A Wonderer Who Wanders Between Waves and Graveyards and Digs Up Ancient Tales

In Conversation with Amit Ranjan

Amit Ranjan. Photo Courtesy: Shailaja

A stranger than fiction book that starts with a limerick and ends with a rhyme, supposed to be a scholarly and playful work on perhaps the first Australian novelist-cum-lawyer-cum-journalist who sold cheap paperbacks for women readers traveling by train in India in the nineteenth century — probably British readership — fought a case for Rani of Jhansi – wrote for Charles Dickens’s Household Words – This can be the description of Amit Ranjan’s John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee (Niyogi Books). Why would one do a book on a maverick like this Australian journalist-cum-writer of the nineteenth century who opposed the British? What led to such a book? The quest for a ghostly ‘Alice Richman’ who lived in Pune in the 1800s, says Ranjan. And the author’s quest continues…spanning the shores of Australia, ‘Hindoostan’ and America…

The other most interesting thing about this book is the way the story is told – Ranjan says he is deeply influenced by the genre of magic realism and this, perhaps, reflects in his writing. While the research input is awesome, the style is non-academic and even flamboyant at times. It is a book that brings a smile to your face with its obvious cheekiness. But this is also the kind of book you keep on your bookshelf and pull out when you have time to mull over a discussion on historic links and syncretism – for that is the sap that flows through the book concealed behind a laid-back narrative style of a nineteenth-century writer. Who is this Ranjan who has tried to re-invent pedantry and scholarship, treat the serious business of research and academia with such friskiness?

Ranjan is a Visiting Fellow at UNSW [University of New South Wales], Sydney; and a Fulbright Scholar-in- Residence at Miami, an assistant Professor at NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training, India] — with eye to the sky, and ear to the ocean. His poetry collection, Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty, came out two years ago, and his biography of Dara Shukoh is due out soon. His poetry collection came out 4 years ago, and a new collection of poems The Knot of Juggernaut was just released in Miami in March. Without more ado, as John Lang would have it, we present to you Amit Ranjan –

What was it that made you map your journey of unearthing Lang in the form of his writings instead of writing about his life directly? You have used the forms of limerick, poetry and the epistolary technique along with essays and Lang’s own writing to build your case. An amazing amalgam — Why? It is rather an unusual form of storytelling.

This is an interesting question, or a set of questions. I think poetry is a powerful medium. At a certain time, it was supposed to regale and break tedium; now it seems to create tedium – the trajectory of human taste is interesting indeed. So, unable to write a book in verse (Vikram Seth debuted with a novel[1] in verse a little more than three decades ago, with elan), the least I could do (and generally do with prose) is having poetic invocations at the beginning and the end. I’ve also tried to maintain a certain poeticity through the book – it does add some funk and spunk, I believe.

About the form of writing – what was available to me was writings about Lang, and writings by Lang. Lang’s own voice is richer and wittier than his contemporaries and commentators, and therefore it came naturally to speak about his voice, rather than speak about what has been spoken about his voice. Unfortunately, the personal papers and artefacts of Lang have all been lost – it would certainly have been a riot to peruse his letters. And since letters by him are missing, I decided to write a letter to him (which is the first chapter) much in the way he’d have liked to write or receive a letter.

Also, about the form of writing – history writing and academic writing is caught in its self-referential niche writing – and needs to be freed from that cage, or that page in the history of stylistics of writing. Much influenced by the Latin American novelists, as also the frame narratives like Bocaccio’s Decameron and Alif Laila[2] – I thought it would be an interesting to approach non-fiction and/or history like a novel of the “lo real maravilloso[3]” genre (well, almost). So one could call it creative non-fiction (this work is completely and heavily annotated, so there’s nothing ‘fictitious’ in the work – just to add that disclaimer). I think these experiments are exciting, much like ficto-criticism as a foil of this form.

You have an interesting tone of narration which is half flippant, but it delves deep into research. Tell us a bit about your research.

