Sanjay Sircar | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 25, 2001
Folklorist A. K. Ramanujan says that “Even in the most anglicized, Hindu families or in large cities like Bombay and Calcutta, oral tales are only a grandmother away, a cousin away, a train ride away, and mostly no further away than the kitchen”, a point that would probably be thought to be even more likely to hold true for folklore other than folktale (Ramanujan, A. K. “Telling Tales”, Indian Horizons, 41: 4, 1992; 44: 2: 1995, 7-32, 8). Despite this reassuring claim, my own not untypical Anglicised urban middle-class and English-speaking (albeit non-normative in being Christian) childhood in Calcutta and Bombay (1955-1976) can attest to reception of very little oral traditional folk material, whatever that material may be defined to comprise.
The following is a compilation of all the largely Anglophone, urban, culturally hybrid, orally transmitted folk material from my memory of my own experience on the grounds that it is probably better to have some raw data than no data at all (for unless there is data in which to see patterns and meanings, no interpretation is possible).
An exclusive focus on the rural and the poorer peasant Indian “folk” material can obscure the existence of orally transmitted urban English-language (and thus automatically more middle-class) folklore. Anglophone Indians, who speak English as a first and primary language (for whatever reason), from many different (religious, linguistic) communities, existed long before the current efflorescence of local and diasporic South Asian writers (in some cases, indeed, these are first-generation English-speakers whose English has been primarily acquired through English-medium, Anglo-Indian or Roman Catholic schooling, and Indian Anglophone families snobbishly say “they’ve learnt English; we speak it”).
“Day, do you dream in English?” reported Mrs Shefali De, aged around 70, of British interlocutors and her father, a Bengali in Bihar, earlier years of this century (reported Canberra, Australia, c. 1993). “Are you sure you’re an Indian?” said British tea-planters to my father, who belonged to the first generation of commercial brown sahib “boxwallahs”, on tour in Assam in the 1940s. And predating Anglophone Indians are Anglo-Indians (always used here, not in the older sense of “Person from Britain whose life has been spent in India”, but in the sense of “Eurasian”, which is a derogatory word in India though not in Malaysia, Hong Kong etc.). Indian Christians (as distinct from the much earlier “the Syrian Christians” of Kerala), have existed from the early nineteenth-century onwards, and some urban middleclass Indian Christians are Anglophone (others fiercely vernacular-oriented). All these groups of course are at least bilingual to a greater or lesser degree. The efflorescence of Indian writing in English has evoked very mixed reactions in India (both from Anglophone and non-Anglophone sources); the English language in India, “the bastard child of Empire” sometimes “evokes…the kind of prejudiced reaction shown by some Indians towards the country’s community of ‘Anglo-Indians’ -that is Eurasians” (Salman Rushdie, “India and World Literature”, Introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1997, in Frontline, 14:16, Aug 22, 1997, 102); and Indian Christians (together with Christians in India) are currently the target of cultural and political attack as never before. Hence, because all three groups are tiny minorities, their “lore”, in English, in mixed-languages, or in the Indian vernaculars (possibly experienced at something of a distance), does not seem to have been thought worthy of attention. It deserves the systematic study it is unlikely to get.
The Boy On The Railway Tracks
There was a boy playing on the railway tracks. His father shouted to him, “Lie down flat!” He did, immediately and without question. A train was approaching,. and it passed over him and left him without a scratch. Such are the advantages of implicit and immediate obedience [“doing as you’re told when you’re told”, a teacher’s phrase heard only later in Australia – Brisbane, 19841
Source: my mother, told on the railway tracks at the riverside, on the small disused railway track on ghats of the River Hooghly, Calcutta, c. 1960. It was told not as if it were an invention, but as if the teller had heard of it, and as if it had happened. My childhood response: “His father should not have allowed to play on the railway tracks in the first place, and should have taken better care of him.”
“To Stop The Train, Pull The Chain”
There was an old lady. For the sheer excitement of it, she used to throw her necklace out of the window, scream, and pull the chain to call for the guard. [When she got known on various lines for her “habit”, she moved to others.]
Source: see below.
There was a gentleman who sat in a railway compartment, smoking a cigar. The only other occupant was a woman. She blackmailed him, saying that unless he bribed her, she would tear her clothes, scream and say that he tried to rape her. He engaged her in conversation, unperturbed, but would not give in. She finally fulfilled her threat. When she made her accusation, he pointed to the end of his cigar, showing the railway officials that the ash at the end, a very long bar of it, was still undisturbed, and so that he could not have assaulted her as she claimed.
Source: Both this and the preceding item were told in English, as “true stories”, the first by my mother Mrs Rani Sircar, the second by my father, Mr Ahoy Sircar in relation to his father, who did indeed work in the railways. It came as a great shock to me when I heard this, probably in Bombay around 1970, also told as a true story by Mr Bute Das, of my parents’ generation.
