Wandering Through 19th Century India

I got this book when I was planning to go for my vacation in end of March, but between other books and a suddenly hectic social life, I finally finished the book last week! I have been very very curious about this book and the timing appropriate as I was reading of events and history that would instigate the 1857 Mutiny in India, the historic event, which formed the backdrop of Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye, which I almost inevitably read during May – the month when the mutiny began! Emily Eden also fitted in beautifully with my Women’s Classical Literature Reading Event.

Up the Country is a series of letters and journals that Emily Eden wrote to her sister between 1837-1839 when, her brother Lord Auckland traveled from Calcutta, the then capital of British India to Shimla, the summer capital of British India and back. To give the readers a bit of a background, the Eden’s were a prominent aristocratic family of England and Lord Auckland her brother, was Baron Eden, of Norwood in the County of Surrey, and Earl of Auckland. He served as the Governor General of India between 1836-1842 and during this tenure, his sister Emily and Fanny accompanied him to India and served as the hostess for the Governor General. During his tenure, Lord Auckland made a land trip between Calcutta and Shimla and back to Calcutta, a combined distance of  approx. 4200 kilometers, with all the camp paraphernalia of elephants, camels, and camp followers, which took him 2 years in an era, before the introduction of railways in India. Emily Eden captures all the joy, irony and tragedy of traveling continuously for 2 years and living in the camp, with all the regal majesty that befits the representative of the King of England in India.We attend grand balls and picnics near the waterfall and can quite understand Ms. Eden’s lack of enthusiasm in acting as a hostess to the never ending series of dinner and balls that the Lord Aucland has to host or has to attend in every station/township they stop at during their travels. We read about The Pickwick Papers as they were published and as soon as Ms. Eden and her sister could lay their hands on them all the way in India. We walk through Bazaars as they pick up shawls and beautiful enameled boxes for spices. We also attend in parallel the colorful nautch girl performances put by the local rulers for Lord Auckland and walk through some of the majestic gifts especially in jewels that are presented to the British Government by them. There is trouble with the native  servants who are cantankerous, but never ever err in the their steadfast loyalty to the “Laat Sahib” and his sister! Their is the weather to contend with as well, harsh never ceasing hot burning plains of north India to the perfect coolness of the hills, to the camps awashed with the thundering monsoon rains! Emily Eden brings to life the ADCs, the Magistrates and all the great leaders of the Indian administrative service with anecdotes and dry ironic observations.We meet the great Ranjeet Singh and Shah Shuja in the most common and intimate manner and get to know about their pets and peeves as if they were next door neighbors and not the greats of history! There are lovely descriptions of the Governor General’s house in Shimla, before the modern day commercialization as well as some haunting descriptions of Qutub and its surrounding ruins!

History is testimony to the fact that Lord Auckland was one of worst administrators of the British India empire and his policies had far reaching effects and came back to haunt his subsequent successors, especially Lord Canning who was the Viceroy during the horrific mutiny. However Emily Eden’s account of the Governor General travels is filled with insight, laughter at absurdities of both her own country men as well as Indians and a very honest take on what is the expected duty of British to India. She has no patience with the women of a particular cantonment, who refuse to attend a dance because she invited some of Anglo-Indian (of mixed parentage) soldiers and the wives. There is much humor and irony at the expense of all including her illustrious brother and merriment at way some things turned out! Politics of course cannot be divorced from such a narrative and the reader gets some very interesting insights into the India-British interactions to understand why things went wrong! For instance, it is evident through out the journals, that both rulers of Punjab and Oudh (two of the largest principalities of India) sough British approval and partnership to govern their respective provinces and despite going out of their way to solicit, soothe and align the British dictates, in less than 6 years time, would see their territories arbitrarily annexed and they themselves being sent into exile. We also see that Lord Auckland despite his good intentions, had little or no understanding of the East and it comes through practically every page of Ms. Eden’s journal that they thought that their residence in India as some kind of penance and exile; while one can understand that for Ms. Eden, it cannot be excused in a man who was accepted the responsibility of the fate of 1 billion people.No wonder the Anglo-Afghan wars during his tenure were disastrous and wonderful cities that his sister’s captures in her journals would be completely annihilated in the aftermath of the mutiny! However, Ms. Eden’s narrative is a wonderful read and if at times, she comes across as intolerant, it is wise to remember that most men and women of England held far more racist views and she at least believed in fair treatment of Indians and equal justice for all, regardless of the skin color. Most importantly, this book is a wonderful and colorful description of a road trip, before automobiles and railways made road trips a breeze and one of the first and most authentic travelogues before travel books became a vogue! A must read for all India aficionados!


4 thoughts on “Wandering Through 19th Century India

    1. It is very interesting….a very interesting perspective of rational and irrational and the pomp and show of the whole procession is SOMETHING!

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