Vron Ware is described on the dust-jacket of Beyond the Pale, her study of the difficulty white feminists have had in being fair to brown races which appear to oppress their women, as ‘a journalist and feminist design consultant’. Footnote 17 on page 256 enlightens. Ware, I discover, is the co-author of At Women’s Convenience: A Handbook on the Design of Women’s Public Toilets. A useful publication, to be sure, but one which reminds me, as I am reminded a dozen times I day in not conducive to a sympathetic reading of Ware’s book, of the vast gulf separating India, where I have been living for almost three years, and England, where women’s toilets apparently disappoint only in their design and not in the frequency of their occurrence.
Indian women of course have greater troubles to bear than the absence of public conveniences which makes a journey through India such splendid training in bladder control for their Western sisters, and Vron Ware’s presumably expiatory ambivalence – memsahibs appear to infest her family tree – towards Western women who draw attention to these troubles inspires me briefly to describe them.
The problems of life begin early for the Indian girl, before birth indeed now that amniocentesis can determine for the sufficiently affluent urban parent whether the precious son, or merely another unwanted daughter, is about to be born. Despite official efforts to stop sex-related abortions, aborted foetuses remain overwhelmingly female. Among the poorer classes, girl babies are sometimes killed at birth, but are more often neglected to a degree which ensures that fewer of them survive to reach maturity than boys. The ratio of women to men in the Indian population has been declining since the turn of the century, standing now, according to the 1991 census, at 93 women to 100 men (in the UK it is 105 women to 100 men, and in sub-Saharan Africa 102 women to 100 men). When the girl reaches the age of marriage she will be paired off with a man of her parents’ choice and given her envoi with an illegal but obligatory dowry which she must hope will be big enough to keep her in-laws satisfied long enough for her to produce a son. If she fails in both these respects and has fallen among particularly primitive folk she might feature in one of those sad little paragraphs in my morning newspaper announcing that so and so, wife of so and so of such and such address, died as a result of burns after catching fire apparently while cooking dinner on the family’s kerosene stove. ‘Bride burnings’ are so common – more than six hundred a year in Delhi alone according to Elisabeth Bumiller in her classic study of Indian women, May you be the mother of a hundred sons – that they now form part of that canonical catalogue of Indian horrors that foreigners living here try not to dwell on too much as they go about their generally very pleasant business. (On the other hand, it must be stated for the record that no position in life could be more delightful than that of a young Indian girl, born to a family living above the subsistence level, who has two or more elder brothers. Such a child is enjoyed without reserve for that very femaleness which, but for the accident of birth order, would have been a curse.)
It is hard to live in India and remain completely uninfluenced by the knowledge that the repeated production of girl children is an economic, social and spiritual catastrophe for the father – a Hindu man’s funeral pyre must be lit by his son to ensure proper release of the soul from the body – and a badge of shame for the mother. When our servant’s wife gave birth recently to her third daughter I found myself suppressing with a conscious effort the words of condolence which sprang instantly to my lips. This experience suggested to me that if I lived in India long enough I might begin to lose my capacity for right judgment in such matters, might arrive possibly at the point already arrived at by an old friend, a European married to an Indian who has lived in Delhi for many years, who observed to me that female infanticide seemed ‘not such a great crime’ when one considered other indignities, such as rape, to which Indian women might be subjected. I am not sure that Vron Ware would agree that either of us had strayed very far from the path of virtue, such is the anxiety she displays to preserve feminism from contamination by any thoughts which might somehow be construed as racist. What a pleasure it is to recall, amid Ware’s subtleties. Sir Charles Napier’s celebrated, though possibly apocryphal riposte to the Indian brahmins who pleaded that suttee was a national custom: ‘My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them ... Let us all act according to national customs.’
Through a series of cases-studies of 19th-century women involved in the campaigns against slavery and later against lynching, and in activities aimed at the uplift of Indian women, Ware is in fact able to show that white feminists often failed intellectually and morally when called on to respond to the customs of other races. They failed, first, to consider the possibility that practices which appeared to them to be oppressive might not actually be so; second, to understand that ‘modes of femininity’ (a felicitously non-judgmental expression) cannot in themselves be held to indicate the level of civilisation a society has achieved, third, to appreciate that their own mode of femininity, which functioned as the standard which they applied to others, remained, despite aspirations to emancipation, in large part the creation of male persons of their own race and culture.
These failures, Ware observes, bedevil feminist thinking to this day. Unfortunately, Ware’s contribution to scholarship has to be weighed against what often appears to be her working assumption that white women were doomed to misunderstand the position of women in other societies because they were (and are) unable to experience these societies without an assumption of racial superiority. In Beyond the Pale racism trumps feminism with a predictability which means that it will be left to someone else to produce the definitive book on this interesting subject.
One of Ware’s potentially most striking case-studies, of Annette Ackroyd and her attempt to start a school for girls in Calcutta, runs aground on just this facile assumption of the dominance of racist thinking – and also, ironically, on a fascination with Ackroyd at the expense of the Indian milieu in which she sought to operate.