“This My Daughter Was Dead And Is Alive Again: She Was Lost, And Is Found”
Our “Aunt” Renuka, my father’s first cousin, was in a train-crash, thought to be in a compartment with her elder brother Sudhir and sister Renee who were instantly killed, but she was not. and was thrown out, and wandered the railway station for two days. On the third day, her father, a railway official, who had been in the train with his wife and baby son at the time of the crash and was completely unhurt, returned on some business to the railway station. He found his youngest daughter there, untouched, wandering there in a daze, but she can recall nothing of it.
Source: my father, early 1960s. The function of the story would have been to exemplify the mysterious workings of Providence, to reassure oneself that there is a pattern or a meaning to the things that happen, but it was never told as a “miracle” story, or with any religious overtones. In this case, the Railway taketh, and the Railway giveth back a portion of what it bath taken. It is now about 70 years old. Its ambit would have been the family and its connections and friends only, but I heard the tale long, long before I met its protagonist, Mrs Renuka (Mukherjee, Madar) David in 1969. Many upper-middle-class Indian Christians of his generation (including his brother-in-law, my paternal grandfather, and my maternal grandmother’s brothers), worked in the Railways, for the British adaptation of the Caste System made employment in the Railways one of the community occupations of Anglo-Indians, and in higher positions than they (so I am told), Indian Christians as well.
This is a Bengal urban/rural legend over generations: is it a source for the Western form?
There was once a bride; she was adorned for her wedding. She kept complaining, “my head itches, my head itches”; no-one would listen to her. As she walked the seven circles around the sacred fire behind her husband in the wedding ceremony, on the last circling, she fell to the ground – dead! It was a scorpion nesting in her head, or in the flowers in her elaborate coiffure.
Source: unknown; not heard from but discussed as a child with my maternal grandmother Khantabala (Ray) Krishnaswami (b. c. 1900, d.1986), C. 1964-1967; she knew it, knew that “everyone” in Bengal had heard of it, that the detail of the bride constantly saying that there was an itch in her head was crucial. It was “always” involves a scorpion. This Bengal nugget is more an urban myth motif than an urban myth proper, for it is not detailed enough or plotted enough to be called a tale proper. Nevertheless, it is obviously a Bengal form of the title American urban legend, in David Holt and Bill Mooney’s Spiders in the Hairdo: Modern Urban Legends, August House, where the beehive hairdo is sprayed so hard that spiders start to nest in it. Variations are listed in:
(bugs, rats) and
(bugs, spiders, bees, centipedes) (updated 25/6/97), which says that in its American form this legend dates to the 1950s, is focussed on the dirtiness involved in looking glamorous, and that it moved from a current hairstyle to a woman wearing an out-of-date hairstyle, and then to a man wearing dreadlocks and complaining to the barber that the barber is nicking his head and leaving the barbers’ shop before the haircut is complete. The Bengal motif is not focussed on dirtiness and high fashionability, but it shares the feature of “constant complaints” with the dreadlocked man version. It is thus potentially focussed on the inadvisability being too busy or too preoccupied to investigate complaints of a general unpinned-down sense of unease, for they may turn out to be valid too late to do anything about them. Hence it may be a focus for self-pity as well (“No-one ever listens to me on anything”).
I have, however, never heard the nugget used in this way. My grandmother had no reason to misrepresent anything, so in this case, the core of the urban myth is older than the 1950s, and possibly of dian origin (as once so much folktale was claimed to be). The Indian bride’s death by scorpion-sting at the time of her wedding may hint at some significance over and above weddings being times at which girls are dressed up. The unhappy death at a particularly auspicious time (cf. the corresponding Indian motif of the ill-fated virgin widow) may indicate how particularly ill-fated the girl was and how unavoidable her fate, and may resonate with stories on the latter theme. In a tribal folktale from North East India which seems to reflect mainstream notions of fatedness, for example, all attempts to avoid the ride’s foretold death by the similar mechanism of snakebite (like the measures to avoid the Sleeping Beauty’s sleep by spindle-prick) are of no avail (“The Girl Fated to Die by Snakebite [Nagaland]”, in Folktales of India, ed. Brenda Beck, et. al. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989, 29-31).
Note too scorpion folklore from my mother – “when a scorpion gets angry, it gets so angry that it stings its own tail and bites itself to death”.
The Cobra in the Sugar-Cane-Juice Machine
There were iron sugar-cane juice pressing-machines. Such machines were lined up in rows near the last horse-drawn carriages near the Auchterlony Monument, Calcutta, before it was the Shahid Minar, the Freedom-Fighters’ Martyrs Memorial. In my parents’ childhoods in North India, it was trundled from house to house. (In an age when vendors were willing to oblige in these ways, every time my maternal grandmother bought a few glasses of sugar-cane juice, she had the whole machine disassembled and the parts boiled in front of her.)
It was folklore that a cobra got into one of these machines and went to sleep, and when the handle was turned it was pressed out together with the sugarcane juice, and though it had an odd taste everybody drank the juice, and was poisoned to death as a result.
