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British India and Victorian Literary Culture$

Máire ní Fhlathúin

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780748640683

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748640683.001.0001

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Imagining India through Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han

Imagining India through Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han

Chapter:
(p.127) Chapter 6 Imagining India through Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han
Source:
British India and Victorian Literary Culture
Author(s):

Máire ní Fhlathúin

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748640683.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on representations of Indian agency derived from British scholarship on Indian history and mythology, with particular reference to James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. It argues that the narrative richness of Rajasthan and its colourful vision of India’s past contributed to its impact on British readers and writers, while the work also created a narrative space where Indian self-determination could be imagined with less concern for its impact on the contemporary colonial project. The chapter also discusses successive British versions of the story of the Rajput princess Kishen Kower, which becomes an exemplary vehicle for tracing the changing representation of female agency in the literature of British India, and exploring its interactions with British ideas of gender norms and femininity.

Keywords:   James Tod, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, Kishen Kower, Gender, Colonial femininity, Narrative, Agency

In looking to narratives drawn from Indian history and legend, British writers found a space–historically distant and/or geographically outside the zone of British direct control–where Indian self-determination could be imagined with less concern for its impact on the contemporary colonial project. One of the most important such resources for writers of the Victorian period was James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han (1829, 1832). Rajasthan (as I shall refer to it from now on) is one among several important nineteenth-century works on the history of the Indian subcontinent, but is unusually influential both in its own right and as a source text for later writers, both British and Indian.1 This is partly owing to its subject matter: where Hinduism generally identified ritual purity as its core value and organising principle, Rajputs valued honour; their social organisation and defining narratives were therefore closer to those of contemporary Britain, already familiar with Romantic-influenced ideas of a Western chivalric history.2 The narrative richness of Rajasthan and its colourful vision of India’s past also contributed to its impact on British readers and writers.

Tod, an army officer, was first posted to Rajputana in 1805, and set about amassing manuscripts and other sources for the geography, history and folklore of the area.3 At the outbreak of the third Anglo-Maratha war in 1817, his knowledge and experience proved to be ‘of inappreciable value’ in the British campaigns.4 Following British victory over the Maratha confederacy, the princely states of Rajputana signed treaties which bound them to a role of ‘subordinate co-operation with the British Government’, the payment of revenue, and subjection to British control over their foreign relations.5 Tod was appointed Agent to the Governor-General in the area then known as the ‘Western Rajpoot’ states, and remained in post until 1822. During this period, he continued research for Rajasthan, a work that had a defining influence (p.128) on British perceptions, and representations, of the character and history of the people of these regions, and by extension of India more generally.

Rajasthan is a work of several strands, where accounts of the physical geography, history and genealogy of the Rajput states sit side by side with the author’s personal narratives of travel and encounters with the area. Its sources include genealogical legends of the Rajput princes, bardic tales of martial heroism, local legends, Brahman temple records and records kept by the Jain communities; it was also shaped by Tod’s reliance on the Jain cleric Gyanchandra.6 It is an encyclopaedic project of accumulation and interpretation totalling over a thousand pages, which resists quick summary.7 A consideration of the full range of its narratives, and their relationship to the original source material, is beyond the scope of this chapter. Instead, my analysis focuses on some representative examples of how Tod’s circulation and framing of episodes in Rajput history were appropriated by later writers in order to develop a narrative of Indian self-determination.

Tod’s depiction of the Rajputs is complex and in some respects contradictory, in ways that echo the author’s multi-stranded relationship to India. The dedication (to King George IV) reflects his role as servant of the East India Company and by extension of the British state: he describes the ‘Rajpoot princes’ as ‘happily rescued, by the triumph of the British arms, from the yoke of lawless oppression’–the Maratha confederacy–and now constituting ‘the most remote tributaries of your Majesty’s extensive empire’; but goes on to express the hope that ‘this ancient and interesting race’ might be restored to ‘their former independence, which it would suit our wisest policy to grant’.8 While this appears to be an example of anti-colonialist advocacy for a Rajput nation, it also operates as an argument for British intervention, Norbert Peabody argues: Tod ‘delegitimated the contemporary Rajput polity as “degraded” or “fallen” ’, enabling the British role in India to be ‘recast in a (potentially) paternalistic guise whose goal was to revivify a lapsed local nationality’.9 In this respect, Tod’s role as coloniser inevitably coloured his view of India.

On the other hand, one of the primary achievements of Rajasthan was to direct the attention of Tod’s readers towards Rajput efforts at self-realisation, as a quest with which they might find themselves in sympathy. Writing of the ‘struggles of a brave people for independence during a series of ages, sacrificing whatever was dear to them for the maintenance of the religion of their forefathers, and sturdily defending to death … their rights and national liberty’, Tod implicitly sought readers’ agreement that this was ‘a picture which it is difficult to contemplate (p.129) without emotion’ (1. xvii). His work also encouraged British readers to identify in other ways with his Rajput subjects. Part of his self-imposed task was to ‘endeavour to prove the common origin of the martial tribes of Rajast’han and those of ancient Europe’; and to consider the evidence ‘in favour of the existence of a feudal system in India, similar to that which prevailed in the early ages on the European continent’ (1.xviii). The inspiration for this endeavour was Henry Hallam’s View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages, but Tod rejected Hallam’s contention that feudalism was specific to England.10 Instead, he developed a narrative that positioned Rajput society as parallel with an earlier version of British society, thus inviting readers to consider his Indian subjects as people, if not equivalent to themselves, then at least sharing some characteristics in common. The trajectory of Tod’s career reflects the difficulty of accommodating this knowledge of and sympathy with the people of north India within a British colonial state which was growing in power and adopting an increasingly Anglicist approach, stressing reform or Westernisation as goals. In 1822 Tod’s responsibilities were curtailed by the colonial government, leading to his eventual resignation; as Freitag suggests, one factor in this may have been his ‘reputation for favouring’ Rajput rulers.11

This contradiction at the heart of Tod’s concept of the Rajput nation is visible throughout Rajasthan. The emphasis on the feudal structure of Rajput society, and Rajputs’ adherence to values of loyalty and martial strength, also has the indirect effect of constituting them as less evolved societies than those of Europe, thus making them easily containable within a larger narrative of Indian subordination and loyalty to a British colonial state.12 In this discourse, the heroic past of Rajput kingdoms is framed within an overarching narrative of Indian degeneracy that legitimises contemporary British rule. Tod’s introduction to Rajasthan refers to the Rajputs’ ‘eight centuries of galling subjection to conquerors totally ignorant of the classical language of the Hindus’ (1. ix), and distinguishes between the dynasties that are the subject of his work and the present-day ruling families of Rajputana, who ‘owed their present establishments to the progress of the Moslem arms’ (1. xvi). By denying these elite groups the ‘legitimacy’ of long descent, and positioning them instead as a by-product of the Muslim conquest, Tod’s narrative avoids representing the British as interlopers on a Rajput sovereignty.

Even while Rajasthan creates equivalences between the history of Europe and that of India, Tod’s manoeuvre of relegating Rajput national glories to the past is thus a constant dynamic. The comparison with Greece offers a clear sense of Tod’s thinking on this issue: referring to the rise of Akber, whom he refers to as ‘the first successful conqueror (p.130) of Rajpoot independence’ (1. 324),13 he describes the lasting and catastrophic effect of his victory on the Rajput people:

unhappily for Rajast’han, a prince was then rearing, who forged fetters for the Hindu race which enthralled them for ages; and though the corroding hand of time left but their fragments, yet even now, though emancipated, they bear the indelible marks of the manacle; not like the galley slave’s physical and exterior, but deep mental scars, never to be effaced. Can a nation which has run its long career of glory be regenerated? Can the soul of the Greek or the Rajpoot be reanimated with the spark divine which defended the kangras [battlements] of Cheetore or the pass of Thermopylae? Let history answer the question. (1. 319–20)

These narrative strategies demonstrate that, despite his sympathetic engagement with his subject, Tod is not describing a culture in which he participates or with which he recognises common identity. His account is compiled from the vantage point of a British colonial administrator, for whom the trajectory of Rajput decay is an enabling part of an implicit justification of British domination in India. If the ‘idea of epic’, as Herbert Tucker puts it, is to ‘tell a sponsoring culture its own story’, then Tod’s narrative, though it successfully articulates a distinct identity and a set of heroic values for the Rajput peoples, is never just about India: the ‘sponsoring culture’ is that of the expansionist East India Company’s colonial state.14

To focus solely on these instrumental uses of Tod’s work as colonial historiography is to overlook the impact of its literary quality. It is not simply or even at all a work of history–the introduction asserts that it is rather ‘a copious collection of materials for the future historian’. It is dense and inaccessible, with the author being ‘less concerned at the idea of giving too much, than at the apprehension of suppressing what might possibly be useful’ (1. xix). Readers faced with this mass of aggregate, complex material fell back on narrative, and focused on individual tropes and stories that in their turn made their way into British writing influenced by Tod. The dramatic and engaging stories Tod collected, and his technique of recounting them on an epic scale, have a momentum of their own, so that the briefly delineated lives and desires of individuals derive their significance from their role in the larger narratives of the Rajput peoples. Successive, repetitive accounts of individual heroism and self-sacrifice for causes greater than the self–the community, the nation, family honour–are picked up and used by later writers, both evidencing their impact on these individual readers and setting in motion the process by which the tropes of Tod’s vision were popularised and circulated to become part of a wider representation of India.