The tone is what one makes of it. It is also very Victorian in its language, to keep in sync with Lang’s age. The alleged flippancy is a deliberate device I guess – as a tribute to Lang’s own voice that is playful and yet serious, as also to demonstrate that playful writing can be effective and serious.

Telling a “bit” about this research will occupy a bit of space, for dwelling in the haunt of 19th century is a bit of a habit with me now. Those puns aside, the road of this research has been thrilling across space and time. On the home turf, it took me to Meerut, Mussoorie, Agra and Calcutta. We, being good recyclers of papers, the works by or about Lang barely survive here. The copies of his newspaper, The Mofussilite, published from the above-mentioned cities (minus Mussoorie) weren’t available anywhere except London, Canberra, Chicago – and interestingly Islamabad. And so, I went to UNSW at Sydney for my PhD research, courtesy of Endeavour and Inlaks fellowships. There I met a very interesting 86-year-old gentleman, Mr Victor Crittenden, who was a retired librarian, and who had a very keen interest in John Lang. He had republished a lot of Lang’s work, and it was amazing to have conversations with him. The only little problem was that he was such a hopeless Romantic that he had ascribed several anonymous or pseudonymous works to Lang. This, then, became a daunting task, to research about each of these works and see if they could actually be Lang’s. And of course, it also resulted in funny arguments. Meanwhile, I relaxed the scope and the methodology, made it broad and unorthodox, to see where I could get. I met descendants of Lang’s half-brothers; a rabbi in Melbourne who believed Lang was Jewish; a member of Italian nobility in Paris, bitter about the politics in that family, and so on. At one point I emailed one Motee Persaud in hope that he’s a descendant of Jotee Persaud – only to cause him anxiety, for there was some court against him, and he thought my email was a subterfuge for a bigger design! When I returned from Sydney, I lost a pen drive with scans of Lang’s newspaper, for it was in a pretty UNSW backpack that someone took fancy to. I think I met the purloiner for a fleeting minute a few months later! The bit can go on, but I think this bit should be contained before I write a short story about it here.

Was the journey of discovery as interesting as your discovery of Lang?

Oh yes indeed! I think some of that has been revealed in the previous answer. It’s still an open book, an ongoing journey, I am still working with The Mofussilite. In my three fellowships to Miami (none about Lang), I purloined time to peruse Lang’s journal. The journey has been a thriller all through, I would like to believe – including my not being able to find Lang’s grave ever. Once, my friends and I rolled down Mussoorie hills into Camel’s Back Cemetery and the eight of us hunted for Lang at the haunted forest on a rainy afternoon. No luck, and never after in my subsequent visits, though the directions are fairly easy.

One of the most fun discoveries was that a picture of Lala Jotee Persaud, a client of Lang’s, was printed in The Illustrated London News as Nana Sahib’s! I was thrilled to receive that picture from ILN.

Ruskin Bond, a writer many of us deeply admire, found Lang in the Camel Back cemetery in Mussoorie in 1964. Then an Australian scholar investigated him. Lang finally found a way to instigate your pen to take up his cause. What moved you to research and write on him?

I met Mr Bond in 2009 I think, and my friends and I had a great fan moment. His father had some Lang novels, and that is what interested in him. Almost simultaneous, John Earnshaw was interested Lang’s life in Australia, and he wrote a short 30-page account detailing his timeline. And then the interest was lost for 40 years, when Victor Crittenden and Rory Medcalf of Australian High Commission reinvigorated interest in the matter.

All this, unbeknown to me, I was hunting for Alice’s history. Alice Richman, a girl who died at 26 in 1882, is buried in Alice Garden, Pune University, surrounded by a forest and many urban legends. Not knowing how to go about finding anything about her – I followed the Hanuman methodology – pick up the whole mountain if you can’t identify the herb. In reading about Australians in India in 19th century, I stumbled upon Lang, and since then, there’s been no looking back.

