"Plain Tales From the Raj," (the title is an homage to the title of Rudyard Kipling's first collection of short stories, "Plain Tales From the Hills" ) is journalist Charles Allen's examination, using the reminiscences of 50 or so Britons who lived in India from the early 1900s to the partition of the country in 1947, of the dwindling down of the power and prestige of the British Raj.
The book, published in 1975, was taken from a series of 1974 radio programs of the same name that were were produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In them, Britons from all levels of society, from the merchant class "box-wallahs" (wallah being Hindi for a man who is connected to an occupation) to the denizens of the ubiquitous clubs that the British sequestered themselves in all over India, looked back on their time under a foreign sky and how it had shaped and changed them.
Allen gives the speakers free rein to reminisce about things as mundane as how the British memsahibs (wives of Europeans) ran their households with scores of servants, which sounds lovely but often turned out to be a headache because of the strict observance of the Indian caste system. You could not ask an Indian cook to do the washing up after he prepared the meal, because he was a cook--and he did nothing but cook. There had to be another servant to clean up the kitchen, and yet another to take out the trash, and another to sweep the front steps "You would never think of asking a servant to do anything that was beneath him or was in any way contrary to his religion," recalled one Englishwoman.
Practices such as the "Fishing Fleet," the annual migration of eligible young white women from the United Kingdom who would travel out to India at the end of the year to spend the two- or three-monthlong period called the Cold Weather visiting family and friends there, and hopefully find a husband, were deeply embedded in Anglo-Indian culture.
Others mention the sense that, after hundreds of years, time was running out for the English in India. 'We were fully conscious that we were on a sinking ship, as it were," remembered one man.
This process gained speed after WWI as Indians increased their demands for independence with campaigns of non-cooperation and civil disobedience, and the schism between Muslims and Hindus escalated into violence, often trapping the Britons in between.
With independence came the division of continental India into Muslim Pakistan/Bangladesh and Hindu India, and the resulting internecine retaliation that ended with the deaths of 1.5 million people, as Hindus and Sikhs fled what was to become Pakistan and Muslims fled India.
One Englishwoman recalled "...how she waited in Simla for a military convoy to take her to safety. 'I remember standing on the verandah of the United Services Club...and hearing the rickshaw coolies' quarters in the lower bazaar being bombed. We felt quite helpless listening to their cries...We couldn't do anything.' "
Their time in India over, the vast majority of the Britons who ran and peopled the Raj returned home, to suburban lives that were very different than those they had led in India,
Some looked back on their years in India with a sense of accomplishment, some with a sense of guilt or failure. Said one woman, "You must never take land away from people. People's land has a mystique. You can go and possibly order them about for a bit and introduce some new ideas and possibly dragoon an alien race into attitudes that are not quite familiar to them, but then you must go away and die in Cheltenham."
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About the reviewer
Mary Wright (marysan)
American but grew up overseas.Work background is in publishing. Live on the Lake Michigan shore. Enjoy reading, cooking, films, doing research on the Internet, cooking. Trying to go as "green" … more
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