November 14, 2017

Zira: In Captivity - Violet In Malcolm's World

Zira: In Captivity is a breathtaking work and one of my favorites.  From details like the delicately
Zira By Byam Shaw
latticed windows "of lacelike stone" that might as well be prison bars, to the cinematic sweep of a burning village, a journey though "weary endless sands", the cold blooded division of spoils, and an upturn in fortune as the chosen slave of a powerful potentate, the poem makes an epic tale out of an inconsequential female's life.  Zira's amiable female captors groom her to love a dazzling "Lord" who remains as remote and desirable as a movie screen idol.   The beautiful young girl born "frank and free" manages to find meaning in a purposeless existence by yearning for the redemption of her first touch of love and tenderness from the master of her body and mind.

Eventually "life's flame burns low" and Zira seems to give up the ghost at the last stanza, dying not from obvious cruelty, but from casual neglect.  Heart wrenching, exotic, violent, romantic and chaste, this upending of the social and moral order is a fine example of Hope's subversive genius - the slave girl kept as a sexual toy becomes an undesired virgin spinster, while the despot becomes a heroic and somewhat blameless icon. 

The Letter
By Alfred Stevens
For me, the poem represents a conflagration of high emotion patterned over the phase in Violet's life when she was a new bride - and constantly left behind.  She had not yet taken to traveling in Pathan gear with her husband and his men.   Spending hours, days, weeks and even longer is the usual fate of military wives, who never know if they will even see their mate alive again with each and every goodbye.  The bliss of his eventual return may give way to an active man's subtle restlessness with the trappings of station life.  Too soon, he once again leaves for the violence of the field, and the anxious cycle of waiting begins all over again.  It would be enough to drive even a perfectly calm woman somewhat mad.

 "In a small community of British officers, it was necessary for a bride to get along well with other wives and to fit in with regimental arrangements. For the girl herself, marrying into the army meant a major readjustment. She was entering a male oriented society, dominated by military discipline, and one in which wives tended to matter only in terms of the rank of their husbands. She was forced to become part of the regimental ‘family’ whether she liked it not, and this left little room for individuality. The army wife was an appendage. Nothing more was required of her than to support her husband socially. Ideally she should be decorative, though presentable would do. She should be a good listener and not show cleverness. This wasn’t too difficult since most of the wives had enjoyed an indifferent education and had not been trained to do any job of work." (Marriage In British India)  It can hardly be overstated how much this kind role simply would not do for vibrant, lively, intellectual and artistic Adela.  Not at all.
Apparently Somerset Magham did Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicolson a great deal of disservice in "The Colonel's Lady" painting the poet's husband as a gruff, near elderly harumphing narcissist, totally unaware of her passions or her writing talent.  (This may be forgiven, as it was done in the service of fiction.) In one of her last letters, Adela wrote,
"I have just lost my husband, and am too ill to write; but he had, as one of his last little pleasures, your article read and re-read to him, he took such interest in what I wrote." (M.H. Bruce, 1906)
Further, there is a good deal of evidence that Malcolm was not only an absolutely respected military leader and man of action, he was also honorable, generous, and as skilled at spycraft as he was at picking up local languages and dialects.  It was no accident he was honored as an Aide-de-camp by Queen Victoria - a man that could disguise himself to pass and speak as a Pathan warrior despite his fair hair and skin was a most rare asset in the Empire's frontier wars and schemes.  

In short, when 23 year old Adela met Malcolm, aged 45, possibly in a Karachi library, he was a hearthrob, and a catch in the prime of his life - a sort of James Bond of the Northwest frontier, right down to his good looks and a "splendid build" that even men commented on.

Malcolm is described by a veteran soldier, who encountered him at Deesa in 1892, two years married and prior to being given command at Mhow -

The district was then commanded by a Brigadier-General Malcolm Nicolson, c.b., a.d.c, and a finer type of Indian Frontier soldier you could not find.  Of splendid build, with a face once seen never forgotten, he at once impressed you as being a man absolutely without fear of anything.  He had spent his soldiering days amongst the wild tribesmen beyond Scinde (Sindh Valley), he knew their language and customs, and had imbibed their spirit.  But for his colour and Saxon tongue you might easily have mistaken him for a Pathan, when he made up his mind to turn out as one of that fine race.  Possessing many peculiar ideas, and caring not a jot who did or did not agree with them, Brigadier-General Nicolson was at once a man you would follow anywhere, and a friend who went about seeking whom he might help in trouble.  Many a Subaltern both in the British Service and in the Indian Army could tell a tale that makes one rejoice to think there are such men to be found.  The true stories that could be written of his adventures would make the Editor of the Wide World Magazine envious; but it is not for me to relate these, and I hope if this should ever be read by my General he will forgive even the little I have said.  Knowing him as I do I fear I have said too much already. 