(p.131) Tod’s Vision of a Rajput Nation

Though Rajasthan covers several Rajput states, the section dealing with Mewar, where Tod was stationed as agent from 1818 to 1822, stands first in the book, and provides the source material for most of the adaptations discussed in the latter part of this chapter and the next. Tod’s work draws largely on sources from this state, and, as Cynthia Talbot suggests, the book reflects something of the Mewar ruling family’s pride in its own history.15 The Guhilot and Sisodia ruling dynasties of Mewar could claim the prestige of great age, and a record of valorous resistance to Muslim invasion, both reflected in Rajasthan.16 At the period of Tod’s arrival, however, the state had fallen into the sphere of influence of the Marathas, and the Rana eventually turned to the Company’s government for aid against them. ‘To such a pass had the demoralization proceeded’, according to a later historian of the nineteenth century, ‘that it was evident that Meywar [sic] would have perished in a few years, had not the British Government stepped in to preserve, and raise from the dust, a State, that had undergone so many vicissitudes, and whose Princes and Nobles had given proof, through a long series of ages, of so great heroism and endurance.’17 Tod’s work offers a series of iterations of this trope of Rajput heroism, endurance, and ultimate inability to sustain their own polities, through a narrative of successive episodes where the city of Chitor (the historical capital of the state) came under attack.18

The account of the sack of Cheetore (Chitor) in 1303 by the Sultan of Delhi Alla-o-din (Alauddin Khalji), motivated by his desire for the Rajput princess Pudmani (Padmini), indicates some of Tod’s envisioned characteristics of the Rajput people.19 As the Rana watches over his besieged city, the guardian goddess of Cheetore appears to him, demanding tribute: ‘I must have regal victims; and if twelve who wear the diadem bleed not for Cheetore, the land will pass from the line.’ Eleven of the Rana’s twelve sons are sacrificed in turn. The final son obeys his father’s command to flee the city, and reaches safety; the Rana himself, ‘satisfied that his line was not extinct’, now leads a sortie from the city, and the remaining defenders ‘with a reckless despair carried death, or met it, in the crowded ranks of Alla’. Before this, ‘another awful sacrifice’ takes place: ‘that horrible rite, the Johur, where the females are immolated to preserve them from pollution or captivity’:

The funeral pyre was lighted within the ‘great subterranean retreat’, in chambers impervious to the light of day, and the defenders of Cheetore beheld in procession the queens, their own wives and daughters, to the number of (p.132) several thousands.20 The fair Pudmani closed the throng, which was augmented by whatever of female beauty or youth could be tainted by Tatar lust. They were conveyed to the cavern, and the opening closed upon them, leaving them to find security from dishonour in the devouring element.

Following these events, Alauddin takes ‘possession of an inanimate capital, strewed with brave defenders, the smoke yet issuing from the recesses where lay consumed the once fair object of his desire’ (1. 265–6).

The elevated language of the passage, its deployment of an unproblematic narrative of conflict between well-defined opponents, and the use of elite individuals to embody social values and norms all contribute to its effectiveness as a striking illustration of Rajput character. The strongly gendered nature of the protagonists, split between warring men and self-sacrificing women, delineates the borders of gender roles in Rajput society. It also hints at points of correspondence between that society and a Victorian British middle class shaped by the ideological construction of ‘separate spheres’ for men and women (though here–unusually in Tod’s narratives–the Rana’s sons are shown to die in a sacrificial rite rather than in combat, a role more commonly associated with women).21 The reader’s sympathy and admiration is invoked in the account of both male and female characters’ demonstrated willingness to seek death in the cause of Rajput honour and the defence of the city. A strong claim to mastery of colonial knowledge is made through Tod’s demonstration of his own command of his material, both historical–‘The annals state [this episode] to have been in S. 1346 (AD 1290), but Ferishta gives a date thirteen years later’–and also from personal experience: the local guides ‘still pretend to point out his trenches; but so many have been formed by subsequent attacks that we cannot credit the assertion’ (1. 264).22 Finally, the narrative arc of heroic resistance and sacrifice leading to the final image of the city in ruins replicates in miniature Rajasthan’s core narrative of a Rajput fall from power. While the story of Chitor is central to the history and identity of Mewar state, it thus becomes also a key element of a British narrative of Indian decay.

There was a gap of forty-odd years between the first publication of Rajasthan, and the next edition of the text, published in 1873.23 During this time, the tropes and patterns Tod derived from Indian history were to have a lasting impact on other writers, both directly and by the process of dissemination which saw Roberts’s appropriation of episodes from Rajasthan, for instance, become a source in turn for her friend Laetitia Landon (see below).

Several writers produced versions of heroic Rajput masculinity that (p.133) reflect Tod’s work. Vincent Tregear’s short poem ‘The Ancient Rajpoot’ succinctly delineates the salient characteristics of Rajput men as they are developed throughout Rajasthan:

  • His was no heart, I ween, to brook
  • Or haughty word, or scornful look;
  • But like the snake whose venom’d head
  • Is raised in rage at lightest tread,
  • His quick revenge fell sure and deep
  • On him who raised it from its sleep.24

The subject is endowed with the martial traits of pride and combativeness, and also presented as a dangerous enemy. The word ‘ancient’ in the title serves a familiar dual purpose: it carries the prestige and status of long history, but also locates its subject in the past, echoing Tod’s strategy of setting the grandeur of previous Rajput kingdoms against their contemporary counterparts and their ‘indelible marks’ of subordination.

Other such representations of valorous, though compromised, Rajput heroes include

J. Muir’s poem ‘The Heroism of Koonbha’, which develops this characterisation of both the protagonist Koonbha, and his followers, as the men seek ‘their wives, and babes from wrong to shield;/They would not weakly fly, or tamely yield’. The poem describes an incident in the course of a long-ago battle between Rajput and Afghan forces, which pits the ‘fierce and high-soul’d valour of Ajmeer’ (one of the Rajput states) against the ‘art, and fraud, and crooked wile’ of the Afghans:

  • One heart, one soul, linked all the Rajpoot host, –
  • Honour their idol,–loyalty their boast.
  • No lukewarm soul sought parley with the foe,
  • Too strong their hate–too warm their patriot glow.

Inspired by such qualities, the poem invites the British reader to enter into the nationalistic feeling with the Rajput men: ‘Let him whose heart can nurse the Patriot’s flame/Revere and cherish Thakoor Koonbha’s name.’25

The conflict between Rajputs and Muslims is raised again as the occasion for Rajput heroism in Tregear’s longer prose narrative, ‘The Rajpoot Chieftain’, which divides the hero’s role in two. In an Afghan-ruled state where Rajputs are on the brink of armed insurgence, Mahabul Singh, a Rajput ‘t’hakoor’, or chief, stages a rebellion, demonstrating both great physical strength and martial determination:

He was bare-headed, and a slight stream of blood flowed from his broad forehead. He stood with his left foot advanced, his broad shield pressed (p.134) close to his breast, and his right arm, which held his bloody sword, was thrown backwards, his hand being on a level with his waist. His countenance expressed cool determined courage, and two bodies at his feet, told how well he had wielded his blade.26

Refusing to yield, he adds to the deaths of his enemies the further killing of his own daughter, on discovering that she has been ‘dishonoured’ by her attackers. This climactic killing of Mahabul Singh’s daughter, and other Hindu women, is an act familiar from Rajasthan: the man willing to send his sons to their death, and sacrifice his ‘dishonoured’ daughter, and the other women who sacrifice themselves to save themselves–and thereby their families–from dishonour, are all foreshadowed in episodes such as the sack of Chitor. The landscape of the narrative is changed, however, by the presence of another Rajput leader, Doorga Singh, who is willing to negotiate with the Afghans, and by the depiction of the Afghan ruler himself as an enlightened invader/overlord, who looks forward to an end to conflict, saying ‘I am sick of this blood, and would have it stopped … every groan is like an arrow in my heart’ (210). These elements encode a narrative of the ‘colonised’ (though the term may not be applicable in its literal sense to the Rajputs of the story) coming to terms with their situation, and with the coloniser. While Doorga Singh’s wife takes on the traditional role of seeing him off to the ‘battle field’ at the start of the action (208), she and his sister both share in the peace his actions of reconciliation, as well as bravery, have brought about in the end. The contrast with the dead of Mahabul Singh’s family, and his daughter who has fallen victim to both her enemy and her father, is instructive: this is a Rajput warrior class represented as capable of living in peace under the rule of an outside force. Like Tod before him, Tregear constructs a narrative which glorifies Rajput chivalry, but makes it secondary in the end to the realpolitik of colonial rule.

