Sunday, July 03, 2016

A French adventurer and his tiger in 1850s India: Captain Corcoran, translated

[Did this review for Scroll]

“You are knowledgeable, and you have proved it by speaking to us in fluent Hindustani, which none of us can understand. But, let’s see, are you…how should I put it…sly and cunning? Because you’ll have to be to travel in that country of cruel and perfidious people.”

The setting is the Academy of Sciences in Lyon, France, the time an autumn afternoon in 1856, and the country of “cruel and perfidious people” being referred to is faraway India – a land that, in the speaker’s imagination, is populated largely by dark-skinned savages and thugs. This speaker is the Academy’s presiding officer, a man of undoubted learning, but not quite a traveler: one imagines he rarely has a chance to interact with people from other cultures in their own environments.

The person he is talking to, on the other hand, is the intrepid adventure-seeker Captain Corcoran, who has volunteered to travel to India to search for a sacred text. Accompanying Corcoran on this journey will be his pet tigress Louison; she has come with him to the academy too, causing much disquiet among the scholars, who are not constitutionally suited to such activities as bounding from one end of a room to another to escape what they think is a man-eating beast.

On this note of broad comedy, and with promises of dangers to come, begins Alfred Assollant’s novel Aventures merveilleuses mais authentiques du Capitaine Corcoran, which was first published in France in 1867 and has only now been translated into English for the first time, under the title Once Upon a Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran. The translator, the journalist-writer Sam Miller, suggests that the reason an English version was never published, despite the book’s popularity for decades in Europe, was its “overt Anglophobia”. This seems plausible enough. Corcoran, a dashing but quirky hero, enjoys taunting the British, and he gets plenty of opportunity to do so here, given that the narrative is set during a very delicate period – on the cusp of the 1857 War of Independence (or, from the British perspective, the Sepoy Mutiny).

This is a fast-paced, exciting book; you won’t need more than a few pages to sink into its narrative, which once had such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre in thrall. After that humorous beginning in Lyon (with academicians falling asleep while listening to a lecture, but presumably wide awake by the time they make Louison’s acquaintance), there is a shift of setting to a central Indian city named Bhagavpur, on the banks of the Narmada. Here, Corcoran and the tigress become caught in the affairs of the Maratha king Holkar, who is being besieged by both the East India Company and by traitors among his own people.

Encounters with British soldiers follow, including a tense attack in a temple inside a jungle. As the adventure reaches high tide, the chapter heads go from being long and descriptive to simply proclaiming “Charge! Charge!” and “At the Gallop! Hurrah!”, and Corcoran, composed though he usually is, finds himself in situations that call for wry exclamations (in Miller’s translation, he frequently says “Gadzooks!” and “By Jove!”). He still has enough time to fall in love with the king’s beautiful daughter Sita, though.

Much humour comes from the recurring scenario of Corcoran’s antagonists not realizing that his companion is a tiger, but there are other droll asides and commentary (When the chief does something stupid, his subordinates must be silent. It is always dangerous to have more sense than one’s chief), and delicious little moments such as the one where a group of British soldiers, mistaking Corcoran for a compatriot, press him for the latest West End gossip. Is Lady Susan Carpeth still the most eligible young woman of Belgrave Square, or has Lady Margaret Cranmouth replaced her?


Though this book was by all accounts a treasured comfort read for generations of Frenchmen (its popularity began to fade sometime around the Second World War), the writing process may have been a form of escapism for the author too – Assollant himself never visited India. This may explain the occasional anomalies and errors in the text (a Parsi is named Rao, for instance), as well as the snatches of wide-eyed exoticising: there are no snake charmers or rope tricks, but we do meet a much too grand and powerful elephant named Scindia, who carries both princess and tigress on his back while nimbly battling hordes of enemy soldiers.

Despite the occasional flight of fancy, or the presence of a few unsavoury or indolent natives, there is warmth in Assollant’s depiction of the Indians, particularly in the friendship Corcoran develops with the king. And there are other points of interest for the contemporary reader. At risk of sounding like one of those unbearable “patriots” who bristle with pride at any favourable mention of their country in a Western publication, it was weirdly pleasing to find, in a French action novel written in the mid-19th century, a familiar excerpt from the Ramayana, of all things. (The princess reads out the story about King Dasharath’s accidental killing of Shravan.) Or references to the 1857 rebellion that show a measure of sympathy for the freedom-fighters. “Within three months there will not be a single Englishman in India,” a character says in one poignant scene.

Of course, this book should, first and foremost, be enjoyed at the level of a fast-paced adventure story – you wouldn’t pick it up for nuanced observations about international relations, culture and imperialism. But it does have traces of those themes. Even with the knowledge that France had its own problematic colonial history, an Indian reader can take some vicarious pleasure in Corcoran’s very French disdain for the British “goddams”. Some of these passages are very entertaining (“If the English were in my dear Brittany as they are here in India, I would pick them up one by one, by the collar and the waistband, and throw them into the sea to fatten the porpoises”) – and yet, if you look closer, you’ll find that this story doesn’t so much set up French people as heroes and the English as villains; it mocks arrogance and privilege all round.

Corcoran, though sometimes presented as a superhero in terms of his strategic skills, is throughout a representation of the common man with simple needs and pleasures, who doesn’t hanker after power but is happiest when out exploring the world on his ship. In fact, when he does come into fortune late in the story, he is uneasy about it, and there is a remarkable conversation between him and a mutineer named Sugriva. “Who can we believe in?” Corcoran asks in response to a series of cynical observations by Sugriva, who has just likened all kings, even the ostensibly good ones, to bubonic plague. “No one,” replies the rebel leader, “because there is only one man in a hundred who would not be ready to commit crimes if he had absolute power […] everyone slides down that slope, without noticing.”

So here, in a genre novel of the 1860s – which we think of as a time of unbridled, unapologetic imperialism – is an exchange about how power can taint anyone, be he French, English or Indian. The passage also has an allusion to the caste system (we realize that Sugriva – a wise man in many contexts – is probably a Brahminnical bully in his dealings with low-caste people), and even Corcoran the hero must introspect about the possibility that he may be corrupted.

Arguably the only creature in this novel who is impervious to that sort of thing is the loyal Louison, and so in a sense it is fitting that she gets the last word, or snarl. I hope Miller translates the second volume of Corcoran’s adventures – even if it has nothing to do with India – so that we can rejoin the Frenchman and his cat friend on their travels.

[An excerpt from the book is here. This edition also includes a series of wonderful illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville, two of which you can see on the Juggernaut page]


  1. Great article :) Thanks for sharing !!

  2. Quite an interesting analysis!

    Btw, i just crawled over from Indiantopblogs' category-wise listing of best Indian blogs... I have bookmarked your site and would be back for more.

    Murtaza Ali Khan

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