The Home & The World Read Along – Indian History Part II

Continuing from my last post, as part of my August Read Along Event – The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore, I come to part 2 of my snapshot of Indian History, in an effort to better understand the socio-economic backdrop of the novel and therefore better understand the nuances of this classic.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama successfully discovered a direct sea route from Europe to India, which eliminated the need for Arab brokers and put Europe in direct touch with India. The Dutch and the French soon followed, but the most impact full of all these merchant ventures had a nascent beginning in 1617, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, impressed, by the ability of a European physician to cure his ailing son, granted a charter for trade to the physician’s company; the Company was called The British East India Company and this was the start of something which Jahangir could have little forseen! Soon, little by little, the British began to expand their commercial empire and the venture recieved a significant impetus, when the then Mughal Emperor  Farrukh Siyar granted them permits for duty-free trade in Bengal in 1717. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Dula, the de-facto Governor, naturally opposed these permits and this brought him in direct conflict with the British powers. However, he had not counted on the greed and treachery of many, including Mir Jafar, his commander in chief and Jagath Seth, his chief banker, who plotted with the British for overthrow of the Nawab in exchange of additional trading rights. If there had been any other company clerk at that time, perhaps this initiative would not have worked or fallen through; but Mir Jafar and Jagath Seth connived with one of the most brilliant and daring Britisher of that time – a little known ensign who would become the Governor of the Presidency of Bengal, Robert Clive. On on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive and the British Company Army under the command of Clive, defeated the Sirj-ud Dula and established the first foothold in India.

Following the colonization of Bengal, the British East India company adopted a series of expansionist policies, which began with open war and later incorporated any and every arbitrary policy from mis-rule as defined by the British to the hated Doctrine of Lapse to increase their colony.The first series of conquests happened in South of India, where the East India company defeated the French to conquer the Madras Presidency. They further consolidated their rule after the Anglo Maratha Wars ((1772–1818) which gave them supremacy over Bombay and conquered and annexed Punjab and Kashmir, following their decisive victory in the Anglo Sikh Wars in 1849. The British Colonial policy gained more territory, when they adopted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse, devised by Lord Dalhousie (1848 -1856). Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter  clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family.In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. They also initiated the  Divide and Rule policy, exploiting the age old religious rivaliries to further their aims, the results of which would be felt more than 100+ years later, when India gained her independence by losing much of its territory to the formation of the state of Pakistan.

The British East India Company not only bought English rule, but also English governance with them.  They introduced a land taxation system called the Permanent Settlement which introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with zamindars set in place, who lorded over the poor peasants for ungodly taxes. They also tried to “modernize” India by introducing the railways, the telegraph and the English education system. The latter especially would have far reaching results, as suddenly India, gripped in the miasma of medieval barbaric traditions was exposed to the works of Kant and Rousseau and Mill and re-discovered their Vedic roots. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance. This movement argued  by many historians began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore(1861–1941). This was social, cultural and intellectual movement that would force India into the modern nation states, and change the way Indians thought! The movement began by the questioning the then prevailing social evils in India – it argued for the ban of Sati (immolation of Hindu women on the cremation pyre of their husbands), fought against child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows,  both an anathema to then Indian Society.The movement received support of some of the more enlightened Governor Generals, with Sati being outlawed under Lord William Bentinck in 1829 and the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act being passed in 1856, legalizing marriage of widows. It was also under Lord Bentinck, under the misguided advise of Lord Macaulay, who believed that the Orient had nothing to educate its people, introduced many “modern” schools and universities in the country. The Hare School (1818), Scottish Church College (1830), Wilson College (1832), Madras Christian College (1837), and Elphinstone College (1856) and the founding of the first English style universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).

While the social reform from the current point of view seems a movement in the right directions, the middle 19th century India, did not seem to think so. Most of the common men, thought that a group of educated Indian elites were seeking to breakdown the Indian culture and tradition and most importantly their religion to gain complete control over the country. While the end was not completely inaccurate, and there were enough missionaries trying to convert “heathen” Indians, the education and the railways, were only to serve the British commercial needs. The changing rules in the British Indian Army, a much coveted post for Indians, also added to the growing disquiet. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.The grease used on these cartridges include tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. Such practices, along with social reforms that seemed to break down the Indian society  along with unlawful conquest of Jhansi, Saugar and Oudh, states which had stayed loyal to the East India company, under the uniformly abhorred Doctrine of Lapse , finally led to the eruption of the First War of Independence or The Rebellion of 1857, depending on the perspective of the historian narrating the event. The rebellion began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army on 10 May 1857, in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the Northern and Central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, the then state of Oudh, northern Madhya Pradesh, especially around Jhansi, Indore and Saugar and the Delhi region. The Rebellion was a horrific event in Indian history and atrocities that belie imagination was committed by both races. The only two factors that came through this event was the British Crown took over the rule of India, ending the unique monopoly of a company and Indian National Congress was founded under the patronage of a British man names A.O. Hume, who thought this would provide a forum for the Indians to present their cause and therefore prevent any such events like the 1857 mutiny.