Female Agency and Sacrifice

While the historiography of Rajputana thus provided British writers from Tod onwards with an image of Indian masculinity that was neither the ‘mild Hindoo’ nor the criminal bandit, it offered equally transformative possibilities for the representation of Indian women. This is a topic central to the project of colonialism throughout the nineteenth century, underpinned by the view, succinctly expressed by James Mill, that the ‘condition of the women’ is an indicator of a society’s level of ‘civilisation’.27 The stereotypical version of Indian femininity in the first decades (p.135) of the century was shaped by the prevailing British interest in the rite of sati, or widow-burning; and also by the tendency to pair the figure of the predatory bandit (in texts such as those discussed in the previous chapter) with the pitiable figure of his female victim. This is evident in the parallels between narratives of banditry and many sati texts, where the division of Indian characters into male figures of predatory masculinity and weak, helpless female figures is common to both. D. L. Richardson’s sonnet ‘The Suttee’, for example, contrasts the ‘ruthless throng’ who prepare the funeral pyre and the ‘exulting cry’ of the priest to the ‘failing martyr’s pleading voice’ of the woman who is burning.28 The extent to which the sati rescue and the rescue from bandits become interchangeable is demonstrated in the work of Medwin: in ‘The Pindarees’, the hero Oswald saves Seta from ‘the ruthless … power’ of Zalim the bandit; while another version of the same story published as ‘Julian and Gizele’ has the heroine saved from the ‘crackling flames’ of the pyre which awaits her performance of sati.29

Representations of sati, like those of banditry, thus become the occasion for appeals for British intervention. These are sometimes as explicit as the admonition of the missionary William Ward–‘But shall these fires never be put out? Shall these graves still devour the helpless widow? Forbid it, British power! Forbid it, British humanity!’–but sometimes implicit, as in the trope of ‘sati rescue’. Here a widow is saved from her fate by the actions of a British observer, in the manner ascribed to Job Charnock: ‘struck by the charms of a young Hindoo female about to be sacrificed for the eternal welfare of her husband’, he orders his guards to rescue her. ‘They obeyed, and conveying the widow, who happened to be exceedingly beautiful, and not more than fifteen years old, to his house, he took her under his protection, and an attachment thus hastily formed lasted until the time of her death, many years afterwards.30

The trope uniting these narratives of sati, and the narratives of banditry discussed above, is the framing of Indian agency as criminal–in the case of predatory masculinity–or absent, in the case of helpless femininity; in both cases, the result is to negate or suppress the possibility of Indian self-determination, and represent British intervention as required to save India from itself. Sati and other forms of female self-sacrifice such as the ‘Johur’, or jauhar (mass immolation of women), associated by Tod with episodes such as Alauddin’s attack on Chitor are central to Rajput mythology and identity as these are represented in Rajasthan.31

In these episodes, Tod takes the figure of the self-sacrificing Indian woman beyond the sati debate, and locates it within the context of the culture and society of the Rajput states, both making it integral to Rajput identity and valorising the act of female self-annihilation. In the (p.136) story of Alauddin’s pursuit of Padmini, for instance, Padmini leads hercontingent of women into death, rather than being the passive object of destruction by others. The framing of agency in terms of self-sacrifice is clearly problematic: even where physical or emotional coercion of the woman is not an issue, her decision to sacrifice herself is taken in the context of a society where gender inequality limits the available options. The discourse on female self-sacrifice evolves within a set of colonial interactions which, as Spivak’s influential argument suggests, have the effect of further depriving of subjectivity the already disadvantaged female subaltern, who is ‘more deeply in shadow’.32 Nevertheless, the concept of willing female self-sacrifice clearly struck a chord with Tod, and with those later writers who looked to his work for their source material, in ways which demonstrate how British concepts of gender roles and identities interacted with colonial representations of India. These interactions are the subject matter of the remainder of this chapter.

By contrast with Tregear’s depiction of masculine Rajput strength in ‘The Ancient Rajpoot’, the subject of his companion poem, ‘The Rajpootin’, is characterised by her traits of ‘mild’ and ‘gentle’ femininity–‘young’ in this case suggesting a childlike quality:

  • Her form so fair, her look so mild,
  • That as she pass’d the ring-dove’s nest,
  • The gentle bird, to others wild,
  • Left not the branch its bosom prest.
  • The bounding deer ne’er thought of flight,
  • But, where she came, stood still to gaze,
  • And met her young eyes, softly bright,
  • As calmly as the pale moon’s rays.33

Unlike her male counterpart, she does not resist becoming the object of the gaze, but accepts it, so innocuous as to be regarded without fear by even the most vulnerable of forest creatures. Her demeanour suggests that she is harmless, and indeed this aspect of her depiction is in keeping with the representation of the helpless sati victim who appears many times over in the literature of the nineteenth century.34 Her association with stillness is deceptive, however. The Rajput woman in Tod’s work, and in those texts derived from it, has agency, albeit of a limited and problematic kind. She has the ability to sacrifice herself, and thereby to shape the course of events for her family and wider society; above all, she is an active and desiring subject, not the object of colonial rescue or pity.

Returning to Tod’s narratives of the city of Chitor, an instance of such female agency is visible in Roberts’s poem ‘The Rakhi’. This draws on Tod’s work for the custom of a woman giving a man a rakhi, or bracelet, (p.137) which gives him the status of her ‘adopted brother’ and obliges him to come to her aid should she require it. The woman is this case is the regent Karnavati, who calls on Humayun to come to the aid of Chitor as the city is attacked by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Tod’s narrative confines itself to a brief account of the fate of the city:

Combustibles were quickly heaped up in reservoirs and magazines excavated in the rock, under which gunpowder was strewed. Kurnavati, mother of the prince … led the procession of willing victims to their doom, and thirteen thousand females were thus swept at once from the record of life. The gates were thrown open, and the Deola chief, at the head of the survivors, with a blind and impotent despair, rushed on his fate.

Hemayoon initially responds to the summons of the rakhi, but ‘instead of following up the spoil-encumbered foe, he commenced a pedantic war of words with Buhadoor, punning on the word “Cheetore” ’.35

Taking this unedifying account of female sacrifice and male lack of focus, Roberts re-inflects the narrative. Her summary, given in a footnote, has the woman’s summons result in instant action: ‘In the desperate extremity to which Cheetore was reduced in 1589, the Princess Kurnivati reminded Hemayoon, the son of Baber, and father of Acbar, of his engagement. He quitted his conquests in Bengal, and flew to the rescue of the devoted city.’36 (The historical figure of Humayun was less prompt in taking action: his reluctance to help the ruling family of Chitor against Bahadur Shah was probably caused by unwillingness to ‘aid an unbeliever against an enemy of his own faith’.37) As the poem recounts, Hemayoon’s actions are in vain:

  • He came to the beleaguered walls too late,
  • Vain was the splendid sacrifice to save;
  • Famine and death were sitting at the gate,
  • The flower of Rajasthan had found a grave.
  • Its warriors perished bravely on the sword,
  • Nor stood the feebler sex appalled the while;
  • They the dark channel of the tomb explored,
  • By the bright blaze of many a funeral pile. (127–8)

Though the actions of both Kurnivati and Hemayoon ultimately result in heroic failure, Roberts’s work has the effect of developing a narrative of female agency that is not focused on individual feeling but on acting on behalf of and to the benefit of the larger community–in this case the city of Chitor. Kurnivati does not subsume herself in devotion to a man, but acts, and calls on him to act, in pursuit of her own agenda, seeking her own death only when that project has failed. Spivak points out ‘the profound irony in locating the woman’s free will in self-immolation’,38 (p.138) but nonetheless the distinction between seeing the widow as one who willed her own death, and seeing her as a victim to be rescued, is a significant one: the first offers subjectivity and agency, while the second makes her the object of action by others. This is, as Rajan notes, a ‘paralysing’ dilemma for (as she puts it) a ‘concerned feminist analyst’39–the phrase describes Roberts well, and may account for her resolution of the dilemma in the image of a sacrificial ending shared by both male and female partners in action.

Another version of the same story, by Laetitia Landon, similarly engages in an appropriation of Tod’s work (this time via Roberts) to develop a narrative of female agency, but also foregrounds the interaction of British metropolitan models of femininity–the basic topic of much of Landon’s work–with those offered in Rajasthan. Landon’s poem ‘The Raki’ focuses on the princess’s keeping vigil under siege as she waits for her ‘bracelet-bound brother’ to return and rescue her and the other women of the city. When he does so, it is too late, as she has already led the women into the cavern of death, and set fire to the funeral pyre. Landon emphasises both Karnavati’s lonely wait for her male rescuer, and also her physical appearance: ‘Pale and resolved, her noble brow was worthy of a race/Whose proud blood flowed in those blue veins unconscious of disgrace.’40 She becomes another in a long series of Landon’s yearning female protagonists whose role is to enable the author to explore the state of mind of women in relation to and dependent on men.41 Roberts, on the other hand, does not dwell on Karnavati’s appearance or her motivation at this point at all, but sets her in a role of leadership ‘at the head of thirteen thousand females’ who die together.42

Other writers adapting Tod’s representation of the Rajput character also developed their narratives in response to the models of gender, and the constraints on femininity, found within British culture. Marianne Postans’s Facts and Fictions, Illustrative of Oriental Character includes several narratives sourced or adapted from Rajasthan, although they are unconvincingly claimed by the author as ‘circumstances which fell either under my own observation, or that of friends’.43 The stories reflect her sense that the ‘reading public’ of Britain were ‘totally uninterested in India’ (1. vii), and exhibited ‘a very ill-concealed lack of sympathy … towards the people of the East’ (1. viii); they offer sensational accounts of love and death clearly designed to overcome this British indifference, and thus may be considered to be devised with particular attention to British metropolitan norms and expectations.

