This book purports to be a series of beautiful and eloquently written letters passing to an 'unknown' English Gentlewoman from an Indian Judge. It charts a fascinating literal friendship that covers the late days of the Imperial Raj. The letters began after a single chance encounter between the pair at a party: The wife of an English Colonel and the young Indian judge started a correspondence that was to last a lifetime. The letters only travel in one direction, but for imperial historians, that direction is almost certainly the more interesting of the two. They manage to cast light on all sorts of interesting areas of Imperial India, Burma and Britain by a highly gifted and literate primary witness.
The letters chart the rise of the career of an Indian in the imperial judicial system with all the pitfalls and advantages that his position bestows upon him. He is initially posted to Burma where, as a young man, he is exposed to both the opportunities that Imperialism could offer an educated man like himself, but also the limitations and expectation of his position in a strictly heirarchical society. He finds that he is only welcome at the European clubs when he is accompanied by his European boss. If he tries to enter by himself, he feels the prejudices and antipathy of the ruling elite. He also works under what he regards as the best and worst of Imperial Britons. He describes his first boss, Mr Chelston, as being ruthlessly fair, honest and compassionate. The kind of person who exudes leadership and confidence and somebody that the subject Indians and Burmans would gladly follow as a just and wise ruler. After an unfortunate illness, a rite of passage that many imperial sons of daughters had to risk and endure, he died. This led the author to encounter the opposite and less inspiring imperial overlord. He describes this successor, Mr Nigel Hill, as cold, aloof and deeply cynical. He cares not a jot for India or Indians and is only in the East to make a living and gain a pension. In his defence, the author explains that Mr Hill is efficient, intelligent and honest, but the author cannot bring himself to like or admire this kind of imperial bureaucrat. It's observations like these that make the book worth reading. Seeing why people moved to the East, their styles in doing their jobs and ruling over the local peoples. Although highly simplistic and collapsed in time scale, you can almost feel the passing of the age of the imperial adventurer and his being replaced by the rigidly professional technocrat: Swagger and bravado being replaced by the ruthlessly efficient. It's not hard to see why that most vital of imperial imgredients was being eclipsed and lost forever: Mystique.
Light is also inevitably shed on the Indians of the Raj. The role of tradition, the caste system, the family and generational divisions are all expounded upon with a wisdom that combines the best elements of the East and West. I could readily identify with his metaphor for life as being like the strands of a carpet, where the same people, places and ideas keep making their entrances and exits. He also describes how it takes at least three generations to shake out inappropriate or outdated traditions and customs. His father was the first in his family to be educated and was enlightened enough to send the author to school. He is therefore in the second generational timeframe, so he has mostly shaken off the vestiges of tradition and the more harmful of local customs. However, he cannot break himself completely from the calling of his culture. His society forces him to marry an uneducated woman whom he neither loves nor greatly cares for. She is fixed firmly in the first generational timeframe and wants nothing more than to have babies and work in the house. She believes in the local customs, traditions and, fatefully for one of their daughters, in the local medicine. The author prays that his children will pass into a third generation of tolerance and compassion. And is proved by one son to be beautifully correct, but by another as horribly wrong. Indeed, personal triumph and tragedy are hallmarks that pepper this book and turn it into a most moving and personal narrative.
At one point, the author is selected to travel to Britain for the round table meetings that brought Gandhi such fame and ridicule at the time. The author is then free to describe the mother country in his unique style and from his vantage point. He pokes fun at the British reverence for tradition, especially tradition that serves no purpose; like the Bishop who has to knock on his own cathedral's door to gain access before services. Why this is so, nobody can explain, but the tradition is rigidly adhered to. He is also adamant that Britain has a caste system far more rigid than anything found in India and how all the various classes would love to live in a country without having to endure the existence of the other classes. However, he is also surprised at the tolerance he finds in Britain. He explains how he watched a political rabble rouser espouse revolutionary and treasonable utterances under the watchful gaze of a couple of sleepy policemen. He can't help comparing the situation to India, where anybody saying anything against the rulers would result in the police taking a far from peaceful response. The author is more of an eyewitness to the incongruities and inconsistencies of imperial rule than he would have realised at the time. Indeed, he would have regarded himself as a pillar of the ruling establishment, but still cannot help himself from subliminally transmitting very effective and accurate criticisms of imperialism and seeing where the seeds for its own destruction had been lain: This is one of the key reasons to read the book. The book also illustrates how a loyal servant can grow within a system only to find problems, disappointments and ultimately personal tragedy. He finds himself torn between cultures and eventually being, to a certain extent, rejected by both communities. This book was a pure pleasure to read and allowed me to share in a world that has since passed away. It is written in a style that is eloquent and intelligent, yet easy to comprehend. You should take the time to read this collection of beautifully written letters.
It should be noted that the anonymous nature of these letters has meant that their veracity cannot be vindicated. There is evidence that the book is at least partially a work of fiction. However, the fact that so many people have read it assuming it is non-fiction means that the author was touching very close to the nerve and obviously had considerable knowledge of the subject.
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