Superficially, she was a classic Memsahib- the literal translation means wife of the Sahib, the master. She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of the Fishing Fleet, the slightly derogatory name given to the English girls who went to India for the social season in search of husbands.
I loved everything about her: the battered tweeds, the honking laugh, the wonderful stories about India: the snakes under the bath, the tiger hunts with Maharajahs, the three day treks on ponies up to Simla. I dressed up in tiny silk saris, spice-scented tunics and salwar kameeze, produced from her mother of pearl trunk.
Four years ago, I met her nephew. He had a box of tape recordings made by her. Listening to these tapes as an adult made me realize that the India that had given her pleasure had taken in equal measure. My childhood heroine spoke on the tapes of the agony of missing children sent home to be educated.
“It was the biggest decision we all had to make: husband or child.” Passionately fond of nursing- she’d served with distinction in France in 1917- in India, she was only allowed to run a few village clinics- working Memsahib were frowned on.
Other women of the Raj spoke to me of botched births in remote areas, of burying young children, of flies and heat and snakes, of runaway or workaholic husbands, of terrible homesickness.
Because the British suffer from post- colonial guilt the Memsahib is often portrayed in literature or films as a gin swilling, narrow-minded snob. Some, of course, deserve our contempt; many didn’t. It’s easy to forget how young and ill prepared and uneducated many of these women were.
East of the Sun is my raised glass to these women: to their friendships, their naiveté, to the men they loved, to the work they did, and for the price they paid in loving India.