me when I first saw it. He has a contemporary look about him, an air of competitive alertness and enterprise. He seemed to blend together the determination of young UPSC aspirants from places such as Patna and the business-mindedness of the Marwari boys I grew up with in Kolkata, who stuck to their family businesses but loved a dashing start-up story.
Mahomet wrote his Travels as a manuscript-length visiting card: he would use these memoirs to pry open the world of English patrons, setting himself up, with unabashed shrewdness, as an explainer of India. In the book, he wrote,
As you may not understand those terms, I shall thus explain them to you.
Comedan signifies – Captain
Subidar – Lieutenant
Jemidar – Ensign
Howaldar – Serjeant
Homaldar – Corporal
Seapoy – Private soldier
Tombourwalla – Drummer
Basleewalla – Fife
Trooheewalla – Trumpeter
Travels is often read only by academics, because of its slightly repetitive style, and because of Mahomet’s over-careful eye on the English patrons he hoped to please. The first Indian writer in English wrote explicitly for a foreign audience, probably plagiarised his recollections of India and of life as a Company man from a variety of sources, and committed the (present-day) cardinal sins of explaining India and omitting the authentic India. He mentions a famine, and brushes it aside; his patrons will not be interested, he intuits, in the sufferings of Indians. (Mahomet was quite correct; in Mookerjee’s Magazine, a popular periodical of the nineteenth century, some of the most controversial articles were part of a running series on the great Indian famines—written, the author explained, to correct the British silence on the subject.)
The critic Amardeep Singh writes: “It must have taken a considerable feat of the imagination for an Indian, however curious and intrepid, in that day and age to consider writing in a foreign tongue, in an age when one’s country was observed and the observations set down almost exclusively by outsiders.”
Mahomet’s subsequent career would have been of great interest to an Indian audience, but this pioneering desi writer had discovered for himself a sad truth of publishing—the local audience for his travels, Indian readers back home, didn’t exist in numbers sufficient to make writing for them worth his while.
And yet, as Singh notes, his story might have been a classic of early immigration. There is nothing that tells us how he felt when the ambitiously named Hindostanee Coffee House failed, or whether he missed the monsoons when walking in Ireland’s damp and London’s grey fogs, wondering whether he could set up his own practice as a specialist in Oriental medicine. He did; he made a startling success of himself as a “shampooing surgeon” in Brighton, the original word, champi, trailing faint memories of India behind it.
But having explained bhishtis and oliphaunts, he was silent on how he felt when he married his Anglo-Irish wife, whether he mourned the coffee—served South Indian style, by the yard, or in contemporary style, by the dish?—he had served at his Hindostanee Coffee House, whether he missed India’s heat and dust or preferred the placid hedgerows of the English countryside, the Brighton pavilions.
A year after Mahomet tried his hand at providing fine Indian dining for patrons, he switched tack—perhaps because most old India hands and well-heeled Indian visitors to England imported their own cooks to make the rich curries they craved, and had no need to outsource banquets and biryanis. Another advertisement he put out in The Times, on 27 March 1811, read,
Hindostanee Coffee-House, No. 34 George-street, Portman square-Mahomed, East-Indian, informs the Nobility and Gentry, he has fitted up the above house, neatly and elegantly, for the entertainment of Indian gentlemen, where they may enjoy the Hoakha, with real Chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England with choice wines, and every accommodation, and now looks up to them for their future patronage and support, and gratefully acknowledges himself indebted for their former favours, and trusts it will merit the highest satisfaction when made known to the public.
Reading these lines today, I admire his ambition—Dean Mahomet was aiming higher than you would guess. Coffee houses were not equivalents of today’s cafes; they often resembled the addas of Kolkata, informal versions of gentlemen’s clubs or New York nightclubs. Which coffee house you patronised said a great deal about your politics, your interests and your social standing. In John Timbs’s history of London’s coffee houses, he charts their bumpy start: in 1657, James Farr, a barber turned owner of a coffee house, was called up at St Dunstan’s, for instance. The charge against him was that “he annoyeth his neighbors by evil smells,” incurred in the making and selling of a drink called coffee. Moreover, his chimney had a tendency to catch fire, to the understandable “affrightment of his neighbours.”
Just two decades later, these minor inconveniences had been tempered by familiarity. Timbs includes a song from Thomas Jordan’s 1675 play Triumphs of London.
You that delight in wit and mirth,
And love to hear such news
That come from all parts of the earth,
Turks, Dutch, and Danes, and Jews:
I’ll send ye to the rendezvous,
Where it is smoaking new;
Go hear it at a coffee-house,
It cannot but be true.
