Lifescapes

A Personal History
Rajeswari Chatterjee

Chapter 8: English and American
Friends of the Family

I have already talked about our Anglo-Indian teachers, whose and culture was more English rather than Indian.

Going back to the times of my great grandfather ( my mother's mother's father) Ramaswamiah, who had some English friends with whom he came into contact during his professional life as an officer of the Mysore Government, and also many English Christian missionaries, during his life which probably stretched from the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, our family had many English friends and some American friends.

When my mother's father, Hadya Dasappa,was accidentally drowned in the Kapila river at Nanjangud on 25 June 1904 , on his twenty-fifth birthday, my grandmother Kamalamma was only nineteen years old with two little girls, Putti (Vijaya'mother) about two years old and my mother Lalite about ten months old. According to the Hindu customs of that time, she should have stayed with her husband's family, leading a very simple life, and obeying her father-in-law Sitharamayya all the time (her mother-in-law had passed away at that time). There was no question of marrying again, according to the Hindu law at that time.

However her father Ramaswamiah had a serious talk with Sitharamayya , who was also an officer of the government of Mysore, that Kamalamma should be given a proper modern education, to take care of herself and her two daughters. Fortunately, Sithar-amayya, being broadminded and with a modern outlook, agreed with Ramaswamiah. But Kamalamma, at that time, knew only to read and write Kannada, taught by home tutors, and had never gone to school.

So her father Ramaswamiah requested one of his English Protestant Christian missionary friends to recruit a woman missionary who would be willing to coach her daughter to learn enough English to join Maharani's Girls School in Mysore city, which was started some years earlier by the very enlightened Maharaja of Mysore. The English missionary lady started coming to Ramaswamiah's house and began teaching English not only to grandmother Kam-alamma, but also to her two older sisters Puttamma and Rathnamma, and to their mother Ammanna. Ammanna, being Ramaswamiah's wife, had old-fashioned ideas and refused to learn English, because it was the language of the Mletchas (untouchables). The English people (for that matter all foreiners) belonged to the lowest caste among the Hindus, according to the beliefs at that time.The English and other foreigners were not Hindus and ate beef which was only eaten by the untouchables, and therefore , could not be fitted into any of the higher castes. Our family were Brahmins and also strict vegetarians. The answer that Ramaswamiah gave to this argument of his wife, was that if she was obstinate not to learn English, which was the language of the British rulers, then he would become a Christian, and his family, including her, also would become Christian. Then she would have to not only learn the English language , but also would eat beef. This threat made her change her mind, and she learnt enough to read English newspapers published in India and understand them. This is a story told to us by our grandmother.

When my grandmother had learnt enough English to be admitted to Maharani's Girls High school in Mysore city, her father Ramaswamiah rented a house on Viceroy Road ( now called Rani Lakshmi Bai Jhansi Road ) , and moved his wife Ammanna, his daughter (my grandmother Kamalamma) and her two little girls Putti and Lalite to Mysore. He was at that time posted at a district headquarter town called Tumkur, as Superintendent of Police. He was really such a grand human being that he gave up his own comforts of living with his family for the sake of educating his unfortunate daughter and giving her a new type of life to become independent.

However, my grandmother finished her high school studies in Maharani's High School, and then joined Maharaja's college, where she finished two years of college , studying English, Kannada, History, Economics, and Philosophy. At the end of two years she passed the Fellow of Arts Examination of the Madras University, probably in 1914. At that time, Mysore University did not exist. Her father removed his family consisting of his wife, youngest daughter Kamalamma, and her two little girls, and his young son Sethu, to the big metropolitan city of Madras on the east coast of India. Madras was one of the places where the British set foot the earliest, a little after they had set foot in Bengal, where they founded the bigger metropolitan city of Calcutta, which was the first capital of British India for many years, till they made Delhi the capital at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The principal of this famous Presidency College was an Englishman, Mr. Mark Hunter , and he used to teach history, mostly British and European history. There were a few other British professors and some Western educated Indian professors. My grandmother decided to major in history, and came to know Mr. Mark Hunter very well. She finally obtained her B.A. degree in 1916. Her brother Sethu stayed on in Madras to finish his education in Madras Christian College.

During their stay in Madras, my mother and my aunt went to middle school, where they were taught English, Tamil (the local language of Madras, and one of the oldest languages of India, probably older than Sanskrit), History, Geography, Arithmetic, and Hygeine. In that school, they had to sing the British national anthem ("God save the King") every morning, because the Madras presidency was directly governed by the British, Madras beeing the capital. My mother and aunt had some British teachers in this school. Later on, they had very happy memories of Madras, especially their outings to the sea beach, called the Marina.

When the family came back in 1916 to Bangalore, my mother and aunt were sent to the London Mission Girls School in Bangalore city. The school was managed by the London Mission Society of London in England, and the name of the principal was Miss Margaret Butler, who was a graduate of London University. There were one or two other teachers from England, like Miss Tidball and Miss Evans. My grandmother and her family became very friendly with these English women, and the friendship continued till they retired and left for home(England). After my cousin Vijaya and I finished our schooling till the middle school stage in Mahila Seva Samaja, both of us went to London Mission Girls High School, where I finished my High school education and became ready for University education in 1937. My grandmother used to consult the principal Miss Magaret Butler very often regarding her own educational work in Mahila Seva Samaja.

