The Book of Imaginary Beings, by the celebrated Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, appeared in 1969. This was the English translation of the revised and expanded second edition of an anthology of fantastical stories he had published two years before in association with Margarita Guerrero (El Libro de los seres imaginarios). According to the author, it was a “handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination,” a topic that was known to fascinate him. In fact, the success of Borges' work shows that such creatures appeared to hold as great a fascination for contemporary society as they had held over other societies many centuries before. Perhaps this brief evocation of Borges' interest in imaginary beings from other times and from all cultures—even if fantasies certainly do not hold an identical value in each historical period and the same significance in every culture—may help to demonstrate how mistaken it is to think that such ‘aberrations’ and ‘anomalies’ have entirely faded as ‘modernity’ has emerged. However, Borges did make it clear that the beings he was dealing with—whether the Indian elephant-headed god Ganesha or the monstrous Kujatha—were ‘imaginary,’ and he took care to distinguish them from other, let us say, ‘real’ entities. Such a clear demarcation has not always been feasible, and it is precisely the changing status of the ‘strange and marvelous’ that lies at the center of this essay.
This article seeks to trace the profile of the governors (mutasaddis) of the main port-cities (especially Surat and, to a lesser extent, Cambay) of the Mughal province of Gujarat in the first half of the seventeenth century. My research on the careers of individual mutasaddis – based mainly (but not exclusively) on existent Portuguese materials – allows us to better understand the social world of those occupying key positions in the ‘waterfront’ of the Mughal Empire and its dealings extensively with the European powers (Portuguese, Dutch and English). Hence, the analysis of the professional and personal trajectories of the Indian Muslim doctor Muqarrab Khan and the Persian Mir Musa Mu'izzul Mulk presented here demonstrate how far business, politics and cultural patronage were often entangled in the career of a Mughal mutasaddi of Gujarat.
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