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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

Chapter 7

A Traveller’s Eye

John Lang’s Wanderings in India

Rick Hosking

As Victor Crittenden’s painstaking research (Crittenden 2005) has established, the Australian-born writer John George Lang published, either in serial or book form, more than 20 novels, several volumes of short stories, four volumes of poetry and at least two plays. Lang also published Wanderings in India (1859), sometimes called ‘a travel book’, and, according to Rolf Boldrewood (Thomas Alexander Browne), one of the best of the lighter descriptions of Indian life ever published. Most of the chapters in Wanderings in India first appeared in Lang’s English-language newspaper Mofussilite in the mid- to late-1840s in India; when they were republished between November 1857 to February 1859 in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, the travel sketches were offered in eleven parts, with the running title ‘Wanderings in India’. In 1857 Lang was living in London and, with the Indian Mutiny very much in the news, Dickens was eager to publish as much background material as he could find about India.1 While a number of Lang’s pieces had appeared in Household Words as early as 1853, the majority were published just after the Sepoy Rebellion, allowing readers to set his sketches and stories against the evolving narrative of India’s first war of independence.2 In the complete collection that appeared in the 1859 Routledge edition, Lang used many of his Household Words pieces and added two new sketches written specifically for the volume, both of which say something about the Sepoy Rebellion and its aftermath.

At first glance Wanderings in India seems best described as travel memoir; its subtitle is ‘Sketches of Life in Hindostan’. When Lang began publishing his own sketches in the Mofussilite in the mid-1840s, the literary sketch was established as a staple of popular periodical publication. There were a number of influential English-language models available: Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819–1820); Charles Dickens’ Sketches by ‘Boz’ (1836–1837); and William Thackeray’s The Paris Sketch-Book (1840) and Irish Sketch Book (1843). All are now considered important in the development of the sketch as a plotless first-person narrative of life and scenes encountered during a writer’s travels, often representing a single episode, vignette or scene. Alison Byerly (1999:349) notes that by the 1830s the sketch had emerged as ‘a rapidly drawn picture that sacrifices aesthetic finish for a sense of spontaneity’. As one of Lang’s narrators says in an aside, ‘[m]y duty is simply to paint the picture’ (Lang 1859:18).With the explosion of newspaper publication all around the world, the sketch rapidly became a staple of popular publishing, although when photography was developed later in the century its word-painting became increasingly redundant.

With the exception of ‘Black and Blue’, all the pieces in Lang’s Wanderings in India are first-person narratives. The title—Wanderings in India—and the subtitle—’sketches’—encourage a reading of the pieces as memoirs and/or travel pieces. Certainly Wanderings in India has been read as such by historians wishing to make use of Lang’s reminiscences of people met during his wanderings. Most of the pieces in the collection portray India in the years immediately before the Sepoy Rebellion, so it is not surprising that Lang’s work has been read by historians for his views about historical characters such as Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi, both significant players in the rebellion. Surendra Nath Sen’s Eighteen Fifty-Seven (1957) cites Lang five times, while Pratul Chandra Gupta cites Lang on seven occasions in his Nana Sahib and the Rising at Cawnpore (1963).3 However, while historical personages do appear in Wanderings in India, a number of his pieces are not simply ‘history’ or even memoir; some obviously deploy fictional devices and can be read as short stories, as the naming of their different narrators indicates.4 ‘The Himalaya Club’ is the first piece in Wanderings in India and in it a Indian landscape is described:

From the back of the club-house, from your bedroom windows … you have a view of Deyrah Dhoon. It appears about a mile off. It is seven miles distant. The plains that lie outstretched below the Simplon bear, in point of extent and beauty, to the Indian scene, nothing like the proportion which the comparatively pigmy Mont Blanc bears to the Dewalgiri. From an elevation of about seven thousand feet the eye embraces a plain containing millions of acres, intersected by broad streams to the left, and inclosed [sic] by a low belt of hills, called the Pass. The Dhoon, in various parts, is dotted with clumps of jungle, abounding with tigers, pheasants, and every species of game. In the broad tributaries to the Ganges and the Jumna, may be caught (with a fly) the mahseer, the leviathan salmon. Beyond the Pass of which I have spoken you see the Plains of Hindoostan. While you are wrapped in a great coat, and are shivering with the cold, you may see the heat, and the steam it occasions. With us on the hills, the thermometer is at forty-five; with those poor fellows over there, it is at ninety-two degrees. We can scarcely keep ourselves warm, for the wind comes from the snowy range; they cannot breathe, except beneath a punkah … We are all idlers at Mussoorie. We are all sick, or supposed to be so; or we have leave on private affairs. Some of us are up here for a month between musters (Lang 1859:2–3).

