Down memory lane: Illustrated Weekly - I
OUR BROWN SAHEBS - By BACHI N. KANGA
Sketches by Mario.
The Executors and Beneficiaries named in the Last Will and Testament of the British Raj are the Brown Sahebs. More than the Administrative Service, more than the Railways, more even than the much maligned educational system, they are the truest evidence that Queen Victoria reigned here. The Brown Saheb is the Deputy left behind to keep the Union Jack flying, to remind a forgetful world that Britannia once ruled the waves. And how! The Deputy Sah'b lives in an island of colonialism, as stolid as the Rock of Gibraltar, untouched by the lashing wavelets of petty democracy.
In the "propah" tradition of the British upper classes. the Wogs (Westernized Oriental Gentlemen) have turned to politics or the I.A.S Or they are the Sandhurst-trained army types, with walrus moustachios ready to defend the motherland. (God Save the Gracious Queen). After Independance, this bulldog breed from the Raj kennels had to get about barking in the native language. It wasn't easy. To wit, the speech ascribed to a very "seniah general" delivered to the jawans on August 15, 1947: "Aaj hum sab muft ho gaya." Or again, the Brown Saheb who tried his Hindustani on his black batman. "Kitna baja?"(What is the time?), he asked. The man replied, "Nau (nine) baja sah'b." Unfamiliar with the naunces, the BS flared up, "It can't be no baja, it must be some bloody baja!"
To recuperate from such ordeals and escape from the sweltering heat of "these Indian summers" the Wog goes on a Grand Tour of the Continent or back "home". Unfortunately, finances, and the Reserve bank deprive many of such a "furlough" and England has become a "Nevah Nevah Land".
In the good old days of the Raj, the Brown Saheb, Black Knight and Off-white Blimp had done very well for themselves. The Ceylonese journalist, Tarzie Vittachi, shows what a good job the British had done of turning them into made-over Englishmen. "They spoke English - some of them impeccably; they behaved as they thought a well bred Englishman should behave. They ate like the English - bacon and eggs if they could afford it, and a "course" for dinner. A few of them went so far as dressing for dinner, even in the wilderness, like a pucca Saheb. Their values were borrowed from English public schools (vitae lampada and all that sort of thing), their tastes and habits were English and it was quite possible that even their dreams had English sub-titles". Even today, to quote Mr Vittachi again, "Eve's Weekly Society (Eve's Weekly is the Indian counter-part of the Tattler) in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi still regards an Oxford or Cambridge degree as the peak of civilised education for the sons of Free India."
In a crowd, the Brown Saheb stands out like a bandaged nose. You can't miss him. He will be wearing a three-piece suit - the last button of the waistcoat undone, naturally - and proclaiming in almost Oxbridgian accents, "'Ponky' Banerjea and I were chummy at Cambridge" . Pardon me, sir, your desi slip is showing. But the chances are, you won't find him in a "sticky, sweaty native crowd". He dwells in the rarefied atmosphere of The Club. In Calcutta's Bengal Club or Delhi's Gymkhana, you can quite forget that India gained independence 23 years ago. Into this bastion of feudalism the BS steps every vening. For a "spot of billiards" or a chhota peg. "Make it a very small choter, will you please, James? No bigga than a Lal Bahadur." Nouveau riche Indians may strut about acting as though they owned the world. The Brown Saheb act as though he couldn't care who owned it.
The sad fact is that the Brown Saheb has the mental calibre and the educational background to change Indian conditions for the better. Instead of doing so, he spends his hours criticising all things Indian and detaching himself from the country's realities and problems. From his position - and it is a position of power - he will demand that others strive to be Indian all the way. He'll insist that Clive street be called Netaji Subhas Road. Yet, he will buy, at any price, a British public school education for his children. Since it can't be Eton or Harrow, ersatz sah'blings have to make do with Doon, Rajkumar, Lawrence or Bishop Cotton. There are less hypocritical brown sahebs, too, who are British in public and in private. Brown Sahebs, who think, feel, swear, dream and buy British. Picture him now sitting in his smoking jacket, mulling over his brandy reading the Times (of London) or grunting over what he has heard appeared in the Times (of India). "I tell you, B. N., old chap, what these bloody dhotiwallahs need is some buckshot in their backsides. What?"
