The First Eight Years (1923 -1931)
Apart from my nine years of boarding school, with three-month Christmas holidays at home, I lived with my family in railway quarters in Saharanpur, about a quarter mile from the railway station. Our home was rented from the North Western Railway, which employed my father as a guard. We had a flower garden in front and guava and lemon trees in the back of our compound. An unruly hedge ran down one side, and a five-foot high brick wall separated us from our neighbours on the other. A high wall at the bottom of the compound hid from view the servants’ quarters. Occasionally, I would make my way there to watch our cook’s wife make their simple food of curry, dall (lentils) and chapatties (pancake-like, unleavened bread). The sweeper and his wife-cum-helpmate lived in a single room next door. It seems our servants were always at our beck and call for all manner of things to be done, leaving us endless hours to be spent, often in sheer idleness and the constant harangues visited upon those poor individuals.
One summer afternoon, when I was about five, our cook Ram Prasad was giving me a tub-bath. My parents were out, and there was a knock on the door. Ram Prasad had been soaping me, but stopped to let in Champia, the wife of our sweeper Banwari. Suddenly, before my eyes, he leapt upon her, throwing her to the brick floor, amid the clatter of bathroom ware, and had intercourse with her. After it was over, he resumed his bathing of me, noticing I’m sure that I had been aroused by what I’d seen. Their meeting must have been planned, and they supposed I was too young to realise what was going on, so had no reason to restrain themselves in my presence. Memories like these I find impossible to erase, but neither am I troubled by the nature of them.
Social life in the town centred on the railway institute in the evenings, when the bar and billiard room would open, and out-door badminton, table tennis, and the reading room were available. The occasional dance brought a number of the railway families out to the Institute, especially the Christmas and New Year’s dances. My father liked the bar and the dances, occasionally getting drunk and quarrelling with my mother when we got home, thus spoiling what would otherwise have been happy experiences.
In spite of everything, I believe my father loved and admired my mother more than she did him. It was a marriage that was doomed from the start, if only because my Granny Keess talked her out of marrying the man she loved. He was a dedicated churchman, whereas my dad had no interest in such things. My mother noted this in her journal, which I have in my safekeeping.
My Brayley grandparents and their nine children lived much closer to the station in a bungalow-style home larger than ours. My grandfather was an office clerk on the railway. I saw very little of him, as he seemed to spend all his time in his room smoking cigars. About the same age as Winston Churchill, he resembled him in looks as well as a fondness for cigars. He was a quiet and enigmatic man, so I have no memory of him speaking with what must have been a Somerset accent. My Granny made up for his reserve with a warm chattiness that endeared her to her family and us grandchildren. She supplemented the family income by working as a lady T.C (ticket collector), while also raising her nine children, the eldest of whom was my father.
She called her kids by names formed by adding an ‘ee’ sound: Frankie, Rosie, Charley, Jimmy, whilst others she nicknamed Chappy (Albert), Poothy (Edith), Fussy (Kathleen). Exceptions, of course, were Mabel and John. She herself was Livie (Livinia) to her sisters, one of whom we knew as Aggie (Agnes) D’Souza. She called my grandfather ‘Old Man’ in a way that could never be mistaken for anything but affection. He, according to my dad, treated her with a deference greater than was her due, for when, as his work required, he wrote official letters, he would let her read them, inviting her comments, knowing full well that she was ill-equipped to help. When she took it upon herself to offer improvements, he would accept them graciously, knowing how flattered she would feel.
My mother recalls in her journal how, when she first married my father, she felt very much at home with her new in-laws. There was a warmth and closeness that I too felt when in later years I would pay them flying visits now and then. Fond as I’m sure she was of me, my Granny never called me by any name other than my own. She had a down-to-earth naiveté that let her say things like, ‘Maurice is a good-looking boy’, and in the next breath, ‘He looks a lot like me’, without in the least being aware of their amusing implications. My grandfather was, I’m sure, the savvy one of the family, which was one likely reason he kept his own company.
