Glimpses of the Raj

“The British in India worked hard and played hard, and rising before dawn was customary and sensible in a country where the sun already baked the earth and grilled its inhabitants before ten o’clock in the morning,” so says Jennifer Brennan in ‘Curries and Bugles’, a book that treats the reader to glimpses of India’s imperial past besides containing an anthology of culinary recipes from the days of the Raj.

For some, Raj nostalgia can be a relentless pursuit, driving them to every nook and corner of the country seeking out relics from the past, odd bits of information, old style architecture, even ancient documents. The search can be almost endless. But you don’t have to look far to come across relics that remind you of the ‘blessings of the Raj’ ; nearly every town and city has its own share of architecture that dates back to imperial days. Old college buildings, the general post office, railway station, secretariat, clubs, guest houses, libraries, bridges, and many other such structures hold memories of the days when the imperialist lived in this land far away from home. 

What did the Sahibs and Memsahibs do all throughout the day? Did they mix up with the natives, at least those who were well educated? And what did they do in their hours of leisure? For most British upper class families in India, the day began before dawn with a sleepy eyed bearer knocking on the door, bringing in a tray covered with lace. This is the chhota hazri consisting of a pot of tea, teaspoon, sugar and milk jugs and a tea cup. It was a tradition in genteel Victorian living that has lived on to this day taking the form of the familiar bed-tea most of us so greatly relish at the first appearance of dawn.

The chhota hazri was followed by the 7 o’clock horse ride. The sahib and the memsahib, dressed in riding gear, canter across the maidan, when the air is still crisp and cool. Far in the distance, smoke from the cooking fires can be seen curling up from the tiny dwellings of the town, and workers dressed in dhotis, on their way to work, greet the riders with ‘Salaam Memsahib’ and ‘Salaam Sahib’. This was perhaps the best part of the day when the sun was still low on the horizon. In a few hours time it would be seen riding high up in the sky baking the ground below to a golden brown. Back in the home, the only respite from the oppressive heat would come from the gentle flapping of the ‘punkah’ worked by an attendant tugging at a rope.

The morning ride was a daily ritual in true English style and whipped up keen appetites. The riders return, bathe and change, and assemble in the dining room or the verandah. As the family takes its place at the table, bearers dressed in turbans and clean white uniform wait on them, eager to replenish supplies of hams, mixed grills, eggs, tumbled fish kedgerees, and fruits and breads. Today’s light ‘nashta’ consisting of omelette and toast would have been dismissed as unworthy of a sahib in a far away native land ; something really substantial was needed before the head of the household left for his workplace.

The sahib has finally departed for the office. While the children are being looked after by the ayah, the memsahib, fortified with the morning’s breakfast, can now be seen on her way to the club for a game or two of tennis. At other times, she jumps into a buggy for a ride to the Cantonment bazaar. Back home, she will have fixed up the day’s menu with the khansamah, or at other times, have negotiations with the local durzi on the latest designs she wants stitched making use of the fashion catalogue she has ordered from back home.

Between the two wars, India was inhabited by around four hundred million people, natives as they were known, most of them illiterate and poor. It was in this setting that the British moved and had their being. An average English family would have upto half a dozen natives servants to manage the household : this meant a head-bearer who was the overall head of the staff, a mali (or gardener), a bhisti or sweeper, a dhobi who laundered clothes, and the all pervasive ayah who took care of the children. Higher up on the social scale, the number of servants proportionalely rose, till when you reached the top ranks, the number could run into scores. For the British, the easy availability of cheap labour was a welcome feature of life in India, a convenience that offset the discomfort arising out of the harsh climate, the bugs and beetles, and having to live amongst an alien race of people.

Just what kind of feelings were aroused in an Englishman, or more particularly a memsahib, by a native of the country is set out in an interesting episode occurring in E M Forster’s A Passage to India. Mrs Moore and a group of ladies have emerged from the Chandrapore Club when Adela Quested announces her intention to see the ‘real’ India. Someone suggests that the best way to see the real India was by trying to see Indians. The ladies are shocked and amused. “As if one could avoid seeing them,” one of them comments. An animated discussion follows, everyone among the group putting forward their views. One woman who had worked earlier as a nurse holds that working amongst natives was a most unsuitable position for any Englishwoman. “One’s only hope was to hold sternly aloof,” she says. “Even from one’s patients?” one lady asks anxiously, to which the first replies, “Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die.” Forster’s novel, a recognized masterpiece, goes on to explore how far it is possible for an Englishman to be on friendly terms with an Indian native. And by the time you reach the end of the narrative, you know the answer. No matter how close Fielding and Dr. Aziz may have grown together, tensions, discords, and misunderstandings imperceptibly arise, eventually tearing them apart. Even though Fielding holds out a hand of friendship at the end, Aziz is wise enough to know that such a thing is an utter impossibility as yet, and the two part ways.

But all was not as dark as painted by Forster. And not all Englishmen held such low views of natives as set out by Forster. There were the missionaries, those kind hearted folks who served the poor, set up educational institutions and hospitals, built churches, and spread the gospel of peace. We have an interesting account of one such missionary from Mrs. K.B. who grew up in the 1930s in a small town in Maharashtra where a missionary had been stationed :  “Miss Marjorie Forge (pronounced as For-gee)  was medium in height for a foreigner ; she wore pretty ankle-length dresses and her hair was a queer mixture of black and golden brown. In her home which was on the outskirts of our town, she had a room specially kept aside for the purpose where Sunday morning church was held. Besides her work as a missionary, Miss Forge seemed well versed in the art of farming too ; stretching behind her home could be seen a luxuriant field and a kitchen garden where she grew vegetables. She also owned a tonga and was assisted in her work by a band of servants. A man had been specially employed to feed and take care of the horse, and he would drive her to nearby villages assigned to her for preaching. Poor Miss Forge could hardly have stood in a village square distributing printed gospel tracts herself, so she often carried along with her a few of her hired lads to do the job. Printed leaflets were also distributed by her in our own town, and when this occurred, it always led to a sort of ‘carnage’—passing through the village square in the evening we would see hundreds of these tracts strewn all around, discarded in contempt, and lying around to be trampled upon by the feet of passersby. But Miss Forge kept at her work undeterred. She was also a great family friend, and passing by our home she would sometimes drop in to have a chat with us. Mother would then turn out the finest ‘puran-polees’ which she shared with us with great gusto. On a few occasions she would bring us gifts specially picked from among the loads of parcels that came from home : Kraft cheese, tinned meat, instant cake mix, beans in tomato sauce, sweaters, frocks, confectionery....”

Ravindra Bhalerao