Mary Louise Pratt (1992:201–202) describes the ‘promontory’ view represented in the ‘monarch-of-all-I-survey’ trope which is often found in colonial travel writing, stressing the superiority of the European seer with a perspective that frames the ‘relations of contact’ (1992:78) and makes ‘territorial surveillance’ (1992:39) possible. This extract is a classic exemplar of ‘promontory’ view, often found in writing about India, which, given the willingness of Anglo-Indians to describe themselves as ‘heaven-born’, is perhaps not all that surprising.5 The lofty vantage point, while allowing a god-like and essentialising hegemonic perspective, has the consequence that any other human activity below at ground level is simply not registered. What is seen is jungle, described as full of game. Even if there are people below, it is only the Europeans who are considered—the punkah-wallah on the end of the rope is simply not observed, his presence effaced by what the writer’s voice understands as the need for hot Englishmen to be cooled; he leaves no trace on this space that is now the European’s through the act of describing. The repeated use of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘we’ suggests a communal or shared vantage point for viewing India; the higher up the European seeing-eye can get, the more all-embracing is the perception, the reality of dominance and appropriation thus made clear. The representation of this landscape as empty, save for hot Europeans and an invisible punkah-wallah, reinforces the perception that Lang offers in many places in Wanderings in India that India is a terrific place for sporting European gentlemen, without wife or children, who like a drink and a bet, a ramble and outdoor sports.

‘The Himalaya Club’ may read like a travel sketch, but it is in fact a short story; the narrator is Captain Wall, a member of the Club who has a bedroom there and describes the goings-on in Mussoorie during the ‘season’. Captain Wall is a navy man, supposedly on sick leave, who spends his time in what he calls ‘utter idleness’—gambling, drinking and visiting various English women who are always writing to their husbands when he calls (Lang 1859:5).6 Lang deploys a knowing—or perhaps that should be know-all—first-person narrative voice:

Let us sum up the events of the season. Four young men were victimized—two at cards and two at billiards. Two duels were fought on the day after the ball. In one of these duels an officer fell dead. In another the offending party grievously wounded his antagonist. Four commissions were sacrificed in consequence of these encounters. There were two elopements [which] … led to two actions in H.M. Supreme Court of Calcutta, and seven of us (four in one case and three in the other) had to leave our regiments or appointments and repair to the Supreme Court to give evidence. Some of us had to travel fourteen hundred miles in the month of May, the hottest month in India (Lang 1859:26–27).

Wall’s tone is bored, sardonic and cynical and Lang’s representation of the British at rest and play in the hill station is hardly flattering; the cooly dispassionate tone of Wall’s stiff-upper-lip account of the highlights of the season suggests a chaotic, dissipated, amoral and violent colonial world. Given Lang’s family break-up, the women who inhabit this world are especially interesting; the confident and assured young grass widows are wives of army officers and other administrative figures. The fact that Wall is required to travel to Calcutta to give evidence suggests, perhaps, a rather closer acquaintance with these dramatic events in the season than he is prepared to recognise openly. His willingness to ‘sum up’ what had happened through the season reveals his insider knowledge and his confidence in his powers of observation and judgment; he even goes so far as to assert that by the mid-century the moral tone of Anglo-Indian society was improving: ‘It is now four years since I heard of a duel in the Upper Provinces—upwards of four years since I heard of a victim to gambling, and nearly three since there was an elopement’ (Lang 1859:28).

The second and third pieces in Wanderings in India are also short stories—’The Mahommedan Mother’ and ‘Black and Blue’. Both represent transracial erotics, with both sympathetic to the predicament of Indian women whose relationships with European men have turned out badly. Representing the difficulties of achieving cross-cultural rapprochement, Lang’s works describe racial and sexual differences with a complex sense of moral ambivalence; there is even a little implicit questioning of the assertively masculinist and racist codes that have led to the human tragedies described. Perhaps Lang’s own family and marital circumstances made him rather more sympathetic to the predicaments of such relationships than he otherwise might have been. Perhaps it was the case that his second wife, Margaret Wetter, was of mixed race.

