Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee
Author: Amit Ranjan
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Retracing colonial history is always fascinating. And, if the characters are out of the ordinary, that re-examination is even more interesting. This book revisits the life of John Lang, an Australian writer-lawyer settled in India in the 19th century.
John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer of Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee by Amit Ranjan is about Lang’s life, his accomplishments and his literary works. Lang (1816-1864) was a fiery journalist and novelist who constantly annoyed the establishment of the East India Company with his vituperative and pathogenic humor. He had lived in India since the age of 26.
A visiting fellow at University of South Wales, Sydney, a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami and who teaches English at NCERT , New Delhi Ranjan’s earlier books include poetry collections Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty.
A lawyer, John Lang learnt Persian and Urdu fast to argue cases in lower courts. He mostly fought against the British and won a few well-known cases in the company’s own court. Also, Lang represented Rani Laxmibai in her legal battle against the annexation of her kingdom of Jhansi by the East India Company.
In about five hundred pages, Ranjan looks at the personality of Lang rather vividly. Australia’s first native-born novelist, John Lang and an attorney, had a remarkable life. Coming from a family of 10 children (including half- and step-siblings), he went to Cambridge to qualify as a barrister. When he represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, he documented his impression of the queen.
Amusingly, this became the basis of some scenes in an Indian television serial depicting a fictitious intimate relationship between them. Lang flamboyantly fought yet another case of Lala Jotee Persaud for his due as a provisioner in the British army. Persaud won 2 lakh rupees, which was, in 1851, a princely amount.
It is not because Lang was the first Australian writer or was among the first writers of English prose on India, or because of the historical place where Lang lived in the politically volatile 19th century that propelled Ranjan to write the book. The motive behind the book is clear: Lang was a fine writer.
In his short life of 48 years, Lang produced 23 novels, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry. His novels were mostly in the romance genre and were set in India. His themes were typically bold and very much so somewhat rebellious. After his death in 1864, he remained a well-known writer and his books continued to sell for another 40 years. Lang’s novels were found to be too feminist for Victorian comfort, and his white male protagonists were often described by the narrator as ‘India he loved, England he despised’.
Lang also pursued a career as a journalist, producing The Mofussilite from Meerut — editions of which came out from Ambala, Calcutta. Apparently, as it carried anti-government reports, its file copies were destroyed.
“Lang can indeed be viewed as the father of Indian tabloid journalism. The tabloid, of course, had its equivalent of what is now known as ‘Page 3’, but it was very different–in that it was very literary, with an overdose of Lang’s Latin, Boccaccios and Byrons,” Ranjan writes in the book.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the Indophile spoke at least five languages and produced works as a translator. There were numerous fictional works presumed to have been written or co-authored or significantly inspired by Lang.
Lang’s versatile talents and established scholarship were surpassed by the colourful life that he led. His escapades and misadventures — landed him in a Calcutta jail for libel and in Vienna on suspicions of being a spy. He won the bets. His divorce and love affair even led to an illegitimate child.
Lang had a rationalist’s curiosity about phrenology — a pseudoscience that correlated measurements of different parts of the skull with race and mental ability that was fashionable among Europeans in his times. All these are explored and commented upon.
The book also captures some interesting episodes in Lang’s life like this one: There was a party in progress at John Lang’s house in Mussoorie as he died. Lang had frowned upon the idea of truncating it merely on account of his illness. Bronchitis was the immediate cause of this unforgettable personality’s demise.
Writes Prof. Saugata Bhaduri in the foreword: “Far from being just another piece of sound academic literary-historical work and a well-researched biography of a lesser-known author who needs to be repatriated to the canon, this book is an exuberant exercise in passion – a passion that set one off on a late-night foray into the unknown just to look up some obscure tomb, or to pick up some obscure discursive thread. Amit’s is an exercise that demonstrates how variegated, yet connected, our little histories are.”
Part history and part literary pleasure, this book is captivating. It will be a delight for history and language buffs as also aficionados of wordplay. Ranjan’s book is well researched, with plenty of reference and end-notes. Witty and interweaving, the narrative makes for an interesting read.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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