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I discovered ‘One Last Look’ by Susanna Moore through a review in Life Wordsmith. I loved the review. Birdy, who wrote the review, was kind enough to lend me the book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

      After several wretched months at sea, Eleanor Oliphant arrives in Calcutta with her brother Henry and sister Harriet. It is 1836, and her beloved Henry has just been appointed England’s new Governor-General for India. Eleanor is to be his official hostess.

      Despite the imported English gowns and formal soirees, India makes a mockery of Eleanor’s sensibilities. Burning heat, starving people, insects as big as eggs – it is all an unreal dream, rife with tumultuous life. Harriet gives herself over to the adventure. Henry busies himself with official duties. Eleanor, though groping for her bearings, slowly finds her isolation punctuated by moments of elation: her first monsoon, graceful women in vibrant sarees, Benares rising out of the mist. She discovers she likes curries and her native servants – and often dislikes her compatriots. Over the course of six years and a trek from Calcutta to Kabul and back, India manages to unsettle all of her “old, old ideas.”

What I think 

‘One Last Look’ is written in the form of journal entries. The author says that she had read many books set during the period in which the story is set (middle 1830s to early 1840s) and she was also inspired by the journals and private papers of Emily Eden, Fanny Eden and Fanny Parkes. When I did a bit more research  on the above personalities, I discovered that Emily Eden lived in India during the period 1835-42 with her sister Fanny Eden and her brother George Eden who was the governor-general of India at that time (he was called Lord Auckland, formally). When I did some research on Fanny Parkes, I discovered that she lived in India for around twenty-four years during that time and wrote a travel journal which described the India of that time in detail, and which was later published as a book. Susanna Moore seems to have been inspired by these personalities and their works and seems to have done research on them before writing this book. In the acknowledgements page, she even says “in some instances, I have taken the great liberty of using their own words”. I liked the fact that Moore acknowledged her sources and mentioned the books that inspired her to write this story. I am inspired now to read Emily Eden’s book ‘Up The Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India’ and Fanny Parkes’ book ‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim in search of the Pictureseque During four and twenty years in the East with revelations of Life in the Zenana’ which has been edited by William Dalrymple and reissued as ‘Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals Of Fanny Parkes’. I also hope that Moore was only inspired by the stories in the above books and didn’t take content from them and rewrite them in her own words. They are out-of-print works and so it doesn’t matter from a copyright perspective, if she did, but still…

‘One Last Look’ is a wonderful book. It gives a vivid and fascinating picture of India in the middle of the eighteenth-century. The smells, the atmosphere, the colours, the music, the culture, the beauty as well as the noise, the chaos, the dust of 19th-century India are beautifully evoked in the book. It describes the story of Eleanor Oliphant and her initial experiences with India and how she feels frustrated and homesick in a country and culture which is so alien to hers and how across the years, the country, the people and the culture slowly seep into her heart and she falls in love with them and becomes one with them. And then it is time to go and leave the stage to someone else. Parting is sad  because just at the time she has fallen in love with an alien country and has started to understand its mysteries, her time is up. It is also sad because at that point of time, her own country starts to feel alien. Having been through this kind of experience a couple of times myself, my heart went out to Eleanor Oliphant. Of course, after such a soul-transforming experience one realizes that Marcel Proust is right, when he says that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, and one starts looking at one’s own country with new eyes and sees exciting things that one hasn’t seen before.

In the initial part of the book, Eleanor gives an interesting description of her sister Harriet’s adventures, which evokes an interesting image of India of that time. It goes like this :

Harriet has gone to the hills with Lafayette. I’ve already had four letters from her. She has been presented with two peacocks, a pot of honey, and a pet deer by an attending raja. The deer travels in her howdah with her. He has his own spoon, teacup and saucer. She has had her dinner on a sandbank in the middle of a river (but was disappointed to find the table set with Meissen). She has ridden in a line of thirty screaming elephants in chase of a rhinoceros. She has refused to sit hidden in a mahua tree to shoot the deer tempted by the scent of the flowers. She has played whist under the yellow gaze of hyena dogs. She has seen scorpions the size of biscuit tins, boa constrictors twenty feet long and a jungle of white roses. And she has been seen by natives who never before looked upon a European woman.

