8

Of Jeeves and Jayammas

In a time and age when domestic help is soon going to be as Jurassic as the man on the moon, it might be hard to comprehend the life and laid-back times, many of us enjoyed in our childhood. In cacophonic harmony, living under the same roof then, were large families, oft spanning a few generations. While the head of the family might have been Master of the House, it was his wife who was the Grande Dame, chatelaine and original multi-tasker. In the kitchen, she would deftly manage household finances to feed the large family. Quick-fixing broken hearts and soured romances, not always of teenage members of the family, was her forte. She would do this with one hand, with the other encompassing the aggrieved soul in an understanding, soothing hug. So too, was her intervention in internecine conflicts between different generations. To aid in this Grande Dame’s ministrations, was a loyal band of dependable domestic staff, who themselves had often served generations of the same lineage. Hence she had time for all.

So it was, when my mother married and joined her serving officer husband, from the sheltered confines of her earlier upbringing. Her husband’s ‘batman,’ was as proud of serving his commanding officer, as he was of showing the new Madam the ropes. Bakshi, was a pure vegetarian, and a teetotaler, so as Comptroller of the Household, he was the nonpareil. Top of the guided tour, in order of importance, was escorting the memsahib to his master’s cellar. Short of saying ‘Open Sesame,’ his demeanor said it all. There lined up, in many neat rows, were the choicest of whiskeys and a variety of other premium liquors. His expression rapidly turned lugubrious, as the new madam looked puzzled and wondered what the fuss was all about. Recovering somewhat, he loftily informed her that said dusty bottles, had been lovingly collected over a period of many months, to be served at their first post-wedding party. As this speech was delivered in pure bucolic Hindi, most of it went over the bemused bride’s head. Without missing a beat, my mother realizing the error of her ways, understood enough, to praise Bakshi and thank him for permitting her to be privvy to such a prized collection. Her reputation restored, he was somewhat mollified, and thereafter was her mentor and guide.

But Bakshi had his hands full, as he had also to round off the corners of Rama, the young wet-behind-the-ears ‘masalchi’, or sous chef, who had accompanied the bride’s baggage. I suspect that Rama was shanghaied, willy-nilly by anxious parents, into accompanying their daughter, as an interpreter, interlocutor and chief bodyguard, as apparently his cooking skills left much to be desired. Whatever be the case, Rama soon picked up the language, so promoted himself up the ladder as the interpreter. Along the way somewhere, his basic knife skills improved, as did his cunning improvisations at presenting menus fit for a king, and the many friends who gathered at this court. After my arrival on the scene, these two stalwarts ensured my wellbeing and safety with sometimes questionable, but sure fire remedies. A family friend’s burly son, the only apple of his parents’ eye, turned out to be a closet sadist. His punching bag was this much younger and punier me, who he periodically shook and pinched, punched and kicked, for the sheer joy of it. Unable to bear seeing this bully at work, my self appointed bodyguards took matters firmly into their own hands. One evening at the park, while I enjoyed the vertigo highs at the swings, one of my bodyguards engaged my attention, pushing me faster and higher, all the while keeping a weather eye open for my friend’s parents. Under cover of my squeals of joy and laughter, the other, in the twinkling of an eye, whisked the little sadist behind a convenient bush. Here the varmint was shaken till the teeth rattled in his head, his ears were twisted, and for good measure, he was informed with a sinister hiss, that should ever he lay his hands on me again, or complain to his parents about what had just transpired, he would be immediately fed to the crocodiles. These gentle charms must have done the trick, as much to my parents’ surprise, as I suspect, to his. My burly friend never again came to within an arm’s length of me. Bakshi served my father loyally and our family, lovingly. And in course of time, retired to his village. Rama however, was a constant and loyal member of our family, seeing me through thick and thin. He was the repository of many of my childish fears and secrets. Of the time, soon after I had learnt driving, how I had scraped my father’s shining black car, while taking my gaggle of classmates, for a breathtakingly dangerous drive around the town. Swearing Rama to secrecy, and entreating him not to reveal that I was the guilty perpetrator. He matter of factly produced a tin of Cherry Blossom Black, lighly smeared this over the tell-tale scrape, and hey presto, temporarily saved my skin. Till much after I got married and became a mother, Rama knew where his loyalty lay. At table, after everybody had helped themselves to the food, he would sidle into the dining room, as he thought, unobtrusively. He would then proceed to serve me the choicest pieces of chicken, lamb, or any of my other favourites. I was always on his first and favoured family member list. Such love and loyalty is rarely seen today.

