Vernacular Perspectives on the Early Modern World
Gagan D. S. Sood
IN 1748, AS SAYYID MUSTAFA’S SHIP was crossing the Arabian Sea on its way to Iraq, the winds changed direction and he was forced to turn back. While waiting out the monsoon in ports along India’s Malabar Coast, this pious Shi’i merchant turned his mind to the problems that were bound to arise from this unexpected detour. Of course, he knew that such vicissitudes were among the inescapable hazards of his age; they simply had to be endured and if possible turned to one’s advantage. Knowing this, however, did little to raise his spirits. His journey, which was at once a commercial venture, a pilgrimage to the shrine city of Karbala, and a quest for a family tree, would now be much prolonged, delaying by nearly half a year his return home to Bengal and to his beloved son. Sayyid Mustafa was not alone in experiencing misfortune in 1748. Living close to Basra, where his ship had intended to drop anchor, Sarina was short of money and feeling abandoned. It had been a long, long time since she had last set eyes on her husband. And what was worse, she had also recently had to bid farewell to her eldest son, who was off to India to join his father. Like many wives and mothers of her Armenian community, she belonged to a family of itinerant merchants and brokers. The menfolk were expected to spend much of their lives abroad, often for years at a stretch. But they also were expected, before the onset of old age, to return and stay at home. Sarina was indignant that her husband was refusing to give her what she felt was her due, leaving her at the mercy of others.
The shared world of Sarina and Sayyid Mustafa is the subject of this chapter. They belonged to families and communities that, for their time, were literate, mobile, and cosmopolitan. Though generally excluded from high