BEASTS OF WONDER
No Baboons in India
What a beast of wonder is a Babu!
‘You are Taylaah?’
‘More or less.’
As a kid at school I was obliged to answer to my surname. These days it sits less easily with me, as do jobsworths of all descriptions. And, judging by the array of ballpoint pens lining the top pocket of his shirt, this customs official was a jobsworth of some considerable self-importance. He grimaced sternly at me through his pebble lenses, displaying a preternatural number of teeth.
‘You are attempting to import livestock into Indiaah?’
‘I have been informed that you have brought two dogs with you from Africaah.’
‘My dogs are not livestock. They are family pets.’
‘It is a serious offence to import livestock into Indiaah without producing the required documentation.’
‘I have produced the documentation.’ I pointed to the bulging manila folder lying on the battered steel desk between us.
‘The documentation is inadequate.’
‘How can it be inadequate? I checked it with your consulate in Malawi. I even checked it with your High Commission in London.’
‘Ah, Taylaah,’ the customs official shook his head sadly, ‘these silver-spoon diplomats live in a different world from us poor government officials. When mistakes are made it is we who suffer the consequences.’
‘Well, it’s my dogs who are suffering them at this moment. They have been in their travelling cages without water for more than ten hours and this building is like the burning fiery furnace. At least let me go and give them a drink.’
‘All in good time. First, there is this matter of your inadequate documentation.’
‘So, how many documents are missing?’
‘And what might that be?’
‘The rabies clearance certificate.’
‘But I have given you up-to-date rabies vaccination certificates for both dogs, issued by a qualified vet in Malawi.’
‘But not the official Indian Government Rabies Clearance Certificate duly signed and stamped in quadruplicate by the Chief Government Veterinarian here in New Delhi. This is an essential document.’
The customs official stared at me incredulously through his pebble lenses.
‘Surely it is obvious. Indiaah has a duty to protect herself from the importation of rabid foreign livestock.’
‘All this bumf I’ve given you shows that my dogs have been vaccinated since puppyhood against rabies, distemper, hard-pad and any other disease you care to name. Probably polio, measles and whooping-cough, knowing my pernickety South African vet. In any case, rabies is already rife in India.’
‘That is irrelevant.’
‘So, what is relevant? What is to be done? Do I simply about-face and take my dogs back to Malawi?’
‘It is not as simple as that. You are facing a very large fine for the illegal importation of livestock. And the animals are liable to be destroyed.’
The official sign, hanging appropriately crooked, had proclaimed ‘Welcome to Indira Gandhi International Airport!’ Like midnight’s children in 1947 we had arrived on the stroke of twelve. But here we were three hours later in the seedy chaos of Delhi airport’s cargo terminal, bickering with babus, complacently indifferent officials who were determined not to give way until sufficiently large quantities of cash had been dispensed. This sort of treatment is not reserved for visitors, but is meted out democratically to anybody, foreign or Indian, who looks as if he might have a rupee to contribute. And if ever, during the next few years, we felt disposed to mutter about it, our Indian friends would gleefully remind us that the Byzantine bureaucracy that spawned it was a legacy of the British Raj. In my cantankerousness I had argued the toss with corrupt Mexican cops, gun toting militares and bumptious bureaucrats whose arrogance suggested that the swastika still flourished south of the Darien Gap. But this was different. Our two exhausted and dehydrated hostages had to be rescued so the bribe was duly paid.
At four in the morning we reached the temporary accommodation provided by our new employers and fell into a troubled, babu-haunted sleep, punctuated by the whoosh and clatter of the cheapest kind of air-conditioner. At seven, I was wandering around in a dazed and mazy state in search of my coffee percolator. Basil followed me with tired eyes but Baldrick’s crooked banana tail thumped softly in greeting.
In the small hours, relieved to have arrived at last, I had not taken much note of the house. This morning I gave it more attention. After the lavish accommodation we had become used to in headmasters’ residences throughout the world it was something of a shock: a smallish, new, already-crumbling, jerry-built semi, in an identical row, fronting a vast open space pockmarked with piles of rubble and scrap metal. This was Gurgaon, the Indian Singapore, Delhi’s fastest-growing satellite and Millennium City. I looked out of the front window at a huge, unfinished, futuristic concrete structure, already streaked with rain and rust, and felt as bemused as Shelley’s traveller gazing at what was left of Ozymandias’s statue.
