I was seconded to the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharhal Nehru University in New Delhi. As the founding Vice President for Global Relations at Trinity College Dublin (2011-2014) I had visited India on numerous occasions but this was my first opportunity to live in Delhi for a sustained period. Both professionally and personally my time at JNU proved to be a fabulous experience. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Rajat Datta, head of the Centre for Historical Research at JNU, and other colleagues at the centre who made me feel extraordinarily welcome. I would particularly like to thank Professors Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan for their friendship and warm hospitality.
Founded in honour of Nehru during the 1970s, the JNU campus, set in a 400-acre forest, is exceptionally beautiful. Bright wall murals are reminders of the socialist principles that underpinned the founding of JNU and which give its academic activities such credibility, passion and intellectual energy. My base was an office in the Centre for Historical Research in the heart of the campus. While the focus of my stay was research I had an opportunity to give classes to gifted masters students, one of who wrote a splendid research essay on the Eamon De Valera’s anti-partition tour to India in 1948.
At JNU I spent most of my time working in the history library and drowning in the historiography of the Mughal Empire and Colonial India. I also used this opportunity to connect with leading scholars, especially of early modern India, the Mughal Empire and modern India, whose research informed and enriched my own. In return, I hope that my knowledge of colonial Ireland contributed to the research culture of the Centre for Historical Studies. On the foot of conversations with Professor Rajat Datta we will organise in November 2015 an international conference entitled ‘Configuring Early Modern South Asia’ (Institute of Advanced Studies, JNU, November 2015), a major theme of which is ‘Empires, incorporations and transitions: expansionism, colonialism, cultural trauma’.
My current research takes Irish interaction with India back into the late seventeenth century and suggests that Ireland served as a colonial prototype for the early colonization of India. Between 1669 and 1677 Gerald Aungier was the governor of Bombay and president of Surat and while scholars of India and of the British Empire have acknowledged his importance as the ‘founding father’ of Bombay none have paid attention to his Irish provenance, nor assessed how this might have shaped the formation of the Bombay colony. Though my main archive, that of the East India Company, is in the British Library in London I took this opportunity to work on the extant archives of the East India Company in Mumbai (Maharashtra State Archives, Elphinstone College), and consulted other relevant collections in the National Archives, Delhi, the Cama Library, Mumbai, and the Tamil Nadu Archives in Chennai.
I also visited many of the places that I am researching and writing about: Surat, where the East India Company was based in the seventeenth century and where Aungier is buried in a majestic Mughal-Indian style tomb; Ahmedabad, the centre of the lucrative calico trade; Bombay, where the experience of sailing into the bay in a 35 foot yacht is one that I will treasure; and, of course, Delhi itself, home to both the Mughal and British Empires.
In March and April I had the opportunity to speak about my research at a variety of universities and research institutes across India. In Delhi I gave papers to the research seminars at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU and at Delhi University; to the faculty at the GGS Indraprastha University, Dwarka; and in Mumbai I spoke at Jnanapravaha and the Cama Library. I benefited enormously from these interactions with Mughal and Indian historians, who corrected my mistakes, helped me to refine my argument and provided leads for further research.
I also gave public lectures at Thapar University (Patialia and Chandigarth campuses), which is a private university in the Punjab, that Trinity has developed particularly close links with. I was particularly honoured to deliver the Athar Ali Memorial Lecture at Aligarth Muslim University and to spend time with Professors Irfan Habib and Shireen Moosvi. I also had the opportunity to meet the director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla and to interact with influencers, such as the documentary maker, Shyam Benegal, the director of the Mahindra Humanities Institute at Harvard, Homi Bhabha, and the journalist and public intellectual, Anil Dharker.
Living in India is not for the faint hearted. Yet I quickly came to appreciate the colours and chaos of the streets and became adept at haggling with the tuc-tuc drivers and shopkeepers. The Aravali Guest House, with its beautiful spring garden of giant marigolds, tall lupins and blousy dahlias, became my home for the duration of my secondment. The accommodation was spartan but clean, safe and friendly. The ‘mess’ there served delicious lunches and dinners: fried river fish and seasonal vegetarian dishes, especially ‘aloo gobi’, became my staples. And, of course, I fell in love with the mangoes. No mango anywhere can compare with an Alphonso, fresh from the tree.
Every day brought a fresh encounter with nature: screeching peacocks woke me at sunrise; at bedtime geckos scuttled up corridor walls in search of pesky mosquitoes; ‘nilgais’, majestic bluish antelope, lurked amongst the trees in the garden of the History library; pigeons and monkeys periodically invaded the archives; and bugs of every description abounded, along with the odd snake. On the day before I left a black and bristly wild boar, chased by the ubiquitous stray dogs that have made the JNU campus their home, hurtled along the road in front of the vice chancellor’s office.
When I arrived in January Delhi was still chilly and foggy but as the temperatures rose I had the privilege of enjoying an Indian spring. JNU is famous for its deep purple and vivid pink bougainvillea and other flowering trees – silk cottons, Indian laburnum and cannon balls – lined the streets and parks of Delhi, resplendent with exotic blazes of red and yellow flowers. By May the temperatures had reached 43 degrees and it was time to retreat to the cooler (and much tamer) climes of Cambridge and Dublin, where I’ll encounter a very different type of wild bore!