Surviving photos show my Granny and Grandpa Brayley posing with concertina’s, suggesting that they were keen on music. My father played the mouth organ pretty well but rarely, and my mother learnt piano and would play pieces such as Aloha Ye (Farewell to Thee) and Maidens Prayer — her favourite — during which she would cross over hands, as my sister Flo and I watched in admiration. For years, however, we poked fun at my mother for this obvious piece of showing off, which she nevertheless took in good grace, always joining us in our amusement. This was the extent of musical talent around me in my early days.
My Keess grandparents (Arthur and Louisa) also lived nearby in what was known as the Jella Hotel. When she was home from boarding school, my aunt Lorna stayed with them. Apart from my mother, whom they adopted, Lorna, twelve years younger, was their only child. My Granny was a bit of a character, with a tart but amusing manner, and Lorna was like her with an added touch of style and self-assuredness that could well have been mistaken for airs. My Granny referred to my Grandpa as ‘the old dog’, and he in his good-natured way took it for the endearing, if unflattering sound of it. His noisy but affectionate way with me, and his incessant drollery, made for a warmth between us that I can only recall with nostalgia. He was closer to me than my own father ever was. In mid 1944, after I’d been commissioned in the navy, it was to him, in the Jella Hotel, that I made a beeline, so that he could see me in my brand new uniform. He shared my pride of accomplishment, but not without his usual, affectionate twitting of me. My Granny had died 19 months earlier, and I’m sure he was lost without her, for all her barbed wit and no-nonsense ways.
My aunt Lorna (18) and Enid Williams (20), who lived next door to us, would take evening strolls around the town, sometimes letting me tag along. When they had something confidential to say, they would spell out the words, using a code. In time, I caught onto it, much to their surprise and chagrin, and soon became pretty adept at it. Later, in boarding school, I tried teaching it to my classmates who, unable to grasp it, resorted to nick naming me ‘Molday’, which could be an approximation to how my first name sounded to them in its coded spelling. Enid taught me at the local railway school, and Lorna went on to St Bede’s, Simla, to prepare for a teaching career. Interesting that one day I too would take up teaching. The Williams family next door, across the small maidan where we played gully dunda (tip cat), consisted of Mrs Alice Williams, widowed, and her children, Evelyn (ev-lin), a muscular man, about my mother’s age, who worked in the ‘loco’ (locomotive) department, and could well have had a romantic interest in my mother.
Next was Clary, more volatile than Evelyn, who was also on the railway. Then Enid, who in out-of-school hours I’d see vigorously practising her short hand. I was about seven when one day she put her arm around me as I stood beside her, and gently squeezed me to her, evoking in me what was perhaps my first flush of sensuality with a woman. Her younger brother, Dicky, was about nineteen and seemed a rather simple chap. One day he confided to me about having nearly seduced an equally simple girl in her mid-teens. Without an adequate social life in the town, the few young fellows around, judging from their talk, seemed preoccupied with sex. A young fellow, Colin Swaries, boarding with the Williamses next door, once made a sexual advance towards me. Embarrassed and revolted, I got clear of him. Later, my father came to hear about it, but instead of showing any outrage over the incident, he humiliated me further by making a crude joke of it. I was sure Evelyn Williams would have reacted with more sensitivity, being a more cultivated man than my father. My mother must also have seen Evelyn in this light. She has always liked people of refinement, and my own preferences have, I believe, over the years been shaped by hers.
Beyond that, I seem not to have been influenced very much by my parents or other adults, mainly I think because they themselves had no noticeably strong beliefs, prejudices or persuasions of their own. Theirs was a cavalier indifference towards religion, politics, current affairs — anything that lay beyond their immediate personal well being. Mine was a quiet and un-demanding world with no enticements beyond it luring me to places of greater excitement. So I grew up, blissfully undisturbed, a nurseling of my poor but hospitable surroundings, ever free from the demands society generally imposes on its individual members through its elders in general, and its churches, schools, families, courts-of-law, and other agencies in particular. In retrospect, I regard this early environment of mine as one of the greatest blessings of my life, made possible by my parents, who without realising it, left me to my own devices so that one day I would find myself earnestly thanking them for it.