‘The Mahommedan Mother’ is set in Mussoorie and is a powerful and sentimental story. Mr Longford, the first-person narrator, is a former sailor, a Hindi- and Persian-speaking old hand, experienced and knowing in the ways of the world. The story describes an evening during a thunderstorm when he meets Dooneea, a Muslim woman and the daughter of a moolvee (law officer) from Agra. She tells him the story of her relationship with an unnamed English magistrate, who is a close friend of Longford, and its destructive and tragic consequences. The magistrate had died of fever, leaving Dooneea with their child—a boy—who had been taken from her by the magistrate’s brother when she, in her despair, had taken to opium and bhung. Now she waits to see the boy who is attending school, and Longford helps her with an elaborate stratagem to make contact with her son. After Dooneea meets the boy, Longford returns him to his school and tells Dooneea she must not see him again. Dooneea’s reaction is to swoon and die, a fortuitous turn of events, in that the long-term consequences of transracial contact are thus neatly avoided.7 Longford concludes the story with the hard-nosed observation that the son will not only benefit from being raised as an Englishman but will also inherit property to the value of £4,000, and that he ‘will, I trust, make good use of his little fortune, when he comes of age’ (Lang 1859:58). However, the overall impression of the piece is that Indian women have much more to lose in transracial relationships than their British lovers.

‘Black and Blue’, the third piece in Wanderings in India, describes a relationship between the Honourable Francis Gay (son of Lord Millflower) and Ellen, a young Muslim girl, the daughter of a water carrier. Gay arrives in India in disgrace as a remittance man, a reprobate and a disgrace to his father, but he changes his ways in India. He learns Hindi and Persian, begins to ‘live like a native—a Mahommedan’, wears the native costume, becomes a vegetarian, abstains from drinking and eventually takes the name Mustapha Khan. He persuades Ellen to convert to Christianity and then marries her. They have a son called Chandee, with ‘light blue eyes, exactly like those of his father; but his complexion was quite as black as his mother’s’—hence the title of the piece (Lang 1859:66). Francis/Mustapha leaves the military and becomes a trader in jewels, but he is murdered, leaving Ellen and Chandee penniless. Mother and son establish a sweet shop in Delhi and Chandee becomes a ‘box-waller’, selling odds and ends to the European officers in Delhi, who call him ‘Black and Blue’. However, the death of his grandfather and his uncles leaves him with a claim to the titles and estates of Lord Millflower. Chandee accompanies an attorney to London to lay claim to his inheritance and, although the claim is unsuccessful, Chandee never returns to India. Despite the 19th-century obsession with elaborate plots involving inheritance, that Chandee can never claim the title that is rightfully his says a great deal about entrenched racist attitudes in the years before 1857.

The pieces following the first three short stories appeared in Household Words under the title ‘Wanderings in India’. In the Routledge edition a further title has been added to each of these. ‘The Ranee of Jhansi’ is the first of the true sketches and was written especially for the 1859 edition. It describes Lang the lawyer’s dealings with the Lakhshmibai, the ‘best and bravest of the rebels’, the woman who would later become (in)famous during the Sepoy Rebellion and would die leading her troops at the Battle of Gwalior in June 1858. Lakhshmibai had approached Lang to act for her against the East India Company in an attempt to reverse an order of annexation on Jhansi. Lang describes his trip there in the Ranee’s palanquin, which even included a punkah and a ready supply of cool water, wine and beer. After stressing the pomp and ceremony of his arrival at the fortress, Lang makes much of an exchange with the Rani’s finance minister about removing his shoes when in the Rani’s presence; agreement was finally reached that, while Lang would take off his offending footwear, he would still wear his black ‘wide-awake’ hat.8 Noting that the piece was especially written just a year or so after her death, Lang describes his amusement at this bargaining; there is a strong sense of his taking a stand, asserting his power over the Rani, demonstrating he can behave as truculently as any of the heaven-born who have treated her and Jhansi with such cavalier disregard. While the piece seems disconcertingly vainglorious after the sympathy for Indian women represented in the first two stories, there are some moments of sympathy and human exchange, for example, when Lang catches a glimpse of the Rani when the purdah curtain is moved:

I was very curious indeed to get a glimpse of her; and whether it was by accident, or by design on the Ranee’s part, I know not, my curiosity was gratified. The curtain was drawn aside by the little boy, and I had a good view of the lady. It was only for a moment, it is true; still I saw her sufficiently to be able to describe her. She was a woman of about the middle size—rather stout, but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger, and even now it had many charms—though, according to my idea of beauty, it was too round. The expression also was very good, and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She had no ornaments, strange to say, upon her person, except a pair of gold ear-rings. Her dress was a plain white muslin, so fine in texture, and drawn about her in such a way, and so tightly, that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible—and a remarkably fine figure she had. What spoilt her was her voice, which was something between a whine and a croak. When the purdah was drawn aside, she was, or affected to be, very much annoyed; but presently she laughed, and good-humouredly expressed a hope that a sight of her had not lessened my sympathy with her sufferings nor prejudiced her cause. ‘On the contrary,’ I replied, ‘if the Governor-General could only be as fortunate as I have been, and for even so brief a while, I feel quite sure that he would at once give Jhansi back again to be ruled over by its beautiful Queen’ (Lang 1859:93–94).

