An Amazing Literary Collaboration

Anna Liberata De Souza the Calicut Ayah and Mary Frere the memsahib

Sometimes you come across the most amazing persons in dark and musty historic alleys. They are coated in layers of dust and grime added on by the many years which have passed by and the many people who have handled them. Getting the original persona out of this jacket is therefore enormous fun, if you are so inclined. And Anna D’Souza made me do just that, just like she got academicians Leela Prasad at Duke and Kirin Narayan at Wisconsin interested. I am as you will also understand, borrowing from the intense efforts of Leela and Kirin in uncovering the story of a remarkable Ayah – Anna D’Souza, though my work unlike theirs will stick to Anna and not to her tales. Her tales are something you should read yourself, and a helpful link is provided at the tail end of this biopic.

Indian folk tales meandered along into world literature, and that started eons ago. You will find linkages between Greek tales and our epics, you will find connections and similarities between Western fairy tales and the Panchatantra or the Jataka and so on. But the person who provided fodder to a very popular set of tales, the first of their kind entitled ‘Deccan tales’ was actually one born to ancestors who lived in Calicut. It was also perhaps the only book of its time which gave the native narrator not only full credit but also space for introducing herself and telling her own tale. And interestingly, through these tales, Anna was the first person to introduce Kannaki’s tale from Chilappathikaram, in her own way, to the western world..

As we know now, Mary was educated at Wimbledon, she arrived at Bombay, where her father was governor, and in the following year (1864), in her mother's absence in England she was the young 18 year old hostess at the government house. With not much else to do, she accompanied her father on his Mahratha tours, traveling for 3 months during 1865-66. Quite lonely during the tour and having only one other female companion the ayah in the whole entourage, Mary started a conversation with her Calicut Ayah. It was thus that she gathered these tales from Anna Liberata. Let us see what Mary herself had to say on this collaboration which continued on for some 18 months.

Mary explains - The circumstances were as follows. In the cold weather of 1865-6, my father, whom I
accompanied, made a three months' tour through the Southern Mahratta Country, in the Bombay Presidency, of which he was then Governor. Our party (of around 600 souls) was composed of my father and his Staff, to whom were usually added two or three friends, and the Officers Civil and Military, who were commanding in the Districts through which he was passing. Our mode of progress consisted in riding or driving about twenty-five miles a day, from one of our Camps to the next….My mother being at the time absent in England, I chanced to be the only Lady of the party. Anna Liberata de Souza, my native ayah, went with me.

They traveled through Poona, Satara, Kolhapur, Bijapur, Sholapur, back to Poona and Bombay. It was certainly an eye-opener to Mary, new to the Indian countryside filled with rich, poor and varying races.

Mary continues - As there was no other lady in the Camp, and I sometimes had no lady visitors for some days together, I was necessarily much alone. One day, being tired of reading, writing, and sketching, I asked Anna, my constant attendant, whose caste (the Lingaet) belonged to part of the country that we were traversing, if she could not tell me a story? This she declared to be impossible. I said, 'You have children and grandchildren, surely you tell them stories to amuse them sometimes?' She then said she would try and remember one, such as she told her grandchildren, and which had been told her by her own grandmother when she was a child; and she told me the story of 'Punchkin;' which was subsequently followed by the others that are here recorded. Whilst narrating them she usually sat cross-legged on the floor, looking into space, and repeating what she said as by an effort of memory. If any one came into the room whilst she was speaking, or she were otherwise interrupted during the narration, it was apparently impossible for her to gather up the thread of the narration where it had been dropped, and she had to begin afresh at the beginning of her story as at the commencement of some long-forgotten melody. She had not, I believe, heard any of the stories after she was eleven years old, when her grandmother had died. As she told me a story I made notes of what she said, and then wrote it down and read it to her, to be certain that I had correctly given every detail. In this manner all the stories that she could recollect were one by one recorded.