My father joined the North Western Railway while his family was in Saharanpur. He lied about his age, so that at sixteen he was taken on as a guard. In 1947, when he was nearly 49, he took early retirement, having made very little progress in his career. I remember him always being very particular in the appearance of his guard’s uniform, as he was with all his clothes. He seemed to enjoy his reputation as a good dresser, especially when his workmates often called him “Swank”, the name rhyming easily with “Frank”. He smoked for most of his life and drank sometimes, on which occasions he might flare up into an argument with my mother, sometimes ending up with striking her. I must confess, however, to never having seen him be violent. My mother, who always had to have the last word, succeeded only in adding fuel to fire. Apart from the first few years of their marriage, my parents never had a truly loving relationship, despite the tender pet names they continued to call each other for as long as I can remember. It was no surprise to me when in 1948, a year after they had settled in Western Australia, their marriage ended, according to my mother’s diary, with some hard feelings. Flo was a year younger than I, and Nigel was seven years younger than Flo.
We had a brother Douglas, a year older than I, who died of enteric fever in his fifth year. I have no recollection of him, except what was generated in me through accounts of him by my mother. Although we grew up together, Flo and I had little to do with each other. I remember mainly those times when in our petty clashes, she would complain about me to my parents, who would take her side more often than not. My father favoured her over me without question, maybe because she was a girl, and this too I’m sure widened the gap between my father and myself. While we were not particularly friendly, Flo and I were civil towards each other. Neither of us, in those years, had close friends, but nor did I notice friendships among the other youngsters in the town. Even in the local railway school, where kids of the same age found themselves lumped together, the dozen or so that attended seemed to keep to themselves.
It was here that a rumour went around that a girl of my age, Helen Harrison, was being linked with me. Embarrassed, I was relieved when the rumour petered out. I did, however, have a soft spot for Maude O’Neil, who lived a few doors down from us. After having a circumcision operation, much later in life than is customary with boys, I was believed to have invited Maude to see my ‘operation’. For the very shy fellow that I was, this was indeed an act of unusual daring, prompted by the innocence of a six-year-old left alone with a sweet girl his own age. It nevertheless took me a long time to live down the memory of that ‘scandal’, about which I supposed the whole town was in the know. [Maude was to die, in Melbourne, Australia, at twenty-five, of a brain tumour, a few years after her marriage to Gerry Coelho in Saharanpur].
I remember very little about my railway school days. Miss Dickens was the headmistress — a fair, slight, and energetic spinster whose class I was never in. Miss Wince was the pianist, and Enid Williams taught me the 3 R’s. Her teaching must have been sound enough, even without benefit of teacher training, for I had no problems with the basics when I got to Oak Grove, and started my long years of boarding school, the early part of which saw me invariably near the bottom of the class.
There were times when I was lonely, particularly after I had just been scolded or punished by being sent to bed. On one such occasion, squatting on our back verandah steps, in my desolation I prayed with all my heart for a younger brother. Soon after, when I had turned eight, my brother Nigel was born. I was taken into my parents’ bedroom to see him, where he lay in my mother’s arms, barely a day old, scarcely discernible in the warm, humid, and dimly lit room. I was happy he’d come, but didn’t at the time connect him with my prayer. I cuddled and enjoyed him for the next two months, before it was time for boarding school at Oak Grove. I was sad to leave him, as I was with all the things of home, to go to school for the next nine months without a break. The eight years difference in our ages gave me a paternal feeling for my brother, whom I called ‘son’ for many years, till the name became inappropriate and I dropped it.
My father had pet names for each of us in our family, much as my Granny had in hers. They were all strange names, but they grew out of my father’s oddly affectionate nature. My mother was ‘Kortheel’, I was ‘Chee Chee’ (‘Chee Chee Peelyah’ to my Uncle Charlie), Flo was ‘Fee Thoo’, and Nigel was ‘Pull Marn’, all sounded in his special way. (I find myself doing the same with Jean and our six children, and others as well to whom I become specially attached). My wife ‘Jeannie’ I call, with love ‘Fatty’ (for fat she certainly is not), and our children ‘Gin Gin’, ‘Choff’, ‘Sue Pooh’, ‘Russ Fuss’, ‘Inga Baba’, and ‘Pen Pen’ — all sweet, loving names.
