Begums, Thugs, and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes
Fanny Parkes, who lived in India between 1822 and 1846, was the ideal travel writer – courageous, indefatigably curious and determinedly independent. She arrived as the prim wife of a minor Civil Servant and left, some twenty-odd years later, as a dedicated Indophile, fluent in Urdu and more at home in traditional Indian culture than her own. This book is perhaps unique in that it gives insights into many aspects of middle-class British women’s views on Indian life and includes descriptions of the Zenana and Indian domestic life, subjects often omitted from the male-authored travel texts purely because this aspect of life was closed to males. These descriptions, often verging on the poetic are illuminating, insightful and sometimes shocking (who could not be shocked to read of the Indian princess who keeps her small children placid by administrating daily doses of opium?) but always but always revealing. It’s hard not to read her descriptions of jewel-encrusted beauties, sumptuous banquets and intricate ceremonies without a gentle longing for days long since passed.
The strength of Parkes writing is her clear fascination with her adopted country and there is very little which escapes her interest. Parkes fell in love with India from the start. ‘I was charmed with the climate,’ she wrote on her arrival in 1822, ‘the weather was delicious; and . . . could I have gathered around me the dear ones I had left in England, my happiness would have been complete.’ Familiarity, however, did not breed contempt.
Parkes was fascinated by everything, from the trial of the thugs and the efficacy of opium on headaches to the adorning of a Hindu bride. To read her is to feel immersed fully in early colonial India; to experience the pain of the wandering Fakir whose finger nails have grown through his hand, to float down sacred rivers dappled with festive lights and to experience the crushing heat of an Indian summer. Nothing escapes her pen – the sacred and the profane, the violent and the beautiful, the straight-laced sahibs and the more eccentric ‘White Mughals’ who fell in love with India and did their best, like Fanny, to build bridges across cultures – even if that bridge building did involve employing countless servants to run her house, visiting sites of ritual widow burning, collecting all manner of flora and fauna for preservation and inclusion in her private collection or spending several months on a pilgrimage to the Taj by rickety boat. Her energy, especially considering her sex and position in society, to explore and probe the wonders of Asia are breathtaking.
As her sojourn in India continues Parkes becomes drawn further and further into the culture and begins to question her native country’s morals and handling of the great subcontinent. Her belief that ‘roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab, one might be happy forever in India’ combined with her disdain for the dress and behaviour of English woman aboard clearly angered and alienated the foreign community (‘A lady in European attire gives me the idea of a German manikin,’ she writes after observing visitors to the Taj). However, what makes Fanny Parkes unique is that she ignored the prevailing trend and, as William Dalrymple puts it in his excellent introduction to her journals, was ‘one of the last of the generation who was able to express unequivocal admiration for India.’
However, not everything about India delighted her. She complained bitterly about the cruel heat, the sloth of her servants and the level of thievery perpetrated by her employees. During her travels she saw much that distressed her such as the semi-charred body floating down the Ganges that she mistook for a European; the aborted attempt by a Hindu widow to commit Sati on her husband’s funeral pyre; and the emaciated corpse of a woman who had starved to death in the great famine of 1837 (‘I cannot write about the scene without weeping’) but her natural curiosity forces her to write accurate, and often highly moving accounts.
Sadly, the India that Fanny Parkes once knew now no longer exists. Parkes was clearly a spirited, humorous, clever woman, very unlike the memsahibs who arrived later, to be accused (not always fairly) of despising India and the Indians and trying to turn their Indian enclaves into suburban Britain. Her journals, which are evocative and wonderfully readable, should be essential reading for anyone keen to understand modern-day India, or by anyone who wishes to slip from the modern day into something tantalisingly different.