Rough tarpaulin tents, dotted here and there in the waste, housed construction workers, who at this time in the morning were cooking their breakfasts over open fires. Bristling troops of pigs, like illustrations from a medieval treatise on wild boar hunting, rooted in the piles of rubbish. In the days that followed, the morning walk with Baldrick and Basil was fraught with excitement, as their curiosity, not only about the pigs, but also the camels, buffaloes, monkeys, donkeys, squirrels, sacred Brahma cows and their enormous ground-pawing male counterparts, sometimes got the better of our doggies’ rather patchy obedience training.
The interior of the house was marginally better than the outside. Reflecting one of our new employers’ business interests, the furniture was largely antique, or junque, as my spouse acerbically observed. Small tables bore chased brass pots and incense-burners. Ear-ringed and fiercely moustachioed maharajas, clutching huge scimitars, stared moodily from heavy frames on the walls. Teak elephants and tigers lurked in corners to trip the unwary. The intricate hardwood sofa was an instrument of torture and the only comfortable place to relax was the massive double bed, where elephant-headed Ganeshas peeped coyly from a riot of carving on the towering headboard. Even this antiquity was less solid than it looked, as our indignant son Will, on vacation from his university, discovered when he sat down too heavily on it.
‘What was the crash?’
‘The fucking bed’s collapsed.’
On this first morning I peered with disbelief into the small, poky galley. In negotiating my contract I had specified that our kitchen should be fully equipped, and so it was, with cast-offs apparently from the employers’ servants’ quarters: an ancient and odorous gas ring, a frying pan without a handle and a chipped enamel saucepan with a loose grip that twisted in the hand to scald the user. The centrepiece was a huge, elderly yellow refrigerator whose cracked and perished door-seal was supplemented with plastic parcel-tape. It was clear that it had long ceased to be up to the job of actually keeping anything cool, and fanning the milk jug with a copy of the Times of India would have been a lot more effective. The Lord Ram alone knew how long the owners had cherished it, but months after we had spurned it in favour of a slightly less elderly veteran it kept re-appearing in the kitchens of new teachers who joined our school.
There was no washing machine and when Val raised this with our employers she was told that Indian house servants were used to washing clothes by hand. You may be wondering why we didn’t load our suitcases into a taxi and head back to the airport. The two reasons were watching us anxiously from their mat in the living room.
‘If I don’t eat, I’ll die; and if I die, I won’t eat.’
We shared Major Bloodnok’s dilemma. It wasn’t really the fault of Anand, our new cook, because his English was as non-existent as our Hindi. So we felt reassured when Prakash, our employers’ number-one son, told us ‘Don’t worry, I’ll suggest some recipes for Anand to try, and I’ll translate your comments so he’ll know what you like and dislike.’ Prakash had then disappeared on an extended business trip to Europe and we were left to Anand’s mercy.
We knew our employers were vegetarian and it rapidly became clear that Anand’s repertoire was also entirely veggie. In fact it consisted of just one dish. Breakfast on the first day was fried okra. So was lunch. And dinner. By the end of the first week we had eaten so many meals in the coffee shop of the Bristol Hotel that the waiters thought we were residents. Apart from the inconvenience, eating out every day was ruinously expensive, and only the intervention of our bilingual landlady and her Hindi recipe book saved us from starvation and Anand from an even grislier fate.
After six weeks, which felt more like six months, Anand went off to his native place for a weekend break and did not return. No doubt he was worn out by his attempts to communicate with obtuse okra-resistant foreigners. Our employers were quick to reassure us that he would immediately be replaced and Val only had to do a month of hard labour, cold-washing sheets in the bath, before a new cook-housekeeper turned up. During this interregnum, communication should have been easy because we had acquired Peter, a Christian driver, and Christians in India are well known to be superb speakers of English. As our devout colleague Simeon put it ‘I am confident that Peter will indeed prove to be a rock to you and Val Mam.’
