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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



Ethnographies are interesting things; especially, when one considers from whence they stem. An ‘insider’ writing the story of her/his own people, by placing her/himself on the periphery of the society in question in the name of objectivity, will devise one ‘telling’, while a rank outsider’s account of the same people is likely to vary in degree and perspective. What is even more fascinating is a story of comparative ethnographies: When the same eye turns on both, the self and the other as it were, and makes of these concepts what it will. The 19th century is rife with examples of intellectuals who have done just this--Gujarati social reformer Karsandas Mulji and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, to name but two. This paper would like to examine a third 19th century reformer of Gujarati origin. He might not be as well known as his forebears, but remains intriguing in the sheer scale and depth of his sartorial gaze. We speak of the Parsi reformer, Behramji Malabari, who was one of the first ‘stars’ of the nascent Indian-English press. Malabari was an extremely influential figure who came into his own in the Bombay of the late 19th century. He worked on ‘sketches’ of ‘Gujarat and the Gujaratis’, drawn from life, with the aim of allowing the ruling class to better understand its subjects. This study finds its counterpart and apposite opposite in a later work of his, ‘The Indian Eye on English Life’, which is an (in parts scathing) account of the life, times and ‘manners’ of the English. This paper delineates the similarities in approach, and points of departure in both these studies, while trying to give credence to the composite picture that emerges from each, bearing in mind the political machinations of the time which spawned them. 

Keywords Content


Ethnography has for its roots the Greek ‘Ethnos’, which translates as either ‘folk’ or ‘people’, and ‘Graphein’ which gives us ‘writing’. This provides us with a neat definition--ethnography is ‘writings about people’. While this appears to be an eminently straightforward thesis, it poses a fundamental question in its wake. Is the tag ‘folk’ the same as ‘people’? And is the concept of ‘people’ the next step in a logical train; that which a community becomes when it surpasses its ‘folk’ roots? Is ‘folk’, therefore, what comes before ‘people’ can be forged upon the anvil of civilisation? Is there room within ethnography for the stories of folk, not just writings about people?

These and other questions of their ilk are the basis for the investigations into the two varied kinds of ethnographic writing that this paper undertakes. It will examine and juxtapose the ‘folk’ vein prevalent in Behram Malabari’s [1853-1912] 1882 collection, Gujarat and the Gujaratisi with his cultural-anthropological treatise, decidedly about a ‘people’ and their nation, written almost a decade later in 1891, The Indian Eye on English Lifeii 

Behram Malabari was one of the foremost social reformers of the late 19th century in Western India. A Parsi-Gujarati born and bred, he was also one of the first ‘stars’ of the then nascent Indian English Press, quite apart from being hailed as a poet of repute in both Gujarati and English. For a man who already had two biographies written about him almost two decades before his death (at the relatively young age of 59), he has been curiously forgotten by both, the Parsis, for whom he was never quite Parsi enough, and the nation for which he struggled to the end, and to whom he bequeathed such institutions as the Seva Sadan--still running in Bombay--and the Dharampore Sanatorium.


The methodology for ethnography is often defined in terms of data collection, done through participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, and so on. The discipline aims to describe the nature of the society under study, through the act of writing. This invariably raises questions about and implies power structures extant between the observer and those s/he observes. If we juxtapose this, with all its blatant and subtle over and undertones into the context of the colonial venture, we’re faced with an interesting quagmire of double-ended uncertainties. Anxieties of authorship, ‘Indianness’, creativity and the right to representation all come into play. Who speaks? What enables them to do so, especially for another? Who is it that is being spoken to, and to what end? This is the contextual background against which a figure like Malabari must be read.


Claude Lévi-Strauss, drawing upon Rousseau, speaks of the notion of ‘pity’iii[Levi-Strauss : 1963], apropos the anthropological gaze which seeks to understand and empower the ‘other’, and in so doing, brings the self into cognitive existence. This pity is both, an amalgamation of the Christian ideals of love, compassion, the Indian ‘daya’, empathy, and completely different from it in that, for Lévi-Strauss, it constitutes the “innate human ability to identify with another, not just with a relative or compatriot, but with any human or sentient living being, and, as a corollary to this, the ability to refuse to identify solely with oneself”iv[Maclean, 2008 : 1].