Source: family story, 1960s, referred to in talk of the old days and in talk of my grandmother’s cleanliness. Like the scorpion motif, this similar motif was never developed into a full story. I think that it was also a common motif, not just restricted to transmission in one family.
The Missing Kidney
There is much available material on urban myths of “organ thieves” (and one hears of poor villages in Asia where everyone has sold a kidney or an eye or similar organ to the wicked west). A similar but not identical account is the following.
There was a surgeon who asked a patient whether he had ever had any previous operations. The patient said no. The surgeon removed the kidney. He then [noticed a tiny scar and?] opened the other side of the back. The other kidney had been removed previously. There was then nothing that could be done. So they woke the patient up and asked “How do you feel?” He said “Fine. Never felt better.” Within the hour he was dead!! Moral: So a doctor always checks a patient’s case history and never takes a patient’s word for things.
Source: Mr K. Leslie, Campion, School, Bombay, 1969. Told as a true story. The teller tended to dwell on gruesome stories involving bodily organs, as in tales of how he had seen, during the World War II bombings (possibly in Madras or Bombay) people running down the street holding their intestines which were spilling out of their gashed-open stomachs. If his kidney story is a myth, as it seems to be, it was told at a time before organ transplants and stories of organ-selling and snatching were less common than they are now, so some form of this story might have been the source of organ-thievery myths Of indeed there is any connection between them).
The Hungry Baby Sitter
There was a baby-sitter who felt very hungry and looked in the store-cupboard to see what she could eat. She found packets of the most delicious potato chips she had ever eaten and ate the lot. When the parents returned she said that she had eaten the potato chips and “I hope you don’t mind”, ‘n’all”. They said, “No, no, not at all; the only thing is that our baby has leprosy, and those are the scabs”.
Source: Amita Maliye, Bombay, aged 16, from Cathedral School, Bombay, 1971. The initial situation of the story being anon-Indian one, and difficult to naturalise, it was told in English as a story obviously from abroad, not a “true” one, but just a disgusting one. Not many of these Western urban myths seem to have found their way to India in the 1960s and 1970s, or at any rate, to the circles I moved in, though this one did.
An urban/rural horror story over generations, heard in English. A dak-bungalow was a British government travellers’ lodge; “dak” means “mail, post” in Bengali and Hindi.
There was once an official on tour. He stayed in a dak-bungalow. In the morning he noted with horror that the servant had hair on his palm (a sign of the uncanny, supernatural, evil, etc.). He left his breakfast uneaten, and rushed out to the bazaar. There, panting in horror, he went to buy fruit, and was asked by the vendor, “Why are you so perturbed?” He was about to answer, when he saw that the vendor also had hair on his palm. He rushed to a rickshaw, and asked to be taken out of the area. The rickshaw puller asked him what the trouble was. He told him of his two encounters with people with hair on the palm. The rickshaw puller turned round, help up his hand and smilingly asked “Like this?”. [The man jumped out and collapsed under the peepul tree.]
A tale-teller in a Bengali novel remarks, “I had read a good many stories about haunted dak bungalows… There are more stories of this sort in English than Bengali. Haunted dak bungalows are usually very old. The one I was in was new. Ghosts abhor new houses”: Sunil Gangopadhyaya, Achena Manush [Unknown Person], Calcutta: Biswabani Prakashani, 1972, p. 17.
Source of story: Dilip Panangadan, aged about 20, Calcutta, 1972; on his recounting it, my mother smiled and said that she had heard the “tale” in her childhood, and that it ended in her version with the “peepul tree” line. It follows the folktale incremental “rule of three” in its structure. Only heard twice. Note that the Indian English phrase for away “on tour”, dating from the Raj, is still “out of station”.
The Abducted Wife
You know the Elite Cinema on Corporation Street? Well, not quite in broad daylight, but one evening, just after the night/evening show, as a couple came out the cinema to get into their car, a polite group of young men, revolutionaries or simply anti-social elements, stopped them. Politely, the wife was abducted, politely, the husband told to return in the morning to the same place to get his wife back, and not to tell the police if he wanted to see her alive again. The husband agreed. What else could he do?
Source: Perhaps Mr Hiranmay “Ronu” Karlekar, later editor of a national newspaper, then aged around 30, but I cannot be sure; either 1967 or 1968. So, just while we were learning about Anglo-Indian lords, we were also experiencing — and making legends about — Communist horror. This urban legend was told in tones of hushed horror as a “true story” of the horrifying Naxalite period in Calcutta, the time of Maoist-inspired terrorism in West Bengal, c. 1968-1971, when law and order were under great stress, if not totally “breaking down”, as the rest of India claimed It was believed as a true story of signs of the times. It only became clear that it was most probably an urban legend when I heard it again in Bombay about Calcutta, in 1970, from the same Mr “Bute” Das, who told the cigar story above —indeed, I think, on the same evening. Hence, it obviously circulated very widely, and served in as Calcutta’s means of telling about its own paralysis in the face of its own horrors to itself, to Bombay, titillatingly horrified about Calcutta from across the subcontinent., and which said to people who had moved from Calcutta, “Oh, how happy, how grateful you must be to have been able to get away from the lawlessness, the goonda-ism [hooliganism!]”, as if we were refugees from Russia after the Revolution (heard quite often in Bombay, from the Norwegian Consul, neighbours, and even people accidentally met in shops, 1969 ff.).
