"We were British and they were Indians and never the twain shall meet.
This was the sort of feeling. And I'm sure that this was wrong and that,
if one were doing it again, I think one would take a lot of trouble to get
to know Indians.
- Major-General Sir Charles Dalton
Never the Twain
Sir Charles Dalton
One of the things that we missed out on, in my time, was the fact that we had absolutely no intercourse with the Indians, except the servants. At the very top level, we did meet one or two Indian princes. But nowhere else. The Army and the Civil Service were completely in a world apart. We were British and they were Indians and never the twain shall meet. This was the sort of feeling. And I'm sure that this was wrong and that, if one were doing it again, I think one would take a lot of trouble to get to know Indians.
But then you see that was different to my experience in Kohat, because my stepfather was commanding an Indian regiment. And therefore you had a lot of social contact with the Indian officers--and their wives. All the wives were in purdah in those days of course and were never seen uncovered, as it were. They wore these completely covered over white things, right down to the ground, with little peepholes for their eyes. And my mother used to entertain the officers' wives to tea in the bungalow. And they all arrived all covered over in these white burhkas, they were called. And then they'd take them off, as soon as there was no man. A servant didn't matter, but they couldn't be seen by somebody of their own class. So then they took off these white burkhas, and they then would be quite ordinary, and beautifully dressed. Lovely saris and everything. Some of them couldn't speak English, but you managed somehow to talk to them. My mother spoke reasonable Hindustani, and I got to the stage where I could fumble along. But of course, like in a lot of languages, the language you use to your servants, you don't use the same language to speak to higher class people. So I got in a bit of a muddle over that. They were very nice, they didn't worry. Some of them were absolutely beautiful. Very, very fair skins, because they were north country people.
When my stepfather finished commanding the regiment in Kohat, he was given quite an important post, in Hyderabad, as adviser to the Nizam's state forces. And there you really lived entirely in an Indian environment. Your main social life was with Indians, who were extremely hospitable. Hyderabad was a Hindu state, but it was ruled by Mohammedans of very high class, and they were very rich. They lived in considerable state. They were highly educated, most of them. They spoke beautiful English and that sort of thing. And you went to their houses to play tennis, and have dinner, and that sort of thing. I suppose they were almost like landed gentry in this country. They had large estates where they got most of their money from, and some of them owned factories, or were doctors, and that class of person.
We were invited to go and spend the weekend to shoot crocodiles by the Pir of Makhud. The crocodiles lie out on the banks sunning themselves. We floated along in this boat and the idea was to shoot the crocodiles before they got into the water, but they're fairly difficult to shoot. We stayed the weekend at his place, and we had this tremendous dinner given for us by this man, the Pir of Makhud, who was a sort of local squire sort of chap. And he thought he was going to do us jolly well. So we all went in to this supper after having spent the day on the boat, and we sat down on the floor and we were given a delicious Indian meal--rice, and all sorts of stuff, so we did ourselves quite well. Then there was a pause, and suddenly a whole English meal appeared, including roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and, topping it all, Christmas pudding!
And the heat! It was hot weather. It was March, which was very hot. March in Makhud was summer, probably in the eighties. And when we were confronted with this second meal, ending up with Christmas pudding, we nearly passed out. We really did. It was absolutely horrifying! And we sort of choked down as much as we possibly could, because they would have taken it as a great offense if we hadn't eaten something. We nearly died. Had terrible indigestion all night.
The honest truth of the matter is that few of us took the interest we should have taken in the culture, the art, the literature, even the religions of India. We brought our culture with us. On tour I'd always have a volume of English poetry with me, I'd read that. Very few of us took much interest in Indian culture. There were always exceptions, people who collected old coins and who made a study of Indian archaeology, Sanskrit, the Vedas or whatever. But generally speaking we did our work and we relaxed with such culture as we brought with us. I used to get my Sunday paper, the Observer, mailed out to me. I used to get it three weeks late, you know, and I used to read it Sunday morning, read all the reviews of the English books and the English theatre and so on.
