British women in Assam during the Raj

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British women in Assam during the Raj

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Educating the heart

By Iris Macfarlane, Dawn, July 30, 2006

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This book tells the stories of four generations of Enlish women who lived in India and Myanmar during the Raj. Based on old letters, diaries and photographs, it serves as a rich and textured social narrative of the time


Iris Macfarlane writes about her life on a tea farm in Assam

For years I considered it my wifely duty to trail through dust clouds to such torments of tedium through the cold weather. I could neither play games nor dance well so contributed nothing but my wilting presence, my tight dusty forehead, my eyes sunk into their sockets with strain and boredom, my throat dry and aching with the effort of suppressing yawns. If there is a God and He wants to think up a really good hell for me, He will send me on an eternal Assamese spree.

Mac enjoyed it because he was good at all games, and liked to meet distant friends and discuss their shared world of plucking and drying and prices. As women, our conversation was limited to the even more constricted one of bungalow and compound. There was no bridge as had brightened the clubs of Mandalay and Rawalpindi, no books to talk about. If anyone was enterprising enough to produce a scandal, we set on it like vultures, tearing out of it every last juicy thread of shocking surmise.

I sat down and thought seriously about all this when I returned to Assam without the children, and planned to do with my time what I had wanted since the days of scribbling plays in the Alps and sticking them into my knicker linings: write books. I drew my cane chair up to the verandah table each morning and under the squeak of the fan began a novel about a bored tea planter’s wife whose children were at home. Graham Greene could have made such a tedious subject readable; my only resource was to have all the boring planters murder each other but even that didn’t make the book interesting enough to sell.

When I raised my eyes from my typewriter to look around for something else to do, I couldn’t believe I had been so blind. Once a week I had driven to the club through villages I had never entered, past people whose language I couldn’t speak, living lives I knew nothing of, dancing and singing to unknown tunes. I had not, honestly, thought of them as people; they were a brownish blur, like the greenish blurs of the rice and the bluish ones of the mountains. They were categorised by planters as lazy, effeminate — the men tended to walk hand in hand — and spineless. Many of the women were very beautiful but would not be lured into white men’s beds. They had to go to the carefree Khasis for their mistresses.

My heart thudded with excitement as I unwrapped Assamese grammars and awaited the schoolmaster Mac had ordered to come up to the bungalow and teach me. The first dry seed was being watered and I knew it would sprout into a profusion of bright flowers, through which I would step into a country neither my mother or grandmother or great grandmother had visited. At the time I didn’t think in such terms, more as if I was being given the key of a cage. Learning the language would unlock me from the prison I had begun to recognise.

The schoolmaster’s knees knocked together like castanets and he pulled his finger joints, crack, crack, crack, in an agony of embarrassment at sitting on the verandah of the burra bungalow with the burra memsahib. It must have been a bit like being asked to Buckingham Palace to teach the Queen to type, so distant we were in our enormous bungalow on a hill from the tiny tin-roofed hut in which lived the assistant headmaster of the local school. He brought with him a book of etiquette, which, when I could read it, I discovered to be full of instructions about which hand to use for shaking and how to blow one’s nose into a piece of cloth and put it into one’s pocket; a revolting idea to Indians, but white men did it.

I never considered his ordeal; I used him as I used all other lowly employees around the place. He refused money and instead took to bringing me gigantic fish, as if I was doing him a favour in letting him spend his time on my verandah. When I tried to refuse the fish his eyes filled with tears and his knees knocked so violently that I feared for his bones. Mac said the fish was some sort of bribe: sooner or later one of the schoolmaster’s sons would be asking for a job in his office, along with all the other read-up-to-class-tens in the country. The fish would be unmentioned, but there in the background, great glistening reminders of past favours.

Several times he asked me to his house for a meal, which I ate alone in a room swept and cleaned and decorated with flowers. As I chewed my way through plates of curry and sweetmeats, I heard the faint scuffling of his children next door, and wondered if they would have to go hungry as a result of my visit. His salary was half what I paid my cook, and he supported an old mother as well, who sat in a deck chair at the back of the house, shooing the chickens off the drying grain. Part of their poverty was due to a debt incurred by his grandfather to a money lender, which had increased so much with compound interest that he said if he had another four sons they would never pay it off. ________________________________________ I drew my cane chair up to the verandah table each morning and under the squeak of the fan began a novel about a bored tea planter’s wife whose children were at home. Graham Greene could have made such a tedious subject readable; my only resource was to have all the boring planters murder each other but even that didn’t make the book interesting enough to sell ________________________________________

When we reached impasses of misunderstanding in the language, my teacher’s teeth clashed as well as his knees. “Keethankeen,” he said from between his chattering teeth. What? “Keethankeen,” he pleaded, his jaw practically locking with frustration, until a long detour by way of brothers, sisters, and mothers-in-law made it clear: kith and kin. We were neither of us helped by the grammar books, which were printed upside down and back to front by the Catholic Church’s press. Yet I plodded through them very happily and spent evenings practising the new script, and the seed sprouted and sprouted.

