“In almost every one of the villages in India, fowls, eggs, rice, flour, native vegetables, curry stuff and milk are procurable, and at very small prices.” Sounds like Ram Rajya? Well folks, that’s an Englishman’s account of 19th century India. Born in Sydney, Lang made India his home, travelling widely and marveling at everything he saw.
John Lang’s chronicles would have been lost to us had it not been for the efforts of our dear old Ruskin Bond. Lang practiced law in India during the British Raj, represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, made a fortune, owned a newspaper, died in 1864 and was buried at Mussoorie. His notes remained unpublished (in India) for well over a century until Ruskin Bond and Rupa Publications joined hands to bring about his reincarnation.
Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan contains interesting snippets that shed new light on India’s history and social systems. Gurkhas, Afghans and Bengali Babus appear in his anecdotes. At Monghyr on the Ganges, he makes the acquaintance of a few Thugs. “It is part of the Thug’s religion not to rob a live body. The crime of murder must precede that of theft,” he observes. Approaching a twenty something woman he asks her what she thinks of the crime of strangulation. She replies with a smile, ‘Heaven will hold us all, sahib!’ Presently her husband comes along and says she has strangled eighteen persons. She insists that her score is twentyone. Truth? Fiction? Exaggeration? We don’t know. But fascinating it surely is.
A transaction involving an Afghan trader and a British memsaab is particularly interesting. ‘…thirty five rupees….may seem a large sum of money to give for a brace of young cats, but it must be remembered that they came from Bokhara (presently in Uzbekistan), and were of the purest breed that could possibly be procured.’ The trader has a slave boy who was undeniably British. When Lang’s British hosts question the trader, they discover that the boy’s parents had been killed, but his wealthy grandparents are alive in Britain. The cross-examination goes like this: ‘What did you give for him?’ ‘Three camels.’ ‘Of what value?’ ‘Thirty rupees each.’ The story ends with the boy going to England and living happily ever after.
Describing the Taj Mahal as one of the wonders of the world, Lang goes on to share some contemporary gossip, ‘The Mahrattas carried away the huge silver gates and made them into rupees. What became of the inner gate, which was formed of a single piece of agate, no one can say. The general opinion is that it is buried somewhere in Bhurtpore. …Lord William Bentick was for pulling the Taj down and selling the marble, or using it for building purposes.’ OMG!
‘Runjeet Singh began life as a petty chieftain, with a few hundred followers. He acquired a vast kingdom, and had the most powerful army that the east ever saw. ….His chief horror was that the Koh-i-noor would be carried off – that diamond which Runjeet Singh stole, and which the Ranee has worn a thousand times as a bracelet. That diamond which is now in the crown of England.’ (The British, of course, did not steal it! No! No! Whoever would suggest such a thing? How can you ask how Lord Dalhousie perpetrated a fraud by taking it away from Duleep Singh, the minor son of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh?)
Lang describes a catastrophe that befell Her Majesty’s 50th Regiment of Foot at Ludhiana during the First Sikh Campaign in which only 300 of 900 soldiers survived. The survivors were felled by administrative neglect as a dust storm on 21st May of that year destroyed the tumbledown barracks, killing 51 men, 18 women and 29 children. Lang states that ‘The Jhansi Rajah had been particularly faithful to the British Government.’ He adds ‘In the time of the Peishwah, the late Rajah of Jhansi was merely a large zemindar…It was the acceptance of the ‘Rajahship’ that led to the confiscation of his estates.’ Lang’s encounter with the Rani of Jhansi evokes interesting observations: ‘The hour came and the white elephant (an Albino, one of the very few in all India) bearing on his immense back a silver houdah, trimmed with red velvet was brought to the tent.’ Lang notices the Rani’s beautiful eyes, ‘delicately shaped nose’ and ‘remarkable figure’ (though she appeared behind a veil) and goes on to say, ‘What spoilt her was her voice, which was something between a whine and a croak.’ She was generous with her gifts. ‘The Ranee presented me with an elephant, a camel, an Arab, a pair of greyhounds of great swiftness, a quantity of silks and stuffs, and a pair of Indian shawls.’ The year was 1854. Lang was in England when the 1857 War of Independence broke out. When he returned in 1859, not only the Rani but many of his friends, both British and Indian, were dead.
Lang laments that the Newab of Moorshedabad and the Rajahs of Durbungah and Burdwan did not lift a finger to help the British in their hour of need. He speaks of the incarceration of 5000 Christians in the Agra fortress for several months. He witnesses the discovery of bricked up bodies of young women and men in a vault in Agra and the hanging of a Brahmin convict. He reports the discovery of a ‘wolf child’ at Burnampore and describes the Gurkha method of hunting tigers by surrounding and closing in on them before attacking them with their kukris (knives).
Lang’s observations are amusing as well as enlightening, especially if you can ignore the inevitable racist overtones. He opines that the people of Hindostan are the world’s best actors and hypocrites. ‘…when they cry out ‘if we do so we shall lose our caste’ it is nothing more than a rotten pretext for escaping some duty or for refusing to obey a distasteful order. There are hypocrites in all countries, but India swarms with them more thickly than any country in the world.’ Through the characters in the book Lang shares some universal insights: ‘All men born equal. God’s rain wet black man and white man all the same.’
The contrast between the lot of the ‘natives’ and their white rulers is particularly galling. Consider Lang’s account of his overall expenses: ‘My (travelling) establishment numbered in all eight servants, whose pay in the aggregate amounted to fifty rupees per mensum.….The expense of keeping the camels, the bullocks and the ponies was in all thirty five rupees per mensum; while my own expenses including everything (except beer and cheroots) were not in excess of fifty rupees per month.’ You need little imagination to figure out that he lived like a king, not to mention his compatriots. Of rental and property values in Mussoorie, Lang says, ‘The average rent for a furnished house is about five hundred rupees (fifty pounds) for the six months,’ adding, ‘The value of these properties ranges from five hundred to fifteen hundred pounds.’ Gambling was obviously a pet hobby of the British in India. ‘There were also two victims (both youngsters) to billiards. One lost 3000 rupees in bets, another 2500 by bad play. They too will have to fly for assistance to the banks.’ The 21st century banks that merrily financed Vijay Mallya’s peccadilloes are perhaps unaware that the roots of this practice are deep indeed.
Duelling appears to have been another pastime. This is how Lang sums up the events of a particular season: ‘Two duels were fought on the day after the ball. In one of these duels an officer fell dead……There were two elopements.’ Recounting an incident of grave miscarriage of justice Lang writes, ‘The man was hanged about six weeks ago; and now I have discovered, beyond all question, that he was hanged for the offence of which the prosecutor was guilty!’ So much for the famed British jurisprudence! On a visit to a graveyard Lang is asked by a Hindu sweeper, ‘Why don’t you British burn your dead as we do, instead of leaving their graves here, to tell us how much you can neglect them and how little you care for them?’
The Hindutva brigade will love this one: An Italian priest tells Lang that the Catholic Church is concentrating on fulfilling the spiritual needs of the Europeans as it is convinced of ‘the hopelessness of converting the Hindoo and the Mussulman to Christianity.’
The style is down to earth and the stories are sensitive, insightful and humorous. Innovative spellings add to the hilarity of the narrative. Allyghur, Futteypore, Oude, Muttra, Deyrah Dhoon, Nepaul, Caubul, Scinde, Cashmere, Loodianah, Hoolee festival, moonshee, shasters (shasthras).
Overall Assessment: Must read – but remember to take it with a pinch of salt. The masala is already there!
Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan
Author: John Lang
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Publication Date: April 2015
Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.