Possibly from the biographical side of the work done by Mary Talbot Cross, The Friday Times of India reports -
He was a veteran of the 2nd Afghan War, and was commander of an Indian regiment. He was a whiz at five North Indian languages, including Pushto, Baluchi and Brahvi. He had a deep acquaintance with the customs, poetry and folklore of the area, and a scholarly knowledge of Sufi poetry.   
It is again reported, "General Nicolson was an expert linguist in the NWFP languages and Farsi..." 

And as I discussed, Malcolm was baptized in France, and spent at least the better part of a decade there as a child; it is highly likely he was bi-lingual in French and English at an early age, which primed his later mastery of languages.  (Boulogne baptismal records of his four younger survived siblings are extant in the Records of the General Register Office, Govt Social Survey Dept., Office of Census and Surveys, National Archives, Kew, England but cannot as yet be linked.)

Here was a man tailor-made for our intelligent, artistic, adventurous and unorthodox poet, and theirs was indeed a real love story -  
There are many people, especially in the north of India, who remember her grace, her courage in taking her own line, and her devotion to her husband.  By all that can be gathered, General and Mrs. Nicolson were a perfectly united pair, loving each other, if possible, too keenly for happiness.          
                               - Michael H. Bruce,"A True Indian Poet"   East And West Vol.5, 1906
"She was not an ideal General's wife, as she didn't make time for those who didn't share her views...Her husband indulged her real self- and that is an indulgence."
                                                                                               Putnam's Lounger,  Pg. 209 1907
Young Adela
He was her closest associate, teacher, lover and friend, the only one who really seemed to understand her.  He was an intelligent leader, commanding, handsome, a sheik in the desert, and yet sensitive to mystical religious philosophy, with a pronounced love of language.  He was the literate companion and soulmate of his Violet, and he enjoyed and encouraged her writing - all the stuff of romance come to life and custom fitted to the needs of our hot-blooded young poet, still in the flush of her youth.  And every time he left their marriage bed and rode off to duty, she died a new death.

Like any good Intelligence Officer, Malcolm absolutely shunned the spotlight, hence the hesitant tone of Sir James Willcocks' description above.  Wilcocks also left us a description of Deesa where Malcolm's young bride counted down the hours and wrote of longing -
Malcolm Nicolson
Deesa is Deesa and that is all.  There is nothing you could possibly get hold of to describe, everything is the same;  the barracks are almost the only buildings; the club is merely a bit of one barrack; the drill grounds are the local parks, and one endless road (endless for it is circular and runs round the station)is the Rotten Row of the quaint little old-world place.  However, there are many compensations; the tiger and the sambhar roam within easy reach, and a long days camel ride brings you into some of the best sand-grouse shooting I have ever seen in India. 
But young army wives on the frontier probably didn't get the relief of tiger hunting and long camel rides in pursuit of game with the men.  Whether at Mhow or Deesa, I can vividly believe that as the hours melted together one by one in the detestable heat, Violet Nicolson saw her lonely quarters as a prison, became weary with the chatter of servants and other wives, and fell prey to the worst imaginings, as she gazed from "Our women's windows—I am left alone, Across the yellow Desert, looking forth, I see the purple hills towards the north..."  These may have not been the lacelike stone lattice of Zira's windows, but they may as well have been. 
 It is said that Adela married him after a whirlwind courtship and for the first eighteen months appears to have been a typical army wife. Then, family tradition has it, she cast her petticoats aside, disguised herself as a Pathan boy, and followed her husband’s regiment on a punitive expedition to the North-West. Adela travelled with him sharing Nicolson’s experiences among the border tribes, and storing up memories which one day would find expression in three remarkable books of poetry.  -- Cory Society
Temple of 'Ahmed Shauh', King of Afghanistan
By Unknown
I will go so far as to put forth the educated guess that "Zira: In Captivity" was written by Hope at Mhow or Deesa, and when she showed it to Malcolm it was to make him understand that she could no longer endure this new life as it was.  As much as she loved him -  it was because of that love - something had to change.  Nicolson was not reckless, and I doubt at first he was keen on the idea of having any young lady on any mission, much less one that he deeply loved.  As it became clear his Violet was coming undone, and she assured him that if anything ever happened to him she'd kill herself anyway so she might as well be by his side, and so forth, the discussions changed to if she were to go with him, just how it could be done.  Would that make her happy?  Relieve her doom and gloom a little?  Put the sparkle back in her cheeks and the dimples in her eyes?  Yes, yes indeed it would.  And it did.  
"Her husband indulged her real self - and that is an indulgence."
Thus, Malcolm and Violet began that adventurous time in their lives when she rode on the frontier with him, seeing, hearing and inhaling so much of that world that we are allowed to inhabit through her poetry. 

All of us owe him a great debt for that.                                               

NOTE:  "Zira: In Captivity" is recorded in the second section of India's Love Lyrics and may be listened to here.  This is a sneak preview, and will not be available  on Librivox until the entire book has been recorded.


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