Monday, July 26, 2010

Mind your manners. Sir!

Mind your manners, Sir!
(Published as lead article in the Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi on Friday, 8 October,2010)
The professed iron-frame of the British Indian administration was not dubbed the Indian Civil Service for nothing. The pun on ‘civil’ underscored its non-military character as much as ‘civility’ inbuilt in their persona. I often wondered how the initial inductees would have handled human interaction in course of their work, given the totally unfamiliar climate, culture and language. They did not have the benefit of Dale Carnegie’s famous How to Win Friends And Influence People which was some years away in the future. Call it serendipity but in course of one of my research forays into the archives I stumbled upon a Memorandum on the subject of Social and Official Intercourse between European Officers and Indians. It was printed in 1913 at the Government Press, Ranchi (yes, the provisional government of the newly-formed state of Bihar and Orissa functioned from Ranchi while the new capital was coming up at Patna.). It was meant for the benefit of the young British officers starting their career in India. It draws heavily upon a set of instructions issued in 1821 to his Assistants in Central India by Sir John Malcolm, Agent of the Governor General. Be it the subordinate staff or the public at large the emphasis is on easy accessibility while courtesy with compassion is to be the given norm of behaviour. The detailed do’s and don’ts give a rare insight into the Indian psyche and leaves one wondering if the British understood us better than we do ourselves.
True, times are not the same. We are today a free nation. There has been perceptible democratisation of our services. Has it translated into making our public servants more civil, sensitive and empathetic towards the aam aadmi? We can pick some tips from the century-old circulars, which remain as valid today, and leave our babus do some soul searching.
In dealing with the public, read native Indians, the British officers were to guard against being condescending and overbearing. For men may dread but can never love or respect those who are continually humiliating them by the parade of superiority. A greeting cannot be taken for granted and must be appropriately acknowledged, a word for word and gesture for gesture. It may be a perceptible nod of the head or a raised hand but never the left hand or just one finger. He had to be ever mindful of his conduct; he could be watching a thousand people with his two eyes but he was under constant scrutiny by two thousand eyes and more.
The young civilian was exhorted to be careful about his dress and deportment and about the kind of language he used. In order to communicate better he was encouraged to gain proficiency in local language and custom. The opening gambit was important so as to put the supplicant at ease. How you addressed a person was important and his age had to be respected. Extra care had to be observed while interacting with women; there was no scope for frivolity lest it was misconstrued as flirting, a point worth taking note of by our officialdom. With increasing presence of women at the work place today the male boss or colleague has to be gender sensitive. Showing Sir Walter Raleigh-like chivalry can be risky; so it is safest to be cordial but correct.
Accessibility tops the list of dos and don’ts. Telephones were still not for the common man and travel was time consuming and rigorous. Personally waiting on the ‘sahab’ was thus the preferred option. “On no account should peons or servants be permitted to refuse access to their master without his personal orders.” Demand for tips by minions was to be strongly discouraged on pain of severe penalty. We can compare this with the ground reality today. Some times the officer takes pride in keeping a visitor waiting while he may be doing nothing better inside the chamber than eating paan paraag or flipping the pages of a glossy magazine. You fare no better on phone. In the morning the sahib is either in the bathroom or doing pooja. During office hours you will be lucky to get past his PA or his Pa’s PA. A message is seldom taken and is replied to even more rarely. Mobile phones flash either no answer or switched off. What would have been the British masters’ take on that?
Once the visitor has been ushered in the officer should be all attention and hear him out patiently. ‘A refusal or an unpalatable order is accepted with much greater resignation when the officer, who has to give it, has listened to all that is to be said on the other side.’ Maintaining eye contact throughout is important. Fast forward this bit to the present day. The visitor may be pouring his heart out while the person across from him is busy talking into his Bluetooth or sending SMS on his Blackberry.
What is valid in dealing with the public becomes crucial in handling the large staff he presides (and not lords) over. “An officer should be freely accessible to all his subordinates, and should make a point of knowing personally as many as possible of them.” This is a universal leadership attribute and holds good for all times. One’s own name is music to the ears and a good boss should address his staff by name. In appropriate situations he should add prefix and suffix to the name, such as Mr. So and So or Ramchandra Babu or Mukherji Saheb. So that grievances, if any, are nipped in the bud easy accessibility is a must. An aggrieved person cannot open up before a haughty and domineering boss, Give him a patient hearing but heed thy own counsel. “He should be shy of making promises but, if he makes one, he should always perform it.” Being polite and graceful is one thing but he cannot afford to have favourites, and he has to let that be known and seen. Being foreigners the British could not be accused of nepotism, a charge our officialdom now is vulnerable to.
If noblesse oblige was valid for the British masters, it is more so today for our bureaucrats who enjoy a privileged position in society. It may not be in their hands to solve everybody’s problems but their compassion can be a balm for the bruises. There is no scope ever to be uncouth and abrasive. Being polite and courteous always pays. Grace never goes out of fashion.
Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar. He can be contacted at sudhirjhapatna

