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.


Guess Who Came to Dinner

I must have seen the film in ’68, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, all three immortals united in a single Hollywood comedy, the tremor could be felt as far away as Kolkata – Calcutta in those days. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ is about interracial marriage, which was still illegal in 17 of the 50 states of the US as of 12 June 1967: that’s when the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, I’m not joking, the case was Loving versus Virginia, Wikipedia will tell you. Loving won, I presume.

Otherwise we Bengalis have nothing to learn from the Southern states. There’s the story of the Bengali girl returning home with a black husband from the US, who had conveniently forgotten to tell her family that her hubby was an American but black, a black American. The mother opened the door to welcome her American son-in-law, saw who was coming to dinner and fell over – dead. She’d had a heart attack. So don’t talk to us about who’s coming to dinner. But you can tell the feminist joke about the man who went to see God and came back to report: ‘To begin with, she is black.’ Must have run into our Goddess Kali.

Loving won in my case as well. I left the diplomatic service and we settled down in Germany, not without certain cultural conundrums. My wife was asking me all the time about the colour of the hair or the colour of the eyes of whichever lady I might have chanced to encounter on the street or wherever and I had to confess that I did not know, since I was not used to noticing such things. Everybody had black hair and brown eyes where I came from. The thing to notice had been the skin colour – dark to fair, ‘light dark’, ‘somewhat dim’ (the colour of the skin, not the person) and so on, the fifty shades of grey of Bengali racism. A Bengali bridegroom – or his family – always looked for a bride with a fair skin, even if the fellow was dark as sin, especially if the fellow was dark as sin. I had explained all this to my wife and my step-daughter even before they set foot in Bengal for the first time.

Imagine my chagrin when I heard the two of them laughing over our ‘colour bar’ – they did not seem to find a certain grandaunt of mine as fair (milk and lac-dye) as we (the rest of the family) did, or a certain uncle of mine as dark (the underside of a rice-pot) as we did. And then my wife let me in on their secret: apparently we Bengalis all seemed dark when seen through European eyes. More than that, these white Caucasians did not seem to care about skin colour, or about one’s class or station in life: my wife and my stepdaughter were finding a certain young maidservant of ours sweet to look at and oomphy and with a nice figure and all that – when she was dark as sin (don’t ask me why it’s a greater sin for a girl or a woman to be dark than for a boy or a man). They were even asking why I had not married somebody like her – just imagine, yours truly, a Gentoo and a gentleman, marrying a maidservant!

Which makes me feudal, apart from being a racist, I know. Serve me right that my own skin colour is nothing to write home about (why should I? Mother should know). I was made painfully aware of the fact in the black-and-white photographs an uncle of mine, the family photographer, was taking with his Rolleiflex camera. He was not getting the aperture right, my uncle was complaining. The photographs on which one could see me, my wife was overexposed, looking like a white female ghoul; the photos on which her features were discernible, I was underexposed, looking like my own silhouette.

Until they discovered colour. We’ve been all light since then, as the Chinese say – trust me to end with a racist joke!