April 18, 2018

The Story of Lilivanti - Doomed As A Female

The Story of Lilivanti  (click to see the poem)

 Lilivanti forms a quartet with Hope's other socially conscious documentary style poems Afridi Love, Yasmini and especially Lost Delight which also discusses the loss of a young girl (or is it a youth?) to sex slavers.  Hope's activist verse forms an interesting facet of her character and work that seems thus far to have escaped the notice of her commenters.

In a relatively few stanzas, Hope sketches the entire miserable life of this delicately named little girl, who is:
Indian Girl, ca 1890

- A Child Bride sold to a leper
- A Runaway, trafficked for sex
- Kidnapped by her husband and tied to a bed by her hair
- An Escapee who finds a brief moment of Self-Empowerment
- Loved, Married and then Widowed by cholera
- Homeless, again Trafficked 
- A Rebel against the system, thus impoverished
- Isolated, Hungry and Despairing
- A Suicide by drowning

All of this befalls a girl between the ages of 10 and 15.

The poem stands as testimony, even a monument, to the memory shared between the women of the town about the girl Lilivanti.  It is a life story and ending that was all too real and common for poor females of the time and place.   These verses are no flight of fancy on the poet's part - more like a reporter's attempt to document the reality of the street.  A reality that most men and women of the era, both in the Raj and abroad, were likely to ignore.

In some respects, it may be argued that Lilivanti displays the savage, horrendous nature of predation in the streets of India from the colonial perspective, a perspective which will by definition always seek to justify its presence by suggesting that "things are better" under "civilized rule" and that Indian women and girls required a paternalistic British presence to aid them by reforming their culture.  However the British had been present in India for many decades when this poem was written and published, so it may also be argued that the poem's aim was to show how bad things were for the Empire's weakest subjects, even with all of the Empire's resources present.

In fact, the British themselves trafficked in young girls and women as pointed out in a resource provided by a LHNotes reader in comments here.  I always appreciate recommendations so thank you Isabelle77.  In this report, two American women missionaries give an their unflinching account: 
"The Commanding Officer gave orders to his Quartermaster to arrange with the regimental kotwal to take two policemen (without uniform), and go into the villages and take from the homes of these poor people their daughters from fourteen years and upwards, about twelve or fifteen girls at a time. They were to select the best-looking. Next morning, these were all put in front of the Colonel and Quartermaster. The former made his selection of the number required. They were then presented with a pass or licence, and...(he) wrote the following application to the Magistrate of the Umballa (Ambala) Cantonment: 'Requisition for extra attractive women for regimental bazaar, in accordance with Circular Memorandum 21a.'"
The article goes on to say that 15 or so young women - actually girls and I hate to think how young - served upwards of a thousand British soldiers on an ongoing basis. Apparently they were given a break when they were diagnosed with a disease.

Bouguereau, 1890
Victorian and Edwardian England had their share of poverty, slums, prostitution and dire mistreatment of children and youth as sex workers and de facto slaves.  In both places young boys were sold and girls became child brides.   A significant portion were abandoned, raped and/or trafficked.  Just a quick search turns up this report  -
"It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s prices to buy girls ranged from 20 pounds for a working class girl 14-18 to over 400 for an upper class girl under twelve, clearly a rarer commodity. While much less well documented, traffic in boys also went on. Josephine Butler, a Victorian Social reformer addressed parliament and is supposed to have accused the very men she addressed as “being willing to pay twenty-five guineas for the pleasure of raping a twelve year old.”
Around the mid-19th century, Westerners did begin to discuss the question of women's rights.  "In 1840 British and American feminists liaised at the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London.  This was the first conference of its type that demonstrated the impact of feminist networking (Hole and Levine 1973 p3; Stienstra 1994 p.47)  Lecretia Mott and Elizabeth Stanton, travelling from the US as delegates to the London conference, were barred from participating in the all-male setting, and were confined to the galleries..."   So the first feminists apparently were required to be male, and they openly discriminated against women interested in the topic.  That's a small illustration of just how really bad it could be on all levels, whether you were in the East or the West, of any class.
1909 Poster

Hope tasked herself with reporting what she saw as she found it in her adopted home, hoping to move others to the sympathy she held for voiceless natives as well as movements towards reform that had picked up steam with the Suffragettes.  It is worth noting that in the tradition of marginalized groups (such as the word "queer" being taken back as a term of empowerment in "Queer Rights") the word "Suffragette" was used originally as a condescending term, meaning the less important female upstarts among the Suffragists.

A Background of Liberal Thought

Very little is known of Hope's mother Fanny (Griffin), except that she didn't seem to live with her husband after his move to Karachi and probably separated from him to live with her wealthy brother and her radical novelist daughter Victoria Cross at some point.  The Cory's educated and raised three daughters that were all unconventional female writers and free thinkers,  with even the sturdy eldest Isabel trusted by their father Arthur Cory to run his Karachi news enterprise.  Malcolm and Violet wore native dress and were known to sympathize with Muslims and progressive causes.    I believe that Flora Annie Steel, a longtime friend of Malcolm's who Hope met at least once, also provided an inspirational model of female social activism.  Steel was a writer who unfashionably dared to view the Mutiny through a native lens in her novel On The Face of the Waters, and was also a formidable activist who as a young woman single-handedly stood down the Raj government in her attempts to reform a Punjabi girls school.  Ms. Steel may well have encouraged this side of Hope's character, and could have provided the link for Hope's work to become noticed and accepted by her own publisher Heinemann. 

The basic human rights of women and children were becoming an increasing part of public discourse, and with this background coupled with the truth-telling nature inherent in provocative poets, Adela Nicolson did not hold back on publishing her feminist point of view in verse.  She interrupts her own spells of Eastern love and beauty with these poems, opening rather harsh windows onto scenes of ugliness and even violence, though admittedly with the gloss of romance that invariably accompanies poetics.

Nevertheless, she employs her medium like a neutral eye or camera reporting to an audience not necessarily predisposed to ponder such depressing truths.  By placing these works within the pages of a book mostly dedicated to and marketed as Eastern escapism, she finds an audience and provides a voice for those those that had none.  For the native, poor, voiceless and female subjects of the Raj, life was not all temple bells and jasmine breezes, and to present a collection that excluded this truth would have been a lie.  Lilivanti and her sister poems spread awareness among middle class Western readers that life in Britian's most important colony was at least as cruel as it was known to be in their own ghettos at home, with even less hope of reform.

NOTE:  "Story of Lilavanti" is recorded in the sixth 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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