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Of 'miserable Hindoo ladies' and barbaric tribes: Reading Favell Lee Mortimer's 'educational' book on India

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.


Read part one of this column on Favell Lee Mortimer's book Far Off (1849) here.

Here are some of the things Mrs Mortimer had to say about Hindostan in her book Far Off.

Mrs Mortimer on Hindoo Ladies:

“It is a miserable thing to be a Hindoo lady.”

This is a rather alarming thing to say, especially when you consider that Mrs Mortimer was not a Hindoo lady and had probably never met one in her life. But she does not let that interfere with her ability or her right to tell the world how miserable Hindoo ladies are. Illustrious Acquaintance points out that sometimes it is a miserable thing to be a Hindoo lady, but still, this is a completely bananas thing to say.

 Of miserable Hindoo ladies and barbaric tribes: Reading Favell Lee Mortimers educational book on India

From Favell Lee Mortimer's Far Off

However. It is definitely not bananas when one of us says the same thing about the help, auto drivers, people who live in slums, tea shop owners or “them” in general. In these cases, we must never laugh (believe me, I learned this the hard way). We must nod sagely because when we say it, it’s the truth. We don’t actually know if it’s the truth, because we can’t be bothered to find out what these lives are really like. But it sounds about right and it gives us a chance to bristle with self-righteousness, which always makes us look tremendously fetching. And who doesn’t like to look fetching!

Mrs Mortimer on Hindoo mothers:

According to Mrs Mortimer, mothers were the bane of Hindostan. Remember, she was never here and it can be safely said that she was never a Hindoo mother herself but again, she doesn’t let that stop her. Mrs Mortimer tells us that when a child was sick, the mothers of Hindostan were notorious for hanging said children in baskets from trees for three days. If the child survived, they were like Oh yay! And if the child didn’t survive, they were like meh, whatever.

Sometimes they sold their children and sometimes they left them to die, which seems like a waste, especially when they could have just sold them instead. Mrs Mortimer also tells us the story of a mother who, for reasons best known to herself, decided to bury her four-year-old up to the neck in a bog. Unfortunately, on being rescued, the child turned out to be troublesome and ungrateful — which is probably why the mother buried her in the first place.

We also have the story of a missionary who took in 51 starving children, possibly to save them from their mothers. Despite being treated kindly, these children kept trying to run away. To prevent this, the missionary tied them up in strings of 15. I’m not sure how he did this and it seems like a strange way of dealing with starving children, but what do I know. Sadly, tying them in strings proved to be too little too late. The starving children died, because let’s not forget, they were starving.

Mrs Mortimer also claims that “members of the Khund tribe” sprinkled children’s blood on their fields to make corn grow. One must remember that with tribes, you can say pretty much anything because it’s tribes! Tribes are wild! Mrs Mortimer certainly does not let this opportunity go to waste and anyway, you can’t talk about tribes without mentioning blood, I mean come on. Illustrious Acquaintance says there is a Children of the Corn joke in there somewhere which is probably true.

I don’t think anyone really cares if Far Off is problematic or not — it is old enough to seem harmless and ridiculous enough to write about when you want to tackle racism without actually tackling racism. And as long as we keep the focus on Mrs. Mortimer and not on ourselves, it’s the perfect thing to get mad about on the internet. Despite everything, I still believe that if we choose to write about something we know nothing about, we should probably learn about that thing first. And if we think that isn’t necessary and that our version of things is much cooler, well —

I guess that’s where the peacocks come in.

Here’s to the peacocks and those multitudinous front lawns of Mumbai.

Next: We take a look at The Party, starring Peter Sellers in brownface.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 09:55:11 IST

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