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The servants of yesteryear had their endearing eccentricities and added colour to a family’s life. Samir Mukerjee recalls the characters he grew up with
there was a time when the upper classes maintained a battalion of servants in their homes. There were so many different kinds of chores for them to get involved in. It would be wrong to assume that they were devoid of originality. On the contrary, some of them were colourful specimens and had tales to tell. Since I was brought up in a joint family, I had ample scope to observe the servants throughout my boyhood and adolescence.
The sarkarbabus my grandmother employed were models of respectability. Apart from getting the daily provisions from the bazaar and cakes and pastries from the confectioners, they were expected to keep an eye on the movements of the other servants. One particular sarkarbabu still stands out in my memory. Sambhu Bhattacharya was a fair and lanky man who often appeared wrapped in a light shawl and looked as if he had just emerged from a bath and a bout of prayers. Whenever he saw me alone he talked about his devotion to Bamakhepa, the well-known worshipper of the goddess Kali. Tarapeeth also figured in his conversation. With an intent expression on his face, he used to talk about his guru and obviously felt that I understood his emotions.
A few years later, Sudhir Chakravarty took up his position as our very last sarkarbabu. He was a striking contrast to his predecessor, Sambhu, who was a model of piety. Sudhirbabu had a very sly expression and was never fully comfortable in our presence. A lot of the family silver and bell-metal kitchen utensils disappeared during his regime. He often went to Flury’s to get our daily bread and tea cakes without paying for them.
When we found out what he was up to on the sly, he was removed from his quarters and made to live with the other servants in one of their godowns downstairs. He also drank heavily and often got into a scrape with our durwan from the Kangra Valley. He remained unrepentant till the last.
Upen Das worked in our house as a bearer. There was a latent strength and honesty in him which we couldn’t help admiring. Long before he came to us, he was a runner in Comilla in East Bengal. It was his job to carry letters and parcels to their destinations from one village to another. He was used to carrying a long staff with bells at the top to announce his arrival, a lantern for night trips and the sack of mail on his back. He did his trips at a brisk jog-trot and his broad splayed feet gave him away.
While he was busy wiping our floors, he liked talking about the natural scenery in his native Comilla. People from East Bengal have very long memories. He had an endearing habit of bringing gardenias for my wife from the St. Xavier’s Hostel garden. He contracted tuberculosis in the end and died in misery. It would be difficult to find a servant today with such humanistic instincts.
The grand old man of our household was, however, Munshi Ram from Aligarh, who was the very embodiment of old-world charm. He came to our family in 1930, as a sweeper, a year before I was born. He stayed on with us till the middle of the 1990s. His sense of duty and powers of observation were incredible. He strongly disapproved of certain goings on in our household and voiced his opinion fearlessly. He started work early in the morning sweeping the large compound of our house and the sound of his broom often woke us up. He repeated the same performance at tea time in the afternoon, splashing the compound as well with water to settle the dust.
During Holi, he would invite some of his cronies to his godown for a feast and smoking the hookah. It looked like a gathering of village elders busy discussing their problems with great earnestness. During the monsoons, whenever the sky became lowering, he would call out a warning for the maids to draw in the clothes on the line. I often heard his cry — “Paani aa raha hai ji!” It was almost like a prophet uttering warnings about the apocalypse. He was terribly fond of the dogs under his charge and kept them well groomed. We have never come across such extraordinary loyalty and solicitude. His language often had a sprinkling of Urdu words and all the other servants looked upon him as a remarkable person.
We had a South Indian bearer, Anthony, who was very particular about his visits to the church. As a devout Catholic, he never forgot his basic religious obligations. We used to celebrate Saraswati puja in our house and for two days there was a festive look about the place. On the day of the immersion when the idol was being taken out of our house in a lorry, Anthony was found dancing wildly before the idol! I happened to mention this quite casually to my old school teacher, Father F. Mairlot who took a very dim view of such heretical conduct. The very next morning a dark and stout Catholic woman turned up at our house to give Anthony a pep talk and help him reclaim his faith. I didn’t realise Father Mairlot would take my off-hand statement so seriously. Anthony was a good worker but had a glad eye for a young maid in our establishment. He had to compete in this matter with another South Indian servant, John, who was certainly more suave and slick. They might have been in the boxing ring together if it wasn’t for the intervention of the other servants.
I cannot conclude without bringing in one of the sweetest and gentlest Bamundidis we ever had — Snehalata Devi. She came from Natore in East Bengal and knew how to maintain her dignity without being in the least stuffy. She looked after our Indian kitchen and devoted a lot of time to my grandmother’s special thakurghar.
She was a consummate cook and specialised in sweets like ranga alur puli, Gokul pithe, chandrapuli, malpoa, roshboras, payesh and certain special vegetarian dishes. The seasonal rituals meant a lot to her. We had an attractive tulsi mancha where she lit a diya every evening and then blew into the conch shell to tell an unregenerate world that dusk was descending. During the winter months we spotted her sunning the homemade achars and boris in the upstairs verandah which was blessed by the sun all day long. As the Bamundidis walked out of our mechanical lives, we entered a crepuscular world — glacial and soulless.