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Diaries and Letters from India, 1895-1900.


Violet Jacob. Canongate. Edinburgh. 1990. 213pp. 16.95[pounds].

After a century of animadversion, blamed by the Kipling tradition for wrecking race relations and promoting a stuffy society in India (but who, after all created the Anglo-Indian problem. ..) the memsahibs are biting back with their pens.

A clutch of delightful and lighthearted books have now provided a feminine angle no longer monopolised by missionaries and Mrs. Hawksbee. As an aperitif there is the unlikely French Memsahib, Taya Zinkin, journalist and doctor manque. One of the frustrations for memsahibs is the barrier put up between them and any kind of career. Taya begins provocatively that she had always thought India was French--after all: Dakar, Pondicherry, Mahe etc. She obviously thinks France would have done a better job. But married to a |Son of heaven' (the Indian Civil Service), she did appreciate their brilliance and astonishing lack of racism--for men that is. Taya worked through the full horror of racism in the partition massacres, scraping through some nasty accidents. But one of the more touching episodes was her friendship with Indira Gandhi, then a shy and frail young wife, unlike the dazzling hostess and forceful Prime Minister known to the world.

Memsahib malgre lui, Taya probably would not have appreciated the French botanist Victor Jacquemont who wrote in 1831: |One has to have travelled in the Punjab to realise what an immense benefit the domination of the English in India is to humanity. What misery 80 million people are spared by it!' Taya remains convinced--they do these things better in France, especially language and education. Nothing could be less French than Under the Old School Topee. There was no vision of civilization in the evolution of Hill Station Schools for Europeans. The empirical British, finding the Hills healthy for invalids and ergo for children, saved money and heartbreak by establishing schools. There was one Frenchman of vision, Claude Martin who founded the Martiniere colleges and bequeathed much of his fortune to Anglo-Indian education when he died in 1800. For those many English brought up on awful stories of separation, (like Kipling's |Ba Ba Black Sheep'), it is a surprise to learn that over 100 Hill Station schools had been set up since 1820 where Europeans could have a minor public school education. These were mostly open to other races though few Indians or Eurasians chose to pay for an education that showed no professional or social value.

The first half of this book provides an excellent summary of European education in India, including the many church and mission schools, with, alas, all their quarrels. Indeed, Sir Andrew Fraser writing in the Contemporary Review (April 1911) condemns French, German and Belgian brotherhood schools as incapable of teaching the proper traditions of Anglo-Saxon India. (Protestant of course.)

Hazel Innes Craig, herself educated at Mt. Hermon, Darjeeling, with a twin brother close by, fills the second half of her book with first-hand anecdotes and nostalgic team photographs straight from Angela Brazil, including the perennial schoolgirl complaints about grub with unmentionable names. Any one of Hazel's classmates might have contributed to Curries and Bugles, for they all knew what a good curry should be. This is an attractive coffee table book, with over 200 recipes, interspersed with snippets about Indian cuisine and anecdotes to delight the browser. Lady Curzon's account of an official breakfast in Hyderabad is enough to arouse admiration for her alimentary courage: |We began with Muligatawny soup, with fourteen courses to follow, ending with ice cream. The Nizam ate it all'.

Violet Jacob's Diaries and Letters, 1895 to 1900 present a rather more austere picture of a detached mem, deeply engrossed in writing, painting, even illness and insects, and earning the respect of such literary men as John Buchan and Housman. Her years covered a seemingly tranquil state in central India, almost a |still' of army life at the end of the century and era.

In contrast, Katharine Lethbridge presents a rumbustious and deeply committed life. Born in Simla in 1903 of the ubiquitous ICS most of her childhood was spent in England and America, but she returned to India in 1923 for a surfeit of social life punctuated by purdah parties and eating off gold plate, |and nasty it is, not to be envied'.

While a study of Urdu gave Katharine some appreciation of Indian culture -- old in Alexander's time -- marriage to a Sapper, Jack Lethbridge, and removal to Roorkee, headquarters of the Royal Engineers provided evidence of the practical value of the Raj. Here was the workshop of British India with everything from a civil engineering college to every kind of engineer, surveyor, plumber and even two elephants. On leave, Katharine and Jack mapped and sapped their way to Spiti and the wilder borders of Tibet, where you slept with your gun not under your pillow, but under your knees where there was a chance of grabbing it first. Like Kim, they met their Lama philosopher high up, 13,000 feet, in Dankhar, where they sat on a stone floor discussing Krishna and Christ. This was not quite like Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills, but Katharine nostalgically records it as part of that unique and forgotten life of British India, gone now for ever.
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Author:Mortimer, Molly
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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