Lang quotes the Ranee: ‘[m]eera Jhansi nahin dengee’ (I will never give up my Jhansi), thus helping to sustain the legend of the Rani and the defiant cry still associated with her. For his services, Lang received an elephant, a camel, an Arab, a pair of greyhounds of great swiftness, a quantity of silks and stuffs (the production of Jhansi) and a pair of Indian shawls.9

‘Tirhoot, Lucknow, Bhitoor, ETC.’ is first of the travel pieces proper in Wanderings in India, and in it the beguiling image of Lang the footloose and fancy-free traveller is first encountered. Although Lang says nothing about his personal circumstances after the departure of his wife, after the success of his paper and earning £30,000 from an infamous lawsuit conducted on behalf of Ajoodia Pershâd, he had the economic freedom to wander the mofussil—the backblocks of India.10 While it is more usual to associate the style of the flâneur with the stroller in the European cities of the mid 19th-century, there is something of the type in Lang’s descriptions of his own wanderings around India. He notes that he:

was in no way connected with the Government, and was consequently an ‘interloper’ or ‘adventurer’ … the terms applied by certain officials to European merchants indigo-planters, shopkeepers, artisans, barristers, attorneys … I had no occupation, was my own master, and had a large tract of country to roam about in. My first step was to acquire a knowledge of Hindoostanee and of Persian (Lang 1859:97).

He claims that on his travels he did not speak English for five months, ‘made a point of avoiding my own countrymen, and of associating only with the natives of India’, and became a vegetarian (Lang 1859:105). Elsewhere, Lang calls himself a ‘wanderer and an interloper’, and we discover that he is 32 years old, suggesting he is young and foolhardy (Lang 1859:244,286). Through the accumulation of such detail, Lang adopts the persona of the picaresque flâneur who consciously goes out of his way to dissociate himself from the ‘heaven-born’, attempting to engage with the colonised in India, while trying to avoid the most obvious consequences of the coloniser’s desire to dominate and rule. Furthermore, in an extraordinary admission, Lang makes it clear that on one occasion he even dressed as a Muslim woman, knowing that women in traditional dress might travel more easily in those parts of India where there was a risk of highway robbery (Lang 1859:120).

In his sketches, Lang uses a strongly individualised narrative voice, allowing the traveller’s eye to survey the various and varied human experience revealed through his ‘wanderings’. Lang’s traveler–narrator typically stands on the edge of the action, watching, listening, recording, and now and again inserting an editorial commentary on what has been witnessed or heard. He is called ‘old boy’ by the young lieutenant on gold-escort duties near Agra; he is experienced, cynical and laconic, an observer whose conversational prose style encourages readers to accept the validity of the narrative. Some might consider the style presumptuous; Lang had arrived in India in 1842, but within eight years it seems he had had sufficient time to develop the focalising voice of the old hand, the expert commentator on sundry Indian subjects.

The description of Lang’s meeting with the Maharajah Peishwa Bahadoor. the notorious Nana Sahib,11 in Chapter Five of Wanderings in India suggests that, although Lang may have liked to think of himself as having ‘gone native’, he was only prepared, or able, to go so far. Lang describes a meal at some length:

I had scarcely made myself comfortable, when the khansamah informed me that dinner was on table. This was welcome intelligence, for I had not tasted food since morning, and it was half-past five p.m. I sat down to a table twenty feet long (it had originally been the mess table of a cavalry regiment), which was covered with a damask table-cloth of European manufacture, but instead of a dinner-napkin there was a bedroom towel. The soup—for he had everything ready—was served up in a trifle-dish which had formed part of a dessert service belonging to the 9th Lancers—at all events, the arms of that regiment were upon it; but the plate into which I ladled it with a broken tea-cup, was of the old willow pattern. The pilao which followed the soup, was served upon a huge plated dish, but the plate from which I ate it, was of the very commonest description. The knife was a bone-handled affair; the spoon and the fork were of silver, and of Calcutta make. The plated side-dishes, containing vegetables, were odd ones; one was round, the other oval. The pudding was brought in upon a soup-plate of blue and gold pattern, and the cheese was placed before me on a glass dish belonging to a dessert service. The cool claret I drank out of a richly cut champagne glass, and the beer out of an American tumbler, of the very worst quality (Lang 1859:107).

