Sahibs who loved India? Khushwant Singh didn’t know too many. I knew four sahibs who loved India so much that they stayed on after independence, lived and died in India and called this country their home. These were charismatic men, decidedly charming, often alarming—and eccentric in the endearing style that only an Englishman can successfully carry off. Take Desmond Doig (well, he died in Nepal, but that’s a detail). Artist, photographer, writer and raconteur, Desmond was born and educated in India and chose to continue to live here despite the rest of his family having ‘gone home’ to England post-independence. He did wonderful sketches and water-colours of Calcutta, Delhi, Goa and Kathmandu; he went on the yeti-hunting expedition with his good friend, Edmund Hillary; he ‘discovered’ for the world a shy young nun called Mother Teresa who was doing something wonderful for God in the filthy hovels of Calcutta; he wrote copiously for The Statesman, embellishing his articles with his brilliant photographs; and he was the founder-editor of India’s first youth magazine, the JS, which arguably ‘created’ the Indian teenager.
Second on my list is Brian St John (pronounced Sinjin) Conway who, after one post-independence trip to England to meet his sisters and their families who had settled there, said ‘Never again’, and lived happily in rooms at the Saturday Club in Calcutta, doing the London Times crossword; attending the races wearing a tweed jacket and a hat with a rakish feather tucked into the band; listening to his wondrous collection of western classical music; and pronouncing on the authenticity of the Melton Mowbray pies presented for his opinion by the club ‘khansamas’ who loved him as much as he loved them—and his adopted homeland.
Then there was the erudite Lindsay Emmerson, feared and respected leader-writer for The Statesman, whose love for India and for his Indian wife, was legendary. Beneath his crusty exterior beat the proverbial heart of gold, soft as a toffee when it came to putting shy young wives (like me) of his junior colleagues at ease.
Last, but far from least in my memory, was Neil Ghosh, an Englishman in all but the colour of his skin. Raised in England, educated at a public school there and an acclaimed cricketer who played for his county, Neil was the model for Paul Scott’s Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer), the central character in his Jewel in the Crown Quartet. Outrageously generous, frequently apoplectic, with an upper lip that couldn’t be any stiffer in adversity, Neil was an English sahib to the day he died in his flat in Camac Street in Calcutta, just a few days short of his 60th birthday. How he loved his India.
In contrast, the sahibs collected by Khushwant Singh for this book (the pieces were commissioned over 30 years ago—doubtless for generous contributors’ fees, hinted at in some of the essays—for a series intended to be published in the Illustrated Weekly of India when the compiler was its editor), are with a few notable exceptions like Stanley Jepson, Horace Alexander, Arthur Dean, Rowland Owen, Arthur Hughes and the sahiba Peggy Holroyde, mostly opportunistic individuals who came to India for the social advantages and economic gains it conferred on the white man and who, having exploited both to the hilt, were more than eager to shake its dust from their feet once Independence brought Indians into a position of equality with them.
It wasn’t India that they loved at all; what they loved was the lives they were privileged to lead as sahibs in India. They were more highly paid than equally- or better-qualified Indians, lived like nabobs, enjoyed a social status far higher than they could have aspired to in England, and were monarchs of all they surveyed. What was not to love?
Examples are aplenty, but one that encapsulates the archetypal sahib experience in India will suffice:
Here is Leonard Marsland Gander, by his own admission poorly educated and ‘suicidally desperate’ for a job in mainstream journalism in England, with ‘no desire whatever to go to India.’ Once here, however, he found himself, inexperienced as he was, ‘put in charge of (an) eminently civilised, well-educated, polite and amenable body of men’ working in the Times of India, Bombay, with a ‘fabulous salary’ of Rs 500 a month plus rent-free accommodation. This, in 1924 was princely living indeed, and at least Gander is honest enough to attribute his stratospheric position to ‘the accident of birth and the freak of history.’
Gander goes on to describe his privileged status: ‘I could join the Gymkhana Club because I was on the editorial staff . . . but our printers had to be content with the inferior Commercial Gymkhana. Incidentally in England I hadn’t belonged to any club and was certainly not qualified for the Athenaeum. By the way, Indians couldn’t join the Gymkhana or the Commercial version of it either.’
Huge salaries, club memberships, retinues of servants and social acceptance such as they would never have received in England—this was what Khushwant Singh’s sahibs loved about India.
As Gander confesses, ‘When I went to India I moved from a pond to an ocean; from a lower middle class suburbia to a world of administrators soldiers, statesmen, first-class journalists, dreamers, philosophers and artists . . . I think of the numerous people I met . . . Krishna Menon, and Gandhi, Nehru, Mrs Naidu. . . The Maharaja of Baroda sends me a Christmas card every year . . .’ Despite these privileges, however, there are complaints and criticisms galore.
Gander laments ‘a country on which the indulgent (sic) British made some impression while failing utterly to solve its problems . . . religious bigotry and misguided, narrow patriotism still persist’.
Taya Zinkin finds that ‘Indians, far more than Britons, were guilty of waste, glaring conspicuous consumption’, and goes on to say, ‘nowhere had I seen anything approaching the poverty of India. Somehow I did not blame that poverty on the British’.
J.A.K. Martyn, second headmaster of the Doon School, is suspicious of Indian hospitality, complaining that ‘some of it is aimed more at the honour acquired by the host than at the comfort of the guest; some of it is not without a background of favours hoped for . . .’. There is more in the same vein.
In the end, the feeling one is left with is that India loved her sahibs considerably more than they loved her. And the tragedy of this country is that this one-sided love affair still continues.
Bunny Suraiya heads her own communication and Design Company and writes features and reviews for periodicals and newspapers.