The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Life in the zenanah was not so boring after all

Mirza Abu Taleb, a Lucknowy nobleman, boarded a barge in Calcutta on the first of Ramadan, AH 1213. He sailed to Cape Town, where he found Boer women quite wanton in consorting with passing sailors. He sailed on to Cork. From there he made his way to London, where he stayed for two years and five months. He found it expensive; finally he rented a house in a street peopled by ladies of easy virtue. On the tenth day of Safar, AH 1217, he set out in a stage coach for Dover. He travelled through France and Italy, and took a ship from Genoa to Istanbul. From there he travelled, mostly on horseback, across the Ottoman Empire ' today's Turkey and Iraq ' to Basra. Thence he sailed to Bombay, where he arrived on the tenth of Safar, AH 1218 ' 3 June 1803. His travelogue, whose latest edition, edited by Mushirul Hasan (Westward Bound: Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb, Oxford) was reviewed by Uddalak Mukherjee in The Telegraph on July 10 last year ' has been popular for the oriental view of the West it offered.

Less noticed is what he tells us about our own civilization. In England he was assailed by a lady who thought that the orientals' treatment of their women was execrable. In reply, the Mirza wrote a spirited defence. According to him, women in England had to go out on the streets because of inconveniences not suffered by Indian women. For one thing, England was expensive; so husbands could not afford separate houses for their wives. So they had to eat together, sleep together, and be together whether they liked it or not. Indian women, on the other hand, had their own apartments. If they felt like it, they could spend days together with their sahelis in the zenanah, away from the husband, just sending him his food in the murdannah.

Further, Britain was cold. That forced the husband to share the bed with his wife for warmth. But they could not stay in bed forever; they had to get out sometimes and brave the cold. The best antidote against cold was walking. But there was hardly room in an English house for a walk; so poor women had to venture out on the streets.

England was lucky in having a homogeneous population with uniformly good manners. In India, there were foreigners around; intercourse with them could cause corruption of manners. Before the Mussulmans entered Hindoostan, Hindoo women went about with uncovered faces. Now, however, a Hindoo bride would not show her face even to her father-in-law ' or a sister to her brother.

Englishwomen could not avoid meeting men because they had to help husbands in their businesses. Indian women would not do business; they only managed their husbands' property. They loved leisure; motion fatigued them. They would not want to go into the streets and mix with the vulgar or be insulted by the low and the rude; neither did the wives of European noblemen, who always went about in a coach.

Indian women's lives were not so boring as Englishwomen thought. They could walk in gardens from which all men were kept out. They could meet their relations at meals or hop into a palanquin and visit them or other ladies of rank. They could call dancers and musicians home to entertain them. Englishwomen found it shocking that an Indian could have many wives. Hardly 5 per cent of the men married more than once, for the rest knew that it was easier to live with two tigresses than two women. But if some men married many wives, that was only fair, for a wife made herself unavailable so often. She became pregnant or suckled a child, or went off to her parents'. And additional wives were not so bad for the first wife. If they were of genteel extraction, they lived separately in their own houses, just like mistresses in England. If they were not, they lived like servants in the zenanah, and the husband visited them stealthily. Their children, it was true, could share in his inheritance. But what inheritance could the poor fellow leave' All his money went in repaying the extravagant dowry his first wife brought.

The husband could, it was true, divorce his wife at will. That was only fair, since he had had to do all the work and go to war while the wife lived in repose. But hardly any husband ever divorced his wife. If she offended him in a small way, such as by showing a feminine temper, he just moved out of the house. If the offence was bigger, he could chastize her. But if he starved her or did not distribute his company fairly amongst his wives, she could sue for divorce.

In an Indian court of justice, evidence, to be admissible, had to be supported by the testimony of two men, but four women. That was not because they were inferior; they were just inexperienced, ignorant and fickle.

Indian women had to stop wearing nice dresses and going to entertainments after their husbands died. But that was only because of their affection for their husbands. They could go ahead and have a good time if they were prepared to brave the opprobrium of women of their rank. Indian girls, it was true, could not choose their own husbands. But neither could English girls; if they chose a boy their parents disapproved of, they had to run away, just like some slaves in India. How could the impetuous choice of a girl straight out of the nursery, lusting for a man, compare with that of her experienced and dispassionate parents' Indian women were not worse off; they were actually more privileged than English women. They were in charge of the children, who grew up in the zenanah, and were more attached to their mothers than to their fathers. In the event of divorce, they kept their daughters; Englishwomen lost all their children to the father.

They were in charge of their servants; even their husbands' servants lived in fear of them. Unlike Englishwomen, who were like guests in their husbands' houses, an Indian woman was the mistress. The kitchen was in the zenanah; if the wife did not send him food, the husband would starve. Unlike an Englishwoman, who could not spend a night away from her husband and who had to find a male escort to accompany her when she went out, an Indian woman could go and spend a week away with a female friend of hers. There, her husband could not visit her, but a 15-year-old youth could walk into the zenanah on the pretext of being a child.

If an Indian husband offended his wife, she could set off to her father's house with her children and property; the husband would have a hard time persuading her to come back. In fact, she was trained to be difficult. And it was her right to tease her husband. She was well advised to tease him, for her beauty without would lose its charm if she did not make him dance to her tune.

Well, those were the days!

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