Buckshot reminds me of another club in Delhi, this one solely devoted to maintaining the hoary British tradition - the Fox Hunt. "Where to get a fox, dammit all? Jackal ko chase karenge." So there are all these gentlemen, chiefly bearded and turbaned Sardarji's, in crimson jackets and baggy pantaloons, spurring their horses onwards and crying "Tali-Ho!" Ranjit Singh never led his men to battle with greater fervour! Post-hunt traditions are strictly observed. Right down to drinking Bristol Cream sherry and sticking a piece of the "brush" (the fox's , sorry, jackal's tail) into the folds of the turban.
Typical Hunt Club conversation goes something like this:
Harry Singh: "I'm engaged"
Billy Singh: "To a girl?"
H.S : " To be sure"
B.S : "What's her name?"
H.S : "Lolly Singh-Roy."
B.S : "Does she hunt?"
H.S : "To be sure."
Bird watching is as much an adopted and adapted pastime. However, unlike his white mentor, the Brown Saheb cannot write a letter to the Times, when he spots the first cuckoo which heralds the coming of Spring. He has to make do with the Monsoon Bird. At seven in the evening the Brown Saheb goes upstairs. The Khidmatgar has laid out his clothes. He bathes, dresses for dinner and as the gong echoes, through the halls, the BS descends the carpeted stairs in an aura of Old Spice (not the locally made one).
In food his tastes are studiously cultivated. He eats roast beef and two ve. with great relish. His concience is unruffled since it is not the flesh of your holy cow. It is Australian beef which does not really come in the forbidden category. But oft betimes the craving for our chatpatta
delicacies overpowers him. He then drives down to the kabawalla and exorcises his guilt by saying, "It's mahvellous to go slumming, what?" At traditional public dinners which he occasionally graces with his prescence , he and his memsahib will insist on using a fork and a knife, slicing through the banana leaf and - greatly to their chagrin - leaving rivulets of gravy on the tablecloth.
The Brown Saheb and and more than him his mem, will brook only an equally Anglophile "household staff" (including maid, mashalchi and chokra). Only those who have served under the angrez need apply. The first question is whether he can make western food - soup, sucklings and and that white, gooey gastronomical understatement which the English dare to call a sauce". In this "castle" only the butler may answer the door or the telephone. Peter was one such family retainer, the quintessence of obsequiousness " yes madam, I shall tell madam, you called madam. Is there any message for madam? Thank you, madam. Goodbye, madam." In our younger days we telephoned Uncle Jimmy's house just for the pleasure of listening to Peter.
Peter, John, Solomon, or Sammy (he was Swamy when he played among the palm fronds and the backwaters) is less Jeeves than Uncle Tom. Tucked away in his black heart is a special corner for the Saheb, Memsaheb and most of all for the little Missybaba. As he serves her stiffly from the left, and watches her throw down her bread and butter "putten" in a tantrum, a loving gleam brightens his dimming eye. "What a marvelously temperamental, deliciously fastidious, mistress she will make to some other lucky, lucky table 'boy", he muses with envy.
One more thing. The servant speaks perfectly good Hindustani (unless he's the Alphonso Gama type), the master speaks perfectly good Hindustani, but no exchange of conversation between them can dare to be in that "heathen" lingo. If such a slip were made at table, oh! horror of horrors, the French fries would crumble to ashes and digestive tracts curl up and die.
The Brown Sahebs babalog go to public schools where they wear caps and striped ties ( the tie is Very important, it is the bond of a lifetime), learn latin, play cricket and eat Irish stew. They get their facts of Indian history from S.Reed Brett. Esq., who dwells in great and gory detailover, the Black Hole of Calcutta. Jalianwalla Bagh? Never heard of it.
The Mind of the BS
A colonel in the army was exchanging banter over a drink with Tarzie Vittachi at a Club. Suddenly he switched off the banter and asked him to explain why he had criticised, in his newspaper column, a statement which had been made by the Governor-General. Vittachi replied that if the Governor-General made public statements on public policy he must expect public reaction and criticism.