In much the same manner, in our extended circle of family and friends, we had other retainers of Rama’s and Bakshi’s ilk. A friend had this driver, who, when she was taking her infant child to the doctor one rainy afternoon, quickly exited the car at their destination. Running smartly across to a passing pedestrian, he whipped the umbrella out of this individual’s nerveless grasp, and ran back to open the car door, shielding mother and baby from the downpour. My friend thanked her driver, saying how providential it was that his friend with the umbrella happened to be passing by. Looking surprised, he said that he didn’t know the person from Adam, but he was sure that his master’s family had more need of the umbrella than the stranger.

Then there was this other driver, Ponnaiah, who, had been elevated from being the estate tractor driver, to driving his manager’s car. For as long as he was in their service, Ponnaiah could never quite master the fine art of synchronizing gears and the clutch, while keeping the other hand, and one eye, on the steering wheel and the road. If he had to shift gears, there would emanate an agonizingly guttural grind, from deep within the innards of the gear box, and when the car did a few bunny-hops, it was understood that he had slipped the clutch. As soon as the occupants shrieked in fear, you could be sure that the steering wheel having proved slippery, this heralded a dangerous veering off the road shoulder, a short cut down the snaking hill road, to the road below. As major damage to life and property was rarely revealed, Ponnaiah reigned numero uno, as town and country Chauffeur. One holiday with my aunt and cousins, saw some of us going to the nearest big city, for a bit of retail therapy and a whiff of good polluted air. Since I had by then been driving for a few years, it was with a sense of frustration that I sat next to Ponnaiah, and coped in silent anguish at his driving. My aunt and her sister, my mother, were engrossed, in deep conversation in the back seat, tearing some unsuspecting family member to shreds, no doubt. Ponnaiah and his tractor were the fastest wheels on the estate, scattering flora and fauna off the narrow dirt country roads. But, not so, on the big, bad highways. He was so unsure and slow, it felt as if we were driving backwards. Unable to bear the pace any more, I asked my aunt for permission to take over the wheel. She readily agreed. Thereafter began Ponnaiah’s introduction to a real driver’s world. He clutched the edge of the car seat, while his hair flew in the whistling wind, from the open window. He applied imaginary brakes when he was sure I was going to crash into the vehicle in front, or was overtaking it, with no room to spare, or so he thought. His eyes periodically popped out of their sockets, at a spurt of speed here, or closed tight in fear there, when he thought we were in imminent danger of meeting our Maker. We reached home, in one piece, with the back seat occupants surprised that it was such a short, smooth ride. I did say that they were engrossed in a talking competition on the trip, did I not? Ponnaiah could only totter out of the car, with a weak shake of his head, and a new respect for this chit of a girl, proving to him what one could do with a car.

Now we come to our childhood’s surrogate mothers, our nannies, or as they were affectionately termed, our ayahs. In those parts of the country, since most feminine names ended with “Amma,” the ayah’s were any one of these. Chellamma , Krishnamma, Jayamma, Sampoornamma. You could take your pick, but they were all totally dedicated to their charges’ well being. Our parents could relax and leave us in their able hands, any time of day or night. They would scold us very rarely, had infinite patience, and could calm a fractious toddler, with a soothing song or an interesting distraction, in the twinkling of an eye. Guilty mothers never felt, guilt, when they left their children in their responsible care. They could be sure that the children would be gently reprimanded, in loco parentis, never punished, and coaxed and cajoled to follow their daily routine to the letter. In fact, my own chidren, used to often wait impatiently for us to go to our “grown-up parties,” as our departure heralded the advent of many an enjoyable game. Of hockey, football or cricket, with the Captain being their ayah, and the other team members made up of a motley collection of domestic staff and their children. It was not surprising therefore, when on some of our unexpectedly early returns home, we would find the kids playing cricket, with the wizard spin bowler, their ayah, sari hitched high up her legs, a crafty expression on her face, bowling that off-spin. Or the usually lofty butler, wielding a hockey stick, an upturned wicker-work wastepaper basket over his head, the Goal Keeper of that game. On another occasion, while their mother was at office, she got an anguished call from her children’s ayah, babbling incoherently over the static of the obsolete telephone line. After calming the ayah’s hysteria, the mother finally understood that she was to return home immediately, as one of her charges, while fighting her level best to worst her brother in battle, had actually bitten him. The sibling was bleeding, and had to be taken for treatment to the nearest country hospital. It took many seasons for the sister to outlive her formidable reputation of being a ‘biter.’ These then, were our comrades-in-arms and companions respectively, through a happy childhood.

They don’t make them like those any more, sadly. Their mould was broken. Nobody patented their tribe, nor did their descendants, rightly want to continue in uneducated servitude. Those times have passed into the hazy memories of our childhood and youth. The Jeeves and Jayammas of today are transient. Here today, gone tomorrow. If they are available at all!