Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sahibs who loved India
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

I had a small windfall in my fortunes. Last month my son living in Mumbai redirected a bound manuscript of articles I had commissioned for the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India over 30 years ago. The man who had sent it was Phillip Knightly, once Editor of The Sunday Times of London. He was not sure whether or not I was still around, so he sent it to my son for disposal. I had invited English men and women who had lived in India after Independence to write on "What India Meant To Me".

Amongst those who had responded were Lord Mountbatten, members of the Indian Civil Service, journalists, box-wallahs, housewives and others. I went over them and found them fascinating as well as relevant to our times. Far too long we have looked upon the English as unwanted rulers who exploited India, kept their distance from Indians, and as soon as their tenures were over, went back to their homes in England. This lop-sided image of the English in India persists in the minds of most Indians.

A majority of the Englishmen came to India because they could not get good jobs in their own country
A majority of the Englishmen came to India because they could not get good jobs in their own country

It is true that the majority of those who came here, came because they could not get good jobs in their own country. They hated everything about India—its climate, mosquitoes, flies etc. Above all, they hated Indians. There were others who enjoyed the luxury of living in spacious bungalows with staffs of servants, shikar, riding, pig-sticking, drinking and dancing but kept themselves aloof from Indians, having "white only" clubs.

However, there was a third variety of the English race which liked everything about India, disdained joining racist clubs, went out of the way to befriend Indians and maintained contacts with their Indian friends after returning to England. I was fortunate in having quite a few of this breed—both those I befriended during my long years in England and those I got to know in India.

Amongst the closest to me were the Sinclairs. He (Sinbad) was head of Burmah Shell. When in Bombay, I did not stay in a hotel or with an Indian friend, but with Elinor Sinclair and her family. Later, whenever I was in England, the Sinclairs’ home in London was my home.

After Sinbad and Elinor died, it was the Croom-Johnsons. Henry was the head of the British Council, his wife Jane, a tall handsome grey-eyed blonde, made it a point to reach out to Indians. She stayed with me in Kasauli. I and my daughter stayed with her in London. Now both Henry and Jane are also gone. Only their memories linger. I felt I owed it to my close English friends to record not only what India but also Indians meant to them.

I handed the manuscript to Ravi Singh and Diya Hazra of Penguin-Viking. It was promptly accepted. Hopefully it will appear in book form by the coming autumn under the title Sahibs who loved India.

Givers and takers

Human species can be divided into two equals — givers and takers, suckers and spongers. Their relationship is symbiotic — one are compulsive givers, the others thrive on them. I have always been a sucker and resented being taken for granted. But I can't help my nature. If any friend dropped in at meal time and drink time, something compelled me to ask him to join me. He or she did so as if doing me a favour. I no longer do so. I bluntly tell them to buzz off as it is time for my lunch or dinner. I do the same at my sun-downer. I tell them: "I enjoy my drink alone".

Behind my back they say with age I have become stingy. "He thinks he can take his booze with him to the next world". I don't care. Perhaps I will be allowed to take a crate or two.

I know of a few families of which every member was a born sponger. Its in their blood. Most of them also pretend to be do-gooders or left-wingers. They make you feel guilty if you don't offer them hospitality and open up your purses so that they could pursue their good deeds. If you shut your doors to them, they think you are mean and petty. They live in style, never return hospitality but are over-eager to accept yours.

There is another class of spongers who get so habituated to being entertained that they get convinced that it is their birthright. Such are members of the now defunct princely order, retired senior civil servants who were once in positions to grant favours to lesser people. They accepted hospitality without anyone expecting them to return it. You can see them by the score at Embassy parties, book launches and large receptions. They will be guzzling Scotch and swallowing canapes with an air that they are honouring their hosts.

Givers remain an exploited lot. They grumble, complain to their friends but can do nothing about. It is in the order of nature not limited to human beings. Similar divisions exist amongst animals, birds and insects. They are drones and their workers—one takes, the other gives.

Car vs sarkar

A newly elected member of the legislature was included in the Cabinet. He decided to celebrate the occasion by buying a new car, in keeping with his elevated status. So he bought the latest model of Mercedes Benz. He was mighty pleased and said to his driver: "This car I will drive myself (Main khud chalaonga)’’.

The driver reacted scornfully: Sahib, aap sarkar chalaeye (Sir, you run the government); car chalaana aap kay bus ka nahin (You are not fit to drive a car).

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)