Saris and suits

When the English invaded India, they brought their stiff upper lip stalwart culture into a country of open smiles and free laughter; they introduced starched pin stripe suits and white hats into a breeze of bright silk saris and dhotis; they boasted short snug haircuts cropped close to the ears in a crowd of waist length black hair scented with henna and amla oil.

Some of India’s red ochre paint rubbed into the white chalky surface of the English suit, and the colonialist invasion failed to suppress the indigenous culture and lifestyle of the Indian sub-continent. Instead it was the English who left with the spell of tropical exoticness cast on them, accustomed to the sweet orange jalebis soaked in sugar water, the hot milky tea drunk in the afternoon of even the most sweltering days, the brilliant colours of traditional Hindu culture with its weddings and rangolis.

But the presence of the white man could not be scattered by a wind as the pattern of a rangoli on a cement floor can. Their presence has been etched onto the face of Mother India.

Those marks now seem part and parcel of India’s identity, so gracefully have they been adapted. It is in the older gentleman wearing white shorts and long socks pulled to the knees; the blazer style of uniform on Indian boys and girls in sweltering Mumbai heat; the sleeveless blouses and hip hugging trousers worn by Indian women; the cigarette held by fingers crowned with red painted nails; the strewn bottle containing golden whisky.

This is the spoor of the English-Indian encounter: a bastard child peeping from behind a Mandir or Masjid wall, crouching in the street gutters and city slums, hiding outside a lucrative gambling casino where its indoor lights are garishly reflected in the jewels on the patrons’ fingers, staring unabashedly through a grimy window at a class of students.

It is in the poverty, the class divide, the destruction of a community based society, eroded family values, alcoholism, gambling, womanising.

My mother was born and brought up in colonialist India. Sheltered by youthful innocence, naiveté, a blinkered Islamic lifestyle and a wealthy family, she still holds the best memories of her British childhood in a colonialist country, despite the stark reality of a life that was crushed between two, fighting in the darkness.

She had a convent education, British teachers, Anglo Indian school friends and English textbooks. She fondly remembers her pleated bottle green school uniform, with a crisp cream collared shirt and a sash. Her knee length black hair was oiled and neatly tied back into two braids with a white ribbon. And she spoke English fluently, which made her and her siblings the envy of their extended family in the village.

She was a mixture of British and Indian appearances. She was taught English principles but never allowed to internalise or act on them. The freedom and independence of a Western lifestyle was advocated and encouraged by her teachers and the nuns but this was at odds with the strongly traditional upbringing in her home, which her father favoured.

In business, my maternal grandfather was fully compatible with the British. He was a shipbroker, and he and his brothers had made their fortune in it. Even their family lifestyle, the outside appearance of it, was fully integrated with the West: they drove Plymouths and Ambassadors, the men drank alcohol, wore kaftan suits and Nehru caps, carried canes … the archetypal colonised mirroring their liberators.

But within the four walls of the Islamic house that they lived within, he ruled with an iron fist. His daughters were to marry by 17 – at most 21 – and thereafter stay home and look after their husband and children. His sons were to enter the family business, marry, give him grandsons to carry the family name and make him proud.

Neither happened. All his sons chose to follow other business interests. Their choices of a wife were drastically different from what he expected, and eventually they all moved out of the family home. His fortunes were squandered by his sons; his daughters were squandered by the families they had married into. Unable to see it all collapse in front of his eyes, and do nothing to stop it, he made the ultimate mimic of Western life.

But even in this he did not succeed, and was forced to live with this final failure. It destroyed his reputation in a society which had once idolised him and his successes, and which now only saw his weakness. He never recovered. Defeated, my grandfather died a broken man, clinging to the memory of his past life and what could have been.

January 13 2012

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