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Debating A Text

Meena Bhargava

By Jean Law de Lauriston . Translated from the Original French by G.S. Cheema
Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 325, Rs. 1095.00


When I was asked to review this translation of a Mughal memoir, my reasons, at least I believe, were very different from that of the translator of the volume. The memoir is a narrative of the events of a part of the eighteenth century and translated from ‘Original’ French to English.  But G.S. Cheema’s reasons for why he decided to translate this memoir are whimsical. The opening sentence of the ‘Translator’s Prologue’ begins with a warning to the readers in case the readers are under the illusion of going through a valuable memoir. To quote Cheema, ‘Jean Law is not one of history’s famous names’ and if remembered at all ‘he is apt to be confused with his much more famous uncle’ or his brother Jacques Francois; and that the manuscript copies of his Memoire languished unpublished in libraries and archives for more than a hundred years until Alfred Martineau chose to publish it in 1913. Just a few sentences and you probably want to abandon the task of reading and more importantly reviewing. But like any reader afflicted by curiosity, as one prods on, and discovers the peculiar reasons that inspired Cheema to undertake the translation of the memoir. He found some of Lauriston’s observations ‘so interesting’ that they could have ‘sparked off a lively debate’ ‘but no, far from a bang, there was not even a whimper’.  It would be pertinent at this point to investigate the identity of Jean Law de Lauriston. He was appointed the chief of a comptoir (factory) at Kasimbazar in Bengal in 1747 and remained there for ten years until 1757. He was compelled to quit by the English East India Company at the beginning of the Seven Years War but he refused to surrender and decided to wander inland towards the river Ganga accompanied by a small armed detachment comprising 300 men and 10 light guns. Cheema regales us that Lauriston’s ‘extended and somewhat quixotic wanderings ended in failure and surrender’ and that with the signing of the Peace of Paris, the influence of the French on Indian politics declined. Dismissive of Lauriston while highlighting Clive’s achievements in Arcot and Bengal, the translator surmises that Lauriston’s ‘wanderings with little detachment, mark an end rather than a beginning, so there was no cause for celebration’. In other words, there was cause to rejoice at Clive’s escapades!  Contrary to Cheema’...

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