Archive for Anglo-Indian relationships

Amongst the Royals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

HH Yadavindra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, and his family's legendary diamond

HH Yadavindra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, and his family’s legendary diamond

The best-known images of India are probably Bollywood glamour, sidewalk squalor, and British colonial life. We see this in photographs and film. Those lucky enough to visit the Subcontinent will undoubtedly encounter elements of these icons.

Yet most South Asians regard roughly twenty-six hundred years of royal Indian rule as India’s defining history. King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar and the succeeding Mughals, and the many kings of small and large Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, remain points of cultural celebration.

It’s not widely known outside India that the British never held all of India, during their almost three decades of presence on the subcontinent. The British coexisted with kings of areas they called “princely states”; because Queen Victoria was Empress, followed by King George, it would be unseemly to call these men anything other than “princes.” Royal families overseeing kingdoms ranging from a few dozen miles to thousands retained their authority through 1947, when almost all  elected to secede their powers and become part of the new democracy of India. It was a hard decision to give up centuries of rule. Where else but palaces could men wear ten-pound diamond necklaces and get away with it?

The City Palace in Udaipur during rainy season

The City Palace in Udaipur during rainy season

During my time in India last summer, I spent several days soaking up the lifestyle of Rajput kings and queens at the City Palace of Udaipur, Rajasthan The current Maharana still lives in one heavily guarded section. I did not meet him. Arriving just as monsoon broke with heavy rains and lightning at Shiv Niwas, the hotel within the Udaipur City Palace, is my most beautiful memory of the visit.

However, I had a very eerie, claustrophobic sensation in one section of the old palace: the zenana. This is the area of the palace restricted to royal women, their servants, and children. The inlaid floral designs on the marble walls were gorgeous, but the rooms felt so small and hot. The zenana had its own garden, but it was smaller than the other garden spaces of the palace compound.

At Jag Mandir, an island palace meant for summer recreation in Udaipur

At Jag Mandir, an island palace meant for summer recreation in Udaipur

I’ve learned more about the secret lives of secluded women from the memoirs of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first woman lawyer, who was often the only person from the “outside” to meet royal women who were suffering underneath the heavy jewels in the late 1800s and first decade of the 20th century. In the zenana, Cornelia learned about scheming relatives plotting to steal her client’s inheritances, throw their children out of the running for rule, and murder. Her memoirs India Calling and India Recalled relate suspenseful stories of royal women and their children and how she did her best to help.

Indian lawyer Cornelia Sorabji heard the secrets of princesses

Indian lawyer Cornelia Sorabji heard the secrets of princesses

I’m also fascinated by E.M. Forster’s Hill of Devi, a memoir published in 1953 that shares his Indian royal lifestyle during 1912-13 and 1921. Morgan Forster simply adored Asia and Africa; he decided to find a way to support himself in India while he continued work on his novel-in-progress, Passage to India. In Bombay, he was introduced to he Maharaja of Dewas State Senior. The two princely states of Dewas were ruled by the descents of royal brothers, and thus named Senior and Junior; each had its own palace, army, nobility, and dramas. Tukoji Rao III took a shine to Morgan and gave him the title “Private Secretary.”

EM Forster dressed for business as a royal personal secretary

EM Forster dressed for business as a royal personal secretary

This became the ultimate “writer in residence” gig, with Forster holding office hours in the morning and teatime only. He was set up in a guest house with servants, a generous salary, an elegant wardrobe of Indian clothing and other luxuries. As a European working for Indians, it was extremely awkward for British India officials who came to visit the Maharaja. Some officials decided it was easier to ignore his presence rather than admit to the fact that a European was under the employ of an Indian. Morgan, who sided politically and emotionally with Indians, ate it up.

Forster’s palace memories are of thrilling musical evenings, intrigues with other rulers, and most touching, the family rituals. While Cornelia Sorabji’s writing is very compassionate toward the royals, his comments seem meant to coax a knowing laugh. Yet the details are so exact and colorful that only an outsider could have thought to record them for history’s sake.

HH Sir Tukoji Rao III

HH Sir Tukoji Rao III

Here’s an example from Hill of Devi: “The birth of a little baby has turned everything upside down, so far as it wasn’t already in that position. The rites—they are more than customs—are extraordinary, and seem designed to cause the greatest possible discomfort to mother and child. The unfortunate pair have to listen to music outside their door for nearly fifteen days. It began with fireworks and a discharge of rifles from the entire army in batches: then drums, trumpets, stringed instruments and singing. For five days, the husband is supposed not to see his wife, but during the whole fifteen he must sleep in the compound where her house stands and his friends and attendants stay with him and listen to the continual music…”

Forster would rue the music, but if a song came on that he liked, even if it was 3 a.m. he’d slap his turban on and rush out for a close up.

To me, that’s the very definition of a wise traveler.

