Plain Tales
from the Raj

Charles Allen, Editor
(Holt, Rinehart)
There is something naughtily attractive about Colonialism, isn't there? Now that it's all gone, and the economic vulgarity is done for, the prissiness, the arrogance, the We're Superior.

Now that that nonsense is over and done with, we can begin to look back on it with a certain air of tolerance --- even sentimentality, be done scorning it, no? The English lording over the blacks and browns, holding high tea, eating bad English food, sneering at the "natives" and never allowing their children to go into the "Bazaar." There's something so wastefully glorious about it, something so distinct, perhaps even romantic.

There was also the truth of it --- for it could be hot and ugly and dangerous Out There.
    There were no old people among the British in India. Of the ten young officers who went out with H. T. Wickham in 1904 to join the lndian Police, two died within five months and another six within the decade. Twenty years later, lndia was still taking its toll on the misfit and the unfit...

There were compensations, however, for the men and, too, sometimes, for the women:

    If you were dressing and you suddenly found you'd torn your frock all you did was throw it out the window and say to the derzi "maramut katro!" and you wouldn't see it again until it was complete ... But he was not perfect: if you gave him an old thing that you'd worn before, he'd reproduce it exactIy and if by chance you'd patched it you had to be very careful or the derzi would copy the whole thing, including the patch.

Plain Tales from the Raj is a magnificent, tasteful, beautiful, genteel book --- with the many photographs reproduced with care and love. One can smell the flowers and the trees and the heat and the stink of the animals, the sweat of the polo fields, the white and washed care of the English colonials.

They never integrated with the country they lived in: it wasn't expected, it wasn't wanted, it was wrong. High tea with the Indian ladies was a pro forma occasion, rare, difficult, exactly as described in A Passage to India.

The English women, arriving for the first time, were frightened and intimidated until they could disappear into the safety of their transposed culture:

    It was a shock to be met after a calm and lengthy voyage by the mass of humanity, the shouting and the jabbering, the smells and the noise, the poverty and the squalor, the cries of "Bunby, Bunby." Mary Carroll, returning to the land of her children, thought it "perfectly normal" to find a human bone dropped by a vulture on her doorstep in Bombay. But others were frightened ... and lonely.

The English were doing their duty, bringing their culture to what they thought was an infidel, savage race. The journey out and the return was dangerous: not from mutiny, nor storms, but from lack of care. The British troops (as opposed to the officers) were introduced to a new kind of warfare:

    When you see a thousand men in the throes of the most appalling sea-sickness and realize what it entails, then you have some idea of how awful it was ... No one came round to see if the men were really ill or just sea-sick. No one came to see that the latrines were working --- and they weren't, so that the overflow from the latrines was swishing all over the middle deck ... It looked like the carnage of a battlefield...

The civilians who had made the journey to India before knew how to do it. You travelled on the P & O that went from Tilbury or Southampton to Bombay. You always travelled POSH ("Port Out/ Starboard Home.") Thus you avoided the worst of the sun. Young girls went out from England near Christmas time, to stay with relations or friends. Their group was known as "The Fishing Fleet."

    The Fishing Fleet was by long-established custom made up of the highly eligible, beautiful daughters of weaIthy people living in India. This was the only way in which they could come out under the protection of their parents, to meet eligible young men and marry. Those who failed returned to England in the spring and were known as the "Returned Empties."

Men were men but, after all, England was Victorian, and the military were expected to live in India as chaste and proper representatives of the Queen. Restrictions on their base desires were courtesy of "the ghost of Lady Roberts and various churchmen." There were red light districts in some downtown Indian cities, but assignations were highly secret.

    The [districts] in the larger cities --- in Bombay it was known as "the Cages," in Poona it was called "the Nadge" --- were strictly out of bounds. If any white soldier was seen in the area, whistles were blown by the police, all traffic came to a standstill and the soldier would, of course, be caught .. .Any man who availed himself of the "tree rats" or "grass bidis" was properly dealt with. He was given a severe ticking off, had his pay stopped and was sent to Number 13 Block, which was the dreaded treatment center. Many turned, as a last resort, to the "five-fingered widow..."

Indians have managed to survive in India for 5,000 or so centuries, but for the outsiders --- the English soldiers, their wives, the officers, and the civil service -- there were special privileges, but, then again, special unpleasantnesses:

    The rains brought out snakes, cockroaches, mosquitos, and a multitude of insects. In Bengal there was a month when you had nothing but large repulsive greenfly over everything. They went just as suddenly as they came, and then you had a small black beetle, commonly known as the stink bug. It was everywhere and was quite innocuous unless you squashed it and then it deserved its name. That again suddenly vanished, and then you had the small, white jute-moth which --- again --- was quite innocuous unless you knocked it and then you got a weal of eczema down your hand.

Why --- with all this --- did they even bother to go?

The pay was one thing. The glory, the glamour --- at least until one got there. The adventure, the concept of service. But most of all, for the children, it was a land of adventure, of high good time, of multitudes of servants for play, for the pony, for caretaking, and language. This is Lewis Le Marchand, describing his ayah (native nurse):

    She was very fat and Madrassi and very, very oily about the hair. Her toes were quite enormous and cracked Iike dry wickets that had had the sun on them for a few days.

The ayah was the door through which contact with India was made, at least for the child. They would say their rhymes together:

    Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I've come out from under the Ranee's chair.


    Humpti-tumpti gir giya phat.


    Mafti-mai... Muffety mother was eating her curds and whey on the grass.

The English, bless them, fomented the whole thing --- and then lost it. But they can, will, and do have a way of recapturing such a past with the ultimate elegance, and charm.

Profusely illustrated; whimsical; wry. Plain Tales from the Raj is a fine book.

--- K. S. Darsie

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