“Sahibs’ India: Vignettes from the Raj” by Pran Nevile


This is a meticulously researched work, yet the author eschews boring details and tells us only what informs and entertains. “In the royal household of the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, there were 300 indoor servants, of whom a third were cooks.” My heart stops, my head spins, my hair stands on end! While we do know that the British in India lived in opulent splendor, the actual details and descriptions are revealing if not shocking. We are left wondering whether the kings and queens of England enjoyed such luxuries as the sahibs did.

The chapters have interesting titles, indicating the shape of things to come: Sex and the Sahib, Memsahibs and the Indian Marriage Bazar, When Sahib was Hooked to Hookah, Nautch Parties, Fun and Frolic in Simla, Shikar and Pig-Sticking, Sadhus, Sufis and Sanyasis, Banning of an Indian Erotic Epic, and so on. “David Ochterlony, the British resident in Delhi (1803) popularly known as ‘Loony Ahktar’, lived like a royal prince and used to take the air in the evening accompanied by his thirteen Indian bibis riding elephants.” Similarly, William Frazer who was the British commissioner in the 1830s maintained seven Indian wives and had several children, who were either Hindu or Muslim depending on the faith of their mothers.

We learn that “The cost of landing a European wife in Calcutta worked out to Rs.5000 – far beyond the means of ordinary company officials. On the other hand, according to Captain Williamson’s Guide book published in 1810, the expenses that had to be incurred on an Indian mistress worked out to Rs.40 per month.” We also learn than white-skinned girls from Eastern Europe and Japan were procured to staff the brothels of Bombay and Calcutta. Robert Clive in the 18th century described Calcutta as “one of the most wicked places in the Universe.” In 1828 there was a general strike by palanquin bearers in Calcutta. Interestingly, all of them were natives of Orissa. The rickshaw was introduced from Japan in the 1880s. The Kumbh Mela at Haridwar attracted pilgrims from China, Persia and Bokhara.

“All accounts emphasize the fact that Muslims celebrated their festivals just like the Hindus, with the same earnestness and ostentation and amused themselves with dance and song and other entertainments, including feast and sports,” the book informs us. Persian songs were as popular in India as Hindi songs until the end of the 19th century. “Tazah ba tazah, nu ba nu”, a ghazal by Hafiz (Shirazi) dominated the nautch scene for over a century. By the early 20th century, thanks to the fervor of the missionaries and the campaigns of the vigilantes, the nautch had fallen out of favour and the nautch girls had faded into oblivion.

The book has several amusing anecdotes. Here’s a sample: As the story goes, Nobel laureate C.V. Raman was once performing religious rituals with offerings of food to his ancestors in Gaya when someone said to him, ‘Sir, you are such a great scientist – how can you believe this food would reach your ancestors? Sir Raman smiled and replied, ‘I cannot prove that it will not reach them.’

The author, Pran Nevile, was born and educated in Lahore and served in the Indian Foreign Service and the United Nations. He has written several books on the British Raj, including Beyond the Veil: Indian Women in the Raj, Rare Glimpses of the Raj, and Nautch Girls of the Raj.

Overall Assessment: Worth reading

Sahibs’ India: Vignettes from the Raj
Author: Pran Nevile
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: November 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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