"Nonsense" replied the colonel. "H.E., is the H.M's representative here. The Sovereign is sacrosanct, old boy, sacrosanct. Can't possibly do wrong. Must nevah be criticised. Nevah.."
The journalist retaliated, "Ever heard what Cromwell did to King Charles? "Cromwell?" bawled the Colonel, "Cromwell? The common feller! Don't evah mention his name to me again!"
Was the Colonel serious or was this tongue in cheek badinage? In either case it gives a clue to the mental processes of the Brown Sahebs, and shows the uncanny way in which people whom live in borrowed culture often go extremes that their models and mentors had never intended.
Another illustration. Among the first families of old Lucknow there lived a Chocolate Cream Saheb. When his fellow Muslims came to wish him Id Mubarak one year, he replied with gracious charm, "Aaj tum sab Mussalman log ka bara din hai!"
Bara din (Christmas) and New Year are the Wog's only festivals. But try as he might the Brown Saheb - and the Off- white Blimp - cannot abandon himself to rollicking gaiety. Blood will out and his inhibitions will not leave him alone. it is pathetic to see him desperately trying to let himself go - dancing in the ballroom, drinking champagne, singing Auld Lang Syne, wearing a paper hat, horsing around - and all the while really, feeling very very silly. Such is the schizophrenia of the Brown Saheb.
Whether the climate favors it or not, the Wog must have his two pegs a little after sundown every evening, the faithful Rover dozing at his feet. Without the scotch the evening would languish and wit decay. But there is a difference. our friend cannot say, "Bottoms Up" without blushing 'neath his beard. So he toasts with a "God bless ji" or even "Sat Sri Akal".
The Brown Saheb can be distinguished as much by his Hobson Jobson speech and name as by his interior decor. His drawing room must have Victorian geegaws, overstuffed armchairs, and brass-potted money plants. He'd rather have prints of European masters than Indian originals, and the most oriental will be a Gaugin reproduction. He prides himself on the fact that he has bathroom for every bedroom and his status symbol is the bidet thunderbox") in every bathroom.
For him the essence of syntax are, By Jingo! What ho! Tickety boo! and as a magnanimous concession to his nativity, he says, "Tik ai" (not theek hai) and "cuppa cha". A Brown Saheb never goes to bed, he goes "charpoy bashing"; he never looks at anything, he has a "dekko". His name may have been Ananda, he's now Andy: Shri Kapur has translated himself to Mr Camphor. A Ganpat of my acquaintance is known only as Pat; Shri Krishna Rao went onto Chris and thence to Christopher. And Madhusudhan returned from vilayat as Mr Marsden.
I Hate Indians!
When he interrupts in conversation, he never says, "Excuse me".
He says, "Just a mo, old boy, I beg to diffah." His office ends at 5.30. He never comes home before 7, and always with his collar undone and his tie askew: " I was with the G.M." When you ask for him on the phone, his secretary will purr, "Mr Parameshwaran is at a conference", even if he's just gone "round the corner". A phone call at home in the same circumstances evokes a different if more honest response, "He's in the bathroom."
The boxwalla, is only the first generation Saheb, you must remember. You cannot expect his family to have all his fancy airs. For this reason too his life has many incongruities. He refers to his father as the "Guvnor", even though appa wears a dhoti, a sacred thread and a kudumi atop his head.
Most contemptous of the boxwallah and more errant than the Brown Saheb is the Black Knight. He is royallar than the royals, more "puccah" than the ruddiest British Major. He may have become an anachronism, but he has lost none of his arrogance. To watch Sir Hiren in action is the sight to delight the most fastidious Chief of Protocol. Mark the delicate lift of the eyebrow, that aristocratic sneer and now that faintest suggestion of a smile of recognition. See the untitled bow an scrape and fawn.
The drapes are drawn and darkness has begun to descend on the already twilight world of the brown saheb. He has lost his zamindary and the sun has set on his empire as well. Now, all he has to cling on to is his snobbery, his chhota hazri, his old school tie and a yellowing souvenir of Swan Lake at Covent Gardens.