When I got married over thirty years ago in a lavish Indian wedding, my new husband and I settled in Bombay. And I was suddenly propelled into a world so unfamiliar, that sometimes I felt as if I were meandering around in a dream. That the extremes of poverty and luxury, joy and despair, beauty and squalor were just too … extreme …. to be real.
We moved into a surprisingly modern apartment, mainly tenanted by employees of the German Consulate. For some reason my Indian in-laws felt that I would be more comfortable with European neighbors, blithely ignoring the fact that my German vocabulary was limited to a single word. Gesundheit. And that I much preferred the warm boisterous gatherings my husband’s family seemed to enjoy almost daily. Dinner was rotated amongst a dozen or so friends and relatives a couple of times during the week and it was always like a party to me. But my in-laws wanted to be sure I was happy and didn’t feel lonely away from my own people.
My sister-in-law Darshana arrived within hours of our last bits of baggage being stowed away in our new home and she promptly sat down with pad and pencil to outline what our proper staff should include. A cook, a driver, a top-servant ( which seemed to be an extra person delegated to simply flick a duster over the furniture and fluff pillows) and an ayah were the barest minimum, she insisted. A sweeper could come in daily for an hour or so.
I’m a very private person. I can’t bear to be waited on. Even the ministrations of an over-zealous waiter in a fine restaurant make me acutely uncomfortable. And a manicure or pedicure is out of the question. The thought of a household populated by shadowy figures scurrying around doing simple chores I could easily handle myself was daunting. I began to protest as politely as possible.
Why would I need an ayah? I didn’t have children and certainly wasn’t planning on a pregnancy in the weeks after my marriage. Why a top-servant? Why so many extra people in my home. I threw my husband an imploring glance.
“Bhabi-ji” he said to Darshana, ” We really appreciate this. As soon as we settle in, maybe you can find us find some good servants. That will really help Nikki a lot …..” Somehow he deftly managed to usher her out and into her car. We both folded our hands in a “Namaste” as her driver sped off.
And then our negotiations began in private. I agreed that a cook would be a good idea since my cooking skills were negligible. And Indian cuisine consisted of a lot more intricacies than roasting a chicken or mashing some potatoes. It required an almost encyclopaedic familiarity with a range of spices even Columbus had never heard of when he set sail in the wrong direction. Yes. A cook would be fine.
But a top-servant and an ayah were two too many people in my home. My husband insisted that these servants would be “company” for me when he was busy at work. It was a well-intentioned idea but it nearly sank our marriage right there and then.
“Company ?” I was incredulous. I had three degrees, my interests were Baroque music, English literature and art. I knew it would be hard enough to adjust to a completely different culture, but the thought that two totally uneducated women, neither of whom would probably speak a word of English would be “company” for me was just too much cultural adjustment to make. I put my foot down. No way.
But I would compromise on the cook. And the driver. Since I had never learned to drive and at that time, women didn’t drive in India. Even foreign women had drivers.
We agreed that the cook would make my husband’s breakfast, accompany him to the factory where he would prepare lunch and then take the afternoon off. And the driver would drive my husband and the cook to work and then come back and be available for me during the day. It seemed very extravagant to me, but my Indian family still fretted from time to time that “Nikki has no servants Hai hai hai ….”
The cook proved to be a taciturn chap who may have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty years old. I had no idea but felt since he was senior to me, he deserved the respect due to age. He was clearly unused to that attitude and insisted on bending over from the waist whenever speaking to me. Alas, he had no sense of humor either, because when I indicated he should straighten up proudly because he was a bahut achaa or very good cook …. he looked perplexed at my miming of a proud chef.
But the driver was a charmer. Nur Singh was little dark man with a round merry face and eyes which truly sparkled with good humor. He was so obviously delighted with his new job. For some reason, driving a “memsahib” was a coveted post for drivers in Bombay.
To celebrate his status, after a few short weeks he suddenly appeared with a white pilot’s cap, lavishly trimmed with gold braid. Where he got it, I have no idea. But he wore it with the aplomb of a five-star general for several months until the incongruity of his spectacular headgear with the sometimes ratty jeans of his passenger apparently occurred to him. I didn’t wear silk sarees everyday and liked to “be a hippie” now and then to keep myself grounded. Nur Singh had no idea which persona would appear each day.
