Fiction written in the past affords us authentic glimpses of that era and also an insight into the social psyche of different groups of persons of that period through imagined characters. The poor plight of Indian women and lower classes was a strong theme in British colonial propaganda to legitimize its presence in India. Conversion and education were the twin aims of missionaries who while serving to whitewash the imperialist’s designs also found themselves at odds with the colonizer’s oppressive, cunning manipulation and administration of natives. All these themes surface in Margaret Wilson’s Daughters of India which plots the lives of two fictional American missionaries, in a town called Aiyanianwala in Northern Punjab in the 1920s and is based on Wilson’s own experiences in India. Against the narrative of colonial rule is a counternarrative of missionary intervention and against both these narratives is the counter narrative of female assertiveness in a colonial as well as feudal context.
Aiyanianwala is an unglamorous town with a ‘basti’ of low caste persons on its outskirts who eat carrion; they seek transcendence of their class, caste and status by converting to Christianity. The town’s main entertainment is the proceedings at court. The town ‘had no books. It had no newspapers. It had nothing like football, baseball, tennis, golf. It had no theatres. It had no wireless. The proceedings of the court room took the place of all this’ (p. 125). On the one hand we see the impact of modernization under colonial rule in the mention of western games, wireless, theatres; on the other, Wilson deliberately creates a stark, unromantic site to present her perceptions of the subtleties of colonial and feudal impacting on the local populace.
Ramsey and Davida are American missionaries and the gendering of the two becomes increasingly important as the feminist agenda of the novel begins to dominate. Both are virginal and lack spouses— Davida is introduced to the villagers as the Virgin. Celibacy is both as contrast to the traditional plotting of the inferior, lustfulness of the subjectivity of the native, a perception not counteracted in the novel, and is also, ironically, indicative of something truncated in the western subjects—if sexuality has to do with a life-force. Davida who belongs to the Fransciscan order and has taken the vows of poverty and service runs schools for girls. She is employed by the reformist, educated Bengali, Miss Bhose. She works with a group of young converts, among whom is Taj, from the sweeper class, and a young woman who has been discarded by two vicious husbands, sold to prostitution and allowed to join Davida through the intervention of a kindly British administrative officer—the only positive representative of the Raj in the novel.
Davida is suspected of being kidnapped. Ramsey goes to her rescue and is igno-minously kidnapped by the ring of kidnappers who are supposed to have kidnapped Davida and has to swear not to reveal their identity before being released—the white man’s word being taken as honourable, according to the perpetrated myths of colonization. Davida has in fact taken a pregnant woman to the hospital. That she is thought to be kidnapped indicates that emancipated white women were still seen as needing protection from men and natives. The fact that it is Ramsey who is kidnapped is a comical feminist reversal of traditional plots.
The impact of Christianity and education in the aftermath of colonialism brings about subtle social changes which the populace is not always able to deal with. Women become more independent and assertive and the lower castes start acting equal to the upper castes and stop paying them personal homage. Taj is suspected of being kidnapped—however she runs away to get married. Taj, a widow, marries Miss Bhose’s nephew, an upper caste Hindu, anti-colonial character. Miss Bhose, devoted to the cause of women’s education (a social reality in the first decades of the twentieth century in Bengal) loses faith in her cause: ‘That is what Moham-madans, Hindus everyone says will happen if you let a girl go to school—and make her independent’ (p. 154). The event is a scandal. Wilson has used the episode to demonstrate how patriarchal, feudal values in India and women’s liberation were simultaneously affected by western thinking and the colonial presence in India.
If the Indians in the novel reel under a crisis, so do Ramsey and Davida. Davida distinguishes herself from the British and also realizes her ambiguous attitude to Indians: ‘I’m not English. All whites are not. I’m American’ (p. 117) —the Indians place all whites under the convenient rubric of Government in the novel as the colonizer has homogenized all natives. Davida though feminist does not like to identify with the local women ‘the very thought of being on a level with an Indian woman, of not being set up on a pedestal, makes my blood boil’ (p. 146).
Ramsey finds himself impotent against the Indian kidnappers and also against the British system of justice. He is asked if he did not expose his kidnappers because in a Christian spirit he forgave them. He says he was simply afraid and did not feel forgiving towards them. If Davida realizes that her missionary zeal does not destroy a basic white sense of snobbery, Ramsey realizes his humanity beneath his garb as preacher and his dislike of British administration. Wilson reveals the subtle complexities in the inter-relationships of whites and Indians and among the multinational whites.
More biting is her critique of the British colonizer in the garb of the corrupt British Inspector of police who is keen to use the catch of kidnappers to create a false case against several upper class Indians implicating them of being involved in a flesh trade: ‘here was an Englishman who raked in bribes with a cunning no Indian possessed’ (p. 100).
The empowerment of Taj—woman, low caste, widow and Indian—is the most powerful statement of possibility in the book. Wilson successfully expresses the anxiety of Empire—the uneasy awareness that the native is intelligent, sensitive, discerning and equal and the white man is fallible and ordinary. This particular edition of the novel is made more valuable by an excellent, comprehensive and erudite Introduction by the editor.
Rita Joshi is Reader in the English Department of Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi, Delhi.