Now how did Anna the narrator learn these stories? These stories were picked up by Anna’s grandmother while living at Calicut in the late 17th century, a period when the Mysore sultans ravaged the city and laid it to waste. We also know that they spoke in Malayalam at home (the Calicut language, with perhaps a bit of Konkani added). Anna also introduces one to what is known as the ‘Calicut song’, perhaps a ship song based somewhat on the Portuguese song ‘A Nau Catrineta’ written around Cabral’s exploits. I had written about the Calicut song some months ago

So I think it is time to get to know Anna D’Souza and her life. At one point of time, her family belonged to the Saivite Lingayat (perhaps vania potters (kumbar)) community residing in Calicut. Whether they drifted from Coorg or the Nelliyalam regions where they had prospered in the past, is not clear, but we do know that Tipu in particular was heavy handed with their community, once choosing to single out a Lingayat woman who according to local practice wore no upper garments. As the story goes he saw her selling curds (yogurt) on a street and had his soldiers seize her and cut off her breasts to make it a point that women had to cover themselves, as was prescribed in his religion.

The British were awarded the territory of Malabar in 1792 after Tipu lost the third Anglo Mysore war after which the new rulers settled down to administer Malabar, from Tellicherry. This was perhaps the period when Anna’s grandfather joined the British army and rose up to the position of Havildar. Sometime later he moved to Goa, converted himself and his family to Christianity and settled down there. It is certainly curious that he took a Portuguese family name, when he could have become a British Protestant Christian instead. I wondered if Anna’s grandmother, Anna Liberata was perhaps a Goan girl herself and if a conversion was needed to marry her, but that would not have been the case since their children grew up in Calicut and spoke Malayalam, not Konkani.

His father who had continued on in Calicut, was miffed and threw them out of the house, so they settled in Goa, but continued to speak Malayalam at home while learning new tongues such as English, Marathi and Konkani. We can surmise that all this occurred in the early 1812-1815 period as the British moved into Goa, and this is corroborated by Anna. Anna’s grandmother, a stately, tall, strong, fine and handsome woman, the original teller of all these tales, was named Anna Liberata after her conversion and they adopted the family name D’souza. The grandfather and Anna’s father continued to soldier on for the British with the latter becoming a tent lascar (tent-pitcher).  We note from Anna’s tale that her father and grandfather fought Tipu and considering the mention of Wellesley can also assume that they fought against the Pazhassi Raja, and were with the army during the same time as TH Baber in Tellichery.

Around 1817, we see that Anna’s father was in charge of the Khadki stores near Pune when the third Anglo Maratha war was raging at Khadki. Anna the narrator was born approximately around 1819-1823 in Calicut. After things had settled down, Anna and her eight siblings (seven brothers and a sister) moved to Pune and grew up in the cantonment, in care of their grandmother. Her mother did menial work and even ground rice for shopkeepers now and then, when she could for the extra income. When she did not, she took care of the children and to get them off the streets, told them many folk tales, sometimes over and over again, burning them into Anna’s memory. Meanwhile Anna brushed up her knowledge of English and became an Ayah, working as a trusted servant for many British officers. When she was 11, her grandmother died and a year later she was married off, aged 12. Eight years and two children later, Anna was widowed, and lost her son, whom she had taken pains to send to school. Her daughter Rosie however grew up to get married and bear more children. The stories that Anna heard from her grandmother were retold to her own grandchildren. This was her story until she met Mary Frere and the ‘Deccan Days’ project started.

Anna Liberata De'Souza
How old was Anna then? That is a tricky question since Mary says that Anna was an old woman, now would that mean late 40’s? The portrait itself shows a lower middle aged woman, perhaps closing in around the mid 40’s, so Anna’s date of birth hazarded by Leela Prasad, at 1819, seems plausible.

