Monday, November 14, 2011

First Ladies of the Raj

By: Penny and Roger Beaumont
Publisher:  Jaico
Pages: 388
Price: Rs 395

After reading this book, you will realise how brief were the History lessons that they taught in schools. Well, this book isn’t exactly an objective portrayal of the British rule in India; it mainly paints the picture of the Empire’s colony as seen by the Vicereines of British India. But you do get a peek — often repetitive — of the happenings, pomp and splendour in the Government House (later known as the Viceroy’s House), and the lives of its occupants, through the book’s eight chapters.
These chapters talk about the Vicereines, their views and apprehensions about ruling the colony, their devotion to their husbands and children, and of course, about their subjects, especially the quick-to-judge British and Anglo-Indian societies. The book reveals how the lives of the Vicereines were often lonesome. That was a price they had to pay to be the invisible Empresses of the Raj.
The book’s mainstay is the private diaries of the Vicereines, the letters they exchanged with their families, the gushing media reports and the private accounts of their staff. The language, especially the quotes expressing the views of the respective Vicereines, is very plain. The accompanying paragraphs that explain the context are very long and repetitive, and do not really throw any light on the situation described.
What sets the book apart from the History lessons in school and the contemporary books on Raj, is its focus on the most unlikely (or long forgotten) Vicereines: Hariot Dufferin and Mary Curzon among others. Of course the book doesn’t neglect Lady Edwina Mountbatten whose role during India’s independence and the Partition, and her perceived relationship with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru have been discussed.
Hariot Dufferin was the first Vicereine to push for changes in the medical health of Indian women. She utilised the Countess of Dufferin’s Fund to provide medical facilites to women in India. Her initiative led to many other Vicereines pitching in for various causes. Vicereine Doreen Linlithgow’s legacy was to eradicate tuberculosis which was then widespread throughout India.
Several of the Vicereines were not popular: Mary Curzon wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the British and Anglo-Indian societies. An American-born, she wasn’t considered as "one of us" by the British society in India. Similarly, Vicereine Marie Willingdon’s interference in architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens’s plans for the new Viceroy’s House in Delhi (now the Rashtrapati Bhavan) frustrated the architect. Lutyen was ready to throw in his hat because of Vicereine Willingdon’s "very brusque and rude behaviour." Her successor, Vicereine Linlithgow, however, decided to endorse Lutyen’s design.
The book also offers many unknown or forgotten nuggets, like how Simla was despised by almost all the Vicereines. It was only after the Vicereines took up several charitable causes that Simla’s "fast" and "racy" reputation became more "appropriate." On the whole, this book is informative.

Did this book review last month.

Invisible Empresses of the Raj

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