R. Krithika reviews A Venetian at the Mughal Court: The Life and Adventures of Niccolo Manucci, by Marco Moneta, and translated by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone

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Telling the adventures of an Italian stowaway in Mughal India and his observations on the subcontinent

A 17-year-old boy from a poor family embarks on a boat, lands in a foreign country where he settles and finally dies at the ripe old age of 82. Sounds like one of those stories from boys’ adventure books, doesn’t it? But no, it’s a true story: from Nicolo Manucci, the Italian traveler and author ofHistory of Mogor.

This work forms the basis ofA Venetian at the Mughal Court: The Life and Adventures of Nicolo Manucciby Italian historian Marco Moneta. Translated into English by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone, the book turns the pages.

Dara Shukoh’s Army

In a few pages, the scene is set: Manucci has slipped away, goes under the protection of the Viscount of Bellomont, who is on his way to Persia to seek help for Charles II. The two land in India where the Englishman dies, leaving the young Italian all alone in a foreign country, knowing neither the language nor anyone. Not that that deters the boy. Soon, he is in Dara Shukoh’s army, despite his lack of knowledge about anything military. The reader gets an eyewitness account of Dara Shukoh’s downfall as well as a shrewd appreciation of the prince’s character. “…was overconfident in his opinion of himself, considering himself competent in all things and needing no advisers…So his dearest friends never ventured to inform him of things the most essential. Yet it was very easy to discover his intentions…”

Once the prince is defeated by Aurangazeb, Manucci is back to square one. But, intrepid, he acquires new skills – medicine in particular – and leaves to try his luck. Over time, Manucci traveled across India, to Bengal, Goa, the Deccan and south to Pondicherry, where he eventually settled. Although he attempted to return to Italy, these were unsuccessful and he resigned himself to living in India. As well as being multilingual – he spoke Italian, French, Portuguese, Persian, Urdu and Turkish – he also seems to have been a keen observer of cultural nuances and quick to adapt to changing circumstances. He began to study medicine, as it was a profitable vocation.

Manucci is definitely a larger than life figure and Moneta highlights him among a range of dazzling figures. Apart from his interactions with royalty and nobles, Manucci has many other interactions with people of many nationalities. There is an account of the rescue of a woman from committing sati, which, as the author points out, has parallels with Phileas Fogg’s rescue of Aouda and may be a case of savior fantasy.

Several break-ins

Manucci was in India at a crucial time in the country’s history; just as Mughal power was beginning to decline and the Europeans were gaining a foothold. As an Italian, Manucci had no ax to settle with either of these, although he had several run-ins with the Portuguese.

I have no way of judging the quality of a translation but, read like a book in English, living language makes people alive; it’s like watching history unfold before your eyes. If you ever hear someone say history is boring, give them this book. It is sure to change your mind.

A Venetian at the Mughal Court: The Life and Adventures of Nicolo Manucci; Marco Moneta, translated by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone, Penguin/Vintage, ₹699.

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