The story was told in English both times I heard it. As is common with urban legend, the actual names of the people were never mentioned; I also think that the “friend of a friend” motif was not used in either telling. I think that both times the circumstantial detail was added that it occurred near the Elite Cinema. Corporation Street is now S N -Lanerjea Road. We lived in the old Whiteaway Laidlaw Store Building with the cmck-tower, now a ruin, just between the Metro Cinema of the cannibalism story above .nct the Elite Cinema of this abducted wife story. It is a wonder we ever went out and came back alive.
Kidnapping and Cannibalism
You know that Muslim restaurant on the right-hand side in the gully (= “lane”) beside the Metro Cinema in Calcutta? Well, dit was there that a gold ring was found in the mince – [or a finger with a ring on it found in the biriyani, and recognised as belonging to the kidnapped child by its parents -?].
Source: Mr Pervez Sohrabji, Parsee tea-planter, Loon Soong Tea Estate, Nowgong District, Assam, 1968.
This is only a nugget of urban folklore, a motif rather than an urban legend proper. I cannot remember whether the ring was recognised or not was told by an adult to children, in the presence of adults, so it would have had a fairly wide ambit, though I heard it only once. It is in the same general area as links the “kidnapper” story above, but with an unhappy ending, which presumably indicates the sad fate of those who do not beware kidnappers, or that sometimes precautions are in vain, or (if the ring was recognised) some parents finally get to know the sad fate of their lost children.
Evading the Kidnapper
This urban legend was heard in English.
There is a girl who lives in “our building”. One day, on her return school, just at the cigarette stall at the entrance, a respectable servant-looking man approached her and said, “Your parents were of course out at work as you know, but they have been called to your grandmother who has fallen ill, and I am her new servant who has been sent to take you to your grandmother’s house.” The clever girl thought to herself “This is very odd, because my grandmother does not live in Calcutta”, but said that she would just put her schoolbags down with the liftman inside the building compound and return. Entering the compound, she screamed out, “Somebody has tried to kidnap me”, and the durwans and chowkidars and liftmen all rushed out, but the man had gone.
Source: Mrs Shanti Raghavan, Calcutta, 1964. The building said to be Queens Mansion, once a very handsome building, now decrepit. The story too slick to be true, the girl never named, the story thus probably an urban cautionary legend to children never to speak to strangers etc, as an anxiety-containing device. Similar stories were very common among urban Anglophone Calcutta children under ten years in the 1960s.
Other Motifs From a Time of Horror
It was the same Naxalite period during which “everybody heard” that the total breakdown of law and order in universities gave rise to the following:
- Students would stick knives in their desks in front of them and dare invigilators to do anything about it as they copied answers holus-bolus from books for their examinations.
- Student union gangs with large numbers of non-student ganglords used to enter university examination halls and say that they offered their good wishes that everything would go well and peacefully and that they were coming round for contributions for charitable causes from their examinees.
- Answer sheets were sent out for marking to dead examiners, sometimes not sent out at all (in many cases the university did actually lose answer sheets and give student “average marks” in lieu of actual examination results), and that the lost sheets were found instead economically recycled into paper-bags used by peanut vendors and sellers of “dalmot” in (a spiced dry snack, called “mixture” in English.
At least the first of these motifs (knife-in-desk) lived on in popular parlance till at least 1990, when I heard an Anglophone Indian student of a much later generation recount it to me in Canberra about those years.
Dacoits Giving Advance Warning
In a Bengal country town, Midnapore (now Medinipur), not even the wild, lawless jungles, the bandits (dacoits) used to come marauding. Oddly, they would send messages about the dates that their raids would be made, so that people could prepare the materials for them to carry away. Yet they seemed to come at night ( as I recall). The police did not seem to figure in this scheme of things. On one such raid, my grandmother fled out of the house in fear and sat down on an anthill, and was severely bitten.
Source: my mother, Calcutta, early 1960s, on her mother, Midnapore, turn of the century, told it in English. Then, in 1970, my mother’s first cousin whom I had never before seen, Mr Bana Bihari Das, the son of my maternal grandmother’s eldest sister Mrs Nanibala (Ray) Das, began to tell me this when I first met him. It would have had a fairly wide ambit over the generations, among a family spread over Bengal and Orissa. It would have served to exemplify to urban children the great differences between life in a country town at the turn of the century, and urban Calcutta in the latter part of the century.
When we were children, my father used to tell us “a Kaku story” every evening after dinner, in English, Kaku being his maternal grandmother, Mrs Hemantakumari Misra (nee Ray), and the stories being his family stories. Unfortunately we remember only two of them today.