English and Indians

The book also gives some interesting descriptions about the relationship between the English and the Indians. One of my favourite passages on this topic, goes like this :

The English have a greater tolerance, and sometimes even liking, for an Indian they consider to be their equal than for a pure Anglo-Saxon whom they deem inferior. Although they don’t say it, and perhaps do not even think it, it is not simply the race of a person that signifies here, but his social rank. This has led to some embarrassing misconceptions. The fact that a Brahmin is of a higher caste than a raja is most difficult for them (“Aren’t Brahmins cooks?”), although the precision and orderliness of the caste system tends to put them at ease. They know it from the military and from the nobility and from their own domestic hierarchies. (My brother-in-law Buckingham regards his tenant farmers with the same disdain that Mrs. MacGregor reserves for her maid-servants.) They prefer Mohammedans to Hindus only because they are heirs to the Mughals, a noble warrior class (and without the hundred gods). We educated Europeans consider ourselves children of the Enlightenment, but it seems to me that the Enlightenment did much to encourage the view that dark-skinned people are by their very nature beneath us.

There are three other passages that I liked, which went like this :

England will define what it is to be Indian. A good way to start, of course, is to make sure that Indians look like our idea of Indians. Turbans and sashes thought to be Mughal will do nicely. Even the English officers of our native sepoys will affect a touch of Indian costume; it is good for the morale of both. We will win their loyalty and gratitude without giving up a thing.

“The Calcutta Board of Control is secretive,” he said. “Clever, ruthless. Which, of course, one must be with a native population. As for the native leaders, they are the worst of all.” He paused, thinking. “Surely we’re meant to agree with Macaulay – we must develop a new class, Indian in skin, but English in thought. English in morals.”

“These people must have been magnificent before we came with our bad moneymaking ways. We have let all they accomplished go to ruin, and all our excuse is that we do not oppress the natives so much as they oppress each other.”

There are a few places where Eleanor talks about the differences between Europeans and Indians. Here are some of my favourite passages :

I have been thinking, and not simply out of greed, that we Europeans have misunderstood the meaning of nuzza. We see it as a straightforward commercial exchange that entitles us to certain privileges and goods and we do not hesitate to use these privileges to obtain wealth and power, but it does not mean the same thing to the Indian. For them, a nuzza – whether it is a gift to us of a sword or a horse or a monopoly on jute – is a ritual, not a system of trade. Dresses of Honour are kept for generations, passed from father to son and brought out for display on special occasions; they aren’t for ordinary wear and they are certainly not sent to the auction rooms. We take the nuzza for a bribe, which then entitles us to whatever we want – their country, for example.

Our servants are near to starving. It is an impurity for a Hindu to eat with us, of course, but they will not eat on water, either. They could not go into the mangrove lest a tiger carry them away. Our Mohammedan servants cannot take the chance of eating meat that has not been killed by one of them.

“India is a strange land; and live in it as long as we may, we shall to the last be constantly liable to stumble upon new moral phenomena.”

The Bishop was watching me closely, as he had all evening. I pretended to take no notice. “The merit of our kind,” I heard him say, “is that wherever we venture, we make trouble. Freedom of thought and all the many virtues of enlightened society tend to make a man restless, especially if he does not possess them.”

Portraits

Eleanor paints interesting portraits of people whom she meets or gets to know. They are some of the interesting parts of the book. The description of Zahid, Eleanor’s  manservant goes like this :

I used to disapprove of the way that women treat their servants here – not that they were unkind, but too trusting. I see now that the social hierarchy is so clearly defined, there is no need of aloofness; a native servant hardly need be reminded of his place. Native servants are present at moments that do not customarily allow for witnesses; their opinions and advice sought and often taken. Mr.Mill, who has told us that they are unnatural, offensive and not infrequently disgusting, might be surprised to learn that my jemadar Zahid has become my stay and support. He brings me fresh watercress every morning, washes my painting box, takes care of my money. He makes sure that my bathwater is cool, and he watches (from a distance) as the chobdars clean my rooms. He is faultless, as subtle and as silent as night, except when he shouts for his god Hari’s protection (I thought at first that he was calling my sister) against devils leaping into his mouth when he yawns. Yesterday, he suggested that I might like to taste the flower buds of the asoka tree. He claims they are a cure for grief.

In another place Eleanor says this about Zahid :

I think much of my servants these days – I don’t mean that I think highly of them, although I do; rather that they occupy my thoughts. They are the strictest of judges. Zahid is less forgiving than my own mother at her worst. The moment I do not meet his rather lofty expectations, I instantly perceive the disillusionment in his face – surely it is an unexpected provocation to be amongst people who bear their lives so gracefully. They believe in the unknown world, like women.

