In my study of writings by British women in colonial India, I came across a few accounts of New Year’s Eve celebrations in the remote outposts of the empire. Usually, the start of a new year would only mean more travels for these anyway itinerant women. But if they were home this time of the year, they would enjoy the festivities with great fanfare.
They dearly missed the familiar sight of holly and mistletoe, but cheerily decorated their homes with a mix of plantain trees and roses. They purchased gifts for each other like they would back home, and enjoyed shopping for expensive items brought to them by traveling merchants.
In 1831, Fanny Parkes was awed by the merchandise some Arab merchants carried with them: gorgeous selections of pashminas, cashmere gloves, Persian cats, saffron, and illuminated Persian books, which look very fine. Around Christmas, she was delighted by the gifts of fruits and dry fruits given to her by merchants from Kabul.
Like most of her peers, she welcomed the new year with proper honours (including punch à la Romaine), with friends and family, with the merrymaking ending only at 4 AM.
Parties were a regular feature of life in the heydays of the Raj. The higher the memsahib in the pecking order, the more social obligations, as indeed gaieties, she would be obliged to participate in. In 1822, the Viceroy’s wife, Alice Reading, was overwhelmed with her work and social obligations around Christmas, with a final State Ball for 800 – (All of which sound alien to us today as Covid-19 restrictions are imposed yet again).
For the more peripatetic memsahibs sojourning through the country as usual, the end of the year involved the regular feature of packing, planning, and travelling, so that Christmas and New Year’s parties took place in tents pitched for the purpose. Usually, festivities would begin since before Christmas, and while not much could be done as they shunted between dak-ghars and camp sites, small things like baking plum cakes on the roadside in makeshift ovens was certainly possible.
If a memsahib’s travel retinue was more elaborate, the celebrations on-the-road could be as grand as it would be at home. In 1837, Emily Eden was camping in Cawnpore (Kanpur) when the year came to an end. The Prince of Oude (Awadh) invited them for breakfast at his own large tents and presented the Eden sisters with dazzling presents of diamond combs mounted in European fashion, pairs of earrings made of single uncut emerald drop with one large diamond at the top, and several extraordinary precious stones.
Emily Eden noted in her writings how the shawls they were gifted were resplendent, but the jewellery was most striking as they had been made especially for them, and which the Prince personally took leave to show to them. The sisters enjoyed a ball that evening, and the next day, set out for Lucknow, and the day after that, traveled to see Saadut Ali’s and his wife in two of the King’s carriages.
From there, they went to Dilkushar, a country palace of the King’s, and so on. In Lucknow, they went to see the Imambara and Roomi Darwaza. On 30th, they breakfasted with the Prince of Lucknow, and Eden described his palace as “Arabian Nightish”:
“The throne is gold, with its canopy and umbrella and pillars covered with cloth of gold, embroidered in pearls and small rubies. Our fat friend the prince was dressed to match his throne. All his brothers, twenty at least, appeared too – rather ill-conditioned young gentle-men; and there were jugglers and nautch-girls and musicians, all working at their vocations during breakfast… In the afternoon we went to see the king’s yacht, which he had decked out for us, and then his garden. Such a place! the only residence I have coveted in India. Don’t you remember here in the ‘Arabian Nights,’ Zobeide bets her ‘garden of delights’ against the Caliphs ‘palace of pictures.’ I am sure this was ‘the garden of delights!’”
On the evening of 31st December, there were fireworks, and as they went to the palace for dinner on the river, they saw an illumination of letters saying, “God save George Lord Auckland, Governor General of India”. The river was covered in rafts of fireworks, and the boats loaded with nautch-girls.
Sometimes, however, the New Year’s Eve came at the end of long journeys, and for travel-worn memsahibs, it was just enough to settle into the new destination and write back home to wish their loved ones. Exactly 180 years ago, in 1841, when Emily Eden was in Calcutta, she wrote on the 31st of December that she had come to the end of her journeys, as well as the end of her last Indian year.
This letter of Eden’s haunts me particularly as the year comes to an end for us too. I cannot help but draw some similarities in the ways in which Eden expressed a sense of anticipation, mingled with some degree of dread, at the prospect of the foreseeable “horrid changes” in the future.
As I mull over these journals and letters, seemingly far removed from our present realities, I do find a peculiar connection with Eden as she sat at home and wrote a letter on the New Year’s Eve instead of partying and merrymaking. Interestingly, her situation was quite opposite ours as she prepared to end her sojourn in India and depart for home, whereas most of us who had been homebound for long because of the pandemic, had only just started to think about possible return to “ordinary life” in 2022, although with no less anxiety.
But what really brings her sentiments close to ours as we brace ourselves for the times to come, is that she felt changed. She wrote that she had grown indolent and helpless, afraid of saying what she thought, afraid of trouble, and longing to be united with her dear ones who may talk her back into ‘shape’ and make her feel normal again. Her travels outside her home had changed her, in much the say way our retreat from society into our homes has changed us over the past couple of years. How many of us look forward to and at the same time fear the return to ‘normalcy’, just like her?
Nevertheless, it seems to me after long that the year to come will bring some long-anticipated changes, and finally break, what it feels like, an endless journey, of a kind unknown to the generation of memsahibs, but perilous, nonetheless. If I tried to write how the “journey” has been, it would be impossible to contain emotions in words because which language can possibly be adequate here?
And so, even as I look forward to the times to come, I cannot help but think about how this past year has altered so many of us, which I may describe in perhaps the same terms that Eden uses. I suppose most would agree that the very meaning of living life has changed for us as we struggled to find meaning in what had begun to feel like an endless suffering.
Perhaps what essentially remains the same in nearly two centuries is that the “year to come” is burdened with great hopes and expectations for improvement, and hope for more love and company of loved ones.
Ipshita Nath’s book Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India is being published in the UK and India in 2022.