But we took great interest in the human side of India, really. You had to. I mean, the people were interesting, we had to understand them and their customs for our work.
It did have a magic, there's no doubt about it. I got tremendously fond of the Indian people. It didn't matter what they were, Mohammedans, Hindus or anything else. They had a charm. They were natural gentlemen. Many's the time I'd be riding around Peshawar, for instance, out hacking. You come somewhere and a chap in the field would stop and salaam. So you'd rein in and talk to him for a bit. And he might say, "Sahib, come to my house," which was probably only a little mud hut. You'd go there and he'd give you a cup of tea and you'd talk about this or that and then be on your way. It was a very happy, brotherly, friendly feeling.
The British, of course, were very respectful of Indian customs. I mean this is the reason even to this day why government offices only open about 10:00 or 10:30 in spite of the fact that this means you've lost the cool hours of the day and you're working in the worst hours of the heat. The reason for that is because in the early days the offices were all staffed by Brahmins, and Brahmins had to go through all their religious duties [before they started work].
There was and there still is a great annual festival where the great car--what is popularly called the Juggernaut Car--required four thousand people to pull it. There were four great ropes, people on each rope. And the police used to make it their job to organize people to pull this car because it was very important the festival should go on. The British respected the Hindu feelings about this and took great care not to interfere with them. The Brahmins recognized that the British had power, that they had money and that they could command. They served them faithfully, and yet in their hearts certainly retained quite inviolate the deep sense of being Brahmins--"people of God."
Oh, I remember one delightful incident. We had for a short period an old doctor who was an old style missionary. I mean he was an old style sahib with handlebar moustache and very much the colonel sort of attitude. He was accustomed to ordering everybody about and there was a beggar who was pestering him, coming back and back and back at him pestering him. He was getting more and more angry and shouting at him and swearing, yelling at him and cursing at him and threatening him, with no effect whatever, and the beggar went on absolutely. And finally this clerk, this Brahmin, who was a very mild man, physically very weak--he had very bad elephantiasis; his legs were absolutely swollen up--finally he saw that the doctor was having too much difficulty, so he lumbered himself out of his chair and he walked to his door and he looked at the beggar and just said, "Get out." The beggar just absolutely disappeared. All the cursing and swearing of an English sahib meant nothing at all compared to one little word from a Brahmin.
One did have this feeling [about Hindu ritual pollution]. I remember a friend's mother told me that she would never pick up--the sweeper [an outcaste, who would pollute whatever he touched] had been brushing the dog-- and she would never pick up the brush that he had been using. She would pick it up if you would put it on the ground first.
And I remember a lady, the wife of a Commissioner, ICS, who told me that she married early and when her husband was quite junior; and he'd had charge of a subdivision of the hills above Dehra Dun. She really knew quite a lot about it. And there was a group of outcastes. I don't know exactly what they were called, but anyhow there was a group of these people from this part of the Dehra Dun/Mussourie area. And years later when she was quite senior she came to spend the summer in Naini Tal, which is the summer headquarters. And it was a great thing there for a lady to have her own team of people who carried her about. There were no roads there, so you were carried about in dandies, which were a sort of thing like a baby carriage or a pram without any wheels. You were carried by five men, four on their shoulders and one sort of running for the turns. And you had a team of dandymen whom you chose at the beginning of the season and you gave them a uniform for the season with your initials on the front of it. It was all very smart. And at the beginning of the season there would be teams of dandymen competing for this employment for the summer and there would be five, or ten, or fifteen, or twenty of these chaps in little groups all around the place waiting to be chosen. And she had chosen a group of these chaps which she liked the looks of and she fitted them out with uniforms; these she had paid for and they were all sort of set, and then she asked them where they came from and they mentioned this subdivision. And the moment they said where they came from, she knew that only the outcastes of that area would go out on a job of this kind because all the other people in that area had enough land.
And so she said then, "Are you members of this subcaste?"
And they said, "Yes, we are."