One such account concerns the life of Jeswunt Sing, Raja of Marwar; its basic plot elements are taken from Rajasthan (2. 47–57), and its (p.139) depiction of Rajput femininity responds to Tod’s representation of the nature of Rajput women. In the course of enmity between Jeswunt and the Muslim emperor Arungzéb, the latter summons Jeswunt’s son Pirthi Sing to his court, and there receives him warmly. Pirthi Sing is given ‘a splendid dress, which, as customary, he put on, and, having made his obeisance, left the presence in the certain assurance of exaltation’ (2. 52). Soon afterwards he is taken ill, and ‘expired in great torture, and to this hour his death is attributed to the poisoned robe of honour presented by the king’ (2. 53).

Postans’s version, entitled ‘The Rajpoot Bride: A Tale of the Nerbudda’, transfers this death to Jeswunt himself, and casts as the perpetrator his queen, Vassanti. The latter figure is represented as a focal point for a wider Rajput identity: ‘My father and my husband, murdered by thy hand, my fortress and my faithful friends within thy grasp, one only course remained worthy of a Rajpoot woman’ (3. 204). Having watched Jeswunt ‘writhing’ in the poisoned robe, she turns from his death scene to her own fate: ‘Animated by the heroic spirit of her race, she springs from the sculptured parapet, and the deep waters of the sparkling stream receive her fair and unpolluted form, faithful in death to all she loved whilst living’ (3. 205). The coda to the story describes a sculpture of the ‘monumental symbols used by the Rajpoot people: a warrior mounted, and fully armed; a female hand telling of self-destruction, and an open book, denoting the priestly office’ (3. 205). These are explicated as ‘wisdom, bravery, and love’–with ‘love’, by a process of elimination, assigned to the self-destroying female. While this idea of female self-sacrifice as the defining element of Rajput identity is pervasive within Rajasthan, Postans’s story associates it specifically with companionate love. This element is set at centre stage, over-writing Tod’s depiction of the episode as primarily a contest between men and replacing it with an instance of doomed love where the female protagonist’s devotion and self-sacrifice is directed towards her family and clan, and to the fulfilment of her identity as a ‘Rajpoot woman’.44 By relocating the story to the private sphere and the realm of the feminine–strongly (though not invariably) associated with feeling, moral virtue and the economic and emotional dependence of women on men–Postans also makes the Rajput woman’s self-sacrificial action a personal response to loss and abandonment. In so doing, she evokes the British ‘sympathy’ for oriental character that her work seeks to bring about, but also diminishes the female agency on which her story depends, re-casting it as an expression of personal despair.

There is also some disquiet evident in these texts about the representation of Indian women and the ways in which they can be seen to parallel (p.140) or contrast with the roles available to British women. ‘The Rajpootni’, by Anna Maria Mowatt, is set at the interface between metropole and colony, in the British community in India, where the reader is invited to ‘my snug library, with its bright fire, and tempting books–my circle of dear “familiar faces”, and last, not least, my Indian garden, filled with English flowers!’45

There ensues in this location a conversation between a figure introduced as ‘our kind and amusing friend Colonel—’, and ‘the pretty and lively Fanny, who in spite of being in India, looked so happy, and so English’. She says that she is ‘so glad, that I am not a native lady’, as ‘I do so love to talk, and to hear others talk, and to be treated like a rational being, and give or change my opinions as I like. I could never submit to spend day after day, shut up in a zenana.’ The Colonel tells her she is ‘quite wrong’ in ‘thinking so ill of Eve’s dark daughters’, alludes to the ‘respect, the happiness, the freedom, enjoyed by the Rajpoot women’ and maintains that the ‘influence of the fair Rajpootni, over the prowess of every Rajpoot cavalier, and their power over their husbands, are facts proved by many beautiful anecdotes’ (373–5).

The particular anecdote on which the Colonel, or rather the author, chooses to dwell in some detail is one where the ‘Rajpootni’ does not exercise indirect influence over her husband or ‘cavalier’, but rather acts directly and on her own account. Mowatt’s story of the Queen of Ganore is a close paraphrase, and sometimes a direct copy, of Tod’s original: having defended five fortresses against her enemy, the khan, the queen is trapped in her last remaining stronghold, which is then captured. He finds her beauty as alluring as her territory, and demands that she marry him (376).46 She agrees to do so, and sends him a set of garments and jewels to be worn for the occasion. These turn out to be poisoned: as he dies ‘in extreme torture’, she tells him that ‘you left me no other expedient to escape dishonor’, and springs from the battlement to drown ‘in the flood beneath’ (378). Although Mowatt’s story for the most part follows Tod’s original with minimal alterations, there is one significant difference between them. The queen’s entrance, a prelude to the wedding rite, is described by Tod briefly, through the eyes of the khan: he ‘found that fame had not done justice to her charms’ (1. 625). Mowatt’s version expands this phrase to an entire passage, detailing every aspect of the queen’s appearance:

Though scarcely above the common height, she had the appearance of being much taller; and there was a majesty in the turn of her head, the slope of the shoulder, the breadth of her brow, which showed, she was a queen of Nature’s own making. Her long lashes, and exquisitely pencilled brow, gave an additional eloquence to her full black eyes; and her profile, which in a (p.141) fine countenance is always so striking and impressive, was purely Grecian: her hair, of the most luxuriant and deepest black, was simply braided over her forehead, reminding the beholder of the highest order of classical beauty; while the upper lip, short and curved, covered the most dazzling teeth, and the full dewy under lip completed her noble and still strictly feminine face. Her throat and bust, were of the justest proportions, and her waist, not the narrowness of constraint, but almost insensibly less, and round as a circle.

The proud Rajpootni saw the effect she had produced on her captor … (377)

That effect is not described, so that the reader is placed, as in Tod’s source-text, in the position of the viewer of the queen, assessing the effect on the khan by their own reaction to it. The predominantly female readership of the literary annuals is thus implicitly joined with the khan in subjecting the Rajput woman to a male gaze that finds her to be a female figure of perfect and ‘still strictly feminine’ proportions. The focus on the woman’s physical attributes–her role as ‘a queen of Nature’s own making’–effectively distances her from the role of sovereign and commander described in the beginning of the story. Conjoining her physical appearance with the requirement to die to avoid dishonour sets her apart from and makes her ‘other’ to the British reader–personified in the ‘Fanny’ of the preamble. The apparent message of the Colonel’s account of ‘Eve’s dark daughters’–his claim that the Rajput woman leads ‘a far happier, and certainly a more useful life’ than her Western counterparts (375)–is comprehensively negated by a narrative which reduces her to her physical elements and identifies individual purity rather than sovereignty as her defining aspect. The khan dies in his poisoned garments, but the Rajput woman’s defeat of him is reduced by Mowatt to a gesture of personal vengeance.

These women writers encountered India in different ways: the lived experience of the subcontinent possessed by Roberts, Postans and Mowatt contrasts with Landon’s deployment of images and tropes acquired entirely at second hand. Their differing uses of Tod’s work does not, however, align with their experience of India, but appears rather to reflect the level of their engagement with a metropolitan construction of femininity as confined to a private sphere of individual affective and dependent relationships. Roberts’s work, here as elsewhere, demonstrates a concern with issues of women’s agency in a public sphere, and ability to shape their own destiny in a private sphere, that goes beyond that expressed by her contemporaries.47

(p.142) Women’s Agency and Sacrifice: the Story of Kishen Kower

A particular instance of this general narrative of female agency and female sacrifice caught the imagination of many readers. The story of the Udaipur princess Kishen Kower, who died by taking poison in 1809, stands out from other episodes from the archives of north and central India because of its human interest, the clean lines of its narrative, and the way it chimes with existing British responses to India–in particular, with the sensation-seeking pity and horror with which instances of the rite of sati were recorded and circulated.48 Unlike other such episodes, the Kishen Kower narrative was of relatively recent date, and the facts of the case were well known, as it was recorded by several British writers, and also by one of the protagonists, Ameer (or Amir) Khan. The varying versions of what is basically a stable and uncontested narrative produced by a series of British writers offer, therefore, a reflection of the differing responses to India and to Indian women prevalent in the nineteenth century. These narratives also carry information on the writers’ views of British India, on women’s roles in British and Indian societies more generally, on the relationship between individual and society, and on the relationship between the contemporary present of the writers and the history within which they situate themselves.

The Asiatic Annual Register carried among its ‘Bengal Occurrences’ for November 1810 the news of a ‘most important political event’, ‘the death of the Princess of Oudipore by poison’, an event precipitated by the rivalry of two suitors which meant that she could marry neither, and by the consideration that an unmarried daughter would bring shame to her family:

This lady, it seems, had for some years before been the great source of contention and discord among the Rajpoot States. The family of the Rana of Oudipore being accounted more ancient and honourable than that of any other Hindoo prince, his alliance was naturally sought by the neighbouring potentates of Jaypore and Joudpore, who both aspired to the hand of the princess. The rivalship of these two Rajahs produced a war, in which Scindia, Holkar, Ameer Khan, and all the native chieftains in that quarter, have at one time or other taken a part. The contest, however, has at length been terminated in the manner above related. The poison was administered to the princess by her own aunt, and with the knowledge of her father. Report adds, that the whole scheme was secretly contrived by Ameer Khan; who, finding that the Rana of Oudipore, (now entirely in his power,) was too far engaged to the Jaypore Rajah to retract, and resolved that his own ally, the Rajah of Joudpore should not be disgraced by the triumph of his rival, suggested this expedient, as the only mode of at once settling all their pretensions, and terminating the ten years’ war, which this second Helen had excited.

