We are rather oppressed just now by a lady, Mrs Parkes, who insists on belonging to our camp. She has a husband who always goes mad in the cold season, so she says it is her duty to herself to leave him and travel about. She has been a beauty and has remains of it, and is abundantly fat and lively. At Benares, where we fell in with her she informed us she was an Independent Woman.
So wrote Emily Eden about Fanny Parks, the author of the inimitable “Wanderings of a Pilgrim: In Search of the Picturesque, During Four-and-Twenty Years in the East.”
I first picked up this book on spec nearly 10 years ago when it was reprinted by Munshiram Manoharlal in Delhi. A day later I finished the second volume having taken hardly any breaks. It was a feast of anecdotes, stories, descriptions and insights. Since than I have picked it up again and again to enjoy its lively, engaging and moving style.
‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim’ is a fascinating record of colonial life in early 18th century India. It gives insights into the domestic lives of the British living in India at the time and, from a British middle-class woman’s perspective, it describes the lives of Indian women and life in the Zenana (Ladies’ Apartments), subjects usually left out from accounts of India written by men. Fanny Parks’ accounts of her life in India are peppered with choice oriental proverbs, select historical accounts and colourful descriptions of Hindu deities and ritual.
Fanny Parks left for India in June 1822 with her husband who held a variety of East India Company and official appointments in North India. She records her life there from the early days as a naïve newcomer or “griffin”, through the period when she “went native” and immersed herself in all things Indian, to the last moments when the reluctant home-comer “resigns her staff” and leaves India forever.
The point is that Fanny just loved India and everything about it- unconditionally and passionately and allowed herself the freedom to discover India in her own way. This cigar-smoking, sitar-playing, Urdu-speaking memsahib was a liberated woman. She would travel without her husband riding her precious Arab steeds and camping in tents. Or navigate the rivers and waterways of India on her beloved pinnace/yacht, the ‘Seagull’. Always outspoken, she commented freely on subjects such as sati (widow burning), purdah, hook-swinging, fakirs, thugs, elephant-fighting, famine, plague and poverty.
She reported vividly on the vagaries of the Indian climate, as well as the beauty and fascination of its scenery and wildlife. A keen taxidermist, she kept a ‘cabinet of horrors’ containing tiger, alligator and hyena skulls as well as cobras, scorpions and locusts prepared with arsenical soap and stuffed with cotton. Throughout her journal she writes engagingly about the exploits of her constantly evolving menagerie of pets including Fury, her Scotch terrier, and Jack Bunce, her pet squirrel.
During her twenty-four years in India she kept a journal and a sketchbook in which she recorded her experiences of India. Following her final return to England in 1845 she published her account in a two volume book complete with her own colour sketches. In ‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim’, her journal writings are complemented with letters sent home to England, dispatches sent to London periodicals, and records drawn from the newspaper cuttings of the time.
As a travel writer she breaks the mould in many ways. But surely the real magic is implied by Emily Eden’s comments: she was barking mad!
Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab, one might be happy for ever in India: a man might possibly enjoy this sort of life more than a woman; he has his dog, his gun and his beaters, with an open country to shoot over…I have a pencil instead of a gun and believe it affords me satisfaction equal if not greater than the sportsman derives from his Manton….Oh! The pleasures of vagabondising over India. (Vol. II 191-2)
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