Pran Nevile
Pran Nevile

Sahib's India comes alive in Pran Nevile's book

By Nandakumar Varma/United News of India

New Delhi, April 4, 2011

All those despairing about corruption as exemplified by the various scams being unearthed need not think that it is a recent development as it flourished even as early as the 18th century when the British were trying to gain a foothold in the country.

Author Pran Nevile, in his book, "Sahib's India, Vignettes from the Raj", says a number of early English settlers were "desperate adventurers, bent on amassing fortunes through any means, fair or foul".

So much so that Calcutta was described by none other than Robert Clive, who laid the foundation of the British Empire in India, as "one of the most wicked places in the universe".

Nevile says in the book that after the battle of Plassey, presents worth 1.24 million pounds were distributed to various Englishmen. Clive himself received the equivalent of 234,000 pounds. In 1763, following the defeat of Mir Kasim, the total amount paid to the English "in restitution" amounted to about four million pounds but it was reported that the company received only half a million.

The book takes a close look at the lifestyle of the "Sahibs", the people from various walks of life who came to India lured by tales of fame and fortune. While the early arrivals soon adopted a native lifestyle, much like the Nabobs with their riches and harems, the coming of the "fishing fleets", unmarried women hoping to find a match in India, changed the equations, especially after the 1857 mutiny.

This is by no means a dull and drab recounting of history. At the very outset, the author confesses, "I have no great stories to tell, nor can relate anything which others could not narrate as well. I am only a fact-finding author and can brag of nothing except my good intentions. My object has been to blend light reading for entertainment with historical information."

He seems to have succeeded admirably well. Starting with a chapter on Household Retinue, the virtual army of servants literally waiting upon them hand and foot, right from the time when the Sahib or Mem Sahib woke up till the time they retired for the night. Scores of servants ensured that their masters never had to lift a finger to put on their clothes, much less tie their shoe laces.

This is not a book in which events are arranged in chronologicalorder or covers the entire gamut of British rule. However, the reader is able to meet several interesting personages, many of them women.

For instance, there is an entire chapter devoted to "Sketches of life" by English women artists, the most famous among them being Fanny Parks, Emily Eden, S C Belnos and Marianne Postans. All of them had, during the early 19th century, travelled around much of the country and painted pictures of scenery, daily life, temples, festivals and the like. The reader is taken on a roller coaster ride through "sex and the sahib", "memsahibs and the Indian marriage bazar" to "Nautch parties", "Imperial pageantry-the Great Delhi Durbars", "Thugs and robbers" to conclude with "Splendid Sahibs", pen portraits of some of the most popular among them.

Nevile had conducted research for the book in several libraries and museums in Europe and the United States of America, most of it in the British Library, London and the US Library of Congress, Washington. The book also has illustrations including 19th century paintings by William Taylor, G F Atkinson, James Mofat and others.

Quite often, new arrivals from England were bewildered by the profusion of servants waiting upon them. Emily Eden, one such visitor, wrote: "An astonishingly agreeable khidmatgar and four others glide behind me whenever I move from one room to another; besides these, there are two bearers with a sedan at the bottom of the stairs, in case I am too idle to walk...There is a sentry at my dress room, who presents arms when I go to fetch my pocket handkerchief or find my keys."

Lord Lytton, the Viceroy, had 300 indoor servants, who appeared in magnificent uniforms with glittering buttons and badges "Once there was an embarrassing slip-up when Lord Lytton embraced his head jemadar, resplendent in gold and lace, mistaking him for a visiting raja," Nevile says in the book.

Initially, the Sahibs were happy to have Indian Bibis and live like Nabobs. "However, towards the beginning of the 19th century, British women started arriving in India in increasing numbers. They saw bibis as a threat to their position and succeeded in persuading the men to distance themselves from the native connection. By the middle of the century, liaisons with native women were frowned upon and concubinage was morally outlawed. After the 1857 mutiny, the practice virtually died out."

The arrival of the "fishing fleet" of young women from England looking to get married to rich fellow countrymen also was cause of much mirth. An extract from the "Lays of Ind" by Aliph Cheem goes thus, "I do believe in dress and ease, and fashionable dash, I do believe in bright rupees, and truly worship cash. But I do believe that marrying, an acting man is fudge, and so do not fancy anything below a pucca judge."

The Sahib's initial fascination for the Hookah, the "Nautch girls" are also recorded. Among other interesting chapters are "beating the heat," "encounters with snakes," "Shikar" and pig sticking and thugs and robbers.

In the last chapter, "Splendid Sahibs", Nevile presents people like Job Charnock, the East India Company's agent in Bengal in the 17th century, who founded Calcutta. General Sir David Ochterlony "loony Akhtar", who lived like an Indian prince and "looked upon India with due respect" was popular with Europeans as well as Indians.

Yet another interesting personality was Colonel James Skinner "Sikander Sahib". This celebrated military adventurer founded the famous Skinners Horse Cavalry Regiment.

Published by Penguin Books India, the 241-page paperback edition is priced at Rs 299.