Time Travel to the Imperial Raj

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Treacherous sea voyages, jungle hunts and wistful observations make for an engrossing read.
Days of the Raj: Life and Leisure in British India | Edited by Pramod K Nayar | Penguin | 309 pages | Rs 350

A life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure doesn’t make much for tragedy —Bruce Springsteen

Pick up this fine book and travel back to the era when the British Empire, sitting in Shimla, ruled from Aden to Singapore. It is a compilation of some of the most memorable original accounts of British life in India. In this chronicle of everyday life and amusements of the British, four aspects stand out: the heat, which the British never really became accustomed to; racial differences with ‘natives’, which was for the British an encounter with the Other; the hunt, the nautch, and the club as centrepieces of leisure; plus, the imagery of cities that grew with the Empire, such as Calcutta, Bombay and Shimla.

Some of the most fascinating descriptions are of the early voyages to India on ships. The treacherous sea around the Cape of Good Hope often put the fear of God into some of these early East India Company seamen, with scurvy a constant threat. However, time and again, the steely nature and raw courage of British explorers is manifest.

Some very early accounts have poignant and wistful observations. One such in 1615 describes a British sailor taking what could well be his last look at the English shoreline off Tilbury Hope. Another description 100 years later is of anchoring at the Bombay Fort area, where sundry ships gave the Union Jack a nine-gun salute.

The women of the Empire, it is clear, were a group of bored ladies with almost nothing to do. The men, on the other hand, took great solace in the hunt. The book has incredible accounts of hunts of the wild boar, tiger, bison and suchlike in various jungles of India. If jungle tales are something you enjoy, you will find plenty to engross you in this book.

The most striking thing about this book, though, is that in all the observations spanning 300 years, almost none of the writers finds it odd to be a colonialist.