Jump to: navigation, search

Deen Mahomed, Sake


Deen Mahomed, Sake [Sheikh] (1759-1851) an adventurer, writer and entrepreneur is a fascinating instance of the dramatic changes that cross-cultural interaction may bring about in individual lives. He soldiered for the east india company before emigrating to Cork in Ireland, where he published his Travels, the first book in English by an Indian. He married into the Irish Protestant gentry and had several children: one of the earliest Indo-British families about whom we have fairly detailed information. The family moved to London and then to Brighton and showed remarkable entrepreneurial originality in marketing the cuisine and medical practices of 'exotic' India.

Deen Mahomed was born in Patna in 1759 into a respectable Muslim family that boasted kinship with the Nawab of Bengal. The family had traditionally been in the employ of the Muslim rulers of north India, but Muslim power was in decline and the East India Company was in its ascendancy, rapidly expanding its political and economic control, and in the process offering good prospects of employment to willing Indians. Deen Mahomed followed his father (who died in action) and his elder brother into the service of the Company, becoming, at the tender age of twelve, a camp-follower of Godfrey Evan Baker, an Irishman from Cork, who was Quartermaster of a European regiment in the Bengal Army. In 1781, when Baker was promoted to Captain and given command of a sepoy battalion, he had Deen Mahomed appointed Jemader in charge of a grenadier company. Sepoy units had to do much more fighting than the elite European ones, and in a year Baker and Deen Mahomed saw more action than they had in their twelve years with the European regiment-against the Mahrattas and the rebellious Raja Chayt Singh of Benares. While engaged in crushing the rebels in Benares, Deen Mahomed was promoted to Subedar, the highest rank Indians could attain in the Company's army. But almost immediately afterwards his army career ended, when Baker was recalled from a mission in disgrace (villagers accused him of extortion) and he chose to resign and accompany his patron.

Baker and Deen Mahomed spent some time touring in eastern Bengal (present-day Bangladesh). They visited Dhaka, then an important manufacturing city famous for its Muslin, witnessed a spectacular pageant annually organised by the ruling Nawab, and returned to Calcutta by boat through the densely forested Sunderbans, which were infested with tigers as well as robbers. Baker formally resigned his commission and decided to return home, whither Deen Mahomed accompanied him. Baker and Deen Mahomed reached Cork in 1784. Mahomed was sent to school, where he acquired a sound literary education, and in 1786 (the year of Baker's death) eloped with a fellow student, Jane Daly. The couple returned to Cork and for the next two decades Mahomed probably worked in the Baker household as a manager. In 1799 he met the Indian traveller mirza abu taleb khan, who left an account of the encounter in a travel memoir. By then Mahomed's position in Cork society had been improved by the appearance of his book, Travels, which had been published by subscription in 1794.

The complete title of the book is 'The Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honourable The East India Company Written by Himself, In a Series of Letters to a Friend'. In using the epistolary style it conforms to a popular convention in English writing of the age. Michael H Fisher, whose edition of the book, titled The Travels of Dean Mahomet (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997) makes the work available for the first time to a wider readership, also includes the most comprehensive study to date of Deen Mahomed and his work. Fisher points out several interesting points. Rather than a single reader, there are two categories of readers that the book is aimed at, 'First, he was presenting India, and himself, to the elite society around him. Authorship proved him an educated man. Second, he intended, at least in part, Travels to be a functional guide for European travellers... To this end Dean Mahomet delineated Indian cities, industries, geography, flora, and fauna, he included a glossary of Persian and Indian terms and factual descriptions of Indian cities which he did not himself visit'.

Fisher also presents evidence showing that Mahomed plagiarised 'Jemina Kindereley's Letters from the Island of Teneriffe ... and the East Indies (1777) and, more extensively, John Henry Grose's Voyage to the East Indies (1766)'. And yet, though 'Dean Mahomet took seven percent of the words in Travels from Grose', he successfully 'reconstructed them into his own voice'. For instance, the two writers give very similar accounts of betel-chewing, but whereas to Grose it is an unhealthy practice, to Mahomed it is wholesome and 'conducive to polite social intercourse'.

In 1807 the Mahomeds moved to London, where he found employment with the Honourable Basil Cochrane, a Scottish nobleman who had made a fortune in India and now opened an establishment offering vapour bath therapy. Michael Fisher notes that 'Dean Mahomet apparently added to Cochrane's bath a practice that he would make famous in England as 'shampooing' (therapeutic massage)'. The etymological derivation of the word 'shampoo', it is worth noting, is from the Hindi chhampo, imperative of chhampa, 'to press'. But the fame lay in the future. From 1809 to 1812 Mahomed was a restaurateur; his 'Hindustanee Coffee House' at posh Portman Square offered Indian cuisine in an Indian ambience created with the help of cane furniture, hookahs and Oriental paintings. Though initially successful, the venture ended in Mahomed's bankruptcy.

Mahomed then moved to Brighton and opened a bathhouse offering what he dubbed 'the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath' (it had Indian medicinal herbs added to the vapour) and 'Shampooing with Indian Oils'. The business prospered, necessitating a move to larger premises. With the help of a backer Mahomed built an imposing bathhouse called 'Mahomed's Baths'. For publicity, besides newspaper advertisements, Mahomed published two books, first 'Cases Cured by Sake Deen Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon, And Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour And Sea-Water Baths, Written by the Patients Themselves' (1820), and subsequently three editions of 'Shampooing, or, Benefits Resulting from the use of The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath, As Introduced into this Country by SD Mahomed', in which he claimed to have trained and served as a surgeon before becoming a soldier, and added ten years to his age to make the fib credible. The peak of Mahomed's career came when he treated King George IV and King William IV and was awarded Warrants of Appointment as 'Shampooing Surgeon' to their majesties. Sometime in the 1830s Mahomed opened a branch in London, which was run first by his son Deen Junior, and then by another son, Horatio, who also published two books for publicity.

In 1841, following the death of his backer, Mahomed was forced to move to a smaller establishment. By now his popularity had declined, and when he died in 1851 he was almost a forgotten figure. His obituaries suggested that he had lacked in business acumen. But there is no doubt that his had been an extremely colourful personality, and he deserves to be remembered for having initiated two very different traditions; one is the tradition of Indo-Anglian writing, and the other that of the marketing of Indian exotica by Indians themselves. [Kaiser Haq]