The authentic past

There is nothing to beat documentary evidence

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 10.02.18
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It is a loss to Indian historiography that more Indians didn't write memoirs. Fewer still left papers for interested posterity to sift through. David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn talk of the importance of India's oral traditions and telling silences. But there's nothing to beat documentary evidence. Having said that, I must admit that records have little chance of survival under the tender ministrations of our officially appointed custodians, especially at a time when dominant circles in India seem to prefer an invented past to actual happenings.

Malavika Karlekar is to be complimented therefore for editing and publishing her mother's diary, Days with Dinko and other Memories. This week, Britain is celebrating 100 years of the right to vote being extended to (some) women, following a long and heroic struggle by suffragists and suffragettes. That was nearly half a century after the framework for schooling of all British children between the ages of five and twelve was in place. Political rights followed the right to education in orderly progression unlike in India where education has still to catch up with politics. The width of the gap is evident in Monica Chanda's wistful comment in Days with Dinko (Dinko being a pet deer), "Had I been allowed to attend college, I might have been more alive to the situation" during the Swaraj ferment around her. Edward Said might have dismissed her milieu as a mutated extension of the Occident designed further to subdue and impress the Orient. But Days with Dinko is a rare Indian account in English of life in the first half of the 20th century by a writer who is innocently unconscious of her privileged position as both a bridge between two worlds and a witness to history.

Her world set the trend of serving the national interest within the system, as the highly anglicized Monomohun Ghose, advised. He was India's first practising barrister and joint founder (with Keshub Chandra Sen) of the nationalist newspaper, Indian Mirror. Ghose's success as a criminal lawyer rested on defending victims of official injustice and exposing flaws in the administration which were detailed in his book, Administration of Justice in India. His encouragement of young Indians to qualify for the administration or professions in England so as to dilute British authority and ensure Indians had a voice in decision-making prompted Michael Madhusudan Dutt to call him "Protector of Indian Emigrants proceeding to Europe". Ghose's childhood friend, Satyendranath Tagore, first breached the white citadel of the Indian Civil Service. Ghose's three protégés, Romesh Chunder Dutt, Behari Lal Gupta and Surendranath Banerjea, followed five years later. Monica's father, Jnanendra Nath Gupta, a Balliol man, did so in 1892. Philip Mason's comment that an Indian Civilian "had to behave as though he were an Englishman, giving twenty or thirty times a day decisions which were based on a foreign system of thought" was especially applicable to these pioneers who straddled two cultures.

Among the women who had freed themselves from servitude in the kitchen, Kamalmani Thakur and Krishnabhabini Das crossed the kalapani. Chandramukhi Bose, Kamini Sen, Kumudini Khastagir and Sarala Devi (teachers) and Kadambini Ganguly and Jamini Sen (doctors) suggested matrimony wasn't a woman's only destiny. Kadambini Ganguly and Swarnakumari Tagore attended the Bombay Congress. Satyendranath's wife, Jnanadanandini Devi, went to viceregal receptions without her husband. Her "Brahmika Saree" solved the dilemma of traditionally diaphanous attire that exposed more than it concealed as Saudamini Khastagir (who married Behari Lal) complained in spirited articles in the Bamabodhini Patrika. Nudged by his wife, Durga Mohan Das sent his daughters to Annette Akroyd's Hindu Mahila Bidyalaya in "Baniapookur Lane" instead of marrying them off, which would have been cheaper. It was just as well he did do so because two of the daughters - Sarala (Mrs P.K. Roy) and Abala (Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose's wife) - blossomed into formidable reformers. Saroj Nalini Dutt, daughter of one ICS officer (Brajendranath De) and wife of another (Gurusaday Dutt), blazed a feminist trail.

Perhaps formal education might have enabled Monica Chanda to match their achievements. Her mother (Romesh Chunder's daughter) had attended "the school run by a Miss Pigot", to quote her daughter and editor. Actually Miss Pigot was a celebrity, head of the Scottish zenana mission from 1870 to 1883 and the subject of a cause célèbre in India and Britain while the Ilbert Bill agitation was at its hysterical height. Saudamini Khastagir also attended her school. Despite the advantage of birth, Monica doesn't seem to have gone to school regularly, and to college not at all although she undertook gruelling weekly journeys on foot, by boat, train and tikka gharry to attend piano lessons. There is no lack of lively awareness in her diary; the deficiency is of book learning which says something about the attitude to girl children even in society's top echelons. It was almost as if her otherwise emancipated parents shared the prejudice of the 19th-century poet, Iswar Gupta, who lampooned the modern woman for speaking a foreign tongue, eating with fork and spoon, not being able to sit on a piri (low stool), driving her own car in Garer Math (Fort's field, as Bengalis called Calcutta's Maidan), wearing boots and smoking cheroots.

That caricatured the womenfolk of what Dwijendralal Tagore dubbed Ingabanga (Anglo-Bengali) society. The word itself was innocuous enough but it was less objectively translated as "Anglomaniac" and "England-worshipping" by its envious detractors. Social eminence apart, the Ingabanga was politically more significant than is usually acknowledged. Being closest to the centre of power, they felt the lash of racist colonialism most acutely. They also had the means of responding with dignity and decorum. They were a fairly close-knit group. As Monica Chanda's father's first cousin, Behari Lal, may have had a hand in arranging his marriage to his closest friend's daughter. They were not monocultural, living on several planes simultaneously. While Monomohun Ghose's wife wore gowns and Jnanadanandini Devi rode a horse, Romesh Chunder's wife remained a strict Hindu. It was also a flexible group, constantly expanding through absorption, as is evident from the admission that various males (her father and husband included) came from "different social backgrounds".

You wouldn't suspect it from the artless observations and simple style but Days with Dinko isn't a child's diary. It's reflection in retrospect. The author was persuaded to put pen to paper when she was in her seventies. She did so with a sense of sequence that is awesome, especially since she didn't have notes or reference books. Obviously, she passed her memories through the sieve of mature judgment. Her acknowledgment of India's debt to Curzon for preserving antiquities recalls Nehru's tribute that Curzon would be remembered after all other viceroys are forgotten. A disapproving reference to the Communal Award which many think led to Partition or the complaint of Bengal's revenues being siphoned off to other states may suggest hindsight. Despite a Rassundari Debi here and a Mohini Khastagir there, the interlocutors and interpreters, male or female, of that age were mostly Europeans - officials, missionaries, travellers, teachers and their wives. Intentionally or not, they reaffirmed Said's famous comment "The Orient was almost a European invention" by creating a picture of ideas, images and representations that proclaimed the East as an exotic Other. Not only does Days with Dinko provide an antidote but it takes the Ingabanga lifestyle for granted. The term is never used here for no member of its inner circle ever betrayed any awareness of its distinctive features. Their reticence shows the Other can also be the norm.

The more important message is to Malavika Karlekar's peers to follow her example. Surviving parents and grandparents should be persuaded to disgorge their memories. India needs its authentic past.