Monday, July 26, 2010
Published in the Satesman, Kolkata and Delhi, on Friday, August 13, 2010
Novels such as E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust give a skewed view of English women in
Their entry in to
What the civil servants or army officers sought in the fresh arrivals was not brilliance but maidenly virtues. Some proficiency in sports such as riding, shooting and tennis was preferred but more so hobbies like sewing, flower arranging, music and sketching. What was looked for most of all was the ability to run a smart household. They had to be adept at improvising to suit the needs of a peripatetic colonial life style. Various recorded accounts create an impression that these wives served a subsidiary function as mere appendages of the male members of the British Raj. That would be taking a lopsided view of their role. Life in remote stations was far from exciting. It was not always cocktail and ballroom dance. They had to put up with the stifling heat and dust of the Indian summer, cooling themselves with jugs of lemonade under a desi ceiling fan pulled by pankha-pullers. Having an army of servants to pamper them felt very nice in the beginning but left them with all the free time. Sheer idleness made them vulnerable to depression. They willingly bore the pangs of separation but sent their children ‘home’ to be brought up as nice English ladies and gentlemen. They lost their infants to tropical diseases. As the headstones of the graveyards of the Raj era bear out more women and children succumbed prematurely to diseases than British soldiers who died on the battle field..
They would accompany husbands on winter tours but for the summer most of them chose to stick it out with their husbands rather than escape to the cooler climes of the hills. Those who did migrate to the hills found a freedom they could not enjoy in small places. Discreet dalliances were not scorned. Be it
They stood by their husbands during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and suffered the same fate or worse. The situation in 1942 was somewhat different. During the Quit India disturbances while the Raj was under attack individuals were not. Late K.F. Rustamji, the celebrated Indian Police officer, records in his diary, which has since been brought out as a book, that when the disturbances were at their peak he asked English ladies whether they would accept a guard, they turned it down point blank, In a vast land seething with anger against the British they were out shopping in the bazaar, oblivious to the harsh words being said about the British rule in public meetings. They were confident no harm would be caused to them.
As Governor’s or Collector’s wives they presented a human face of the Raj before the natives by working for their welfare, especially women’s upliftment. Their special status made it possible for them to raise funds and set up institutions aimed at eradicating social evils such as child marriage, female infanticide and purdah. Several charitable hospitals and orphanages survive as monuments to the philanthropic spirit the women of the Raj.
But there were English women other than the wives. They acquitted themselves creditably as teachers in convent and public schools and as governesses of the children of Maharajas and Indian nobility who could afford their services. Some others produced good literature. Flora Annie Steel and Maud Diver were two main figures of feminine Anglo- Indian fiction. Their works can be taken as specimens of colonial feminist and anti-feminist, anxieties in imperialist romance produced by women. Among the other women writers were Constance Sitwell, Isobel Savory and Josephine Ransom. Emma Roberts, Fanny Parks, Emily Eden and Margaret Harkness, the names are merely illustrative, produced eminently readable travelogues containing detailed and vivid account of life in India as observed by them.. These were meant for the incredulous readers back home.
There was another set that carried the white woman’s burden to check the moral decline of Indians. They came all the way from
There were women who were drawn to
Much fiction and salacious literature cropped up round the white women who married or otherwise adorned the palaces of Indian princes. Very few wee really British; the others were European, Australian or American though they might claim Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Truth was at times stranger than fiction. For the Maharajas having a white woman was considered an exterior symbol of their oriental charisma and exotic splendour. The girls easily succumbed to the lure of the sparkling diamonds and a life of luxury beyond their dreams. Who seduced who was not easy to tell. One thing that stands out is that these girls were seldom, if ever, from the higher echelons of western society. Most of them were barmaids, dancers, even school girls and other women of dubious origin. This hunger for white women left the British masters perplexed and furious, Viceroy Curzon the most of all. They made sure that on one pretext or the other these marriages were not recognized. Such marriages would mean the recognition of a physical and emotional equality that questioned the racial and class hierarchy of the Empire, the virtual undoing of the ‘fishing fleet.’ White women marrying Indian men of lesser means were few and far between.
