Barbarian at the Gates


Arts & Culture


“Going native” is usually the preserve of white travelers. In literature, it’s a genre study, one mastered by the British: Graham Greene, Bruce Chatwin, and Jan Morris wrote more than just potboiler anthropology in distant colonial latitudes. England’s fascination with other cultures led to a certain occupational hazard. For two hundred years, from William Hawkins, the East India Company’s first representative to the Mughal court of Jahangir, to the Indologists William Jones or Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, British men often forgot about conquest and commerce, preferring to sink into the warm bath of India’s manifold charms. In the mid-nineteenth century, the crown took over from the EIC, or John Company, and discouraged social intercourse precisely because it was bad for business. Evangelicals and mortified memsahibs petitioned the authorities and warned that past its jungles, where one could always nab tiger skins or indulge in the shade of the crocodile bark, India was a strange land of disfigured heathens. For some Englishmen, transformation was irreversible.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the international spy, ethnographer, and professed “amateur barbarian,” came to Bombay with high expectations in 1842. At twenty-one, he’d been kicked out of Oxford, reduced to begging his father for a pricey commission in the Indian Army, which was granted under the condition that he go to any lengths to see combat. Burton spent four months at sea sparring with his boorish compatriots, a bunch of “yahoos” whose idea of fun amounted to firing their pistols into the black tide, until he detected that “faint spicy odor crossed with the aroma of drugs” that signaled Bombay.

After staving off cabin fever, Burton and the other young griffs were promised blood. But marching orders never came, as the British were smarting from a huge blunder in Afghanistan, savaged by the same Ghilzai tribesmen who presently hound coalition forces. Burton spent his first two weeks confined to a dingy bungalow with a low-grade fever and diarrhea (“seasoning,” as the British referred to tropical acclimation), and lay on his cot draining six to seven bottles of port a night, trying to ignore dual disturbances: armies of giant rats, and neighboring soldiers, who preferred to drunkenly orbit above the ragged cheesecloth that divided their rooms. Bombay was a wretched sensorium, dominated by transients and mercenaries, and where high society consisted of residue from England’s lower middle-class. The city was a carnival of mortal agitations.

Rather than dismissing the subcontinent wholesale, Burton moved north and hired a series of munshis, or teachers, to learn India’s major languages: regal Hindustani, Persian, and Urdu “came to him running,” as one of his munshis would say. So did the peninsular tongues of Marathi and Gujarati, and smatterings of Tamil and Malayalam, all of which he learned with comic alacrity. One evening, having applied walnut oil to tan his skin and soft black soot on his eyelids, he gossiped with his Afghan munshi, who mistook the handsome gypsy for a local tribesman. When Burton walked out of sight and casually bid him goodbye in English, the munshi, leveled, mistook him for a ghost. As he came of age in India, Burton’s love of the joyless prank bordered on psychopathic. Lesser though no less bizarre “jokes” involved planting fake Etruscan artifacts at dig sites and concealing his illicit lover beneath a haystack, culminating in Burton’s disguise as a pilgrim en route to Mecca.

It was just as easy for Burton to assume new identities as it was to disown the England of his youth. He lamented his absence from Eton, the boarding school known for grooming ambitious Britons, and as he was raised mostly in France and Italy, his accent always sounded too “continental.” Dark features and anxious manners isolated him from the confident schemes of his countrymen. “I am an individual, a circle touching and intersecting my neighbours at certain points, but nowhere corresponding, nowhere blending,” he wrote in his poem “The Kasidah of Haji-Abdu El-Yezdi.” At night in the deserts of Sindh, after clearing miles of canals, Burton dozed by the milk-bush and dreamed in Sanskrit.

Rarely did he sleep alone. A ravenous lech, Burton claimed to have lost his virginity as a teenager on vacation, and admitted that some travel was really a means to a very specific end. From the moment he arrived in India, he relished the carnal opportunities of native brothels, where “olive-skinned princesses,” wearing little besides rusty bangles and sheer muslin, cooed to him from the barred windows like caged birds. Even his libido seems to have been a clinical pursuit. His research on the athletic sexuality of Indian women focuses on their muscular thighs, and vulgar consideration is also given to scores of “sensual mouths.” Such “research” smacks of the debased expertise of some fleshy sex tourist making the rounds in the modern tropics.

Yet at the same time, his spry translation of the Kama Sutra proves that Burton believed, as the Hindus did, that sex was the union of pleasure and spirituality, and that a woman should find it “mutually beneficial.” An insatiable lust accounts for his philandering, but so does romance. Later correspondences to his wife, Isabel, show that Burton was a doting and committed husband, especially after the revelation that a native of high birth had once broken his heart. Stationed in northwestern Sindh, he became infatuated with a young Indo-Persian girl, an affair that betrays a rare and touching sincerity; few British officers regarded their mistresses as more than temporary distractions. Thirty years after she died under suspicions of being poisoned, decades after rhapsodizing about her “cheeks of sweet basil,” Burton is flooded with her memory while revisiting India with Isabel, who is moved by his grief.

Though his travels would later take him to Syria, Africa, and Brazil, it was India that stoked Burton’s wanderlust. In 1850, he published Goa and the Blue Mountains, a tongue-in-cheek, racy diary written on sick leave, a year after the roof of his house caved in, breaking his leg. Burton was given six months to heal in the lush climes of India’s southern coast, where all pain was licked smooth by soft rains and blue mountains and cloud forests serried with clusters of radiant flora. In Goa, where the mighty Portuguese retreated after losing most of their Indian possessions, Burton fantasized about sailing in a huge snake boat piloted by Amazonian women and charting the phantom course of Luis de Camoens, the depraved Portuguese poet and Eastern adventurer who spent much of his life in debtors’ prison. The ten tragic cantos of Camoens’s Os Lusiadas were written in 1572 and recalled a mythic east.

But three hundred years later, Goa was rotting. Now a lusterless haven for Jesuits and assorted rabble, at its zenith the Indo-Mediterranean enclave was a ripe paradise, spoiled by the arrogant and overbearing Portuguese. With a few centuries of religious and sexual indulgence, the scene was rank. Burton was turned off, calling Goa “a strange melange of European and Asiatic peculiarities, of antiquated civilization and modern barbarism.” Camoens also despised the “rascality” he found in Babylonian India, the “mother of villans and stepmother of honest men.” Had they met, the romantic outcasts would have galvanized: les enfant terribles, misunderstood Renaissance men, lovers of parlor tricks and a good yarn.

Globalized or otherwise, India will gladly remain a rollicking wilderness. But sixty-five years after independence, the frontiers are more cerebral, abstract, and suggestive. Late on a Bombay night I lean out of a rickshaw and spy the pale lavender horizon of the Arabian sea. A crowd of high-school students swarm out of a multiplex, where Mission Impossible 3 is playing. Across the street, dozens of Burton’s translations, writings, and poems are wedged in dusty towers. The temptation to direct all those teenagers here is overwhelming.  As Bram Stoker would write, “Burton knew the East. Its brilliant dawns and sunsets; its rich tropic vegetation, and its arid fiery deserts; its cool, dark mosques and temples; its crowded bazaars; its narrow streets; its windows guarded for out-looking and from in-looking eyes; the pride and swagger of its passionate men, and the mysteries of its veiled women; its romances; its beauty; its horrors.” The question is: Will the East ever know Burton?

Shona Sanzgiri is a writer based in San Francisco.