A favourite blog of mine, which I love to visit, is “Reluctant Memsahib” on Wordpress. This is a blog written on life in Africa, by a woman of British origin. She seems to be somewhere near Kenya I suppose, although I can’t be sure as my knowledge of African geography is nowhere near as good as it should be. I first visited this blog because of the word ‘memsahib’ in the name. I was intrigued. “Memsahib” is an Indian word, you see. Maybe Pakistani and Bangladeshi too. By my understanding, It was a label given by servants to the wife of any high official during the Raj, meaning the time when the British ruled the sub-continent, which consisted of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most of these officials were British, as the Indian Civil Service was not open to officers of Indian origin until very late in the day for some insane reason.
The word ‘memsahib’ is rarely used nowadays, but I came across it recently. I was walking towards the house of my daughter Mel’s friend Anandita. I usually go to Church on Saturday evenings, and Mel likes to visit her friend at that time because she lives quite near the Church. I would of course prefer if Mel would attend Church with me, but as she is a Hindu she is not obligated to attend. Anyway, I was walking towards Anandita’s house with my youngest, Nathan, in tow, to collect Mel, and a car stopped beside me.Inside was Anandita’s mother, Sushma. She informed me that Mel and Anandi were eating something and not quite ready to leave each other. She suggested that she drop me home and that she would send Mel later when she had finished. Well, needless to say, I was very happy to take the lift as it can be difficult getting in and out of public transport when you are accompanied by children. Sushma had some shopping to do so she asked the driver to let her out along the way, drop ‘memsahib’ home and come back for her immediately. Memsahib? That was me! ‘So! I’m a memsahib!’ I thought. I hadn’t realized the word was still in common parlance. Well, no doubt, Sushma ( who is incidentally the wife of a high ranking government official) is definitely a memsahib, and she was merely extending courtesy to me in front of her driver. It was just funny, from my point of view, to imagine people seeing me that way.
Memsahibs are supposed to be very high and mighty, not to mention wealthy. Well, I’m none of those things. Sometimes, people seem to think I am. I mentioned earlier that I mostly use public transport to get around. I was in the habit of taking a rickshaw home after finishing my shopping if I found myself more than a certain distance away from home. A cycle rickshaw. Have you seen one? It’s just a bicycle which pulls a small cartlike structure containing two seats at the back. I didn’t know the fare, or the art of bargaining, or even the language very well. So, from the beginning, I offered ten rupees as fare. That’s the price of a packet of chips. Or crisps as I called them when I lived in Ireland. Anyway, my ten rupees was eagerly snapped up and I noticed that whenever I appeared at the rickshaw stand, the rickshawalas (drivers!) would practically fight to get to me. After a long time, I came to know that the actual fare for the distance I was going was five rupees only. I was popular because I always paid double. Well, as they say in Ireland, bought sense is the best sense.
My nice relationship with the rickshawalas came to a sad end recently. I am memsahib no more for them. One day, I had to pay the school fees for my sons and I was running a little late. A neighbour, Namita, on her way to her office, gave me a lift on her scooter to the local crossroads, advised me to take a rickshaw to the school and back. She warned me not to pay more than thirty rupees. I saw one of my usual rickshawalas, Veeru, standing there. So I hailed him, went to the school, did my work and came back home. When I offered him thirty five rupees as fare, his usually friendly visage took on a look of complete disgust and he protested that the amount was not enough. I understood very well. I’d always paid him double rate for short journeys, why would he settle for less now? I was tired and had no intention of getting into an argument. So I handed over fifty rupees, told him that I didn’t have any more and went into my house. But I haven’t set foot in a rickshaw since that day. I honestly never minded paying him five rupees extra for the short journeys – these people work hard they deserve to make a living – but more than five rupees extra for a longer journey is a bit too much to expect. After all, I’m not earning in dollars. I have all the sympathy for their poverty, but I’m not rich. If I had some serious money, I wouldn’t be using rickshaws anyway. I’d go Sushma’s way, car and driver and all!
All countries have to problem of poverty, I don’t like the way India is automatically branded as ‘poor’ internationally. I never did. Financially, many people may not be very well off here, but the country has a very rich cultural heritage. India has been a world leader in science and mathematics and it is no way less than any other country in the field of arts either and its' film industry is almost on a par with Hollywood. Indians were a bit bemused in general when the Hollywood movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ set in India, swept the Oscars. I heard people say ‘why is it that we only get attention internationally for negative aspects, like slums?’ It is not as if other countries don’t have a poverty problem. But I suppose it’s because India has this problem on a huge scale because it is so challenged population wise. There has been so much money spent on developmental schemes but they don’t seem to affect as many people as they should.
In spite of the fact that we have government schools and all sorts of laws, there are many children who never see the inside of a school building. Many children are sent out to earn something for the family as soon as they can walk. Small children are often seen going around picking up papers and discarded household waste which they sell for a small amount per kilo. I think that if the parents of these kids could only be persuaded to send them to school, it would be so much better for the family in the long run. Once, on a particularly hot day, two little children materialized at my gate, asking for water. I willingly brought it for them, feeling really sorry for them. In no time at all, two had turned into six or seven. Then every day for a week a gang of a dozen or so loud, chattering kids would appear at the gates, demanding ‘Auntie, paani(water)’. Things were getting out of hand! On one such morning, a woman called Amina, who came every morning to help us clean the house asked me ‘why are you tolerating this? I’ll show you what to do!’ She switched on the garden hose (water comes into the garden taps morning and evening) and fired a jet of water straight into the crowd of kids. Believe it or not, they were thrilled and drank and danced to their heart’s content. Our next door neighbour Mrs. Asha Singh came out and told me never to entertain these kids anymore. She explained that they didn’t really need water at all. There was, hadn’t I noticed (I hadn’t, actually!) a perfectly good water pump by the shopping complex at the end of the road. They were just intrigued to have a ‘memsahib’ running in and out to fetch them water. Memsahib! That word again.
There is a lot of progress in India nowadays, and I do hope and pray that some of the benefits reach the poor people. However, I feel that the biggest obstacle India faces is not the lack of money, but a lack of awareness. Poor people are just as valuable as any ‘memsahib’. Why try to get the better of one just to prove it!
This post was written by Gaelikaa, a forty something Irish woman married to an Indian and living in India.
Photo Credit: Muhammad