There battails and sea-fights are fought,
And bloudy plots displaid;
They know more things than e’er was thought,
Or ever was bewray’d:
No money in the minting-house
Is half so bright and new;
And coming from the Coffee-House,
It cannot but be true.
By 1715, there were roughly 2,000 coffee houses in London. The National Review carried a description of how they functioned, in which they sounded a lot like the coffee houses I’d grown up with in Kolkata, or the equally popular addas where the intellectuals and thinkers of the day presided over discussions fuelled by kabiraji omelettes and endless cups of tea. London’s coffee houses were divided by profession, trade, class and political affiliation. The lawyers had their favourite haunts near the Temple, the “young bloods” patronised more fashionable places where they could drop in after the theatre.
It all seemed surprisingly familiar. Starting work as a journalist in Delhi in the 1990s, I had been puzzled by the city’s lack of Kolkata-style addas, until one of south Delhi’s more seasoned troupers explained the city to me. In those days, civil servants and lawyers frequented the Gymkhana Club; journalists huddled over cheap and endless pegs of rum at the Press Club; old, Partition-era Punjabi families went to the Chelmsford; the Golf Club (notorious today for its steep membership fees) was home to golfers, but also diplomats, dashing businessmen and rising politicians. Artists and activists preferred the humbler Triveni Kala Sangam, rising to the dizzy heights of The Cellar when they were in funds, and intellectuals had long since stormed the Bastille of the India International Centre, where everyone under 50 was considered young and you had to be a septuagenarian to command any respect.
It would have been far easier for Dean Mahomet to find acceptance in the England of the 1770s than in the racially segregated India of that period. I began to see what his chutzpah stemmed from: the barriers that were so insurmountable in India, where a soldier from the Bengal Army could not cross certain lines, were slightly more porous in England.
Ambitious to walk into this world though he was a rank outsider in England, and assuming that he could make a dent in it, Dean Mahomet over-reached himself. And yet, everything about his writing exudes confidence, from his careful but offhand inclusion in it of his own climb up the ranks of the Indian army, to the cheerful way in which he unpacks the mystic East. He laid down his chapters in the way a Kashmiri merchant unrolls his carpets, spreading out the wonders, the colourful patterns, the ancient weaves, and there is no doubt what he intended to do in London.
The Hindostanee Coffee House failed well; it was, by accident or design, the first Indian curry-house in London, and I felt a sudden stab of renewed fondness for Dean Mahomet when I saw its little plaque at George Street. It may have been too much to ask, even of a man of his charm and obvious salesmanship, to establish a rival to the great coffee houses of the time. Michael Fisher, who worte a preface and an introduction to a 1997 edition of Travels, records Mahomet’s sad advertisement, placed in the papers after his venture ran aground, in 1811:
MAHOMED, late of HINDOSTANEE Coffee House, WANTS a SITUATION, as BUTLER, in a Gentleman’s Family, or as Valet to a Single Gentleman.
But, by 1814, he and his wife, Jane, had shifted to Bath, and taken up jobs as bathhouse keepers. And, by 1838, he had established himself as a kind of superior spa-owner in Brighton.
He published only one other thing, and that was a pamphlet: Shampooing, or Benefits Resulting from the Use of Indian Medicated Vapour Bath, as introduced into this country by S.D. Mahomed (A Native of India). The bulk of the pamphlet is given over to testimonials from grateful clients cured of lumbago, nervous disorders, gouty affection and contraction, torpid livers, and, in the case of Mr Phillips, comedian, of loss of voice and violent hoarseness.
These testimonials were enlivened by odes to “Mahomed, The Brighton Shampooing Surgeon,” written by Mrs Kent and others. It was dreadful poetry—“O thou dark sage, whose vapour bath/ Makes muscular as his of Gath/ Limbs erst relaxed and limber”—but the odes, and letters, testify to Mahomet’s remarkable genius for marketing himself, as a writer or as an introducer of Indian massage techniques. (Shampoo, at that time, was a reference to champi, a massage, rather than head-baths.)
I imagine him, content with his Irish wife, rising up through the world of Bath, getting to know the gentry with the same ease with which he appealed to his British patrons in the introduction to his memoirs, making himself indispensable. His shampooing salons promised novelty, gossip and wholesomeness, the same three qualities easily discernible in his memoirs.
The salons were enormous, as elaborate as a Hindi film set, and as gorgeously baroque. They took the English idea of taking the waters to a sybaritic, exotic, glamorously Oriental extreme. And they fulfilled a small part of the dream he’d had when he started his coffee house. The Brighton Gazette recorded that ladies would make appointments to meet at Dean Mahomet’s salon, and would “often pass seven or eight hours together in the carpeted salon, telling stories, eating sweetmeats.”
