Chapter 5 – Matilda’s Dilemma
In the weeks that followed Matilda sat in her favourite chair at the club and watched Priya at work. Her anger at the obvious snub delivered when she’d attempted to assert her authority over the girl slowly dissipated and she determined to know more about this unusual native girl.
She was surprised to learn the story of John London and his love for the Brahman girl Geeta, Priya’s mother. This was long before Matilda and her Major had moved to Bombay to retire. The story of a beneficial business relationship between the London family and the family of Ram Gopal for many years was equally surprising to her. She’d read about the London family change of fortunes in Bombay English newspapers of recent times. Curiosity aroused, she delved into the scandals which had ripped both the Ram Gopal and London families apart.
But through all her investigations she couldn’t find any to question the girl’s character. She seemed to be universally loved by older club members and the Indian community. That was strange as there was a huge gulf between the communities. It was obvious from the laughter she generated around the old English patrons who’d watched her grow as she accompanied her grandfather Humphrey they had genuine affection for her.
Matilda turned to her companion Florence Warburton engrossed in her English magazines as usual and spoke.
So the girl is Eurasian! That explains why she can move freely with club members. With the obvious power of the London family behind her she probably feels very confident about being accepted wherever she goes. But my impression is Eurasians are really not accepted by either side? This seems to be an exception!”
Florence looked up from her magazine then followed the gaze of Matilda Sheffield-John to where Priya was chatting with a group of older English ladies.
She smiled. Matilda seemed to be obsessed with this girl and Florence wondered what trouble she was planning now.
Florence stretched and yawned.
“Usually Indian communities don’t look on them with favour. Probably they feel their community has been rejected in an attempt to curry favour with the sahibs through marriage. The English feel it’s wrong to mix races, but there are exceptions and this is one of them. I personally don’t see anything wrong with marrying outside of race after all we English are a mix of many tribes in pre-history and I don’t see the difference. Some of us are snobs!
Matilda recoiled in horror! “Surely you can’t believe that?” she muttered irritably.
“I do,” said Florence returning her gaze to the magazines.
That evening pandemonium broke loose at the Sheffield-John bungalow. Major Sheffield-John arrived a little more inebriated than usual and announced his arrival with shouts and the liberal application of his cane when things were not to his pleasure.
Dinker the chalane vala (driver) had been severely caned for not arriving at the club in a timely manner and Gurka chowkidar (Nepalese watchman) had received a few strokes for attempting to help steady horses nervous at the Major’s outbursts.
Ganesh the mali (gardener) had run to hide when the Major had smashed one of the water pots he was carrying to water the gardens and Shanta the naukar (servant girl) spilled his drink shaking with fright at his outbursts. Even Kanta the cook hadn’t escaped his wrath with a summary rejection of the Major’s favourite chicken curry accompanied by curses on her father’s home.
Matilda staying well out of the Major’s way motioned to the head naukar to try and calm him down. The Major was very fond of Sivaraj who’d served him in the north and he was considered head of the household, but the Major rounded on him as soon as he opened his mouth to politely ask if there was anything he could do to make amends.
The Major in his inebriated state struggled to express himself in Hindi, the only Indian language he had some familiarity with from his long service in the north. But it burst out in half English, half Hindi in his indignation.
“If you kolo your bolo I’ll band karo your deko!”
Now this wouldn’t make sense in either language as its literal translation would be, “if you open your speak I’ll shut your look!” But everyone got the picture!
Matilda had to rush to the other room where she broke into muffled laughter looking over her shoulder as she did to make sure the Major wasn’t following her. She despised him for his outbursts like this although his unfortunate messing up of both languages was rather funny.
But the Major was on his way to his room forgetting his usual evening view of sunset over the Arabian Sea and within minutes could be heard snoring loudly from the bedroom.
Sivaraj stood with head bowed for a few minutes. He’d served the Sahib for many years and calmed him through outbursts but this was the Major’s worst performance and this proud servant had been disgraced in front of the servants who he was supposed to control. How could he stay and maintain face after being so humiliated? Tears welled up in his eyes and he made his decision. He’d leave this place and return to his home in the north far from this disgrace.
Matilda felt sad as she watched this faithful servant pack his belongings on a wheel gari and head out into the night. For once she felt empathy for the Indian community who had to put up with outbursts from their sahibs because of their need for employment. The servants set up a wail as they watched Sivaraj go from the front lawn and then stood huddling together to discuss the event. He was hard on them but they loved and respected him. They’d seek other employment and leave this place as soon as they could.
Matilda stood in the shadows and listened to their conversations and a cold fear gripped her. How would she, a privileged daughter of the Raj be able to cope without the help of her natives? To tend the gardens, carry the water, shop at the bazaars, cook meals was something she didn’t know how to cope with. And living with the Major’s outbursts without the servants as a shock absorber would be hell on earth. She felt jealous of these servants. They could leave of their own free will but how could she? She had no family to go to and realized for the first time she didn’t have any close friends in Bombay to help her either.
The next day there was no cook and no servant girl to prepare and serve their morning meal.
The Major woke with a good humour looking forward to his day at the club and was surprised to find that only the mali remained. He couldn’t quite remember the events of last evening but was sure their close neighbours would get him to the club and he’d send someone to find those servants and send them scurrying back to the bungalow. It was just a misunderstanding and they should realize how lucky they were to have employment. What was wrong with Sivaraj? He should know better than to get offended. He’d a duty to stay by his assignment and would get a tongue lashing for being so stupid.
But word back from messages he sent was his former servants couldn’t be found. The Major was stunned, but not defeated. After a day of trying to recruit new servants a lot of his bravado had evaporated. He realized he had a problem on his hands which needed more finesse than he was capable of.
Matilda had watched his efforts at the club with increasing concern. For the first time she saw in her husband the hint of defeat and while this pleased her she too realized their lives could never be the same again unless she or someone else intervened.
So in humility so uncharacteristic of Matilda Sheffield-John she found her way uncertainly to the office and was soon face to face with Priya who was planning the club business of the day. For a few seconds the two women faced each other in silence. Then in a torrent of words which shocked Priya the older woman made her apologies and begged for help to undo the damage the Major had done the evening before. Matilda dried her eyes with a handkerchief and looked hopefully at Priya.
Priya thought of the difference between that day when this haughty woman had demanded her presence and today when she approached her in deep distress and humility. She thought of her grandfather and his magnanimous spirit.
She smiled at the tired old woman and put her hand on her shoulder. “What would you like me to do for you?”
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2013 All rights reserved”