Ajmer 1933-40 Continued

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj


[An Indian Childhood] [Ajmer 1933_1940] [Ajmer 1933-1940 Continurd] [Mhow 1940-1945] [Ajmer 1945_49] [Leaving India] [Life iin the Plains] [Life in the Hills]


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 other well. 

I don’t remember much about my uncles and aunts visiting us—they had moved from Ajmer when I was very young.   I do remember my two grandmothers.  My father’s mother Clemence (Baptiste) Blanchette (Granny) was a small, warm sweet very religious woman (Catholic).  She used to stay with us for what I recall were extended periods.  My mother’s mother Lillian (Nierces) Roberts (Nanny) I recall as being a no nonsense woman with little patience.  She also came and stayed with us but not for very extended periods.  I don’t recall her visiting very often.


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!.

Typically the cook would be a Muslim, the bearer could be either Muslim or Hindu, the ayah would typically be Hindu or Christian or Muslim, and the methur would be an “untouchable”.  The mali would be a “villager” a farmer of some kind whose family had a small plot of land outside the city in one of the numerous Indian villages.  He could be either Hindu or Muslim.  My memory is that he was usually a Muslim.

My memories of the servants are a mélange of the servants we employed over the years and not necessarily an accurate recollection of the particular situation in Ajmer, which we first left when I was seven.  The servants seemed to be fixtures.  I don’t remember a turnover of servants.  When we moved from city to city we acquired new servants. 

The full time servants worked a six day week as I recall.  The ayah and the bearer were in the house most of the time except in the afternoon, their time off, and when they went home in the evening.  The cook’s job was to cook our food, which he did in the kitchen.  He seldom spent time in the house.  The methur never came in the house.  All food scraps left at meal time went to the methur who would come to the verandah with his plate for table scraps.  It was these poor souls who Gandhi named “Harijans” (children of God) and with whom he spent much time, to the scandal of the Brahmins.  They are now known as “scheduled castes” and have a certain number of places reserved in the Indian Parliament.   If there be a just God, there will be a special place in the lower reaches of Hell reserved for Hindu's and Christians and Muslims for their respective treatment of Indian untouchables and African slaves.

The ayah played with me, bathed me, took me to the Railway Institute where our family spent a lot of time, and was my friend.  Discipline was exclusively a parental function. It was mostly from the ayah that I learned my Hindi.  I was completely bilingual in Hindi and English probably by the time I was 4.  Later in my life in India I came across Anglo Indians who had spent generations in India who claimed not to be able to speak any native language because “I just can’t get my tongue around these foreign sounds”.  I am proud to say my parents spoke Hindi with the servants easily.  Dad could not read the Hindi script but he did have a little familiarity with written Urdu (Arabic Script) because he had learned it in school in Mussoorie.

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. 

During the worst of the communal riots in India our Muslim and Hindu servants showed no animosity towards each other.  There was never a time any of us Anglo Indians had the slightest fear of any harm from any Indian, least of all from our servants.  At the height of the communal massacres during partition there were no instances of attacks on Europeans by any Indians. When we left Ajmer for the last time in 1949, I remember our young bearer running alongside the train, crying profusely that we were leaving because he would not be seeing us again



Anglo Indian Housekeeping

Bhisti ca~1890)

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. 

Perishables like meat and milk would be stored in a doolie.  A doolie is a container about four feet high and three feet square with three shelves.  The container was enclosed on three sides with fine wire mesh to let the breeze circulate while keeping out the insects.  The door was also wire mesh, and the top and bottom were wood.  The container stood on 4 legs about six inches long.  Each leg would stand on a little stone island set in a saucer filled with water to prevent ants from crawling up the legs.  The doolie would be kept on the verandah in the shade.         

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.

Ajmer Summers

I have a lot of happy childhood memories from summers in Ajmer when I was quite young.  I now realize they must all have come from the time when I was seven and younger.  I was in boarding school or in some other town every summer until I was back in Ajmer as a day student when I was 14.   So here are some of the memories:

The summers were unbearably hot.  I am pretty sure the temperature gets up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  I have read since and I can attest to the fact that shortly before the monsoon breaks in about July, the whole of the region holds its collective breath for days just waiting for the rain.  The summer monsoon rains move from South West to North East.  They start in the southern tip of India in about May and take a couple of months to get up to Rajasthan.  Before the monsoons break there is dust and heat and flies and prickly heat and you can’t sleep and everyone is moving in slow motion.  The day the rain starts there is a collective release of breath everywhere.  The most wonderful warm rain bursts, and I mean bursts! out with massive thunder and lightening and all the kids go running out naked to feel the rain on their skin.  No one seemed to care about being struck by lightning.  Within two days as I recall there are signs of green shoots of grass and little red harmless bugs (lal boochies -tr "red bugs") which look like little red velvet balls about a quarter inch in diameter all over the ground .

I remember at least twice seeing an invasion of locusts.  It must have been after the rains started.  This massive black cloud of insects would block out the sun.  They flew quite low-- I guess not much more than about 50 feet.  They would settle for a few hours and strip everything that was green.  They would then fly on leaving a brown landscape behind.   I can just imagine how frightening a biblical plague of locusts must have been to primitive people.

The whole family used to sleep outside in the summer.  We had mosquito nets and I vividly remember going to sleep to the howls of jackals and hyenas, and waking to the muezzin’s call to prayer.  I also remember running inside to the verandah with the bedding when it rained unexpectedly.  If you look closely at the house picture here  taken in 1998, you will see a raised circular platform to the right of the photograph which is where the beds were placed when we slept outside in the summer.  Right near it is the verandah we would bolt into when the rain started.  I have clear recollections of carrying the bedclothes into the verandah and waiting for the thunder and lightning to subside.  As I write this I can smell the ozone of the lightning.  The tree under which Paddy and I are sitting is where the family would sit out with visiting friends on summer nights and sip our "mango fool" and our homemade lemonade and eat our homemade ice cream.  The evening would typically end with Dad playing the piano and kids and friends singing along.  Dad and Mum were almost complete teetotalers so there was almost never any alcohol around except for "milk punch" at Christmas.

We used to go to Mass every Sunday in a tonga—a horse drawn vehicle.  The tonga wallah would drive his tonga up to the front gate about 30 yards from the verandah and we would all pile in and go to church.  After church, the beggars would come to the house and we would give them money.  I never did wonder then what prevented them from coming every day or for that matter what prevented them from setting up shop in the road outside our house.  I realized when I was much older that there must have been guards or policeman or a societal system of some kind which prevented “undesirable” people from entering our general housing complex. I describe more about Ajmer life in the chapter called "Life in the Plains".   On to Mhow_1940_1945.htm

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj

[An Indian Childhood] [Ajmer 1933_1940] [Ajmer 1933-1940 Continurd] [Mhow 1940-1945] [Ajmer 1945_49] [Leaving India] [Life iin the Plains] [Life in the Hills]