British women in the nineteenth century who travelled to India to settle down had heard countless tales of the infamous Indian summers, which circulated widely within the British circles bound for the colonies. Most women had to make elaborate arrangements before setting out for the journey, anxious as they were about the torrid winds of the plains and the sultry oppressiveness of the coastal cities.

They read extensive guides on all aspects of lifestyle and health in the tropics, especially instruction manuals for packing efficiently and appropriately for the life that waited for them away from home. Most of such manuals listed a staggering number of items that were meant specifically for survival in the harsh climate, containing specific and often peculiar recommendations on mundane aspects of life, such as the material for stays, suitable fabrics, and an optimal number of undergarments.

However, these tried and tested guide books were effective and incontestable, and the to-be memsahibs tried to follow them as religiously as possible, so that they were prepared when the Victorian attire involving layers of silks and velvets had to be forsaken for cotton, linen, and muslins, or when their dresses had to be much more durable, paler and much lighter in weight, or that their lovely hats had to be exchanged for straw sola topees.

They did bring with them their grand and voluminous European ball gowns, but when it actually came to it, the heat was so intense that most wanted to strip down to the last layer of clothing of gossamer chemises and petticoats!

A sweltering reality check

Many of the women who became sticklers for detail, were the ones who had prepared the most for life as memsahibs. However, no manual had prepared them for the realities of long summers in the subcontinent. Even before their vessels neared the ports of the subcontinent, they felt the shock of heat.

As they neared the shores, they observed the awe-inspiring scenery sweating profusely in the unrelenting eastern sun, breathing in thick seawater scents, and struggling under layers of their European clothing, which they would have to get rid of quickly. If they reached the ports during the day, they would have to go through the entire hassle of disembarking and gathering their luggage, and finding their togas into the cities, completely exposed to the harsh elements – an experience which was undoubtedly overwhelming for a newcomer.

Memsahibs led a highly peripatetic life in the Raj – whether it was for travelling long distances to reach their destinations when they first came in, or to move from one station to another along with their husbands on their periodic transfers, or to visit friends and family in far corners of the country, or simply on adventures across the subcontinent for tourism and sightseeing, they undertook multiple long and often arduous journeys in a variety of conditions.

Sometimes, their horses or ponies collapsed in the heat, and sometimes, the carriages could not withstand the heat and terrain, breaking down at intervals because of loose wheels that contracted in the high temperatures. They would frequently be stranded at inconvenient locations for hours as they waited for a blacksmith, or for another wagon to come their way. Sometimes, the heat even damaged ropes on a bridge they needed to cross, and they would have to take long detours that truly tested their spirit.

Even during railway journeys, the heat was a constant source of trouble for the traveling memsahibs. Women who were afraid of heat strokes sat with wet cloths to their heads for whole journeys as they sat in cramped and stifling train compartments. Constance FG Cumming wrote that people were frequently lifted from trains due to heat apoplexy, and the threat of death was a well-recognised danger of the heat of India, so much so that railway authorities kept coffins ready at every station to receive dead travellers who had met their end on their long journeys. Harriet Tytler who was born in India in 1828, wrote of the trials of traveling in the heat:

You could travel night and day if you chose, lying down or sitting up, reading a book or sleeping, just stopping at a dak bungalow for a bath and food and, if the time was your own, you could rest there during the heat of the day...

But that was just the beginning of their struggles with the climate. As they travelled through the cities and journeyed through the countryside to their government bungalows, they realised that far from the romantic ideas of homes in idyllic outposts of the empire, their establishments were appallingly sparse, rudimentary, and dreadfully “oriental”.

Perhaps what terrified them most about their new homes, however, was that these minimalistic houses were barely insulated against the hot winds blowing outside. Before coming to India, these memsahibs had merely heard or read about the Indian “loo”. But the experience of it was different altogether as hot blasts of air tormented them even in the innermost chambers of their homes during the day. Mrs Leopold Grimstone Paget, who wrote a journal of her journey through India and life in camp and cantonment, wrote in 1865:

We travelled on till ten this morning, and during the whole seventeen hours, baby preserved the greatest serenity. The road was execrable, over large unbroken masses of rock, and we noticed several times in the night a strange rumbling noise about the carriage, and just as we drove up to the bungalow at Sindwa, where we intended to pass the day, with a crash our luxurious britska broke to pieces... and incapable of being mended, that we shall have to abandon it here, and proceed on in the country carts, thankful that the crash occurred at a Station, as in the jungle we should have been exposed to the fearful rays of the sun without shelter... The bungalow at Sindwa is the most filthy place I ever was in – mud floors, swarming with vermin, on which we had to spread our carpets and mattresses and lie down, for chairs were an unknown luxury. I never felt, or indeed was, so dirty in my life, and oh! The streaming heat!