One Who Was Lost A Found
Our “Aunt” Renuka, my father’s cousin, was in a traincrash, thought to be in a compartment with her elder brother and sister who were instantly killed, and wandered the railway station for two days. Her father, a railway official, who had been in the train with his wife and baby son at the time of the crash and was completely unhurt, returned on some business to the railway station two days later and found his youngest daughter there, untouched, wandering there in a daze.
This was never told as a “miracle” story, or with any religious overtones.
The Loyal Mongoose
This story is blurred, but its outlines remain.
Kaku had a pet mongoose. It used to accompany her like a dog, and leapt up at he in affection, often, as she said “Ah, what are you doing! Down, down, I say” in Bengali (as one would to a child or a dog). One day, she entered the store-room, and this time the mongoose would not be subdued, though she slapped it hard. As she turned, out came a cobra, ready to bite her, and was attacked by the mongoose.
Though I think folk wisdom says that the mongoose always wins, I cannot remember whether this story has the mongoose dying (and thus replicating the folktale loyal animal being killed for its loyalty) or living and being rewarded (see Stuart Blackburn, “The Brahmin and the Mongoose: the Narrative Context of a Well-travelled Tale”, Bulletin of the School of African and Oriental Studies, 59: Part 3, 1196, 494-507). However the woman treating the mongoose with great affection, then disdain at the point at which it was doing its filial duty, and the duty being done, remain in this family form or real historical analogue (given that mongooses fight snakes) of the tale proper.
A Haunted House
Just after their marriage, my maternal grandparents rented a house in Madras. Every evening my grandfather used to fall asleep at 8 o’clock over dinner, and could not be roused. He found my grandmother crying in a corner. She was unable to explain what she was doing there or why. They heard the voice of a maidservant who had gone back to her village calling out, where no maidservant was. A servant tried to strangle my grandmother for her jewellery. When she became pregnant, a neighbour came sand said, “You should leave that house – no married woman who has stayed there for any length of time has left that house alive!” They moved.
Family story, date c. 1926. Told by my maternal grandfather, grandmother, mother. Most families, including Anglo-Indian ones, have such “tales of the supernatural in India”.
Providence Looks After Fools
In either Madras or Lahore, at any rate somewhere outside Bengal, an unknown woman came to the door of a morning, saying that she was a Bengali and had come, as one member of the Bengali community to another, to my maternal grandmother, to borrow kansha (valuable bell metal) utensils for a wedding in the family. Full of community spirit, my grandmother trustingly gave her the utensils, but on his return in the evening, my (non-Bengali) grandfather resignedly said that she would never see the valuables again. Yet that evening a doctor came to visit who worked in the public hospitals, and knew the lower ways of life in the city. Indeed, he knew this particular woman and her skills at confidence trickery, and he even knew the pawnshop she frequented. He led my grandfather to the pawnshop – and there were the valuables all intact.
Source: my mother and grandfather, in English, early 1960s on an incident in the 1930s. It was told among the family and the friends of the family, but would not have had a particularly large ambit.
Light-hearted, charming, flute- and harmonica-playing Great-Uncle Buru could not go down certain streets in his youth because he would be caught by the tailors for suits that he hadn’t paid for. Once, he boarded with a family where the lady of the house was a “childish, simple woman”, and one morning, he dressed-up as a Kabuliwala, an Afghan (Pathan) moneylender, huge and threatening and bearded. He came and spoke in a loud fearsome voice to her, “Where is the money you owe me? ” (or somesuch). When the trick was revealed, she giggled in glee. But then a real Kabuliwala came by one day, minding his own business and walking down the street. And she rushed out and said in childish glee, “Ami JAAni tumi BOO-ru – ami JAAni tumi BOO-ru” — “1 know you are Buru” (in something like the “nyan-nyan-nya-nya_-nya” cadence so familiar the word over), and he, not used to be rushed at by Indian housewives rushing out and dancing around, was much perturbed. Respectable women did not rush out beyond their gates and start prancing around in laughter in those times.
Source: heard from the protagonist, whole real name I never knew, brother of my paternal grandmother , on his visit to Calcutta, ce 1961, re-heard in Bombay from his daughter, Bombay, 1968, who said “I know my [deceased] father’s stories.”.
Disguise as a Kabuliwala is a motif in popular cinema, e.g. the Hindi Tumsa Nahin Dekha with Shammi Kapoor in black and white and the late 1.950s or early 1960s. Angela Brazil has the motif of a disguise-trick in one of her school-stories, so this is a case of art and life truly reflecting each other.
Taboos and Sexism
The mistress of a house habitually ordered her manservant to fill receptacles with water so that she could make her ablutions and wash herself after micturation or defaecation at night, and constantly checked whether the water had been placed in the lavatory The manservant saw this as an affront to his male honour, mixed chilli powder in with the water, and his mistress got the point and never asked him again.