And she sacked them straightaway on the spot. She said, "It's not fair"--this is an obvious rationalization--"it is not fair of us to go to call on high class lodges and people, being carried by people such as this group." Because of pollution.
Well, you see it is absolute rubbish because [the British had no caste themselves according to the Hindu system]. But it subconsciously was there.
I don't wonder that we were sometimes regarded as rather class conscious, race conscious. It wasn't so much the members of my service. We met far more Indians. We had to meet them, of course, and we naturally got friendly with them and got to know them very well. But the Indian Army didn't like the educated Indian very much. They thought he was a bit of a Congress wallah and so on. And the business man in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras tended to be a bit stick to themselves, didn't look farther than their own noses, but I don't think my service was too bad. There was always a bit of a difficulty. If you were out in a district and had one of the leading Indians round to your house for meals, the word got around that this particular Indian had been to lunch with the DC, he'd got in with the DC. So people went to him and tried to enlist his influence to get things done. That was a slight embarrassment. You couldn't be too friendly with anybody for fear of giving him this reputation of being an influential man.
Of course we got on far best, I must confess, with the peasant, because he was the chap who looked up to you and you were the last hope of justice. The ordinary peasant in India had a pretty thin time because not only did his improvident habits get him in the hands of money lenders, but he probably had a landlord who didn't look after him too well, very often absentee landlords, just out to get that they could. He was sat upon by the police, he was sat upon by everybody. There was so much corruption in the lower courts, it was difficult for him to get justice. The man with the money won every time. If you went round your district, a man would come to you with a petition or would throw himself at you with a cry for help and you could really put things right. You see, he knew that you were the man, the ICS, completely incorruptible, only anxious to see justice done. That was our great reputation--"protectors of the poor."
The class of person from whom the ICS was recruited was mostly from the professional upper classes and small landowners, many of whom lived their lives in the countryside. There were very few of them from big cities. They really had sympathy for the peasants and small landowners and got on very well with them. Less so with the urban populations, I think. Considerably less so with people like moneylenders and shopkeepers overcharging the poor. They were anathema to them. On the whole the ICS officer was devoted to the welfare of the ordinary people of the countryside.
later Director of Transportation for India
The thing which people don't appreciate was that by 1940--not 1945 or '47 when the changeover came--but by 1940, at the beginning of the war, enormous Indianization had taken place on the railways, particularly on the engineering side. I was on the engineering side all through. And on my particular railway, the East Indian, I served under an Indian superior engineer for three or four years. It was absolutely normal. He'd been to Cambridge, he got a very good degree, and he was probably better qualified than I was from the point of view of straight engineering. And we were completely intermixed, and a lot of that is not appreciated by people on the political side. They all think that we were getting all we could out of the country, but in fact we were putting in a tremendous lot, which was all this engineering.
You saw race consciousness in places like Calcutta, for instance, where you had the business side, and the business side did tend to keep apart a lot, although a lot of the big companies were very Indianized and had Indian directors. But the moment you got out of Calcutta, up country, you might be the only European for miles around. Well, you couldn't just live in isolation like that. You simply joined in, and the thing was absolutely normal. We never worried about it at all. They were extremely nice people.
Always a club, there was always a club. Of course this club business was always a bit of a problem, whether to admit Indians or not. That was always a stumbling block. Most clubs gradually got around to it. Well, they'd admit any Indian in the Indian Civil Service or an Indian Army officer who'd come in from Sandhurst.
We British did rather fall down on this, there's no question of it. We kept ourselves too much to ourselves. It's very easy to happen. You have the same habits and ways and so on. And you also had this problem. The caste Hindu, after all, regarded us unclean. He didn't like shaking hands with you, had to go home and purify himself if he'd done so. And the Mohammedan had his wife in purdah and her husband would be very glad to dance with your wife at the club, but he wouldn't let you dance with his wife. So it did make it very difficult.