Lowest on the pecking order among the white women of the Raj were the prostitutes. There were some who merely transferred their existing practice from the west. But most joined this profession per force of circumstances. Those ‘returned empties’ who did not want to go back settled down in this trade. Some others slipped into this profession by default. Female employees of opera companies, circuses and other entertainment companies touring
There is a growing appreciation today that standing at different vantage points ‘white women were not the hapless onlookers of empire but were ambiguously complicit both as colonizers, privileged and restricted, acted upon and acting’. Their contribution to the building of the
Sudhir Kumar Jha
Sudhir Kumar Jha
25 July 2010
25 July 2010
Monday, May 3, 2010
ANATOMY OF A WILL
(published as lead article in Sunday Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi on 25 April, 2010 under the caption Bibis and Britsh Benevolence)
(published as lead article in Sunday Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi on 25 April, 2010 under the caption Bibis and Britsh Benevolence)
Until the second half of the nineteenth century the East India Company civilians, generally recruited between 16 and 18 years of age, lived an ‘unattached male’ existence in India. To overcome their ‘home sickness’ and sense of isolation they sought comfort in the arms of native women whom they took as mistresses and concubines but rarely as legally wedded wives. However, these white nawabs left their women well provided for. It is significant that of the Bengal Wills from 1780 to 1785 preserved in the India Office in
Mark Davies, a scholar from
Mark Davies learnt from his family records that his ancestor Mathew Leslie (born 1755) was a civil servant under the East India Company from 1773 until his death in 1804. He is the very same Leslie after whom Leslieganj near
This handwritten Will in 13 pages is couched in neo-classical style of prose. It shows scant regard for grammar and composition. It begins thus: ‘This is the last will and testament of me, Mathew Leslie of
More than telling who was to get how much, the Will reveals Leslie’s personality and the working of his mind which we can take as representative of his time. If the Will expresses Leslie’s generosity, it also reveals his racial preferences. He gives his beneficiaries enough to subsist during their lifetime but the corpus is to finally vest in his family estate in
Leslie appointed ‘Ralph Uvedale, Thomas Raban and David Colvin Esqs. of Calcutta, Henry Douglas Esq. of Patna, and Archibald Solon Esquire of Baraile, executors of this my will in India and guardians of my children as shall be in India at the time of my demise and of such posthumous child or children as aforesaid during their respective residency in India…’ Ralph Uvedale was then Clerk of the Crown in the Supreme Court of Judicature at
Normally only one executor is appointed to administer a Will. So what was the need for Leslie to have five executors? That was presumably because the executors were not merely to administer the Will. They were also to be the ‘guardians of my children as shall be in
Unlike several of his contemporaries among the Indian nobility, Leslie left the women in his life well provided for though some received more than the others.. Even the servants received a gratuity. However, Leslie was not equitable in his bequest to the native women (bibis) he mentions in the Will. The lion’s share went to ‘my girl Zehoorun Khanum late wife of Meer Mahomad Hassan Khan’. She received ‘Sicca Rupees’ 20000 while the other two – ‘my girl’ Heera Beeby and ‘my girl’ Zebon - got only 12000 each. They were to be paid in quarterly installments the interest accruing on the above amount while the principal was to remain intact under control of the executors and was to revert to Leslie’s estate after the demise of the bibis. To each of the above three he also bequeathed ‘a house and premises in the City of
It appears from the Will that Leslie did not have an English wife and he did not therefore have any English children. In fact, there is no evidence that Leslie ever married, and as no wife is mentioned in the Will, and no mother is ever named at the baptism of his children, it is safe to assume that all the children were conceived with local women. The Will does not specify which child was born of which bibi.
Names of the mothers of Leslie’s children may have been deliberately suppressed to keep their doors to the British society open. Leslie left it to the executors to ‘send my children to
Leslie appears to have collected a virtual harem, not unusual for his time when his peers liked to live and behave like native nawabs or White Mughals as William Dalrymple refers to them. Apparently his domestic help had a large female component and he appears to have taken his pleasure at his fancy. His virility had not dimmed at 48 when he wrote the Will. He could not be sure which of the female inmates he had bedded and when. But he wanted to be fair and gave them the benefit of doubt. ‘And whereas some of the young girls living in my families may be with child at the time of my demise, in which case and in the event of such girl or girls being brought to bed within such time after my demise as will admit of a belief that the child or children so to be born may have been begotten by me and if my said executors shall be satisfied that such child or children was or were begotten by me…’. Each such posthumous child was to receive Rupees 15000 under terms and conditions applicable to the children mentioned above, except that if a posthumous child died the amount was not to pass on to other children ‘in right of survivorship’ but would revert to the estate.