Eleanor’s portrait of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh king, goes like this :

Ranjit Singh looks like an old mouse with gray whiskers and one eye – small, wizened, ugly, pockmarked. He wore a simple red cotton dress with an edging of the commonest gray squirrel’s fur and a red cotton turban. He can neither read nor write. He possesses eighteen wives. He is mad for guns, horses, boys, women and drink. He physics himself with powdered pearls, corn brandy, opium, musk and meat juice. Although he has been known to step down from his chair to wipe the dust from the feet of a Mohammedan beggar, he is utterly indifferent to the well-being of his people. He has created no law courts, no hospitals, no schools, no prisons; made no roads, bridges or canals. His vaults are stuffed with treasure, but he will not pay his soldiers. Although he murdered his mother, those who cross him are not killed, merely relieved of their noses and ears. He is excessively beloved by his people.

I can imagine my Sikh friends getting annoyed and upset at this description.

Eleanor’s portrait of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, goes like this :

      In the garden, an old man was reading on a stone bench. A chowry burdar stood behind him, keeping the flies from the pages of his book. Our people fell to the ground when they saw him, their foreheads pressed to the dirt. The old man is their Emperor. They hold him in the greatest reverence.

      Harriet and I made a deep curtsy, and he lifted his watery eyes to gaze on us. Did he sit in the same arbor as his Mughal ancestor who delighted to watch his ladies slide down the sloping bank into a tank of lotus? With a forlorn grunt, the Emperor went back to his poetry and we tiptoed away, the servants bowing until he was out of view. We English delight in tormenting him, taking away more and more of his privileges; soon he will have to ask permission to recite his ghazals.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor and people rallied around him during the 1857 rebellion (called the Sepoy Mutiny or the first war of Indian Independence, depending on one’s perspective). He, of course, didn’t want any of it (as can be seen from the above description) as he was a poet at heart. He wrote some beautiful poems  in Urdu. One of my favourite poems of his, has these lines :

Poem

Umrey-dharaj maangkar, laayey they chaar din.

Do aarzoo mein cut gayey, do intezaar mein.

Translation

Asked for a long life and got four days.

Two have gone in yearning, two in waiting.

I am sorry the translation is not as beautiful as the original Urdu, but I hope it gives you a feel of the beauty of the poem.

William Dalrymple has written a biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar called ‘The Last Mughal’. If you are interested, you can check it out.

Eleanor gives an interesting description of how India has changed her French cook.

St.Cléry is behaving even more strangely than he usually does; perhaps he has fallen, as others have been known to do, under the spell of this place. He is a Creole, after all, and it may be in his blood. Aloof and offended, he sits in the kitchen house on a sofa covered with a white sheet, giving his orders, refusing to use other than silver pots and pans. He has taken altogether on his own to slipping rather unexpected dishes onto the table; we are given a cashew rice with curds and a spinachy dish with shrimp and chilies called puishaak and spiced pomfret curry and a sweet drink called a lassi. The surprising thing is how much I like it – having been brought up with the idea that too much interest in food bespeaks both vulgarity and greediness, I do admit that I grow hungrier and hungrier.

On Men and Women

Eleanor writes interestingly about the differences between expat men and women of that time. Here are some of my favourite passages on this topic :

I begin to see that while this space of half the convex world, as Henry calls it, is a different universe for women, for men, Calcutta might just as well be London.

      “You have misjudged Harriet,” I said.

      “I judged her as the world would judge her.”

      “That is the very thing she relies on you not to do.”

He shrugged. In his world it is permissible, even desirable to keep a bibi, even to sire children with her, but it is not permissible for my sister to have an Indian as a friend.

19th Century India

There are beautiful descriptions of nineteenth-century India in the book. Here are two of my favourites :

The sky grew pink around the edges. The smell of the earth changed with the coming of day. In the darkness, there was the sound of day before there was light. The banyan grove was raucous with crows – it was not the gradual awakening of an English wood but a spontaneous explosion of shrieks. Mist rose from the black river, as people, first three, then five and six, began to appear along the banks. I felt an immense sacredness – the trees, the river, the sky. In India, it is the land itself that is the god.

Chunam, the lime made from seashells, covers the walls and columns, whitewashed and then waxed to such a high sheen that at first I mistook it for marble. It is particularly beautiful in candlelight. The size of the rooms requires an endless ingenuity of light. As we throw open the shutters at night, as well as use the punkahs, the hundreds of candles must be protected with glass shades; the effect is fairylike, the air sparkling with the reflection of blue glass teardrops and festoons of cut-glass icicles. The swinging lamps of painted glass illuminate then darken the walls with each waft of air and sometimes I feel as if I am underwater. Shadows leap and sway along the white walls, hovering like haunts. I never knew the arrangement of black and white, of dark and light, could be attractive – it is all that I see now.

