A Review of “Daughters of Britannia” by Katie Hickman

In the Indian epic Ramayana, there is a poignant scene: Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, is forced to renounce his kingdom and go to the forest for fourteen years.  His young wife Sita insists on accompanying him, against his better counsel.  As they step out of the palace, Sita asks: “How much further to the forest?”  It is said that at this, Rama’s eyes moistened for the first time.

I think most of the the so-called “Diplomatic Wives” mentioned in Katie Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia would have sympathised with both Sita and Rama.

England, as the pioneering marine and trading power, must have been the first country to understand the need for diplomats.  Even before the country started sending official envoys, the East India Company was posting its employees at strategic points around the globe to safeguard and further their commercial interests.  These postings were isolated, difficult and many a time downright dangerous – according to the maxim of those days, “no place for a woman”. However, the wives of these diplomats had little choice – they were forced to follow their husbands into the wilderness, because “it was a wife’s duty to be at the side of her husband”.

It would have been bad enough if these poor souls were forced move out of a sane, civilised country to savage barbarian lands (in their viewpoints, at least) – they were also expected to fulfill an unpaid official function: that of the diplomat’s wife.  It was an exacting task, emotionally and physically draining, especially a couple of centuries back when the world was not the known and familiar space it is now.  These ladies had to make official visits to Sultans’ harems, host diplomatic dinners for hundreds of people and sometimes attend official functions along with their husbands without making a faux pas in a totally alien culture.  And most of the junior diplomats’ wives had to put up with cranky, eccentric “ambassadresses” (the ambassadors’ wives) who treated them little better than slaves in a rigidly enforced social hierarchy.

There were also the physical dangers.  Before the aeroplane was invented, the journey to the “posting” comprised terrifying treks across inhospitable mountains and death-defying voyages across stormy seas.  Most of the host countries (especially the tropics) were home to a number of diseases which were potentially deadly to the English physique.  There were even scourges like the plague to be encountered!  And this is apart from the very real dangers of captivity, rape, torture and death which were always present in the turbulent climes these ladies inhabited.

Yet most of them bore it all with true British fortitude (stiff upper lip, Jeeves!) and many wrote poignant and amusing memoirs, full of underplayed English humour.  Katie Hickman, herself a “diplomatic daughter”, has researched these extensively and produced a fascinating book, drawing upon her mother’s reminiscences and her own childhood memories too in the process.

These diplomatic wives span across the years from 1661 to the present.  Forty-six of them are credited as “principal women”; however, a number of others are mentioned in passing so I suspect the number may exceed a hundred.  Sixty-two books have been credited in the bibliography, apart from various magazines (the main ones being various issues of BDSA [British Diplomatic Spouses Association] and DSWA [Diplomatic Service Wives’ Association]  house journals).  The amount of research is extensive and exhaustive.

The organisation of the book is also excellent: instead of presenting the stories chronologically or sequentially, Hickman has chosen to divide the book into chapters which explore the various facets of the diplomatic life.  Thus we have chapters on “Public Life”, “Social Life”, “Hardships” etc.  to name a few.  In each of these chapters, the author explores the experiences of her protagonists separated across time and space, emphasising the similarities and differences alike – so what the reader gets is a continuous narrative, a feeling of solidarity among these poor daughters of a colonial power, forced to bear the standard of their country in hostile atmospheres – mainly out of necessity, not out of choice – yet doing it in grand fashion, most of the time.

Some of the wives stand out as special characters.  Isabel Burton, wife of Sir Richard Burton, following him willfully into the jungles of Brazil; the swashbuckling Ann Fanshawe; Victoria Sackville-West, whose stain of illegitimacy is washed away in the diplomatic arena; Emma Hamilton, who climbed the ladder all the way from prostitute to princess (well, metaphorically)… and many more.  As I read this book, I was filled with admiration for these daughters of the empire – all the more so, because as an expatriate, I know the cultural shock of adjustment even in these modern times.

A very worthwhile read.

Some Thoughts on Education

A few of my friends had shared the above cartoon on FaceBook.  Even though it is apparently poking fun at the Indian educational system, I found it applicable to all educational systems relying on passing an examination – you know, 39 marks means failed and 40 means passed.  It is almost like a cricket match where one run can mean the difference between victory and defeat: unfortunately, life is not a cricket match.

Of course, educational systems have improved since my school days.  Those days, there was a kind of unofficial class system in schools where the children were more or less expected to follow in their parent’s footsteps: so the children of the quarry workers and day labourers were delegated to the back benches as “dunces” because their academic performance was poor: a fact which they accepted, because in their chosen walk of life, education was not a necessity.  Many of them failed multiple times in various grades and were quite grown up by the time they reach the tenth grade; I remember that in my class, there were some guys with fierce moustaches and sideburns, and a few of them were not averse to trying their luck with some of the pretty young teachers!  They usually failed SSLC and dropped out, and most dutifully joined their fathers in their menial trade.

