Benjamin Disraeli could well have had Sir Richard Francis Burton in mind when he remarked in his novel Tancred that the East is a career. Following his expulsion from Oxford for unruly behaviour, the young Burton headed East under the auspices of the East India Company, to become at various points of time an explorer, diplomat, soldier, translator, poet, writer, linguist, Sufi mystic and a most remarkable Victorian. Later, he was to translate the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra as well as undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise.This is not a biography of Richard Burton; there are already a good half dozen of those in existence. This is, rather, the story of a little vacation he took to recover from cholera in 1847. Like many other British officers in similar circumstances he made for the hills, but took a most scenic route. To wend his way to Ooty, as per orders, Burton travelled leisurely down from Bombay to Goa and thence to the Malabar Coast and thereafter overland to the Nilgiris.
Eschewing a swift and comfortable steamer down the coast, Burton boards a pattimar, a cramped sailboat of Indian manufacture, and heads out of Bombay harbour. Already the reader has come to know one thing. While not quite a cantankerous old coot, Burton is certainly not given to laudatory statements. Bombay is a “low black dirty port”, the mosquitoes “a trifle smaller than jack-snipes”, the cook “a dreadful looking man”. Mr. Burton is not impressed.
That same pattimar meanders down to a Goa unrecognizable today—a ghost Goa, redolent with lessons and symbols for the young imperialist. The imperial splendour of the Portuguese had reached its zenith in the early 17th century. A series of epidemics and financial misfortunes had reduced its population and power to shadows of their former selves. The glory of the imperial Goa described in Luis Camoes epic Os Lusiadas, scrutinized (and incidentally later translated) by Burton, had faded.
For him, mid-nineteenth century Goa is a warning of the possible ignominous end of the British empire. He describes the Goa of old, complete with sordid details of its inquisition, alongside the majesty of a nighttime walk through the ruins of its great ecclesiastical and public buildings. But that Goa is long gone. Panjim (now Panaji) is composed chiefly of half castes—“mongrel men”, who do credit to neither of their constitutive races. The Goan army is very well educated in the arts of hydrostatistics, calculus and mining, but are incapable of a decent drill or parade, their appearance “contemptible in the extreme”. Richard Burton directs his ire and acerbity at two policies of the Portuguese: intermarriage and conversion. The first has produced, in his view, the weakest and lowest men in India; weak men, bad men and Christians in name only. Furthermore, “good hindoos and Moslems” have become “bad Christians” by virtue of “fire and steel, the dungeon and rack, the rice-pot and the rupee”, without which such conversions were rare. Burton is all in favour of maintaining the division between the ruler and the ruled, and Goa is an example of what happens when this divide is breached. Mr. Burton is not impressed.
Again boarding the much cursed pattimar, he sails down to Calicut and sets about a detailed and fascinating discovery of the area that is now Kerala and the Konkan coast. Surprisingly, the acerbic, cynical narrator of before takes a backseat to a comparatively calm and tolerant ethnographer. With a remarkable distance from his own cultural prejudices, he describes the Hindus and Muslims of the Malabar region, their castes, even to the subjects of taxation (“No. 27: Kennutil Punne, a pig that has fallen into a well”) and even retells the fascinating legend of the sinking of Calicut.
Burton then proceeds by palanquin to the Nilgiris, rejoicing at the drop in temperature and the disappearance of the undergrowth. Just when the reader may have been forgiven for thinking Burton a benevolent man, just when many others would have poured forth euphoric descriptions of the beauty of Ooty, he sharpens his pens and sets after romantic illusions wherever they may lie. The famous lake is muddy, the celebrated game is insipid and that “Neilgherry cascades…only want water”. Yet, his sharpest is reserved for society life—the endless rounds of balls, picnics, and the other detritus of colonial holidaying. For a soldier who longs for the military life, the banality of hill-station life grates on his nerves—“You dress like an Englishman and lead a quiet gentlemanly life—doing nothing”. Mr. Burton is bored.
Goa, and the Blue Mountains is discomfiting to the settled reader for an excellent reason; Burton’s loyalties are unfathomable. If we were only an icy and condescending imperialist, a cloistered burra sahib, then it would be easy, but he was fluent in Gujarati, Hindustani, Punjabi, Sindhi, Marathi, Persian, Telugu, Pashto, Arabic (amidst others) and was at home in native dress. He converses with beggars and with priests, and yet curses them elsewhere. Why is he so harsh on Goa and so comparatively mellow in Malabar?
The answer, and the key to understanding Burton’s psyche and his writings may lie in the problem of authority. Edward Said, in Orientalism, points out that Burton regarded himself individually as a rebel, seeking sanctuary in the East from Victorian political, social and moral authority, and yet as an “agent” of that same authority in the East. At one level, he is actually running from himself, and this strand of tension runs through the book, leaving the reader no place to stand. In Goa, Burton is in uniform as an officer of Her Majesty, reading facts within a colonial discourse. In Malabar, with no colonial context, he is a traveller and observer of rare skill and tolerance, studying and accepting the ways of his hosts.
Burton, though not given to easy praise, is an honest writer, with a strong streak of contrarianism embedded deep within him. He plays havoc with the mainstream romantic sensibilities of both the European public and European writers in India. In its first publication, in 1851, this book acquired little in the way of public or critical renown or accolades, which is understandable; Richard Burton is not an easy man to befriend. Nevertheless, Goa stands as a captivating travel piece, telling us of both those peoples in those places at those times and almost as importantly, of the man who wrote it.
Satyajit Sarna is a student at the National Law College, Bangalore.