Strange Beautiful Pets

Eleanor, her sister Harriet and a few other characters in the story have some strange pets – a squirrel, a deer, a monkey and a few other interesting animals. Here is a delightful passage about Eleanor’s pet squirrel when she first gets it :

My little squirrel is extraordinary, very fond and merry, with three beautiful white streaks down his back. He runs up my gown to my shoulder when I bid him attend me. I keep him locked in the bathroom, but last night I awoke to find him stretched across my neck, whimpering plaintively and patting my face with his little black hands. He must have escaped through a window. I woke Radha, who sleeps in my room now, and she carried him back to the water-closet. Shortly before dawn, I was awakened again. I thought it was a rat at first; the squirrel had slipped inside my net and was sleeping pressed against my bare leg.

And here is what she says when the squirrel breaks her heart :

My dear little flying squirrel that Harriet gave me when he was three days old died yesterday. He never ate anything but two or three teaspoons of tea, but he found a meat pie that the servants had taken away from luncheon and it killed him in two hours. When I was fretful at night, he would hold out his paw for my hand and bite it all over. When I was dressing, he sat on Radha’s shoulder and watched with great black eyes as she did my hair – if he were impatient of her efforts he would leap onto my back and arrange it to his liking. I can never witness the death of a loved one again.

Humour

There are some interesting humorous conversations in the book. Two of my favourites are :

Morlington spent an hour turning over every brick and stone he could find.

      “Did you find what you were looking for, my Lord?” I asked.

      “No, I’m happy to say.”

      “What a pity.”

      “Not at all. I was looking for scorpions.”

I am teaching her particular phrases and she comes on rapidly. “Excuse me, sir, but I do not know London.” Henry says that anyone in his right mind will see just by looking at her that she does not know London, but I am determined that she not be humiliated.

More Favourite passages

There are other beautiful and insightful passages in the book. Some of my favourites are :

“Losing something is not as fine as possessing it.”

It is unbearably hot, the wind very high. The sand fills our mouths and eyes. I have been too low to write. (What does a traveler write, what one knows or what one doesn’t know? What I don’t know is endless. Sterne would have us do what all travellers do: feel superior to other travellers.)

He put down his saucer and cup with a little rattle and we sat there in a silence sufficient to extinguish a candle…

He appears to have lost all interest in writing his book on the Punjab. I tell him that he must take up his work before there is too much to know, before the tumult of history is too overwhelming for just one mind, but he only smiles.

In my old life, the women I encountered were of my own kind. My life – once a fastidious nibble – has turned into an endless disorderly feast.

Once, in Berlin, where our tutor Herr Schmidt had taken us to improve our German, we chanced upon a friend of Maman’s in our hotel. To the old lady’s astonishment, I threw myself into her arms, sobbing with happiness. It cannot have been Berlin alone or Henry’s insidious teaming with Herr Schmidt against me that moved me to such a display, but a phenomenon of travel itself. Surely it is a matter of ambient conditions – we fall upon the neck of a bore we’d once met at dinner in London if we meet him on the Corso, but should the poor fellow, misinterpreting our continental ardour, turn up two months later in Hill Street, we are embarrassed by his mundanity, his fatuousness, his preposterous presumption of friendship. Our only thought is to remove him from sight as quickly as possible in the hope of never seeing him again – that is, until we chance upon him next year in the rue Vivienne.

I know from Henry that although the Mughals once made Bengal a place of exile, it soon became the richest province in their empire, a place to revel in debauch. Although it is no longer so corrupt, thanks to East India Company, I hope for Cousin Lafayette’s sake that is hasn’t become too Christian; like all of us, he is here to make his fortune.

Perhaps it was that Maman did not believe in too much accomplishment. She held that a child quick at lessons made for a disappointing adult. One must be ordinary to be a successful person; to excel bespoke a certain vulgarity.