Love, Indo-American Style

At the India-California wedding

Last weekend I took a long flight with my daughter to a fabulous Indian family wedding with all the bells and whistles. It was a four-day celebration. Although we missed the first night’s cocktail party, we rolled in the next night for the sangeet, a dance party with live Indian music, henna tattoos, a costume jewelry bazaar, and a delicious buffet of authentic Indian dishes I’ve never seen in restaurants. A day of family and friends socializing and grand rehearsal dinner followed. On the penultimate day, bhangra-bopping friends and relatives surrounded the brocade-coated groom who rode across the hotel lawn on a white horse with with golden hoofs. Garlands of roses and marigolds wilted in ninety-degree temperatures, but the guests endured with parasols and fans. In the middle of the Hindu rites, waiters discreetly served the seated guests saucers of sherbet.

There was no scandal or disruption. The bride and groom’s families were both thrilled with the young couple’s moral character, accomplishments, and commitment to each other.
In short–it was like the best kind of wedding out of an upbeat Indian film. But despite the heat and background music, the setting was not the New Delhi of Monsoon Wedding or the Amritsar of Bride and Prejudice. It was a luxury hotel just outside Los Angeles.

Favorite wedding film, Bride and Prejudice

On the wedding ceremony morning, the Sri Lankan hair stylist who was spraying my hair into a suitable design was stunned that I’d never been to a South Asian wedding before. I explained this was because our family settled in the U.S. during the 1960s, a time when Indian immigrants were mostly scientists and engineers. Only in the last twenty years have thousands of Indians with an entrepreneurial bent settled in the United States, giving rise to full-scale Indian weddings.

In my childhood, we shopped for basmati rice and dal at a Middle-Eastern store, because there was no such thing as the South Asian specialty grocer. My sisters and I were excited to study bharatnatyam, the classical dance, but the classes held in an urban park community center were discontinued for lack of numbers. Whenever the Indian professor families in our area wanted to celebrate an Indian religious holiday, they rented space from a Catholic students’ organization. Not enough affluent Indian families had arrived yet to enable the funding of this era’s massive gurdwaras, temples and mosques.

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Built in 1998

Not only are the numbers of Indian cultural centers growing, so is the blending with America. On Sundays, the New York Times always has announcements of young Indian-Americans marrying outside their religion and race. In Los Angeles, the Protestant American groom’s family even wore the formal embroidered silk clothing the bride’s mother had bought for them in Bombay—as well as the nine bridesmaids and seven groomsmen. They performed Indian dances at the sangeet and at the ceremony, listened attentively to the Sanskrit prayers, which the Hindu priest translated into English, so everyone would understand.

As I sat under the California sun with the bride’s family, it seemed to me that Anglo-Indian weddings have come full circle. In the 1600s, When the bachelor officers of the British, Dutch and Portuguese East India companies arrived in India, their most important contacts were women. Young Indian women, who lived with them and taught them the language and the manners they needed to succeed in their specific part of the subcontinent, were sometimes called Sleeping Dictionaries because they were both bedmates and language teachers. Many of the bachelor officers fell in love and married their companions, living completely in the manner of Indian aristocrats. William Dalrymple’s historical account of such people,

White Mughals by William Dalrymple

White Mughals, explains this lifestyle with fascinating detail. Many of the Anglo-Indian sons born of such parents in India were sent to England for higher education, so they could have good careers, and the daughters were married off to prominent English colonials.

But as British still living in England got wind of these multi-cultural marriages, they disapproved. A campaign arose to send English girls in their late teens and twenties to find husbands among the East India company men. Such young ladies were teasingly called the Fishing Fleet, and most of them did land catches of some sort. This social engineering dramatically raised the numbers of British families living in India. Now, the growing Anglo-Indian society was suddenly declasse. The British couldn’t knowingly socialize with Anglo-Indians,let alone continue the custom of interracial marriage. And Anglo-Indians were similarly disparaged by the Indian community, who’d taken note that they’d adopted the language, clothing, and religion of the colonists, and enjoyed the benefit of jobs set aside only for them in the Indian Railways.

After World War II ended in Britain’s favor, its government finally granted independence to India. From 1947 onward, many Anglo-Indians left India to resettle in Britain and Canada. And Indians too had the chance to travel for higher education and jobs. But prejudice was there. It was sometimes hard for Indian students to find landlords willing to rent to Indians, and mixed-race couples were often targets of verbal insults.

Given the unpredictable situation in the U.K., my parents–a European and an Indian in a mixed marriage–crossed the Atlantic, seeking a home where their daughters would hopefully not face that kind of discrimination. And while I do have some hurtful experiences in my past, what is more powerful is my wonder at the number of non-Indians around me wearing bindis on their foreheads and mehndi on their hands, who are mixing India into all kinds of parties and celebrations, just for the fun of it.