Victorian India

Walter Roper Lawrence “went out to India” at the age of twenty-two to be a civil-servant in the British administration. Contrary to the modern impression of the English in India, he grew to respect the country and its people, and learned from both. In these excerpts from an essay originally published in the Times, he remembers his time there, comments on changing bureaucratic attitudes in the early 20th century and considers their consequences.


Slow! It was slow in the Victorian time, for three to four months riding through the villages; and as we rode, others would join our cavalcade, yeomen of the country, and never an official save Shahji, a genial, burly Mughal, mounted on a horse befitting his stature. He taught me my work, covering my blunders with blunt courtesy. He capped every anecdote, and, free spender as he was, gave many a feast of a sheep, with ample rice and sugar. The cavalcade grew in size – we were the best of district committees. For these men knew the country and knew what the people wanted – just to be left alone. They would tell me of some local bandit, usually a Robin Hood, out for a better disposition of other people’s wealth. But they always disapproved and said he was dangerous and had become be-khauf (without fear), an evil portent in India. These men riding with me, whose families stock the regiments of the Indian Army, knew the danger to their homes when a young man became be-khauf.

So we rode on, in single file when the crops were tumbling over the track, or in open line when the country was waste; and one day as we rode, happily talking, suddenly we came on the railway and reined up as the train rattled by. The English passengers waved their hands, and I raised my battered sun hemet; the train passed, and we crossed the line. But the talk ceased, the charm was snapped, and old Shahji edged up on his horse, pointed to the dust of the train and said, “There goes your caste.” For we were a caste. We married and we ate in our own caste. What else? The other 60,000,000 untouchables live on the skirt of the towns, or the fringe of the villages, but we lived farther away in the Dudder Station, or in the Cantonment, if we were of the Army. It was inevitable that we, a few thousands, should come under the compelling influence, the mass osmosis of the many millions always within our sight and hearing. It was natural that we should absorb something of the spirit of the East…….

I used to hear of India being “Anglicized”; but in my experience it was rather the other way. It was we who were being Indianized. I never met an Anglicized Indian. I saw and knew many who spoke and dressed like Englishmen; but they will never be English. They have too much to lose and to leave, and the ancestral mortmain grips them. It would be far easier for the detached Englishman to become Indian. For we went to India at a most plastic and impressionable age, and for our first years we were in the hands of the most charming and courteous of teachers. I went through the hands of more than one Shahji. I am certain that, while I did nothing to Anglicize them, they did much to Indianize me. And it was caste, that great conserving force of India, the caste that went by in that train, that kept me English. The rules of our caste were three – and I had them burnt into my young mind in 1879 – Work hard, Keep English, Keep faith with the Indians…..

And above us was the Barra Sahib, the Head of the District, omniscient, untiring, and self-sacrificing. He knew that the whole machine would crash if weaklings touched it. So we had to work and fit ourselves for the great endeavour. If he ever had time to think, he must have known that his task was becoming too heavy. But in those days he had the Government behind him. I have been a small cog in the machine; have stood in the engine room; and in the last days of Queen Victoria I was a fly on the driving-wheel when it drove its fastest. But even I could see that the business was becoming too complex and too exacting for the District Officer, and that the craze of the Government for centralization, uniformity, and statistics would shackle the man on whom all depends. If he lost personal touch with the people of the district, then all was lost…….

In India it is all a question of pace. The pace of the villagers was the pace of the plough oxen, and in the Victorian days we kept in step with them. Is the day coming when we shall speed along the alien highroad in a cloud of dust, while our old friends and their buffaloes ruminate from afar, and the delegate from the city mutters, “There goes your gram-fed sahib, what does he care for you?” The pace was slow but sure. The pace has quickened now. Are we sure and are the villagers sure? For they are the deep, true sea of India, the cities the foam on its shores.

The Indian Civil Service. Sir Walter R. Lawrence. Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth Ltd. 1932.


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