Chevalier d'Assam

Travel does broaden the mind, a truth that came home earlier this week when I was wandering in Panbazar in Guwahati. The Lawyers Book Stall, LBS, publishes a number of unusual books, none more so than an english translation of Les aventures de Jean-Baptiste Chevalier dans l'Inde orientale (1752-1765) by Caroline Dutta-Baruah and Jean Deloche.

The original book is a memoir of Chevalier who became governor of Chandernagore, a French enclave now in West Bengal in 1767. It was rediscovered in the Bibliotheque de l’institut Paris in 1926, restored and edited by Jean Deloche who published in (in French) in 1984 by EFEO, Paris. The Adventures of Jean-Baptiste Chevalier in Eastern India (1752-1765) is the 2008 translation of the French edition into English... Over two centuries in the making.

Describing the book, Rahul Karmakar, the Guwahati correspondent of The Hindustan Times says "One of the most happening years in Indian subcontinental history are those falling between 1752 and 1765. This chronological passage saw Robert Clive winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to establish the East India Company as a commercial power with military might on our soil.

It also witnessed Islamisation picking up pace in cult-crazy Bengal and Vaishnavism of the Sankardeva kind - packaged differently from the brand fostered by Chaitanya - sweeping across Assam, where the clout of the Ahom monarchy was on the decline. This interesting phase also happened to see a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, travel across Assam, Bengal and Tibet in a bid to expand the business of La Compagnie Fran├žaise des Indes Orientales - the French East India Company Even if the latter buckled under the sheer force of the 'English' East Indian Company, Chevalier has much to record and tell."

Two marvellous maps first printed in Berlin in 1796 accompany the book and show the Burrampooter [sic] as it joins the Megna [also sic], meanders through Bengal and Assam... And as for Chevalier, his account makes very interesting reading... with tidbits on elephant sacrifice at the Kamakhya temple, opium from Bihar... Not Tavernier, but then, Tavernier didn't go everywhere, certainly not to Tibet...

All in all, a wonderful (re)discovery! Of Assam, of its translators, writers, publishers, all! In our Essays and Nonfiction section, Rs 395. Paperback, 224 pages. ISBN: 9788185921495

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