Women of the Raj: Not hapless onlookers of the Empire

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 India by portraying them as weak and vulnerable. These women were subject to the pulls and pressures of the east-west encounter and the famous ‘twain’ that Rudyard Kipling wrote of but they coped well enough. The Raj owes more to them than what has been acknowledged. Because of their initial small numbers their presence may not have made an immediate impact but once they came into their own their imprint was subtle but unmistakable.

Their entry in to India was gradual and not without hiccups. It was the same sex-ratio mismatch which compelled the British East India company to follow the Portuguese example (destination Goa) of importing shiploads of firangi( a generic term for all white Europeans) women into India with the object pf providing legitimate spouses for their men folk and thus wean them away from the comforting arms of native mistresses. As the empire struck root miscegenation became taboo and the emphasis shifted to preserving racial integrity. As the British government took over the direct administration of the country there was a sudden surge in the number of men to run the mufassil stations. Demand dictated supply. What had been a trickle earlier now became a torrent. The opening of the Suez Canal cut the travel time short. Larger steam ships made the journey more bearable for the damsels. The onset of India’s cold weather would see hordes of young women sail out from England to India on their husband-hunting mission regardless of the inconveniences and hazards of tropical living. They came with such regularity that they were teasingly dubbed the ‘fishing fleet’. The prize catch would be a member of the ‘heaven born’ Indian Civil Service but even lesser ones would do. Those who returned home unwed were unfeelingly referred to as ‘returning empties’. India’s reputation as a rich marriage mart remained unquestioned until the end.

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 Darjeeling, Simla or Ooty extra-marital affairs between married women and men on leave was an open secret and connived at. There was the local church to take care of minor scandals. To even the score the husband left behind would have an occasional fling with one of the young household maids. These aberrations notwithstanding the English wives put a stop to inter-racial liaisons which threatened the prestige and so the very racial foundations of the empire. By keeping their men on the straight path these women lent stability and respectability to the Raj.

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 England with that specific purpose in mind. To these women missionaries, with middle class background, India’s women seemed degraded and downtrodden. To their western mind the sequestered existence inside the zenana or harem bred multiple vices from which the hapless women had to be saved. Leaving proselytizing to their male colleagues these women took upon themselves a variety of burdens and were not afraid to soil their hands. They ventured into remote areas where they taught, ran orphanages, helped deliver babies, dispensed medicines, nursed the sick and dying and taught preventive health care. They may not all have been Mother Teresa but how can India forget these noble souls? During the two world Wars British and other white women, though not missionaries, worked tirelessly as nurses in army hospitals. Some of them found time to record their impressions.

There were women who were drawn to India for her unique spiritual and philosophical appeal. As President of the Theosophical society Annie Besant allied herself with India’s Home Rule Movement and at times proved a source of embarrassment to the Empire. Margaret Noble, after meeting Swami Vivekananda, converted to Hinduism and assumed the Indian name of Sister Nivedita. As an English Admiral’s daughter Madeleine Slade belonged to the upper crust of the British society. She became a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and served him devotedly as Miraben till the end.

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 India sometimes went bust leaving them high and dry with no other option. Others plied this trade part time to supplement their salary as conjurors, dancers and actresses. In Bombay, as it was then spelt, European prostitutes were concentrated in Cursetji Sukhlaji Street; in Calcutta it was Elliot Road.

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 British Empire has by now become undeniable. If the British ruled this country for long one of the main reasons was the courage and fortitude of their womenfolk. The courage of the Englishwoman was no less than those who took part in the charge of the light brigade. This is an aspect of the Raj which calls for an in-depth research.

Sudhir Kumar Jha

25 July 2010