|Saturday, July 29, 2000||
IT took European artists to open the world’s eyes to the beauty of Indian women. Some were able to capture them in their sketch books or on canvas: by riversides while bathing, drawing water from wells or going to temples. A few managed to enter harems by pretending to be doctors; others went to kothas of prostitutes to enjoy nautch and mujra. Quite a few maintained harems of their own which they bequeathed to their successors; some married them and had children through them. All this continued from the time the first European put his foot on Indian soil till the middle of the 19th century. Then white women started arriving inIndia and put an end to the fun and games between men of their skin and native women.
Pran Nevile, a former diplomat, has opened up this gold-mine of inter-racial sex from libraries of rare books and paintings in England. His latest is a coffee-table book, Beyond The Veil: Indian Women in The Raj (Nevile Books). It is evident that what attracted European men most towards Indian women were their beautiful eyes and full bosoms — both woefully lacking in their own women. They also found Indian women’s rich, brown complexion more attractive than the raw ham-like skin of their women. The plethora of paintings of Indian women from different sections of society have been compiled in one book for the first time.
There are dozens of memoirs penned by Europeans on their encounters with Indian women. Also reams of poetry:
Where the deep blue
Every English household with children had ayahs to look after their babalog. While memsahibs were enjoying sundowners with sahiblog, ayahs were singing lullabies to put their babies to sleep:
Nini baba nini
Nevile has done well to publish the book himself. He knows he will make a killing.
Indo-Burmese love affair
Everyone who loves books has a list of his favourite authors and reads everything written by them. And as soon as he hears of new publications by them, he hurries to a bookstore or a lending library to get them. I have a list of my own. I no longer keep up with foreign writers but I do make a point of reading everything written by Indians writing in English — and include V.S. Naipaul among them. They write as well as, if not better than novelists of other countries. Fairly high up in my short list is Amitav Ghosh. I have read all his six books published earlier and have just finished reading his latest and the seventh — The Glass Palace (Ravi Dayal and Permanent Black). It has fortified my resolve to read everything he will write hereafter.
A few biographical details: he is 44, born in Calcutta, son of an army officer, product of Doon school, St Stephens College, Inlaks scholar to Oxford (St Edmunds). His Ph.D. in social anthropology took him to Egypt and provided the background to his novel In an Antique Land. He married Deborah Baker, an American in the publishing industry, and has two children, a daughter Leela and a son Nayan. Though based in New York, the family has no fixed abode and are in and out of England, India and other countries most of the year. Each one of Amitav’s books has won recognition. The Shadow Lines (Sahitya Akademi), The Circle of Reason (award for its French translation), The Calcutta Chromosome (award for Science fiction). Even the 80-page Countdown, a lambaste on India’s Pokhran II based on an interrogation of Defence Minister George Fernandes who had strongly criticised Pokhran I, was widely acclaimed. The wide range of Ghosh’s interests is mind-boggling. The Glass Palace is largely located in Burma, Malaya, Singapore and India. The novel starts in 1858 when King Thebaw was king of Burma and Supayalat was his queen consort. It was a rich prosperous country always referred to as Golden Burma. There were a large number of Indians, Malays and Eurasians all doing well. The British arrived on the scene first as traders, as they did in India. Their main interest was teak which was in great demand in Europe. They hacked down large teak forests and became a law unto themselves. They went to war against the Burmese, defeated them and sent the royal family to exile, first to Madras then to Ratnagiri. There they spent the rest of their lives. No visitors were allowed; their only social contact was the commissioner of the district, one of whom was a Bengali in the ICS. They became close friends. In this cloistered atmosphere the princesses grew to womanhood and had liaisons with Indian servants. Their nanny, a startlingly beautiful girl was claimed by an Indian-born Burmese youth who rose from being a dish-washer to become a very prosperous timber contractor. The scene shifts back to Burma with interludes in Singapore and Calcutta. After World War I, came World War II. The Japanese drove out the British, then the Allied forces drove out the Japs. Indians were caught in the crossfire. Many joined the INA under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose; others stayed loyal to the British. They were despised by both antagonists as well as the Burmese who wanted them out of their country. The once prosperous Indian community trekked out of Burma in thousands, with little besides their tattered clothes on them. Many fell by the wayside. The pictures of the devastation caused by the war will haunt readers for a long time. The novel ends in the electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi, who would have been Prime Minister of Burma but has been kept under detention in her home by the army which rules the country.
The Glass Palace is of the epic dimensions of Tolstoy’s War & Peace: In Ghosh’s novel the order is reversed to peace and war. Its length may daunt the reader at first but when he comes to the last page he will wish it could have gone on for ever.
Heaven or hell
"Did Shri Ram really suspect Sitaji of infidelity and subject her to agni-pariksha ?" asked the ever-inquisitive wife.
"I really don’t know but when I go to swarg, I’ll ask him about it," replied the husband.
"But what if because of all those hardships Sri Ramji subjected Sitaji to, he is not in Heaven ?" said the wife.
"In that case you can go and ask him yourself when you die," quipped the husband.
(Contributed by Shashank Shekhar, New Mumbai)