off the shelf
How carnal desire put England on top
V. N. Datta

Stories from the Raj: Sahibs. Memsahibs and Others.
by Pran Nevile.
Indialog Publications, New Delhi. Pages 186. Rs 250.

Stories from the Raj: Sahibs. Memsahibs and OthersWHEN this book came into my hands, my eyes fell on its black and white pictorial cover showing two sprightly and curious looking women, one blazing with jewellery, and the other half-clad at the top. I thought for a moment that the author must be British, who has recaptured the adventures and amorous exploits of his forefathers in the early years of the British rule in India. I was to prove wrong. The author, Pran Nevile, is a former diplomat and UN adviser, who is widely travelled and has produced several works, including his much-acclaimed study, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey.

It was Percival Spear who in his remarkable work, The Noabobs (1932} broke new ground by projecting how the British in the early part of their rule had shown no racial bias in their relations with Indians and freely mixed and mingled with them. This story of Anglo-lndian relations was further unfolded by Spear in his Twilight of the Mughals, in C. F. Andrews’s Zaka Ullah of Delhi; in Kenneth Ballhatchet’s Race, Sex and Class under the Raj; and with sophistication in Naranyni Gupta’s scholarly study, Delhi Between Two Empires (1803-1931): Sovereignty, Government and Urban Growth.

Prvan Nevile has no pretensions to be a scholar. He thinks that writing a preface is an exercise in futility, as hardly anyone reads it. In a light-hearted vein, he tells us that his book seeks to amuse the reader with some tale of wine, women and song, which seems to bemuse and befuddle his readers. With a free and open mind, he surveys his field and picks up delectable themes that warm the cockles of his heart and weaves them in his narrative with consummate skill to entertain, regale and instruct his readers.

This book is divided into five sections; the treatment is not chronological, but thematic, though the various themes relate to the Indo-British social life in the 18th and early 19th century India with a special focus on Delhi and Lahore. Though Pran Nevile does not provide the reader with a background, his narrative gives you a good idea of the milieu in which the Sahibs lived and flourished wining, dining, whoring, fondling concubines, smoking hookah, chewing bhang and flaunting their superiority and authority.

Following the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French, the British came to India as traders—there was no question of their territorial aggrandizement.

John Seeley wrote that the British had acquired India in the fit of the absence of mind. They came as merchants, but the exigencies of times converted them into adventurers, administrators and judges; and their warehouses and factories became forts. For India then, it was the worst of times, the age of trouble (gardi ka waqt), where disorder and anarchy prevailed.

The British brought peace and stability; but the heavy cost incurred was the freedom of the country. Pran Nevile’s main focus is on the British social life. The contemporary paintings that Nevile reproduces depict the intimacy and closeness between the British and Indians, even though the British were still a microscopic minority and it was extremely risky for them to bring their women to India in the age of adventure and instability.

Towards the end of the 18th century, there were only 250 European women in Calcutta, while there were 4,000 men. Those who belonged to the upper strata of British society had no dearth of sexual gratification, as they had set up zenanas (lady houses or bibi houses), a practice which they emulated from their predecessors, the Mughals. The keeping of zenanas of Indian bibis became a symbol of British social status and influence. The bibi houses became a regular and accepted feature among a large number of Europeans.

The bibis were not just playthings, dolls worthy of mere fondling and caressing, but served as valuable agents for knowing the manners, customs, languages and ways of the country. There was no stigma attached to these liaisons in which some of the high-ranking officials like David Ochterlony (nicknamed Loony Akhtar) and John Fraser did not scruple to indulge in reckless abandon and spree.

Realising the sex starvation among their soldiers, the British felt compelled to establish Lal Bazars (red-light areas) in cantonments that were out of bounds for civilians. Here, Indian prostitutes were kept for the physical needs of the soldiers. The British knew that without these women, there was a clear danger of their soldiers straying into perverse homosexuality.

They discovered rather too soon that their soldiers had begun to be afflicted with venereal diseases like syphilis and gonorrhoea. Under these circumstances, the British felt compelled to set up lock hospitals to cure the disease-afflicted prostitutes, for which they even began to exercise military control.

Ballhatchet has shown that the venereal disease seems to wax and wane, and it was in the 19th century that the incidence of the disease began to diminish. It is one of the paradoxes of British rule in India, that, while in the 19th century the British began to adopt the policy of social segregation, for maintaining the structure of their empire intact, they still kept their brothels full of Indian women.

According to Pran, the performance of beautifully dressed courtesans in an ethereal setting served as a joy for the Europeans. The courtesans singing Hafiz’s love poems in full-throated ease and dancing with rhythmic fervour would tickle and thrill their customers amid bouts of drinking and hilarious laughter. All was frolic and fun.

The evangelical movement and Victorian rectitude led to the banning of nautches in the British official functions. With a thud in his heart, the author sighs that nautch, "a symbol of grace and glory, passed into the pages of history".

This small and unpretentious work, written in a straightforward, lucid and breezy style, recaptures with imaginative sympathy some of the fascinating features of the Indo-British life in the early phase of the British rule, which was devoid of racial bias. Racial pride became, regrettably, a primary feature of the later British rule, of which Lord Curzon was the most prominent representative. Pran’s critics might say: ‘Sir, you have shown us the human face of the British rule, show us now the other side of the coin." We wait for that day.