Leslie did not forget his siblings back home. He bequeathed to his sister Mary Peacock the sum of pounds sterling one thousand and to his sisters Jane Collis, Charlotte Dorman and Sarah Falkiner the sum of pounds sterling five hundred each. To his brothers John Leslie and James Wolfe Leslie he gave ‘the sum of pounds sterling two thousand five hundred each for their sole and respective use and benefit.’ He left the ‘residue and remainder of my estate and effects, real and personal, I give, devise and bequeath the same unto my brother Charles Henry Leslie of Cork in Ireland and his sons for his or their separate use and benefit.’
By and large Leslie appears to have been fair and equitable in making his bequests. However, author Diana Quick’s own admission in her book referred to above that she was only nine when her grandfather gave her the peculiar instruction to “marry a pure-blooded Englishman” lends support to the view that East India officials of Mathew Leslie’s generation could have been guided by considerations of maintaining purity of their lineage and keeping their estate within the family in England.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police,
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Cover Story: NAME GAME
(Published in the Sunday Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi.)
How the English christened places in India might evoke memories of the Raj, but the circumstances have, nevertheless, become historical legacy that cannot be wished away, says Sudhir Kumar Jha
Writers’ Block (published in The Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi under this caption)
Sudhir Kumar Jha time-travels to walk the musty corridors of the majestic red structure that has been home to the Bengal secretariat for a century and a half, and the nursery of generations of clerks who are a class by themselves
THE daily commuters who pass it by every day may not cast a second glance at Writers’ Building in Kolkata, but the building is an acknowledged heritage site. Imperial and Gothic in appearance, it has been home to all shades of political opinion, from the imperialists to communists. Its corridors have been witness to history being made and unmade. It has been the seat of the Bengal Government for almost a century and a half.
What may not be so well-known is why Writers’ Building is so called. Nor that the present edifice is not the original but only its latest incarnation. The earliest version, erected around 1690, was a mud hovel within the old fort, meant to accommodate the “writers” of the East India Company. It was destroyed in a storm in 1695 and rebuilt. The site shifted to where the GPO is now, where a single-floor brick building came up in 1706.
The East India Company’s building programme in Calcutta during the 18th century was meant to be utilitarian rather than demonstrative of imperial grandeur. It remained so even after the grant of Diwani and the victories at Plassey and Buxar had riveted the shackles of the East India Company’s rule in Bengal. With a spurt in the Company’s activities, there was an increased influx of hands from England. Apart from a larger working space, a place had to be found to house these people. As the newcomers were unencumbered by families, even dormitory-type accommodation was deemed adequate. By now the Company could have the pick of the location. Without disturbing the existing arrangement, fresh construction was taken up at the building’s current location adjacent to the lake.
The new structure was in place by 1780. Records show that the new edifice had 19 sets of apartments, all identical, contained in a very long, rather solid three-stories block, classical in style, with 57 sets of identical windows, a flat roof and a central projection with Ionic columns. From all accounts it was uninspiring and resembled a military barrack or a seminary, but it was among the few early attempts at large-scale, classically-motivated architecture in India.
This original design was super-imposed in the 19th century in two phases. The first, around the middle of the century, simply embellished the existing structure with low pediments. The second enterprise, undertaken at the height of British imperial power under Queen Victoria, was more ambitious. It now had terracotta dressings, dummy portico and pediment, and a Corinthian facade. The building as we see it today covers 2.8 acres of land and is 705 feet wide; the campus is spread over 10 acres. It is a cluster of 13 four-storeyed buildings and has been home to the Bengal Secretariat since the time of Lieutenant Governor Ashley Eden.
Who were these “writers” that this behemoth, literally as well as figuratively majestic, was named after? With a view to compete with the Dutch spice traders in the Indies, a band of entrepreneurs formed a joint-stock company and obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 in the name and style of East India Company. In 1675 the Company established a regular gradation of posts. The lowest rank, that of the apprentice, was discontinued soon. Directly above them were the writers. LSS O’Malley believes (The Indian Civil Service, John Murray, London, 1931) that the appellation originated in 1645 and lasted until 1858 when the British Crown took over the direct administration of the country, by which time the mercantile duties of the office had long since disappeared. Above the writers were the factors (in charge of a trading post and not to be confused with the officer-in-charge in a factory), the junior merchants and the senior merchants — titles borrowed initially from the Dutch East India Company and officially employed till 1842. As a rule the East India Company maintained strictly separate cadres for the civilians and the military but there were exceptions when an infantry cadet received writership and vice versa. George
Elliot came out to India in 1779 as an infantry cadet
and received a writership
two years later. He rose to become the deputy military pay master-general.