Certainly in 1978 it looks indefensible, but there were very good reasons for it, I think. After all, you find this in the Indians in Britain today. They're terribly clannish, they keep together, they have their own clubs, and nobody objects to this. And just the same in the days when we ruled India, you did want a place, certainly in the larger cities--it was only in the larger cities where this happened--where the Europeans could get together of an evening and, as it were, unwind and relax and criticize Indians in an uninhibited sort of way or talk about any subject they liked. There is a great gulf, certainly in north India, between Indians and Europeans in their whole backgrounds. If you did have Indians there it did inhibit conversation, the feeling of relaxation. The British are clubable people; they love going to a club and playing tennis and so forth. The Indians on the other hand find this slightly odd. The club is an entirely British invention. Indians don't naturally go to clubs the way we do--we did. So I don't think you can be too hard on the British, who paid for these places. I think that the mistake that we made, really, was that we didn't say, "All right, any Indian can come and join the club if he wants to," because I'm entirely certain nine out of ten Indians would never have bothered to come. All they wanted to know was that they could join if they wished, because they don't enjoy club life.
Certainly in Madras, Indians were allowed to be members, but they never came. After all, the Collector, the head of the district, was an Indian. It would have been very odd not to have allowed him to come and be at the club. There was no bar.
I think nearly every station had a club. And some of the clubs became the headquarters of all the local sports and so on. It's very often called the Gymkhana Club, actually. And if you joined the club then you had joined for the polo, and you joined the racing, and you joined the golf even, and tennis. And dances, and bridge perhaps. You joined them all. It had a bar, but it hadn't got much else. But of course it did make a center for wives. It made a center very much for bridge, and a center for dances and so on. There was a good deal of controversy about the club, because on the whole, no Indian was allowed to join the club, not the British club. And then you got Indians who, as one Indianized, became senior to British, particularly in the Civil Service. You might have a Collector who was an Indian, and then he'd got a junior who was an Englishman. A lot of controversy in those days about it. Lord Willingdon, when he was Governor of Bombay, started a club called the Willingdon Club, which was open to all. But most of the clubs in larger stations like Lucknow and Delhi and so on were very much British. Then in very small stations there might have only been a couple of planters and a Collector, a policeman, and one or two other people like that. Some of those would have been Indians and some of them not, so that the clubs became a mixed up thing. Difficult and controversial, that. I would always be prepared to make a justification that it should be British, because it was a home away from home, but one on the other hand can see perfectly well that it caused a lot of ill feeling.
Again, it was this question of women. You could have an Indian official--I'm using the word official in the broadest sense, because that means somebody who was educated--who would come to your house, but you would never go to his, if he was married. You would never meet his wife, except for very few, broad-minded, anglicized chaps. I don't think in any sense it was a color bar. It was this woman business was the difficulty. The Mohammedan and the Hindu wouldn't allow you ever to dance with their wife. You might meet their wife possibly at some great reception, at the Viceroy's House or something like that. You never really got under the skin of that side at all. You were friends with the chap in the office, but you could never be friends family-wise. And that really is not exactly what a club is for.
The only other centers of social life were the messes, and those were really just the home of a group of officers. But again, you never had ladies in the mess. You never had your wives in the mess, except on the most special occasion, Christmas Day or something like that. So they had the free run of the club. Of course one can argue about whether we made a mistake or not there, but it was this problem of never knowing an Indian lady, ever.
later Survey of India
After about 1930 there were a lot of Indian officers in the clubs. There was no color bar. The only place where you met that sort of discrimination was in the business centers. In Peshawar about 1930 there was some resistance when a regiment with Indian officers came--they'd never had anything like this before. The commanding officer of this regiment--it was a cavalry regiment--said that if his officers couldn't go to the club then his horses were not available to hire for people who wanted to hunt with the Peshawar Vale hounds. This settled it.
1. The Passage to India | interviews
2. Running Your Empire | interviews
3. Life in the Bungalows | interviews
4. Imperial Diversions | interviews
5. Never the Twain? | interviews
6. "No More India to Go to" | interviews