Love and lust in India
Sally Howard, accompanied by Delhi girl Dimple, set out on a sexploration of India by plane, train and autorickshaw. The outcome was her book, The Kama Sutra Diaries. An extract
- Published 15.12.13
Ours was a one-sexed society, with women hanging onto the edges... Some chased polo balls and some chased partridge. Some took up the most unlikely hobbies, and some went to diseased harlots... and some married in haste, only to worry over who was seducing their wives in the hill stations where they had seduced so many other people's wives.
— Lieutenant Colonel John Masters on life in the British Army in the 1930s
Sexual dynamics underpinned the Victorian British Empire and its successful expansion. Indeed, the growth of the British Empire was as much powered by "copulation and concubinage", as Cambridge historian Dr Ronald Hyam puts it, as it was by "Christianity and commerce".
For Victorians suffering a restriction of sexual freedoms at home, India's concubines, eunuchs and lotus-eyed ladies would prove unsettling and, for many, irresistible. In the early days of the twentieth century, the incidence of venereal disease among the army at home in Britain was 40 soldiers per 1,000, whereas in India it was 110 per 1,000. In 1887, a correspondent to the Pall Mall Gazette spoke for many when he bemoaned the tendency of colonial administrators to form "immoral" relations in India, leaving their values back home "along with Crosse and Blackwell's pickles or Keen's mustard".
For British men stationed in India, the creation of the Empire provided exuberant possibilities for sexual experimentation. As another Cambridge historian, Roy Porter, put it, "For many English travellers, exotic parts and peoples were realizations of fantasies, sources of sexual or mystical discovery, havens for scoundrels and screwballs, ways of jumping the rails of Western Classical-Christian Civilization."
In Shimla, Dimple and I are staying at Wildflower Hall, a property that's now a luxury hotel, but was once the stately pile of a man who embodies Shimla's reputation for sexual heterodoxy: Herbert, First Earl Kitchener. In this fine alpine setting, Kitchener is remembered as the "Jhungi Lat Sahib" or great warlord. He was the Commander-In-Chief of India from 1902 to 1909, though in the West he is most famous today as the army general behind the First World War enlistment campaign "Your Country Needs You"...
In North Africa, as contemporary journalist Patrick Barkham put it, Kitchener had acquired the "officer's failing... a taste for buggery"; and in Shimla, Kitchener maintained a habit from his days in Egypt of surrounding himself with an eager bunch of unmarried officers he nicknamed "Kitchener's happy band of boys".
Another take on his sexual taste comes from historian A.N. Wilson. "When the great field marshal stayed in aristocratic houses," Wilson said in the 2009 BBC documentary The Victorians, "the well-informed young would ask servants to sleep across their bedroom threshold to impede his entrance. Kitchener's compulsive objective was sodomy, irrespective of gender."
Kitchener also had no use for married men on his staff, cultivated a great interest in Robert Baden-Powell's Boy Scout moment, avoided interviews with women wherever possible and decorated his rose garden at Shimla with bronze sculptures of naked boys...
Kitchener wasn't the only one up to mischief in Shimla's foothills; far from it. From the earliest days of its position as the summer capital of the Raj, it became a place for British men, including convalescing and holidaying soldiers, to enjoy a spot of restorative "jiggy-jig", and one where the sexual ethics in operation on the Indian plains, and certainly back home in Britain, were temporarily suspended.
In 1890, Diwan Jeewan Das, Minister of the Raja of Kapurthala, summed up the atmosphere at Shimla as most people saw it: a place where "gaiety, frivolity and sex indulgence" reigned. That was a far cry from the public morality of buttoned-up, pinned-down Victorian Britain.
The following morning, Dimple and I are bouncing downhill on the back seat of an Ambassador cab. We're with Raaja Chopra, a historian who's spent his career researching the larger-than-life characters who peopled Shimla during its 80 years as the Raj summer capital. Raaja has arranged for us to be dropped at the lower edge of town, at Cart Road, to take in a little of the atmosphere of Shimla present, as we consider the excesses of Shimla past...