Measures for temporary relief

Usually, the only solution to memsahibs who were especially averse to the heat was to stay inside the home and keep the doors and windows shut in case hot blasts of winds gushed in, bringing with them the dust and grit of the outside.

This is not to say that the heat stopped the women from undertaking adventures in India. Life in the Raj had to go on for those women whose primary recreation was socialising. Therefore, they looked forward to evenings all day. Only after sundown did the temperatures decrease slowly around the mofussil areas, and they dared to venture outside for social calls or exercise.

Not that staying cooped up inside their homes for the whole day was comfortable for them since modes of recreation and daily engagement were dull and uninspiring, forcing them to lie in wait for the hours to pass in dim corners of the houses where they lay, unmoving, lest any work makes them hot and sweaty again.

The tropical climate in many places also meant that there could be bouts of heavy rains and frequent thunderstorms during monsoons. During such times, damp winds from the surrounding forests signaled the beginnings of chota bursat (pre-monsoon showers) that would arrive ahead of the monsoon and burst upon them often without warning.

The monsoons cleared up the air and washed away the dirt and dust, making everything seem lush and vibrant. But although the dreaded ‘prickly heat’ would be relieved, and their skin would stop burning, rains also meant that a number of skin infections made an appearance, or that there would be a sudden profusion of vector insects that gave them diseases like Kala Azar and malaria.

Moreover, almost too soon, the heat would return and stay on for days, until once again the clouds would gather, and the earth would emit fresh damp scents just before it started pouring down with heavy thunder, sometimes continuously for months, yet again pinning everybody indoors.

Many of the memsahibs tried hard to cope as best as they could, religiously fashioning their houses in a manner that helped them tackle the vagaries of the tropical climate. Some felt that just as they took precautions to deal with the dampness and chill of England, they had to take measures to tackle the heat and wet climate in India. In fact, back home, they suffered quite a lot due to cold, cough, infection, bad ventilation, and poor sanitation.

In India, it was similar, but in high temperatures. Moreover, while protecting against rains and floods was challenging, the government bungalows at least had an architectural design that suited the summer heat: the high ceilings and large doorways and windows allowed the breeze to flow inside and ventilate all corners of the house well even on the hottest of days.

Roofs were often padded with khus khus which lowered the temperature inside the inner quarters quite effectively. Sometimes, khus tatties were installed in archways and wetted so that the hot winds that blew in were immediately cooled down by the damp grass. Memsahibs also installed curtains on every door and window, keeping out the sun rays during the day, and when that didn’t work, installed themantidotes, which were devices of revolving fans in a box lined on the inside with tatties.

Sometimes, rooms had manually-operated revolving fans suspended from the ceilings, moved to and fro with the help of a rope and pulleys by a punkahwalla seated just outside the room. Very often, this mechanism did not work because such fans only managed to churn the hot air inside hardly relieving them.

If nothing else, on especially hot nights, when it was near impossible to fall asleep, memsahibs woke up periodically to dunk their heads into a cool basin of water kept next to their beds. Drinking chilled drinks was out of question because ice was an imported luxury item almost till the end of the nineteenth century when ice manufacturing finally began in India only in the 1870s. Monica Campbell Martin who came to India with her husband stationed in Domchanch where he was Assistant Mines Manager, in 1923, wrote: “You long to take your skin and sit in your bones. You are a slab of melted butter.”

A cause of discontentment and lethargy

No matter what memsahibs did though, the heat and dust got into their very pores. It was a common complaint that they woke up in the mornings rather more tired than the night before. In fact, memsahibs’ battles with heat have been a rather stereotypical subject in many depictions, often to evoke amusement.