Lang may speak Hindi, he may have a decent suntan and may avoid contact with other Europeans, but here he constructs the Indian household as bizarrely different and breaking all the rules of civilised living, offering what we now read as a fascinating and, in Homi Bhabha’s terms, hybridised amalgam of India and Europe, that perpetuates rather than challenges stereotypes (Ashcroft et al 2003:118). When Lang notices and records this hybridised space between two cultures, the strength of his own European conviction is enhanced by his self-confident reportage which mocks the confusion of styles. Lang is cocooned as an outsider by the explicit superiority of his ‘imperial eye’, although he is still able to enjoy his host’s hospitality. Lang agrees to be shampooed (‘a luxury to which I was always partial’), but here it means massage, four men pressing and cracking away until he slept (Lang 1859:112).

Lang is not always so conventionally and knowingly Eurocentric. Here and there in some of the sketches in Wanderings in India he recognises that India is a land saturated with significations for Indians, that India is a place of great diversity and richness, that India is a country worth travelling. Lang comes to understand that people might even go about their business in spite of the presence of their colonial masters. Furthermore, he can now and again see Indians as individuals, rather than represent them as a homogenised collective ‘them’, which was so often the typical colonialist strategy. There are encounters between Europeans and Indians in the collection, even if the people met are usually high-caste Indians and often what might now be called celebrities. These few moments usually coincide with episodes and incidents where Lang participates in the life he seeks to describe, where his presence is partly dramatised, and where he goes a little further than casting himself as a relatively unsentimental observer.

Chapters Six to Eight of Wanderings in India are among the most interesting of the pieces, in that they describe life on the road for the nonchalant gentleman-traveller. The narrator meets a motley mob of individuals in his picaresque and picturesque travels along the Grand Trunk Road; he encounters a Treasure Party—a company of ‘native infantry’ proceeding from Mynpoorie to Agra with £25,000 in the charge of a philosophical Anglo-Indian lieutenant who insists on ‘screw[ing] a small chat’ out of each of the travellers on the road. The unnamed lieutenant is a whimsical little fellow who wears an odd assortment of British and Indian clothing, travels barefooted, smokes huge cigars, carries a walking stick and seems ‘to know everybody in Hindoostan’, possibly because he has 60 first cousins in India (Lang 1859:173). Warning Lang about the dangers of drinking tea while travelling, since it spoils the flavour of cheroots, he is blasé about his military status. Along with a Sepoy, a ‘powerful Brahmin’ named Manu Singh Sipahee, who is ill and thus must share the lieutenant’s gig, they converse about various matters concerned with the British in India: how caste affects Indian soldiers’ performance of their military duties; the ridiculous nature of many of the General Orders issued from Headquarters; how the marble headstones marking the graves of Englishmen along the Grand Trunk Road are stolen; and so on. As they make their way to Agra—the Taj appears in the distance like a large white cloud—we discover how this magnificent monument was nearly demolished on the orders of the Governor General, Lord William Bentinck.

While these travel sketches are some of the liveliest pieces in Wanderings in India, they also offer some manifestly fictional moments. The travellers Lang meets tell him stories; several of his sketches have sentimental or Gothic short stories embedded within them, in the traditional manner used by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. In the chapter ‘Marching’, the ‘lighthearted lieutenant’ tells Lang a story of a young boy of European appearance who had wandered all over India with an Afghan dried-fruit seller; the lad, who now thinks and speaks as a ‘Musselman’, is revealed as the son of a sergeant of the Queen’s 13th Regiment of Foot and eventually restored to his family when the Afghan trader produces several items of family memorabilia, including a miniature of his mother, a bracelet, a brooch and a pocketbook.

Lang uses often rather ponderous names for his characters, very much in the spirit of the period’s fascination with onomastics. In the Agra chapter he makes quite a deal of a colonel he calls Damzè. In a copy of the 1859 edition of Wanderings in India in the University of Western Australia Library, someone who must have known who the colonel was has written ‘Ramsay’ in the margin. Lang obviously had strong memories of Damzè (Ramsay), who cut him dead at a social occasion because he suspected Lang of having written a metrical squib in which he ridiculed the rules of precedence governing Anglo-Indian society. A number of the protagonists in Lang’s sketches attract satirical names, which are obvious cultural references intended for his contemporary readers. In the chapter ‘Indian Society’ there is a complex representation of a ‘Bengalee Baboo’, a Brahmin of the highest caste whom Lang names Nobinkissen, a particularly pointed conceit; we wonder if it meant then what it means now (Gupta 1959:366–368). He is described as a man who:

spoke English with marvelous fluency and accuracy, and could read and write the language as well and as elegantly as any educated European. He was … the cleverest Hindoo whom I encountered during my sojourn in the East. His manners were peculiarly courteous and winning, and there was an air of penitence about the man, which, apart from his abilities, induced me to treat him with kindness and consideration (Lang 1859:212).

