IN OLD MYSORE
Published in London Magazine, of October-November, 1972
Fifty years ago the streets of Mysore were not tarred. Tarring is what we used to call it. Words like surfacing and asphalting were not in vogue then. Maybe some Parsis in Bombay knew the words, for everything came to Bombay first, from England; and the Parsis received it first.
The stretch of road from the municipal building to the market sqaure was covered with fine red mud. Red mud is nature’s bounty. A city must be lucky to have it. The Red Road in Calcutta is not red at all. I believe they had to use science to make London’s Mall red.
Basava, the famous wrestler of Koppal on the outskirts of Mysor, filled his arena with red mud. His disciples said it was like wrestling on a Persian carpet.
This stretch of road, about 300 yards, was the domain of three British Viceroys. It was bounded on the east by Curzon Park, on the west by Lansdowne Buildings, and on the north by the Elgin Fountain. It was 100 feet wide. All the main streets of Mysore were that wide. They were named after the Ruler’s forbears and their consorts, and when the names were exhausted, one of the roads was called simply “100-feet road’. That stretch.
Twice a day, at nine in the morning and five in the evening, a municipal servant opened the hydrant on either side alternately and watered it. It was filtered water. The municipal servant was a craftman at his job. No mechanical sprinkler could have watered any surface so perfectly.
Years later the municipality bought a lorry mounted with a water tank and fitted with a sprinkler at the rear. The lorry was driven by Ramiah, the town’s first Brahmin lorry-driver. He was a venturesome man. Lorry-driving was not a calling for Brahmins then. The lorry did not do the watering job half as well as the municipal servant did. It was not Ramiah’s fault; it was the lorry’s.
When the servant finished his job the amount of water he had caused to be sprinkled on this stretch was just right. it watered the red mud evenly, leaving no patches, dry or slushy. He achieved this result by moving the water jet from the hose in a zig-zg manner and by playing at the hose’s nozzle dexterously with his fingers. In the gentle breeze filtered water on red mud threw up a most agreeable smell which, when I began to drink many years later, I discovered was exactly like that of Vat 69.
When a hose-drawn carriage approached, the man lifted the hose at such an angle as to make an arch of water jet and let the carriage pass underneath without any water splashing on it. In a small town with few cars and little traffic it was common for pedestrians to use the road rather than the footpath. When a pedestrian approached, the man at the hose freed an appropriate path from his water play, till he passed. When an important-looking person approached, he curbed his hose altogether. One such was my father.
My father was the picture of the affluent Brahmin. He wore his dhoti in the traditional style, that is, knoted at five place around the waist. Three knots would do to keep it in position but traditionalists would have to have five. It was handwoven, with a prominent border of red silk, and so more expensive than the imported Manchester mull dhoti, No. 1703, which most others wore.
His buttoned-up coat was of white silk and his white turban, as well as the shuffled white cloth hanging from his neck, had gold lace of the appropriate width. He wore the red sandals, curved up in front, commonly worn by the Chitpavan Brahmins of the West Coast. In short, his dress was a combined indicator of caste and class. He carried a sandalwood walking stick or an umbrella, depending on the weather, of course. Not in the English sense though. In India an umbrella is a protection against sun as well as rain. My father’s umbrella was made by Ebrahim Currim, the famous umbrella manufacturer of Bombay.
Past the Elgin Fountain and market square, my father entered the market building by a side entrance and climbed a flight of stairs to a small room upstairs. This was the Merchants’ Association. Downstairs, on either side of the entrance, were shops selling local perfumery and sandalsticks. When you pass an Indian perfumery shop you smell perfume. When you pass a perfumery shop in the west you smell only cardboard cartons. Those huge exposed bottles of perfume in the shop-windows of Paris are my despair. As I am looking at them I am only smelling the fetid atmosphere of the shop. Indian perfumery seems to cater to two sensory perceptions at the same time, sight and smell.
My father was a member of the Merchants’ Association because he was a merchant. He was a rice merchant. Brahmins were not merchants as a caste, nor as a class fifty years ago. But a few ventured into business. Sundaram Iyer, for example, had a big grocery in the same bazaar where my father had his rice shop, and Upadhyaya, a perfumery establishment not far from market square.
The more orthodox of my father’s Brahmin friends did not like his being a rice merchant. Rice was the food of life. A Brahmin did not sell this life sustainer. He had two privileges in respect of life. He either begged for it or gifted it, but sell never. The orthodox believe that some curse would visit on my father for trading in rice. He did get diabees, but this had less to do with selling rice than with his eating it.
My father’s business was vertically integrated, in the language of modern capitalism. He grew his own paddy in the village, brought it to town for milling in his own mil, and sold it wholesale in his own shop. His two junior partners were a Vysya and a Sudra. Rather by accident than by design, their shares in the business descended in the same order of the caste hierarchy.
The Merchants’ Association was a sort of a club, and by convention only the head of the firm was a member. In the prevailing laissez-faire in business, its petitions to authority were few and seldom had to go beyond the town’s municipal council. It was, in fact, little more than a reading room. Its high moment came twice a year when it presented a garland of flowers and a bouquet to the Maharaja when he rode in procession that way. This was a privilege enjoyed by a select few which included the local European Club and the Masonic Lodge.
In the reading room of the Merchants’ Association my father settled down to the English language newspapers from Madras and Bombay, and I to Mercantile Guardian from England. I understood nothing of its writing but was attracted to its green cover with the picture of Britannia on it. Perhaps no engraver ever etched a simpler drawing that produced so much reassurance in so many millions in so many lands.
Britannia, solid, remote, imperturbable, mistress of the waves. Trident in hand, she seemed more powerful than Siva, the third of the Hindu trinity, who carried a similar instrument. I passed my eyes idly over the advertisements until it was time to leave. We got home in a horse-drawn carriage. It happened to be the same carriage every evening.
Sabu, its Muslim owner, knew the time we usually emerged from the reading room. As he saw us approaching the carriage stand a few yards away, he politely drew up his carriage for us to board. His pony was always in fine fettle. We were back home by 8 pm, the deadline that all good men of the town had imposed on themselves. Those who habitually got home later were suspect. They, perhaps, played bridge somewhere, consumed alcoholic beverages at the railway station bar, or visited prostitutes.
The two Bs—the British and Brahminism—pervaded life. In a sense the two were interchangeable. The British were the Brahmins among the Europeans of the town. Otto Schmidt, the German conductor of the Maharajs’s private orchestra, and Simonelli, the Italian superintendent of His Highness’s garage, were lower in the caste status to the Rollos, the MacIntoshes and the MacAlpines, who filled the educatioal establishment.
The Maharajs was benign, to the Indian castes and the European castes. But there was no mistaking his recognition that the two Bs were on top. He was an anglophile. He contrived a national anthem for his state in the local language whose musical score very closely resembled God Save the King. He was benign to all Brahmin ecclesiastics, even to those on the West Coast who kept concubines.
The elders at home told me he was a demi-god and I believed them. The transference of this belief to other Maharajs landed me in utter confusion years later when the late Maharajs of Kashmir, Sir Hari Singh, gave me his visiting card in a Paris cafe. The idea that demigods cary visiting cards like you and me was a shock.