Peep into vibrant British era
Reviewed by Amarinder Sandhu

Sahibís India
By Pran Neville.
Penguin Books.
Pages 241. Rs 299. 

COLONIAL India and the lives of the British pioneers here have intrigued many. A vacuum existed in information regarding the socio-cultural life of companyís employees, and Sahibís India has filled that void. This book is an intricate tapestry woven with the stories of a group of traders who went on to rule the land of the "boiling sun and scorching winds".

During the Company Raj, a process of assimilation took place and the British civilians and soldiers adopted the lifestyle of their host country. The mid-18th century saw the Company officials lead lives befitting the aristocracy. Their households boasted of a team of servants like the durwan, footmen, hookahburdar, khansamah, syce, etc. The English memsahibs too had their fleet of domestic helps. The ayah for the missy babas was an indispensable part of the household retinue.

In a foreign land the nabobs gave in to their physical urges and acquired Indian bibis or "sleeping dictionaries". Having a large zenana signified a high social status. With the opening of the Suez Canal, British India became a market for husband hunters. The English ships were called the "fishing fleets" as they brought beauties in search of grooms among the Company officials.

The chapter, Memsahibs and the Indian Marriage Bazaar, proves to be an excellent read. The arrival of British women on the scene led to the abandonment of Indian bibis. The British interest in exotic India witnessed a growth in the sketches drawn by Englishwomen artists. The sketches capture the details of Indian life. The early British settlers adopted the favourite Indian pastime of smoking the hookah and the hookahburdar was an integral part of the household. The hookah soon became redundant with the use of the cigar. Smoking and drinking were considered rational amusements among the British. Initially, arrack was popular among the sailors and the soldiers, which was replaced by wine. Soon the drinking scene was dominated by the Celtic whisky.

The reader is introduced to the pleasures of palanquin rides and the excellent system of the dawk palkee which made travelling easy. The writer also provides a detailed account of the Great Delhi Durbars that were organised to glorify the British Crown.

Simla was the pride of place for the British. It offered escape from the heat and dust of the plains. It was known for carnivals and parties. It also served as a place for casual flirtations and sexcapades. Nautch parties and shikar helped to break the mundane existence. Exhibition of gruesome animal fights proved a means of good entertainment for the British. The sahibs were fascinated by the astrologers, sanyasis, sadhus and yogis. The rope trick of magicians and the swallowing of the sword blades by jugglers have found their way into the journals of many writers. The power of levitation kept many spectators spellbound.

Neville has made use of poems, plays and journals to provide the reader with a glimpse into British India. Apart from presenting little-known facts about the sahibsí lives, the book also mentions the dreaded cult of thugee, which was stamped out by William Bentick. A brief sketch of the sahibs like Loony Akhtar and Jehaz Sahib pays a tribute to these Empire builders. Sahibís India is an excellent account of a bygone era. It is a delicate but still significant examination of the vibrant British era.