(Published in The Hindu Literary Review , dated 04/09/2011)
Pran Nevile's Sahib's India is a fascinating expedition into the social lives of British in colonial India. It provides insightful details about the way they led their daily lives and their social intercourse with the native people.
The book opens with an interesting chapter titled ‘Household Retinue', telling us how the number of servants in a British household decided the position of the family in the social hierarchy. Some families had as many as hundred servants and maidservants with strict division of work and defined chain of command. In short, the White sahibs spent a luxurious life, which was full of vanity, almost comparable with the lifestyles of the old days nabobs and maharajahs. In the following chapter, the book touches upon the topic of sexual lives of Sahibs in India.
Running away from English prudery, they had very open sexual lives in India, and many of them even indulged in debauchery here. Initially, white women were scarce making the European men opt for Indian girls. The ‘Indian bibi' was a term used for an unofficial wife and long-term consort of White men. ‘Sleeping Dictionary' was another interesting nomenclature for an Indian mistress; she was called so because a mistress doubled up as a teacher of local language and culture for her master. In army cantonments, official brothels (later abolished because of strong protest by Christian missionaries) were maintained to satisfy the physiological urges of soldiers.
Later in this book, two chapters have been dedicated to two European women, Fanny Parks and Lola Montez. Fanny, an Indophile, had travelled across the country during her stay in India from 1822 to 1846. She learnt Hindi and Persian and keenly observed the Indian customs, religions and culture. Her experience as an explorer of India beautifully came out in the form of a journal. Published in 1850, her book had perceptive accounts of Indian ways of living in the first half the 19th century.
The other woman, Lola Montez, who believed in captivating men with her physical charms, had a very interesting life too. But, she does not deserve an entire chapter in book as most of her sexual adventures were outside India. Instead, a couple of paragraphs about her escapades in India would have been enough.
Subsequently, the book covers many more exciting topics about the Raj. And it has chapters on Hookah, Nautch Parties, Shikar, Sufis, astrologers, magicians, thugs, etc.
The voice of the author is almost neutral and narratives have largely a matter-of-the-fact tone. Except in a couple of chapters where the author tries to force his personal views on issues like ‘religion and Indian culture' on his readers. While doing so, he appears more like a demagogue than a historian.
For example, in the chapter ‘Banning of Indian Erotic Epic', he attempts to portray the banning of Radhika Santwanam , a Telugu erotic epic with the graphic details of lovemaking, and opposition of Devadasi System as conspiracies against Indian culture hatched by the Christian missionaries and the Westernised Indian intellectuals.
The editing of the book, it seems, has been done in a hurry. At places, there are repetitions and overlapping of information. Further, the production quality of the book is not up to the mark. Pran Nevile is a respectable social and cultural historian of India and at least deserves a good quality paperback, if commercial considerations do not allow a hardcover. Despite these minor flaws, it is a highly readable book.
Sahib's India: Vignettes from the Raj, Pran Neville, Penguin India, Rs. 299.