This innate understanding appears to be the starting point for our intrepid socio-cultural anthropologist/litterateur, long before these concepts were formally named or forged into a discipline. In Gujarat and the Gujaratis, he is nothing if not an insider, ‘initiating’ the rulers into what George Steinerv [Steiner, 1975 : 1-2] calls the ‘secret code’ of society any language, by definition, allows and creates for its practitioners, being as it is a window into an elsewhere; a veritable semiosphere unto itself.


Gujarat and the Gujaratis was a perfectly ‘acceptable’ enterprise, undertaken at the behest of  the then editor of ‘The Times of India’, Martin Wood. He wanted Malabari to work on “sketches from life”, to tell the many stories of Gujarat and her people. This work both is and is not an ethnographic study, peppered as it is with semi-fictitious “first-person narratives” of the common people who make up Gujarat’s populace: The Marwari, the Parsi, the Sheth and the Surti voice their own personal realities, and in so doing, help us know their ‘kind’. The Indian Eye on English Life marks a complete departure from this narrative style, posing as it does as an exercise in ‘reverse’ ethnography – the colonised seeking to ‘examine’ and better understand, in his or her own terms, the coloniser.


It can be deduced, therefore, that while Gujarat and the Gujaratis is an attempt to ‘speak truth to power’ to make for better governance, The Indian Eye on English Life is an attempt to merely ‘speak truth’--to any and all who will listen. In Malabari’s own words, all that the author “claims is a friendly conversation, in open council, with Englishmen on the one hand and Indians on the other”vi[Malabari, 1891: vii]. Conversely, E B Eastwick, in his Preface to Gujarat and the Gujaratis, states clearly who the intended audience for this work is, when he writes, “The story of Indian domestic and social life can be set forth only by the pens of Indians themselves, and these pens have many restraints upon them. Pages, therefore, such as these which are here presented to the English public, deserve to be welcomed.”vii[Malabari, 1882: vii]


What sets apart Malabari’s The Indian Eye on English Life from the other travelogues and writings about England and the English by Indian writers--quite apart from the fact, that, it is one of the early accounts about the British written by an Indian in the English language--is that it presumes to make the space for an interrogatory discourse which places the coloniser as fair game for an ‘Oriental’s’ scrutiny. It assumes, in fact, demands an equality of purpose and standing for India and Indians in its very fact of being. “We should be treated as equals…you must not give us less than our due; and pray do not give us more either – in the shape of words or otherwise… (And) the same equal treatment in the case of the nation as in the case of individuals,”viii[Malabari, 1891: 65] he writes in this text.


If we set The Indian Eye on English Life in conversation with its predecessors: Mahipatram Rupram’s ‘England Ni Musafari Nu Varnan’ix[1864] and Karsandas Mulji’s ‘England Ma Pravas’x[1866], we see the distance traversed by the language of social reform in the thirty years which separate these travelogues. Mahipatram worked for the colonial government and in 1860, was sent to England at its expense, with the main aim of his visit being the scooping out of England’s institutions of higher learning. He is, as social historian Tridip Suhrud writes, “Most comfortable describing structure, principles and institutions, and not details of everyday social interactions”xi[Suhrud, 2008: 84]. Mahipatram appears to be “convinced of the superiority of the British in all aspects. He says, ‘It is known to all that these people are ahead of everyone in terms of wealth, welfare, knowledge, industry, education, polity, commerce and agriculture’xii[p.85]. With this sweeping indictment of all things ‘Indian’, Mahipatram illustrates clearly that he was very much a creature of his times: a social reformer who sought validity for his reform agenda from the presence of the British and their ‘modern’ education system.


Malabari’s tone in The Indian Eye on English Life is anything but obsequious; Mahipatram’s, too overawed to manage even feigned objectivity. Only three years separate Karsandas Mulji’s visit from his predecessor Mahipatram’s. However, albeit stemming each from the other, it is almost as if they share different semantic spheres. In spite of Karsandas’s metaphors of light and dark-- “As one stepping out of the dark into the bright sun, the eyes dazzle at the light. Similarly, the visitor is enlightened by the power of their knowledge,”xiii[Mulji, 1866: 3-4] he writes about his arrival in England--his account of his time there is more nuanced and less overwhelmed in tone than that of Mahipatram. He has a methodology: “He makes notes, collects data and images, and even reads books on various aspects of British life,”xiv[Suhrud, 2008: 86] in the words of  Suhrud. His account is empirically factual, even as it is deeply impressionistic. Unlike Mahipatram, Karsandas Mulji does not shy away from describing societal class distinctions, and his attempt is to “capture a true picture of the life of a civilised people, without neglecting its poor and downtrodden”xv[Suhrud, 2008: 86]. However, even whilst being a discerning ethnographer, Mulji does not lose sight of his single-minded reformist agenda. So, while his pictures are multi-layered and many-hued as compared to Mahipatram’s, the agenda is still not a mere enunciation of that which the oriental gaze falling upon its colonial other perceives.


