Udayon Misra’s The Raj in Fiction: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Attitudes Towards India is a study of Anglo-Indian literature of the years 1820 to 1870 in the light of prevailing British attitudes to India. It comes as the latest addition to a small but growing collection of studies on 19th century Anglo-Indian literature. Indeed there is today a serious interest in the literary discourse generated by the British colonization of India not only in the discourse of the present century but also in the obscure and forgotten literary texts of the 19th century in the works of writers like Captain Meadows Taylor, W.D. Arnold, Flora Annie Steel and Maud Diver.
Anglo-Indian literature, for long regarded as merely English literature with some Indian colour, is gradually coming to be recognized as a distinct sub-genre. As a meaningful branch of English studies Anglo-Indian literature bears special relevance in India as the Indian reader researcher critically examines from today’s perspective the literary discourse generated by the colonial encounter in his/her own country.
Recent critical studies such as Allen J. Greenberger The British Image of India: Studies in the Literature of Imperialism, 1880-1960 and Benita Parry’s Delusions and Discoveries: Studies on India in the British Imagination 1880-1930, have tended to restrict themselves to the 1880’s, a period during which Kipling and his contemporaries wrote. Very little work has been done on the literary discourse of the earlier part of the century. Certain inherent problems exist such as non-availability of the fiction of the century. Most of the titles are out-of-print and otherwise inaccessible—barring a few that Arnold-Heinemann have recently reprinted.
In this context Udayon Misra’s book is welcome because it deals with a relatively untouched period. The book takes up for study the fictional and non-fictional writings of four representative administrator writers of this period. These are Pandurang Hari or The Memoirs of a Hindoo (1826) by William Browne Hockley, Captain Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug and his other novels (1839-1872), W.D. Arnold’s Oakfield or Fellowship in the East (1853) and The Chronicles Budgepore (1870) by ‘Iltudes’ Prichard.
Misra sees the texts as ‘sociological documents’, mirroring the various phases that the British attitudes to India underwent during this period. In an introductory chapter these attitudes are traced from the early conservative orientalist phase, through the imperial (sic) phase, the liberal period, the utilitarian, and evangelical phase till the emergence of the neo-conservative and liberal/imperial (sic) phases. Where possible Misra selects texts that are ‘marked by an effort to present the Indian scene as realistically as was possible for an Englishman.’ His earlier two writers Hockley and Meadows Taylor thus foreground Indian characters and settings in a way later Anglo-Indian fiction—increasingly self centred and isolated after the 1857 Mutiny— did not.
Hockley’s Pandurang Hari is selected as an example of Britain’s early Imperialist phase with its Haileybury ethos of aloofness and superiority. Pretending to be a realistic portrait of a picaresque style Mahratta rogue-hero, it earns Misra’s praise for the ‘vividness and accuracy in the description of Indian scenes’. Readers will recollect Hockley’s racism: ‘from the Rajah to the ryot with intermediate grades they are ungrateful, insidious, cowardly, unfaithful and revengeful.’ While admitting the text’s ‘contempt for Indians’ Misra fails to clearly point out that this text, about a subaltern culture, uses photographic realism as an insidious strategy for perpetuating the myth of the treacherous ‘native’.
Captain Meadows Taylor’s constructs reveal the sympathy of the conservative/ orientalist. Misra devotes a great deal of attention to the remarkable and still-read Confessions of a Thug, failing however to point out its amazing vocabulary of Hindustani words. Taylor’s other novels, his famous trilogy, consisting of Tara (about the 1657 Mahratta uprising), Ralph Darnell (Clive’s India, 1757) and Seeta (1857 Mutiny) are all historical romances. So too are his Tipoo Sultaun and The Noble Queen (about Chand Bibi). Taylor’s orientalism makes him refute the myth of incompatibility of the races evident in his fondness for the theme of mixed marriage, though the myth of the treacherous Brahmin unfortunately is sometimes present. The Noble Queen is rather summarily dismissed whereas readers will recall that the novel displays a fine sense of historical detail as well as the idealistic constructions of the Indian woman so typical of Taylor’s works. Misra also praises Taylor’s ‘sympathy for the Indian way of life’ and his ability to ‘break through the official shell and experience the life of the people’—a feature indeed unique is a literary tradition dominated by Imperialist and racist superiority.
The other two texts—Oakfield and The Chronicles of Budgepore belong to the other category of Anglo-Indian fiction, which is constructed entirely around the Englishman with the Indian virtually invisible, or at best, a marginal figure. Arnold’s work demonstrates mid-Victorian liberal thought and ‘questions the moral basis of British rule in India’. Not however questioning Imperialism itself it seeks sincerity and dedication instead of the commercial spirit in Imperialism. Oakfield notes: ‘There is utter want of nobleness in the government of India; it still retains the mark of its commercial origin’. Misra notes the emergence of the administrator-hero, the famous Anglo-Indian melancholia and sense of exile from Oakfield onwards.
The full emergence of the administrator-hero, an Anglo-Indian stock figure, is seen in The Chronicles of Budgepore. Prichard’s work is primarily a tongue-in-cheek satire of British administrative inefficiency and the pettiness of inhabitants of Anglo-Indian stations. But Misra fails to point out that with the white administrators of the station given ‘Indian’ names for satiric purposes—Mr. Dakhil, Duftar, the Collector and Magistrate and Mr. Golee, the station physician—we see the appropriation of the language of the subaltern culture by the colonizers. By this time (the (1870’s) Anglo-Indian literature is clearly self-obsessed and the few Indians in this text are marginal figures, heavily satirized. Perhaps Misra could have probed the significance of this marginality and frequent silence on the Indian character in the literary discourse of this period.
Misra is correct in approaching the texts from a socio-historical perspective. But his framework of ‘British attitudes’ is somewhat over-simplified. While the writers he discusses, being British administrators, would naturally be influenced by British attitudes, Misra’s framework suggests that Anglo-Indian and British perception were one and the same. Indeed a central weakness of this study is that despite its recognizing Anglo-Indian literature as a distinct tradition it is absolutely silent on the context of the British in India. The specificity of the English experience of India which shaped these writers’ perspectives about themselves and about the country they ruled are entirely absent. Equally absent is the perception that this perspective would necessarily be a product of the metropolitan colonial dialatic. Having applied a simplified monolithic category ‘British attitude’ Misra has a hard time maintaining his thesis at certain points where he has to add qualifying riders: ‘when faced with the Indian reality, whatever ideas Hockley might have carried from England in his Indian “mission” swiftly gave place to new prejudices and race bias.’
Moreover although Misra does discuss the various myths, such as the myths of the deceitful Hindu, the Indian’s inability to rule, his racial inferiority and the incompatibility of the races, in the course of examining the texts separately he does not sufficiently indicate how these myths are strategies that the Anglo-Indian texts employ in order to restructure India for reasons of domination. The politics of language rather elude him. Nonetheless he does put the racial myths in the framework of 19th century ‘race theories’.
On the other hand there are several positive features of this work; elucidations are generally sound while the interdisciplinary thrust makes for informative reading. Further, detailed analysis of the texts—a separate chapter for each text writer—is extremely useful given the unavailability of these texts. In sum, it is a step taken in the right direction.
Indirani Sen teaches English at Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, Delhi.