Nobinkissen, Lang learns, had been a writer for the East India Company and had been jailed for nine years in Alipore near Calcutta for a particularly clever and profitable piece of chicanery. While employed by ‘John Company’ he had managed to get his British magistrate to sign copies of his judgments that found in favour of both plaintiff and defendant, thus allowing him to sell them to the higher bidder. After nine years in jail, Nobinkissen made his way from Bengal to the Upper Provinces to start afresh. He debates matters of long-term governance in India with Lang and is particularly mocking of missionary attempts to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. Without resorting to the usual denunciations of Bengali conceit and effeminacy found in stereotypes later in the century, Lang rather admiringly notes Nobinkissen’s criminal past, his intelligence, his skill with the English language; perhaps Lang had met someone like Nobinkissen when he was in jail, or perhaps Lang responded to Nobinkissen as one ‘flash’ or clever colonial might to another, although there is little in the text to indicate this (Sinha 1995).

The chapter dealing with Lang’s stay in Agra is particularly interesting. He meets Lall Singh, one of the ‘Seik’ commanders at the Battle of Ferozeshah in 1845, the second battle of the First Anglo–Sikh War. Singh, now a friend of Britain, is in exile in Agra, training as a surgeon. He tells Lang that he had sent some of his Damascus swords to England to be converted into surgical instruments. Lang stays with Lall Singh at Jatnee-Bagh, the ‘garden house’ owned by Lallah Jooteepersâd [Ajoodia Pershâd], the army contractor for whom Lang acted in a notorious court case in 1851. A curious feature of this scene is that Lang does not admit to being the lawyer—rewarded handsomely—who acted for Ajoodia Pershâd; instead he opines that the case was very controversial and ‘the most extraordinary and protracted trial that was ever known in India’ (Lang 1859:192). We can explain Lang’s omission of mention of his role in the case as uncharacteristic modesty—after all, if the case was so extraordinary, then the readers of the day would remember his involvement, as the number of memoirs that refer to the matter confirm.12 Lang notes some further post-Mutiny ironies:

Jooteepersâd cannot have harboured any revenge for the wrongs (involving disgrace and dishonour) which were heaped upon him; for it is he who has fed, for several months, the five thousand Christians during their incarceration in the fortress at Agra; and, amongst the number of civilians there shut up, is the gentleman who conducted the prosecution on the behalf of the Government, and who, in the execution of his duty, strove very hard indeed for a verdict of guilty! Without Jooteepersâd we could not have held Agra! (Lang 1859:192)

Such ironies are the stuff of travel writing, essaying the Zeitgeist. Lang and his host later stroll in the garden in the evening cool; Lang makes a point of stressing what good company ‘the ex-Commander of the Seik Cavalry and the ex-Prime Minister of Lahore’ is—a man who bears his altered condition with great dignity and with whom Lang discusses all sorts of topics. A gardener approaches the two men with the news that workmen, digging the foundations in the garden for a vine trellis, have unearthed a ty-khana (a vault beneath a dwelling) and Lang learns that in such dark places are perpetrated ‘dark deeds’. The following morning Lang returns to the site, the excavations continue, and it is discovered that a young woman had been bricked up in the wall:

The skin was still upon the bones, which were covered with a costly dress of white muslin, spangled all over with gold; around the neck was a string of pearls; on the wrists and ankles were gold bangles, and on the feet were a pair of slippers, embroidered all over with silver wire or thread; such slippers as only Mahommedan women of rank or wealth can afford to wear. The body resembled a well-preserved mummy. The features were very distinct, and were those of a woman whose age could not at the time have exceeded eighteen or nineteen years. The head was partially covered with the white dress. Long black hair was still clinging to the scalp, and was parted across the forehead and carried behind the ears. It was the most horrible and ghastly figure that I ever beheld (Lang 1859:197–198).

Lall Singh and Lang discuss the significance of the skeletal remains, the Raja suggesting that she might have been the wife of a jealous husband. Digging resumes, and Lang records that five more bodies were exhumed, one of a young man bricked up between two young women. Lang notes that as the sun strikes the remains they disappear, one by one, leaving only a heap of bones, hair, skin, jewels and finery. This anecdote is one of the most Gothic of the curiosities Lang collects in his travels. These days we can read the scene as again suggesting the blurring of generic boundaries in mid-century writing. What begins as an evening stroll with a gossiping rajah ends with the high Gothic, the discovery of the entombed woman; travel writing becomes ‘sensation’ fiction.

