Saturday, May 14, 2011

Servants, a perspective from the Raj

I am in the midst of reading Charles Allen's Plain Tales from the Raj, an author I discovered at this years literary festival.

It is about the experiences of the Anglo-Indians - used in the original sense of the term: the British who lived in India. An Anglo-Indian himself, born into a family six generations in India, he worked on a BBC programme in 1973 to record the memories of the last surviving Anglo-Indians. The book grew out of the series of recordings made and broadcast in 1974.

I found the attitude towards servants rather interesting, particularly:

The question of how to address servants varied with status. 'It was a point of honour with us in the established civil service never to talk to the servants in anything but their own language,' states John Cotton, the result was that he who spoke the language had a much better type of servant. In much the same way Iris Portal was taught that 'you must never have an English-speaking servant. My father's attitude was that if you, an educated woman can't speak the language of a man who's illiterate you really aren't fit to employ him.'............

And a few lines later

Wives who knew the customs and languages of India 'would never think of asking a servant to do a thing that was beneath him or was in any way contrary to his religion'. The pukka memsahib was never 'tactless enough to bring back Bacon from the Club and hand it to a bearer who was a very strict Mohommedan. One put it upon a table and a sweeper would come and take it away, because he was a Hindu and did'nt mind touching bacon.'
I think this is interesting because it reveals a relatively progressive, or at least pragmatic attitude towards the ruled. I suppose it is not possible to rule for any length of time riding roughshod over the sensibilities of the people.


Gorilla Bananas said...

The English are experts at not giving offence unless they want to. No one ever offered me a banana when I was in the circus, even though I like bananas.

Jack Point said...

Thanks for visiting and for the comment, Gorilla Bananas.

You have an interesting blog.