Things have improved now (at least in Kerala): parents have understood the need for their children to get an education, the general economic climate has improved and new educational tools and methods have been introduced into most schools (of course, our government schools have enormous room for improvement, but that’s another subject).  The farm labourer and quarry worker can today dream of their children becoming doctors and engineers.  However, has our concept of education improved?

Sadly, in my opinion, it is a no.

For most of us, it is the passing of an examination which is still seen as the test whether one is educated or not.  And the examination, in most cases, comprises memorising information: data, prose or equations.  The specific skills required for a profession are not tested – the onus is always on who comes out on top, based on his/ her skill at mugging up.

Another important factor is the professions which are considered important: the current ones in India are Engineering and Medicine.  Children are pushed towards these professions without any consideration for where their natural talent and inclination may lie: and the entry is through gruelling competitive examinations where children are forced to jump through hoops (many a time, parents too: I have seen most parents withdrawing from social circles once their children reach tenth grade).  If they fail to make the grade, they are beset by such feelings of inadequacy that often lead to extreme steps like suicide.  One wonders what the children would have accomplished if they were free to choose their own way, and allowed to study something which they loved.

The fish, forced to climb trees again and again, die from lack of oxygen.

Also, we have an education system which is cruel to misfits and mavericks.  I have been even more acutely aware of this since my wife became a Remedial Educator about 15 years ago.  The educationally challenged children who lack a traditional skill required for academic performance (for example, reading in the case of dyslexics) are often marginalised, even though many of them possess above average intelligence.  Einstein was a dyslexic – he was expelled from school due to under-performance – but all the world knows where he reached.  His was a success story.  However, I always wonder – how many Einsteins have we lost through an unimaginative and insensitive educational system?

Do not force the fish to climb the tree: take it to water where it can spread out and express itself.  Each child is special in his/ her own way.  Let us recognise that – and not lose any of these ‘taare zameen par’  (stars on the earth).

By nandakishorevarma Posted in General

A review of “Italian Folktales” by Italo Calvino

There is an endless fascination to fairy and folk tales.  As a child, I remember listening to them at my great-aunt’s knee: she was a great storyteller, and often embellished and modified tales, so that cruel and sad parts were left out.  The same tales were restored to their original form when told by my mother, who was adamant that a child should not be shielded from cruelties and horror.  Needless to say, I preferred my great-aunt.

Later on, I came to read and love the Classics Junior series of comics (sadly out of print now, alas) which introduced me to the Brothers Grimm (Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast et al), and I was hooked for life on the magic of fairy tales, and the world of make-believe and fantasy.  My fascination only increased when I discovered that underneath the beauty there lay a morass of dark desires and fears, and these tales are only the tips of the icebergs of darkest human nature.

So when I was able to grab Italo Calvino’s famous compendium of Italian folktales at relatively reasonable price, I was ecstatic.  And the famous novelist did not let me down: here is a collection, neatly compiled and docketted, of stories collected from all over Italy.  Calvino provides informative footnotes to all tales, pointing out the similarities, sometimes giving detailed information on the teller (mostly old ladies) and pointing out the influence of Grimm and the later romantic legends.  In many an instance, he has combined different versions of the same story (adding his own poetic embellishments) to create what he deems the best version.

It would be a Herculean task to analyse the stories in detail: rather, I would like to give general impressions.

  • These pagan tales have been Christianised to a certain extent.  The devil makes frequent appearances, but usually behaves more like the inept ogre or giant of the traditional fairy tale than the arch-fiend.  There is especially a Lame Devil who is almost lovable in his bumbling inefficiency.
  • Even though God himself does not make an appearance, there are a number of stories where angels and saints play an active part.  There is a whole cycle of stories with Jesus and Peter playing the roles of the wise master and the foolish disciple.
  • Kings and queens are plentiful – they can be found in almost all neighbourhoods, living across the street from you.  And when the poor servant-girl is rescued by a prince or king, the kingdom is specifically mentioned (i.e. “King of Portugal”, “Prince of Spain” etc.).  I was surprised to find that the “King of India” makes his appearance in one story.
  • Some of these tales are romances, as pointed out by Calvino: for example, the tale of the Slave Mother, kidnapped by Turkish pirates.  It (and the Christian references) indicate that the stories have come some way from their pagan origins.

A very satisfying read overall.  Only a word of statutory caution:  weighing in at seven hundred and fifty plus pages and two hundred stories, this is a ponderous tome, best taken in small doses.  Reading at a stretch would tire one out and jade the palate due to a surfeit of magic and wizardry.

Vidyarambham

After a hiatus of some years, this is my second attempt at blogging.  And I could not have picked a better day than Vijaya Dashami, when Indians traditionally do Vidyarambham  (commencement of learning), when we start out by writing the alphabet in rice or sand.

This blog will contain book reviews and general musings on literature and myth.  Since I have no credentials, these shall be purely personal and have no claim to scholarship.

Joseph Campbell said: “Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.”  This, in a musty cloistered room amidst books and thoughts, is mine.

You are welcome to join me, fellow reader.

By nandakishorevarma Posted in General