In 1923, W Heffer & Sons Ltd published an unusual book titled Servant of Sahibs: A Book to be Read Aloud. It is an autobiographical account of Ghulam Rassul Galwan, a Ladakhi native, who began his career as a servant and companion of European and American explorers in their expeditions through Kashmir and Central Asia. The famous explorer-writer, Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, introduces this book. Younghusband had written books on travels through Tibet and Kashmir, and Galwan served him as a pony herder on one such expedition. Servant of Sahibs is edited by the wife of the ‘Sahib’ to whom Galwan credits the task of “making him a man”. It was this wife and husband duo, Mrs and Mr Barrett, who were responsible for laboriously assembling and editing Rassul’s story. It is said that Rassul knew not more than a dozen English words when he met the couple and spent the next 14 years in toil.
Rassul had a story to tell yet little means of expression and his patrons guided him in writing this tale. “Sahib said to me: ‘Rassul, you must remember. I will not let you go from my friendship until you learn English’ Yes that promise got right. At this time by his kindly I learning this my style, which now I written as a book. No got any wrong in his matter’.” Writing, rewriting and exchanging handwritten sheets, he delivered a manuscript.
Since most of the early history of Himalayan mountaineering comes from Westerners, Servant of Sahibs presents a remarkably original perspective. The book, written in broken English, is barely coherent. The Barretts helped teach Galwan English, but let him maintain the rusticness of a native, not imposing the King’s English. Younghusband calls the book a way to “see their [the natives] ways of looking at things, and looking at us [the colonisers].”
A reading of Galwan’s work, however, raises the question of whether it is indeed an extraordinary voice heard from the other side, or a well disguised product of colonial literature in the voice of the ‘other’. An incidental study of an encounter between cultures – involving asymmetries of power and written during the throes of colonialism – the book faces a methodological problem. As cultural anthropologist Sherry B Ortner argues, since “it is usually the dominant party that writes the (hi)stories of the encounter, and indeed it often continues to be (other) dominant parties who interpret those texts,” analysing and deconstructing them through a neutral lens becomes difficult.
The book is also interesting by virtue of being an autoethnography – an insight into lives of native Ladakhis. According to the critical theorist Mary Louise Pratt, autoethnography is the “instance in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own terms.” She goes on to say “If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are texts the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations.”
One cannot ignore the possibility that Servant of Sahibs was a tale intended to establish native authenticity for the colonial mission. However, it is far more interesting for the insight it gives us into a society of which little has been documented.
The life of Galwan
The book may be examined through two themes. While the first has to do with the social context the book arose from, the latter focuses on its content. Large parts of the original were redacted from the final manuscript. Editorial devices have played an important role in shaping the present narrative, both by way of exclusion and arrangement of chapters of the disjointed original manuscript of Galwan. Furthermore, the book is guided by Younghusband’s patronising introduction, which sets the tone for it as a story of growth through colonial labour. Although chronological, the book is carefully edited and largely revolves around Galwan’s interaction with the sahibs with brief records from his own personal life.
For a time when most colonial literature from this region came as travelogues and ethnographies by Europeans written to understand the natives, this book is an exceptionally unique account. It is one of two (auto)-biographical works that has come out of this area around the same time period. Literacy and education were restricted to the rich. Galwan recounts an instance from his childhood when his mother discouragingly tells him, “You learn another business that will be useful for us. Reading business is for rich men.”
When Younghusband introduces the book by saying that through it, “we understand them [natives] better and find they are after all not so very different from what we were as boys,” we see that the audience he intended for the book were other European sahibs. Upon its release, it was reviewed favourably in the West as a book to lay hands on immediately. The Royal Geographic Society (RGS), to which Younghusband also served as president from 1919 to 1924, was founded in 1830 for the advancement of geographical science and has been among the most active of scholarly societies ever since. The RGS-IBG (with the Institute of British Geographers) is the largest geographical society in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. The RGS which also patronised and published most travelogues, and furthered colonial exploration, reviewed the book and said:
The book itself is to be commended to all travellers in the East… as giving them a quite exceptional insight into the workings of the minds of their subordinates; for this remarkable diary very clearly show how their little doubts and fears and difficulties can be met, if treated sympathetically.
In his note to the readers, Galwan addresses “King and Queen, ladies and gentlemen”, who he expects to be the readers and thereby interpreters of the contents of his book. Some argue that he intended the book for a local audience to enhance his social standing and, through this note to the upper class, put himself in conversation with the rulers of India. Evidence, however, suggests otherwise. The book was meant as an account from the ‘other’, the reasons for which can be found by examining the social context of the time.
The 1920s, the decade in which the book was published, was a period that saw agitation and social reform against forced labour in Kashmir. Several liberal Europeans supported this agitation. As David Butz and Kenneth I MacDonald put it, the book “reproduces official colonial discourse on Indian Native labor, which stressed the gentleness and indulgence of masters and the zeal and loyalty of laborers or slaves.” Very aptly, they summarise the publication of the book with regard to the social situation in a single sentence: “The sponsors and publishers of the book intended it to provide an authentic Native contribution to arguments for maintaining existing colonial labor relations.”