(p.143) While noting that this was a ‘catastrophe … revolting to human nature’, the paper implicitly categorised it as characteristic of oriental barbarity, stating that it ‘too closely corresponds with the ordinary course of Asiatic history’.49

Tod, who had been stationed in the area at the time, claimed personal direct or indirect acquaintance with the events leading up to Kishen’s death:

I witnessed the commencement and the end of this drama, and have conversed with actors in all the intermediate scenes. In June 1806 the passes of Oodipoor were forced; and in January 1808, when I passed through Jeipoor in a solitary ramble, the fragments of this contest were scattered over its ashy plains.50

A detailed account of her fate is included in Rajasthan, and Tod’s knowledge and possibly his written work (in the process of preparation at this point) also contributed to the version circulated by John Malcolm, who included it in his Memoir of Central India (1823).51 Malcolm’s work appears to have served as a direct source for later writers more often than Tod’s–Memoir of Central India was the first published, and was widely read and further circulated through the publication of extracts in the British periodical press–but does not differ in substance from it.52 A third version, by one of the protagonists, Ameer Khan, bears out the substance of the British accounts, but did not appear in translation until 1832.53

The death of Kishen was not in itself extraordinary, as H. T. Prinsep indicates in his annotations to Ameer Khan’s Memoirs. He emphasises the political background to her fate:

In the Policy of Asia a woman’s life is but of small account: and more especially so amongst the Rajpoots of Western India, who habitually destroy their female children…. The death of the Princess led to the pacification between Jypoor and Joudhpoor, and removed the great source of quarrel and confusion … The Princess, according to Rajpoot notions, could have had no other husband, but one or other of the two Rajas, and as neither was possible, death was her only resource.

This categorising of Kishen’s life and death as typical of the role assigned to elite Rajput women is underlined when Prinsep makes the point that she is not by any means the only woman to suffer in this way, claiming that a similar episode happened only ‘the other day’, when a Princess of Bikaneer ‘took, or was made to take poison’ in ‘a necessary consequence’ of her planned marriage having been ‘broken off by some Court intrigue’.54 His description of the story told by Tod and Malcolm as ‘highly wrought accounts’ constitutes an implicit accusation that (p.144) they are overstating the sensation, pity and human interest of Kishen’s plight.55

Tod’s account of Kishen’s death more than merits Prinsep’s description. It is rhetorically charged and makes conscious and extensive use of literary and mythological allusions, investing her personal fate with epic significance. ‘Kishna Komari [was] … like Helen of old, involved in [the] destruction [of] her own and the rival houses’ (l. 461); she is compared to the ‘dishonoured Virginia’ put to death by her ‘Roman father’, and to the sacrificed Iphigenia, as Tod concludes:

The votive victim of Jephtha’s success had the triumph of a father’s fame to sustain her resignation, and in the meekness of her sufferings we have the best parallel to the sacrifice of the lovely Kishna: though years have passed since the barbarous immolation, it is never related but with a faltering tongue and moistened eyes, ‘albeit unused to the melting mood’.56 (1. 463–4)

These parallels are further underlined when he recollects a visit to York Cathedral, in 1823, when both the ‘sublime recitation of Handel in “Jephtha’s Vow” ’, and a performance of Racine’s Iphigénie, ‘served to waken the remembrance of [Kishen’s] sacrifice’. His quotation of lines from the latter text–apparently ‘embodying not only the sentiments, but couched in the precise language in which the “Virgin Kishna” addressed her father’–is offered as proof ‘that human nature has but one mode of expression for the same feelings’ (1. 465). Tod’s insistence on this series of comparisons with religious and classical texts does, as his own remark indicates, have the effect of creating links between the actions and motivations of the Rajputs and those of notable figures from the Western classical tradition. In doing so, his work blurs the self/other divide at the heart of British representations of the sati rite, a parallel version of female sacrifice and victimisation. It also has the effect of fictionalising and denaturing the life and death of Kishen, opening up the story for appropriation and recontextualising in the work of others.

Appropriations of the Kishen Kower Story in British Writing

Two opposing movements are visible in the versions of the story produced by later writers, corresponding to the dual aspect of the source material, which both dwells on Kishen’s beauty and personal tragedy, and highlights the circumstances of her death as indicative of the politics and cultural concerns of the Rajput people. One version removes the story almost entirely from that political context, instead seizing on and (p.145) amplifying the reports of Kishen’s pitiable end in a manoeuvre which has the effect of making her an idealised version of suffering femininity.57 The other uses these human aspects of Kishen’s fate to construct a version of India as seen through British eyes, which is also an implicit narrative of Britain’s relationship with India.

Catherine Richardson’s ‘Kishen Kower’, a typical example of the first category, draws on Malcom’s version of the story, which is reproduced in summary form as a note to the poem. The opening address to the protagonist divorces her completely from the political context, by locating responsibility for her death within herself: ‘What fatal beauty was your dower!/Through woe and crime’s dark cloud, you seem/The angel of some heavenly dream.’58 The ‘immortal pity’ which is her fate is the product of her status as attractive victim:

  • But oh! to see that sweetest flow’r
  • Torn rudely from the shelt’ring stem,
  • That fairest face, from regal bow’r
  • From an awaiting diadem –
  • Whom lovers worshipp’d, nations fought for, laid
  • In death’s cold arms, by kindred hands betray’d,
  • Gives to immortal pity her sad lot,
  • And transient hour, whose beauty dug the grave
  • By thousands wept! but none stept forth to save! (110)

Similarly, Landon’s ‘Kishen Kower’ emphasises the beauty of Kishen herself and her romanticised surroundings of flowers, butterflies and birds: ‘the fragile clematis its silver showers flung,/And the nutmeg’s soft pink was near lost in the pride/Of the pomegranate blossom that blushed at its side’.59 She is, the poem states explicitly, to blame for the conflict arising in the state:

  • ‘There is famine on earth–there is plague in the air,
  • And all for a woman whose face is too fair.’
  • There was silence like that from the tomb, for no sound
  • Was heard from the chieftains who darkened around,
  • When the voice of a woman arose in reply,
  • ‘The daughters of Rajahstan [sic] know how to die.’

That death becomes Landon’s central theme by the end of the poem: as her preoccupation with the suffering and abnegation of women overwhelms the text, the bodily pain and process of death become, unusually in this tradition, the main focus:

  • The haughty eye closes, the white teeth are set,
  • And the dew-damps of pain on the wrung brow are wet:
  • The slight frame is writhing–she sinks to the ground;
  • (p.146) She yields to no struggle, she utters no sound –
  • The small hands are clenched–they relax–it is past.
  • And her aunt kneels beside her–kneels weeping at last.

The poem concludes by referencing itself, in Landon’s characteristic mode, with the lines: ‘But the heart has her image, and long after years/Will keep her sad memory with music and tears’ (24).

Mowatt’s ‘Kishen Kowur’ also emphasises Kishen’s doomed beauty, describing her at some length as ‘like some lovely flower’, ‘one of the most perfect of God’s created beings’, and an exemplar of Rajput physical attractiveness:

The Rajpoots are a particularly handsome race; but ‘Kishen Kowur’ was the star of her own peculiar circle. Her sylph-like figure, slightly above the middle height, was graceful in the extreme; while its beautiful proportions were improved by the ample and elegant drapery, ever found in oriental costumes. Her jetty hair, which when unbound, would fall in dark masses to her feet, was generally confined, by a band of pearls, in themselves a Prince’s ransom; and her eyes, soft, and intensely dark, were ever, either flashing from the excitement of joy, or when quiet ‘swimming beneath the lashes’.

This emphasis on her oriental attributes becomes significant when read alongside the stanza of verse with which the story concludes:

  • Lo! Here’s the fortitude compared,
  • Which truth and error give –
  • ’Twas but to die, the heathen dared;
  • The Christian, dares to live.60

Transforming the preceding story into an account of oriental ‘error’ versus Western courage, the verse also forces a rereading of the description of Kishen’s beauty, commodified by association with the trappings of oriental luxury.61 The otherness of Rajputana in particular, and the East in general, does not in this context derive from a clash of cultures between West and East, or a mismatch between the traditions of the Rajput states and those of the British colonial presence in India. It is constituted by the physical appearance of the woman who is subjected to the gaze of writer and reader, held responsible for her otherness in their eyes as much as she is responsible for the unfortunate clash of male desires and ideas of honour that led to her death.