Those who have read about memsahibs, or have come across them in popular cinematic depictions, would be familiar with the figure of the indolent British woman languishing inside a darkened bungalow, exhausted and listless, and with punkahwallahs fanning her tormented face. Edward John Tilt, a physician and medical wrote of the nineteenth century wrote in A Handbook of Uterine Therapeutics, and of Diseases of Women (1869):

Debility is not only caused by the physical effects of habitually intense heat, but sometimes by malaria, and always by the comparative inactivity and complete change of habits, which soon imparts a certain amount of Oriental indolence to the once hardy Englishwoman.

Unfortunately for most, it wasn’t just a matter of the initial shock of the heat when they first came in. The challenge of acclimatising to the high temperatures of the subcontinent lasted much longer than they anticipated.

Not to mention the problems that came along with long summers, because with no option but to stay indoors all day, women could only engage in recreational activities like needlework or playing music, which very quickly, felt tedious in their dull hot hands. Endless hours of boredom and lethargy stretched before them for days on end as their husbands left for work early every day, returning only in the evenings or later.

Memsahibs frequently felt melancholic due to these long spells of separation from their husbands who were often the only other European they had contact with in remote stations. It would be accurate to say that the heat added to the lack of purpose caused them great discontentment and lethargy.

Several memsahibs recorded their restlessness in their writings, and were acutely conscious of the psychosomatic ailment frequently associated with women in the nineteenth century called “hysteria”. In fact, mental health was an important issue at the time, and many memsahibs had heard of so-and-so women who had succumbed to melancholia due to protracted periods of loneliness in secluded mofussils and cantonments.

A memsahib who had begun to feel uncharacteristically depressed one time found out that she might be suffering from what was locally called “Burmese Ennui” – something which was quite common in the area, amongst women who had no occupation. It was understandable that boredom, ennui, and isolation, combined with homesickness and alienation in a foreign land, could bring severe bouts of depression in an individual.

For most memsahibs, the only way to make things work was that they need to carry out their day-to-day activities irrespective of the weather. It is perhaps admirable that the extreme heat did not deter most from socialising and attending parties: if they wanted to dress up to go to parties or visit friends, they would do it even at the risk of developing sunstroke and fever.

Christina S Bremner, who came to India in 1891 and traveled places in a dandi, unlike most, was often happy to stay indoors in her dressing gown and read her novel inside her darkened rooms, even as the distant strains of music wafted from the club for half the night. She wrote, “poor mem-saheb, in her tight dress and kid-encased extremities, sallies out with more of a smile on her face... I never heard of any lady being struck by heat apoplexy”.

Off to the hills

However, these efforts were not merely for society’s sake. The exhilarating and high-powered social life of India was the only redemptive quality of the long summer months. It was also the season of holiday escapades as memsahibs traveled to various hill stations, such as Shimla, Mussoorie, Darjeeling, Nainital, and Ooty usually for up to eight months, to evade the dreaded “Indian summer” in the sweltering plains.

The actual magnetism of hill stations thus lay in their being – in British travel writer, Constance F Cumming’s words – an “atmospheric elixir”. In fact, memsahibs were medically advised to move to cooler regions, since women were considered particularly vulnerable to heat. George Curzon – Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905 – was not able to escape the supposed fate of the unfortunate lonely husband slaving in the heat while his Vicereine sojourned in Shimla like all other memsahibs.

Over time, hill stations became the lodestones of the Raj and a paradise for those who yearned for the English air. The social climate also resembled that of England and evoked nostalgia for their old way of life. There were a number of recreational centers, cafes, hotels, and parties happening there regularly, allowing the women to enjoy life in the Raj.

However, the vibrant social life in the hill stations did earn memsahibs a reputation for hedonism and selfishness, especially for the countless romantic scandals that broke out ever so frequently between them (who were often married) and the sahibs stationed there for the season. Florence Marryat wrote in 1868:

There are always plenty of females on the hills, consequently, the hills are dangerous to the idle man. There are the wives who can’t live with their husbands in the plains; the “grass widows” (or widows put out to grass), as they are vulgarly termed; and as won’t very often be read for can’t, perhaps they are (without any reference to the amount of their charms) the most dangerous that the idle young man could encounter. Then there are the young ladies whose parents are not able, or not willing, to send them to England just yet, but who are too old to live with safety in the heat of Madras.  

It may be said that despite the social censure, memsahibs’ reliance on parties may seem ludicrous on the surface, but as it appears, also a matter of life and death in the Raj, give or take the melodrama.

Ipshita Nath is the author of the forthcoming book Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India.