These first years in Saharanpur were leisurely, if uneventful ones, in keeping with the unhurried and easy way of life in those days. What we lacked in the busy and more stimulating life of bigger cities, we made up for in the quiet and more relaxed life of a small town. What I did during the day was entirely up to me, so long as I was on time for meals. After I learnt to ride a bike, I was seldom around the house. My world was a patch of ground barely eighty acres, with three roads forming a triangle, one side of which, where we lived in ‘traffic’ quarters, extended over a bridge that spanned numerous railway tracks, shiny with use. The road then switched back to pass by the railway institute, then the school behind a neglected hedge, and finally through the railway colony where on either side were the homes of mainly ‘loco’ employees (drivers and firemen). Riding leisurely along these roads, stopping wherever I fancied, filled my early years with the same satisfactions I now get, 65 years later, as I walk my sixty minutes every morning, enjoying an interior monologue that touches on things unexpectedly stimulating. Simple pleasures such as these have helped shape the gentle contours of my mind.
Cars in those days were a luxury only a few could afford. Apart from the station master, none of the railway people, like my father, ever learnt to drive a car, let alone own one. The pleasures of cycling, however, more than compensated for our lack of a car. My father’s income left us very little to get by with, especially when in 1930, when I was seven, my mother told me that my father’s income would be cut by 10%, because of the Great Depression. Under my mother’s expert management there was never a day we had to go without. We had three full-time servants: a khansama (cook), a mathur (sweeper), and an ayah (nanny) who looked after us when we were little. We had also a mali (gardener), and a dhobi (washerman) who worked for other families as well. These servants worked faithfully for so little pay, some for seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Over the years, we became very attached to our servants. Since none of them spoke English, we got by with speaking Hindustani (the lingua franca), many of us quite fluently. It also helped at this time that my mother, an accomplished dressmaker, wholly self-taught, made most of our clothes, calling in a tailor only when the sewing load became unmanageable. I’d spend many an hour, wrapped in admiration, watching my mother turn out clothes worthy of a professional.
For a few years I didn’t have a bike of my own, so I rode my mother’s. I rode it only when there was nothing else around, preferring a man’s bike. Across from us, the cycle shop owner, Maseetha, who called me Phoody seah (something vulgar, I suspect), rented bikes at an anna an hour. Since I couldn’t afford this, I arranged with him that in return for fixing his bikes, I could have one of his for an hour. In this way I had my fill of cycling till I got my own bike which I rode to my heart’s content.
Although my mother at eighteen started training to become a missionary with a little-known group called the Faith Mission, none of my family attended church when I was growing up; nor were we pressed into going. I have recollections of attending, with my mother and Flo, a Sunday evening service or two in the spacious drawing room of an elderly American lady, Miss Heron. She conducted a service of hymn singing, prayer, and a sermon delivered by her with an evangelical fire that left me quite stirred up. She was a most devout lady, and I fancied her a saint. She was fostering four Indian children: Miriam, who accompanied the Sunday hymns on a small organ, Duleep, Ranjit, and Esther, children of a shoemaker named Das, whom we never saw. I was fascinated by their American accents, acquired from Miss Heron, whom they called ‘Auntie’, and from their school, Woodstock (in Mussoorie), run by American Methodists for children of Americans resident in India. I visited the Das boys sometimes, and became friends with Ranjit who was my age. Together we’d ride our bikes around the place. I enjoyed his American accent and novel slang. Duleep, a few years older than Ranjit, was an electronics enthusiast, his room in their large home filled with electrical stuff of bewildering assortment.
[Twelve years later we’d meet up again, Duleep a flight lieutenant in the air force, Ranjit and I lieutenants in the regular navy. Fourteen years later, having moved to Australia, I would hear from Duleep, stationed in England, that Ranjit had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Portsmouth while doing advanced training with the Royal Navy. Ranjit and I had palled up again when we ran into each other in Bombay during our naval days. Our fellow officers had nicknamed him ‘Yank’, for he never lost his American accent].
My own accent was influenced by the Hindustani I spoke as I was growing up. It bore little resemblance to the English spoken by British-born people in India, and about this I became increasingly self-conscious the older I got. English was spoken three different ways:
- The ‘posh’ English of southern English people who have been educated at the public (independent) schools,
- The English we heard constantly in the speech of Indians around us (Babu English, as we ungraciously called it), and
- The English we spoke influenced as it was by our constant use of Hindustani.
It is difficult to describe the English we spoke, without resorting to elaborate phonetic symbols. One difference was with the diphthongs of English. There were no diphthongs in our speech, just vowels. For example, the word ‘coat’ in phonetic script is ‘kout’ (‘ou’ being the diphthong). We said ‘kot’ (‘o’ being a vowel, the first part only of the diphthong). Another difference was with some consonants. For example, the word ‘teeth’ in phonetic script is ‘ti:0’. We said ‘ti:th’, the ‘th’ being a sound not heard in British English. We stressed different syllables in certain words, hence ‘big in’ for ‘begin’, and ‘electra city’ for ‘electricity’. Pronunciations were sometimes different: ‘cigrits’ for ‘cigarettes’, ‘ony’ for ‘only’.
In their kinder moments the English said we sounded Welsh because of our sing-song lilt. But it was the speed and rhythm that made for the most noticeable differences and earned for us the searing nickname of ‘Chee Chee’. Essentially, though, our language itself was scarcely distinguishable from educated English in the matter of correct usage. Saharanpur brings to mind the constant sound of railway trains going past our house, along with the clang and clatter of railway wagons being shunted, during the first sixteen years of my life. There was always the smell of smoke and coal dust from the steam engines. My father’s uniform, black in winter, white in summer brought the flavour of trains into our home. It could be called a ‘railway’ smell that permeated everything around us, until we got so used to it that we became unaware of it.
Our staple food, also our favourite, was curry and rice and dall, which our khansama cooked to perfection. At times, however, my father, who fancied himself a connoisseur, found fault with the food. Either the curry wasn’t red enough, or it lacked the ‘right’ consistency. Whatever it was, his criticisms showed little regard for the feelings of our cook, who also served at the table as ‘bearer’ for a mere sixteen rupees (about five dollars) a month.
With no retirement pensions, leaves of absence, or fringe benefits, this, on its own tells a story of shameless exploitation.
We had no electricity, running water or sewage system in those days in our home. Kerosene lanterns gave us lighting. Punkhas (cloth-covered frames suspended from the ceiling) pulled by coolies, and khus khus tatties (fibred screens kept wet for cooling) hanging in verandahs cooled us on very hot days. Water for drinking, washing, and gardening, was delivered by a bhisti (water carrier) who carried it in a mussak (pear-shaped leather bag), slung around his neck. From this he filled our sarais (earthenware vessels to keep the water cool), and metal containers for bathing and washing. Water for baths was heated in canisters over coal fires by which our food was also cooked. Kitchenware was cleaned with a paste of ashes and mud rinsed to magical brilliance by our cook.
We had two guslkhanas (bathrooms), but used only one. It was a small, square room with a hole in the outer wall to let out used water and about the right size to let in snakes. One corner, around that outlet was fenced in by a low parapet the height of a brick. In this enclosure sat an oval zinc tub. Ranged along the inner wall was a table holding an enamel basin, a soap dish and a jug; a chamber pot, a packet of Bromo paper, and a wooden ‘commode’. This contraption had a cutout in the middle of the seat, and a hinged lid. Under the hole was an enamel pot.
The guslkhana was the responsibility of the mathur — one of India’s ‘Untouchables’. After the toilet had been used we’d yell for the mathur who, till that moment had been squatting on his haunches enjoying a biri (cheap locally made cigarette). He’d remove the pot, carry it to the backyard, empty it into a large container lined with coal tar, swab the pot with phenyl and return it to its place. From the backyard the contents were collected by a bullock-drawn tanker, which we called the Midnight Mail because of the time of night it made its rounds. The effluence was dumped a couple of miles away into the Dhumola River, where I once went with Oswald Houghton, a neighbour about my age. I have a memory, as incredible as it was revolting, of wading in that river as turds floated by. It says something about our immune system in those days. Other than seeing it as we went over it by train, I have never set eyes on that river again, except in memory. Garbage posed no problems, as disposable stuff, except for newsprint, seemed not to accumulate. Instead of Bromo paper, we often used, with no noticeable ill effects, newspaper cut to size.
