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Life in India


My letters home were simply those of a lovesick young man trying to make his family love the object of his affection as in the following:-

"It is likely to be some time before I get into ops because I first have to join Ferry Command to ferry aircraft all over the country. In my last I told you something of a certain film star, Snehprabha Pradhan and how different she is from our ideas of film stars. Much has happened since then. She is unique, five feet tall, black hair, brown eyes, olive skinned, lovely body, calls herself plain!

Keeps her private and film lives totally apart, does not mix socially with her co-workers. Is a complete rebel against convention and honest to a degree. She was training to be a doctor but was asked to do a dance for a film and that was that. The modern section of her library puts mine to shame."

And so on for pages &ldots;&ldots;&ldots;&ldots;

By this time I had acquired and become part of, an Indian family. I was still flying from Poona airport but seldom attended the mess apart from duties that could not be avoided. My family life was typical of Maharashtra of the Kshatriyan caste. This is the second highest of the four main Hindu castes and the name originates from the Sanskrit word 'Kshatra' (to rule). It is considered to be the princely warrior caste and is second to the Brahmins, the priestly caste. The house god was, as is almost universal in Maharashtra, Ganesh, who is represented by an elephant. Hindu gods are represented by their attributes, a description of which fills many books. The family altar is usually backed by an illustration which resulted in my having to explain so many times that Sneh did not worship an elephant!

Daily she would say her prayers at the altar and food would be offered that was later distributed to those present. It is basically the same type of ceremony as is practised world wide and has been adapted by the Christians for their communion service. The food presented becomes blessed and is then referred to as 'Prasad'. It usually comprises easily eaten portions or sweetmeats. Sneh did not always pray with reverence. I have often heard her quite forcibly to criticise her god for having failed her, pointing out that she had kept her part of the bargain but things were just NOT going to plan; it was just not good enough etc: etc: Every conceivable family member, friend, acquaintance, pet etc had a place in her prayers which struck me at the time as being delivered with childlike innocence.

Almost everyone will be familiar with the image of country people going to the well with a tier of several water pots on their heads. These are always topped with the universal 'loti'. Without a 'loti' life would be inconceivable and it was not long before my lack was uncovered. This became for Sneh a great source of amusement. There was an old portable gramophone in our apartment which used steel needles which were quite common in those days. Using the pestle from a metal pestle and mortar she soon hammered out "SPARKES" in the soft brass of her own loti which had her name in 'Nagri' script on the other side. It has travelled many thousands of miles with me and probably saved me from some of the unpleasant skin diseases that afflicted many of my countrymen in Burma. It still sits in it's appropriate place in my home today.

To most people visiting the tropics (or for that matter, many parts of southern Europe) the 'keyhole in the floor' WC produces puzzled stares, particularly as so many of them are not exactly clean! In our suite in "Shantaram's Bungalow the 'keyhole' was set in spotless tiles which were ceiling high. To be completely honest my heart sank at the sight but it was patiently explained to me that no Hindu backside could be sullied by sitting on a seat that had accommodated other backsides. A Hindu, faced by one of the toilets to which I had become accustomed would lift the seat and squat on the rim! Not having been in India for many decades I have no idea of current practice but at one time there were WCs produced with platforms strategically placed so that one was faced by a 'Western WC' with facilities to squat without polluting the sacred buttocks but still producing the compression of the bowels deemed absolutely necessary.

Having a bath
The Bathing Ritual!

Hindus and most Indians in general have given up the hope of keeping the world clean as we try to in the West so they concentrate on an almost ritualistic code of cleanliness which I adopted as best I could. They never sit in a bath. "Am I a water buffalo that I should sit in the water of my own filth?" Hindus only wash under running water. I once shared a first class compartment on a train that went across India with an Army officer. He was 'Indian Army' of the worst sort and racist to the core.

Every railway station in India has at least one huge shiny brass tap which was surrounded at every stop by Indians bathing themselves by pouring water over themselves. This always brought a dark sneer to his features with the inevitable comment "Look at the filthy black bastards!" As to his contribution to his own hygiene; he shaved every day but did not change his underpants or shirt during the entire journey. We exchanged few words.

Much to the amusement of my european colleagues I always squatted by my square canvas bath and used it as a reservoir for the bath water that I poured over myself with the loti. Many of them later saw the point that it hardly makes good sense to reinforce infection by squatting in polluted water. Traditional water 'glasses' are often of metal and have an out turned lip so that they can easily be used to pour. The glass is not placed to the lips but the head is tipped back and water is poured into the open mouth.

Many Indians are adopting European dress but in so many ways the traditional costumes are far better adapted to the tropics and usually comprise light folded cloth to avoid hiding places for parasites. The dhoti is a cotton cloth several yards long which is wound around the waist with the back hem being brought through to the front and tucked into the waist at the front etc: to separate the legs. I had better stop here as there are so many variations from the 'Ghandi' minimum to the elaboration's of the various elaborations from pimps to Maharajas.

I am on less complicated ground with the sari. Sneh, like most girls of her age used the 'six yard' sari. They are available in countless patterns and colours. Usually a girl will cut off the first half yard and have it made into a 'choli' which is the short sleeved blouse often used with the sari. It is usually short enough to reveal a bare midriff. A simple petticoat is worn with a drawstring at the waist, usually finishing some inches above the ground. The sari itself is held in the right hand and the end tucked into the top of the petticoat, it is then taken counter clockwise round the body to the front where the left hand will rapidly make several folds which are again tucked into the waist at the front. (These folds act as pleats in a skirt and allow full freedom of the legs.) The sari is then passed under the left shoulder, across the back and over the right shoulder. There is always sufficient to cover the head if desired.

Most girls always kept the small cloth tag identifying price, origin, etc and attached by a short length of silk or cotton. This was always tucked into the waist first so that even if the sari had been dry cleaned she could be sure that the bottom which may have touched the ground never touched her body. Another costume used by Sneh was the 'pyjama' suit which was usually of silk. The traditional 'nine yard' sari was first wound like a dhoti and the rest was sufficient to cover the body with or without a choli. It is quite possible for a girl to completely change her clothes in public without offering the most salacious onlooker any pleasure.

I was naturally dragged along on clothes buying jaunts. Most of the places visited were family owned concerns and Sneh usually made a point of visiting out of hours. She quite cheerfully accepted that she would be charged a higher price than the general public but was not to be imposed upon in any other way. I for my part was treated regally and some of the most delightful food I had in India was produced for me as snacks that were handed to me during the long drawn out transactions. I was not a vegetarian, a point that was not missed by people I met which meant that meat and particularly fish was often offered. Even after 60 + years I can remember the gastronomic ecstasy of some morsels of fish savoured amid what must have been miles of exotically coloured silks.

I have always been saddened to realise that the "Indian" food offered in most restaurants in the West is taken to be the authentic article. In normal home cooking many of the spices are green and those available to the general European are as pallid as the adulterated pepper powder that has been foisted upon them for generations. At last the pepper mill has (in most cases) put paid to that little game. In our daily life we naturally ate vegetarian food but thanks to the imagination and ability of the cooks I never noticed the lack of meat.

Naturally Indian family food is almost as good here as in India but alas, very few europeans get the opportunity to taste 'home cooking'. To many of them the new 'Balti' is the epitome. Good luck to the fast food merchants who produce the stuff.

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Edward Sparkes ©1999