Pran Nevile is an indefatigable scholar of the Raj. Since his retirement from the Indian Foreign Service, he has devoted himself to a lively study of the social and cultural history of India. This has yielded a clutch of eclectic books – Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, Love Stories from the Raj, Beyond the Veil: Indian Women in the Raj, Rare Glimpses of the Raj, K.L Saigal: he is characteristically modest about his aims:
I have no great stories to tell, nor can relate anything which others could not narrate as well. I am only a fact-finding author and can brag of nothing except my good intentions. My object has been to blend light reading for entertainment with historical information.
In this, Nevile has succeeded; for Sahibs’ India takes a broad, sweeping look at different aspects of British life in India. Culled from a swathe of miscellaneous sources roughly classified as ‘Raj literature’ by archivists and historians, Nevile displays all the enthusiasm of an inveterate anglophile. Nothing is too esoteric or too mundane, nor is there any attempt to maintain a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Drawing from a collage of journals, diaries, memoirs, plays and poems, this is not an arbitrary selection; despite the medley of topics listed in its contents, the book is a revealing account of the changing pattern of the sahibs’ social and cultural life in India. Not only does it trace the changing contours of the British presence – from traders to empire builders – but also delineates the change in the ways in which the British interacted with the natives.
From the early days of the East India Company and its active encouragement to its officers to adopt native customs to the gradual stiffening of the British ‘upper lip’ and the distance from all things native, Nevile weaves a compelling tale. Several sections are devoted to the early British domestic arrangements which included either marrying local dusky beauties or keeping a ‘Bibi’ to the adoption of local dress and custom, be it indulging in shikar or cockfights, drinking arrack, watching naught performances, listening to Hindustani musicians, attending mushairas and soirees. The meeting of the east and west which a colonialist such as Rudyard Kipling proclaimed was never meant to be, actually did take place right up till the middle of the nineteenth century: it took place, as Nevile shows, not only in the zenanas but also in the nautch parties and mehfils that the sahibs organised and partook of so happily.
This happy state of affairs was marred by the arrival of two forces of change – the missionaries and the memsahibs. The two together introduced a discordant note in the easy harmony between the early British settlers and the natives who in due course of time became their colonial subjects. The missionaries denigrated Indian religious practices and social and religious customs and the arrival of the memsahibs naturally spelled doom to the Bibis and their mixed-breed progeny. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 saw greater and swifter traffic thus putting an end to an arrangement and a way of life that stressed harmony rather than conflict. Nevile is successfully able to establish the evolution of the sahibs from traders to company officials to colonisers and rulers, and the shrinking space for commonality of interests as integration lessened and isolation increased. In a chapter entitled ‘Memsahibs and the Indian Marriage Bazar’, he speaks of the arrival of the memsahibs that inculcated a feeling of racial superiority that has hitherto been less marked; also in their desire to bring a slice of the ol’ blightey to hot and humid India, they created enclaves that kept the real India at bay. Ships full of English girls bent upon securing an ‘India’ man came to be referred to as ‘Fishing Fleet’. Nevile notes with wry insight:
‘It was an age of quick marriages. The arrival of a cargo of young damsels was one of the most exciting events for the waiting bachelors in India. To keep them chaste for the marriage market, unmarried women travelled under the care of chaperones, usually married women…’
Almost all of the fresh cargo got snapped up on the spot. The Sunday Church was a good spot for offering receiving proposals. The few who did not succeed in securing marriage proposals, spread out into the mofussil towns:
‘…to scoop up husbands from the unmarried officials, soldiers, planters and businessmen. With such a multitude of wife-seekers, the women had to be either very unattractive or overambitious not to find a catch and join the group of ‘Returned Empties’, a term used for those returning to England without husbands.’
At the same time, Nevile has also seized upon the testimonies of the Englishwomen – some of whom were talented painters and artists and others who were writers such as Fanny Parks, Emily Eden, S. C. Belnos and Marianne Postans. Fanny Parks, in particular, was an intrepid traveller who managed to cover large, and often intractable distances, during her 24-year stay in india (1822-45) and left behind a two-volume journal of jottings and drawings called Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque (published upon her return in 1850). Parks, as well as Emily Eden (who wrote long letters to her sister in London in 1866, which were published as ‘Up the Country’), took an equal delight in portraying domestic manners and mores, be it servants, life behind the zenana or the lives of the princes and princesses. As Nevile notes:
‘Not burdened by a sense of imperial mission, women artists, very much part of the Raj, had an open mind and took genuine interest in depicting the country and its people. As their sketches and drawings were mostly meant for themselves and not for any competitive market, they were executed quite freely and are thus more intimate observations of the Indian scene.’
While in this day of subaltern history, we may find some of these accounts by the wide-eyed Englishwomen as bordering on the naïve and romantic, taken together they provide a valuable visual record – a picture gallery as it were – of the common people as well as the minor royalty. Some of these sketches and accounts of an age innocent of the camera show us real, almost life-like figures of grass cutters and holi revellers, mercenaries and hookaburdars, in fact an array of characters who would otherwise have been lost in the veils of history.
Some of the more evocatively-titled chapters in this engrossing book are: ‘Household Retinue’, ‘Sex and the Sahib’, ‘The Amorous Adventures of Lola Montez’, ‘Corruption, Scandal and Gossip’, ‘From Arrack to Wine and Whisky’, ‘Fun and Frolic in Simla’, ‘Nautch parties’, ‘Palanquin Pleasure’, ‘Shikar and Pig-Sticking’, ‘Beating the Heat’, ‘Encounters with Snakes’, ‘Fairs and Festivals’, ‘Jugglers and Magicians’. In fact, Nevile picks up almost every archetypal image associate with the Raj and subjects it to a close scrutiny. And almost, everywhere, he digs into his own vast archive to reveal a world that revelled in its own idiosyncrasies, profligacies, and wanton self-indulgences. In doing so, Nevile remains largely uncritical of the sahibs’ peculiar penchants in general and the British presence in India in particular.
Sahibs’ India: Vignettes from the Raj, Pran Nevile, Penguin Books India Ltd. 2010, Rs 299, pp.243.
(Rakhshanda Jalil lives in New Delhi and writes on issues of literature, culture and society.)