Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
BEGUMS, THUGS AND
The journal of Family Parkes. Edited by William Dalrymple,361 pp. Sickle Moon, Pound 9.99.
When the mercury touches 45 degrees in Delhi, it is difficult to imagine an English memsahib getting off the ship in India in the early nineteenth century and exclaiming that she was “charmed with the climate; the weather was delicious…” But then Fanny Parkes was not one to fear high temperatures – or for that matter, thugs, tigers, or typhoid. The wife of a junior official of the East India Company, Parkes refused to live in the segregated splendour of colonial British stations, away from the natives. Armed with nothing more lethal than a sketching pencil, she gave herself up to the “pleasure of vagabondising over India”.
She waded into the thick of things, sailing up and down the Ganges, traveling in palanquins through dangerous jungles, plumbing the veiled secrets of zenanas or royal harems. Parkes’s journals, selected and introduced by William Dalrymple, show clearly where her sympathies lay. She did not patronize the people she met; instead she let them envelop her, learning to play the sitar, to speak Urdu and to eat with her hands until she no longer distinguished herself from them, counting herself among “us Indians”. She also mercilessly castigated the philistine practices- like having a band play and dancing jigs on the marble terrace of the Taj Mahal – of some of her own countrymen.
Fanny Parkes was not only a likeable colonial; she was also the best kind of travel writer, combining her enthusiasm with critical detachment. She could talk of the death of forty- seven gram-fed sheep and lambs from smallpox and describe the fineness of grapes in the same breath. While she delicately sketched begums and fakirs and tombs, she also preserved dead scorpions, locusts and even coveted a baby crocodile. She was obsessed by the urge to travel even up the Gangotri, the source of the Ganges itself. The same obsession urged her to document all that she saw: the working of the thermantidote, the ancestor of the miniaturized Indian air cooler; the elaborate process of making ice on frosty nights and storing it carefully in deep pits for iced drinks and iced bandages; the complement of servants working in a private family- fifty- seven at a cost of pound 290 per annum. No wonder then that when Fanny Parkes finally returned to London on a cold and rainy day, she found that” everything on landing seemed so wretchedly mean.”