Fanny Parks

April 7, 2008

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)

PDF EXTRACTS wanderings-of-a-pilgrim2


Corbett, Dogs and Tigers

March 19, 2008


Last week my thirteen year old labrador had to be put down. She was suffering terribly from arthritis. Suddenly, it put me in mind of Jim Corbett and his hunting companion, Robin, and I frantically searched  for his story in my collection.

It took me a long time to get into Corbett. I couldn’t understand the fuss about a hunter. And I didn’t like the idea of reading about hunting exploits, particularly when they were being glorified for a reading public baying for blood and adventure.

When I did read him, finally, I was astonished. Here was a  proto-environmentalist and conservationist. A man now held in the highest regard by modern tiger-wallahs fighting to save this noble animal.

As for his tiger hunting, he was as clear as he could possibly be about tigers as man-eaters; that he only ever hunted man-eaters and only when the tiger had already become a serious problem.

It is in this context that he gives his most spirited defence of the tiger:

A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet that is alien to it. This is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds and in the tenth case old age…When a tiger is suffering from one or more painful wounds, or when its teeth are missing or defective and its claws worn down and it is unable to catch the animals it is accustomed to eating, it is driven by necessity  to killing human beings…

The author who first used the words “as cruel as a tiger” and “as bloodthirsty as a tiger” …showed a lamentable ignorance of the animal he defamed…When I see these expressions in print I think of a small boy armed with a old muzzle-loading gun…wandering through the jungles in the days when there were ten tigers to every one that now survives; sleeping anywhere he happened to be when night came on…knowing from his own short experience and from what others had told him, that a tiger, unless molested, would do him no harm…

A tiger’s function in the scheme of things is to help maintain the balance in nature and if, on rare occasions when driven by dire necessity, he kills a human being or, when his natural food has been ruthlessly exterminated by man, he kills two percent of the cattle he is alleged to have killed, it is not fair that a whole species should be branded as being cruel…

I wonder whether there is even one tiger left for every ten living when Jim Corbett wrote this piece. Man’s encroachment and ruthless extermination of the tiger’s natural envronment has continued unabated and will continue until the tiger’s final extinction.

I did find Robin’s story and have attached it below. Holly was a great companion and I’m sure she will be waiting for me in the Happy Hunting Grounds too!

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