So, Alice the ghost sparked your interest in him from her very presence in Pune, what was it about Lang that attracted you to take a decade long journey into his adventures? Tell us a bit about how Alice pushed you to it.

In the pursuit of Alice, I read about the interesting Australian women missionaries in India (they were brought to India to be ‘tamed’); camels and camel drivers that went from India; and several such fascinating stories. The pursuit of Alice prepared my reading list, and that is how I found Lang. A white man fighting a white empire, with a nuanced understanding of India, and with an infective invective – seemed like a natural resonance to me. It is beyond the scope of this interview to get into the thrilling details of discovering things about Alice’s life too throughout this decade you’ve mentioned. Suffice it to say that it is actually the pursuit of Alice I have been on, and she keeps rewarding with some Lang legend and legacy every now and then.

Did you feel there was a need to bring out Lang to the fore? Is he relevant for our times? 

Absolutely so. He was the man who took on Lord Hardinge in his newspaper on a daily basis, to the point where the Governor General summoned him. Lang merely said that he made more profit by writing against him, than he could ever by singing paeans to him. He was a rebel, and witty. Today’s journalists across the world from the age of democracy can take a lesson or two from a man from the time of the Empire.

To understand where we are, we need to look at where we come from. The tedious legal system; the workings and trappings of army; racism; casteism; evolution of sciences and belief in pseudosciences – are explained in detail with wit, rigour and humour in Lang’s writings. To understand our postcolonial ontology, it is very important to understand how deeply colonialism affects us.

Please introduce the most interesting fact about the ‘Wanderer of Hindoostan’ to our readers. Tell us a bit about him concisely, especially as we are told in your preface: “Suddenly, there was an interesting piece of news doing rounds: that the Indian PM gifted his Australian counterpart with John Lang documents to demonstrate how far back the relations between the two countries went. I was not acknowledged. However, it was also a backhanded compliment. Lang had finally found an afterlife.”

Lang died in 1864; his name and works survived until. About 1910. For the afterlife of a writer, critics are important. Shakespeare, for example, was resurrected by the Romantics in the 19th century. After 19th century, Lang was lost until John Earnshaw’s minor interest in the 1960s; and then Victor – as already stated. My research was awarded as a PhD thesis in 2012. Interestingly, in 2014 he was showcased in this prime ministerial meeting. The rest you have told in your question – sometimes one has to take backhanded compliments with high spirits! Of course, it was an anxious time for me, for the cat was out of the bag, and I had to hunt for a publisher fast. However, as stated in the book – Stories forgotten or lying in the cold, find their own time to be told – and therefore finally a book, half in size of the original, in 2021. The advantage of including Lang is of course pushing India-Australia ties to mid-19th century, an idea which has never really been thought of.

Was the John Charnock you mentioned in your book related to Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta? Was Lang related to him and did that impact his choices? Job Charnock was after all a rebel too in a manner of speaking.

That’s a difficult connection to figure out, which I will try to, on some idle day when curiosity gets the better of me. Job Charnock, the alleged founder of Calcutta, died in 1693; and the reference in the Lang book about John Charnock is from 1843 (p362).  Lucy, wife of John Lang, had a sister, Mary, a poet who was married to John Henry Charnock. Mary’s book Legendary Rhymes (1843) was published posthumously, and her husband wrote a preface to this book. This Charnock was Lang’s brother-in-law, so they would have known each other well. John Charnock himself was an agriculturalist and a drainage expert and wrote books on this matter. To answer the last part of the question, in my opinion, Job Charnock and John Lang are as different as chalk and cheese – the former being a thorough imperialist and the latter, the opposite.

In the start of a chapter, you have said: “Lang had foreseen Google.” Elucidate.

