Orphans of the imperial dream

Last Children of the Raj - Empire Families

July 29, 2005

The British Raj still lives. It lives in the memories of quite elderly survivors in Laurence Fleming's fascinating but flawed two-volume collection of remembered childhoods. And it springs to complex life in beautiful works of scholarship as exemplified by Elizabeth Buettner's Empire Families . These works complement each other: the first volume of Last Children of the Raj is a series of often vivid and moving stories of life in India from the First World War to 1950, and the second, a sprightly yet subtle and thorough analytical work touching many of the same themes embodied in the memoirs. And Buettner's volume teaches us how to read memoirs and place them in context.

But the collection, which offers about 125 retrospective accounts of childhoods spent at least partly in India by British men and women and two Americans, presents more problems than is necessary. Although Fleming is listed as compiler of Last Children of the Raj and there is an introduction by the distinguished journalist Mark Tully, there is no editor. There should have been one who explained how the survivors were tracked down, how the memoirs were gathered, what questions were asked and why they are arranged or disarranged as they are. Further, the memoirs are cut into pieces. For example, the compelling Star Staunton appears perhaps ten times in different chapters, but because the pieces are mingled with writings of others, just when we begin to get a sense of the course of her life, we jump elsewhere. And because the volumes have no index, if you want to find all the selections by Staunton, you have to look through all 650 pages. How much effort would it have taken to indicate the pages where the selections by each writer appear?

The two volumes are arranged differently. Volume one is arranged by geographical region. If Staunton starts in Assam and moves to Bengal, parts of her memoirs will be found in each place. Volume two is arranged chronologically and works much better, but is often just as touching and infuriating. Staunton's adventures of 1939 are in one chapter, while those of 1944 are in another. Just as we get used to the voice and experiences of a person, suddenly they are gone, only to reappear later.

What helps to bring unity and force to the second volume is the similar experiences of many participants during the war. Many who were in school in Britain were recalled to India during the war, attended school or college in India, and, if older, joined the war effort. Although the many writers come from a variety of backgrounds by class and some are Anglo-Indians, they are all thrown together into the melting pot of region and then wartime years. The compelling bits are the personal accounts of powerful emotional experiences and identifications while growing up in India. The sights, smells, sounds of India and the range of its beauty almost leap off the page.

One of the most compelling and common experiences described is that of being sent home to Britain at an early age for education or, occasionally, for health reasons. Some writers tell of the intense pain this caused them and how their fathers, in particular, became strangers to them.

Six-year-old Elspet Gray and her sister were shipped home in 1935. She comments: "The idea that children had needs and feelings was unheard of in those days; so back we went."

This experience is put into context masterfully by Buettner. After tracking British children in India through their early years and then charting the education some received in India, Buettner explains why it was so important for most British families in India to send their young children, especially boys, home to Britain for most of their formal education. It had to do with race and career paths. Those children who went to schools in India were jostled together with Eurasians (called Anglo-Indians in the 20th century) and Europeans born in India. Placed with these children, the very whiteness of the British children was made suspect and their futures endangered. They also would not have access to the schools and colleges and examinations that channelled the young men to the best career paths in India and elsewhere. So they had to be sent home even though it meant a wrenching break with family. They might be sent (or taken by their mothers) "home" to the British Isles, boarded at school during term and with relations or others during vacations. They might see their mothers every second or third year and their fathers perhaps for a while every five years. Many suffered emotional traumas, most adapted to their plight. This was a cost of empire and of keeping the family in its appropriate class position.

What Buettner so nicely shows is the interplay of class, gender and race in the shaping of the lives of these young men and women. She emphasises that many of the accounts of imperial lives focus on the upper and middle classes and largely ignore those of mixed race, lower class and females.

The 125 people in the childhood volumes come from a variety of backgrounds, but most are middle class, some lower middle, and hardly any from the lower ranks. The lives of the European soldiers, for example, are unmentioned.

Fortunately, there are a number from the railways, jute mills and tea plantations. A few more missionary children would have been helpful.

The final and fascinating chapter of Buettner's book, "From somebodies to nobodies..." concerns the retirement of those who served the Raj. Upon retirement, Raj families had to face a sharply lowered income and important decisions about where and how to live out the rest of their days. Some favoured Bayswater, others Cheltenham or Bedford. Others tried white settler colonies where they had a better chance of approximating their previous lifestyle.

In her conclusions, Buettner explores the ups and downs of the reputation of empire since 1947. She derides "costume dramas" of the Raj in film and on television. Although many of these films are poor, I cannot agree with her inclusion of The Jewel in the Crown - one of the best literary works to come out of the Raj. The television series based on it had sensitivity to India, fine acting and dramatic punch. She lumps it with the novels of M.M.

Kaye and others in her dismissal of nostalgia for the Raj, with which she has little sympathy. She should take another look.

Although Indians enter both of these works reviewed as servants, co-workers, subordinates and, occasionally, friends, they are peripheral to the narratives in both. Buettner stresses that the Raj was about rule and hegemony. However benevolent the Raj, Indians were not making the crucial choices about their own country and in the end they demanded it back from their foreign rulers. These works have been completed as we reach the end of the period in which participants in the Raj are still around to shape our views. In 15 years, we will have to look at the Raj as an important episode in the life of India and Britain, but one that we can learn about only from documentary sources.

Leonard A. Gordon is emeritus professor of history, Brooklyn College, City University, New York, US.

Last Children of the Raj: British Childhoods in India: Volume One 1919-1939; Volume Two 1939-1950

Editor - Compiled by Laurence Fleming
Publisher - Radcliffe Press
Pages - 348pp and 350pp
Price - £29.50 each £49.95 (two-volume set)
ISBN - 1 86064 871 1 and 872 X, or 1 85043 724 6 (set)

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