Daughters of the Raj

By James, Sophie | Contemporary Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Daughters of the Raj


James, Sophie, Contemporary Review


If you stand on the lower veranda at Auckland House School - a building placed on a ridge some two thousand yards high, in Shimla, the Government capital of India's Himachal Pradesh - and look down into the valley from which the blue hills of the Himalayas seem always retreating, you will find yourself standing and watching groups of glossy Indian school girls, polite, smiling and pretty. The girls' voices jabber in an idiosyncratic mix of English and Hindustani, their dark countenances offset by old fashioned uniforms, of school shirt and bar shoes, stripy house-tie and blazer, their long hair pigtailed and plaited with twists of bright yellow ribbon, their blazers announcing the school's intention through a traditional Latin motto, 'Altiora Peto': I seek the higher things. They are gathered there for nothing more prosaic than the twenty minute morning break and chat about anything but lessons. They are unconscious that their presence, which forms such a striking image, declares to any interested observer that this is an educational establishment, adopted by modern and elitist independent India, whose policies reflect and approve the direct legacy of the British Empire, when the English in India made India their home.

There are nine hundred girls caught in this time warp of the school's original British foundation of 1868. Then the house was purchased by its Trustees, the Bishop and Archdeacon of Calcutta, who wanted it to serve the British community abroad and to provide a sound and proper Christian education for the daughters of the Raj. The daughters of Colonial civil servants, engineers, foresters, planters, and army came here. Auckland House took its name from its very first resident, the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland. He controlled the Empire from Shimla, the Raj's summer capital, and entertained the Empire from a drawing room whose teak beams now furnish the Indian teachers' staff room.

Lord Auckland is given short shrift today by the girls, apart from cheerily telling how, on October 31, Auckie's ghost haunts the tenth form's Mother Teresa Dormitory. They are either not brought up to the nuances of their own education, or are brought up to deny them. Their's is a superior education whose original British reference they ignore. Instead, these daughters of India's professional and middle classes, their parents paying an enormous fee a year, pass through their English medium lessons and sit their English examinations with a philosophical acceptance that this was how life had always been. The English medium school, after all, is in its fifth generation. Just two years before Lord Auckland had built himself Auckland House, British policy in India had shifted in favour of the Anglicisers. Thomas Babbington Macaulay advised in 1835 the creation of an Indian elite through Western style education, making them 'Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, in intellect.'

However, Auckland House was founded for the British and not the Indians. The most pertinent aspect of the school's history is that after Independence, while most of the Europeans and Anglo-Indian students left and the curriculum was widened to include Indian language, music and dancing to accommodate the new pupils, the general character of the school changed little. Though the last British spinster Principal left in 1966, the present Indian headmistress - formidable in her power saris of Benares blue silk and with a British accent that would shame any Surrey hostess - governs her hugely popular school through the same language and religion, discipline and spirit of the original foundation.

It is an anachronism that seems to highlight its own redundancy. The majority of girls, however willingly they conform, are neither of Christian backgrounds nor from English-speaking communities. While 170 girls of the senior school's 600 are boarders, only thirteen are Christian; the rest are a motley mix of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. …

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