Strengthening their claim are reviews published soon after the book was released, which emphasised the agreeable personal relations the book established between Galwan and his employers. According to one such review in the RGS journal:
One of the pleasantest sides of the book is its testimony to the affection the author has for all his different employers and his references to them are very characteristic and attractive; the remark ‘as much I tell him sweet words, so much he abused me’ is extremely characteristic.
Evidently, Younghusband and the publishers, if not always Rassul Galwan or the Barretts, intended Servant of Sahibs to be a glimpse of an authentic and representative perspective of the native’s life as a servant of colonial masters.
These suggest that the initial manuscript he put together had a richer account of his personal life but editorial devices eventually shaped it into the present narrative. These missing chunks of the book are conspicuous by their absence. The focus on interaction with the sahibs makes one further suspicious of the authenticity of the narrative. This claim cannot be conclusively proven, yet what it leaves to be examined is the books usefulness as a source of ethnographic information.
Finding a voice
As a method, autoethnography combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography. Unknowingly, through this rather simple book, Galwan gives us interesting details of life as a Ladakhi. Although ostensibly an autobiographic travelogue, his writing is set against the background of colonialism, exploration and an economy sustained largely by trade through these explorations.
In such small, almost unnoticeable instances, Galwan speaks of social and occupational stratification in Kashmir. In the first chapter, titled ‘My Family’, he speaks of his origins as a descendent of a famous robber. He belonged to one of the lowest social class of Kashmir, the galwans, notorious for thievery. Unashamed of his origins, he does not take to to the trend of the upwardly mobile of shedding last names: “This told my mother me… His name Kara Galwan. Kara was his name (means: black). Galwan means robber… When he saw good one pony, that stole he.”
Galwans, according to famous explorer Sir Walter Lawrence, “could always be recognized by the darkness of their skin”. They were the horse thieves. Originally said to have earned their livelihood by grazing ponies, they later found it more remunerative to steal them and subsequently developed into an established criminal tribe. Rassul translates his surname, Galwan, into ‘bad-trouble-man’, implying the negative connotation associated with his lineage stemming from robbers. Khaira Galawan, was the dacoit-hero of many a legend. After his arrest, the rulers succeeded in killing half the galwans, while others were sent to areas around Gilgit. It is this Kara, Khaira Galawan, that Rassul claims to be his great-grandfather.
His relationship with his mother is an interesting one. Raised by her alone, a mother-son dyad emerges in the Galwan household. She controlled the finances, managed his earnings and arranged his marriage, while he acceded to her authority, stealthily hiding money to enjoy on his own after being financially independent. “I hid two rupees in one place where mother not find them, for my play money. Other money all, gave her.” It was the mother who chose the bride for she was to live and work with her for most of her time. The mother’s motivation to get Rassul Galwan a bride was to find someone to share the burden of housework. Galwan did not see his bride till the day of his wedding, as was common custom. “I said myself: ‘How does that girl look? If she is ugly, then what shall I do? Then I shall be ashamed before these Leh girls and boys.’ They must say: ‘Rassul has got a bad wife.’ But mother likes her, so I must like her.”
Other than details of stratification and kinship that seep between the lines of Galwan’s narratives, there is an interesting record of magical ritual in the book, too. It has stories that involve black magic, or as Galwan says,“It is jhadoo. It was made one woman for bad luck to your mother.” In one instance, he faces illness because of a supposed spell on him and is cured by a priest soon after the enchantment is discovered. “We have got him, and he has found in his book that on a Wednesday you met with a demon in a wood and that demon got angry on you.” Interestingly, the sahibs accept this diagnosis and it is their suggestion to call an exorcist to cure him. “Sahib said one day: ‘You am not ill. It looks us they have made a jadoo for you.”’ To make sense of this we can turn to ethnologist E E Evans-Pritchard, who said that to understand black magic was important “not only for the anthropologist but also for the colonial administrator and missionary, if they wish[ed] to show to the peoples whom they govern and teach that they understand their notions about right and wrong.”
There is a striking paragraph that aptly summarises the book:
From tailor-place bought little pieces cloth. In plenty tailor-man’s place spoke nice matter for cloth, and made friends with them, the tailor-men. There I made some sahib and mem sahibs. Their faces made with white dobe, their hats and boots with bocha (mean one thing make oil from). Myself was servant to sahib.
Galwan here talks about the dolls he used to make to play with as a child. The “play he makes” captures the dichotomy this book presents its reader with. Knowing his audience, Galwan could have plugged this bit of information into his manuscript to appease his sahibs. It is also possible that the editors retained this line just to establish the natives’ eagerness to serve. However, it is also likely that colonialism was so internalised that Galwan could not think of himself as an individual beyond a slave.
As a resource in the field of geography and ethnology the book presents a diarists account of the day-to-day life of native travellers. If interpreted in the context of its production, it is a rich documentation of society. However, the book’s emphasis on asserting it as the voice of the ‘other’ – by keeping the original language intact and the narrative stitched as though he wrote to please, reiterating his indebtedness to his ‘sahibs’ – must not be ignored. Interspersed with quotidian details of life and customs in the mountains, the simple story of Galwan, ‘bad-trouble-man’, promises to be a challenging and insightful piece of literature.
~Onaiza Drabu is a writer and illustrator studying for a Masters degree in Anthropology at the University of Oxford.