Source: my maternal grandfather, Rev. Paul Aiyaiyengar Krishnaswami Iyengar, Calcutta, c. 1963, told as a true story of from Tamil Brahmin community of his childhood, but unlikely to be one. The teller laughed as he told it, and repeated the dialogue in Tamil, even though his hearer (me) did not understand it. It may not have been told to inculcate traditional gender roles and taboos, but these were not questioned in the telling of the tale either.
Anglo-Indian Urban Pride Motifs
Hair Turned White
Teacher is not old. Teacher was a nurse during the War, and when the Japanese bombed teacher’s hair turned white overnight in one night.
Source: Miss Woodsell, La Martiniere, Calcutta, 1964.
Hearing two sahebs saying. “I’m an Oxonian” and “I’m a Cantabridgian”, in the park, the Anglo-Indian gentleman got up from his bench and said “Oxonian? Cantabridgian? Ha! I’m a Bow-Bazayrian”, and shut them up with that highsounding word
(Bow [Bou/Bohu] Bazar is an area in Calcutta, with the Welland Goldsmith School in it, and presumably with once an Anglo-Indian community.)
Manmohan: Not In Any Biography of Oscar Wilde
In the lecture on onomastics in “The Blessed Damozel” generation after generation of students at Presidency College, Calcutta, were told the story that when Manmohan Ghose, the man who apparently chose the decoration of the title page of The Golden Treasury, was at Oxford, Oscar Wilde, on hearing the name, went off into an aesthetic trance, murmuring to himself, “Man-mohan, Man-mohan,” at the sheer beauty of the name (which in fact means “mind-entrancer”), and that he flung his arms around the said Manmohan.
Source: Mr Asoke Kumar Mukherji, Presidency College, Calcutta, 1974, and many a year before and since, so it would have had a very wide ambit in Calcutta.
“Know Its Meaning Before You Use A Word”
X was the sort ofAnglicised Indian woman who did not know Bengali, and said, making polite conversation in Bengali one day, “I hear that your brother is a lampat [pronounced lompot],” a word which she did not know meant “debauch”. “No, no, my brother is no lampat,” came the indignant answer. “Who dares say he is a lampat?!” [Addition, as told by me over the years: “Why, A and B and C, a very lampat of lampats, they called him, and they all said it and with one voice, in total accord!” And thus, the truth conveyed by one who did not know Bengali destroyed many a Society friendship.]
Source: the same as the following.
“Judge Not a Native by The Draperies”
Sir Ashoka Roy’s name would have been spelt “Ashok” in modern times, for the final -a is technically correct, and appears in the history books at the end of the historical Emperor Ashoka’s name; but it is also technically there at the end of many an Indian name, and silent, and unrepresented; in the case of Sir Ashoka Roy, indeed, it was pronounced — and thus rendered the name into one of the feminine gender to an Indian ear, whatever “Er-SHO-kah”, as they said it then, sounded to a British one. Now, Sir Ashoka Roy, whose daughter’s vast trunkfuls of jewellery passed to her daughter (and a very fast daughter she was too), had a large son with a lisp, a softie if ever there was one. We, his college mates, took him to the tailor – and a very Society tailor he was too – and ordered large quantities of clothing on his account, promising to pay him back, which of course we never did. One day, in the university examination hall, in came a Native in Draperies. And the Native in Draperies said to him, “The bell has just rung; put down your pen.” To show off how aristocratic and English-speaking he was, and how strong and powerful, the son rose to his full height behind the desk, leaned forward and lisped slowly and threateningly in English, “Want a Thock in the jaw?” He probably took the Native to be one of the functionaries who came round to sew the examination answer-books and the loose sheets together [a practice still current in the 1970s, long after the stapler had been invented], or a similar one.
And the Native in Draperies turned out, of course, to be the Vice-Chancellor, who had seen his old friend’s son from the corridor, and come into the hall to provide a little avuncular encouragement. All hell then broke loose. Sir Ashoka Roy had a very thin, high voice, and I can remember him shrieking, “Buku [his son’s nicknamefi Tui ki bhabchhili? [What were you thinking of? J. Dekhe dekhe Vice-Chancellor-ke apaman korechhish – ‘want a sock in the jaw?’ bolechhish! [Of all people, you carefully picked out the Vice-Chancellor to insult, and said to him, ‘want a sock in the jaw?’ …Jai Giye jail khatish! [Go to jail, then!]…” and so on, and I remember how Buku mumbled in response, “Ami ki jantam Vice-Chancellor?” [Did I know he was the Vice-Chancellor?’]”.
Source: Mr Manuj Chatterjee, a Bengali, about ten years older than my father, Bombay, 1970. The “lampat” story and this one were probably told in sequence on the same evening, or very similar ones, both in a mixture of Bengali and English — in these cases there was a preponderance of Bengali sentences, and only a few English ones, though the word “softie” was indeed used. The names of the personages in both stories were given, but I have forgotten them. However, if it ever reads the above, Calcutta Society will probably remember, and be able to fill them in, even today. Both are instances of “hardened gossip” which would have circulated within a smallish group, but Mr Chatterjee worked in advertising and told a good tale, so this Amy would probably been told among his large circle of expatriate Bengalis in Bombay, as well as friends and relatives in Calcutta. I cannot place the date of either story, but the events they tell of occurred before the teller went to the U.K. to study, and about the time when his younger paternal uncle’s wife, the Madwoman of Macleod Street, a notorious miser, was besotted with cinema stills of Rudolph Valentino.
