With memsahibs in India

I cannot deny it and I cannot call them anything else: travelling in a country like India with a memsahib in tow used to be anything but easy – unless you were rich, so rich that people almost expected you to marry a memsahib, just as they expected you to drive an expensive, imported foreign car. Riches allowed you to isolate yourself and your memsahib from the masses. They could admire you from afar but you didn’t get to hear their rude remarks – well, at times you did, but you could always tell the memsahib at your side that they were saying something complimentary and put up the window.

I had to give up my job – the Indian Foreign Service – in order to get married to my memsahib. So we were poor as church mice (in a place like India where even the temple mice are richer) – when she arrived holding the hand of my future stepdaughter, who was not just blonde but had blue eyes at the time, thus compounding my troubles. Here was an obvious loafer, possibly jobless, running around in scooter taxis and patakas with a full- and a half-blown memsahib on either arm. What was he planning to do, sell them?

A full ten years before they took that picture of Lady Di at the Taj and a full 34 years before Kate and William put in a repeat performance, I was occupying the same seat with my two memsahibs, having asked some passer-by – for want of paparazzi – to take our picture. By the way, my advice to all royals is: don’t let them take your picture in front of the Taj. You can look as tall as the Eiffel Tower or shore up the leaning tower of Pisa but leave the Taj in peace. Whichever dynasty you belong to, a memorial like that is a size too large for you. Or if you don’t think so, why don’t you build the Black Taj, the Taj in black marble, on the other side of the river, as Shah Jahan was planning to do? Then couples like me and my memsahib would be able to go from the White Taj to the Black Taj and back again, provided the ferry is working.

I felt so proud showing my memsahibs the Taj that I forgot that I was jobless and that India was a poor country.

I told my memsahibs all about the lady whose mausoleum it was: Arjumand Banu Begum of Agra who became the third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan and received the title of Mumtaz Mahal from him. She was 19 when she got married; she died when she was 38, having borne him 14 children. She died at the fourteenth childbirth.

There’s no better way of confusing memsahibs than to show them the Taj and then tell them the story of Mumtaz Mahal. They simply don’t get it: ‘You said he loved her? I mean, fourteen children… And then the Taj…’

I had other things on my mind. There was this gang of young, unattached males following us around and delivering a running commentary of the kind which no memsahib or her Indian consort should be compelled to hear, except as a form of waterboarding. I was in sandals and carrying a Shantiniketani sidebag made out of cloth – no proper ersatz for ermine and the royal sceptre. So the loafers felt they could say anything they liked about my memsahib’s desirability or my great good luck in having been able to dupe her into marrying me or living in sin with me or whatever our legal or illegal status might be.

I’m not the fisticuffs type so I adopted the method the Germans call Flucht nach vorne, which means rushing into battle: I started translating whatever the loafers were saying for the benefit of my memsahib to my memsahib and my memsahib started laughing as if it was all a big joke. She said she’d heard worse things from drunks at students’ parties during her university days in Communist Poland – somewhere in today’s Województwo Wielkopolskie, that’s all I’m allowed to say. And then she turned to the loafers at the Taj Mahal, Agra, and gave them a regal smile which would have done credit to Jadwiga, the first female monarch of Poland who reigned in the last quarter of the fourteenth century (the Taj was built in the seventeenth, the Mughals having invaded India towards the beginning of the sixteenth). But what finally made the lafangas beat a retreat was when my blonde-haired and blue-eyed (future) stepdaughter – who was six at the time – took a step towards the young Lochinvars and said something – friendly – to them in German.

I could hear Arjumand Banu laughing as if she was nineteen all over again.

I was much braver at the supermarket in Connuaght Place, New Delhi. We’d just bought some heavenly alphonsos from the mango-seller and I was on the point of paying the ‘memsahib surcharge’ without demur – when I heard the man remark in an undertone to his sidekick: ‘Murgi fañsa liya.’ The implication was the same as with the lafangas at the Taj: I did not derserve the memsahib but must have managed to get hold of her through some mean trick or deception – I might have told her that the Taj Mahal was our family grave, for instance (I’m a Hindu & we Hindus are cremated but d’you think a memsahib would have known the difference before the refugee crisis?). All of this and more was implied in those three words (four in English) spat out through the corner of the mouth: ‘Murgi fañsa liya. Snared the dumb hen.’

It roused my ire. He should be ashamed of himself – I berated the mango-seller, in Hindi. Here I was, a strapping young man of his country, decent, well-behaved, well-educated. Was it not the memsahib who had fañsaoed the murga – snared the dumb rooster? As a patriotic Indian, how could he even think that I had snared her and not she, me? My Hindi got a bit mixed up at this point. Where was his pride? I asked rhetorically, warming to my theme.

The mango-seller was listening to my tirade open-mouthed. His reaction was to give me two more alphonsos for free, as an apology. But he should have waited till we were out of earshot. I had my back turned towards the stall and still I heard the little exchange between the man and his sidekick with explosive clarity.

“Why did you give two?” mangoes i.e., the sidekick was asking.

“One for the murga, the other for the murgi, fair is fair,” explained the old fox.


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