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Favell Lee Mortimer's Far Off: How a 19th century Englishwoman wrote about India — without having seen it

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

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Once upon a time, I used to get into fights with people on the internet. This is already an incredibly boring thing to say and unfortunately, it gets worse. These fights were usually over the question, ‘Are only certain people allowed to write about certain things?’, or as an Illustrious Acquaintance calls it, ‘That weird peacock thing you keep talking about’.

Someone had once written about droves of peacocks swooping down and chilling on everyone’s front lawns in Mumbai as if it was a real thing and not speculative fiction. I had said hahahaha what? and thusly an online fight of truly ridiculous proportions began — it was replete with passive aggressiveness, posts which were far too long, and it was very, very exhausting.

It pains me to say that despite being a person of colour, I did not win this fight. The right to wax eloquent on droves of peacocks and more bizarrely, on everybody in Mumbai having front lawns, was bravely and fiercely defended and I was essentially reprimanded for telling white people they couldn’t write about India.

It was around this time that I discovered the book Far Off. Initially, I enjoyed it in that weary, unhealthy way one enjoys excessively racist things. At the very beginning of the book, the author says the following: “Its plea is not completeness, nor comprehensiveness, nor depth of research, nor splendour of description; but the very reverse — its simple, superficial, desultory character, as better adapted to the volatile beings for whom it is designed.”

In other words, this may not be totally true or whatever but I wrote it anyway because I wrote it anyway.

 Favell Lee Mortimers Far Off: How a 19th century Englishwoman wrote about India — without having seen it

Favell Lee Mortimer, a British evangelical children’s author who had travelled outside of England twice. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The author of Far Off never actually went to the places she writes about, and as she states above, her research is meh at best. But none of this stopped her from writing a book about the very things she knew nothing about.

What is it that drives us to present what we feel should be the truth instead of the actual truth? Is it because we think the subject is not worth knowing or presenting truthfully? Or is it because our version of it is just way cooler?

Far Off was written in 1849, intended to be an educational and religious resource for children, teaching them all about China, India and other far off places. It was written by Favell Lee Mortimer, a British evangelical children’s author who had travelled outside of England twice. She is best known for a book called The peep of day, or, A series of the earliest religious instruction the infant mind is capable of receiving which has been called “one of the most outspokenly sadistic children's books ever written”. She did not have a great life and we are informed that the lives of those around her were also beset by a colourful array of sufferings, which included, among other things, someone who got their face crushed by a wagon.

So what does she say that is so allegedly problematic? I thought it best to stick to the portion of the book entitled 'Hindostan' because let’s face it, that’s the only section we’re really interested in (though her section on China is pretty bonkers too). This is hardly the first or only book to ever say bizarre things about India, but there is something about Mrs Mortimer’s racism that is authoritative yet breathtakingly absurd. It is flabbergasting, hilarious and really horrible, especially when you consider that she is basically writing about us.

Part II: Examining some of what Favell Lee Mortimer says in Far Off.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 16:23:21 IST