Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was foraging the neighborhood kabari stalls. This, of course, was much before any fancy shmancy bookstore chains had dotted the landscape. And long long before one could buy a book, hardbound, paperback, old or new by a mere click of a mouse. Had they existed, they would have been no match for the raddiwallah of those days who offered everything at ridiculously low prices. Besides providing at no cost the challenge of unearthing anything worthwhile from several mounds of paper.

Often the afternoons spent furrowing through piles of GrihaShoba and Sarita would yield nothing. But once in a while, a Ruskin Bond or Rudyard Kipling would emerge quietly from between the colorful covers of a Pyaar ki Jwala and Agnipariksha ke Din. From books on the Second World War to the Art of Origami, they were all there for the taking if only you could find them. So you see the possibilities were endless.

One such find was Plain Tales From the Raj. I have not quite unearthed how this book, now perched on one of the bookselves at home, has remained with me over the years and across continents when hundreds of others that figure higher on my list are now gathering dust in India (though truth be told they are dusted with alarming regularity) or are inhabiting the black hole of the storage dungeon. But that can wait!!

I was reminded of this book quite by chance today when the subject of British India came up today in a converation with a friend. Frantic search followed as did a renewal of the resolution to arrange everything according to the alphabet (never mind that it disappeared as soon as the book was located).

Anyway here are some enjoyable snippets from the book:

'When I brought my two children home,' remembers Kathleen Griffiths, 'we got into the train and the younger one, aged five, piped up in front of a carriage full of people, "Mummy why hasn't the guard come along and asked your permission to start the train" and I replied "Darling we are not in Daddy's district now! They do not come along and ask me if they may start the train here. This is England and we must get used to English customs here."


'One of the most charming things I had ever seen,' declared Reginald Savory, 'was the ayah squatting down on her haunches on the verandah with a child and saying the nursery rhymes together. Most of them they had translated into a curious Anglo-Indian patois. There was "Humpti tumpti gir gaya phat". Then there was Mafti-mai; Muffety mother was eating her curds and whey on grass. There were also the Urdu songs and rhymes that Ayahs sang to put their charges to sleep and which many never forgot:

Roti makan chini
chota baba nini

Talli, talli, baja
ucha roti chat banaya
Tora mummy kido
Tora daddy kido
Jo aur baki hai
Burya ayah kido


When giving a dinner party you always consulted what was called the Blue Book. You had to do this most carefully as they all had definite precedence. I've seen memsahibs extremely annoyed when they thought they were being put in the wrong place. John Morris was once inadvertedly placed on the wrong side of his hostess and next day received a note from her apologizing for 'not realizing that I was senior to the other man and for having put me on the wrong side'.


There was no kitchen as such in a British officer's bungalow because the cooking was all done by natives in the cookhouse. The food had to be brought in from there and kept in a hot-case in the pantry which was in the bungalow. In Eastern India where rainfall was frequent, a covered gangway ran between the kitchen and bungalow. Elsewhere a hazardous gap remained. 'We were having duck for lunch,' recalls Rupert Mayne, 'but when it reached the table there was a mound of chips but no duck because a kite had swooped down and gone away with it.'


Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Love that one too. Finally bought my own copy last year.


12:41 AM  
Blogger shampa said...

Some other recommended possessions

1. an englishwoman in india (harriet tyler)
2. wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque (Fanny Parkes)....you might have read Dalrymple's version Begums, Thugs and Englishmen
3. Tigers, Durbars and Kings (Fanny Eden)
4. India Inscribed :British and European writing on India circa 1600-1800
5. Travels through Kashmir and Panjab (Baron Charles Hugel)
about the last I blogged sometime ago

10:33 AM  
Blogger aparajita said...

good one.. where can I find casterist architectural legacies of the Raj? (i.e. the chambers for the servants, the separate staircases for the cleaners etc.)

9:44 AM  
Blogger shampa said...

aparajita, all these books are replete with examples of the hierarchical state of the times.
servants lived in "outhouses" and were often summoned by clapping. rarely if ever where they called out for by their name. in fact "koi-hai" was a good way to call out for a manservant.
funnily the servants practised their own form of caste hierarchy which Baron Hugel (Travels through Kashmir and the Panjab) found out much todismay when the khansama he had hired for cooking wasn't acceptable to his munshi who had to then cook his own food.

3:53 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Try John Beames' 'Memoirs of a Civil Servant'.


8:14 PM  
Blogger Devi Patrao said...

I am desperately looking for this book after purchasing Heat & Dust from a "Kabari'Shop in Australia! Where can I buy my own copy - Help!!!
Shuriya! - Dhanyawad! - Thank You!!


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