To more salubrious matters: the half-dozen stores around the ‘triangle’ were stocked with all our necessities, whilst our cook shopped for provisions in the bazaar. These were stored under lock and key in a tall cupboard in the dining room, where I would often sneak in when the door was unlocked and help myself to a hurried two tablespoons of white sugar, invariably, it seemed, just before my mother would catch me in the act. ‘Been at the sugar, Maurice?’ she would ask, superfluously, to which I would reply, naturally, ‘No, mummy.’ ‘All right,’ she would say, with a mother’s understanding, ‘but wipe that sugar from your mouth’. This would be followed, not with a lecture on truthfulness, but a warning about the dangers of diabetes from too much sugar. The very sound of ‘die’ in ‘diabetes’ was enough to scare the daylights out of me, long enough at least until the cupboard was next left open. There were times when my dishonesty brought me sweet results, as when for instance a travelling ice-cream wallah brought round his rare delights, and which I paid for from some small change I stole from my mother’s dressing-table drawer. I was never asked about shortages there, which taught me a useful moral — never steal enough for it to be noticed.
Christmas morning was the loveliest day of the year for me. I’d open my eyes to the sight of brilliant red, green, and yellow streamers above my bed, and lucky stockings saturated with colour, while outside a brass band of natives played Christmas tunes with amazing skill. In due course they would get their baksheesh (tip), and move on to pick up some more nearby. Later in the morning, my Keess grandparents with my aunt Lorna, and a few neighbours would call by and my mother would serve Christmas cake laced with brandy and overlaid with almond and royal icing. I was allowed to have a glass of port-and-lemon, while my father, Grandpa Keess, and Lawrence Braganza and his sister Lily from the Jella Hotel had Scotch and soda, and smoked Gold Flake cigarettes offered round in silver cigarette cases that were quite the fashion. We gave our servants a small cash bonus, for which they would touch their foreheads in humble appreciation.
In the evening, Father Christmas would make his grand entry at the railway institute, where we’d have a tea party in the dance hall, decked out with tables of sweets, oranges and bonbons. Father Christmas would then give us youngsters our gifts previously labelled by our mothers. Christmas day rang with the scratchy sounds of Bye-bye Blackbird and Springtime in the Rockies coming from our wind-up H.M.V. gramophone with petunia-shaped horn and steel needles in sound boxes. Christmas for me was the heavenly taste of cake and port-and-lemon, an ill-disguised Father Christmas, and the sound of carols in the air. And somewhere throughout that joyous day was the vaguely sensed reason for all this — the wondrous event of a child born, we were told, in a manger in far away Bethlehem a long, long time ago.
The years of my childhood went by with a carefree ease, unhurried and unspoilt by events shaping the national scene or the world beyond the shores of India. Nor did my parents or grandparents feel the impact of current events, except when, as I’ve noted earlier, it meant cuts to their pay during the Depression. It wasn’t apathy, because that would mean they knew but didn’t care. It was more a kind of blissful ignorance that shielded them from what might otherwise have caused them pain and anxiety. We lived in times when the groundswell of Indian nationalism was expressing itself in angry crowds that surged past our house, wearing defiant ‘Gandhi’ (Congress) caps, and shouting their frightening Hindustan zindabad! (Long live India!).
Although we had no cause for alarm, the resentment being directed towards British rule, we were afraid and took to preparing ourselves against dangers that were more imaginary than real. My mother’s journal entries concerning those days tell of our fears, and the plans we made for our safety. In the unlikely event that we should be attacked, our plans to assemble at a place called the ‘armoury’ made little practical sense. Fortunately, nothing happened that made us fearful, and we lived in perfect safety throughout those turbulent years of India’s struggle for independence that began around 1892 (earlier, if we count the Mutiny of 1857), when my grandpa Albert Brayley at twenty came out from England with the East Surrey Regiment to India.
A more understandable fear was that of break and entry into our home during the night. It started with my mother, who once happened to see a native man enter our place while we were asleep. It wasn’t long before she was describing him as ‘cross-eyed’ and ‘evil looking’, and that he made off with a blanket (later recovered). Not much in itself, it nonetheless gave her a dread of intruders, for she always made sure our doors and windows were secure before we turned in for the night. Her fears were, naturally, transmitted to me, and to this day I have dreams of native men sneaking into our Saharanpur home at night and behaving as if they had every right to be there. In those dreams, I find myself checking our doors only to find they are unlocked. Sometimes, even though locked, they yield to little or no pressure. [To this day, no matter where I’m spending the night, I find myself checking all doors before turning in].
I should note in passing that by ‘Indian’ we meant, in those days, any native of India. We tended to think, however, of the angry crowds as Hindu. Our servants, Hindu and Muslim alike, took no part in the demonstrations. They seemed as unaware as we were of the social and political realities around us, and their going about their jobs as if nothing were amiss gave us some comfort. We were to realise, in time, that those relatively peaceful days were numbered, for in less than fifteen years a period of Indian history would end in partition of the country, communal riots, and bloodshed. The India we once knew would become unrecognisable with its horrendous crowds, its squalor, and its festering corruption.
Saharanpur was essentially a railway town, the District beyond having a native population of 1 million, now about 5 million. The bazaar, crowded and unsanitary, was a place into which we seldom ventured, except to get something that the shops in town didn’t have, or maybe sometimes just to satisfy a perverse desire to be immersed in the disgusting squalor of a native bazaar. The town shops were adequately stocked and pleasant, and the Indian owners (Karam Chand and Sons, and Mohan Lal), reasonably fluent in English, served us well. Two doctors were on call, one from the railway hospital, the other, a Dr Dalton from the Civil lines, who made house calls. A chemist’s, Kitchener & Son, had a well-stocked and attractive store at the northern apex of the ‘triangle’. A mochi (shoemaker), a men’s tailor, Kala Khan, and a draper and milliner, Kewal Ram supplied our needs at their shops, situated along the two other sides of the ‘triangle’. A number of native shops, selling delicacies, catered to the native population. We were warned against buying because of their un-hygienic preparation. Despite the myriad flies that settled on and swarmed around them, the mouth-watering jelabies, peras, gulab jamuns, ‘hot gram’ and ‘pollies’ dirt’ were irresistible. We’d watch with fascination the freshly boiled milk being cooled by being poured from one lotah (vessel) into another and back again in a long, continuous flow, with never a drop spilt.
Tongas, bullock carts, and cyclists shared the crudely paved roads with pedestrians and the occasional car. Dogs, mostly pariahs (‘parry-ers’), roamed the town, mating sometimes before our embarrassed but eager gaze. Our dog Judy was one of these, but it hurt us to think of her as a pariah. A chubby, dun coloured, loveable thing, my sister Flo and I, too heavy by far, would ride her till we fell off in gales of laughter.Among the more common birds around, I remember the scavenging crows best. Our next-door neighbours, the D’Souzas, had a mynah, which the rather odd woman of the house fed by mouth from the gram she munched. Her son Eric, a dark-skinned young chap, was credited with the amusing retort to someone’s calling him “midnight” by saying, “You can’t talk, m’n, you’re only ten o’clock yourself!” (I can still hear the sound of our unpolished, warm and comfortable ‘chee-chee’ talk).
Nothing scared us so much during the hot summers as lurking snakes. Occasionally, we’d find ourselves transfixed as we’d watch a snake charmer start up on his bean, its wails drawing forth a cobra, rearing itself slowly from a small basket, hood spread in diabolical splendour as it rose full height before our riveted gaze. After a brief choreography, swaying to the tuneless wail, the serpent would be returned to its basket, after which the snake charmer would motion for his rewards from those of us who had gathered round. I could never see this as entertainment, so I never gave a single cowrie for something that filled me with dread and loathing.
The elite of Saharanpur lived away from the railway section. All of them English, they were the Collector, an I.C.S man (Indian Civil Service), a few executives of the W.D & H.O Wills cigarette factory, and cavalry officers who lived in style in the Remount Depot. These people belonged in a world of their own, separate and distinct from us and, indeed, from one another. The I.C.S officer, in particular, enjoyed a rank and exclusiveness that Britain reserved for her top administrators in India. It was generally believed that the I.C.S represented the cream of the intelligentsia of Britain and India, entry into which was by open competitive exam pitched at graduate level. With few exceptions, the I.C.S was British.[It would be some twelve years later that I would find myself mingling with fellow naval officers comparable to the elite of Saharanpur (I.C.S excepted), many of them recently out of prestigious English schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Here it was that I first began taking a liking to them, a far cry from how I was brought up to regard them in my Saharanpur days. Sad how it takes something as dreadful as a war to create warmth and kinship among people].