Mahomet’s salon appears to have inspired a brief vogue in henna body-painting: ladies would have their “fair bodies” decorated in these traceries. The Brighton Gazette reporter was scandalised: “This sort of pencilwork spreads over the bosom, and continues as low down as the navel … all of this is displayed by their style of dress, every garment of which, even to the light gauze chemise, being open from the neck to that point: a singular taste, and certainly more barbarous than becoming.”
It would have been far easier for Dean Mahomet to find acceptance in the England of the 1770s than in the racially segregated India of that period.
By the time of his death, his memoir had almost been forgotten, except by scholars of Indian writing in English who marked it down as the first of its kind. But his legend has a gilded edge to it in Bath; Mr Mahomet, the former Company soldier, rose through the ranks to become one of England’s best-known purveyors of hospitality and entertainment, even perhaps a leader of fashion. It is an appealing story, in many ways true to the subsequent history of Indian writing in English: this first book was written by a man shaped by India, who become an NRI, and who was published abroad (still the height of many Indian writers’ ambitions).
It seems even more fitting that Dean Mahomet had no special privileges; not the cushion of a rich family, nor an inherited network of easy, lazy friends abroad, which many Indians did and continue to have through the accident of birth. Adventurer, entrepreneur, slick talker, a soldier-turned-businessman—his purpose was not grandiose, nor was he pompous. His words, and his memoir, were intended to pry open a new country.
The first full-length book in English by an Indian writer was nothing more nor less than an advertisement for Mr Mahomet, a knock on the door, which opened to the hard work, prosperity and larger opportunities offered by Brighton, London and Ireland.
I spent some time in George Street, trying to imagine what his coffee house would have been like in 1811, years before Bangladeshi cooks turned a bastardised dish called chicken tikka masala into the United Kingdom’s favourite takeaway food. I looked at the plaque so long that one of London’s policemen came up to make gentle inquiries. I fumbled, trying to explain about Dean, and why he was so important to me.
The past is an inheritance, and how it reaches you depends on many things—how conscientious your family is, the presence or absence of public libraries, what they teach you in schools, whether you’re from a caste whose privileges include owning their history or from one low on the totem pole, deprived of its own history along with so much else. My Bengali inheritance had arrived more or less in one piece; the history of Bengali literature was easily available on bookshelves, and it was drummed into the heads of students in school.
If that wasn’t enough, a particularly formidable aunt sent me spinning defensively towards Sarat Chandra and Bankim Chandra early on, by sneering at us injiri (English-speaking) types, and betting that I knew more Shakespeare than Sarat. My father’s parents, my thakurda and thakurma, were kinder, and thanks to their frequent and long stays at our home, Bengali remained a living language to us, its soft, rippling cadences a welcome relief after the crisp apple of English, and the earthier sitaphal strains of Delhi’s Hindi.
But no one had given my generation the keys to Indian writing in English, the newest of India’s languages, barely three hundred years resident in a country where the oldest spoken languages can be traced back a thousand years or more.
I wanted to tell the policeman all this, and to tell him how the hidden histories of Indian writing in English had unfolded slowly for people like me, just a book reviewer then outside the academy. There were no public libraries and few archives open to the curious reader who was not a scholar; the past had to be reshaped from private collections and each generation seemed to forget and re-remember its own past all over again.
It is impossible to say all of this to a policeman, even one as kind and patient as that London bobby was; so instead, I explained about Dean Mahomet’s coffee house, and added that he was the first writer from India to publish a full-length book in English. “Is that so?” said the policeman. “And you wouldn’t be after being a writer yourself, would you?”
I am susceptible to Irish accents, and wished I could say yes so as not to disappoint him. But it would be a full decade or more before I wrote my first two novels. The ink-stained, pottering life of the professional book reviewer had closed comfortably around me. I liked meeting writers and listening to them, but there was a 16-foot-high boundary wall between their lives and mine.
“No,” I said. “I’m a reader, mostly; I review books.”
The policeman leaned over and looked at me, very hard. His eyes were a piercing green, like the eyes of a very kind cat I knew back home.
“Is that so?” he said.
Something serious in his voice brought forth an answering seriousness from me. I looked at the plaque, commemorating a man who stepped accidentally into history with his one published book, and I said: “But some day, I’ll write my own.”
Adapted from The Girl Who Ate Books, forthcoming from HarperCollins India.
This article is part of a collaboration between Public Books and The Caravan.