Defying the Raj – a French hero with his tiger (Book Review)

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Title: Once Upon a Time in India -The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran; Author: Alfred Assollant (translated by Sam Miller); Publisher: Juggernaut; Pages: 252; Price: Rs 299

The Raj seems an integral part of our history, but was not a certainty with another European power fiercely contesting British influence in the subcontinent much of the 18th century, and coming quite close to supplanting them. Were it not for some miscalculations and lost battles, we might have ended up as the world’s largest French-speaking nation. What could have our course been in such an eventuality?

A tantalising glimpse of a possible democratic, republican dispensation can be seen this long-obscure classic, unearthed and translated by British journalist and author Sam Miller, about the exploits of a most singular French adventurer, accompanied by an unprecedented aide, in mid-19th century British India, on the eve of 1857 .

This adventure by Alfred Assollant, a little-known French author of the 19th century, was most popular in his time and later (as Miller tells us, 20th century fans included the likes of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci), translated into most European languages, save English – its targets, but failed to make him famous or rich. It is still in print but not much read or known.

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Assollant (1827-86) was by no means the only Frenchman to write about India – take his more famous contemporary Jules Verne (also a lawyer’s son) with “The Steam House” (also known as “The End of Nana Sahab”), and a notable character, Captain Nemo of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, 1871 and more, revealed to be Indian – and with great hatred of the British.

It is this vein Assollant seemed to have pioneered in his 1867 work. His French hero is brave, enterprising, and courteous while his British opponents are mostly brutal, venal, inefficient or arrogant and Indians, with exceptions, correspond to the prevailing stereotypes of noble savages, with a stress on both words.

The plot seems to be simple. In Lyons, the prestigious Academy of Sciences, at its session in September-end 1856 is told about the death of one of its members, who “was just about to leave for India, to search amid the mountains known as the Ghats, near the source of the Godavari River for the Guru Karamata, the most important sacred books of the Hindus, long hidden from European eyes” but left a considerable sum to whoever takes his unfinished job.

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An academy member suggests they open it to the public, but it is only in May the following year, do they find someone who proves to meet all requirements.

The only thing that Captain Corcoran has the impatient five-year old Louison waiting in the other room, and some learned members suggest chastisement before they find she happens to be a Royal Bengal tiger – and hungry. Bedlam ensues.

The scene then shifts to India, to the court of the Holkar, “Prince of the Marathas”, at Bhagavpur on the Narmada, where the British, sensing some trouble in the wind, are seek to disarm him, and even suborn his prime minister for the purpose. But sailing up the river is his French saviour.

After a confused melange of revolts, kidnappings (including of Holkar’s beautiful and charming daughter Sita), sieges and pitched battles, Corcoran finds himself the master of the situation, as well the ruler of the kingdom and husband of the princess. But will his radical measures of equitable governance go down well with his traditional subjects or the nobles who think they have a better claim to power?

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Assollant, who was quite radical in real life (he lost his teacher’s job for his views) makes his hero a vessel for his ideas, but colonialism puts paid to this attractive option. No matter how open and radical at home, the French and the British never followed this rule in most of their colonies.

But subtext, some errors in his depiction of India and its customs, and the narrative’s shifting moods – from pure farce with which it begins to a more dark tone later – apart, Assollant’s work is not only a dated, literary curiousity but an engrossing tale which needs to be relished. Miller, who did a commendable job here, needs to bring out the other adventures too.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected] )



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