The daughter of a Unitarian businessman of progressive opinions, Ackroyd went to India in 1872 after hearing a lecture given by Keshub Chandra Sen, the leader of the influential Indian reformist association, the Brahmo Samaj, during his visit to England in 1870. The Brahmo Samaj was at this time the chief conduit for the importation of Western ideas about religion and society into Bengal. Dedicated to the regeneration of Hinduism from within, it nevertheless owed much to the influence of Unitarianism and its spirit of rationalism and social reform, and English Unitarians were among the Samaj’s chief supporters. Responding to Sen’s appeal to Englishwomen to travel to India and work as teachers of Indian girls, Ackroyd prepared herself for her mission by learning Bengali and taking a course for governesses at the Home and Colonial College in London. What followed after her arrival in India reads like the plot of a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel.
Finding it easy to dislike the memsahibs and missionaries she met in Calcutta, Ackroyd unexpectedly found it easy to dislike the Indians too. Acquiring premises for her school proved laborious and involved many unnerving encounters with prospective landlords, and when the school finally opened there were staff problems, indifference and absenteeism among the girls, and persistent opposition from the community. In 1875, after 17 months of operation, the school closed and Annette Ackroyd married an Englishman in the Indian Civil Service.
She remained in India – producing a son, William Beveridge, who grew up to become the architect of the British welfare Mate and in 1883 we hear of her speaking in opposition to the Ilbert Bill, a liberal piece of legislation which produced consternation among the British in India by proposing that Indian sessions judges in the country districts be given the power to try Europeans. No woman, English or Indian, Ackroyd declared, should be subjected to the jurisdiction of men whose ideas about women were so profoundly uncivilised. A sad end indeed to what had begun as a brave and spirited adventure in an unknown land – but not one which was determined, as Ware appears to suggest, by a pre-existing but unarticulated racial horror which emerged in contact with Indians the way a photographic print emerges in contact with developing fluid. Ackroyds disillusion with India was clearly caused in part by the breakdown of her relations with Keshub Chandra Sen, the man who had inspired her to come and serve. In Beyond the Pale, the root cause of this breakdown is seen as Ackroyd’s failure to accept the essential Indianness of Sen’s life as it was revealed to her in Calcutta, especially his possession of a wife whose social evolution, it appeared, had barely been attempted. But by the time Ackroyd arrived in Calcutta, two years after her encounter with him in England, Sen had in fact embarked on an intellectual and spiritual journey which was to take him along paths which it would have been astonishing indeed if Annette Ackroyd had brought herself to follow.
Sen’s abandonment of his commitment to social reform occurred rather suddenly in 1872 after his proposal for a government-assisted programme of compulsory education was humiliatingly ignored. Like Gandhi when he found himself in a similar situation in 1909, Sen decided that Westernisation was not the solution to India’s problems and turned to Hinduism for inspiration instead. By 1875, under the influence of the Bengali mystic Ramakrishnan, he had publicly embraced a form of devotional Hinduism involving the ecstatic worship of sakti (female vital power) and a corollary acceptance of the femaleness of god. Processions were led through the streets of Calcutta by a transfigured Sen singing and calling on the name of ‘Mother’. Sen went on to undertake further religious experiments, some of which – his mind being a keen and adventurous one – are of great interest, but sakti remained a central preoccupation. It seems hardly surprising that Ackroyd should have experienced bewilderment, and even out-rage, as her hero transformed himself before her eyes from urbane emancipator into perfervid goddess worshipper. In this context the relationship between Ackroyd and Sen emerges as one of those tragi-comic encounters, repeated to this day, between well-meaning Westerners and well-meaning Indians whose trajectories, in retrospect, are perceived merely to intersect.
Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes, which analyses European travellers’ accounts of their experiences in the ‘contact zones’ of Africa and South America, is a better book than Ware’s, also a more enjoyable one. Pratt is at home with her sources and current scholarship about them and writes with assurance and at times with verve. She shows an attractive capacity for empathy with the rigours and excitements of travel. She makes a number of excellent points (for instance, that love affairs between travellers and local women could be written up to suggest the uses of affection in guaranteeing European ascendancy) and any number of shrewd observations (speaking, for example, of the ‘essentialising’ tendency of the imperial eye, which ‘needed only to see a person at rest to bear witness to the trait of idleness’ or to see dirt to register uncleanliness); and she has the good judgment, in turning to contemporary travel writing, to be dismissive about Joan Didion’s over-fastidious reflections on El Salvador. But in her zeal to show that travellers’ perceptions were the product of the intellectual schemas with which they came equipped, and that these were all related in some fashion to the conquering impulse which they, as Europeans, naturally experienced, she treats the possibility that the traveller was simply reporting what was the case with a disdain that at times becomes ludicrous. In pursuit of her ideological quarry, a great many shafts are loosed indiscriminately from Professor Pratt’s bow, and much ingenuity extravagantly misplaced, so that one comes away from a book whose aspirations to rigour are made very plain with a curious impression of mental indiscipline. Pratt is severe with the travelling naturalists of the 18th century, the-products of the Linnaean revolution, for the arrogance of their ‘totalising embrace’ of creation (which ‘correlates’ with ‘an expanding search for commercially exploitable resources, markets, and lands to colonise’), and with Victorian explorers of Africa for their proprietorial attitude to the landscapes which they surveyed. But nothing could be more violently taxonomical or more aggressively proprietorial than Pratt’s attitude to the texts she has undertaken to describe and explain. Her denial of objectivity to their authors, and assignment of it to herself, seems comprehensive. The question arises of what Pratt would find an acceptable way of representing the strange and arresting natural and social phenomena with which travellers found themselves confronted. What form might a politically correct travel narrative take? The chief impression left by both Pratt’s and Ware’s books is that it might be better to stay at home in future.