While Lang’s remarks about Lall Singh and the Ranee of Lahore might suggest an insider’s view of India and the ‘style … of the gossip-column’, Lang’s narrator is usually more conscious of his outsider status, which may have had something to do with Lang’s own association with outsiders and his colonial origins (Carrington 1955:69). In the Agra chapter he describes himself as both a visitor and a straggler, while in other chapters he seeks out kindred spirits (Lang 1859:201). In the first travel sketch he travels with a French indigo planter, whereas, as we have seen, the only member of John Company with whom he travels for some time is an eccentric lieutenant. He also teams up with ‘two interlopers in the East’ (Lang 1859:202), the ‘German Baron and the French gentleman’. In a later piece called ‘The Himalayas’ he travels the hill country with them, seeking out the sportin’ life. Given their conspicuous consumption during their travels, Lang obviously has the money to enable him to wander the mofussil in style, as illustrated by one fascinating incident in this chapter. The adventurers are forced to camp just nine miles from Mussoorie so their servants can return to civilisation to collect several items essential for their comfort: pickles and sauces, a corkscrew, the instrument for opening tins of lobster, oysters and preserved soups—and the Baron’s guitar. The trio shoot kakur, bear, pheasant, ghooral, partridge, elk, green pigeon, hill fox, deer and wild dog, and catch fish.

Chapter Eleven of Wanderings in India describes a particularly poignant ramble through the Meerut cemetery, as the narrator is given a guided tour by an ‘old and very intelligent pensioner … originally a private in a regiment of Light Dragoons’ whose only friend is now a cobra capella (Lang 1859:251–252).13 This chapter is hardly the stuff of gung-ho jingoistic imperial panegyric, but instead offers a wistful and, once again, rather Gothic insight into one aspect of imperialism’s human toll, the casualties of empire, including the children of the sahibs and memsahibs buried in the children’s corner of the cemetery. Lang is mindful of those who had died and been buried in such cemeteries and makes a parenthetical remark:

(Whilst I write, it has just occurred to me that this old soldier [his guide] and his family perished in the massacre at Meerut on the 10th of May. He was in some way related to, or connected by marriage with, Mrs. Courtenay, the keeper of the hotel, who, with her nieces, was so barbarously murdered on the disastrous occasion) (Lang 1859:261–262).

Such moments of reflection show where Lang’s sympathies ultimately reside, the aside undoubtedly written especially for publication in Household Words and intended for British readers still appalled by the events of 1857–1859. As Lang himself admits, the convention was well established by the 1850s that travel writing by foreigners about India should be critical. While it is clear that Wanderings in India does not stray too far from mainstream views of the British rule in mid-century India, there are still a number of scenes dealing with the foibles and follies of that administration, and Lang joined the debates about imperial practice by critiquing the petty, bureaucratic behaviour of many of the employers of ‘John Company’, especially their snobbery and narrow-minded social divisions. Several sketches represent such moments. In one mentioned above, Lang notes how close the Taj Mahal came to being demolished on the whim of a Governor-General; in another he mocks the social divisions between the ‘red’ (the military) and the ‘black’ (the civilians) in Agra.

Lang also has a great deal to say about the common soldier, both British and Indian, in pre-1857 India and writes of improving their lot, especially about the need for better housing for the married enlisted men and their families with air-conditioning provided by punkah-wallahs. Lang also comments on those who have become instant experts on India. In the chapter ‘Returning’, Lang stays with a friend at Bijnore—a district magistrate and old India hand. A travelling member of parliament, Lord Jamleigh—a ‘Lord Sahib’, as he is announced—arrives, intent on acquiring a bird’s-eye view of India. Lang describes the MP as a man who knew all about India long before he touched the soil, for he had read a good deal in blue books and newspapers.

John Lang’s Wanderings in India is a remarkable book. Although today’s readers come to it as a travel book—the first by an Australian about India, it demonstrates how generic distinctions between memoir, fiction and travel writing had not fully emerged in the 1850s when it first appeared. His sketches test the boundaries between essay, travel writing, short story, memoir and travelogue in ways that may now seem very modern. Indeed, some of the characteristics of his writings anticipate the achievements of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories four decades later. We still read Kipling and celebrate his achievements, whereas Lang has been largely forgotten.

Works cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin 2003, Post-colonial studies: the key concepts, Routledge, London.

