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