"The Grass Widows were wives of Raj officials who were spending the summer in Shimla while their husbands remained on the plains." Raaja continues the conversation we'd started in the cab. "'Grass' was probably a reference to the fresher mountain air. These women were famous for their sexual escapades. They earned themselves nicknames: the 'Charpoy Cobra', charpoy being a traditional woven bed; the 'Subaltern's Guide', named for her taste for subalterns or junior officers; the 'Bed-and-Breakfast', who explains herself; and my own personal favourite, the 'Passionate Haystack'."
"Not everyone was happy about these predatory older women during the Raj," continues Raaja. "I have something here that will give you an idea." With this, he pulls us away from the crowds, into an alcove next to a hole-in-the-wall bangle store. He extracts a small wad of papers from his belted suit trousers. It's a 1913 cutting about the Grass Widows from a local publication, lampooning the "seasoned spinsters and speculating mammas", and the latters' complaint that the Grass Widows are "collecting and enticing away all the eligible bachelors from the unmarried generation".
The most prominent of Meghalaya's tribes are the Khasi, who predominate in the city we'll stay in for the next five days: the Meghalayan capital, Shillong. Khasi women dress in the Jainsem and Dhara, wrap skirts and one-shouldered pinafores that give the body an elegant, column-like silhouette.
It's a look, to most foreign eyes, that is bizarrely out of synch with this wild-flower-dotted hill community, like the Vogue fashion department arriving en masse in small-town Scotland.
The practice of matrilineal inheritance among the Khasi has lately become politicised, thanks to Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (which loosely translates as "Home Hearth Restructured"), an increasingly vocal Khasi men's rights movement that is lobbying to reclaim what it sees as the lost glory of "U Rangbah", the Khasi male, through reforms to Khasi inheritance laws and social mores.
Keith Pariat, president of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai, makes for an unlikely grassroots agitator. He's kindly looking, a late middle-aged man with expressive crinkles around his eyes, the outline of his vest clearly visible through his neatly ironed shirt. We've arranged to meet him and other key SRT members at Earle Holiday Home, a hotel complex on the outskirts of Shillong city centre with an aquatic-themed novelty restaurant and canary yellow-painted entrance foyer. The latter's where we're seated now, on squeaky faux-leather easy chairs surrounded by plastic umbrella plants.
Pariat married a khaduh. His wife now runs the family's main business, a chain of general stores, while he manages his own small transportation company.
"When I married I left my father and mother's house to go to my wife's kin house," he tells us. "When a woman does this, as women do all over India, she can adapt: women are subtle and softly spoken... But men cannot adapt. I could not adapt. As husbands of khaduh we feel we are sidelined; as if all we are there for is to breed.
"For example," he continues, without giving us pause to interject, "I am only allowed to get involved in the family business at Christmas. Then my wife lets me dress the shop windows, because I have the artistic touch."...
Dimple is seated across the foyer, beneath a framed 3D picture of plastic flowers and next to Rivertis Patriong, a Khasi lonely heart. Rivertis is a 39-year-old seismological officer for the Indian government who hopes that the agitations of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai will change Khasi society sufficiently to help him find a bride.
"Although I'm educated and have a great job, none of the local girls even looks at me," he complains. "They all want to marry men from outside: white men, or men from [patriarchal] India, confident Marathi businessmen, who come in and take over all of the Khasi property."
"He's the victim, the victim!" Pariat interrupts vigorously. "The Khasi girls don't respect us. They want to marry outsiders. There was a study last year by the Meghalaya Women's Commission of Khasi girls of marriageable age. 100 per cent said they would prefer to marry a man from outside rather than a Khasi man — 100 per cent!"
"Why?" asks Dimple, looking unconvinced.
"Well, they think that Khasi men are useless," Pariat explains. "And partly they are right. Many of our young men who marry will let their wives shoulder all responsibility and enjoy life. They'll impregnate another Khasi girl, or turn to drink. There's more money about now, so they can get tight on imported whisky. And this is our fault." He leans forward, putting his shirt-sleeved elbows on his knees as he extemporises.
"It is the fault of our weak, matrilineal society. We of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai say that men must rule. We are more emotionally stable. We are not hysterical like women. And we say that unless men become the first sex we will go extinct!"
Excerpted from The Kama Sutra Diaries: Intimate Journeys Through Modern India by Sally Howard, to be published in India by Westland/ Tranquebar in March 2014. With permission from Nicholas Brealey Publishing.