Bond, Ruskin (ed) 1993, The Penguin book of Indian ghost stories, Penguin, New Delhi.

Byerly, Alison 1999, ‘Effortless art: the sketch in nineteenth-century painting and literature’, Criticism 41.

Carrington, CE 1955, Rudyard Kipling: his life and work, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Crittenden, Victor 2005, John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer: barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman, Mulini Press, Canberra.

Gupta, Anil Chandra Das (ed) 1959, The days of John Company: selections from Calcutta Gazette, West Bengal Government Press, Calcutta.

Gupta, Pratul Chandra 1963, Nana Sahib and the rising at Cawnpore, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Lang, John 1858, Will he marry her? a novel, Routledge, London.

— 1859, Wanderings in India and other sketches of life in Hindostan, Routledge, Warne and Routledge, London.

Lebra-Chapman, Joyce 1986, The Rani of Jhansi: a study in female heroism in India, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Miller, E Morris 1940, Australian literature from its beginnings to 1935 Part One, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Moore, Grace 2004, Dickens and Empire: discourses of class, race and colonialism in the novels of Charles Dickens, Ashcroft, Aldershot, Hants.Pratt, Mary Louise 1992, Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation, Routledge, London.

Sen, Surendra Nath 1957, Eighteen fifty-seven, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Delhi.

Sinha, Mrinalini, 1995, Colonial masculinity: the ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

1   The Indian Mutiny began in Meerut on 10 May 1857 and the rebellion was quashed 13 months later. Dickens wrote ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’ for the 1857 Christmas issue of Household Words, a piece shaped in part by attitudes Dickens revealed in a letter about his desire to ‘exterminate the Race [of Indians] from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities’ (quoted in Moore 2004:194).

2   Dickens published six of Lang’s pieces about India in Household Words in 1853, none in 1854, one in 1855, one in 1856, eight in 1857, twelve in 1858, and eight in 1859, including one in the journal’s last issue. Dickens also published a number of Lang’s Australian pieces.

3   A number of the pieces subsequently reprinted in Household Words and then in Wanderings in India were edited for publication after the Mutiny; the post-1857 additions in the main simply note in passing the events of the Mutiny (Lang 1859:102,130,l92, 218,229–233,242,244,251).

4   Lang’s Australian fiction makes similar use of historical personages; commentators have noted that Lang only thinly disguised some of them (Miller 1940:403).

5   Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder described Robert Clive as ‘a heaven-born general’ and the epithet ‘heaven-born’ was later applied to members of the Indian Civil Service.

6   In passing, while describing the mundane routines of his life at Mussoorie, Captain Wall mentions that he had once been in the navy on a line-of-battle ship called ‘House of Correction’ which had once visited Sydney. This is one of only a handful of references in Wanderings in India to the Lang’s country of Lang’s birth.

7   Lang’s novel Will He Marry Her? (1858) uses the same plot device to get around the long-term consequences of transracial relationships.

8   The detail is beguiling. Although ‘wide-awake’ hats—so called because they had no nap—were certainly worn by Englishmen, they seem to have been particularly associated with the American West and with the colonies. Does the detail suggest the British gentleman, or does it suggest some residue of Lang’s ‘flash’ colonial style?

9   Lang’s legal work for the Rani was described in ‘an extraordinarily closely argued and comprehensive memorial’, dated Fort William, 8 June 1854 (Lebra-Chapman 1986:36).

10 Resuming his old career as a lawyer, Lang won a court case for Ajoodia Pershad against the East India Company in 1851, and his fame spread throughout India, bringing considerable wealth and the financial independence to travel (Crittenden 2005:117).

11 Lang calls him Nena Sahib (Lang 1859:116), although he is better known as Nana Sahib. The British have since represented him as one of the leading villains of the Mutiny, much hated by the British for his role, albeit disputed, in the massacres at Kanpur/Cawnpore. Lang describes him as ‘not a man of ability, nor a fool. He was selfish; but what native is not? He seemed to be far from a bigot in matters of religion; and … I am quite satisfied that he drank brandy, and that he smoked hemp’ (Lang 1859:116–117). Lang concludes Wanderings in India with a post-1857 piece called ‘Tantia Topee’ which offers a further estimation of Nana Sahib (Lang 1859:410–415).

12 On page 192 of the University of Western Australia Library’s copy of the 1859 edition of Wanderings in India a previous owner has made annotations pointing out that Lang was paid ‘a lak of rupees, £10,000’ for his services.

13 Ruskin Bond included this as the second chapter of The Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories (1993:4–44).

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal