Friday, March 3, 2017

From ‘There's more to Life than a House in Goa’ by Heta Pandit

What are my earliest memories as a child? I’d put ‘Moms are sweet and comforting’ and ‘Dads are scary’ on the top of the list. ….the other most important message was that we were different. ‘We are different. We are Parsis. We have a car. Our mother speaks English.’ ….You could only speak to Dad when you were spoken to and on Sundays. ….

When I was eleven, I woke up one morning with a huge blood stain in my underwear. I had no doubt hurt myself while playing at school. Mum would be annoyed….The bleeding would not stop. I plucked up courage and called my mother in the toilet to see. Much to my surprise she was not annoyed at all. She seemed thrilled. She gave me a tight hug and then ran out of the toilet. I sat there, bewildered and full of the trepidation. ….. ‘Heta has grown up now, dear,’ she whispered to Dad when he got home from his important work at the office that evening. He was holding me up high in his arms in an embrace when he heard her. He dropped me on the floor that very instant. I am no longer his little girl, I thought, something must have happened. He never touched me after that day and I stopped running to get him his slippers.

Most Parsis I know socialize only with their own kind, and I mean their own kind of Parsi……..a …..Parsi woman (in this case my mother) meeting, falling in love, and marrying a ‘non-Parsi’, my non-Parsi father….the children of this mixed heritage are stigmatized for no fault of their own and the mix in their genes frowned upon in suspicion …..So as a precaution, most Parsi parents will forbid their pure-blooded offspring from fraternizing with the parjaats, the ‘nons’ to minimize the chances of such dreaded events. I will not blame them really. The punishing outcome of being ostracized by the community is severe. …..our great-grandfather Pallonjee, having married his first cousin (a preference we were told ‘to keep the money in the family’). There should have been, therefore, lots of relatives. We, of course, did not see any of them.

Money was important to the Parsis.

We were never invited to weddings, navjotes, or any other family outings. Unknown to us, however, their children were growing up in England and other parts of India and harbored no such prejudice.

……The Indians in East Africa ….If there was one word that described how muhindi or Indian bosses treated black African workers, it was ‘cruelly’. Some banianis paid their black African workers in sacks of rice and salt or bolts of fabric. An African servant was expected to stand all day in the store, cook and clean for his employer, and sleep on the floor of the store doubling up as a security guard for the night. If he received one decent meal at the end of the day, he considered himself lucky. …..In the early 1970s, however, the African Tanzanians got a chance to see a different Indian. Educated Asian doctors, nurses, teachers, and computer programmers from India and Pakistan were working in Tanzanian hospitals, offices…. Then there were the Asian engineers who built the bridges, roads …..This was an Asian quite different from the sacks of salt and bolts of cloth Asian bania. This new Asian kept to himself after office hours and treated the African with respect due to a colleague at work. This Asian…was not rich. There was an element of surprise when this Asian opened his mouth to speak English at work and even more surprise when he actually put in an honest day’s work at the construction site.
The informal segregation in Tanzania was Africa’s best kept secret. Asian, European, and African lived in their own segregated ‘quarters’…….

The Gujaratis in Tanzania were an integral part of the Indian Diaspora in East Africa. Everyone you met invariably said, ‘We’re not planning to live here. We’ll just make a little bit and then leave for …’ the unsaid blank for you to fill in with the country of your choice. …..No Indian in Tanzania ever called the country home. Most held dual passports, most had one foot either in India or in the UK. Every Indian expected to be expelled at a moment’s notice and hence, figuratively speaking ran on gilded shoes. They lived in cramped three storied buildings, families bunching together and hanging on to one common refrain: why build better homes here? ‘Amarey kya ahin rehvanoo chey’, we’re not planning to live here forever. How could you think of yourself a stranger when you had spent over 150 years in a country?

The Tanzanian was a tough worker. Tough, that is, until he fainted at the sight of blood. …. ‘Do you know why I drink so much?’ asked a well-known Tanzanian surgeon once. ‘Because I cant stand the sight of blood.’ His Indian obstetrician counterpart once confessed that at the government hospital where he worked, there was no relief for the Indian doctors.

