A year ago I went to India for the first time. My wife was talking about her book, Dance with Fireflies, the story of her Anglo Indian grandmother, at the wonderful Kumaon Literary Festival. We were based in Nainital, a town, in the foothills of Himalayas that grew around a beautiful lake. Nainital was one of the British Hill Stations in the days of the Raj. It’s where the British administrators escaped the summer heat and still has some of the old Victorian charm.
One of the Festival topics was the British legacy in the area. There were opposing views, but its clear that social divisions grew and life for many Indians was difficult. So my mission was to find diaries and journals from the time and hear directly what different people thought. My first find was the Diaries and Letters of Violet Jacobs.
Violet describes life in the Raj between 1895 and 190o. She was from a landed and wealthy Scottish family. Her privileged childhood helped her develop a talent for writing and painting. She would go on to become a relatively successful published poet and author.
Violet married an officer in the British Army and was stationed in Mhow in ´hot and dusty´ Indore, Central India, an area ´ruled´ by local Monarchs but like most of India, was answerable to the Raj. The diaries are a combination of letters to her mother and diary entries ´to remember the sights and sounds of this beloved country´. Although Violet bound all these records together, they weren´t ´discovered´ until the 1980s.
Its clear that Violet loved India. She was a curious explorer and determined to see the real India. So she travelled by train and horse to discover the villages, the people and the history. She painted the amazing local flora and temples as she went. She visited Hindu and Muslim festivals and sought out Buddhist remains. She also met Royalty including a memorable visit to Bhopal in 1898 unusually headed by female rulers; meeting the Shah Jehan, the Begum of Bhopal and her daughter. I liked her account of wearing the Purdah and being able to make faces at the British officials without them seeing.
In 1899 she visited Kumaon lakes being carried by Dandys from Kathgodam up the hills to the lakes. A journey I remember well (but by taxi not Dandy).
It’s a brilliant descriptive journal but does avoid the political realities of the time. The privilege and hierarchy is the acceptable and unchallenged norm. Violet is kind and generous and dislikes the ´British´ areas of India but there remains an air of superiority. Violet observes the differences and tensions between Muslims and Hindus though doesn’t attempt to understand life from the average Indian perspective. Equally she doesn’t tackle the role of women in the Raj or any in the Indian communities. Overall a fascinating and real account of a different time.
I loved India, the people and their positivity. Everyone has to go there at some point in their life.
The 2016 Kumaon Literary Festival is taking place 11th – 15th October http://www.kumaonliteraryfestival.org
Our Indian adventure was brilliantly organised by Charlie Gilbert at Indigo East http://www.indigoeast.co.uk
My wife’s book Dance with Fireflies by Jane Gill is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk