British Empire Books

Night Falls on Siva's Hill

AuthorEdward Thompson

"Out here we all feel we're somebody, and are doing something. Once we go home,it's different; we're nobodies, in a nation mostly consisting of nobodies. But there's a necessity laid on us to fool ourselves somehow, that we still matter. And it isn't easy - except for the insensitive and complacent, who, thank God! seem to be ina decent majority."

This is a period piece of fiction that follows the fortunes of an Englishman and his two daughters in one of the more isolated areas of the Indian sub-continent. It concentrates on one of the key issues important to Briton's in India at that time - social standing and acceptability in 'proper' society. The father figure himself had been forced to give up his own promising military career when he married what was regarded as an unsuitable woman. He finds out to his cost that even his wife forsakes him when she realises that he is no longer as socially important and desirable as he was. He therefore takes up the position of a Zemindari (landlord) position in a rather backwood's part of India. His only solace being his two beautiful daughters. However, life becomes complicated when his favourite daughter wants to marry the son of the Colonel who ejected him from his regiment. Can the family be held together?

The book is certainly no literary masterpiece. And yet, it holds several small gems of information that would not be caught by historians or commentators of imperial history. It is clear that the author no stranger to Imperial India and so is capable of adding some powerful insights into his story. Just as an example, here is his commentary on the role of a Zemindari:

"The zemindari job could bring in respectable returns, when run with honesty and reasonableness. But it brought in larger and quicker returns, when run otherwise. There were various ways of fleecing the tenant. You could force him to accept an assessment that you made in a bumper year - if his was a tenancy under an agreement by which you took a proportion of his crop by way of rent. The return in a year when rain and sun had been alike propitious was assumed as the norm, and the same gross landlord's share was demanded and enforced in a famine year. Or, to enhance the rent, you trumped up a complaint, and gave his land to another; this might be illegal, but ryots (tenants) had not yet learnt to be as litigious as they now are, even (or especially) against a European. There were other methods of lining your pockets. You might compel villages to grow the crops you preferred, against their will; thus, great tracts had been laid down in indigo and opium, when these were profitable, and the cultivators paid a price which was starvation. Planters had kept lathials, retainers armed with cudgels, who beat recalcitrant or burned their huts about their ears.

So, just this one paragraph carries a wealth of information about the darker aspects of British imperial history - of profit above humanity. And it is conveyed in a very matter of fact, personal way. This is not an anti-imperialist tome by any stretch of the imagination - in fact, it is quite the opposite. The vast majority of the story revolves around the white community, with the local Indians being little more than bit players in the background.

All in all, this book casts some interesting light on some unexpected shadows of imperial history.

Buy this book at: Amazon

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by Stephen Luscombe