Mary adds that Anna Liberata de Souza's detailed her own story in the sum of many conversations she had with her, during the eighteen months that she was with them. She adds that the legends themselves were altered as little as possible.  To get a feel of Anna’s narration, read this

My grandfather's family were of the Lingaet caste, and lived in Calicut; but they went and settled near Goa at the time the English were there. It was there my grandfather became a Christian. He and his wife, and all the family, became Christians at once, and when his father heard it he was very angry, and turned them all out of the house. There were very few Christians in those days. Now you see Christians everywhere, but then we were very proud to see one anywhere. My grandfather was Havildar in the English army; and when the English fought against Tippo Sahib my grandmother followed him all through the war. She was a very tall, fine, handsome woman, and very strong; wherever the regiment marched she went, on, on, on, on, on ('great deal hard work that old woman done'). Plenty stories my granny used to tell about Tippo and how Tippo was killed, and about Wellesley Sahib, and Monro Sahib, and Malcolm Sahib, and Elphinstone Sahib. Plenty things had that old woman heard and seen. 

Ah, he was a good man, Elphinstone Sahib! My granny used often to tell us how he would go down and say to the soldiers, 'Baba, Baba, fight well. Win the battles, and each man shall have his cap full of money; and after the war is over I'll send every one of you to his own home.' (And he did do it.) Then we children 'plenty proud' when we heard what Elphinstone Sahib had said. In those days the soldiers were not low-caste people like they are now. Many very high caste men, and come from very far, from Goa, and Calicut, and Malabar, to join the English.

My father was a tent lascar, and when the war was over my grandfather had won five medals for all the good he had done, and my father had three; and my father was given charge of the Kirkee stores. My grandmother and mother, and all the family, were in those woods behind Poona at time of the battle at Kirkee. I’ve often heard my father say how full the river was after the battle--baggage and bundles floating down, and men trying to swim across--and horses and all such a bustle. Many people got good things on that day. My father got a large chattee, and two good ponies that were in the river, and he took them home to camp; but when he got there the guard took them away. So all his trouble did him no good.

We were poor people, but living was cheap, and we had 'plenty comfort.'

Mary concludes - These few legends, told by one old woman to her grandchildren, can only be considered as representatives of a class. "That world," to use her own words, " is gone ;" and those who can tell us about it in this critical and unimaginative age,, are fast disappearing too, before the onward march of civilization; yet there must be in the country many a rich gold mine unexplored. Will no one go to the diggings?Mary acknowledges that she records it for her ‘Little sister’- Catherine Francis Frere, for whom the tales were written down and then ‘to all those in India who love England and to all those in England who love India’.

After adding an introduction and a recommendation with notes by her father as well as illustrations
Government House - Poona
by her sister Catherine, Mary Frere published twenty-four of these tales in March 1868, under the title of 'Old Deccan Days.' The work was very successful, and was reprinted four times (fifth impression 1898). She had sent out advance copies to many other luminaries such as Kingsley, Tennyson, Longfellow and Grant, and not to forget, the Queen monarch. Max Muller commented that Miss Frere's tales had been preserved by oral tradition so accurately that some of them were nearly word for word translations of the Sanskrit in which they were originally told. More editions followed providing Mary decent profits from the effort.

Another reviewer stated (The Eclectic Magazine, Volume 9) - Many an English child has passed its early years in parts of India without hearing from native servants any one of the pictures as legends here gathered from the lips of Anna Liberata de Souza. If this woman still lives, it may convey to her a true pleasure, in the evening of a life which has had sore troubles, to know that she has made thousands of English children happy, and that here, if not in her own land, her name will be remembered with feelings of lively gratitude.

Anna’s words are prophetic - I don’t know what good all this reading and writing does. My grandfather couldn’t write, and my father couldn’t write, they did very well; but all that’s changed now. I know your language—what use? To blow the fire? I only a miserable woman, fit to go to cook-room and cook the dinner?

Other memsahebs had offered to take her to Britain, but she had no interest. She said - One lady with whom I stayed wished to take me to England with her when she went home (at that time the children neither little or big), and she offered to give me Rs. 5000 and warm clothes if I would go with her; but I wouldn't go. I a silly girl then, and afraid of going from the children and on the sea; I think--' May be I shall make plenty money, but what good if all the little fishes eat my bones? I shall not rest with my old Father and Mother if I go '--so I told her I could not do it. I would come to England with you, for I know you would be good to me and bury me when I die, but I cannot go so far from Rosie.

