the lawyer writer

sometimes legal                     sometimes literary                     sometimes not

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The "Hole of Kolkata" Just Doesn't Sound Right

I have been corresponding with one of my favorite artists, Madame Talbot, about our mutual interest in Victoriana. I have always been fascinated with Victorian culture beyond the usual Indian tendency towards anglophilia. Now, of course, the tide has turned, and as Bombay becomes Mumbai and Madras becomes Chennai, I find myself out of the mainstream once again.

It started with stories of Sherlock Holmes, mixed with a steady dose of Louisa May Alcott and the wonderful Maud Hart Louvelace, whose Betsy-Tacy series forever solidified my view of what the world was like. Betsy and Tacy were two small girls growing up in turn-of-century Minnesota. Because the town was heavily German, the girls' third friend, Tib, said things like "Ach" and "liebchein." Theodore Roosevelt was the best president; the pompadour was in style; everyone was just converting from gas to electricity. Living in my own head as always, I was sure that this was how things still were, somewhere. Over the years, it continued with the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and the plays of Oscar Wilde, with their sardonic dark wit. When I was nine I cherished our library's copy of the 1901 Sears Catalog; I dreamed of getting a brand new gramaphone for only $2. Over the years, my interest spread: Rudyard Kipling, accounts of Egyptology expeditions, opium dens, the British Raj era, gothic novels, Harry Houdini, courtesans and dance halls and steamship trunks plastered with labels from the Golden Age of travel. I hated the writing style of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, but I have never forgotten their stories--the Moonstone, and an India that was still revered by my grandfather a century later.

I don't deny the British oppression of India, and that we are still recovering from our injustices. But I still find the era fascinating. Much has been written about how the British affected India in the 19th century, but little has been written about how India affected the British. As I studied the era, the casual racism and its implications became unavoidable. This was not an era that I would have been happier in. I would have been in the third class compartment, if I was lucky enough to get on the train at all.

And yet, I am interested. The Indian, the coolie, as the Other--the exotic, dark other, bringing a whole new face to the Victorian underground. Myths of Kali cults and thugees litter Victorian novels. Darker Victorian literature references the Kama Sutra in lurid terms. Bombay was considered the most gothic city in the world, with exquisite Victorian architecture. While the Indian people themselves were oppressed, the culture infected the British and seduced them. It was dark, yes, and unfair, but it was beautiful. By the time I was reading of Madame Blavatsky and her spiritualist movement in India and Europe, writing about Mata Hari's claim of being raised as a Hindu temple dancer and discovering what an Anglo-Indian was, I was hooked. The dark side of the British Raj was inescapably...goth.

Again. Not mainstream. I'm having a hard time finding out any information on India's effect on the popular culture of the Victorian era that's not excruciatingly scholarly. If anyone has any thoughts, they would be greatly appreciated...

14 Comments:

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Anonymous Kumar said...

Neeraja,

Nice post. The gothic/romantic is one of my favorite genres too. Whenever I see the old train terminuses in India (the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, now the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus) is a prime example of semi-Gothic railway architecture in India. The railways, the Gothic influence on buildings, colonial times, all these go together, right? In fact, the British built the rail network faster in India than in Great Britain. Reason: It was done by the private sector in India (East India company) whereas in UK, initially it was mostly the Crown that did it.

Hope you've read 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins. Thats a fine example of how India and related themes affected the Victorian novel. (In case you haven't read i, you can download and print from: http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/12/22/frameset.html).

I have some more thoughts on this theme.Its not just the Indian money that funded the Victorian leisurely enterprises, but the prudery could also be traced to the habits cultivated by the colonial executives as a defence against the seductions of the orient. And since these colonial executives came back rich, their behaviour would have become 'fashionable', leading to prudery itself being the 'in thing'. Anyway, don't want to ramble on. More later, may be..

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