The main impetus behind Mahipatram and Mulji’s travelogues was, in the words of literary historian Rita Kothari, “consistent with a larger project aimed at infusing rational and progressive thought into Gujarati society”xvi[Kothari, 2008: 92]. Malabari, on the other hand, has a reformist agenda when he travels to London, but that agenda is to take the problems of infant marriages and widow remarriage to the people of England, petitioning for their support to pressurise the Government of India into repealing the restitution of conjugal rights decree, and raising the age of consent for girls from 10 to 12 years of age (Age of Consent Act, 1891). However, The Indian Eye on English Life is neither a space of contestation, nor for the championing of this cause--it stems from a genuine desire for conversation, and conversation as equals, on the state of two congruous civilisations, which have, for better or worse, intertwined destinies. There is, therefore, a genuine need to understand the English, in Malabari’s mind, and to explicate that which he sees to his fellow countrymen. ‘The Indian Eye on English Life’ is just that, even as ‘Gujarat and the Gujaratis’ was a window for the rulers into the lives of those ruled.


In Gujarat and the Gujaratis, Malabari seeks to delineate society as he perceives and knows it to be. In the latter text, by using his méthode préfère--comparing what he sees of the two nationsxvi [Malabari, 1891: 2] --he writes of two societies that can be.


One criterion for the evaluation of ethnographies is reflexivityxviii[Richardson, Vol.6: 253] –-how an author comes to write a text, and whether there is adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgments about his or her point of view. This, in Malabari’s case, becomes clear with an example from The Indian Eye on English Life. Consider this excerpt from his writing about the English and their eating habits: “It is not only the quantity, but the manner of eating as well, that puzzles and sometimes frightens me – there is an absence of delicacy and deliberation about the matter at which the grave oriental may well lift his eyebrows”xix[Malabari, 1891: 49]. It is interesting to note that he uses the personal construction “frightens me”, as opposed to more nebulous phrasing like ‘frightens one’. His lack of hesitation, therefore, in relying on his own estimation as the lens through which he perceives the novelties lined up afore him, prove that he is unafraid of owning--and owning up to--the I/Eye which sees and speaks.


Malabari devotes six pages to describing the “fickle” London weather – “Because the climate of a country reflects itself pretty clearly in the temper, habits and general surroundings of the people”xx[Malabari, 1891: 40]--several before it to traffic, modes of transportation, religion, entertainment options, and fourteen thence to the cruelty of ‘big’ Science, in its treatment of animals as mere tackle for experimentation. What this means is that--nothing is too insignificant to Malabari to be omitted--it is a socio-cultural-economic-literary analysis, startlingly cross-disciplinary in its scope, given that he was a man of Letters. He adheres firmly, here, to the credo that an ethnography, to succeed, must necessarily attempt to be holistic. To borrow an idea of Clifford Geertz’s,xxi[Geertz, 1973: 89] he creates ‘webs’ and not ‘outlines’ to understand symbols and the cultures that stem from and around them.


The key difference that one contends with between the two texts is that while The Indian Eye on English Life is written about that which was weighed on the scales of Malabari’s own perception of an ‘alien and yet familiar’ culture--life as he saw it lived, not always and necessarily as it was lived--Gujarat and the Gujaratis offer us stories of lives in the act of living. It was almost a colonial text-book, because Malabari had the ear of power: Lord Ripon, among other Viceroys thought very highly of his work and often sought his council on matters relating to the child marriage and widow remarriage debates flourishing in India during the last two decades of the 19th century when Malabari’s journal, ‘The Indian Spectator’, was widely considered to be one of the best journalistic organs of the Anglo-Indian press, and it is known that he was called upon to “compile” other such series of sketches, this time of the various different provinces and princely states that comprised the Indian colony of the time. That he didn’t comply with this request, focusing his attentions instead on the culmination of his life-work--getting passed the change in age from 10 years to 12 years in the Age of Consent Act [1891]--is another matter. The writer’s own aim with regard to the “sketches” he draws is stated thus:


“If you care to have a fresh account of, perhaps, the least known but most interesting parts of Her Majesty’s Indian Empire, of the inner life of an important people, their habits, customs, manners, the moral and social forces at work among them; then you are welcome to these pages, such as they are…you will not find cause to question my bona fides – in spite of occasional levity, degenerating at times almost into what may appear to be flippancy. I do assure you that no writer meant to be more serious. If you follow my sketchings in the spirit and the letter, if you read between the lines, you will not find them all mere caricaturesxxii [Malabari, 1882 : 9-10].