Other very good English missionary friends of our family were Mr. and Mrs. Cox and Mr. and Mrs. Walden. They lived very near our house , when Vijaya and I were children. My aunt Putti (Vijaya's mother ) used to take us to the Coxes, and we used to play in their garden. It was there that I saw English lettuce being grown in their garden (lettuce is not a very popular vegetable of India). Mrs Cox used to make delicious vanilla flavoured fudge ( made of milk, sugar,butter and flour ), and she used to give us little girls one or two pieces to eat, which we enjoyed very much. Mischievous little Vijaya collected some egg shells one day from their kitchen, when nobody was looking, and brought it home hidden in her clothes. She showed them to our orthodox, strictly vegetarian Brahmin woman cook Lakshamma. Lakshamma screamed and abused Vijaya!..Later on the family doctor advised Vijaya's mother to eat a boiled egg everyday, because she was very weak, and she boiled it when Lakshamma was not around., and not only ate it herself, but gave one each to each one of us.

Mrs Walden had two little daughters about our age, and we did not know how we could talk to them, because we had just then learnt a few simple words in English. Vijaya and I used to practice simple sentences in English to talk to them, before we visited that family. Very soon afterwards, when the girls were about seven or eight years old, they were shipped to England to stay in a boarding school to obtain their English education. This was the fate of all English children, whose parents were working in India! They had to spend their formative childhood and adolescent years in England, away from their parents. They could see their perents once in three years or so, when the parents could spend six months to one year on their furlough in England. The famous Rudyard Kipling whose father worked in India, writes about his experiences in boarding school in England. There is a house in Calcutta, where it is written on the front door, " The famous William Makepeace Thackeray was born in this house". Thackeray was another famous English writer of the nineteenth ceentury, author of the famous "Vanity Fair".

Now speaking of Americans coming from the United States of America, why did they come to India? Most of them came as Christian missionaries or teachers. Two American spinster sisters Miss Ruth Robinson and Miss Muriel Robinson, became very good friends of our family, when we were children. Both of them had come to teach in Baldwin Girls School in Bangalore City. This school was founded by an American named Mr Baldwin, who I hear, was also a founder of Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio state. These two sisters taught for a few years in Baldwin girls school and then resigned from their jobs, not because they wished to return to their homeland, but to do some work with and for Indians. Miss Ruth Robinson started a children's magazine called "Treasure Chest" in English with the help of some educated Indians. My grandmother used to help her sometimes, including witing articles and children stories. This became a very popular children's magazine in English for many decades till the editor Miss Ruth Robinson passed away, probably in the 1950s.

Her younger sister, Miss Muriel Robinson, started a school for girls in our locality of Bangalore. She took the help of Miss Donne, the Anglo-Indian teacher who taught us English and Geography in Mahila Seva Samaja. It was an exemplary school, and both Miss Muriel Robinson and Miss Donne and some other Indian teachers lived on the premises of the school, so that the children thought it was like their home, though they were not boarders. In fact, the name of the school was "Home School." My grandmother had very close contact with this younger Miss Robinson, and the Home School and Mahila Seva were like sister schools.

My uncle (my father's older brother) Srikantia about whom I will write later on, arranged for Miss Muriel Robinson to go to his house, situated near the school, to teach his widowed daughter, Sharade, her younger sister, Thanga, and his only son ,Thammiah, who was blind, enough English so that they could not only read and write but also converse easily in that language. His three grandchildren, two girls named Vishalakshi and Rajalakshmi, and a boy named Srikanta, had their elementary and middle school education in Home School.

A Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, who were from Canada, were also good family friends.

So we knew some English and Americans as family friends. They were mostly Christian missionaries. Somebody may ask the question, " Why did your family not become Christian?" The answer I can give is as follows. As our great spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi used to say, " Let all breezes blow through my house. I will take all the good things that come, avoiding the bad things according to my conviction." Many of us went to Christian mission schools, and are familiar with the teachings of Christ. We feel that we do not have to change our religion to appreciate the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Our family had Indian Muslim friends also. They were our neighbours and we worked with them for the good of our country. It is sad that some ill-motivated people bring about clashes between people from different backgrounds like religion, race, culture, and so on. We have learnt to appreciate what the prophet Muhammed had to teach humanity. Muslims form about fifteen percent of India's population, Christians about three percent.

Our best friend from England was Miss Evelyn Turnbull, who came to India in the 1930s as a missionary of the London Mission Society, but was not a teacher. At that time, I was at the university and could interact with her very well. She was a very good friend of my aunt and used to come and stay with us for a holiday. Belonging to the younger generation, she had no inhibitions about adopting Indian dress , customs, and manners. She could speak Kannada very fluently, and she became almost a member of our family. The older missionary friends of ours were a little inhibited in their behaviour with Indians, though they were good friends. After my graduate studies in the U.S.A. from 1947 to 1953, I could visit her in Newcastle in England in her sister's house, where she was spending her furlough. I enjoyed very good hospitality in their house. She left India around 1960 for good and had her last dinner in my grandmother' house.

She told us that she was very sorry to leave India after so many years, and India had really become her home for more than thirty years. However, she felt that there was very little work for her to do in India, but there was much more important work for her in England, where the young people needed guidance who had gone astray due the turmoils of the second world war and afterwards. The last time I met her was in 1987 in England, when I stopped in England on my way to the U.S.A. to visit my daughter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She had became quite old , and we talked for a long time about our family and India and about her family. She was very happy to receive a small packet of sambhar powder from me. She was hankering to eat some sambhar (a South Indian delicacy made from lentils, vegetables, tamarind and a special mixture of spice).

Photo: Mother Lalite and Aunt Putti around 1916.

To Chapter 9