ROMANCING THE RAJ
It is difficult to define romance. It is a highly subjective feeling. Many find romance in the jungle lore of Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett while some others in the heroic feats of Rani of Jhansi. However, as commonly understood romance is an emotive love affair surfeit with fantasy, with or without heroism and adventure thrown in. In a broader sense, therefore, nearly two hundred years of British rule in India, commonly referred to as the era of the Raj or simply the Raj, was one continuing romance. Notwithstanding Kipling’s ‘twain’ theory, for the British as well as the Indians the east-west encounter worked as an attraction of the opposites. Fact and fiction fanned this romance. Plenty but not enough ‘romancing’ of the Raj has been attempted in the literature of the time and films made on them.
Stories about the opulence of the Mughal court and the life style of its nobility had reached Britain in bits and pieces. Added to this was the popular notion that India was a quaint land of naked sadhus, snake charmers, beggars and elephants. Adventure and opportunity beckoned triggering flights of fantasy. Romance was in the air before the ships of the East India Company set sail. Having joined the service in India in their teens, these Company civilians succumbed to the spell of India right away. Their ‘unattached male’ existence accentuated their sense of isolation. They sought comfort in the arms of native women whom they took as mistresses and concubines and rarely as legally wedded wives. Among the signs of their ‘Indianization’ were adopting Indian dress and customs and the wearing of immense whiskers and beards. Several took to smoking hubble-bubble and developed a liking for local cuisine. They behaved like little ‘nabobs’; William Dalrymple in his magnum opus The White Mughals calls them ‘white Mughals’. They were enjoying the romance that was India.
The idyll was shattered in 1857 by the events of the Sepoy Mutiny. There were by now a sizable number of white women in India. In a crisis situation there invariably was a knight, white or brown, to come to the rescue of damsels in distress. For all its violence and mayhem the Mutiny spawned some captivating fiction which was an amalgam of chivalry and romance. Love Besieged: a Romance of the Defence of Lucknow by Charles E. Pearce is a mix of romance and military adventure within the walls of the besieged city of Lucknow. Katharine Gordon in Emerald Peacock narrates the story of love between an Indian prince and a young Irish woman during the Mutiny. These writings are merely illustrative.
A lot of things changed with the British government assuming direct control of administration in India. Both civil and military officers now looked forward to a more settled life style. Wives braved a month long grueling voyage to join their husbands. Bachelors sought and found romance where and when they could, with Anglo-Indian girls and native maids, but it meant tight rope walking in small places in full public glare.
The opening of the Suez Canal cut the travel time short. Larger steam ships made the journey more bearable. The onset of India’s cold weather saw hordes of young English women sail out for 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’. This was a subject dealt with by Mrs. F.E. Penny in her novel The Happy Hunting Ground, and savagely satirized by E. M. Forster in A Passage to India.
Often a man went home on leave and got engaged. The girl joined him a year or two later in India where the wedding took place. But strange are the ways of Cupid. Shipboard romance was a predictable feature of every voyage. A few days under a full moon could lead to a shift in commitment. Imagine the beau waiting at the pier of Bombay (as it was then called) or Karachi (now in Pakistan) dock to find that his fiancée had already left with someone she had met on the voyage.
As wives of junior officers these brides had to set up their first homes often far up-country after a journey involving trekking and pony ride. Physical inconveniences were more than made up by the ambience most suited for a honeymoon romance. The luckier ones landed in more civilized stations. Having an army of servants to pamper them felt very nice in the beginning but left the ‘powder puff memsahebs’ with all the free time. Sheer idleness and the stifling heat of the Indian summer made them vulnerable to depression and they found escape in different ways. Olivia, a beautiful, spoiled, bored English colonial wife in the 1920s, the heroine of Ruth Jhabwala’s Heat and Dust, is drawn inexorably into the spell of the local Nawab and elopes with him.
That such scandals were few and far between was because action shifted from the plains to the hills. The retreat to the Hills in summer provided a brief escape from the heat of the plains. Field officers could not leave their station but their wives could. Women who did migrate to the cooler climes of the hills found a freedom they could not enjoy in small places. Both circumstances and surroundings were highly conducive to romance and. a lot of people were lonely. Flirtations were inevitable. 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. Men were ‘fairly broadminded and wouldn’t really expect their wives to go up and live in monastic seclusion.’ To even the score the husband left behind would have an occasional fling with one of the young household maids.
Spirits lifted as the weather got cooler. There was romance in the air in anticipation of the arrival of the fishing fleet. Life for the young women became a whirl, ‘a tea dance or a dance or a ball or a dinner party’, something or the other every day. Winter tours and life in camps were something to be looked forward to. Women accompanied husbands on portions of these tours. For the couple it became a kind of honeymoon and also took care of the seven years’ itch in men. These tours allowed two widely separated cultures to meet in friendship and affection. Being a part of India’s rural landscape was romance in itself.
Notwithstanding Curzon and his ilk frowning on miscegenation, inter-racial romance and mixed marriages happened with increasing frequency though these did not always have a fairytale ending. The love stories in the Anglo-Indian romance novels written during the later phase of the Raj were symptomatic of British fantasies of colonial India and served as a forum to explore interracial relations as well as experimenting with the femininity of the New Woman. The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye is an epic saga set in 1850s India. An Englishman brought up as a Hindu in India is torn between loyalty to the Raj, and love for an Indian princess. In Caste and Creed F.E. Penny tells us the story of a fair-skinned Eurasian girl just arrived from England. A romance ensues between her and a British District Collector who does not initially realize she is half Indian. Prejudice, discrimination, marriage and relocation follow. On the other hand in Lilamani Maud Diver spins a happy alliance between a British male and an Indian female of matching aristocratic lineage. Bhowani Junction, a novel by John Masters, portrays the Anglo-Indian protagonist, Victoria Jones, as tugged in different directions by three suitors each representing a different ethnic community.
The empire may have been a playground for British men to experiment with a variety of sexual experiences they could not indulge in back home. But it was a two-way traffic. After the Mutiny, Indian princes had been cultivated as close allies of the British. During the princes' visits to Britain, their aristocratic status was given full recognition, and they were admitted to the most exclusive of social circles. The accusation from jealous English men that certain Indian princes enjoyed the sexual favours of white women of all classes is understandable. The smartest peeresses were only too ready to make a fuss with Bikaner and other Indian chiefs. If status and wealth worked like magnet, so did dark skin. When Indian contingents went to England for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria the great difficulty of the officers was in keeping the white women away from the dark-skinned ‘native’ soldiers.. Victorian morality be damned.
(Sudhir Kumar Jha)
The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar and a free-lance researcher.