A writer took about five years to become a factor. As the writers went up the ladder they occupied all the higher civilian offices and discharged assorted functions, mostly related to revenue, the judiciary and mercantile matters. They took on designations such as supervisor, collector, district judge, salt agent and mercantile agent. William Dampiers was the superintendent of police, a post corresponding to the present director general of police of the Bengal Presidency on the eve of the Mutiny and John Elliot, after whom Elliot Road in Calcutta was named, was the president of the Boards of Police and Conservancy in the early years of the 19th century. Some became commissioners, headed the Boards of Revenue and even became governors and governor-general. In all probability Job Charnock, the putative founder of Calcutta, came to India as a writer as did Robert Clive and Warren Hastings.
It was mandatory for these writers, at least during their probationary period, to reside in the Writers’ Building. The stipulation of compulsory residence for writers was annulled in 1835. After being used as mercantile offices for some years, Writers’ Buildings became the home of the Bengal Secretariat. It became one of the community’s most conspicuous landmarks.
A writer was what the term conveys — a junior clerk, a scribe. There were so many of them. One can visualize them slogging out their days on a high stool scratching interminable entries into a ledger in poor light, holding a quill in one hand and swatting mosquitoes with the other. These writers were sent to factories (trading posts); they kept accounts and were responsible for correspondence with London. Every letter to the head office was made out in triplicate to ensure that at least one surely reached its destination. Two copies were sent by two different sailing ships and the third went across land. Theirs was thus an existence of unbroken drudgery and tedium. A welcome break came in 1830 when David Wilson, a British national, opened a confectionery-cum-bakery less than 100 metres away. The writers could now take short breaks and hop across for a bun or pastry. The outlet, begun to serve primarily the writers, later morphed into the famous Great Eastern Hotel, the first modern, European-style hotel in the country. Alas, the heritage hotel is reportedly up for sale. Thankfully the Writers’ Building faces no such threat.
Contrary to popular belief, writers were poorly paid. Perhaps it was in line with the Company’s philosophy: a penny saved is a penny earned. Sir john Shore, successor to Lord Cornwallis as governor-general, had started his Indian career in 1769 as a writer with a salary of Rs 96, then equivalent to £ 12 a year. He was barely able to afford half the rent of an ill-ventilated modest dwelling. Paying low wages was a sure inducement to indulge in “private practice” and corruption. The Company connived with its employees when it came to creative personal trading, as long as its profits were not affected. Corruption was condoned as a well-deserved recompense for spending half one’s lifetime in hazardous exile.
The Company’s policy was to “catch them young”. Writers were inducted at the age of 16. Writers’ petitions or job applications had to include baptismal certificates, testimonials and details of education. Considering the writers’ impressionable age and virtual lack of education, in 1800 governor-general Lord Wellesley wanted to establish a college at Fort William for the purpose of completing the education of the company’s servants but was overruled by the court of directors. His dream came true with the opening of the East India College at Haileybury in England in 1806. Wellesley set up on his own in 1800 not a full-fledged college but a modest seminary for instruction in Oriental languages which survived until 1854 by which time it had long outlived its utility.
An act of 1826 gave the directors discretionary power to appoint young men between 18 and 22 as writers. A writership was a passport to great riches and it was not always acquired without dubious dealing and corruption. This arrangement lasted from 1827 to 1832. Those appointed under the “nomination” scheme included well-known names such as Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of the Punjab from 1859 to 1865 and William Tayler, commissioner of Patna during the Sepoy Mutiny.
An Act of 1853 introduced the system of open competition for appointment to the civil service in India — the principle was not applied to the home civil service until 1870 — and the first exam was held in 1855. Henceforthe writers began learning the Indian languages, customs et al on the job as the arrangement at Fort William had by then been done away with. The East India College, however, sent out the last batch only in 1858 with the result that for two years the list of writers was made up of Haileybury men and Competition Wallahs, to borrow the title from George Trevelyan’s famous book.
The hereditary connection with India was to become a remarkable characteristic of the Hailebury system. Sons stepped into their fathers’ shoes as a matter of course and brought their cousins and their nephews along with them. The Bengal lists included several Plowdens, Colvins, Tuckers and Metcalfes. The Bombay and Madras allotments showed a similar trend. As Kipling put it in his story The Tomb of His Ancestors, generation after generation came out to serve India as dolphins followed in line across the open sea.
