Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | The Memsahib among Indians, her burden' and her doubts

Deccan Chronicle.| Malati Mathur

Published on: November 5, 2022 | Updated on: November 5, 2022
Cover photo of 'Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India' by Ipshita Nath (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India' by Ipshita Nath (Photo by arrangement)

The book offers another perspective on the British Raj in India, seen through the lens of the women who took up the ‘white woman’s burden’ by the side of their husbands in the army or civil services.  Serving up little vignettes of experiences — whether they be domestic, social or political — that have come to us through letters, diaries or books, the shift in point of view is a fascinating window to the other face of the Raj. The intrepid women who often paid a very heavy price for their position as memsahibs — notwithstanding the luxuries and giddy social whirl of life in the ‘hill stations’ — were frequently torn between their conjugal and maternal duties and the political imperatives of their existence. The mortality rates of the women and children and the graves in the British cemeteries tell their own grim tale.

The enormous number of staff with whom they interacted in their daily lives, during their moves between postings, camp life, shikars or just adventurous outings did not, in many cases, translate into a better understanding of the Indian life or psyche. The indispensable ayah for instance, is in most cases, unnamed in all the memsahibs’ accounts of their life in India.  This would also explain the sheer unpreparedness for the gory events of 1857 in which a number of the women and children lost their lives. There is also the irony of hiring Indian wet nurses for the British infants while many a time looking down on the ‘natives’ as treacherous and unclean.

The book is divided into a number of sections and each one of them serves to emphasise the challenges that living in India entailed.  While it may be argued that they came here of their own will, it cannot be denied that the voyage out and adjustment to a completely different climate, landscape and people was a daunting prospect which many of the memsahibs met and overcame admirably.
What is clear in the various narratives is that none of them experienced India in the same way. Many of them acquiesced in the notion of white superiority but there were many who did question colonialism and the draining of Indian resources to fill British coffers. And there is also the ambivalence of the concept of ‘home’. While they hearkened back to England as ‘home’, the reverse was also true as many of them felt that it was India that was their ‘home’. Especially in the days after Indian Independence, the returnees felt out of place and out of sorts in Britain and longed for the sights, sounds and smells of India. So ‘home’ was not quite ‘home for them any longer. This was particularly true of those who had been born here and grew up with Indian ayahs and playmates. Nostalgia was thus a complex concept and emotion.

The lives of quiet desperation that so many of the memsahibs often led — the loneliness, the memories of relatives, the desire to visit England, the hardships of remote postings, the torture of the absence of their children sent away to England to study — was sought to be mitigated in some measure by frivolous and — frequently — fluidly moral practices that they adopted when they could indulge in social interaction. The book also touches briefly upon the Edwina-Nehru relationship in this very context.  

While the memsahibs’ accounts contain a wealth of detail of the extent to which their lives were changed in and by India, there is also a certain naiveté in the assumption of and belief in their own position as redeemers and civilisers, though not always and not with all of them.

While the men were filled with the purpose of consolidating and administering the Empire, the women were no less partners in the project as they brought forth children and cared for the home and hearth so that the wheels of the Empire could keep rolling smoothly. Nowhere is the phrase "the personal is political" more meaningfully embodied than in the lives of the memsahibs during the British Raj in India.

Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India
By Ipshita Nath
pp. 323; Rs 699

About The Author

The reviewer, Malati Mathur, is a professor of English and director, School of Humanities, and director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi. She is a creative writer and award-winning translator who translates from and between Tamil, Hindi and English.

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