The pages of Gujarat and the Gujaratis abound with a vitality different by far from The Indian Eye on English Life; a sprightliness and levity provided largely by the style of narrative chosen, rather than stemming from the whys and wherefores of the story told, necessarily varied in content as they are. Malabari’s choice of words – ‘not mere caricatures’ – is telling too. Perhaps there is much here that might not be palatable unless guised (even thinly) or stylised enough to give it the air of spectacle; relegated to the realm of the unreal. From sketches of Gujarat’s major towns and cities – Surat (“something ails it now”xxiii[Malabari, 1882 : 14]), Broach (“the science of henpeckery is carried here to perfection”xxiv[Malabari, 1882 : 42]), Baroda (“The men may be divided into two classes – the snobbish and the sheepish”xxv[Malabari, 1882 : 54]), Ahmedabad (“Rich in sights…the remains of Mahomedan architectural art are “magnificent” even “in their ruin”xxvi[Malabari, 1882 : 105]) – to accounts of their administration at both local and British hands, and sketches of the ‘folk’ who ‘people’ these places, like the Village Hajaam, the Va’quil, the Lalia boys, Parsis, Mahomedans and Hindus, are all to be found in these pages. So too are descriptions of the Darbar in the princely state of Baroda, ‘Scenes in a small cause court’, ‘The missionary in the mofussil’ and a peek into the important festivals celebrated here.


The picture he builds is a many-layered but composite one. He voices the grievances people harbour against their rulers, and goes as far as to concoct a “fictitious” exchange of letters between a District Collector, begging for leniency for the Ryots who’ve had to face a “bad season”, and the Commissioner of the District, with the last word belonging to the Government’s Chief Secretary, who puts the “errant” Collector distinctly in his place by saying that the “strange communication” forwarded by the Commissioner of his division “has excited much amusement. His Excellency in Council vows and declares such unpatriotic proceeding on your part is highly reprehensible…should you repeat it, His Excellency will be forced to make an example of you. If you have so much sentiment about you, why don’t you resign?”xxvii[Malabari, 1882: 46-47]. The omniscient narrator, upon providing us with this correspondence in its fullness, goes on to comment upon it sartorially, writing that these records “give to the uninitiated some idea of what we know as the demi-semi-official arrangements, in which our newly developed “Imperial” policy finds occasional play. The imperial politician always looks to the “remotest future””xxviii[Malabari, 1882 : 48].


This example – and it is not the only one of its kind either, with Malabari effectively handing out “report cards” to the various engineers, medical practitioners and administrators who run Gujarat throughout the text – serves to highlight the writer’s strategy. He knows well that rural Gujarat is not without her faults – her Marwari money-lenders who make life living hell for peasants who spend their lifetimes repaying loans taken inadvertently, or because they were literally pushed down their throats; the Jain Maharajs who abuse their status by flaunting their illicit relations with their scores of devotees, Dasturs who terrorise hapless rural Parsi agriculturalists, the Va’quils who seem to help none but themselves, the Mahomedans who are still mourning over their newly straitened circumstances in a country which they no longer own or run, and so on – but these problems need not be compounded by an administration which, because it is so removed from those it governs, does not know their problems, and if it does, cannot or does not do anything about them. The Ryots, terrorised as they already are by the money-lenders, do not need the additional burden of taxation, especially in times of drought or flood or other natural calamity, and theirs – among other voiceless invisibles – is the case Malabari makes here, by revealing to the Englishman his own callousness, and reminding him that if he is here to serve the people of India, it is imperative that he know them first, and know them well. That Malabari couches lessons as harsh and bitter as this into a work which abounds elsewhere with ‘joie de vivre’ and lightness of touch such as only a master wordsmith like he could possess, is testimony to his astute politics.



