The First Strawberries in India

On March 1, 2011 by admin

John Plotz

Born, bred, and married in India, the octogenarian Harriet Tytler in 1903 still described herself and her fellow Anglo-Indians as “exiles in a foreign land” . That obdurate refusal of Indianness may help explain why one of her most vivid memories is of being taken, at age eight, to see

“the first strawberry plants that ever grew in India. . . .  Two of the plants had one ripe berry each. Of course, everyone was delighted at the novel sight. No one touched them, but all expressed the desire to be Lord Auckland to have the pleasure of eating the first Indian strawberries. . . . No sooner had my father and his friends gone on, chatting away, than I thought I really must taste the strawberries. Accordingly, I picked and ate them both.”

Born in a land she cannot conceive of as her own and raised to idolize a country she knows only through words, pictures, and stories, Tytler cannot resist the chance to ingest England.

Tytler’s strawberry theft exemplifies one of the cultural practices that allowed self-styled exiles to think of England as a tangible alma mater rather than a distant speck on the map. Such long-distance attachment allowed Anglo-Indians to overlook their Indian surroundings, and attests to the importance, in an imperial “contact zone,” of what I will call cultural portability. Tytler’s strawberries were sentimental objects in the service of a powerful national ideology not hindered but helped by the fact that the nation it served was thousands of miles away.

Amartya Sen has recently proposed dividing European writing on and in India into three categories: “exoticist,” “magisterial,” and “curatorial”,  but a fourth category, which might be labeled “willfully inattentive,” usefully describes some of the most memorable and widely circulated pieces of Anglo-Indian prose. These texts—among them Julia Maitland’s Letters from Madras During the Years 1836–1839 (1843); Overland, Inland, and Upland (1873) by A. U.; and Emily Eden’s Up the Country (1866)—helped to establish what might be described as a cordon of inattention, a boundary that allowed English readers to imagine India principally via the sufferings of Anglo-Indians. The writers of these texts feel connected to fellow exiles, and detached from Indians, precisely by their very sense of geographic and social dislocation—the sense that they, like the strawberries plucked by the eight-year-old Tytler, have been transplanted.

It is fascinating to chart how certain objects and cultural practices became repositories of mobile memory in Victorian Britain and so worked to unify an otherwise disparate global community. In an era of iPods, Blackberries, and the omnipresent and endlessly personalizable internet, it may be difficult to think of portability as a Victorian phenomenon. Nonetheless, the vast Anglophone realm that Charles Dilke in 1868 labeled “Greater Britain” was the forcing bed from which portability emerged as a new way of imagining community, national identity, and even liberal selfhood on the move. It was in the Victorian era that William Shakespeare and Jane Austen became reassuring embodiments of “dear old England” for nostalgic expatriates, and that afternoon tea on a foreign verandah came to stand in for Britain herself—although the tea might be Indian and the willow-ware cups Chinese.

In evoking the culture sustained by this portable property—at once mobile and durable—one would like to complicate Marx’s account of modernity: the nineteenth-century upsurge in worldwide commodity exchange engendered not only fluidity but a heightened commitment to durable, if moveable repositories of non-fiscal value. All that was solid did not melt into air.

Culturally resonant objects and practices preserved—and even produced—a sense of self and community in situations of long-distance dislocation. Indeed, commodity exchanges that seemed to dissolve everything they touched in fact required the hypostatization of an alternative network through which protected objects, practices, and even beings, could move. Like Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or the “portable property” that Wemmick tells Pip to “get hold of” in Great Expectations (1860–61), these protected, “inalienable commodities” possess the unsettling, often uncanny capacity to travel like any other commercial good, while remaining redolent of a distant place, person, or culture. A particularly powerful piece of culturally portable property might allow one to imaginatively reconstruct an entire absent realm, like the medieval illuminated books from which William Morris felt that all England could be reconstructed, should the world happen to be destroyed.

How do such alternative networks develop? How do certain objects and cultural practices become repositories of such mobile memory? How are we to understand the passionate desire to share recollections, aesthetic experiences, sentiments, and even thoughts that drove lovers to make elaborately braided hair jewelry, parents to decorate photographs of far-off children with hairpieces woven from their actual hair, and letter-writers to enclose palpable tokens attesting to an enduring attachment?

Recent scholarship on the British Empire has stressed—as Seeley does in The Expansion of England (1883)—how vast and lucrative were the settler colonies where a “virgin-land” myth prevailed and where, unlike India, the virtually uncontested expansion of British culture into a razed hinterland was the order of the day. Some scholars have posited that national identity in such settler colonies arose when settlers appropriated the imperial legacy and proclaimed it the basis for a new autochthony. Janet Myers, for example, has described the transplantation of English middle-class ideology to Australia as “portable domesticity.” The notion that national consciousness on imperial peripheries is principally formed by making smoothly portable an extant national consciousness also underlies a memorable argument by Benedict Anderson. Anderson asserts that the moment when settlers in the Massachusetts Bay colony articulated a distinctive sense of Englishness is retrospectively recognizable as the moment when they became Americans (“Exodus” 315). Such accounts conceive of settler nationalism as the product of a series of transformations that refashion an originally imperial English identity. They accordingly risk overlooking interaction with native culture, as well as the complicated interplay between Irish, Scottish, and English Britons that plays such a large role in Australian history.

This theorization of national identity-formation in settler colonies also risks underestimating the role that settlers’ concerted ignorance about native cultures played in their own self-fashioning—an ignorance made possible by their thorough awareness of what “greater Britishness” was capable of replacing. Coupled with an eager focus on the distant metropole, colonists’ insistent neglect of the cultures that surrounded them while abroad is akin to the national nostalgia Angela Woollacott describes as a “desire for London”, which authorized colonial accomplishments only after they were first glorified in the British capital. Ignorance of indigenous cultures was not just a function of this longing for London, however; it derived as well from a desire to defend against those cultures. In every imperial contact zone, the English understood that they were interacting with one or more vibrant subordinate cultures. Overlooking the immediate realities of such contacts was one particularly effective strategy for safeguarding the expansion of England.

Anglo-Indian travel writing shows this defensive posture with special power; it frequently presents English objects as significant bearers of messages from afar so as to defend Anglo-Indianness against a dimly acknowledged autochthonous Indian culture. More importantly, perhaps, portable objects that retained the memory of a distant England also resisted the ominous specter of Indian portability—the threat that Indian commodities might, like the moonstone in Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel, trail three murderous Indian priests behind them. India, then, was a periphery that threatened to define its own relationship to the metropole, which makes it an ideal place to study metropolitan fear of just such counterflow. Anglo-Indian memsahib texts, which apparently circulated as widely in British settler colonies outside of India as they did back in England, thus serve as templates for Greater British portability.

Thus, the strawberry thief Harriet Tytler and her fellow Englishwomen and men in nineteenth-century India could describe themselves as English without any sense of incongruity, thanks to an immense effort on the part of thousands of Britons throughout the empire to invent, via the objects that carried with them the essence of England, an overseas alternative to native cultural identity. Like the young Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), whose toy globe reads not “made in England,” but “made as England”, Britons who adopted an Anglo-Indianness that was not made in England but nonetheless had to function “as England” relied on the nostalgia that portable objects kept continually circulating. Always the product of liminal interactions, however, this nostalgia made settlers most colonial precisely at the moment they thought themselves most English.

John Plotz is Associate Professor of English at Brandeis University. The article is drawn from his book Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (Princeton University Press, 2008)

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