‘He is the largest man I ever saw, and always bringing his own chair with him, because he cannot fit into any other. He has lived so entirely with natives that I fancy he seldom sits in a chair at all, and I suppose he is, as he says, very shy of white females…’
This ‘unflattering’ description is of the Resident of Gwalior, Alexander Speirs, illegitimate son of a wealthy Glasgow tobacco merchant, in Emily Eden’s book, Up The Country. But Emily, Governor General Lord Auckland’s sister, had no way of knowing then that this very gentleman’s family history would be written almost 200 years later and be abundant with extraordinary lives and quirky characters.
Alex, as he was called, was also the first of the Speirs family to find his way to India as part of the East India Company. The result of this migration was not temporary. Three generations of the Speir family made their home in India and became linked inextricably with the country and its people.
But let’s get to the title first. The heirs of the royal family of Awadh were entitled to a pension — wasika — a legal inheritance that could be willed from generation to generation but was monitored by the British government. It is through the archives of the Wasika Office that the author traces a lot of his family history.
How the family of an ordinary Englishman was entitled to receive a wasika and the effects of this monthly allowance on four such interconnected families — the Shorts, the Speirs, the Duhans and the Quieros — forms the spine of this book, which is as much an insightful document of Anglo-Indian life in 19th century India as it is a family history.
Speir’s book, which could have turned into a drab list of who-married-who-and-did-what is rescued from this fate because he cleverly chooses to tell the story through the most colourful characters he can find. Not sticking to the Speirs family, he meanders through several close links, allowing the reader to discover, among others, the feisty 12-year-old Mary Angela Short (Murriam Begum) who had Ghazi-ud-din Haider, first nawab of Awadh, besotted with her charms.
So much so, that he left her a handsome wasika of Rs 2,500, part of which her descendants coveted dearly for generations, often putting their English ancestry in the background and revelling in their Muslim connections.
A good example of this was her brother Joseph Short, who seemed quite comfortable with his nawabi lifestyle, where he not only had a Christian wife but also married a Muslim woman through a nikaah ceremony and “treated the slave girls left to him by Murriam Begum as his concubines”.
Things get particularly interesting during the Revolt of 1857 when those of mixed blood are in a quandary — often flitting between their ‘native’ and Christian aliases to save their skin. As time progresses the wasika is divided into a nominal amount but its claimants are unwilling to relinquish their rights. And what comes to the fore are often ‘scandals’ — stories of illegitimacy, deceit, family feuds and more.
But things get less interesting towards the end, perhaps because the characters are not quite as fascinating. Also, the author, who has painstakingly researched his family’s 160-year stay in India, seems to struggle while tying up the loose ends and fitting in characters of an ever-expanding family tree.
As an academic exercise, however, Speirs is meticulous. Family histories can often turn into boastful rants where skeletons in the cupboard are kept in the cupboard. However, the author of The Wasikadars of Awadh tells the story of the Speirs family with admirable detachment.