However, this act of ‘speaking for the subaltern’ in a sense, poses its own set of questions; questions of authenticity and the right to/of representation. These are questions which also need to be reckoned with in the context of The Indian Eye on English Life. Malabari appears to be, essentially, the logical extension of the end-product of Macaulay’s xxix[Macaulay: 1835] proposed ‘Minute-Man’. His is the emancipated, free-ranging intellect which is a creation of the very system he now seeks, and in his view legitimately, to question. Even while he considers his education to be the greatest boon possible, it is that very education which prevents him from being content in the role of interpreter-clerk-middle-man; the end towards which the ‘Minute on Education’ strived.


Born in the 1850s, the class of Malabari would have been the second generation of Indians to “profit” from the English educational system instituted in India. However, it is Malabari’s connectedness to his roots – his clarity of purpose – which rescues him from becoming a Mimic Man, even as it shackles him from making the proverbial ‘next step’ towards articulating a demand for complete freedom.





i Behram Malabari, Gujarat and the Gujaratis (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1997 {Reprint}, originally published in 1882)

ii Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life (Bombay: Apollo Printing Works, 1891)

iiiClaude Levi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale,1958: Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest (Schoepf, 1963)

iv James MacLean, from a speech at Memorial University of Newfoundland on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss: Link: http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~jmaclean/es.rous.cls.html, p.1

vGeorge Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press: London, 1975, p.1-2)

vi Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life, Preface (p.vii)

vii Behram Malabari, Gujarat and the Gujaratis, Preface (p. viii)

viii Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life, p.65

ix Mahipatram Rupram, England Ni Musafari Nu Varnan (Gujarat Sahitya Akademi: Ahmedabad, 1998{Reprint})

x Karsandas Mulji, England Ma Pravas (Union Press: Bombay, 1866)

xi Tridip Suhrud, ‘Indian Eyes on English Life’ (Essay) in Travel Writing in India, Ed. Shobhana Bhattcharji, (Sahitya Akademi: New Delhi, 2008) p.84-91

xii Ibid, p.85

xiii Karsandas Mulji, p. 3-4

xiv Ibid, p.86

xv Ibid, p.86

xvi Rita Kothari, Crossing the Sea: Nineteenth Century Travelogues in Gujarat’ (Essay) in Indian Renaissance Literature, Ed. Avadhesh Singh (Creative Books: New Delhi, 2003), p.92-101

xvii Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life, p.2 “No study is so absorbing for a man as a study of human progress; no method so successful for it as the comparative method.”

xviii Laurel Richardson, “Evaluating Ethnography”, Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 6 (2) p.253-255

Link: http://qix.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/2/253

xix Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life, p.49 (My italics)

xx Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life, p.40

xxi Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (Basic Books: New York, 1973) Geertz outlines culture as "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (p.89)

xxii Behram Malabari, Gujarat and the Gujaratis, p.9-10 (My italics)

xxiii Ibid. p.14

xxiv Ibid. p.42

xxv Ibid. p.54

xxvi Ibid. p.105

xxvii Behram Malabari, Gujarat and the Gujaratis, p.46-47

xxviii Ibid. p.48

xxix Thomas Babington Macaulay, Minute on Education, 2nd February, 1835, Source:




Behram Malabari, Gujarat and the Gujaratis (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1997 {Reprint}). 


Behram Malabari, The Indian Eye on English Life (Bombay: Apollo Printing Works, 1895 {Third Edition}).


Claude Levi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale,1958: Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest (Schoepf, 1963). 


Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (Basic Books: New York, 1973)


George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press: London, 1975). 


Karsandas Mulji, England Ma Pravas (Union Press: Bombay, 1866). 


Laurel Richardson, “Evaluating Ethnography”, Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 6 (2) p.253-255. Link: http://qix.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/2/253


Mahipatram Rupram, England Ni Musafari Nu Varnan (Gujarat Sahitya Akademi: Ahmedabad, 1998{Reprint})


Rita Kothari, Crossing the Sea: Nineteenth Century Travelogues in Gujarat’ (Essay) from Indian Renaissance Literature, Ed. Avadhesh Singh (Creative Books: New Delhi, 2003)


Thomas Babington Macaulay, ‘Minute on Education, 2nd February, 1835’, Source: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html


Tridip Suhrud, ‘Indian Eyes on English Life’, from Travel Writing in India, Ed. Shobhana Bhattacharjee (Sahitya Akademi: New Delhi, 2008).