OK I’m going to admit this right off the bat and tell you that I am a huuuge history junkie. I’m one of those people who get misty-eyed when they look at old buildings and their heads get flooded with (imaginative, hence, probably inaccurate) images of the people who must have once lived there and what their world must have looked like. It fascinates me to think that every piece of earth you walk on, there were a million people who walked there before you; their heads crowded with thoughts, hopes and dreams and lives as different from yours as possible.
And considering all that, I am in historical literature heaven right now! (You’ll know when I review the book I’m currently reading.)
Coming back to Fishing Fleet, I’ll admit it was those two words and then the very at-odds-with-the-title cover I saw. And starting from there itself the book was a revelation in so many ways! Now, a) I don’t know how many of you reading this are familiar with Indian history (India was a British dominion for nearly 200 years, which is what the “Raj” in the title refers to; the ‘jewel in the British Crown’ until it achieved independence a short 6 decades and some ago) and b) I do not, usually, like reading foreigners’ (or NRI’s) accounts of India basically ‘cos they tend to be so … stereotypical.
However, this one caught my attention for the reasons I just mentioned.
And I am so glad I read it! I am not into empire bashing and blaming the British for all our ills so maybe that makes it easier for me. But I have, in conjunction with the rest of literate India, spent a sizeable chunk of my school education reading and re- re- re- re – … well, you get the idea … the history of our freedom struggle. We all know of the plunder, atrocities and racist abuse Indians suffered at the hands of the British. What I’ve never really read before is a non-imperialist, factual account by a Britisher of the Raj. That is to say, the other side of the coin.
Anne de Courcy’s Fishing Fleet centres around a phenomenon which no history book traditionally talks about; throwing up, in the process, several other things of the same milieu.
She talks of the tens and hundreds of unmarried girls who undertook the perilous journey from England all the way to India for the numerous years of the Raj, in search of – yes! – a husband. These girls were known as the Fishing Fleet girls. Politically incorrect? Maybe. Backward? Definitely. But apparently, also factual. And through the medium of this very curious phenomenon she recreates a picture of the British Raj in India as well as in England that I, at least, have never really considered.
Quoting liberally from published books, private memoirs and personal interviews the book gives you a ringside view of history – for Indians, from the other side of the fence. And I know much of this will be surprising to many of my fellow countrymen.
Case in point – it seems there was a time when marriages and other “liaisons” between the British and the Indians were considered de rigeur. She quotes British men who talk of the exotic beauty of the native women and how many of them chose to marry the women here over those from home. In fact, the eventual racial superiority which set the tone for history was enforced rather than natural. The East India Company then started paying for the passage of the Fishing Fleet girls to India; even providing them an allowance for the first year here in which time they were required to find a husband!
Eventually, the tables turned and girls started coming to India – paying the EIC, in turn! – to look for eligible matches since the veritable cream of British young men came to India in search of their bright future. Much of the time they spent here seems to have been one of unceasing gaiety; just reading which exhausted me, honestly. Until, that is, they got married. As an Army brat I can appreciate the bordering-on-ridiculous living conditions described in the book (though things are nowhere near as bad now) and can imagine how difficult life in eccentric India must have been for them. Not even considering the appalling death rate in the subcontinent.
She also retraces the unbelievable rigidity of the British society in India; much worse than it was in England even. And the sheer opulence of the Raj, its Viceroys aware that they ruled over a much larger populace than even the monarchy in England. What I also found interesting was how much of the decorum and formality has been retained from those times. Though I, of course, refer to the Indian Army when I say that; the direct descendant of the main bulk of the British force.
There are also snippets of the careers of the Viceroys which are in absolute variance to what we in India basically remember them to be. What’s not so surprising is the complete avoidance of the conditions of the “native” population when all the Royal Durbars and other frivolous entertainment were in progress. But then I guess enough’s been said about that already.
On the other hand, there is also the oft ignored fact that many, many of the British who eventually left India on Independence felt the pang of separation from their homeland. Many of them had been born in India as had several generations of their ancestors and considered themselves more Indian than British; missing the open skies and bright colours of India during enforced separations.
The book gets an easy 5 from and I’d recommend everybody take the time to read it!