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  • Published 7.07.06
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Daughters of the Empire: A Memoir of Life and Times in the British Raj
By Iris Macfarlane,
Oxford, Rs 450

?There was always India though,? thought the young Iris Macfarlane, worried that she would never get a proposal, ?the provider of husbands for girls and jobs for boys, our inevitable and face-saving destination.? Yet what did this face-saving cost? That is the story Macfarlane captures, picking her way through the letters, diaries, memories and stories of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, the three women before her who went ?out? to India to be with their husbands and sent their children ?home? to be educated.

India may have been the ?destination? for the empire-builders, but it was never ?home?. The ?touch of the tarbrush?, that is, contact with Anglo-Indians or children of British fathers and Indian mothers, was considered far more terrible than the indifference of distant kin in the homes the children were sent back to, and the loneliness they suffered in British boarding schools. The myopia and heartlessness this system represented were inherited from mid-Victorian times ? Maria, the author?s great-grandmother, went ?out? in 1852. For the non-elite but non-working-class women of Macfarlane?s mother?s family, accepted practice, enhanced and hardened by the noble duties imposed by imperialist aspiration, could not be questioned.

The misery of generations of raj children, their occasional untimely deaths, the uncertainties of illness and deliveries ? the ?Botched Birth of Basil? for example ? comprise one aspect of the peculiarly insecure lives of the women of Macfarlane?s background in India. There was, somehow, never quite enough money to carry out things smoothly at home, such as the children?s education, although that did not mean fewer servants or parties wherever they were in India. The women might have to move enormous distances, sometimes by foot and boat (Maria in 1857), and later by train, when fleeing from the dangers their men must face. Macfarlane?s flight to Calcutta from Assam when the Japanese were marching in is horrific, yet she was a memsahib travelling with her baby and cat in a compartment shut to desperate Indians.

A sense of rootlessness haunts the children of the empire builders. With an ill husband in Shillong, Macfarlane feels, ?The war was out there, but here on a lumpy mattress we hoped so terribly for the best. We had no money, no home, an uncertain future, a very short shared past; but happiness was the circle of arms and the rain on the roof.? The war is always ?out there?, and the book evokes, through letters and memories from the 1850s to the 1960s, a restive subcontinent pushing its colonizers to extremes of physical hardship. The experiences are compartmentalized, mirroring the fractured values and inadequate imagination of the invaders. The disgust for brown skins was ?natural?, as was the separation from their own children. Macfarlane admits that she did not think ?they? had feelings, ?they? existed in a kind of brown blur in a beautiful landscape, useful only as servants.

But she grows slowly out of the accepted and the inherited, recognizing her life in India as a prison, where she can neither develop her own talents nor relate to its people. Perhaps it is this soul-wearying boredom that frustrated the lively women who went ?out? before her, and resulted in moods, scenes and breakdowns. It is a sense of lives unfulfilled, rather than of a great adventure, that the women of the empire leave behind.