This turned out to be over-optimistic. Peter certainly spoke fluent English of a sort, but it was a sort we had never met anywhere else in the world. For one thing, he pronounced the first word of every sentence in a basso profundo roar. For another, he mangled his pronouns, habitually reversing ‘his’ and ‘your’; and like all Hindi speakers he had a tendency to leave out the definite and indefinite articles. Introducing a friend whose wife was looking for a job in our new school, he boomed:
'SIR! Your wife is English teacher!’
‘No, Val Mam is a primary school teacher.’
‘NO! I mean my friend’s wife! HE is English teacher!’
During a car-washing operation Peter roared urgentl ‘SIR! Your overdate newspaper glass in the clean!’
Val came to my rescue: ‘He wants some old newspapers for cleaning the car windows.’
Perhaps Peter’s most startling announcement was: ‘VAL MAM! The mali has finished the front garden and will now do your back-side.’ A lifelong limerick writer, I couldn’t resist:
‘MADAM!’ the gardener cried,
‘My ardour will not be denied.
Stand firm as a rock,
Brace yourself for a shock
And I’ll rapidly do your backside.’
When we interviewed him for the position of driver Peter told us he was the ideal person for the job as he was used to driving foreign businessmen around Delhi in the luxurious Mercedes and BMWs which came with their executive status. He was in for a shock when he joined us, for in the space at the side of our decidedly un-executive residence stood my official transportation, a small, elderly, battered, grey Maruti with bald tyres and sagging seatbelts. Although at my insistence the tyres were immediately renewed, and the superannuated banger itself eventually gave way to a new Mahindra Scorpio, Peter never recovered from this indignity, and every visitor he met at the airport was greeted with a mournful and incomprehensible lament in which the words ‘Mercedes Benz’ featured at approximately three second intervals.
On our first day in India the Chairman, whom his children and everybody else addressed as Papaji, arrived at ten o’clock in his own gleaming silver Merc, to whisk me off to the site where our new school was to be built. As we drove, he said without preamble
‘You know, you are very expensive, so I’ve decided that we’ll appoint an Indian director to work alongside you. When you’ve trained him or her, we’ll be able to let you go.’
‘What? I got here yesterday and you’re already talking about getting rid of me?’
‘Oh, we’ll need you for quite a while yet. In fact you’d better get used to the idea that you won’t be taking any holidays at all during this first year.’
‘I think you had better take another look at the contract you’ve just signed.’
After a remarkably short time the Chairman completely changed his tune. He strode into my office, his snow-white kurta crackling with starch: ‘You know this old Spanish farmhouse you were planning to restore?’
In December 2001 we had bought a small finca in the Málaga province of Andalucía in southern Spain. The eighty olive and almond trees were massively overgrown and the rambling old stone house sadly neglected. Half the roof had been replaced years before with corrugated iron which was now rusty and leaking. The wiring was by Heath-Robinson’s Spanish cousin and both the interior and exterior rendering was falling away in chunks.
‘Were planning?’ I asked, warily.
‘Were. Forget about it. Let it fall down. You can build a new one when you retire. For the next ten years your future is in India.’
At our welcome reception that evening in the Chairman’s opulent residence we were introduced to Raj, the educational consultant on the new school project. An erect figure in his sixties, he was treated with unusual deference by Papaji and his sons, who invariably addressed him as Captain Sahib. We were to become firm friends with Raj, whose common sense often seemed to be the only island of sanity during our time in India. One of the first young Indian naval officers to graduate from Dartmouth during the early years of independence, he had eventually risen to command an aircraft carrier. On retiring from the service he had spent several years in commercial shipping before becoming chief executive of India’s first International Baccalaureate World College, sponsored by the massive Mahindra automotive empire. Now, with his Harvard-educated son Rohit, he had set up his own educational consultancy, which was how we came to meet him at Papaji’s reception the day after our arrival in India.
