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139 – Impressions of a Memsahib

My great-grandmother May Stokes. Vallum, Madras, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1895

My great-grandmother, May Stokes. Vallam, Tanjore District, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1895

Image and Text contributed by Teresa Stokes, Ireland

My great grandmother, May Forence Stokes (nee Fuller) was born in Sneem, Ireland in 1862. Her father James Franklin Fuller was an actor, novelist and a renowned architect of the time. In 1889, she married her cousin Gabriel Stokes, whom she fondly called ‘Jack’. She was his second wife; his first wife had died of puerperal fever, five days after the birth of their son, Hugh. May’s notes are not dated, but I estimate it to have been written in 1895-96. Gabriel was the Collector of Tanjore (now Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu), and they lived at the Collector’s bungalow in Vallam with their three small sons, Adrian, Terence and Herbert, and their pug-dogs Punch and Judy. She never lived to undergo what she writes of with dread in the last paragraph –which was to take the children back to Europe and return to India without them – as she died of an abscess of the liver on January 15 ,1897. Gabriel was left with four motherless boys, who were sent back to Ireland and were raised by relatives. He continued to work in India and became a member of the Executive Council of the Government of Madras, and even served as acting Governor for a few months in 1906. Eventually he received a Knighthood.

The following edited excerpts are from May’s long notes that she wrote for the family titled “Impressions of a Memsahib“. Her notes tell us a lot about the British mindset of the time; in particular where she implies that Indians are by nature too idle to govern themselves, is incredibly outdated, patronising and racist today. But they are also outdated mindsets of a wife of a British civil servant, which is how most Europeans were in those days, regarding other races and cultures, considering them inferior and unenlightened.  But she loved her life in India, and unlike other European ladies who never ventured very far, she travelled  to the jungle camps with her husband, sleeping in tents, rather than stay back home with the other ladies. It must be noted that in those days the term “Anglo-Indian” also referred to the English in India, not just of mixed race as it does now.

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“I was reading about Eastern embroidery in an English paper, at an Indian camp, and I found myself wondering if the English women imagined what India would be like before they came here like I did, before I married Jack. Before moving here, I thought of it as a shining land of flowers, of white mosques glittering in the sun. I imagined the thronged bazaar full of picturesque merchandise, with stately Hindoos and mystical Parsees bargaining for a piece of engraved steel or the right carpet for the jewelled sandals of Jehan’s queen. I felt the air alive with an ancient charm of bulbuls. I felt the soft magic of air, filled with the sweet sad melody of Omar Khayyam. I imagined the East was all enchanted, compared to the alertness of our Western civilisation.

I brought with me to India an already formed liking, and a genuine interest in the region and its people. Since then I have lost some of my illusions, but it is not that bad after all. I have seen the “thronged bazaar”, the narrow, filthy quarters and roads of every native town, the scene of excited chatterings, for instance, a tousle-headed coolie woman, the veriest Witch of Endor who ever sold grain cakes. She tied the coins into a corner of the gruesome rag which draped her old brown shrivelled body, like the most grotesque of medieval gargoyles carved rudely out of rough wood.
I have seen a stately Hindoo bargaining with the tin-man for an old padlock with noisy gesticulations. Most alarming, until Jack laughed and assured me both were conducting the business quite amicably; and indeed when I looked at the tin-man sitting cross-legged in the middle of his wares, I had to acknowledge that he did not look very much perturbed.  Then he curled himself up among his wares and went to sleep again, his native laziness stronger even than his love of annas.
Imagery I have found in plenty but it is not imagery of the poet –the breezes which blow through the trees come, alas, laden with the foul odours of an unsanitary, crowded, disease-laden native village than spiced with the breath of flowers. Still there is much to interest. Women draw water at the well with earthen water-pots. The patient ox with his mild brown eyes still treads out the corn. The grave, bearded Mohammedan still kneels at evening in the field or by the roadside with his face toward the setting sun to worship Allah who is great. The Eyoh patiently tills the earth and lives on the fruits thereof – he is contented with little and grateful for less. He is a perfect master in the art of cultivation. He is a simple grain-eating creature, born on the land and living on it, but he is not without intelligence.

At home, Periamal and Rukmini (maids) grin and chatter on their way, none the less happy because life presents no problems to their untutored minds. Sometimes Ramaswamy may beat them if his food is not cooked on time, or if the annas do not seem to go far enough in “curry stuffs”, but they are on the whole no worse off than their more enlightened sisters. Women bring their own contributions to the household exchequer, and are generally treated with the respect due to any moneymaking animal. They do not think themselves much injured by the blows, which they share in common with the patient and invaluable bullock.

One knows very little in England about either native or Anglo-Indian life. To begin with Jack, he is a Collector. When I heard this in England I felt a little strange. I could only think of a seedy person in a rusty coat with a sheaf of papers in one hand and a black bag in the other. But I soon found out that a collector is really a sort of small Lord Lieutenant in his own district only with very much more to do than the other two Lord Lieutenants I have known. Nothing in his district – which is usually as large as an Irish province – is outside his business. He is the Aunt Sally for all belligerents. To the Eyoh he is “his god to protect him” – to the staff he is the giver of appointments, and promotions, which means rupees. To the average European he represents a fair income too easily earned, while to the government he is a working machine to weave its different systems and varying details into one whole, as harmonious and as cheap as possible.