Oh, that’s a joke to complement and compliment one of Lang jokes.  The novel Ex-Wife revolves around the predicament of a Eva Merrydale, divorced by her husband for “criminal familiarity with another man.” (p370) Eva’s brother tells that this case has been mentioned 114,227 times in the media, with 107 times in the Times alone. These kind of figures are something one would see in a google search result – 114,227 results for “Eva Merrydale divorce” 

That is Lang lampooning the British media for its obsessing over a poor divorcee through the exaggerated figures. However, one wonders, if there were people employed to keep track of a particular news appearing in the media.

As a digression to this essay, Lang indeed was looking into the future of journalism – sensational headlines, scandals and so on. In one lead article about the Gorham case, which had been talked about to death, Lang just wrote –‘Damn the Gorham Case!’ – and captured the public sentiment!

What was the purpose of this book? What kind of readership did you expect?

I guess the purpose of a prose book, fiction or non-fiction, is to tell a good story. However, my purpose was to fulfil a calling – I had at hand, the figure of a character lost for a century. It then becomes one’s responsibility to resurrect the figure as one has been entrusted by destiny, too. And of the course, the more general idea holds – the keys to the present lie in the past, as has already been discussed.

In terms of readership, I was looking at anyone who is interested in an interesting story of a maverick figure. This is why the language is jargon free, the stylistics are that of a novel. However, of course, one is also looking at the countries Lang is lost to – India, Australia and UK – and to have them remember an important critic and figure of their past. I expect students of literature and colonial/ postcolonial histories to pick this work up; but I’d love it much more that it appeals to the general reader of fiction and non-fiction.

John Lang had encounters with Dickens, Rani of Jhansi — a very wide range of historic personalities and influenced, you have claimed even George Bernard Shaw. Yet, all these personalities lived on while he faded to obscurity. Why do you think that happened?

Lang fought the British imperial sword with his pen, was declared a “hospital bed novelist” by the critics and buried to the British posterity. He wrote in Australia with convicts as heroes, which of course, didn’t go down well with the convict settlement. For Indians, who he had so much adulation for, he still got lost to history. Probably his interest in wine and women did not go down well with Indian historians too; or he was difficult to slot, being an interloper.

One of the things that does come across is Lang faded to obscurity as no one knew of him. Do you feel the role of historians and critics critical to the survival of an author? Or do you feel the colonials he often wrote against were happy to bury his writings?

Both aspects are at work. As already pointed out, the colonial press gave him bad reviews all the time. Subsequent critics were not kind either. This goes on to suggest how deeply ideological and long drawn out the colonial project was.

How was Lang a rebel in his times? Do you feel your own journey has been a rebellion against pedagogical practices of the current times? After all, can a book based on this much research start with a limerick and end with a tongue-in-cheek rhyme?

Two leitmotifs would suffice to settle the matter about being a rebel. It is said, in Lang’s multiple novels, about the white British protagonists – “India he loved, England he despised.” The second motif is strong women characters, some of them very deliberately parodying Victorian women and Victorian novels.

If my writing is considered rebellious to the current conventions, I would take it as a compliment, and not a back handed one. I wish I wrote the entire book in verse. I hope to pull off that trick successfully someday.

Maybe you will – an upcoming one – Alice’s story…Do you have an upcoming book? What about a novel on the ghostly Alice?

A new poetry book titled The Knot of Juggernaut, Or The Mystery of (Miami Mambo) Vexuality was just released, a day before I left Miami to come back to Delhi. It will be out here soon, too, in a month. This collection has poems written about journeys between the Bay of Bengal and the Bay of Biscayne. The title was suggested by The Right Honourable KB Con, Ducktor Albatross.

A biography of Dara Shukoh is scheduled for the year end.

The Alice book – definitely, whenever Alice wills it!

Thank you for the interview. 

Thank you so much.  It was a real fun interview.

[1] Golden Gate (1986)

[2] Thousand and One Nights

[3] Magic realism. As facts are less known or blurry, the content seems magical. Normally applied to Latin American fiction.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)