Khirkee battle
My one eye put out, my other eye left. I could not lose it too. If it were not for Rosie and her children I should like to travel about and see the world. There are four places I have always wished to see--Calcutta, Madras, England, and Jerusalem (my poor mother always wished to see Jerusalem too--that her great hope), but I shall not see them now. Many ladies wanted to take me to England with them, and if I had gone I should have saved plenty money, but now it is too late to think of that. Besides, it would not be much use. What's the good of my saving money? Can I take it away with me when I die? My father and grandfather did not do so, and they had enough to live on till they died. I have enough for what I want, and I've plenty poor relations. They all come to me asking for money, and I give it them. I thank our Savior there are enough good Christians here to give me a slice of bread and cup of water when I can't work for it. I do not fear to come to want.

Anna Liberata de Souza died at Government House, Gunish Khind (Ganeshkhind), near Poona, after a short illness, on 14th August 1887, 19 years after her tales were published. Her poignant remark about the decline in story telling with the advent of literacy, is something many of us will agree with. Mary mentioned this in her notes and that there was a performance aspect in the art of Anna’s storytelling – ‘half the charm, however, consisted in the narrator’s eager, flexible, voice and graphic gestures.’ Ironically, Anna as you can see never travelled to places she wanted to, but her stories spread far and wide, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

A few words on Bartle Frere would not be out of place. Frere was educated in the EIC College and
appointed a writer in the Bombay civil service in 1834. He became the collector of Poona in 1835 and then the PA to the governor of Bombay in 1842. Then he was the resident at Satara, after which he became the commissioner of Sindh in 1850. By 1862, he moved back to Bombay as its Governor. He was back in Britain in 1867. In 1877 he became the High commissioner of South Africa. His later years did not prove to be good in anyway with his behavior during the Zulu wars and in 1880 he was recalled and censured. On his death Mary Frere wrote a glowing obituary, which makes interesting reading. They used to have a Frere road in Karachi. Leela Prasad adds - Frere supported the inclusion of natives into governance, encouraged the vernacular, and developed a native infrastructure, all without compromising his commitment to British imperialism. He assumed the governorship of Bombay in 1862, and once again distinguished himself through his public works that modernized the city of Bombay. He encouraged the cotton trade to compensate for the scarcity of cotton for the mills of Manchester during the American Civil War years. Bartle Frere retired as governor of Bombay, and returned to England in March 1867. The manuscript of Old Deccan Days traveled back with him and his daughter.

Accompanying her father to South Africa when he was appointed high commissioner (March 1877), Mary Frere continued to mix with the local populace, like she did at India. She was after her eventual return to London, also invited by Queen Victoria for an audience. Later on, Mary travelled extensively and spent time in Egypt, and finally spending time at Jerusalem between 1906 to August 1908. She paased away three years later in 1911.  

As we saw, Mary Frere profited handsomely from her efforts, aided by the influence her father had, she kept in touch with Anna, but whether she shared the monetary profits with Anna or her progeny is doubtful. I tried to find out what happened to Rosie, but as they say the trail had gone cold years ago. Perhaps there is somebody in Khadki or Poona who vaguely remembers their great grandmother, who knows?

Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends by Mary Frere, Edited and with an introduction by Kirin Narayan
The authorial other in folktale collections in colonial India Tracing Narration and its Dis/Continuities - Leela Prasad


Khadki (referred to previously as Kirkee during the British Raj) was the site of the Battle of Khadki, fought between the British East India Company and the Marathas in 1817 in which Baji Rao II, the Peshwa ruler was defeated. Soon after the war, the British set up a cantonment here. It then became the base of the Royal Regiment of Artillery's 79 (Khadki) Commando Battery. Gunish Khind is Ganeshkhind, not far from Khadki.