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The Fishing Fleet | Anne De Courcy

In the days of the East India Company, a favourite after-dinner toast was a pun on the mournful phrase ‘alas and alack the day’; aspiring company men would drink to ‘a lass and a lakh a day’—the acquisition of 100,000 rupees and an Indian mistress…. The ethos behind the Raj could not have been more different."

So begins a chapter of Anne de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj—a record of the lives of the European women who set sail for India, in the hope of finding a husband. After 1857, prevailing lenient attitudes towards British men cohabiting (they couldn’t legally marry) with Indian women, or keeping Indian mistresses, began to change. Eurasians, and even domiciled Europeans, began to be viewed as socially inferior; it was the duty of the young British Indian Civil Service officer or soldier to marry (after a decade of enforced bachelorhood) a nice girl from “home".

Back in England, life was tough for the increasing number of young single women. “From 1851 to 1911 approximately one in three of all women aged twenty-five to thirty-five was unmarried," de Courcy writes.

The Fishing Fleet—Hunting in the Raj: Hachette India, 325 pages, ₹ 1,250
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The Fishing Fleet—Hunting in the Raj: Hachette India, 325 pages, ₹ 1,250

De Courcy’s book charts, in meticulous detail, the histories of these girls as they make the sea crossing, flirt over cocktails, breathlessly accept proposals, and gloomily survey cantonment bungalows, their new love nests. There’s plenty of riveting source material here, but an unfortunate vagueness of structure and purpose, and an overload of superfluous detail. Using a combination of (mostly unreferenced) letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs, as well as a couple of personal interviews, she introduces a vast array of characters. The biographies of these Irises, Violets, Jeans, Katherines, Kathleens, yo-yo dizzyingly across a 100-year period, leaving the reader with a residual impression of sweat, chiffon and a smudgy dance card.

De Courcy has a hard time juggling these many voices and keeping her own narrative distinct. On the one hand she slips into a kind of girlish enthusiasm at the fun of it all. On the other, she only glancingly refers to the oppressive boredom, frustration and depression that many women felt. There’s a definite dark side to the lives of these women, basically decorative accoutrements to their husbands’ careers, which goes mostly unexplored.

The story of Iris James, born in 1922, illustrates this. James was picked for an Oxford scholarship that her mother concealed from her in order to send her East to get married: a “crippling disadvantage was having a good brain. Men hated clever women, my mother never ceased to point out".

“If there is a hell for me," James writes, with a black humour that is lacking from much of this book, “it’ll be an endless day in a club in the North Indian state of Assam; a day of staring through dazzling white dust at men galloping about on polo grounds; of sitting in sterile circles drinking gin with their wives; of bouncing stickily round an un-sprung dance floor, clutched to their soggy shirts, of finally being driven home at night by one of them, peering woozily over the wheel, tipping over villagers in bullock carts into the ditch."

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