The Indian National Congress at this time comprised mostly of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated provincial elites, engaged in professions such as law, teaching and journalism, with no clear aims except to act as a debating society that passed numerous resolutions on less controversial issues such as civil rights or opportunities in government which were submitted to the Viceroy’s government with nothing much to write home about. However by 1900, the the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organisation, especially with the enhanced socio-religious movements. The nationalistic sentiments now coloring the beliefs of  Congress  led to them demanding to be represented in the bodies of government, to have a say in the legislation and administration of India. Congressmen saw themselves as loyalists, but wanted an active role in governing their own country, albeit as part of the Empire. This trend was personified by Dadabhai Naoroji, who went as far as contesting, successfully, an election to the British House of Commons, becoming its first Indian member. It was under this atmosphere that the Nationalist or the Swaraj movement gripped the country. Bal Gangadhar Tilak  was the Indian statesman who pioneered this movement and  deeply opposed the then British education system that ignored and defamed India’s culture, history and values. In 1907,  the Congress was split into two factions: The radicals, led by Tilak, advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the abandonment of all things British. The moderates, led by leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who wanted reform within the framework of British rule. In July 1905, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899–1905), ordered the partition of the province of Bengal supposedly for improvements in administrative efficiency in the huge and populous region.It also had justifications due to increasing conflicts between Muslims and dominant Hindu regimes in Bengal. However, the Indians viewed the partition as an attempt by the British to disrupt the growing national movement in Bengal and divide the Hindus and Muslims of the region. The partition outraged the now educated and well informed Indians, especially the Bengalis. Not only had the government failed to consult Indian public opinion, but the action appeared to reflect the continued British resolve to divide and rule. This act kicked off what would be The Swadeshi Movement and which formed the background of our novel.

I will conclude this historic overview in my last installment with an insight on the Swadeshi Movement and the end of the British Rule in India.

Again while I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings of Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

Celebrating Freedom – The Home and The World Read Along

In the year of 1916, exactly 100 years ago, 3 years since he became the first Non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most prolific artistic geniuses to come from India, published his extremely controversial and then much contested “The Home and The World“. It was a book that broke the mold and brought out women from the “anter mahal” (the inner chambers where women led secluded lives in 18th-19th century Bengal, albeit with consequences) and put a spin on on the Indian National Movement by defining and defying at the same time what a true patriot is/was. This novel has been since subjected to countless reviews, researches and critiques and has been subject of several dramas and filming, the most popular version being the one directed by Satyajit Ray, another first, the first Indian to win an Oscar!

On Aug 15th. 2016, India celebrates her 69th year of “Independence”; exactly 69 years ago, India regained her independence from the British rule after more than 200 years of colonization and exploitation. This act of regaining independence was the final culmination of the Indian National Movement, which began after the disastrous failure of the  ill-fated attempt of 1857 Mutiny and would ultimately inspire many world leaders in their efforts gain freedom and equality, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Interestingly 2016, nearly a 100 years after Tagore brought the traditional bengali woman to the man’s world in a startling attempt to emancipate women atleast in literature, the first batch women fighter pilots of Indian Air force, take to the sky, in a revolutionary departure from the historically masculine dominated world of military and warfare!

With such changes and events, colliding, it made sense to host a reading event that celebrated the long way India and her women had come along and “The Home and The World” seemed an apt book to do it with. Therefore with all humility and some pride I present “The Home and The World Read Along” for the month of August! It’s short novella, and does not require much time, but stitched together in those 120 odd pages is a story that speaks both of unique historical moment of time and of relationships that are timeless and abound through the ages!

Batch

I already have the honor of having Stefanie and Cleo join me for the event. Ruth also committed to check in and try and fit in with her schedule, and I am hoping many of you will join as well.( Please feel free to share the button above to share the love!) Like I promised Stefanie, I plan to provide an overview of the socio-political events that formed the background of this novel as well a summary of the position of women in India through centuries to help you better understand the book and provide you crucial clutches to navigate the specifics of the novel!

So come on and join us as we travel through time to the coming of age of an old country and her people!

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!

In the Twilight of British Raj…

Two books both set in Colonia India; both set in early 20th century, in era of World Wars and Mahatma, told in the back drop of Himalayas and both written by women in 2000s!!