The teller did not recount the incidents exactly as above (I have re-rendered them in my own style, in the manner in which I have told them in subsequent years), nor were they told in the conscious context of talking about Indian English. But all the elements above were present in the original telling, and they retrospectively, they are indeed “about” that subject as much as anything else.
Once, very recently, there was an ordinary Anglo-Indian, the ordinary sort whose people would say “I say m’n, what you got from the bazaar this morning,- give us a taste, I’m coming over for hazri”, who got a letter in the mail one morning, and it was from an English firm of solicitors saying that he was the last scion of a noble line and was now Lord So-and-So. When he went to the U.K. to assume his rightful place, he did not pretend to be anything other than he was, asked about manners and customs alien to him, moved quietly and offended nobody.
Source Mr Rudolph Roderigues, teacher, La Martiniere, Calcutta, 1968. This was told by a schoolmaster to his pupils, so it would have had a fairly wide ambit, for he would have told it more than once, and his pupils passed it on among their own friends. It may possibly have been told among Anglo-Indians, but, if so, I never heard it from any other source. Mr Roderigues is still alive, and if anyone is interested, I will find out where he is, and ask him about the truth of this tale. Neither the man nor his new title were ever named, and we would surely have heard of it from other sources if there was actually such a person or occurrence, so this story is very probably an urban legend which clearly serves a wish-fulfilment function for a community that traditionally longed to be white and to be accepted as such. The “recently” underlines its post-Independence status.
Its wishfulfilment has two components. First, it incarnates the desire to turn out to belong to a more prestigious country and class than one’s own, and per courtesy of one’s own moral virtue, to be accepted in that country and class — the core of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s similar fantasies of national and social mobility, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885) and T. Tembarom (1913, the same plot reworked with an adult hero).
Second, it incarnates the desire, per courtesy of one’s social status, to “jump race” as well, to turn out to be in effect both “white” and “noble white”. “Jumping race” is the concern of Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), with its mixed-race movements between classes and races, where, in the end, when true identities are discovered, the traditional social order is restored. In Twain’s work, one mixed-race and white-skinned slave baby, with one-thirty-second part of “nigger” blood in him and so technically black, is switched in his cradle with one free white baby from a moneyed family. The career of the rightful white heir seems to teach the greater force of environment than heredity, for the white brought up as a black is shambling and insecure when he returns to his rightful place. Yet the career of the mixed-race “black” seems to indicate that “blood” and inherited moral/racial weakness will tell over the influences of environment, so Twain’s position on heredity and environment is ultimately unclear, and still debated.
This urban legend reverses Twain’s pattern of the mixed-race person’s ultimate subordinate place in the traditionally “correct” social/racial order. When the Anglo-Indian is suddenly both transported “home” and elevated to high position (like Little Lord Fauntleroy), he also in effect crosses into complete whiteness (his social position rendering him white), and stays there, unlike Twain’s mixed-race black character. The urban legend thus seems to teach a moral like Mrs Hodgson Burnett’s (but not identical to it), and unlike Twain’s — how modesty and willingness to learn, be they inherently racial or inherently personal or the results of a good, sensible upbringing, are very useful in rising in society.
White Slavers Still Extant
This urban myth is heard only in English.
There are people who say to innocent young Anglo-Indian girls that they are very attractive and -will just fit the bill for international cabaret acts as dancers, if they just sign this contract and come away on a ship going to… South America?
Source: Mr Rudolph Roderigues, teacher, La Martiniere, Calcutta, 1968, oddly enough to a class of thirteen-year old boys. The term “white slaver” was not used. There were and are entrenched and ineradicable pan-Indian systems of procurement of women in India, but this was not told to us in reference to social evils.
Anglicised Indian High Society
These stories widely were told then, and still not forgotten.
At The Planters’ Club
Members of the U.S. army were stationed at the Darjeeling Club during World War 11, was commonly called the Planters’ Club, and since it was built on land donated by the Maharajahs of Burdwan and Gooch Bihar). It was always a mixed club, which admitted Indians). And an old Indian dowager [name forgotten] stationed herself in the dining room early each morning, before the officers came into breakfast, and deliberately scrutinised them all with a lorgnette (or quizzing-glass). Getting tired of the routine of one side of her face eye screwed up, going down as the side of her face, eye glaring through the glass, the officers bribed the bearers (waiters) to let them in earlier than she. And when she entered, with perfectly military timing, up went their porridge spoons over eyes as glaring eyes as hers. She never used the lorgnette again.
Source: Mrs Sheila Rao, Calcutta, 1973.