Displaced from the family home by an influx of relatives fleeing from Pakistan in the turbulent days following partition, the teenage Raj and his brother had lived in a bachelor apartment in Connaught Place, right in the centre of New Delhi. He knew the city intimately and was the ideal guide for a newly-arrived couple. These days he was based in Bombay and during the next few years he stayed with us on all his visits to the capital. According to Val, Raj and I had been inoculated in youth with the same proverbial gramophone needle, so she would retire sleepily to bed and leave us yarning over our burra pegs until the small hours. One of my favourite yarns went like this:
‘As a youngster, I was officer of the watch aboard a British destroyer anchored at Gibraltar. We were keeping open house that day and a boatload of visitors arrived, including a raffish looking middle-aged character with brilliantined hair, a rose in his buttonhole and a gaudy open-necked shirt under a linen jacket. I thought he introduced himself as ‘Sergeant Malcolm’ so I packed him off to the petty officers’ mess where, I told him, they’d be happy to entertain him.
A few moments later the Captain arrived and said ‘I’m expecting Sir Malcolm Sargent for lunch. Have him shown down to me when he arrives.’
‘My God,’ I muttered to myself, ‘I’ve just given the brush-off to one of the world’s star orchestral conductors!’ As soon as the Old Man was out of the way I sent a messenger down to rescue his guest from the petty officers’ mess. It was too late. Sir Malcolm, ‘Flash Harry’ to generations of ‘Prom’ audiences, was holding court, large pink gin in hand, to a crowd of admiring warrant officers.’
As we chatted at the Chairman’s reception, Raj said ‘It’s a long way home for you from Delhi. How often do you think you’ll manage to visit your family?’
Before we could draw breath, the Chairman spoke for us: ‘They won’t be going at all. They live here now.’
Truth to tell, we found this insistence on our permanent residence in India a lot more disturbing than the suggestion that we might be kicked out at the end of the first contract. Our sons were in the midst of degree courses in the UK. We already felt guilty about abandoning them to jaunt off to the other side of the world. The thought that our only chance of seeing them for the next several years was to fly them expensively out to India might have filled us with panic if we had had any idea of taking it seriously. And, communicating by email with the architect and builder, we continued with the restoration of our old Spanish farm house, which seemed an essential refuge from the craziness of employers who talked in one breath of throwing us onto the scrapheap and in the next of permanent enslavement thousands of miles from home.
Anand’s replacement was called Uttam. At first sight he looked less like a cook than an all-in wrestler. Short, bandy-legged, fiercely moustached, with a close-cropped, bullet head, long, muscular arms and huge sinewy hands, he totally transformed our kitchen and our lives. Anand had languished for lack of direction because we couldn’t tell him what we wanted. Uttam spoke quite good English in a gruff, laconic baritone but he didn’t bother to ask us for suggestions because he was a consummate culinary artist who absolutely knew we would enjoy anything he cared to dish up. He simply told us what ingredients to buy and then proceeded to produce an endless and varied succession of superb Indian and European meals.
Trained in a five star Himalayan hotel, Uttam’s presentation was as immaculate as his cooking. The dogs adored him, not only because he fed them but also because he liked them and they recognised him as a natural pack-leader. He had problems pronouncing ‘Baldrick’ but our beautiful Alsatian-Doberman cross happily responded to an approximation, and ‘Bobby! Basil! Come boys!’ would bring both of our big dogs, one black, one golden, trotting daintily to heel.
Uttam seldom smiled. Although he treated us with courtesy and the dogs with genuine affection he seemed to have a massive contempt for the human race in general. He made me think of the old story of the Jesuit who stared down gloomily at the baby Jesus in his crib at Bethlehem and then said to Mary and Joseph ‘Well, he doesn’t look like much at the moment but if you let me have him for the next seven years I’ll see what I can do.’
In fact, Uttam was a lot less sanguine about his fellow man than the apocryphal Jesuit. When we eventually moved into our house on the new campus of Erkon World School he sometimes had to cater for dinner parties. On the first of these occasions we drafted in half a dozen school kitchen staff to assist him. But Uttam turned out to be an Indian Gordon Ramsey and long before the meal was ready all his shell-shocked assistants had fled in horror from his merciless stream of Hindustani invective.
