With memsahibs in India (2): Water of India

When I arrived with my newly acquired ‘family’ at the old family ‘home’ in Kolkata – a ground floor flat in South Calcutta which had just been inundated – the living-cum-drawing-room-cum-my-father’s-chambers-cum-study was a sight (it’s just one room that we’re talking about). The water had seeped up the walls so that they’d had to whitewash the whole room, in blue this time (how can you whitewash something in blue?). But the plaster had retained most of the moisture, which had made the whitewash/bluewash come out all patchy & blotchy (like Itchy & Scratchy in the Simpsons) as if the wall (or the house) had liver problems.

I still remember Kasia’s face when she saw that ‘outer room’ of ours for the first time. It’s not as if she was disappointed: I’d told her all about our ‘residence’ in Calcutta (after having shown her a picture of the Vicotria Memorial as the place where our family summered) – she’d thought that I was only joking and that I had a nice sense of humour. What I hadn’t told her was that you didn’t need a sense of humour if you were from Kolkata, Kolkata being a joke of almost historical proportions. After all, Job Charnock had picked the most unsuitable site he could find for his camp so that the enemies of the British would not be able to approach the ruddy place (did they say ruddy in the 17th c.?) – not that anybody would want to approach such a mosquito-infested swamp where one could catch malaria or kala-azar or dengue the moment one set foot upon the morass. Three centuries later Lenin would be making the sage pronouncment that the road to world revolution would lie over Calcutta. It was just his way of saying that the world revolution would never take place. Hadn’t wanted to sound that pessimistic, I suppose.

‘World revolution? In Kolkata? During the rains? Vladimir Ilyich must have been joking,’ Kasia was not laughing.

On the day of our arrival @ we’ll leave out the address for the moment and substitute it with #home, Kasia said something to Laura – my stepdaughter – in German. I think I heard the word Armut, which means poverty – upon which Laura asked where we kept the heilige Kuh, which means the holy cow. I’m joking, of course, but in those days most Germans thought of India in terms of poverty & the holy cow. It’s like thinking of Germany in terms of sauerkraut & the pork knuckle, but I’m not complaining.

Kasia was stepping out of the magic circle of poverty & the holy cow for the first time and getting to know the Calcutta monsoon, which is like a dress rehearsal for the deluge. Conscientious as she was and unaware of the fact that even a family as ‘poor’ as ours had maidservants, she had washed a couple of her things and Laura’s things right on the first day & hung them on the clothes line in the verandah (you don’t hang your clothes outside during the monsoon, unless you’re mad or a memsahib) to dry. To dry? She was checking the washing conscientiously every day for the next three days & the washing was just as stubbornly and obstreperously wet – one result of the hundred percent humidity in which you could see the sweat drops appear on your skin like morning dew on rose petals the moment you came out of the shower. Kasia was fascinated.

The joke is that memsahibs do not sweat, having been born with an air-conditioned skin like the expensive upholstery of foreign cars. Kasia and Laura did not suffer in the humid heat of Kolkata as much as the prodigal son, a son of the soil, did. I thought I was going to die in that stifling heat – while the memsahibs laughed. My memsahib, for example, surprised everybody by finding every Bengali dish too bland – I couldn’t explain to the family or to our hosts of the moment that here was a memsahib who ate lettuce – as tossed salad – with chilli pickles. It made me sweat just to look at her, while she remained as cool as if she was used to dining with the Devil over fire & brimstone.

But we had landed in Calcutta in the middle of the monsoon and my memsahibs had had their first taste of flooded streets & open manholes – I’d scared the sh** out of them by telling them how many street urchins got sucked out to the Bay of Bengal through the woolly underground, some of them still alive (I’ll pay for my sins one day, I know). In expiation, I took the memsahibs to Puri and put them up in the Bengal Nagpur Railway hotel, where they were fascinated by the chameleons in the garden & the crows at the breakfast table (in the room, thanks to room service) who pinched the sugar cubes unless you guarded them like the crown jewels – hope they all got diabetes! Laura helped a toad find its way down the long corridor to the steps, hopping like the amphibian all the way. And then there was the nulia, a kiln-burnt, tribal version of David Hasselhoff holding Laura’s hand and leading the blonde & blue-eyed child into the raging surf with the equanimity of an antediluvian Neptune. Meanwhile, a vendor came along rolling his cart on tiny wheels with ball-bearings – turned out to be a videotheque on wheels; the man was asking me with a wink whether I was interested in ‘blue’ films. ‘Wow! They’ve got video carts here!’ Kasia was exclaiming. The word she used was Videokarren, on the pattern of Ochsenkarren, which means a bullock cart in German. ‘There’s India for you,’ I told her, brimming with pride.

A couple of years later there was that trip to Salkia on the Hooghly river where we were having a picnic to celebrate the fact that both my brothers had got married on the same day so that their expat elder brother & his zenana would not miss the fun. The venue for the picnic was a deserted, derelict jute mill right on the river, a caterer providing the food. I’d told Kasia repeatedly that she should go nowhere near the drinking water which had been carried up in barrels, the water consisting of cholera & typhoid germs in equal parts. Kasia had followed my instructions to the ‘T’, except for washing the forks & the spoons – specially brought along for the memsahibs – in the water from the barrel. Oh yes, Keya was with us too, having been born a couple of years earlier.

They nearly died, the memsahibs, all three of them, they were so sick. We had to prepone our flight & return to Germany three days earlier. Kasia has refused to watch Dr. P.C. Sorcar Jr. perform the Water of India trick ever since, saying that it reminded her of the Salkia water and the rainwater on Calcutta streets and every other kind of water in India except aerated water, no, make it coconut water, will you?

I shall.

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.