Other Eden

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Tigers, Durbars and Kings: Fanny Eden’s Indian Journals 1837-1838 edited by Janet Dunbar
    Murray, 202 pp, £13.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4440 8

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.

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