I had no sooner mastered the present tense than I was anxious to move out into the world that spoke this language. Tea estates ran schools jointly with the government, and I thought I could kill several birds with one stone if I offered my services to our garden school. The headmaster said he would be greatly honoured to add me to his staff as long as I didn’t expect to be paid, and showed me round. The school consisted of several rooms under a tin roof, provided with blackboards and desks. There was a large, new empty building next door — the Arts and Crafts Centre. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be used because there was no money for a teacher, but it raised the status of the school just by being there, and with it the salaries of the staff.

Starry-eyed, I saw my role at once, unpaid Art Mistress. Next morning, I loaded the back of the Landrover with enormous lumps of clay, dug up by the malis and wrapped in wet cloth, and told the children who were lined up outside the school as a sort of guard of honour that we would make fruit. 1 gave them each a piece of clay and they looked at it politely, their hands in their laps. “Like this,” I said, and turned my lump into a banana. Obediently they turned their 30 lumps into bananas too.

“Very educational,” said the headmaster when he came to visit us, starting at a tableful of grey phallic symbols.

Next day I took down paint, and the bananas became more recognisable. I gave them more clay and asked them to make anything they liked. Without hesitation they embarked on more bananas. “Try them with bamboo, they know what to do with that,” Mac suggested when I emptied a sackful of poison yellow phalluses onto the verandah at lunchtime. The bamboo produced bows and arrows for the boys, which they enjoyed shooting through the open windows, but the headmaster, who narrowly avoided having his ear pierced, said that though such extra-curricular activities were most character-forming, would I teach English instead?

So for the rest of the term, and several more, I stood under the tin roof with the heat beating down on my head, and taught grammar and composition and Macbeth. The children were mostly sons and daughters of the tea garden staff, a few of rich villagers. Labourers’ children were needed around the house to look after their younger siblings, and then employed on the tea garden in simple, unskilled ways. New legislation after partition laid down rules about creches and schools, but it was the studied aim of company boards to evade these as far as possible. If they built a creche, it was a concrete room, unfurnished and uncarpeted, which could double as a cattle pound. The women preferred to take their children out into the tea, snapped to their backs or playing near. As for well-equipped schools, what was the point, since there would be no jobs available. “Too many damned bona fide flunked BAs around the place already,” declared managers. Jo Coolie just needed his bowl of rice and his odd binge on local booze to keep him happy.

So I had on the benches in front of me beautiful golden-skinned girls with oiled plaits and gold ornaments, and equally beautiful boys in shirts and cotton trousers, all of whom seemed to be related to one another. “My auntie,” a boy at the back announced proudly when I praised the work of the girl next to him. Some of the boys seemed about 30, but all of them were keen and docile. Untrained, I made up in enthusiasm for the gaps in my skills. We played a lot of games and I took in pictures of Scotland to make blasted heaths recognisable.

The best boy in the class wrote all the essays, but the word cheat meant nothing to them. I complained to the headmaster and he wrote a model essay on the set subject and they all copied that. “But how can they learn?”, I demanded crossly, and he lolled his head from side to side and wondered how indeed? This was a too backward country. Since all the girls would get married, and the boys find themselves lucky to get even menial jobs, he didn’t think it mattered too much.

Sports days and prize-givings called for marquees and microphones and an agenda of 20 items. Speech-making was the passion of the Assamese, and though the microphone seldom worked, old men with long beards and few teeth hung onto it for 20 minutes of impassioned oratory. Their audience talked and went for walks, and I chewed aniseed and sweated until the last one had been finally prised from the microphone. Once there was a splendid public meeting called for a visit by the minister of education. It was dark when the national anthem was finally sung and we tottered out into the teeming night. Then we found his car had broken down, and he and I sat by the side of the road together waiting for a tyre. “In a nut we are stranded,” he declared calmly, as of a daily occurrence. We talked about Hegel and how Assam was in a state of transition, the excuse for all its difficulties. My forehead was caked with dust and sweat, my mouth full of the taste of aniseed, which I disliked, but up and up the shoots were growing. ________________________________________

Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the Empire: A Memoir of Life and Times in the British Raj By Iris Macfarlane OUP, New Delhi. Available with Oxford University Press, Plot # 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi. Tel: 111-693-673. ISBN 0-19-567812-5 165pp. Rs738 ________________________________________

Iris Macfarlane spent more than 20 years in India as a tea planter’s wife. Her other books include The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World and The Mouth of the Night: Gaelic Stories

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