Part of the year he is bound to spend in camp, so that the British may mean something more than just a name to the jungle subjects of the Queen Empress. Some men think that a “Missis” is out of place in camp but we have often gone together – Jack and I and the dogs, and taken the rough with the smooth like good comrades. And a little roughing it does a Missis no harm. When she has been in Headquarters for some time she begins to grumble over the dullness of up-country life on a station, where the few Europeans meet at tennis and the club, dine with each other now and then, and pass and re-pass each other on their evening drives; but where life is limited in every sense of that expressive word. There is something pathetic in the efforts whereby the Anglo-Indian up-country Memsahib contrives to delude herself with the idea that she is keeping up with the usages of society and not drifting hopelessly behind the times. The most distinct and prominent feature of up-country Anglo-Indian life is monotony and an entire absence of humour. Perhaps it is the climate. Anglo-Indians, who are as a body tied and bound to officialdom, have no time to waste on new ideas. Their work is enough, and more than enough, for their energies.

It is a safe general rule that everything in India is the absolute opposite to English ideas. If two men shout at each other with wild excitement and gesticulations, there is no need to conclude that they are fighting. It is only their way of managing a friendly chat. If a native chirrups to his bullock he wishes him to stop; the tailor sews from left to right; the carpenter puts in his screws the reverse way; and so on all through the social gamut. As one drives past spreading avenues of banyans and tamarind trees, one passes many curious and unaccustomed sights to Western eyes. Rude Hindoo wayside shrines, where groups of bizarre red and white pottery horses and grotesque images keep guard over their swami, and strange, roughly carved temples. One of the largest and most interesting idols and one of its kind we passed by in our wanderings was the Monkey God, of which Jack took a photograph. This shrine is roofless, as the Monkey Lord is supposed to be perpetually growing. “You ought to give him an umbrella at least, poor chap,” said Jack irreverently to the smiling and indifferent “thasildar” who was our cicerone on the occasion.

Scarcely any of these better-class Hindoos here know the meaning of any of the symbols surrounding their temples, though they invent answers which suit the unofficial enquirer just as well; but I have never met any of them who could explain the origin of a sort of cross between a lamp-post and a flagstaff to be found in front of many temples in this district. My apology is due to the antiquaries for this irreverent description of the symbol. They take very little interest in their religion and any vitality which Hindooism possesses among the non-Brahmins is nowadays left to the women. Along the roadside are many wayside graves, of pilgrims who were buried where they died, with here and a European soldier’s grave; and whitewashed Mohammedan tombs illumined, if not long forgotten, by a little lamp whose dim neglected flicker only gives a greater loneliness to the scene. Indian jungle life is busy, and the cultivators work hard, though no people can enjoy leisure with a more luxurious abandonment to the bliss of being, without doing. All Plantations of castor-oil trees with long stems of silvery-purple bloom in the distance; tall nut palms outline themselves against the still, cloudless sky, and spreading plantains make dark rich shade. And everywhere there is a sense of illimitable space.

But the Indian jungle with all its beauty and all its colours lacks that intangible peace which touches the heart in the soft cool grey English country. No one really knows India, but those who have never been in the jungle,  know least. It is in such backwaters that you most plainly hear “the East a-calling” with the voice of bygone mysterious centuries of a civilisation as conservative as the ages hold. One cannot but wonder how many generations it will take the Babu to forget the inherited traditions and instincts of those dim centuries; to eliminate the fatalism and indolence of his race; to cease to be afraid of any approach to personal responsibility, and be fit to take on his shoulders a European-made self government.

During my Indian years I have been in many camps, but of late Jack has always gone alone – and more conventional places, things and people have amused me. But there is little new to write of Viceroys and governments, dinner-gowns and ball-frocks. Environment is the only essential difference between social Anglo-India and social Europe, environment and its consequent limitations.  Of governments, rupees, politics, progress and suchlike even the most loyal and conservative of memsahibs had better not write, lest perchance she speak lightly of dignitaries; lest she should speak of the vanished hopes and crippled lives of men who have given to duty the best of their mental, moral and physical being, to become at last the puppets of a mistaken policy as distasteful to native minds as it is to European feelings; a policy which thrusts on an apathetic and unwilling people a local self-government for which they are not ready, and augurs to them an unlimited right of appeal which makes capacity only another factor in the sum of the Civilian’s dissatisfaction, and any personal influence or individuality he may possess superfluous or embarrassing. Still he spares himself nothing the less because he has lost all hope and pleasure in his work, or because success is no longer the achievement. But a truce to politics. This ramble has grown apace.

Jack and I will go upstairs and see the children in their little beds, under the swinging punkhas; then we will go and sit outside in the moonlight, and talk of anything – everything – rather than the nearing day when, after one or two more hot weathers, we will take them across the dark water [to Europe]; to return alone to the large empty familiar house, and the new consciousness that for us, as for most of us out here, in India, this shining land has lost its glory and become a land of regrets. Meanwhile the night is beautiful, we are still together, and the children sleep. Let us talk long and think as little as we can; too much thought is bad. Time enough to bid sorrow good morrow when one meets it, and the memsahib has no wish to forecast the future.”

 

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