The first Indian to enter the civil service by competition was Satyendranath Tagore (1864), followed in 1871 by RC Dutt, BL Gupta and Surendranath Banerjea. Their induction put Bengal in the forefront of western learning. The writers have long been gone but Writers’ Building stands tall to salute their memory. The Indian Civil Service (ICS), the so-called “steel frame”, had every reason to be beholden to the writers. Our bureaucrats even today find it difficult to forsake the Writers’ legacy.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Showing respect to the dead is common to societies all over the world. ‘Speak not ill of the dead’, is what we are taught from our childhood. ‘Let them rest in peace’ comes instantly to mind as we pass a grave. Encroaching and vandalising their final resting place can therefore be viewed as sacrilege. Shakespeare sounded a grim warning in the epitaph inscribed in his gravestone at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in England:
"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones."
Shakespeare supposedly wrote it himself because in his time old bodies were dug up and burned to make room for new burials. Many British men and women of the Raj era would have aspired to borrow from Shakespeare's epitaph and wished their final resting places to remain untouched by the encroaching, marauding hand.
There are few well kept graveyards, such as the Bhowanipore Cemetery in Kolkata, Viceroy Lord Elgin's memorial at McLeodgunj in Himachal Pradesh, the Nuns' cemetery near St Bedes College for Women in Simla, and the War cemeteries at Kohima, Delhi, Pune and Comilla in Bangladesh. Most, however, have fallen prey to encroachment, vandalism and pilferage. Some have disappeared due to the vagaries of nature or to the greed for land. It is the same story from Peshawar to Chittagong, Baramula to Trivandrum. Peshawar’s Gora Qabristan, witness to the Afghan Wars, and the cantonment cemetery in Meerut, where the Indian Uprising of 1857 began, are typical of the decay now facing old British graves. As a result, it is nearly impossible to put an exact number, far less to decipher the inscriptions on them. Criminals take away headstones making it difficult to identify the tombs.
Non-British cemeteries have fared no better. The Jewish cemetery, located off Lloyd's Road in Madras, now Chennai, is adjacent to the Chinese cemetery and both cemeteries have clusters of vendors and squatters with vegetables displayed on the road itself at the entrances. Portuguese, Spanish and French tombs have all but disappeared from the Indian soil.
Whereas most of the inscriptions on the grave stones speak of the survivor’s grief and loss, some speak of the vanity of their occupants ignoring Thomas Gray’s famous Elegy “… The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” In most cases, the tombstones are not of Viceroys and other high and mighty of the British Raj but of the countless British civil servants, soldiers, merchants, missionaries, townspeople and teachers, their spouses and children most of whom succumbed not to sword but to summer heat and tropical diseases. They are all part of India’s past. If some headstones contain doggerels we also come across some fine quotes and original compositions. At least some of the tombs can claim to be fair representatives of Indo-European architecture. Much has been lost but not all. If properly maintained these cemeteries can become virtual 'al-fresco museums'.
The care of these graves has become no body’s baby. Lack of interest and resources lie behind this callous neglect. But it is more a question of mindset. Local sensitivities have of course to be taken care of. The Indian public and their representatives in parliament and government have to be sensitised to the fact that conservation of the Raj era cemeteries is not meant to glorify and perpetuate British imperial history but to give us a valuable perspective on India’s heritage. We have to look at these graveyards as ‘little pockets of history’, a who’s who of the British Raj. However much we may resent the British rule in India we cannot wish it away.
The conservation of these tombs and cemeteries is simply beyond the capacity of local church committees. A concerted effort is called for lest this valuable source of history is lost for ever. Sadly, in India the Central and State Minority Commissions and the nominated Anglo-Indian members of state assemblies have been indifferent. The least they can do is to pressurise the government to have pucca boundary walls erected to prevent further encroachment as the hunger for land can drive people to any length. The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), a London-based charity, has done a great job in listing out a large number of graves and even pays for the upkeep of some. Lately, Lt. Col. Lake has launched a trust in UK with an ambitious target to raise £700,000 a year from corporate donors such as HSBC, Rothschild, Lloyds and other major foundations so that these places can be maintained in perpetuity throughout the erstwhile British empire. India-based NGOs and public authorities may also pitch in and play a coordinating role.
An estimated two million graves of the Raj era, lying in isolation or in clusters in designated cemeteries, dot the Indian sub continent. If the government can catalogue and put them on the net many of the present generation Britain may want to visit India to connect with their ancestors and put a wreath on their tombs. In the process they will be unwittingly promoting what can be crudely termed as "graveyard tourism". Most of all, we must create public awareness to defer to the dignity of the dead for, to borrow from the epitaph on Viceroy Lord Elgin’s grave, “He being dead yet speaketh”.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
NIRVANA’ Buddha Colony
Patna 800 001
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar and a free-lance researcher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)