White woman’s burden
Rumina Sethi

Daughters of the Empire: A Memoir of Life and Times in the British Raj
by Iris Macfarlane.
Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Pages 165. Rs 450.

Daughters of the Empire: A Memoir of Life and Times in the British RajTHIS book contains Iris Macfarlane’s memoirs of four generations of British memsahibs who settled in India during the days of the Raj. As her son, Alan Macfarlane, was to write later: "It was an extraordinary moment in history, when a small band of middle-class ladies held together the greatest Empire on earth, to their private cost and pain." Like any literary corpus of British India, Daughters of the Empire is strewn with narratives of the roles played by the wives, mothers and daughters of the officers of the East India Company. The "company wives" who, in their own inimitable ways, endured the rush and tumble, the splendour and the demise of the Empire, become virtually integral to the play of imperialism.

Iris belonged to an influential family—the proverbial Joneses—who took great pride in their superiority and racial "purity". As she recollects her mother’s old age ramblings, she realises that Indians do not merit any mention except for those who are Maharajahs or cooks. Iris, unfortunately, had a disability and was thus excluded from many family pictures and gatherings. Yet she had to grow under the shadow of a strict disapproval of intermixing with the natives, which was one of the drawbacks of living in the Orient. Cultural encounters between the white and the non-white races were to be avoided at any cost. Sent off at the age of six, like most white children, to a distant boarding school in Britain to prevent miscegenation in India, Iris later got married to a tea planter and returned to the sub-continent. Of her time in the finishing school she last attended in England, Iris writes: "We learnt how to write cheques and use make-up. Most of all we learnt of our role in the world, to be submissive, elegant, feminine, a credit to our sex, and attractive to the right kind of man." Her dreams of going to Oxford on scholarship evaporated when she was called to India to find a suitable husband. Anything was preferable to one of the Joneses daughters becoming a blue stocking.

Daughters of the Empire traces the anxieties of the Company wives who "were confronted daily with the fear of the diseases and mysterious, half-articulated moral dangers of the ‘tropics’ that they were somehow to keep at bay from within the fragile shelter of their bungalows and first-class railway carriages." While it seems almost ridiculous to juxtapose fright with the feeling of superiority, there is no doubt that the white races were alarmed by the simmering hostility of the blacks. Women, especially, saw their role as "helpmates rather than independent agents", as a buffer to their beleaguered men who strove to replace their vulnerability with dignity and respect.

Iris sees herself and other wives more like interlopers who play parts in male heroism, in a masculine history of colonialism and empire-formation, where they are under scrutiny at every moment, assessed for their performance and admonished and judged for their misconduct or indifference to the "Regimental Spirit". In many ways, then, the British woman was not very different from her Indian counterpart who had become the subject of endless debate during the colonial and nationalist times. Macfarlane does not directly contest male-centred ways of knowing even as she calls into question the gendered hierarchy of British-Indian society and culture. But she does indicate the muted voice of the memsahib who was supposed to deny her right of self-determination in service to the Raj.

From Iris’s account, we begin to understand the pain of isolation from one’s own children who were despatched to distant schools, the difficulty of maintaining the convention of sustaining expatriate households and the unhappiness of a superficial living in India, where a respectable distance from the Indians had to be maintained. There is an entire genre of colonial women’s writing of which this book forms a part. Although her accounts purportedly move from the general to the particular, one does not mercifully see any orientalist tones in descriptions of "silk robes, shawls, turbans, jewels, velvet and brocade." A class apart from the analyses of colonial novel and Raj films, Iris Macfarlane’s narrative is a virtual social history of English life in India.