THE INDIAN CIVIL SERVICE: deep in the English psyche is an obsession with India, and this vast organisation was once an inseparable part of it. The reason was partly logistical. India was so far and so inaccessible that anyone who chose to be an Indian ‘Civilian’ had to live out there wholeheartedly. You either committed yourself to India or you did not, with all that that implied: a wife met while on leave or imported on the ‘fishing fleet’, children at risk from weather and disease (vide the English graveyard at Calcutta) and sent back to school in England, summers in Ooty, Simla or the equivalent, menus of ‘Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of AngloIndia’ (A Passage to India).
In this snappily written (and cleverly titled) book, Clive Dewey, an academic at Leicester who has been working in this field for twenty-five years, explores all aspects of the ICS by focusing on two of its members, Frank Brayne and Malcolm Darling. Why Brayne? Why Darling? In a way the reason is quite mundane. In the late 1960s, Dr Dewey began looking for papers relating to the Punjab Commission. They mostly did not survive in India, nor did they survive the journey home to Cheltenham or Tunbridge Wells. Except, that is, in the case of these two men, whose trunks full of papers he managed to track down.
Dewey starts with the amazing statistic that one thousand Civilians ‘ruled on average 300,000 subjects’ each. The potential for pomposity, arrogance, and little men strutting out about self-importantly, was enormous, as E M Forster and so many others have shown. Dewey has not set out either to correct this picture or to confirm it, but by showing things as they really were for these two senior res men he paints a remarkably complete picture. Yet there are obviously two ways of looking at his conclusions, as the author notes in the acknowledgements, referring to Brayne’s grandiose attempt to bring some measure of prosperity to part of the Punjab:
I am afraid that my criticisms of Brayne’s work have upset members of his family. I originally thought that the Gurgaon Experiment had been a success – a vindication of the last phase of British rule in the Punjab. It was only after I worked my way through the sources that I decided it had been a failure. I should like readers to bear in mind the possibility that my first guess was the right one.
Dewey is so steeped in his subject that this book might have been inaccessible to the general reader. But AngloIndian Attitudes manages to achieve that often elusive balance of scholarship and readability. For example the first chapter, ‘The British Mandarins’, deftly sums up the situation in the years between the Indian Mutiny and Independence: it describes how Civilians ‘collected the revenue, allocated rights in land, relieved famines, improved agriculture .. .judged lawsuits, inspected municipalities, schools, hospitals, cooperatives’; how they wrestled with the challenge of ‘understanding India. It was so alien, so diverse, so immense’, and contended with the difficulties of communicating with London.
Public school, Oxford or Cambridge, and a year at a crammer preparing for the exam were the necessary hurdles, but once in you were in for life – if you wished: Leonard Woolf gave up for Virginia. You had to be partly an intellectual or at least as much a thinker as a doer. As a result, seeing the ICS as ‘an extension of the Victorian intelligentsia, exercising far more power than intellectuals normally enjoy, draws attention to the importance of their ideas’. For ideas is what this book is about. Not the recipes for kedgeree (though there is a glossary with words like chota hazri, iz zat and tonga), or romantic dallying on the North-West Frontier, but why the two men felt, thought and acted as they did where India was concerned.
Thus there are detailed descriptions of their backgrounds and education. Darling, for example, was at Cambridge, at King’s in Forster’s time, and the origins of his ‘Forsterian’ values are closely explored. Curiously, however, that old chestnut, Darling’s resemblance to Fielding in A Passage to India , is ignored. But there are similarities, notably the idealism and the emphasis on friendship (which merits the only conceptual entry in the selective and therefore inadequate index) . ‘The more Darling disliked his fellow-countrymen, the more he liked Indians. He cultivated educated townsmen, the backbone of the nationalist movement; he talked to hundreds of peasants in the course of long tours inspecting cooperative societies; and he formed a lifelong friendship with his ward Tukoji Rao Puar, the ruler of Dewas Senior’ (the Maharajah in Forster’s The Hill of Devi and the subject of Dewey’s next book).
Brayne and Darling’s day-to-day activities in India are explored in a constantly interesting way. Brayne, a latterday Victorian, is shown trying to raise the peasants out of sin (and to convert them to useful gadgets like the hay box); Darling, the humanist, trying to be their friend and influence them through love. The Gospel of Uplift and the Cult of Friendship are, then, the twin pivots for AngloIndian Attitudes, while in the final chapter an overall view is given not only of Brayne and Darling’s influence in the Punjab but of the ICS generally, a kind of compare-and-contrast chapter that brings it all together. And again and again we are referred back to the central thesis: ‘that the members of one of the most powerful elites the world has ever known, the Indian Civil Service at the high-noon of empire, were the prisoners of the values they absorbed in their youth’. We are all this, of course, but we do not rule a quarter of a million people.
There are some mad and wonderful anecdotes in this book. And many shaming ones. Can Mrs Darling Oosie, whom I found rather admirable on the whole while I was doing the research for my Forster biography, really have written thus to her mother in 1919?
I was amazed at the unceasing outcrop of villas all along the line, suburb after suburb. I can’t think of how anyone can live in them. I simply can’t believe you hadn’t a cook when Alice came. How perfectly rotten. But now that the W AACs are being demobbed and these shameful unemployment bonuses cease, I can’t but hope servants may become plentiful again. It seems rapidly becoming impossible for our class either to grow old or be ill or have any children.
Alas, if this book has done nothing else it has made me revise my opinion about the Turtons and the Burtons: Josie Darling cannot be held entirely blameless for their creation. How bizarre to think that at the very same time that her husband was in despair about Amritsar and his true and deep friendships with Indians, his wife was writing that.