Despite all romantic notions about love and desire, the choice of a sexual partner has seldom remained just a matter of mutual agreement between two partners. Governments and regimes have, through different time-periods, attempted to control, and channelize people’s sexualities, in the name of ‘social order’. Relationships that do not subscribe to the cultural codes of behaviour, and threaten the patrilineal descent of the race or community, are regarded as aberrations. Such relations do not receive social sanction, as they challenge socially constructed rules, and are thereby labelled as forbidden or ‘illicit’.
The British Raj in India witnessed several such ‘forbidden liaisons’. The British East Indian Company was particularly preoccupied with the issues of love, sex, and marriage with regard to the sexual health of the sahibs and memsahibs, because of various ‘risks’ that were associated with uncontrolled space of the ‘exotic east’. Victorian codes of conduct were directly antithetical to the unrestricted native morality, and the Indian society was understood to have a more relaxed notion of bodily shame (reflected in the traditional gossamer cotton clothing that barely seemed to cover their bodies), which the British believed indicated at the absence of moral order. According to them, this could lead to the breakdown of the British society stationed in India by encouraging similar patterns of behaviour amongst the sahibs and memsahibs. Moreover, the tropical climate could lead to moral laxity, and ultimately jeopardise the imperial enterprise.
Before the arrival of the memsahibs in the nineteenth century, the ICS officers of the Company married catholic women of the Portuguese descent. The sahibs also kept bibis, and maintained zenanas, which was far more economical than taking on the expenses of maintaining a European wife. Such arrangements could end if the officer left a particular regiment. If there were children, the sahib was not bound to provide for them. However, even though such alliances were not binding because they were interracial in nature, they had the same status as that of a legally formalised matrimony. Moreover, Bibis were not simply for utilitarian purposes, and the officers often praised the tender and loyal bibis they consorted with. Moreover, such forms of cohabitations were not known as ‘forbidden liaisons’ until the nineteenth century, when they became stigmatised due to the increasing concerns over miscegenation in the Raj.
Sexual practices in the Raj were quite lenient up until the rise of venereal disease outbreaks amongst British officers, after which the Company was forced to amend the rules regarding sexual health of the white officers. Prostitution was widespread at the time, and while the Company understood the importance of brothels for maintaining order amongst the often-lonely ranks of sahibs, they understood the need to curb infections. Brothel houses came to be closely monitored and regulated to prevent diseases, as the idea of contagion came to be linked with anything related to the ‘Other’, or native. Prostitution was not banned because an active sexual life could ensure the physical robustness of the sahibs and prevent pent up desires and frustrations that could possibly result in under-productiveness. Regiments even had European madams manage brothel houses for their officers. With the nineteenth century, when batches of young women called the ‘fishing fleet’ came in looking for husbands in the Raj, interracial couplings gradually became condemnable, as the Company wanted to prevent the dilution of the white race in India.
Due to the expansionist nature of the empire, British women’s sexuality was closely governed. Memsahibs were understood to be vulnerable in the native space, due to their susceptibility to tropical illnesses, and due to the added fear of sexual violation. Racist stereotypes surrounding the native man’s carnality buttressed such suspicions, especially in light of the accounts of abuse and violence against British women during the revolt of 1857. Recent feminist historiography has revealed that such rumours stemmed from biases and prejudices rather than actual realities, and were meant to perpetuate the fear of the ‘Other’ among the British officers/community/etc. in India. However, such notions served to deepen the prejudice against interracial marriages. The issue of miscegenation deeply concerned the British administration also because the children of mixed couplings came to be tabooed. The presence of the Anglo-Indian race was a rude reminder of the racial crossings, and the resultant dilution of the white race in India.
Nonetheless, a number of interracial relationships were borne out of the Raj. Not only did sahibs have children with native women, there are several cases of European women falling in love with and marrying Indian men. Unlike popular perception, the men who courted and wed white women were not licentious natives who fetishized white skin, but devoted husbands who deeply cared for the women they married. Some of the stories of such unlikely matches are extremely tender and romantic, and allow us an insight into fulfilling mixed unions that dispel stereotypes. Yet, the postcolonial imagination continues to fetishize such relationships. A good example is Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard.
It must be said that during the colonial period, the so-called ‘transgressive’ marriages and subversive liaisons occurred despite the political and social repercussions. Such instances become testament to the fragility of social conventions and orthodox belief systems that attempt to negate sexual agency of the people. While it is difficult to draw direct parallels between the ‘forbidden liaisons’ of the Raj, and what constitutes as forbidden today, in the current political climate, it is not altogether impossible to locate similarity in the regimentalisation of love and desire in contemporary times. The idea of ‘forbidden’ remains rooted in the social divisions, be it class, caste, race, cultures, etc. and relationships that attempt to transcend these boundaries automatically are labelled as taboo or criminal. Interracial marriages during the Raj provoked as much backlash as inter-caste and interfaith marriages do today.
Indeed, governments since time immemorial have attempted to curtail sexual and romantic desires, to maintain ‘social order’. However, history and literature demonstrate the sheer subversive quality of love as transgressive amours not only take place in spite of societal and political restrictions, but also are also consistently idealised and romanticised. The ultimate ineffectuality of the State or governments in the matters of the heart and soul can serve as a heady reminder of the potency of love and desire across time and culture.
Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. She is currently a doctoral candidate with Jamia Millia Islamia, and wrote her thesis on postcolonial representations of memsahibs in Indian literature. Her book of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published by Simon & Schuster India, in March 2020.
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