The arrival of Europeans to India began with Vasco Da Gama, landing near Calicut in 1492. The quest for pepper and other spices turned the tradesmen to rulers for the next five centuries. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Arabs and Chinese were doing the trade for centuries and their activities were restricted to trade. However, the Europeans had other interests, they want to control the trade and own the resources. The rest is known to us.
The search for a way to reach the land of pepper was very active by most of the European nations. The trade with India were controlled by Arabs who bring the goods the their shore, move it by land to the Mediterranean shore and take them to the Italian ports for further trade. It was estimated that the price appreciated more than 10 times, between the purchase at the source, to the time it reached the European Market. Spain and Portugal, two of the pioneers in the sea voyage were the front runners of this. Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, mistook it for India, Amerigo Vespucci reached Brazil ( later he found the northern part of America), trying to find a new path to India.
It was during this time, Vasco da Gama, decided to find a way to India. All they knew was the way to cross Africa, through what they called the Cape of Good Hope. Europeans need the help of Arabs to reach India. Vasco da Gama's team was small and was more of an expedition to find way, than to to trade. It was equipped with few soldiers and armoury. The team also consist of Brother Figueiro, a young priest, who is one of the protagonist of the novel, looking for the legend of Pester John and his Kingdom. The novel was set at 3 locations. apart from the voyage- Calicut , Cairo and Lisbon. Three protagonist, looking at the eventful journey through their point are the priest, Taufiq , the sailor and Ehtesham, an artist in Cairo.
Taufiq, who now studying inear Cairo, had been to India with his father at a very young age. They had even lived near Gujrat for a while before returning to their land. It was here that he was introduced to the legendary sailor Ibn Majid and learned and sailed with him. It was this experience , that got him the job of taking the White men across the sea to India.
Their arrival wasn't received with enthusiasm. The request for meeting wasn't heeded early, the wait was long. Even the meeting with Zamorin was a damp affair. Their gift to the King was ridiculed. The influence of Arab traders were overwhelming. The situation turned worse after some skirmishes with the local traders. There was attacks on the visitors and they had to retreat in a haste. As we know , Vasco da Gama, lost his brother and many of his sailors. However, they reached back to Lisbon, to give the good news to the King. Taufiq, was retained at Lisbon, to guide them in their next journey. Admiral Kabral, who lead the next expedition was prepared. A fleet of 23 vessels, with many soldiers and ammunition was an eventful journey spreading venom and destruction on its way. The situation at Calicut was no different. They were welcomed by the angry mob and was refused trade permits. The situation turned violent and the Portuguese turned to revenge on the Zamorin and the people of Calicut. The bombardment and slaughter was enough to destroy the kingdom, people including the Zamorin escaped to the interiors. The localites was ill equipped to face the superior armory of the White. They had not used to guns and other explosives..
Taufique had the toughest time, on one side, he was the guide and sailor of the Portuguese, on the other side, he did not like them. His heart was in Samina, the local girl at Calicut. Though he had to return with Gama the second voyage saw him deserting the Portuguese and taking shelter in the land of his beloved. He continued to be tormented by his involvement in the attack, and for bringing the Portuguese to India. In the end, he console himself by saying “They would have come in here all the same, by sail ship or steam boat, via Madagascar and Milind or through the Suez. And the darkies would have gawked at them as they walked down the gangplanks, in doublet and hose or coat and tie . . .”
The powers are divided between three worlds, the Europeans , the Arabs and the Zamorin ( or the Eastern civilisation). This novel also examines the thin line between religions and societies. To the Portuguese, every one who is not a Muslim is Christian. They believe the Zamorin to be a Christian King and the people to be Christians. They were puzzled by the monk from Ceylon, who claims to be a Buddhist. En route, they expect the African kings to obey the rule of the lord, and they take the papal blessing for every endeavour of theirs. The Muslims population of Cairo ( and in general) are always been attacked. Various rulers through out the Arab world have ruled them , and was often attacked by the Turkish ( even before Ottoman), Italian and Greek forces. Ghengiz Khan and the Mongols almost captured them. The social fabric hence is very fragile and any unconformist behavior was thought to be an attempt to de-stabilise the kingdom and was dealt with cruelly. The informers and spies we controlling the life.
Ehteshan on his part was caught in this tussle. An artist, and a lover boy, he was on constant observation and had been warned for his work. Creation is reserved with the God and mortals are not allowed to imitate him. Accepting to paint the Church, however secretly ( even his wife did not know it) did not save him. Forced to abandon his town and his wife he escapes the place just in time leading a nomadic life until he board the unlucky vessel MIRI.
“A historical novel is neither history nor fiction, Or, perhaps it is both" clarifies the author in the prologue. One of the issue is with this is written with the foreigners view point and there is none from the Calicut or the localites. It also takes a de tour with the story of Eshtehan, the artist which do not have any direct consequences in the story, except for the in the sea mishap of the MIRI and being a friend of Taufiq. Notwithstanding the short comings, I think Keki Daruwalla has done a good job. The writing style is clear and sensitive, as you can expect from a poet. The language ( even while using some of the localised wordds) and styling is interesting, the description and emotive content is appropriate to the protagonists view. This book is highly recommended.
For Pepper and Christ ( 2009)
Keki N Daruwalla
Other Reviews : Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Warwick Review , Tribune India