Spaces of encounter
A rich and different perspective into an era of voyages and ‘discoveries’.
For Pepper and Christ, Keki N. Daruwalla, Penguin India, 2009, p.354, Rs. 399.
The small kingdom of Portugal was busy in the 15th century. Under the nose of the rest of Europe, the Portuguese were searching the seas for map-makers and sailors, obsessed with the task of plotting a route to India. Portugal then was rather insigni
ficant to the rest of Europe; what it was up to didn’t really matter to the Continent. The relatively poor kingdom was at the time being held to ransom by the traders of Venice and Genoa who charged exorbitant prices for the spices they bought on the cheap from India. When Vasco da Gama left Lisbon in July of 1497, heading east in search of “pepper and Christ” — the Portuguese believed a Christian kingdom under the mythic Christian king Prester John inhabited the East — that would all change.
These events of the 15th century set the backdrop for the accomplished poet Keki Daruwalla’s first published novel For Pepper and Christ. While Gama’s voyage is at the heart of the novel, Daruwalla’s work tells a much wider story — starting off in the narrow streets of Cairo, visiting the thriving port of Mombasa in East Africa and alighting in Calicut, Daruwalla recreates, through a cast of rich characters, the 15th century world that set the context for Gama’s journey.
It is impossible to understand Gama’s voyage — and its significance — without getting a sense of this world. For Pepper and Christ first takes us into the heart of 15th century Cairo, where we are introduced to a perfume-seller who goes door to door selling his wares and has a lust for the ladies that even saints can’t cure, a religious leader who is concerned by his sons’ extreme views, and the young artist Ehtesham who defies convention and threats to his life to paint.
Lessons from history
There are historical lessons in Daruwalla’s fiction. Gama’s voyage to India was marked by a series of conflicts, often borne out of cultural misunderstandings. The Portuguese’s unfamiliarity with the culture and customs of East Africa — and also of those of the Malabar — was often at the root of this. The Portuguese arrived at the Malabar to customs and intricate political relationships that they couldn’t comprehend. The kingdoms of Kerala had complex political and commercial relationships with each other, and also with the Muslim traders who had dominated Indian Ocean trade up until the arrival of the Portuguese. Their coming drastically changed these equations, and also shaped future colonial experiences of India. Their negative experiences in Africa gave the Portuguese a distrust of the “Moors” (as they called the Muslims). As Daruwalla’s story shows, their ignorance didn’t help either — they assumed Calicut’s temples dedicated to Goddess Kali were churches of the Virgin Mary.
The arrival of the Portuguese also brought a scale of violence that the Indian Ocean hadn’t seen before. Daruwalla’s novel ends with Vasco da Gama’s brutal attack on the Miri, a ship mostly carrying women and children, in his second voyage, presumably to extract revenge for the attacks on his compatriot Cabral’s voyage in 1501. But there was, also, some humour in these cultural interactions, as Daruwalla tries to show in his story. Asked by the Arab navigator Ibn Majid what the objective of their mission was, the Portuguese Captain-Major of Gama’s fleet naively declares his grand mission “to discover India.” “Have the Indians discovered you,” Majid retorts.
Daruwalla says he tried to stay true to history in telling his story. Historical accounts, such as the well-known anonymous account of Gama’s journey told by one of the companions on his fleet, do inform his narrative, but are no more than props to his story. It is, in the end, the story of Ehtesham, the imagined conversations between the religious Portuguese Brother Figuero and Ibn Majid in a Mombasa café and the snapshots of life under the Zamorin in Calicut that make his story so engaging and give us a very different and rich perspective into the fascinating world of the 15th century — one that you certainly won’t find in a history textbook.
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