A more explicitly politicised appropriation of the story is visible in the works of those writers who are–broadly speaking–more engaged with the British colonial project in India, either as participants or as commentators. Roberts relied on what she termed the ‘marketable commodity’ of her knowledge of India to sustain her career as a writer, and used the (p.147) story to draw attention to one of her perennial topics: the treatment of women.62 With journalistic savoir faire, she sets Kishen’s death at the climax of a passage concerning female infanticide in the Rajput states, both highlighting the immediacy of the issue and using it to make an implicit case for further British intervention in India:

In the Rajpoot states, the destruction of female infants was, and it is to be feared still is, common in the highest families, for political reasons. The representations of British residents, and their eloquent appeals … have done much … towards [its] abolition … but there is no law against it, and the tragedy of Kishen Koor, the most cold-blooded murder ever perpetrated by the hand of man, is still recent. The brother of the beautiful victim, slaughtered to secure a state measure, now sits upon the throne of Oodipore …63

G. Poulett Cameron, whose rank of lieutenant colonel, included on the title page of his book, advertises his alignment with the East India Company’s colonial project, makes a similar, but more explicit equation between the circumstances of Kishen’s death and the desirability of British intervention in India. ‘Kishen Kower: or, the Maid of Odeypoor’ expands the sparse narrative of the earlier sources by drawing attention to the political background to the episode. ‘Never were the fatal effects of feudal warfare so dreadfully felt by a wretched peasantry as at the period of 18—. The once flourishing country of Rajapootana was almost a desert; the contest was still undecided, and appeared to have the effect of ruining both parties, without determining the superiority of either.’64 The story is thereafter told in substantial accordance with the pattern established in other texts, until the narrator includes in the concluding passages several references to the colonial state, thus re-inserting Kishen’s story into the trajectory of British domination of India:

The contest between the two Rajahs of Jeypoor and Joudpoor, thus checked by the death of the princess, was effectually concluded by the powerful intervention of the British Government. Ameer Khan was disappointed in the expectations he had formed upon the death of the princess, by the advance of a British force.65

That brief reference to the British presence as guarantor of security and good government relegates the internal conflicts of Rajputana to a regrettable past. It also deprives Kishen herself of any agency: others are aware of how she must be sacrificed for the greater good, but she does not enter into or share that thought, and makes her last stand only out of desperation. She plays, in fact, the role of the sati woman, whose fate is used to highlight the need for British intervention in India.

H. T. Prinsep’s use of the story in the poem ‘Kishan Koomaree, Princess of Oodeepoor: A True Tale of Rajwara’ is less clearly instrumental, but (p.148) equally demonstrates a sense of India’s treatment of its women as a theme closely connected to the British perception of their role as colonisers. Prinsep, who had earlier translated Amir Khan’s account of his own role as advisor to Kishen’s father, draws on this as well as the versions offered by Tod and Malcolm, and thus gives more consideration to the political conflict between states as the proximate cause of her death.66 The weighting of Kishen’s individual woman’s life against the good of the state becomes the turning point of the action: ‘shall the welfare of the whole be sacrific’d for one?’ Ameer Khan asks the Rana; and further persuades him that his own life must not be that sacrifice, when the Rana says that he, not his daughter, is ‘the guilty one’: ‘Consider well thy country’s good, in what its welfare lies./A maiden’s life is little worth, behind the curtain past,/But thine thy country ill could spare…’ (71). Ameer Khan’s speech is pragmatic, and misogynist, to a degree unparalleled in other versions of the story:

  • ’Tis woman’s lot to have on earth small influence for good,
  • Though woes unnumber’d spring from her, of sin, and crime, and blood.
  • I know thy daughter innocent as new-born babe can be,
  • But will that save her caste and kin, and keep their honour free? (71)

Her father is finally urged: ‘Do thou/What, hadst thou done when she was born, had not been needed now’ (72). This last point, a reference to the custom of female infanticide, is notable particularly when set against Tod’s insistence that infanticide is ‘almost unknown’ in this context–it both emphasises the alienation of Rajasthan from British readers, and also diminishes Kishen’s agency further: her death is near to foreordained at this stage.67 As in Roberts, her individual fate has come to stand for a British sense of Rajput, and more generally Indian or oriental, attitudes toward women.68

Kishen’s death, which takes up the final passages of the poem, goes some way to counter this evacuation of her personal identity, albeit in paradoxical relation to her forced surrender of self. She rejects the attempt to poison her without her knowledge, addressing her father through the servant he has sent to kill her, and claiming ownership of her own death:

  • Go, tell my father, ’tis enough! The life that he did give
  • He is at all times free to take,–I wish not more to live:
  • But wherefore slay me thus by stealth? a princess born and bred,
  • A maiden of Seesodee race, should die as she would wed.
  • I know I am a sacrifice for him, and for his state,
  • And proudly will I meet my death, and deem the glory great. (72)

(p.149) Her death scene has echoes of the conventional portrait of a sati rite, beginning with her being revealed to the public–and the reader–as she ‘issues forth, in bridal garments clad’, but her last words reaffirm her devotion to her country as well as to the bridegroom of her imagination:

  • ‘My country asks my life,’ says she, ‘hand me the poison’d bowl!
  • I see a bridegroom up in heav’n, to him I yield my soul:
  • And if I leave a spotless name, and honour be its meed,
  • Oh! may my country reap the fruit, and glory in this deed!’

Prinsep’s text thus creates a space in which the death of a woman can become also an expression of her agency and her capacity for self-determination, enabling her to assert her independent decision to act for the good of her country even as her fate permits India in general to be characterised by its oppression of women in implicit contrast to the traditions of the West.

The tendency, then, in texts of this first half of the nineteenth century is for a nascent idea of Indian nationalist feeling to be entertained briefly, but quickly denied, contained, or so hedged around with narrative boundaries as to be withheld from or inaccessible to the reader. The characterisation of both male and female Indian figures plays a part in this: the Rajput hero and heroine are recognised as validly self-determining–though in gender-determined and circumscribed ways–but located in the past, both in Tod’s foundational historiography and in the work of those writers who draw on Rajasthan. As the conception of male agency and self-determination oscillates from heroic to criminal, within the corpus of bandit texts, so the idea of female agency is developed using a limited and problematic equation of female self-determination with a freedom to engage in self-sacrifice. All form part of a larger category of narratives of Indian decline, subservience to British authority and need for British protection.

Notes

(1.) Others include Dow’s History of Hindostan (1768–72), still current at this period, and John Malcolm’s Memoir of Central India (1823). As Sreenivasan argues, Rajasthan is also ‘one of several competing versions’ of Rajput history (Many Lives, p. 120).

(2.) Rudolph and Rudolph, Essays, p. 179.

(3.) The political/cultural/historical space of ‘Rajasthan’ (as opposed to the modern state bearing that name, deriving from the British province of Rajputana) has no very precise boundaries. See Lodrick, ‘Rajasthan’.

(p.150) (4.) ‘Memoir of the Author’, in Tod, Travels in Western India, vol. 1, pp. xxv–xxvi.

(5.) Aitchison, Treaties. The treaty with the state of Udaipur, or Mewar, (pp. 22–3) is typical.

(6.) Freitag, ‘Serving Empire’, p. 112; Talbot, ‘Mewar’, p. 14. Tod’s sources are summarised in Rajasthan vol. 1, pp. x–xiv; see also Sreenivasan, Many Lives, pp. 137–42; Barnett, ‘Catalogue’; and Hooja, ‘Tod Collection’.

(7.) That said, Freitag, ‘Tod’s Annals’ offers a valuable account of the work.

(8.) Tod, Rajasthan, n. p.

(9.) Peabody, ‘Tod’s Rajast’han’, pp. 208–9.

(10.) Peabody, ‘Tod’s Rajast’han’, p. 198. See also Inden, Imagining India, pp. 172–6, on the ‘Oriental Feudalism’ posited by Tod in Rajasthan.

(11.) Freitag, Serving Empire, p. 40.

(12.) As Bayly points out, the ‘romantic stereotyping’ of the Rajputs and their ‘virtues of honour, independence and loyalty’ was also of pragmatic use: ‘The need to protect tribal innocence was used to justify the diplomatic and military segregation of areas such as Afghanistan and Rajasthan … Areas which had once been major centres of trade and urbanism could thereby be isolated from both indigenous and European capitalism, and the dangerous conflicts to which they might give rise’ (Imperial Meridian, pp. 154–5).

(13.) Akber, or Akbar, Mughal Emperor between 1556 and 1605, completed the process of acquiring substantial domination over the Rajput states in 1569.

(14.) Tucker, Epic, p. 13.

(15.) Talbot, ‘Mewar’, pp. 15, 29.

(16.) See Taft, ‘Honor and alliance’, pp. 232–3. Those aspects of Rajput history that involve co-operation with, rather than resistance to, Mughal rule are less prominent in Tod’s work (Lodrick, ‘Rajasthan’, p. 8).

(17.) Brookes, History, pp. 19–20.

(18.) During the sixteenth century, Udai Singh moved the capital of Mewar from Chitor to his new city of Udaipur; the kingdom came to be known also by that name, and eventually became the Indian state of Udaipur.

(19.) The name ‘Pudmani’ was, as Tod indicates, originally a title (‘superlatively fair’) for the Sinhalese princess. Nandini Sinha Kapur describes the ‘Alauddin-Padmin¸ı¯ episode’ as ‘more bardic lore than historical truth’, and suggests that Alauddin Khalji’s invasion of Mewar was a tactical manoeuvre to secure trade routes and guard against Mongol attacks (State Formation, pp. 65, 134). The history and mythology underpinning this episode, as well as the related events of Kurnavati’s appeal to Humayun for aid in opposing Bahadur Shah, and the rescue of the child Udai Singh, are all discussed by R. V. Somani (History, pp. 95–101, 186–8, 193–4).

(20.) The quotation is Tod’s, and not further identified.

(21.) On the ideology of ‘separate spheres’, see Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, a foundational work in this field. Though some recent work contests the explanatory power of the metaphor to offer a comprehensive account of the ‘dynamics of nineteenth-century gender politics’ (Griffin, Politics of Gender, p. 22), it has largely retained its status as a fundamental organising principle of Victorian thought and social structure.

(22.) The reference is to the Hindu Samvat calendar; re Ferishta, see Dow, History of Hindostan (1768–72).

(p.151) (23.) Freitag, ‘Serving Empire’, p. 155.