Over the following months, we began to converse in a mixture of Hindi and English. I was eager to learn more Hindi and Nur Singh wanted to speak a bit of English to show off to his friends. But I had problems with the fact that there are no less than four distinct pronunciations of “d” and “t” in Hindi and a misplaced tongue can convert a perfectly polite word into a very colorful cousin. On several occasions, I knew I had committed an egregious error when a dark purple blush appeared on Nur Singh’s neck. Then I knew I was in trouble.
And I would immediately say … ” मैं पूछना होगा” …. ” I’ll ask the Sahib.” Nur Singh would bob his head up and down energetically and the matter would be quickly dropped.
But we both enjoyed a good laugh and some of my peccadilloes needed a driver who was discreet and wouldn’t tattle on me to my husband. I didn’t want to be isolated from the ordinary people and would often have Nur Singh park the car and then walk for several blocks to my destination. This always made him a little edgy. When several years later we moved outside Bombay to the suburbs, it became a little easier for him to keep a wary eye on me.
One day I needed to buy some fabric for a choli, the little blouse Indian women wear under their sarees. So off we went to Linking Road, a posh shopping area about three miles from my Juhu home. As usual I had Nur Singh park the car a fair distance from the fabric shop, grabbed my bag and darted out of the car.
But there was some confusion in the street ahead of us. There appeared to be a crowd of local fisherwoman or slum dwellers marching down the road and waving placards around. Cries of “Zindabad” pierced the air and I realized that it was some sort of morcha, which was the local version of a protest march. “Zindabad” was the rallying cry of morchas. It meant “long life to” and was applied to whatever cause was being promoted.
Most of the protesters were wearing faded cotton sarees in the old Maharashtrian peasant style. Nine yards of flimsy cloth wrapped around their bodies and between their legs to make a combination of pantaloons and short saree. This particular variant of the ordinary six yard saree allowed them to move freely as they did farming chores or domestic work.
They were very enthusiastic as they marched along, vigorously shaking their cardboard signs and throwing their heads far back to yell “Zindabad” at the top of their lungs. I was curious, so I moved towards them.
Then I saw the policeman. A little scrawny man in the traditional navy blue shorts and wedge cap. He was walking alongside the marchers and wielding his lathi, a sort of bamboo stick which Bombay police in the lower ranks carried in lieu of a gun. But he was swinging it very close to several of the women’s bare ankles as he barked out orders.
I glued my eyes onto that lathi and the moment it made contact with one of the women’s legs, I leaped into action. I ran back to the car, handed my bag to Nur Singh and swung around in the direction of the morcha. Nur Singh wailed ” Lekin memsahib ….. bahut takleef … ” Futilely pointing out that there would be trouble and it was not good for a memsahib to be there … and … and …….
His voice faded as I dashed into the midst of the marchers. I ran ahead a bit until I located the policeman I’d seen with that lathi and then placed myself firmly between him and the marching ladies. I raised my hands in the air and began shouting ” Zindabad” as I pounded along the street. Not sure what the rest of the slogans were, I improvised a bit and yelled , ” Ferozabad, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad ” and the name of any city which seemed to rhyme with the original chant.
The policeman pulled away, obviously startled to see an English woman in the midst of the morcha and clearly not going to use his lathi on me or any of the ladies around me. We marched on, gaining volume and spectators. I looked around and realized we were only a moderate morcha of about fifty people. And that there was one girl leading us who was dressed in a lavish silk saree with gold jewelry and heavy makeup. She looked horribly out of place as if she’d been dragged from her wedding ceremony and plunked down at the head of this protest march.
From time to time she turned around and seemed to wave her hands at us encouragingly. We increased our volume and I added three more Indian cities to my repertoire of slogans.
We were nearing the intersection of Linking Road with Bandra, when everyone seemed to slow down a bit. Suddenly I heard a single English word from somewhere ahead.
I looked up and there was a photographer balanced on some sort of scaffolding on the back of a truck, It took only an instant for me to realize I’d just made my Bollywood debut.
When I slunk back to my car, I could see that Nur Singh had collapsed on the front fender. He raised his head just enough to gasp ” Memsahib ….. ek shooting, ” before dissolving into hysterical laughter. Finally he mumbled, “ Saira Banu aur Memsahib bahut bara stars.” And I realized then that I’d just co-starred with Saira Banu, one of Bollywood’s top stars.