The lived experience of a people is often a memory. Sometimes a written word is the only gateway to that memory. Vast amounts of literature present the English as unwanted rulers who exploited India, who looted the country only to return back to their country. But there are many who loved India and kept a lifelong relationship with her. Do we know what India meant to them?
In the 1970’s, Khushwant Singh, one of India’s most prolific writers, the then editor of the popular magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India, invited Englishmen and women who lived in India after Independence to write on ‘What India Meant to me’. The result, ‘Sahibs Who Loved India’ is a spellbinding collection of intimate personal accounts of people from various walks of life – from Louis Mountbatten and members of the Indian Civil Service to journalists, architects, teachers and engineers.
Sahibs Who Loved India offers rare insights into a distant past – a time when English people arrived in ships, men and women were known as Sahibs and Memsahibs who went on Shikar (hunts), had whites only clubs, danced in tails and white ties and spoke of the empire. It points to a time of Koi Hai accents, where native Indians and Englishmen co-existed in different social worlds and of a time when India was emerging from the shackles of colonialism and the empire.
However, at that point in time, there were men and women, (Sahibs and Memsahibs) of British and European descent, who loved India, her seasons, colours and flavours. They embraced her culture, soaked in her spirit, learnt from her people and adopted her as home. Through their honest, intimate and personal accounts, they pay an ode to India – telling delightfully – how she educated, enlightened and enchanted them through her simplicity and splendour.
To paraphrase Escott Reid:
The experience of beauty, the memories of beauty, these are ways of deliverance and I cherish my memories of the heartbreaking beauty of India – in the plains and in the mountains, at ancient monuments and at holy shrines… My memories are full of colour, of fragrance and of music. The golden glow of the early morning and the late afternoon. The gold of mustard fields. The fragrance of the flowering fields of peas and mustard. The tree-lined canal banks, the long shadows of late afternoon and early morning. The bells of the bullock-carts. And the gay singing of the villagers heard across the fields during the day or from the villages at night.
If for some it was the grandeur, for others it was the everyday grace and acts of kindness. The British Trade Commissioner, Rowland Owen, tells of how he and his wife were helped graciously by ordinary people throughout the country.
To them, I was a stranger whom they had never met before and in most cases were unlikely to meet again. But the warmth of personal relationships enabled my wife and myself to take away on our final departure imperishable recollections of innumerable acts of kindness and generosity.
Their memories show how so much has changed and yet, so little has changed. There is no shortage of hospitality in the country even today. But questions of inequality, poverty, mindless difficult bureaucracy continue to haunt India. Taya Zinkin, the French journalist and author, makes a poignant observation that resonates even today.
The social inequalities were shocking. Indians, far more than Britons, were guilty of waste, glaring conspicuous consumption. Indeed, many of them had to be truly heartless to behave the way they did. I still remember the thirteen-row and 3000 carat emerald necklace one Indian businessman used to wear on grand occasions… This same gentleman who did not seem to moved by the sight of beggars and pot-bellied children, used to employ cooks to feed the crows of his native town.
Six decades after Independence, opulence and deprivation coexist in the same neighborhood, with different social realties almost at the exclusion of the other. India boasts of being one of the world’s fastest growing economies, yet it continues to be plagued with deep pockets of desperate poverty, destitution and deprivation.
Beyond this are also tidbits of romance, such as the little-known love story of the last Viceroy – Mountbatten of Burma – that adds to a special warm spot for India.
While we were in Delhi staying at the old, temporary Vice-regal Lodge, a beautiful young girl of whom I had become very fond of in England had come out to stay with the Viceroy, Lord Reading. Her name was Edwina Ashley and on the 14 February 1922, during a dance in the house, I sat out with her during the fifth dance in a small sitting room and proposed marriage to her. She accepted me and all my happiness started from that day …what India meant to me can be summed up in one phrase, ‘Fascination, affection and happiness’.
As Oscar Wilde said, “memory is the diary we all carry about with us.” By inviting them to share their memories, Khushwant Singh has left a great treasure which opens doors to the past. As Arthur Hughes wrote: “India led me gently by the hand, drew me into her home, and grappled me to her soul with hooks of steel, forged with a thousand small tendernesses and attentions.”
India led me gently by the hand, drew me into her home, and grappled me to her soul with hooks of steel, forged with a thousand small tendernesses and attentions.
If you, like me, are interested in everything about India and the many ways she has charmed those who knocked on her door, Sahibs Who Loved India is a must read for you.
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