(24.) Bengal Annual (1834), p. 268. Tregear, of the Indian Educational Department, was killed at Meerut in 1857 (David, Indian Mutiny, p. 86), and should not be confused with his son, an army officer of the same name.

(25.) Bengal Annual (1834), pp. 194–8. The incident on which the poem is based is taken from Gleig, History, vol. 1, pp. 174–5; Muir’s note on sources also directs the reader to ‘Todd’s Rajpootana’ (sic); the offhand and general reference suggests that his work was informed by the general trend of Tod’s subject matter and approach.

(26.) Tregear, ‘The Rajpoot Chieftain’, Bengal Annual (1835), pp. 210–11.

(27.) Mill, History, vol. 1, pp. 383–4.

(28.) Richardson, ‘The Suttee’, Oriental Herald 12 (March 1827), pp. 511–12.

(29.) Medwin, Sketches, p. 64; Medwin, Angler, vol. 2, p. 307.

(30.) Ward, Hindoos, vol. 1, p. xlvii; Roberts, Scenes and Characteristics, vol. 1, pp. 286–7.

(31.) This reflects to some degree the organisation of Rajput society, where, as Andrea Major argues, ‘Women, marriage and power were integrally linked; matrimonial alliances were important primarily for their ritual symbolic function, through which a ruler’s power was constituted and reinforced’ (Sovereignty, p. 28). It also reflects Tod’s interest in Western ideals of heroic sacrifice of women by men–see, for instance, his discussion of the Kishen Kower story, in this chapter.

(32.) Spivak, Critique, p. 274.

(33.) Bengal Annual (1834), p. 268.

(34.) Such representations constitute one of the broad categories set out in Mani, Contentious Traditions. British representations of sati are many and various, and do not all conform to this pattern, but even such a nuanced account as that offered by W. H. Sleeman (Rambles, vol. 1, pp. 23–44) counterpoints the story of a woman who freely seeks her own death with others of women taken by force to the fire. See Sabin, Dissenters, pp. 69–88.

(35.) Tod, Rajasthan, vol. 1, pp. 311–12.

(36.) Roberts, Oriental Scenes (1832), p. 126.

(37.) Haig and Burn, Mughul Period, pp. 22–4. Sharma, Mewar, pp. 43–52, describes this episode.

(38.) Spivak, Critique, p. 299.

(39.) Rajan, Real and Imagined, p. 19.

(40.) Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1834), pp. 17–19. Roberts and Landon were friends of long-standing; Roberts is acknowledged in a note to ‘Kishen Kower’ (p. 23).

(41.) Compare, for instance, the protagonists of Landon’s other poems ‘The Hindoo Girl’s Song’ and ‘Fishing Boats in the Monsoon’, Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1836).

(42.) Roberts, Oriental Scenes (1832), note p. 128; the reference is to Tod, Rajasthan, vol. 1, p. 311.

(43.) Postans, Facts and Fictions, vol. 1, p. ix.

(44.) Other Postans stories take a similar theme; see, for instance, ‘Aieyla, the Ramooseen’ (vol. 2, pp. 199–229).

(p.152) (45.) Mrs J. L. [Anna Maria] Mowatt, ‘The Rajpootni, or Fire-Side Reminiscences’, Bengal Annual (1835), p. 373.

(46.) Compare the opening passages of Tod’s narrative (1. 625), which provides Mowatt with her material and phrasing, including the brief reference to the story of the Roman woman Lucretia, whose rape by Tarquin is followed by her suicide.

(47.) Roberts’s interest in Indian women’s roles is partly also a concern with gender roles more generally: see her account of ‘Bengal Bridals’ (Scenes and Characteristics, vol. 1, pp. 14–34), and the representation of Mitala’s thwarted feminist sensibility in ‘The Rajah’s Obsequies’ (Oriental Scenes (1832), p. 58).

(48.) Tod refers to the woman in question as ‘Kishna Komari Baé’, the ‘Virgin Princess Kishna’ (Rajasthan, vol. 1, p. 461). The form ‘Kishen Kower’ was used by John Malcolm, and there are several other variant transliterations. I have retained the original spelling in all quotations, and opted otherwise to follow Malcolm’s version, the one most frequently used by later writers.

(49.) Asiatic Annual Register, vol. 12 (1810–11), pp. 49–50.

(50.) Tod, Rajasthan, vol. 1, note p. 463.

(51.) A substantial portion of Rajasthan was written ‘as early as 1820–21’ (Peabody, ‘Tod’s Rajast’han’, n. 19, p. 196). Malcolm relies on Tod to authenticate several details of the story, though he also claims to have ‘visited the court of Odeypoor in March 1821, eleven years after the occurrence of the events I have stated, and possessed complete means of verifying every fact’ (see Memoir, pp. 340–2).

(52.) Malcolm, Memoir, vol. 1, pp. iv–v. This work is in some respects equivalent to Rajasthan, though less encyclopedic in scope, focusing on the Malwa region and the Marathas; see Harrington, John Malcolm, pp. 99–127. Koditschek suggests that the difference between Malcolm’s version of the ‘British Indian romance’ and that of Tod lies in the former’s ‘realist’ recognition that the establishment of British authority in India required that indigenous states should be defeated, rather than become part of a ‘consensual union with Britain’ (Liberalism, p. 75).

(53.) Ameer Khan, Memoirs, p. 400. The translator, H. T. Prinsep, sadly omits as ‘quite untranslateable’ the Persian verses in praise of the princess contained in the original (note p. 296). A long review of this work appears in the Asiatic Journal, vol. 18 (November 1835): 226–36; (December 1835): 253–67.

(54.) Prinsep note to Ameer Khan, Memoirs, p. 400.

(55.) Ibid. p. 400. Malcolm’s account bears this out, with its insistence that ‘the extraordinary beauty and youth of the victim excited a feeling, which was general in a degree that is rare among the inhabitants of India’; and in the town, ‘loud lamentations … and expressions of pity at her fate were mingled with execrations on the weakness and cowardice of those who could purchase safety on such terms’ (Memoir, p. 340). Prinsep takes a different line in his own poem based on the story; see below.

(56.) Compare Othello V, ii, 358. In the work of the Roman writer Livy, the schoolgirl Virginia, or Verginia, is put to death by her father to save her from life as a slave, while Agamemnon is commanded by the gods to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the siege of Troy (see Oxford Classical (p.153) Dictionary). Jephtha is similarly compelled to make good his promise to sacrifice his daughter Iphis (Judges 11).

(57.) The discussion that follows is confined to texts purporting to offer a version of the story that does not depart in substance from the reported facts of the case. Others used its central motif, transformed to a lesser or greater degree, in the service of different narratives. James Abbott’s poem The T’hakoorine is one of these (see Abbott, p. 133); another is Marianne Postans’s story ‘The Chieftain’s Daughter: A Tale of Rajpootana’, where the progatonist, Komari, is joined in death by her lover Zalim Singh (Facts and Fictions, vol. 2, pp. 134–62).

(58.) Richardson, Poems, p. 109.

(59.) Landon, ‘Kishen Kower’, Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1834), pp. 21–4.

(60.) Bengal Annual (1834), pp. 363, 365.

(61.) Compare a similar passage in the work of G. Poulett Cameron, which creates an effect almost grotesque in the way it objectifies and dismantles its subject in the course of setting her within an oriental context: ‘It was impossible to conceive of a creature more beautiful, or one who walked in such unparalleled loveliness,–the half opened, rich, full coral lip disclosed two rows of teeth, that rivalled in whiteness the ivory of the desert, or the pearls of Bassein; while her full, large, dark eye excelled in tenderness and expression the antelope of Yemen; her hair falling in clusters of jetty and luxuriant tresses down her neck and shoulders, completed the picture of the Eastern beauty (Romance, p. 11).

(62.) Johnson, Stranger in India, p. 165.

(63.) Roberts, Scenes and Characteristics, vol. 1, p. 248.

(64.) Cameron, Romance, p. 1.

(65.) Amir Khan, a Pindari commander of Afghan origins, was an ally of the Marathas in the early years of the nineteenth century, and came to terms with the British following the Maratha wars in a settlement that gave him the position of Nawab of the state of Tonk. It is in this context that the poem laments the treaty which enabled him to enjoy ‘for years the fruits of his villanies [sic]’ (Cameron, Romance, p. 22).

(66.) Prinsep, Ballads, p. 73.

(67.) Tod, Rajasthan, vol. 1, p. 465.

(68.) The boundaries of ‘India’ remain conceptually as well as geopolitically indistinct for much of this period.

Notes:

(1.) Others include Dow’s History of Hindostan (1768–72), still current at this period, and John Malcolm’s Memoir of Central India (1823). As Sreenivasan argues, Rajasthan is also ‘one of several competing versions’ of Rajput history (Many Lives, p. 120).

(3.) The political/cultural/historical space of ‘Rajasthan’ (as opposed to the modern state bearing that name, deriving from the British province of Rajputana) has no very precise boundaries. See Lodrick, ‘Rajasthan’.

(p.150) (4.) ‘Memoir of the Author’, in Tod, Travels in Western India, vol. 1, pp. xxv–xxvi.

(5.) Aitchison, Treaties. The treaty with the state of Udaipur, or Mewar, (pp. 22–3) is typical.

(10.) Peabody, ‘Tod’s Rajast’han’, p. 198. See also Inden, Imagining India, pp. 172–6, on the ‘Oriental Feudalism’ posited by Tod in Rajasthan.

