Cook-The Mem-sahib's Housekeeping
The position of the girl who becomes the wife of an Indian civilian is not one to be envied unreservedly. She has problems to solve, troubles to face, and sacrifices to make which all the undoubted advantages of her lot cannot entirely compensate.
She must consent cheerfully, for her husband's sake, to exile herself for the best years of her life from her native land and her own people, an exile broken only by occasional short visits home. She must try and make a home in a foreign country, under utterly strange, if to some natures undeniably pleasant, conditions, and must be ready to adapt herself quickly and easily to her new life.
And, greatest trial of all, if she becomes a mother, she must be prepared to make that terrible choice between husband and children which is demanded of every Anglo-indian mother when the inevitable day dawns when it is no longer possible to keep the little ones in the Indian climate without seriously affecting their health in after years. Her husband's life-work lies in a strange land, and she feels that, as a true wife, her place is at his side-but there is another side of the question. Can she leave her children to be brought up by strangers, so that she herself has little or no hand in their training? This is indeed one of the hardest of trials for a mother to bear-to know that others must fill the place that should be hers by right in her children's lives. To come to a wise decision is difficult, almost heartbreaking, yet it is a battle that many wives and mothers have to fight out for themselves, with only circumstances and their own sense of duty to help them to victory.
These terrible separations, the cause of much of the tragedy of life in India, are the reason why Anglo-indians never quite conquer a feeling of being in exile, and why the word "home" has such magic meaning for them.
Having thus considered the hardships, it is well to turn to the bright side of the Indian "mem-sahib's" lot-for such a side there is. She enters on a life of gaiety and some social importance; her position amongst other married ladies of the station is an assured one, even while her husband is still in a junior position, and later, when he becomes commissioner, or judicial commissioner, she is the recognised leader of the social life of the small community. This position entails a great deal of entertaining.
Entertaining in India, except in the large towns and recognised centres of society, such as Calcutta, Simla, etc., is seldom on a very elaborate scale. At a dinner party of any size, however, the rules of precedence are strictly observed, and great heartburnings would be caused if, for instance, the doctor's mem-sahib were sent in to dinner before the wife of the deputy-commissioner. Small, informal "chota hazri" parties, and bright little dinners, followed by music and bridge, are the favourite forms of entertainment. It is only on the occasion of a visit from some highly placed Government official that any very elaborate receptions are attempted in a small station.
An Indian cook is one of the marvels of nature, and the wonderful dishes which he can turn out with the poor materials and appliances at his command would put any English cook to shame. He can stand the strain of unexpected guests far better than his English prototype, and will hear of even a numerous addition to the family party without any loss of calmness and dignity. By watering the soup, and by chasing an unfortunate fowl all round the compound and finally running it to earth as the first step towards making it into an extra dish, he is quite ready to expand a dinner originally meant for four into one sufficient for double that number.
Sometimes, however, his most successful culinary efforts are spoiled by the greed of the "boy " whose duty it is to bring the dishes to table. A very peppery gentleman of my acquaintance had an excellent cook, but he also possessed a greedy and cunning "boy." He was giving a small party one evening, and towards the end of a particularly well-cooked dinner the boy announced in a loud whisper that " cook burning pudding too much; not bringing him to table." "What! " cried the host, in a rage, rising with such a threatening gesture that the "boy" sprang aside to avoid, as he thought, a blow. In doing this his puggaree was knocked off by the swinging punkah, and, lo and behold ! there rolled out of it the very pudding under discussion, done to a turn, and with no sign of the "too much burning." Such incidents, fortunately, are rare.
. Indoor entertainments are not by any means the only ones that find favour with Anglo-indians. Riding, gymkhanas, golf, tennis, and every kind of sport are keenly indulged in, for in India exercise is even more imperatively necessary to health than in England.
People become friendly with each other much more quickly in an Indian station than in an English town, one reason for this being that they see so much more of each other; in fact, they can meet every day if they so wish, either on the golf links or at the public tennis courts in the afternoon, or, later, at the club in the evening. The "club" is a great social institution; even the smallest station boasts a club-house, where the members can meet in the evenings, play cards, read the papers, and hear the latest gossip.
Indian housekeeping seems very curious and puzzling to a girl who has been used to English methods. With the exception of tinned goods, and, incidentally, clothing and millinery, which are ordered from some large shop in Bombay or Calcutta, all stores are bought in the native bazaars. The marketing is left entirely to the chief "boy," who gets everything at a much cheaper rate than could the " mem-sahib" herself, in spite of the fact that he probably makes his own margin of profit on every transaction. All stores are kept locked up in a wonderful store-room, known as a "go-down," and every morning the cook appears in clean white coat and puggaree, to arrange the meals for the day and have measured out to him all the materials that he needs. He also gives an account of any little odds and ends that he has had to buy-charcoal, tamarinds, etc. The "syces," or grooms, come with their baskets to receive the allowances of food for the horses; the "tonga-wallah" (bullock-carriage driver) is there on behalf of his bullocks. Oil, soap, food for the fowls, and all other necessaries are doled out to the right people; in fact, there is quite a crowd of servants waiting for mem-sahib outside the "go-down" door every morning, and when all their wants have been considered and attended to, the business of housekeeping is over for the day.
Once a week comes pay day-a lengthy business when the staff of servants numbers about twenty-especially as there are, probably, numerous little fines to be reckoned. A fine is the recognised method of punishing any trifling delinquencies on the part of the native servants. Then there are the "boy's" curious and involved accounts to be puzzled out, and woe to the mem-sahib who is too particular as to the fate of the very last anna, or who inquires too closely into the meaning of " sundries."
On the whole, life in India is happy, sociable, and free, and, in spite of its trials, and of the fact that India can never be "home" in the true sense of the word, it is still very much worth the living to the girl who marries an Indian civilian.