When Our Mahajans and Shroffs Financed the Pleasures of the Officers of the British Raj

When Our Mahajans and Shroffs Financed the Pleasures of the Officers of the British Raj

In the second part of this series, Dr. Francis provides an eye-opening picture of the manner in which the officers of the British Raj took enormous loans from our Mahajans and Shroffs (moneylenders) for their sensual and other enjoyments.

In this Series

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When Our Mahajans and Shroffs Financed the Pleasures of the Officers of the British Raj


A little-known and barely-discussed aspect of the British colonial rule of India is the social life of the Englishmen who resided in India. While the stories of their appalling treatment of Indians are fairly well-known, the other dimensions of this story are yet to come to light with the seriousness and detail it merits. The Englishmen who settled in India for extended periods fall under the following broad classes:

1. The political cream--viceroys, governors, high-ranking bureaucrats, judges, etc.

2. Military personnel who largely shared an almost equal status with the political class.

3. Mid-level bureaucrats

4. Clerks who would have been in the lowest rungs of society in Britain behaved like feudal lords in India.

One such dimension is the day-to-day social life of this middle and lower class Englishmen in India. Fortunately, we have substantial material for reconstructing a clear picture of this dimension of British rule in India.

The observations of Dr. Francis in this regard is one such valuable source material. Read on.

The Innate Indian Generosity

It is an essential feature in the complimentary life of Indians not to pay visits empty-handed. The nazr (present) is offered, from one of three motives : (a) pure generosity ; (b) because it is customary; and (c) in hope of some kind of return. Let me urge those who disbelieve in the first of these motives to read the story of "Rama," a true tale of village life, where the highest form of generosity is shown in the readiness of a father to sacrifice his own life instead of that of his son. In the earlier days of our rule, and even now in remote parts of the country where English customs are comparatively unknown, valuable presents are still offered from the pure generosity. One might perchance admire a handsome ornament or dress worn by the native visitor or host. In such cases, the Indian gentleman may politely say, aap rakhiye (please to keep it). And the donor really wishes it to be kept.

Bishop Heber, who in some of his visits to royalty, was somewhat disconcerted by the magnitude of the gifts thrust upon him. He mentions several of these cases. Certain gifts must not be refused, as in the case of simple and inexpensive souvenirs of friendship. Or in the case of medical men to whom gifts are sometimes offered, independent of their fee, in recognition of their services rendered It should be stated that presents are not offered at every visit but usually, the first.

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When Our Mahajans and Shroffs Financed the Pleasures of the Officers of the British Raj

Amongst Indians themselves, an interchange of presents is a conspicuous feature at their festivals. And, in the same way, they recognise the Englishman's bada din (big day, known as Christmas day), when employees of almost every description bring offerings of flowers, fresh fruits, dried fruits such as currants, raisins, sugar candy, nuts of sorts, Pistachio, Barcelona, and Brazil. Sometimes they bring all these in such large quantities that many housewives welcome them as substantial additions to their godown stores. Such presents should, on no account, be refused. It would very much hurt the feelings of the donor ; neither would it be etiquette to do so. Some Europeans hand them over to those of their servants who will accept them, and this, too, in the presence of the giver; an insult almost as great as refusing them. Whatever is done with such gifts eventually, they should always be received graciously.

In a native regiment, the native officers, in full uniform, approach the Sahib—their European officer—with a rupee folded inside a napkin on a brass platter. The Sahib is expected simply to touch the coin with the points of his fingers, and then to raise them to his forehead.

Political relationships with Oriental princes and chiefs are, in part, maintained by the interchange of presents, which are sometimes very costly. Those given by the British Government are for the most part valued for their utility. These are Europe-made saddlery, double barrelled rifles, revolvers and the like, are generally brought info use at once by the recipients. Those gifts offered in return consisting largely of cashmere shawls, Delhi scarves, Dacca muslins, Cuttack jewellery, etc., are deposited in the Government wardrobe (tosha-khana), and, from time to time, sold for the benefit of the State.

Borrowing Money

The facility with which young Englishmen fall into debt in India is remarkable. The temptation to indulge in a favourite pursuit, or in the pleasures and frivolities peculiar to youth and the comparative ease with which money may be obtained for the purpose prove irresistible. Regardless of the Shakespearean maxim to "neither a borrower nor a lender be; for a loan oft loses both itself and friend," these new Englishmen readily binds himself in fetters which will hamper his movements for many years. Young men, if determined to do so, can very well live within their income; but the temptations to indulgence are too strong. English banks and native bankers are usually ready to advance a loan upon satisfactory security—viz, a guarantee for re-payment by two or three brother officers, or European friends in an approved position.

Over time, these Englishmen find themselves in extremely straitened financial circumstances, and then it overtakes them. Then the professional money-lender becomes a real friend. Interest upon loans, whether borrowed from English bankers or native Mahajans (moneylenders) is always high. Although the native bankers are, as a rule, upright in their transactions, a hundi is as readily honoured as a note of the Bank of England. It is better to borrow from an English bank. Borrowing money, under any circumstances, places the borrower under an obligation even though interest is paid. It is evidently better not to incur any debt to our native fellow subjects before whom we should stand unfettered and with perfectly clean hands.

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When Our Mahajans and Shroffs Financed the Pleasures of the Officers of the British Raj

So strongly does the Government of India feel on this point due to difficult entanglements which have arisen in the past, that in order to avoid such risks, i ts servants are now strictly forbidden to borrow from natives in their own ilaka (jurisdiction). For example, our English civilians from shroffs (moneylenders), military men from native officers, surgeons from native doctors, etc. I have known personally very serious consequences nearly involving the ruin of their professional careers from disregarding these injunctions.

In this connexion, I may refer to the strong objection entertained by the Government towards any of its servants being beholden to or brought under the influence of its native Subjects in any way whatever. Thus, the system of concubinage, which in former days was the rule, is happily now the exception.

To be continued

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