Booklove: Behramji Malabari, Traveller to the Exotic West

From Punch: Sky signs of London, 1890s.

'How We Advertise Now'--Punch, Victorian London
‘How We Advertise Now’–Punch, Victorian London

(A shorter version of this was published in the Business Standard, August 13, 2013)

It would take an intrepid novelist to invent the life of Behramji Malabari, whose 160th birth anniversary falls in 2013. My own imagination quails at the thought of creating a formidable Hindu reformer who was born a Parsi in Baroda, and educated at an Irish mission school in Surat after the death of his father, where he was adopted by a childless Gujarati spice-trader.

Behramji took his name, Malabari, from the Malabar spices in his adopted father’s shop, though his love for writing and for reform was entirely his own. He began his career as a Gujarati poet; when he switched to English, the results were dismaying.

His only collection of verse in English, The Indian Muse In English Garb, is grimly awful, as this 1876 odde to The Empress of India, demonstrates:

“See! how lordly Nizam glares!
Holkar, Scindia and Benares, Cashmire, Jepur and their heirs
Evincing all their loyalty!
See the gallant Gaicowar,
Princes of old Katyawar,
And each dominant Durbar
Increasing thy hilarity !”

He did not merely “write better” in Gujarati–the Behramji Malabari who wrote and compiled his poens and thoughts in Niti Vinod was a different person. That early collection foreshadowed his interests far better than his English verses, as though his political self could only emerge in Gujarati and was stifled by English. Niti Vinod includes odes bewailing the curse of infant marriage, the “prayer of a Hindu widow”, an appeal to a religious Mahajan: all the areas where he would argue for reform in subsequent decades, all of his passions, are set down here.

Malabari sent his English poems to Max Mueller, who wrote him a gentle letter of cautious warning: “Whether we write English verse or English prose, let us never forget that the best service we can render is to express our truest Indian or German thoughts in English…” Their role, Mueller said, was to be interpreters between two cultures; he did not want Malabari to forget his own history, his own language. In subsequent decades, Malabari would translate Mueller’s lectures on Hinduism, attempting to justify his own argument that some of the Indian guardians of religion had misinterpreted the Vedas and the Puranas.

160 years after Malabari’s birth, it is not his poems that should be exhumed from their well-earned grave, but his prose. When Malabari wrote Gujarat and the Gujaratis, some seven years after he published his volumes of verse, he became part of a generation of Indians who were reversing the gaze of the traveller to the Orient.

He had trained as a journalist at the Times of India and by the time he took over as editor of The Spectator, Behramji Malabari’s paper was part of the new, thriving, often robustly combative school of Indian journalism—from the Hindoo Patriot and The Pioneer to the Indian Statesman and the Indian Mirror, “native” Indian journalists had begun to report on their own country. Often, they addressed the gaps in the British newspapers, as Mookerjee’s Magazine did by carrying a running series of reports on the Bengal Famine.

Gujarat and the Gujaratis reminds me of the very contemporary explorations of their own cities, and of the “other” India, undertaken by writers such as Aman Sethi, Sonia Faleiro and Amitava Kumar. The gap of a century shows not so much in perspective, but in craft: Behramji left out the fact that he had walked across large stretches of Gujarat, for instance, bowing to the prevalent belief that a traveller must editorialize more than report.

His quick sketches of his home state ruffled several feathers: “Something ails it now,” he wrote of his “poor, primitive, peace-loving” Surat. And while he dutifully included descriptions of Baroda durbars and elephant fights, his real interests show in his quick sketch of Broach. “Father of famed Gujarat,” he begins, and then he abandons that conventional opening. “The town itself is henpecked by that termagant of a river, the Narbada; the husbands are henpecked by their better halves.””

Malabari published his influential Notes on Infant Marriage in 1884. His zeal for reform was successful, winning him the friendship of Florence Nightingale, among others. Writing the foreword to Malabari’s biography, she remarks: “The mission which he led against infant- marriage has stirred up a strong feeling of hostility in some quarters. But on reading this book it will be seen that much of that hostility has arisen from a misunderstanding of his objects and methods, and that it is only a temporary feeling, which will subside when the excitement has calmed down: the evils he has attacked will be acknowledged to be those which most endanger the physical and moral well-being of the Indian race. It will be seen that if he has offended by the vehemence of his advocacy, that vehemence has been caused by a just indignation and by an intense sympathy with the Indian people, especially with the weakest and most suffering classes.”

A few years later, he published a remarkable book, The Indian Eye on English Life. Malabari, who began by trying to imitate the English, and then by reporting like a tourist on his own country, would close his literary career with this absolutely confident, voluble, lengthy travelogue. He turned as close and as carefully scrutinizing an eye on Britian as any traveller from the West had done on India: this was the Exotic Occident. England’s cities were crowded, he reported, their food barbaric, and the sexual freedoms he observed challenged many of his own set views. Everybody ate too much, talked too much, walked too fast, and yet, he admired their energy and their political engagement.

The Cockneys on buses and the London bobbies, were rendered for comic effect, just as travellers to India had written with patronizing charm about the antics of palkiwallahs and khidmatgars. The roar of London held him: “Everybody in the streets seems to be out of breath. It is difficult to say how much of this hurry-scarry is a matter of necessity, and how much of choice or habit. The keen cold wind has doubtless something to do with this rapid locomotion, as also the keen pursuit of pleasure or business under the excitement of the moment. The people seem to be as changeable and restless as the weather.”

He found the English habit of eating in shops, on the streets and in the open disquieting: “Bismillah! How these Firanghis do eat!” He found points of resemblance: “How like our Diwan-i-Khas and Diwan-i-Am of old are these Houses of Parliament!” and of resentment: “Talking of ‘Babu English,’ I should like to know how many Englishmen speak Bengali half so well as Bengalis speak English.” Some of his observations bring back to us, reading Malabari across the divide of time, how strange an industrialized city must have seemed in that age: “What with railways under ground, running through the bowels of the earth; railways, tramways, omnibuses, and smaller vehicles working above ground, the city appears to have been perforated from end to end.”

He was a very modern traveller–the habits of journalling and keeping a diary came naturally to him, and he walked around London, and other parts of England, with as much curiosity as he had once walked around Gujarat. Malabari was, by this time, a seasoned journalist, and some of his observations still ring true: “As to the attitude of caste regarding foreign travel, one cannot deny that it is more or less hostile, and not without reason. Caste loves contentment— to let things alone. Foreign travel brings discontent, under the happiest of circumstances.”

After his return, Malabari was interviewed by a Bombay newspaper. “How much I wish my countrymen travelled more freely, and that they studied history, modern and ancient, with a tithe of the zeal they devote to barren rhetoric or still more barren speculation.” Over a century later, much has changed in India, but versions of Malabari’s complaints—and his optimistic belief in change—survive, side by side.


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