A few weeks later I told him ‘We’ve invited a dozen guests for lunch this coming Friday. Let me know what additional help you need from the school kitchen and I’ll arrange it.’
‘Respected sir, no assistance whatsoever will be required from those incompetent persons.’
'Incompetent persons’ is a nice expression.’
Uttam dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper: 'Useless bastards’ is nicer; but not appropriate in Val Mam’s presence.’
And with Peter as his single quaking slave, he proceeded to produce as splendid a lunch for fourteen people as he normally did for two.
RAGA: Upstairs, Downstairs
Papaji and Mamaji live in a big four-storey house on the outskirts of New Delhi with an extended family of sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, and a swarm of grandchildren of all shapes and sizes. Each couple and their children have a large en-suite bedroom, where they can retreat from the rest of the family, but everyone meets for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the big ornate dining room on the first floor. Papaji is the focus of their lives. When he goes away on a business trip all the sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren assemble in the courtyard to wave him off. And they are all there to welcome him when he returns. All the sons work in the family firm and Poonam, the brilliant youngest daughter, is studying for an MBA at Harvard.
Tall, slim, elegant, aloof, distantly polite and dripping with a maharaja’s ransom in diamonds, Mamaji defers at least in public to her affable, ebullient spouse; but we have no doubt that she is a force to be reckoned with. With mock modesty Papaji describes himself as ‘the backroom boy’. He promises that once Erkon World School has been built we shall see little of him and his sons. But Mamaji will arrive once a week, chauffeured in her black Mercedes, flanked by fawning flunkies, to summon us to her palatial on-campus office and receive an account of our doings.
Papaji decided many years ago that time spent in Delhi’s dense traffic was wasted time. So it is his employees who commute on scooters, in rickshaws and battered, overcrowded buses, to where his business is conducted from a warren of subterranean rooms below the family home. It is a depressing environment with no natural light, which I have dubbed The Dungeon. Until the school is built I am sentenced to work there six days a week. It takes me over an hour to travel from Gurgaon and two hours to reach home through the thronging rush hour traffic of the late evening.
If Downstairs is depressing, Upstairs is clearly meant to be uplifting. The big drawing room on the ground floor is reserved for entertaining. Grandiose but uncomfortable, it is lined with heavy, carved-backed upright sofas which Papaji bought at auction when an impoverished maharajah sold up the contents of his palace. There is a double swing seat like those found on verandas but this one is entirely covered with heavy, chased silver. A bevel-glass cabinet holds an eclectic collection of priceless antiques and worthless kitsch. On one wall an old sepia family photograph shows a seated teenage girl flanked by fierce, moustached, turbaned retainers with Arabian Nights curling-toed slippers, daggers thrust into their waistbands. Papaji notices my interest:
‘She was my great-grandmother, widowed when she was thirteen years old. Ah! I see what you are thinking. Suttee. No, we did not practise widow-burning in our family. In any case, she was pregnant with her only child, my grandfather.’
Papaji’s family is strictly vegetarian and Raj our educational consultant tells me he has not tasted such superb traditional food since his Delhi childhood almost sixty years ago. Dinner begins in the drawing room with leisurely conversation, liberally flowing aperitifs and a seemingly endless procession of delicately-flavoured snacks. It concludes upstairs with a lavish selection of main courses in an ornate dining room glittering with multi-coloured glass mosaics. The smiling, sareed daughters-in-law serve us with their own hands.
Unlike our western dinner parties the gathering ends as soon as the main courses have been eaten. We thank our hosts, causing covert amusement with our carefully studied namastes, and head for our modest home, where the dogs greet us sleepily and Uttam is waiting by the front door, arms akimbo and scowling for all the world like an anxious, disapproving and luxuriantly moustachioed mother-in-law.
WE ARE THE BABUS
Soak the rich and harry the poor,
That’s our motto and our law;
We are the rulers of this land,
We are the babus, a merry band.
Under the table, or through the back door,
We’ll empty your pockets and ask for more!
We are the babus, this is our law –
Soak the rich and harry the poor!