There is something mildly disturbing about the way writers generalise about India. How do they do it, with a country so confusingly diverse in detail? Even the titles of some books – Heat and Dust, for instance – are generalisations. This book, Fanny Eden’s travel journals, wears its title like an uneasy crown: Tigers, Durbars and Kings suggests lazy stereotypes rather than particulars observed by someone alive to their surroundings. The suspicion proves to be ill-founded, however. What the blurb promises – ‘shrewd irony’, ‘perceptiveness,’ ‘immediacy’ – turns out, surprisingly, to be true. It is surprising because few books about India are really interested in India. The temptation to treat the country, with its elephants and tigers and idols, as a kind of enormous Disneyland for the Western mind, or as a vast trampoline for Western leaps into the obscure and the mystical – such temptations prevent many writers from ever really looking at the country. When one does look, as Fanny Eden does, the only honest initial response may be of puzzlement, a puzzlement which, if expressed wittily and intelligently, as it is here, can be more illuminating than certainties and absolute conclusions.
Fanny Eden – sister of the novelist and writer about India, Emily – travelled to the Rajmahal Hills in February 1837 on a ‘tiger-shooting trip’ with her nephew William Osborne, 260 camp followers (‘We find we have 260 people altogether in the camp – half our followers bring their followers’) and 20 elephants. Later, she accompanied (with 12,000 others) her brother, the Governor-General, to the court of the last great King of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh. The mixture of scepticism and humour, unwillingness and curiosity, with which she set out is recorded early in the journals, and prepares us for what is to come: ‘Do you think we shall get safely back again? I have my doubts because the wild beasts in this country are real wild beasts who will not listen to reason.’ She is not, by temperament, an enthusiastic traveller, but a seemingly bored one constantly surprising in herself a hunger to be entertained. Her enthusiasms are reserved, subtle and genuine; moments of private discovery and unexpected identification are communicated with a wonder that is both deeply-felt and detached: ‘The swarms of natives buying and selling seemed without end. Did you ever study the Arabian Nights enough to remember the kabobs of Beirut selling in the market place? They were serving up these on skewers.’ Here, in a bazaar in Morshadabad, a detail from memory, from past journeys through a fictional world, crystallises. The process of discovering, for oneself, a world one has hitherto known only in books, of identifying real scenes and real landscapes one has only read about in novels and poems – this is something that most colonial writers have experienced, and some, such as V.S. Naipaul and Nirad Chaudhuri, have written about vividly. The experience of the transformation of literature into reality can be as magical and mysterious as the transformation of reality into literature.
At the same time, there is a scepticism, a sardonic down-to-earthness, that seems peculiarly feminine, a woman’s scepticism of what is basically a male enterprise – the tiger-shooting trip or the diplomatic tour. There is always a contrast between the general pomp and fanfare with which the ventures are undertaken, and the narrator’s ironical voice, remarking on the absurdity of her own position and noting the small absurdities that occur during the venture: a contrast between serious-faced, splendid male pursuits and the sly amusement of a woman spying on a man’s world.
There are different kinds of humour in the journals. The humour here can be a form of disguised irritation, a venting of spleen in alien surroundings: ‘The roads grow worse every morning, and the names of the places we stop at more unpronouncable.’ It can be spontaneous and even surreal in its unexpected associations: ‘William and I have taken to going about upon an elephant in a very dégagée manner, nothing but a large stuffed crimson cushion upon its back, without the howdah; and upon this we sit, very much as if we had been in an Irish jaunting car.’ And it can express the weariness and confusion of travelling through unknown terrain: at such times, it is a form of tolerance of the strange country and of one’s own unsuspected weaknesses. Interestingly, such entries have that knowing bewilderment we associate with Kafka: the unsettling experience of alienation from one’s surroundings, which was to become an important metaphor for the great modern writers, is here, often, a real experience – not myth, but actuality:
March 4th. Two years since we landed in this country, at least, so they say here. I very much suspect you have been living twenty in England ... We are so slow here it is clear that we reckon our years slowly. And then our faculties are really wearing very fast. I thought I was growing cleverer but I am not. I passed five minutes last night proving to George how very provoking it was that our camp clocks should always be too slow, striking ten minutes before any other clocks, and upon his innocently remarking ‘Too fast, you mean,’ I answered tartly – ‘No, too slow. I said before, not after.’ I believe that is a fair instance of the average calibre of our intellect and depth of power of reasoning.
There are some wonderful descriptions of people, all the more delightful because they come from an observer who is not given to bursts of admiring emotion. Of a high-caste Brahmin – ‘a very remarkable man’ – who has converted to Christianity, she says: ‘When he laughs he is like a black Sydney Smith.’ A tiny footnote points out that Sydney Smith was ‘Canon of St Paul’s and the wittiest man of his day’. Of a ‘little native boy with white mice for sale’ she remarks: ‘When I tried to sketch him he carefully shut his eyes and probably flattered himself that he was not to be seen.’ Of her old tailor: ‘Where he puts his legs and feet when he works, nobody has been able to discover.’ Here, then, is the mixture of wonder and mischief, of intimacy and observation, with which she takes word-snapshots of the people around her, distilling a moment or a posture from the flux, fixing it for ever in the space of a sentence. She has the ability to express a complex situation by focusing on a detail, by knowing just which point to emphasise, by turning seemingly irrelevant information into the core of a statement. So, of a famine near Agra, she says: ‘But that famine, my dear, there is something very shocking in that – the women selling their children for next to nothing and, what we think a great deal more of here, the Hindus killing and eating their sacred bullocks. They must be at the very last gasp before they would do that.’
We move, towards the end of the book, to the court of the King of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh. Thankfully, Fanny Eden takes no one too seriously, least of all herself. Her natural instinct, even in an awesomely splendid durbar, is to deflate rather than to dramatise, or perhaps do both at once: ‘It was a trying moment when I had to give Runjeet an emerald ring – a single emerald so large it reached to the first joint of my finger, and I could not get a glove over it. If it had had any tact it would have refused to come off at all.’ What we have are not homages to the great king, or dignified portraits of him, but almost, at times, the verbal equivalent of cartoons that capture the maharajah off-duty. Irreverence can be a form of sympathy – bits of irreverent information recorded judiciously in passing transform Ranjit from king to human being: ‘ “When a man drinks hard enough,” he said, “he opens his heart and talks all kinds of nonsense, and that is right among friends.” ’
Behind all the fanfare and the noise is a feeling of homesickness that is not often mentioned, but when it is, one catches a disturbing intensity: ‘Not but what I am glad to see – and shall be more glad to have seen India – but it is fearful to think how entirely even five years will break short our English lives.’ And elsewhere: ‘This is such a pretty encampment – the fern higher than our tents, growing among such beautiful trees. I could quite fancy my-self in a large English park.’ Given this acute sense of home, of what was left behind, it is all the more remarkable that Fanny Eden manages to order and express perceptions of her immediate surroundings with such energy, and even convert her occasional sense of exhaustion into humour. It is as if she transcended the alienness of her surroundings not by denying them, but by responding to them: ultimately, it’s her own sense of enjoyment in the journey which is transmitted, in certain memorable moments, to the reader.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.