The wayward empire: ‘Days of the Raj’ by Pramod K Nayar

Rakesh Shukla has more than three decades of engagement with law, constitutional jurisprudence, human rights and justice, along with training and practice in psychodynamic therapy. Explorations in the interface of law, social movements for change, and psychoanalysis are the major areas of his work.

Picking up any book that bears a quaint gramophone, a derby, a tennis racket and the British flag on the cover brings to mind a light-hearted tale my otherwise serious grandfather once shared. An English – for Indians, all white foreigners fall into this catchall category, leave aside making fine distinctions between Scots and Irish – officer turns to take command of the parade and orders Column will advance! No one stirs. The bewildered officer turns to the subedar-major, who shouts Kallam billad bans! and the native Indian soldiers march forward. Similar phonetic wordplays about English ladies being taught everyday phrases like There was a banker for Darwaza band kar (ie, close the door), and There was a cold day for Darwaza khol de (open the door), provided us much amusement while growing up in the cantonments of independent India.

This kind of playing-on-words finds unexpected support from Pramod K Nayar, a professor of English at the University of Hyderabad. "Negotiations with servants very often involved long and laborious conversations in 'Hindustani'," he writes, "which the Memsahibs had to acquire if they wanted to run efficient households." In a suitably benevolent mood, one flicks open Days of the Raj and the preface heightens expectations, promising, "The most entertaining sections of the imperial archives … is writings that deal with such mundane things as the right amount of spice in making fish soup or dealing with a truculent dhobi." On the subject of archives, the book informs us that British India left behind the largest imperial archive in the world, with the East India Company material alone comprising nine miles of shelving. This explains one of life's mysteries, clearing up why it is that Indians doing research on India jet off to London at every opportunity.

For his part, Nayar, author of tomes such as English Writing in India, 1600-1920: Colonizing aesthetics, confesses that he read much of the "informal" material as a diversion. He says that the material that went into Days of the Raj provided much-needed respite from his other work – descriptions of troop movements and treaty negotiations, mapping projects and sati – during the course of producing ponderous travel pieces and memoirs. However, for those fortunate enough not to have to engage with the said troop movements, the worthwhile nuggets are surprisingly few and far between.

Nayar's volume presents copious selections from official documents, memoirs, letters, reports, extracts from periodicals, recipe and cookbooks, instruction manuals, advice books and others materials of this ilk. The book begins with 'Raj Travels', the first of four sections, tracking journeys from England to India and within India. A short description of the travails of the Englishperson travelling in a palaki or palanquin is in order: "Five times in one hour did they throw me down, and scream out, 'Snake, lady, snake', and though I was not hurt, still you will allow it was not pleasant." In other memories, Francis Younghusband and Edward Molyneux, speaking of travels in Kashmir, write in 1909: "The visitor disposed to solitude more frequently encounters his fellow-countrymen," reminiscent of people tripping over each other while trekking to popular spots in Nepal or the Pindari Glacier in India.

The second section allows us to snoop around in 'Raj Homes'. Writes one Isabella Fane: "The number of servants my father keeps who wait upon him and me, is sixty-eight, and this is reckoned a small number for the commander-in-chief." Given the endless supply of menials, from butler to the chokera dressing-boy, one wonders how the folk fared 'back home' after the sun set on the Empire. Actually, in this India has not changed drastically. Even today, in Delhi, the services of a maid who cleans and swabs house every day of the year can be bought for the equivalent of just four or five dollars per month. Likewise, the rich tradition of a retinue of servants for high functionaries continues unabated in independent India.

Clearing the bile
Next up is the titular 'Raj Leisure', where we are informed that Englishmen without wives often acquired local women as wives or concubines – leisurely indeed. In a clear case of racial discrimination, a gentleman's pay was around five rupees per month if he had an English wife, and around two and a half rupees if he had a native one. (Today, a public-interest litigation would be launched in the Hon'ble Supreme Court against such a practice, faster than you can say howzzat.) From wives and concubines, we move on to nautch girls who, according to the author, "other than the Taj … seemed to have held the maximum fascination for the Englishmen." Godfrey Charles Mundy, author of the 1832 Pen and Pencil Sketches, seems a case in point:

At the close of each stanza of the song, the girl floats forward towards an audience, by a sort of 'sidling, bridling', and, I may add, 'ogling' approach, moves her arms gently round her head, the drapery of which they are constantly and gracefully employed in arranging and displacing … The lithe, snake-like suppleness of their arms excites, at first, great surprise in the European spectator.

The Leisure section is a must-read to get a sense of the Tiger Man and the environmentalists of various hues who blamed 'tribals' and indigenous peoples for the depletion of wildlife – and thus wanted to drive them out of their habitat. (Such rhetoric continues today, albeit in a toned-down form.) To counter this contention, one only has to consider the advice in Fraser's Magazine For Town and Country, from 1852: "When bile and nervousness become too intolerable … get leave of absence, and ride into the jungle. A good burst after a bear clears off a year's bile in twenty minutes, and a roaring charge … frightens out all the nervousness, and in six weeks you may go home quit of both." Excerpting various extracts on hunting wild boar, buffalo, tiger, markhor, black bear, brown bear and leopard, Nayar concludes that Shikar provided a dangerous, wild, unmapped landscape, "a space where English imperial power would dominate even Indian wildlife."

In the last section, 'Raj Relations', H Hervey in The European In India informs us of the category Grass Widow, or wives packed off to cooler climes during the summer, while their husbands remained on duty in the plains. He seems more than a bit miffed at the female invasion as he writes, "[grass widows] chiefly affect hill stations, whither they resort as soon as they are free of their husbands." Hervey then moves on to the European Loafer, offering an interesting insight on colonial rule. "In England – the tramp fears the police," he writes, "out yonder it is the reverse, because the Indian Bobby regards the white Loafer as one of the ruling race, and to be treated accordingly."

Meanwhile, Fanny Parkes, in her Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, takes us back to the Indian nymphs. "In Europe, how rarely, how very rarely does a woman walk gracefully!" she writes.

Bound up in stays, the body stiff as a lobster in its shell; that snake-like, undulating movement – the poetry of motion is lost … A lady in European attire gives me the idea of a German manikin; an Asiatic, in her flowing drapery, recalls the statutes of antiquity.

Perhaps the most useful bit of the whole book comes at the very end. One D Brodie, in his 1912 A Little Book of Little Manners for Young Indians, offers the following advice on conversation: "You should guard against the vulgarity of incessantly alluding to your adventures or clever work, nor should you discourse at length upon your books, pictures and other belongings. Such matters cannot be very interesting to others."

~ Rakesh Shukla practices law at the Supreme Court of India and is associated with the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Delhi.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian