• Monday, July 15, 2024

Amit Ranjan Speaks About his book 'John Lang' With Frontlist

on May 25, 2022

Amit Ranjan likes to wander and wonder, and as one of his friends puts it—‘ponder in a funk.’ The ocean, the commotion of the city, the silence of graveyards have all beckoned him with their hauntedness. He began to see patterns and symmetries in the words written on tombstones. He saw names writ on waters of the eastern shores of Australia, America and Hindustan. This hunt is the writer’s haunt, and that’s what’s led to this book. Amit undertook his undergraduate studies at St. Stephen’s College and has MA, MPhil and PhD from JNU, Delhi. He was a Visiting Fellow at UNSW, Sydney; and a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami—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 Shikoh is due out soon. Amit is a lecturer of English at NCERT, Delhi.

Frontlist- John Lang describes some of his male British protagonists as ‘India he loved, England he despised’, a couple of times. Could you elaborate on this?

It is an interesting question as Lang describes some of his male British protagonists in his novels as lovers of India and despisers of England. The question is pertinent because it is by proxy, by the ideological location of these novels, that Lang is speaking for himself. It is a classic Frankenstein case, wherein the monster is not named in Mary Shelley’s eponymous novel, but the readers confuse [the creator or] the father’s name, i.e. Frankenstein, for the unnamed monster. 

Lang was a vociferous, belligerent critic of the British Empire, and loved India and Indians. This may be a broad stroke, but this is a claim made by Lang himself severally. He was of ‘convict origins’ in Australia, which implies that his ancestors came as convicts to carry out labor in the new colony. People of convict origins or ‘currency lads’ had second-class citizenship as opposed to those who came as free people. Lang, therefore, felt resentment against the British gentry from an early age; and India was the right place to be the underdog and fight alongside the marginalized people of India. 

Frontlist- The title of your book describes John Lang’s attributes meticulously. How did you come up with this title?

Oh titles come in a flash! One has to wait for that flash. I think it sums up his personality well. He did wander a lot in North India, and therefore ‘Wanderer of Hindoostan’ – in fact he has a book by the title Wanderings in Hindoostan. He learnt Hindoostanee and Persian swiftly after coming to India, to be able to argue in lower courts. He was witty, invective and had that proficiency also in his newly acquired languages, therefore – ‘slanderer in Hindoostanee’. The third part is self explanatory. He was the lawyer for the Rani of Jhansi for the Doctrine of Lapse case against her. It is also interesting that most of his clients were Indians. 

Frontlist- You have used Lang’s writings in the book. As they say, his writings sometimes landed him on the wrong side. Would you like to comment on this? 

Oh yes. The editorial section of his newspaper The Mofussilite was forever in tussle with Hurakuru and The Delhi Gazette newspapers. Lang’s reporting of the Lala Jotee Persaud case in The Mofussilite landed him in jail for libel against a jury member. On another occasion, Lord Hardinge, the Governor General summoned him and asked why Lang was so critical of him in his newspaper. Lang merely replied that he surely made more money than he would by praising his lordship. Allegedly, Lord Hardinge was quite pleased with Lang’s sense of humour and invited him as his guest to Shimla. 

Frontlist- John Lang was more than just Rani Laxmibai’s lawyer, but he is mostly known for this role. Don’t you think it is an inaccurate portrayal?

Yes, that’s probably just a small footnote in his history. He met Rani just maybe twice. However his first-person account describing the Rani’s demeanour and physical features is perhaps the only one by a white writer – and that is what he is remembered for, by historians. 

He wrote over 20 novels; wrote poetry; translated Persian poetry into English; wrote plays; and was the editor of his successful newspaper for 20 years. As a lawyer too, he was a celebrity in the 1850s. His novels are subversive and ahead of his times, racy and engrossing. However, they were dismissed by the critics of his time for being an anti-imperialist. That’s the unfairness of history – it is always contingent upon who is writing it. Therefore, I thought it’s important to resurrect Lang and his language. 

Frontlist- Do share some unknown facts about John Lang’s life that you haven’t mentioned in the book.

There are several I guess, but one that comes to my mind right away is that Lang once jumped off a ship to save a child. This fact is outside the demonstration of just his wit, and stands as testimony to his bravery. 

Frontlist- You like to wander and wonder, and as one of your friends puts it – ‘ponder in a funk’. Could you share more about this?

That is Dr Grenier’s formulation – ‘ponder in a funk’ – for the endless spirited discussions we’ve had over music, poetry, history, mysteries of this world, et al.  The word ‘funk’ started as something distasteful, a pungent smell, but the American language turns most such words on their head, and so funky is groovy now. 

Yes, I have wandered a lot, from the dark alleys of Tunisia to the stark valleys of Polynesia; from the Bay of Bengal to the Bay of Biscayne; Minneapolis to Miami; Jammu to Jharkhand to Jagannath; from California to Carolina.  It’s been a hunt for poetry. There is poetry floating upon the ether – in cemeteries; in symmetries and coincidences of life. Dr Franz Kafka rewarded me for a visit to his grave in Prague by metamorphosing into a snail hanging around on his headstone. 

Frontlist- In the book, you have shared that one paradoxical alias in Lang's life is that he was a lawyer, a ‘legal’ man, who fathered an ‘illegal’ child in India with Margaret Wetter. How would you like to explain that situation?

Oh, it’s just some wordplay! Of course, as we know Lang was a legal man, a lawyer. His wife, Lucy, and he were separated but could not get a divorce. It was nearly impossible to get a divorce in the 19th century. Meanwhile, Lang had an affair with Margaret Wetter in Mussoorie and they had a child without getting married. Eventually, Lang was able to secure a mensa et thoro, that is legal separation from Lucy. Thereafter, Lang married Margaret. Unfortunately, he died soon after. 

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