05 August 2008

Salaam Memsaab

Author: Marjorie McCallum
Pages: 125
Genre: Autobiographical

English essence

Having greatly loved E M Forster’s A Passage To India, I was a bit curious to read about the Raj and the social scape that had emerged around that time. This was before the independence struggle had begun and a certain smugness had crept in the attitude of the British who believed the Indian soil was theirs –as long as they wished. The English community in India was growing, with families coming down to join the commanding officers. And between them, they constituted an affluent world far removed from the people and land they ruled--- almost a miniature England.

That’s the universe Marjorie McCallum, an English officer’s wife, inhabits in her breezy 100 odd page book where she offers readers a close look at their general lifestyle. She rarely goes beyond descriptions of her domestic life and like others of her club, is unquestionably happy to accept the political status quo.

She talks of how while their officer-husbands were at work, the ‘memsahibs’(as they were called) ran their sprawling houses with a large entourage of servants. Once it would be summer, the officers would start hunting for cozy yet affordable hotels in the hills for their wives. It would mostly be Masoori for her where she would stay for five-six months---hanging around with co-officers' wives at the markets or go for pleasure walks.

Unlike what one would imagine, the salaries paid to British officers (especially junior level ones) in India appears not to be exactly lucrative, considering young Marjorie and her husband are forced to make a few compromises while choosing her place of stay in the hills. But Marjorie comes across as a pleasant, optimistic woman who wants to make the best of her time in India and enjoy whatever privileges that are thrown her way. She is obviously delighted to have so much help around her house and describes their duties in great detail. She talks about the daily 'Chotta hazri' (early morning tea with biscuits) which she and her husband relish together, before the well-laid out breakfast that comes later.

Her only real distress arises when she falls sick with a stomach infection and her new born contracts it too. Also, the time when the Second World War breaks off seems like a distressing time for English families in India, with many being hastily packed off to England or South Africa by ships. Marjorie too is faced with the same predicament and prays to God when she survives the sea journey -which itself had turned into a war-zone around the time.

Barring that, her narration seems like a reiteration of the rosy lifestyle the British led in India.
She describes a special tour she and her husband bagged to the Kashmiri King’s palace and the scenic beauty they enjoyed. Later, when her husband gets transferred to Mumbai, she gets used to the hustle-bustle of a city in a prosperous locality, comprising Parsees and effluent Indians. She says she was tempted to befriend her Indian neighbours but resisted as ‘socialising with Indians was frowned upon by the English community’
Marjorie remembers her stay in India with great fondness and produces several pictures during her decade long stay. Some of the friendships she struck with the wives of officers continues till date, she says.
One only wishes the author had opted for an alternative title (this one sounds awfully snobbish) but one guesses she was particularly pleased about the regal lifestyle that India afforded her.