We had our share of small-town gossip in those days, some of which trickled down to us smaller fry, and assumed a significance often unwarranted by the facts. Nearly always they had to do with illicit goings-on, one, as it happened, in my grandparents’ family. Recalling two of them could well expose me to the risk of being seen as exulting in scandal. My reasons for mentioning them, however, are my deep interest in the behaviour of people acting out of their all too human drives and, equally, my sorrow over their plight for having done so.
An aunt of mine had no less than three children by her sister’s husband. She continued, nevertheless, to be accepted by the family, for they all got on well together, reserving their condemnation for the philandering father of those children. This says something for the family feeling that held them all together.
There was a woman whose husband was a guard on the railway and lived a few doors down from us. It was rumoured that she had a son by her native servant. The story went that one hot summer afternoon, while her husband was at work, she had the servant wash her feet in a basin, during which she seduced him and became pregnant. The child born of this union, a good looking boy, was my brother Nigel’s age and the two became good chums when they were about seven. His dark skin lent credibility to the story, as both the woman and her husband were very fair skinned. Yet, the presence of this child in their home seemed to cause no problem. I’d see the couple occasionally on my bike rides — ordinary, decent people. There was nothing, it seemed, to get worked up about.
One hot afternoon I happened upon a rough-and-tumble session between the husband of a woman and her younger sister, a friend of my sister Flo. They were on a bed in the girl’s home a few doors down from us. The horseplay got out of hand and she became pregnant, but the matter was hushed up and we heard no more about it. Of those matters that somehow escape public notice, though little was known, much was conjectured. Now and then, from the room next to mine, I would overhear my parents’ whispers about this or that child being conceived out of wedlock, as their sly calculations confirmed discrepancies between the child’s arrival and its parents’ wedding day. Among the townsfolk, despite their predilection for minding other people’s business, judgements were often withheld. There seemed to be some reluctance to jumping to conclusions, suggesting perhaps that people were, after all, mindful of the scriptural admonition about ‘casting the first stone’.
In retrospect, there isn’t any thing in my boyhood days I would have exchanged for anything else, no matter how grand. Only when it came time for boarding school did I have regrets, for the next nine months deprived me of things that had made me happy: the closeness of my mother and my brother Nigel; my cycle that was my constant joy by day, and my navar-laced bed with coir mattress that was my comfort at night. Gone for ever, it seemed, were the homely sight of rickety tongas and labouring bullock carts that plied our rough-hewn roads; gone the familiar sound of engines thrusting past our home; gone the paradise of home-cooked food, of curry and rice at noon, and jelabee pudding at night. No more, for all those months, would there be our dutiful servants: our cook Ram Prasad, our sweeper Banwari and his ‘errant’ wife Champia, and young Pindi who looked after Nigel. How much they suffered our thoughtless dominion over them with a loyalty that far exceeded anything we deserved.
We treated them fondly, but without much trust. Their presence, though constantly around, was barely noticeable. The khansama, the dhobi, the mathur, and the mali were tolerated and abused as a matter of course. We knew nothing about their lives, their character or their beliefs, their hopes or their fears. We were concerned only about their loyalty and efficiency, to the extent that if either came into question it meant instant dismissal. They obviously knew more about our goings-on than we about theirs, but we blithely assumed we were beyond their condemnation. What became of our servants after we left India, heaven only knows. They were the ‘Untouchables’, Mahatma Gandhi’s beloved harijans, but in India’s caste-ridden society they’ve probably fared no better than with us. I cannot think of Indians without remembering those servants, Hindu and Muslim alike, and I find myself to this day feeling for them a tenderness and affection I never thought I possessed.
This content has been reproduced from a blog posted by Maurice Brayley on November 27, 2006. The link to the original post has been removed in accordance with his family’s wishes.