….Goa….It took me years to understand the nuances of the Brahmin, Chardos, and Shudra caste houses that made up the gamut of domestic architecture in Goa. It would take me a lifetime to understand what divided Catholic houses from Hindu homes. It has taken a lot of studying ‘the book of human nature’ in Goa to come to the easy and reckless conclusion that Goan society is perhaps the most caste-ridden, bigoted, caste-prejudiced, xenophobic, and complex society in the country. Lets just say that I have not watched any other community as closely as the Goan.
The first thing a Goan will ask you after he or she knows your name is ‘Where are you coming from?’ Now that is not an innocent question. It is loaded with several questions all rolled into one. Your Goan host is also asking you what village you come from, what vaddo in the village, who your grandparents were, who your parents, and so on, thereby determining to what caste and social strata you belong. In fact, many old timers will not even go further after they have fired the first question. Your answer to the first will give them all the other answers that will put you in that tight social niche from which there is no escape, either for you or for them.
If you’re a Hindu, they will be able to pin point your caste, sub-caste, gotra, clan, family, and so on with a little gossip and scandal thrown in for good measure. If you are a Catholic, then you can be sure they will know your family down to the smallest root, including what your caste and last name was before your ancestors converted to Christianity. Even if you are a Catholic, your root caste is important, and most Christians in Goa know if they were once Shudra, Chardo (Kshatriya) or Brahmin. Without a doubt, this determines whether you can be admitted into a Goan home by the front door or should be let in by the back gate. …….now we began to see why, when we went to someone’s house in the village, they would appear warm and forthcoming and yet never invite us in. The Goan balcao was a screening device. You trudged up the stairs of the grand mansion; you were invited to sit on the sopos, the benches in the balcao, while your hosts grilled you and ratified your ancestry. When you passed muster, you graduated to being invited inside the house, never kept hanging and waiting in the entrada, the entrance hall. Once you were accepted, you were in and that was it. It was much later that I learnt that Goans were adept at picking out all your ancestors and slotting your lineage within seconds of knowing your name.

…….one thing was certain: Goa and Goans loved a good fight.

What was also interesting to us was the standard question, ‘Do you salt your rice before it goes into the pot or after?’ That question always puzzled me until years later I was given the answer by a professor …..the wealthy in Goa (and therefore by virtue the upper classes) apparently used copper pots for cooking their rice. In order to avoid the salt from reacting with the copper, they would not add salt to the rice in the pot. The poor on the other hand, cooked in clay pots, and could add salt to the rice before it was cooked. The answer to the question then was simply a roundabout way for a new landlady to determine to which class we belonged.

Rukshana’s dad Feroze (incidentally a collector of the largest private collection of still and movie cameras in the world)…..

Living in Goa suited us perfectly. This was one place in India that did not frown on two women living together with no apparent family support or financial dependencies and doing exactly what they wanted to do in life. We would walk around or drive out in our little car at any time of the day or night and feel absolutely safe and unmindful of personal security.

The history of the tea gardens in Munnar is worthy of a book by itself. Mature deciduous forests were cleared to make way for coffee and cinchona at first and then for tea. The first tea garden bungalows were, in fact, small thatched dwellings, too basic to even be called log huts. The first tea planters were Scotsmen who had come out of their own country and pioneered planting in the hills. These hills, once considered forested and ‘of no use to man’, were once the domain of the tribal chieftain…….As the plantations grew, the pioneers needed more men to manage the estates. That is when trouble began. Rules and regulations had to be made to ensure discipline and obedience. ….The planting traditions set by the old Scots and the rules and regulations set to discipline young hot-blooded planters were in fact meticulously endorsed by their Indian counterparts. Planters were still addressed respectfully as dorai, white masters, and assistant managers were called chinna dorai, little white masters.
Although Munnar is located in Kerala, we had to learn to speak Tamil, as most of the labour came from the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. …..True to colonial traditions, field officers were almost always Tamil and assistant field officers Malayalis from Kerala. It was a very cunning device that had been built into the system by the early planters to control the plantations.
Most Scotsmen planters were Freemasons and belonged to the Church of South India. The Tamil-speaking field officers went to the Roman Catholic Church, and the Malayalam-speaking assistant field officers were either ‘Marthomites’….. or were upper-caste Hindus. The Tamil-speaking labour, all from around Tirunelvelli, were lower-caste Hindus who worshipped at the local Murugan (Kartikeya) temple. Every one of these ethnic groups came with their own built-in prejudices, and like colonialists all over the world, the ‘gentlemen planters’ had turned this to their advantage. Why did the Indian managers and assistant managers who followed the Scots perpetrate this colonial system of control? Why did they, for example, not change the address from dorai, white master ……….Hierachy, of course, was the backbone of the tea estates

Matters in the tea gardens were not always resolved so peaceably. The most dangerous reputation belonged to the dholes or wild dogs. They hunted in packs and were known, just like the Indian bison, to attack without provocation. Dholes, we were told, would slowly form an unseen circle around you, and then with one squeaky signal from their pack leader they would attack.

Tea, we realized, could grow to immense heights if left alone. It is only when it is cultivated as a cash crop that is kept stunted to ‘bush’ height and pruned by hand plucking or shearing.

Being a tea garden wife is not the easiest of jobs. First of all, you have to adhere to an undefined pecking order in tandem with your husband’s hierarchy status, and just like him, you too cannot cement any real friendships. Alienated from your husband’s tea garden life, you live the day separated from him for the most part, growing flowers in the bungalow garden and looking forward to the next annual flower show. You have to learn how to manage a home on a budget, entertain regularly and with precision while you nervously walk on social eggshells, raise the kids in an isolated, insular society, make your mark on Munnar’s High Range Club ……

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