Mrs Kutty Ramanair, a wild socialite whose husband, an engineer, Baby, designed her blouses during the “old Three Hundred club days” (i.e. a club whose entry deposit was Rs. 300, then a vast sum) won a fancy-dress party competition simply by announcing for months beforehand that her costume would be so fabulous that she would win it. The costume itself was very disappointing, consisting of a piece of gauze over her face, for she said she had come as The Painted Veil (The Somerset Maugham novel). On askng how the gauze was painted, remarked Mrs Rao, “The veil was not painted, but Nutty more than made up for it underneath.” And speaking of clever costumes, my mother herself won a fancy-dress party competition over much more elaborate customs, by taking in an empty matchbox and going in as “The Matchless Matchmaker” (Calcutta, 1950s).
Sources: My mother and Mrs Sheila Rao. Calcutta, 1973 on India in the 1950s.
Other stories such as The Postcards in Two Different Handwritings and The Bright Young Things and Their Fake Seances are also remembered and tellable.
Faithful Old Servants
Instances of general narratives and motifs in standard conversations about them with set-piece components
Their Charges never Grow Up
When my father returned from Calcutta to Lahore, for a holiday after taking his first job in Calcutta, the old sweeper who had looked after him, came into the drawing room after dinner at 8 o’clock to take him off to bed, just as had been the case in his infancy. (Lahore, before 1947).
One evening, my maternal aunt, then a grown woman and teaching in school, dined alone in her parents’ house. And the servant (old Balakrishnan?) began a long rambling story of one Mr N N Sen and his going painting in the jungle and being watched by a tiger from a few ,feet away without realising it. The story, told in South Indian “butler English and Tamil” went on forever, and seemed pointless. She realised at the end that he was telling her the story to make her eat her dinner (Madras, 1950s).
As a young girl, the same aunt used to call out in English, to one Dinabandhu Jyoti, a very recalcitrant servant, “Danny! Danny boy! The pipes are calling”, at which he ran to her, as he would run to no-one else. Three decades later when he did the same thing, he ran similarly (Calcutta, 1976).
This has achieved the status of folklore among some Bengali middle-class Indian Christians.
When Nakul came to Calcutta he asked his mistresses young niece, Miss Kalyani Som, from a very old and educated Bengali Christian (Congregational) family, to write his letters home to his newly married wife in the village. When asked what he wanted said, he said “say whatever you like, whatever you think fitting “, so she wrote “I am missing you dreadfully” etc.
Aprocryphal addition: Not having ever been married, Miss Som thought “oh yes, “By beloved is mine and 1 am hers!…Behold who stands at the wicket gate! Thy breasts are like apples of Gaza, thy thighs are like cedars of Lebanon” and thus plagiarised the Song of Songs for the correspondence, at which the wife wrote back saying that she had no idea that he was so fond of her, and to temper the sentiments he expressed for the benefit of the village elders who read the letters out to her.
Source: Miss Kalyani Som, Calcutta, 1966; with .Idditions subsequently. There is a Thomas Hardy story with a similar Cyrano de Bergerac motif, of a literate woman writing love-letters for an illiterate maidservant with whom the addressee then falls in love.
Aren’t They Loyal?
When an Oriya Christian married an Assamese Christian Bengali Calcutta, the manservant of the former (Dan!) married the maidservant of the latter, just as in traditional Renaissance comedies. Master and mistress communicated in English, the servitors in sign-language and Bengali.
Source: My mother: Mrs Rani Sircar, Calcutta, c. 1966.
It was a custom, before and just after independence, Mai mothers or grandmothers of young servants would come to their mistresses early in their employment and say that the memsahib should scold and punish the boys as hard as possible (to indicate the employer being in the place of the family, which would do likewise).
Source: personal observation, Calcutta, c. 1961; Mrs Hamilton Senior, Sydney, on Poona in the 1940s.
Stories such as this are current in many middle-class families. They all seem to be ways in which the servant-employing classes contain their guilt at the social system which grinds people down in servitude.
How Lucky They Are
It was a often common subject for conversation that Anglicised Indians never saw the West, while servants did. Indeed, when U.S. immigation laws allowed for immediate family and “a cousin” to accompany people going to work in the US in the 1970s, often a servant went as “the cousin”.
My maternal aunt’s Oriya sweeper had been all over the world as a cleaner on the P&O liners, and regaled her with stories of how he ate his lunch on the ship, and then took buses all over such ports as Baltimore to see the sights. “Which Oriya sweeper would spend a penny if he could avoid it?”, commented my aunt (Calcutta, c. 1974). Of Oriya sweepers, who worked for whites and Anglicised Indians in Calcutta, the employers’ stereotypes was that they were servants perfect for whites, for “in fifteen minutes they can make things look clean, without actually being clean.” Of this community it was also said that when they could they tried to pass as Hindustanis from the North, not as Oriyas from Orissa, below Bengal. Oddly, they used to speak in Hindi to Bengalis, though Bengali is closer to Oriya, their mother tongue.
Editorial Note: This contribution has been edited from a much longer collection of lore which Sanjay Sircar has circulated.