First Anglo-Afghan War

‘One Last Look’ covers the historical First Anglo-Afghan war in accurate detail (including the Simla Declaration) and some historical personalities walk through its pages – like Dost Muhammad, his son Akbar Khan and Shah Shuja. The historical details are so accurate, that it needs only a change of names of the main characters, for it to become an authentic and accurate depiction of the historical event. It looks like the world powers were upto their wily games in Central Asia even then. Eleanor Oliphant’s description on  the origin of the war goes like this :

“Henry has drafted a declaration called the Simla Manifesto which sets out the justifications for overthrowing Dost Mohammed in Kabul. He says that the Afghans have lost the right to govern through their own weakness and folly; the only question now is whether incompetence is inherent in their character or whether we can scour enough of it out of them so that we can all go home and leave them to ruin their country themselves. We will put Shah Shuja on the throne, a vicious tyrant who has three times been thrown out by his own people.”

One of the survivors of the First Afghan War, British army chaplain Rev G.H.Gleig said this, in his memoirs about the war :

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

Things don’t seem to have changed much in the intervening century and a half with successive Afghan wars leading to the same indictment including the current one.

Wishlist

The story starts in 1836 and ends in 1843. A significant part of the story is a description of a journey which the Oliphants and other government officials make from Calcutta to Punjab to meet Ranjit Singh, take a break in Simla and then come back. This part of the book stretches from October 1837 and ends in May 1841. It would have been interesting if the story had extended to beyond 1857 – it would have been fascinating to find out what happened to the Oliphants during 1857 which was a time of momentous change for the British who were living in India.

‘One Last Look’ depicts not only the follies of British rule in India but also the brighter side – for example, on how the British treated the natives well in some ways, and how, when there were natural disasters like flood and famine, they rushed supplies to help people affected by it.

Brother and Sister

The relationship between Eleanor and her brother Henry seemed to be complex and there seemed to be more to it than met the eye. For example, in one scene Henry asks Eleanor to kiss him (it looks innocent, initially), in another scene brother and sister see pictures in an erotic book together while playing with each other, in another scene Eleanor says that she liked her body with Henry, and towards the end of the book Henry tells Eleanor, “I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but loving you is not one of them.” It all seems to be loaded with hidden meaning. Eleanor doesn’t marry till the end of the story. It will be interesting to find out whether the real George Eden and Emily Eden loved each other that way.

Room for Wonder

During the course of telling her story, Eleanor takes us on a fascinating journey through this mysterious and complex land called India, which is magnificent and beautiful, frustrating and exasperating, kind and cruel in equal measure. Somewhere in the middle of the book Eleanor remembers the Emperor Babur’s words on India :

I beheld a new world – the grass was different, the trees different, the birds of a different plumage, the manners and customs of the wandering tribes of a different kind. I was struck with astonishment, and indeed there was Room for Wonder.

Towards the end of the book, when she is back to her homeland, she finds her homeland alien and strange :

I was most unprepared for London. It is as if we’ve been away for a hundred years. The very sounds are foreign to me: no crows, no pariah dogs, no jackals or flutes or drums. There are hawkers, but their cries are parochial – knife grinders and rag-and-bone men dragging through the mud. No pearls, no monkeys, no betel. Worse still, there is no colour. Not even a sun in the sky. The air is black, the people pale. Everyone is dressed in gray. Most disturbingly, but for the fog, but for the river at low tide, there is no smell.

With her, we pine for what she has left behind. It makes us sad and nostalgic about the things we had to leave behind in our own lives.

When she tries to create a little India in her home in England, she says this :

It was difficult at first to convey to the painters the exact shade of saffron yellow that I desired, but happily Radha has a saree of almost the same shade and she was able to show them. It took some doing, but the walls and the floor and ceiling are at last the colour of the saffron yellow rock that Harriet took me to see in Calcutta. (She said it was a goddess). I cannot help but be happy in this room. I need never leave it. Truly, there is Room for Wonder.

When the Bishop asks her towards the end of the story :

“Have you been happy here?”

Eleanor says to herself

“I did not know what to say, how to describe such a depth of happiness.”

By this time, during the course of the journey that we take with Eleanor, we have fallen in love with this beautiful, exotic, chaotic land and its people, and we feel a deep happiness and a nostalgic sadness. Like her we feel that there is Room for Wonder.

Final Thoughts

I loved reading ‘One Last Look’. It has inspired me to explore more books on India of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Reading the book also made me wonder about the kind of books Indian novelists (or novelists of Indian origin) write these days – novels about immigration (like Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai), about violence in modern-day India (like Arvind Adiga and Tarun Tejpal), adventures in college  (Chetan Bhagat and his clones) and thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as novels. I wonder why Indian writers, in addition to these topics (which are interesting and important, but which have become a bit tiring now), don’t also start writing novels based on India of the 18th and 19th centuries and about things like the First World War, when one million Indian soldiers fought in Europe and the Middle East. Will that day come?

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