Under my byline

Embarrassment of riches

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 7 January 2010

How the British negotiated “personal dilemmas and professional hazards” to govern India

Days of the Raj: Life and Leisure in British India
Pramod K Nayar
pp xiv + 310

“What happened when the Raj, metaphorically of course, let its hair down?” Trawling through miles of shelving in the India Office Records of the British Library while researching a handful of books on colonial topics, Pramod K Nayar found himself left with a great deal of material which didn’t fit any of his major projects but was intrinsically fascinating. Much of this, he says in the Preface to this book, was incidental to the actual running of the empire but nevertheless provided “compelling insights into the day-to-day lives of imperial-colonial men and women”.

That covers a vast range of “personal dilemmas and professional hazards” from travel arrangements to childcare, healthcare, kitchen management and recipes, domestic staff and their supervision, dressing correctly by rank and occasion, equipping and outfitting oneself for all purposes and climates, social encounters with Indians and other Europeans, the fascination with nautch girls and shikar, coping with boredom and homesickness, and so on.

Apart from how-to literature, Nayar also stumbled upon many pieces of colonial-era travel writing, published and unpublished. They had the same basic forms and preoccupations as modern travel prose, containing expressions of wonder, awe and agony, complaints and warnings, guides to various locations…

Altogether, an embarrassment of riches.

Riches, as listed above. Embarrassment, because how to organise this deluge of snippets? Pramod Nayar — a lecturer in English and cultural studies at the University of Hyderabad with a number of books on language, history and cultural theory under his belt — takes a remarkably hands-off approach. He provides a brief and non-theoretical introduction to each section (on travel, homes, leisure and “relations”), and then lets the extracts speak for themselves.

The extracts vary in length from two lines to several pages each, and come from a variety of sources, from letters, diaries and memoirs to scholarly journals, advice books and travelogues. Given the focus on the domestic, much of the material is by women, especially that from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the earliest source is Sir Thomas Roe, who wrote a tetchy account of his embassy to the Mughal court in the early 17th century.

It’s impossible to restrain the impulse to quote. Here is a conversation, dated 1864, between “A Lady Resident” and her Indian servant:

‘Boy, how are master’s socks so dirty?’
‘I take, make a strain coffee?’
‘What, you dirty wretch, for coffee?’
‘Yes, missis; but never take master’s clean sock. Master done use, Then I take.’

But this is not typical. A more representative example, by the same “Lady Resident”: five pages on the arrangements to be made for travelling on the steamer from England to India. The list is enormous, yet nothing on it is non-essential. Indeed, says its author at the outset, “I shall not apologize for entering into minute particulars, as trifles on a long voyage are often of greater consequence than they appear.” The material and quantity of one’s clothes, the size of one’s luggage, the nature of one’s toiletries (soap that lathers in salty water), the furniture for one’s cabin, and so on, down to health aids, fruits, snacks and board games, all find their rightful place on the list.

Much the same situation held in upstation postings in the Indian interior, where European families had to make do with what they could carry with them and what they could have sent out, with difficulty and expense, from England, at first, or from the big cities. (Yet the housewives all hankered after wall decorations and heavy tableware.)

There are a few surprises, from the later colonial era. Such as, how important gardening was — several pages on this, and several entries in the bibliography. The dearth of extracts on health — just three pages worth, though health advice does appear obliquely in other sections. (Was disease still too poorly understood in the 19th century?) The relative absence of the 1857 experience. (Editorial choice or simply irrelevance to the day-to-day matters at hand?)

So, while it is full of lively facts and vignettes, does this book work as a whole? Yes, because of the material; no, because of the way it is handled.

Possibly the best example of a book on the intimate experience of colonialism is Charles Allen‘s delightful Plain Tales from the Raj (1975), a collection of essays which uses similar source material, as well as oral history. Allen, as editor and essayist, had to engage closely with every piece of source text, which allowed him to turn a sampling into a real story. Nayar, letting his sources do all the talking, is unable to do that.

One troublesome consequence of Nayar’s hands-off approach is that, because they are organised thematically, extracts from widely varying eras rub shoulders. This is ahistorical and obscures a larger story of change over time. Some extracts also deserve a paragraph or two of context, which is denied them. Lastly, because the date is unwisely placed at the end of each extract, the reader is frequently forced to flip to the end of the passage before going back to the beginning.


I should confess that I have worked with Pramod Nayar before, doing a little production work on a book he wrote which was published by Sage, my previous employer. He was an unusually conscientious author and a warm correspondent.

I’ve reviewed or written about two other Charles Allen books: God’s Terrorists, on the colonial roots of the South Asian Wahhabi fundamentalists, and Kipling Sahib, a biography of Rudyard Kipling.


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