(12.) As Bayly points out, the ‘romantic stereotyping’ of the Rajputs and their ‘virtues of honour, independence and loyalty’ was also of pragmatic use: ‘The need to protect tribal innocence was used to justify the diplomatic and military segregation of areas such as Afghanistan and Rajasthan … Areas which had once been major centres of trade and urbanism could thereby be isolated from both indigenous and European capitalism, and the dangerous conflicts to which they might give rise’ (Imperial Meridian, pp. 154–5).

(13.) Akber, or Akbar, Mughal Emperor between 1556 and 1605, completed the process of acquiring substantial domination over the Rajput states in 1569.

(16.) See Taft, ‘Honor and alliance’, pp. 232–3. Those aspects of Rajput history that involve co-operation with, rather than resistance to, Mughal rule are less prominent in Tod’s work (Lodrick, ‘Rajasthan’, p. 8).

(18.) During the sixteenth century, Udai Singh moved the capital of Mewar from Chitor to his new city of Udaipur; the kingdom came to be known also by that name, and eventually became the Indian state of Udaipur.

(19.) The name ‘Pudmani’ was, as Tod indicates, originally a title (‘superlatively fair’) for the Sinhalese princess. Nandini Sinha Kapur describes the ‘Alauddin-Padmin¸ı¯ episode’ as ‘more bardic lore than historical truth’, and suggests that Alauddin Khalji’s invasion of Mewar was a tactical manoeuvre to secure trade routes and guard against Mongol attacks (State Formation, pp. 65, 134). The history and mythology underpinning this episode, as well as the related events of Kurnavati’s appeal to Humayun for aid in opposing Bahadur Shah, and the rescue of the child Udai Singh, are all discussed by R. V. Somani (History, pp. 95–101, 186–8, 193–4).

(20.) The quotation is Tod’s, and not further identified.

(21.) On the ideology of ‘separate spheres’, see Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, a foundational work in this field. Though some recent work contests the explanatory power of the metaphor to offer a comprehensive account of the ‘dynamics of nineteenth-century gender politics’ (Griffin, Politics of Gender, p. 22), it has largely retained its status as a fundamental organising principle of Victorian thought and social structure.

(22.) The reference is to the Hindu Samvat calendar; re Ferishta, see Dow, History of Hindostan (1768–72).

(24.) Bengal Annual (1834), p. 268. Tregear, of the Indian Educational Department, was killed at Meerut in 1857 (David, Indian Mutiny, p. 86), and should not be confused with his son, an army officer of the same name.

(25.) Bengal Annual (1834), pp. 194–8. The incident on which the poem is based is taken from Gleig, History, vol. 1, pp. 174–5; Muir’s note on sources also directs the reader to ‘Todd’s Rajpootana’ (sic); the offhand and general reference suggests that his work was informed by the general trend of Tod’s subject matter and approach.

(26.) Tregear, ‘The Rajpoot Chieftain’, Bengal Annual (1835), pp. 210–11.

(28.) Richardson, ‘The Suttee’, Oriental Herald 12 (March 1827), pp. 511–12.

(31.) This reflects to some degree the organisation of Rajput society, where, as Andrea Major argues, ‘Women, marriage and power were integrally linked; matrimonial alliances were important primarily for their ritual symbolic function, through which a ruler’s power was constituted and reinforced’ (Sovereignty, p. 28). It also reflects Tod’s interest in Western ideals of heroic sacrifice of women by men–see, for instance, his discussion of the Kishen Kower story, in this chapter.

(33.) Bengal Annual (1834), p. 268.

(34.) Such representations constitute one of the broad categories set out in Mani, Contentious Traditions. British representations of sati are many and various, and do not all conform to this pattern, but even such a nuanced account as that offered by W. H. Sleeman (Rambles, vol. 1, pp. 23–44) counterpoints the story of a woman who freely seeks her own death with others of women taken by force to the fire. See Sabin, Dissenters, pp. 69–88.

(40.) Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1834), pp. 17–19. Roberts and Landon were friends of long-standing; Roberts is acknowledged in a note to ‘Kishen Kower’ (p. 23).

(41.) Compare, for instance, the protagonists of Landon’s other poems ‘The Hindoo Girl’s Song’ and ‘Fishing Boats in the Monsoon’, Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1836).

(44.) Other Postans stories take a similar theme; see, for instance, ‘Aieyla, the Ramooseen’ (vol. 2, pp. 199–229).

(p.152) (45.) Mrs J. L. [Anna Maria] Mowatt, ‘The Rajpootni, or Fire-Side Reminiscences’, Bengal Annual (1835), p. 373.

(46.) Compare the opening passages of Tod’s narrative (1. 625), which provides Mowatt with her material and phrasing, including the brief reference to the story of the Roman woman Lucretia, whose rape by Tarquin is followed by her suicide.

(47.) Roberts’s interest in Indian women’s roles is partly also a concern with gender roles more generally: see her account of ‘Bengal Bridals’ (Scenes and Characteristics, vol. 1, pp. 14–34), and the representation of Mitala’s thwarted feminist sensibility in ‘The Rajah’s Obsequies’ (Oriental Scenes (1832), p. 58).

(48.) Tod refers to the woman in question as ‘Kishna Komari Baé’, the ‘Virgin Princess Kishna’ (Rajasthan, vol. 1, p. 461). The form ‘Kishen Kower’ was used by John Malcolm, and there are several other variant transliterations. I have retained the original spelling in all quotations, and opted otherwise to follow Malcolm’s version, the one most frequently used by later writers.

(49.) Asiatic Annual Register, vol. 12 (1810–11), pp. 49–50.

(51.) A substantial portion of Rajasthan was written ‘as early as 1820–21’ (Peabody, ‘Tod’s Rajast’han’, n. 19, p. 196). Malcolm relies on Tod to authenticate several details of the story, though he also claims to have ‘visited the court of Odeypoor in March 1821, eleven years after the occurrence of the events I have stated, and possessed complete means of verifying every fact’ (see Memoir, pp. 340–2).

(52.) Malcolm, Memoir, vol. 1, pp. iv–v. This work is in some respects equivalent to Rajasthan, though less encyclopedic in scope, focusing on the Malwa region and the Marathas; see Harrington, John Malcolm, pp. 99–127. Koditschek suggests that the difference between Malcolm’s version of the ‘British Indian romance’ and that of Tod lies in the former’s ‘realist’ recognition that the establishment of British authority in India required that indigenous states should be defeated, rather than become part of a ‘consensual union with Britain’ (Liberalism, p. 75).

(53.) Ameer Khan, Memoirs, p. 400. The translator, H. T. Prinsep, sadly omits as ‘quite untranslateable’ the Persian verses in praise of the princess contained in the original (note p. 296). A long review of this work appears in the Asiatic Journal, vol. 18 (November 1835): 226–36; (December 1835): 253–67.

(54.) Prinsep note to Ameer Khan, Memoirs, p. 400.

(55.) Ibid. p. 400. Malcolm’s account bears this out, with its insistence that ‘the extraordinary beauty and youth of the victim excited a feeling, which was general in a degree that is rare among the inhabitants of India’; and in the town, ‘loud lamentations … and expressions of pity at her fate were mingled with execrations on the weakness and cowardice of those who could purchase safety on such terms’ (Memoir, p. 340). Prinsep takes a different line in his own poem based on the story; see below.

(56.) Compare Othello V, ii, 358. In the work of the Roman writer Livy, the schoolgirl Virginia, or Verginia, is put to death by her father to save her from life as a slave, while Agamemnon is commanded by the gods to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the siege of Troy (see Oxford Classical (p.153) Dictionary). Jephtha is similarly compelled to make good his promise to sacrifice his daughter Iphis (Judges 11).

(57.) The discussion that follows is confined to texts purporting to offer a version of the story that does not depart in substance from the reported facts of the case. Others used its central motif, transformed to a lesser or greater degree, in the service of different narratives. James Abbott’s poem The T’hakoorine is one of these (see Abbott, p. 133); another is Marianne Postans’s story ‘The Chieftain’s Daughter: A Tale of Rajpootana’, where the progatonist, Komari, is joined in death by her lover Zalim Singh (Facts and Fictions, vol. 2, pp. 134–62).

(59.) Landon, ‘Kishen Kower’, Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1834), pp. 21–4.

(60.) Bengal Annual (1834), pp. 363, 365.

(61.) Compare a similar passage in the work of G. Poulett Cameron, which creates an effect almost grotesque in the way it objectifies and dismantles its subject in the course of setting her within an oriental context: ‘It was impossible to conceive of a creature more beautiful, or one who walked in such unparalleled loveliness,–the half opened, rich, full coral lip disclosed two rows of teeth, that rivalled in whiteness the ivory of the desert, or the pearls of Bassein; while her full, large, dark eye excelled in tenderness and expression the antelope of Yemen; her hair falling in clusters of jetty and luxuriant tresses down her neck and shoulders, completed the picture of the Eastern beauty (Romance, p. 11).

(65.) Amir Khan, a Pindari commander of Afghan origins, was an ally of the Marathas in the early years of the nineteenth century, and came to terms with the British following the Maratha wars in a settlement that gave him the position of Nawab of the state of Tonk. It is in this context that the poem laments the treaty which enabled him to enjoy ‘for years the fruits of his villanies [sic]’ (Cameron, Romance, p. 22).

(68.) The boundaries of ‘India’ remain conceptually as well as geopolitically indistinct for much of this period.