Ajmer 1933-40 Continued
Life in Ajmer -- continued
Life in Ajmer was fun and warm and loving and wonderful. I was the only child of doting parents until I was five years old. We lived in a protected enclave with servants who appeared to like what they were doing and appeared to be devoted to the family. Here I am in about 1937 I would guess around the age of three or four.
Me age about 4 in about 1937
Despite the troubles surrounding us, for me it was an idyllic time. I knew nothing of the riots and the Independence struggles. The fact that Ajmer was a fly infested, disease ridden, beggar infested, poverty stricken, hellishly hot, desert town on the edge of the Thar Desert was of no significance. We had plenty of water, plenty of food, great friends and apparently enough money to do whatever we aspired to. There was the occasional film at the Institute, lots of music and dancing. We didn’t miss the lack of libraries, and museums and symphony concerts.
At the age of five I got enteric fever, a form of typhoid from which apparently I was lucky to emerge alive. My brother Russell was born in the same nursing home at the same time I was recovering from enteric. The nursing home, St. Joseph’s, was run by French Catholic nuns. They were the most wonderful people, about whom I cannot say enough good things. I had contact with them on and off until I left India. They were the nicest most dedicated women one could hope to meet. My particular nurse was Sister Edith who I met again later in my school career. I seem to recall my hair was shaved off during my illness (to keep my strength!) and I was fed liver. I have this memory it was raw, but I am sure that must be wrong. Any way I lived. My stammer, which you all know, I think I developed while I was sick.
St Joseph's Nursing Home Ajmer
During my research for this memoir I noticed that the main legacy of the French Catholic missionaries in India appears to be hospitals and Catholic girls schools--convents. The main legacy of Irish Catholic missionaries appears to be Catholic schools—mainly boys schools. To this day, Catholic schools are very highly regarded institutions in India. It is particularly interesting for foreigners to read the marriage ads in Indian newspapers where young men are “seeking convented girls” for brides. Indian English, (Hinglish) is a wonderful language!
I had my tonsils removed also I think in St Joseph's. One of my very few very bad memories of this period was being held down while an ether filled mask was held over my face to put me under. I still shudder at the memory.
|The Railway Institute
We spent a lot of time at our club--the Railway Institute. The Ajmer Railway Institute was an unbelievable oasis in the desert. There were manicured lawns for lawn bowls, green fields for hockey and soccer, and green fields for cricket. There were also umpteen tennis courts. A little bit of Sussex in the middle of the desert!
There was a bandstand in the middle of this park like setting where a brass band would play on a Sunday. We kids would play on the grass while we listened to rousing martial music. I still love brass bands. The Institute had a clubhouse with a superb billiard room and a magnificent bar complete with uniformed and turbaned waiters. There was a ballroom where the weekly dances were held and where Dad’s band played. When there was nothing else to do I spent my time at the institute with my friends playing ball or just goofing off. My recollection is that we were at the railway institute every day. I don't remember going many other places as a family. The photo above was taken on our 1998 trip. It is all that was left of the magnificent buildings and grounds of my youthful memories. The acres of green fields had been converted to flats, and the dance halls bars and billiard rooms were decaying. The photo on the left was also taken in 1998. Janice and I are in the dilapidated dance hall in which Dad's band once played, and in which I once sang.
Dad was very social. He was part of a large family all of whom were
musical and all of whom played various musical instruments. Dad’s main
instrument was the piano, but he could also play the violin, the saxophone
and virtually any wind or string instrument. My mother says Dad’s siblings
were around a lot when I was very young -- or perhaps they just seemed to
her to be around a lot!
Mum came from a quiet WASP like Baptist background. Dad came from an
extroverted French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catholic background.
I remember the house being constantly full of people all of whom knew each
By Indian standards we had few servants. I had an ayah who looked after
me. I think that chore and some mild house cleaning was her total job. We
had a bearer who served the food and did general dusting and tidying, a cook
who cooked the food and did the shopping and a “methur”, a man of the
untouchable caste, who cleaned the bathrooms. We also had a part time mali
(gardener). Our laundry was done by a dhobi who would pick up the
clothes from our house and bring them back a few days later cleaned and
ironed. The dhobi washed the clothes by soaping them on a rock in
river and then beating the dirt out of them on the rocks in the river.
Buttons had to be made of cloth!.
It was my experience, and my reading confirms my personal experience, that the servants were happy to be employed. They were friendly, and, in a very big way were part of the family. Never did I sense any resentment from any of the servants about being a servant.
In the main
the cook was proud to be a cook, the ayah was proud to be an ayah, and the
bearer was happy to be the bearer. By the time my generation of Anglo
Indians were employing servants, the Raj had been in existence for nearly
two hundred years and the concepts and rules of domestic service were well
established. It is also true that our servants were simple, illiterate
people who had few other skills and who had made a career of domestic
service. Their thoughts turned to their daily bread, rearing their children
and staying out of trouble. The pursuit of independence from British rule
was not high on their priority list.
Anglo Indian Housekeeping
Shopping for food in India at that time was a major task and
took hours. It probably still does in the small railway towns in which
we lived. My mother would make up the menu for the day/week and the
cook would go to the bazaar, negotiate price and buy the food.
Servants did almost all the food shopping. Our family’s social group
did not food shop. Dry food like rice and dal and flour and sugar and
other dry goods were bought in bulk in large gunnysacks and stored in the
go-down. My mother kept the key to the go-down and each morning the
cook would take out what was needed for the day.
Drinking water was kept in terra cotta earthen vessels called chatties and soorais. The bhisti (water carrier) would bring well water in his mussick (goat skin bag) on his back and fill the chatties daily. The chatties remained on the verandah and the water stayed remarkably cool even in the hottest weather due to the evaporation of water through the sides of the chattie. You will find Kipling's wonderful poem about Gunga Din the regimental bhisti here.
Sometimes our milk would come straight from the animal. I am a
little vague about this but I do remember sometimes that the buffalo would
be brought to the house; the milkman would turn the brass milk vessel upside
down to show that it was empty (no water in it to water the milk!) and then
start milking the animal. It is likely that I remember this from one
of the tiny towns I lived in and it didn’t happen in Ajmer. I suspect
that Ajmer had developed trusted milkmen over some period of time and
everyone used these particular vendors. I think milk was delivered in
brass vessels by a milkman on a bicycle.
The Anglo Indian wife was the house manager. Mum organized the servants, hired and fired tradesmen, put the kids to bed, helped with the homework, read the nighttime stories visited with other families with children at the Institute, was on the entertainment committee and in general was the glue that held the community together. This role was prescribed by the Raj and was iron clad. Mothers did not work outside the house. An interesting sidelight here: In all countries where British soldiers were stationed, except India, soldiers wives were allowed to supplement their husbands meagre earnings by, at the minimum, doing the officers laundry. At the maximum they could work at a regular job. In India British soldiers wives were prohibited from any outside work. This was another of the rules for maintaining the fiction of British "specialness". Anglo Indians picked up the same rules.