The first book is my long overdue review of “The Kashmir Shawl” by Rosie Thomas. To begin with grammatically, the name is incorrect – like the French Perfume is called the French Perfume and not the France Perfume, it should be “The Kashmiri Shawl”. That in itself put me against the novel, since the very name displayed a very superficial understanding of the land and not a lot of in-depth research. Anyway I soldiered on and I cannot say the story was all bad. After the death of her father, Mair Ellis discovers a shawl belonging to her grandmother. Exquisite in the riot of bright colors and hand-woven embroidery, Mair realizes the shawl is completely out of sync with her missionary grandparents’ lives and characters and sets off to India to discover the story behind the shawl. It is 1941 and Neyrs Watkins is a newlywed bride when her husband is assigned a remote missionary posting in Ladak. In order to recover from a miscarriage, ill-health and address some of the issues that is creating a distance between herself and her husband, Nerys moves to Kashmir in the company of her friends Myrtle and Evan McMinn. In Kashmir, she discovers the true life of British Raj – Shikara’s of flowers, houseboats on Dal lake, the social events at the Regency and new friendships which would change her life and course of  Mair’s life as well. The description of Kashmir is beautiful and from the back cover I gleaned that the author has spent several months in Ladhak and Kashmir which would account for the some lovely word portraits of the land. The friendship between Neyrs Watkins and Myrtle McMinn is warm, humane and alive only in the way women who have close girlfriends would understand. Kashmir in British Raj comes alive with all its gaiety and social hierarchies and hypocrisies even at the height of World War II which is as genuine a description as it gets! But despite all these redeeming factors, the story is bordering of improbabilities and fantasy. There are Swiss citizens walking about Kashmir during World War II and that in itself is a questionable fact. While Switzerland was not officially at war, all citizens who did not belong to the Allied Nations were treated as Alien Citizens with limited movements, especially in the border regions, like Kashmir. Then there is a “magical” disappearance of an Indian child and her “adopted” mother and how she was brought up in Switzerland! I do not think there were too many Indian children growing up in 1940s in Switzerland. All lot of this seems like taking the tale too far and while there is something to be said about poetic license and liberty, it leaves the reader feeling slightly incongruent with the plot line. This especially becomes highlighted as there the very epitome of stereotypes – the evil Indian Prince – Yawn! Indian Princes are soooooo evil and the only good Indians are the menials and underlings! And of course, the very old and boring reason for being unfaithful – your husband swings the other way! I mean why? Why cannot we come up with a more plausible reason for an illicit affair between a British Memsahib and an Indian Prince? I mean she could have just fallen in love or does the author still lie in the morasses of colonial mindset where the Memsahib cannot sink “so low” unless there is a very good reason for it! Otherwise it’s all very “Chi! Chi!. All in all, not a bad yarn but not a good one either ….your literary endeavors will not be incomplete if you give this one a pass!

The second book with similar heritage is “Ragtime in Shimla” by Barbara Cleverly. Set in 1922 Shimla, the Summer Capital of British Raj, the book follows Commander Joe Sandilands who is heading to the hill station in the company of a famous Russian Opera Singer, when he is shot dead. Why would anyone kill a Russian Opera singer in a part of the world, where he had apparently no past acquaintances? Joe Sandilands begins to discover all is not what it seems and just as he seems to have unraveled  a knot, a new one appears! From Shimla to South of France, Joe finds surprising connection between a brutal train accident and the death of not only a famous opera singer, but also a lost heir and a political plot! Now for the review, British Shimla is live and throbbing through the pages of the book – there is the famous Christ Church, the Cecil Hotel and The Mall. There are Residency balls and fashionable shops and rickshaws!  And then there are the majestic Himalayan Mountains – borrowing heavily and acknowledging the sourcing of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the author describes the land beautifully with its conifers and pines and lovely houses, which, for all their beauty seemed a higgly piggly motley crew, much to the disgust of Lord Lytton, the architect of New Delhi. The tale in itself is a very good whodunit. Just when you figure out, oh! I knew that all along, a new twist comes along and you are thrown off the rock again. The characters though not really written as multilayered or with depth in some cases, are nevertheless believable – they are neither very good nor very bad, mixture of all that is humane – wanting success, wanting better lives, angry of past actions/injuries, believing in the joy of future.  Very real and very endearing, and even the morally wrong ones are fun. Thank fully there are no justifications for the whys of a fallen woman and no need to expatiate her past of make her sound like a victim, a la “The Kashmir Shawl” style – they are what they and no apologies. There is the clichéd Indian Prince Villain – charming, seductive and crooked! Yawn!! At least, there is not too much time spent on him. Like in the naming of “The Kashmir Shawl”, a minor flaw revels the lack of complete of understanding of the India on the author’s part – the Indian Prince is a Pathan and a Muslim; son of King of a princely state on the North West Frontier Border – the author calls the Prince’s father the “Rajah” which is Hindu epithet and not used by Pathan rulers of the North West Frontier Border – they rather used terms like Shah or Amir.  However the overall book is very good read, for the mystery alone, if not the era. Again your literary endeavors will not be enriched by this book, but some time one reads for fun and this book us great fun!