What An Owl I Am
BLOGIRADE | THE INDIA FILES
by James Killough
It turns out I spoke too soon about Lady Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey. By the season finale, she’s had more comeuppance than she deserved, and she’s managed to move from super bitch to sympathetic heroine. I have to hand it to show creator and writer Julian Fellowes: superb job on the old character arc, there, dear chap.
Regardless of what happens outside the house, what is at the center of Downton Abbey is the dynamic between servants and their masters, which is always the basis for shows like this, that intricate Upstairs, Downstairs relationship drama, a perverse master-slave relationship that can be seen as a microculture of the whole employer/employee, ruler/subject dynamic of the world at large.
I grew up with live-in “staff” or “help,” or whatever euphemism works best to chase away the sour taste of having to use the word “servant.” And it’s correct to use a euphemism in our case because they weren’t servants as the term denotes in a Downton Abbey way. They really were there to just to help the family, and were treated in as egalitarian a fashion as possible, except for the fact they slept in the servant’s quarters near the kitchen where the laundry was drying, they never ate with us, they called my parents “sir” and “madam,” served us dinner from the left, cleared the plates from the right…. Well, I suppose we did our best not to have servants despite evidence to the contrary.
For a couple of years before I became a full-fledged Screaming Teen Monster, our houseman was my best friend. In our mini villa in Rome, I hanged out in his room and listened to the local Voice of America radio station every evening. The one time I treated him like a real servant was after I’d blossomed into the aforementioned teen monster, when I ordered him to bring me a drink in front of my friends, which he did. My mother gave me such a tongue-lashing that my ego couldn’t sit down for months, and I have never done anything like it since.
Servants or non-servants, the relationship is complicated: you live in the same house; you all have egos; people who are not your family are woven into the everyday struggles for existence that any family goes through. Over time, they can become like relatives. We are still in close contact with that houseman thirty years after he left us. He moved back with us from Rome to New York. We are each a godparent to his children, and he now refers to my parents by their first names, not sir and madam.
The first time I came into contact with real servants in the Downton Abbey sense, actually more in the Gone With The Wind sense, was when I went to India in the late 80s. Regardless of my upbringing with live-in staff, which was already unusual for an American, I was still pretty shocked once the intricacies of Indian culture became less intricate and I began to understand what was going on in many households there.
The first director I ever wrote for was a nobleman, a raja from the former Muslim state of Awadh, in north central India, considered the most cultured and refined of the princely states, the birthplace of Urdu, a recent language invented by Awadhi courtesans that is mainly spoken in Pakistan. This directing raja was, I guess, the equivalent of a duke. A few months into my two-and-a-half year stint on that project, I realized that some of the servants in his household were indentured, had been for generations. This appalled me, and started me on a crusade to rescue every servant I came into contact with, to provide him with an education and somehow elevate him, to show him that the American way was something that could be achieved against literally insurmountable obstacles. I believed I could change millennia of Indian culture singlehandedly, one “oppressed” soul at a time.
I was to live in India for many years, and as my speech became sing-song, and my head began swaying when I said “yes,” and I became comfortable eating with my hands, when I became shocked sometimes to look in the mirror and see that I wasn’t Indian, I eventually abandoned the servants’ liberation campaign. The iniquities in India are something that will rectify themselves slowly over time, hopefully faster now that the New India is surging ahead. In those days, in the late 80s and early 90s, just having a decent roof over your head and three good meals a day was considered enough for a servant to work seven days a week for little or no pay, which was the case of some of the retainers in noble households, whose families worked land belonging to the estates of the rajas outside of the big cities. They were a sort of tithe given by their own families to the noblemen. One less mouth to feed, one less body to clothe. Rent on the land might be overlooked. Everybody’s happy.
In time, I understood I wasn’t just up against a rigid, ancient social structure, I was up against what was basically a four thousand-year-old genetic engineering experiment: the caste system. Westerners don’t understand the caste system properly, and Indians are loath to explain it because they find it embarrassing. It is believed to have been based on profession when it started. If you were good at the arts, learning, philosophy, religion, administration of state, you were a Brahmin and were married off to someone with similar traits. If you were a sporty jock who liked to bang heads and defend and invade, you were the warrior. A head for business put you in the business class. And so forth. And the short end of the stick, the cleaning of toilets, the burying of the dead, the disposal of garbage went to those who didn’t fit in with any of the other professions, the Untouchables. Over the millennia, this became who you were, who you married, who you gave birth to, and there was no escaping it. India is basically an ancient Brave New World.
It is because of the caste system that you cannot convert to Hinduism, regardless of what the Supermarket Gurus will tell you. What are you going to choose to be when it is something you cannot choose?
Regardless of my very willing assimilation into the country, like many expats there I chose to run my household the way I was brought up, yet I tried to look at the Indian way of doing things with as much compassion and understanding as I could, which arose from my deepening knowledge and respect for the culture, affected as it was so profoundly by the exigencies of a world far harsher than the one I came from. But even in my house I had to be careful; protocols ran both ways. I could not, for instance, be present when a servant was eating. If I ambled into the kitchen when he was having his lunch — as a single man, it was unheard of for me to have a woman working for me — he would jump up and gag on his food; he couldn’t sit in front of me, much less eat. And if I forced him to do it, it would make him so uncomfortable there would be no point.
What strikes a chord with me about Downton Abbey is the way the servants identify with their masters, as if the fate and fortunes of lords and ladies were their own. The butler Carson often refers to the Crawleys as “our family.” They fret downstairs about the affairs of upstairs, knowing their fates are intertwined, much the same way any employee of a company worries about the fortunes of the organization that keeps his bread buttered. The difference is how a real servant is concerned with how his master is perceived in society, and that reminds me of Jamuna.
After the Miss India debacle — I was the host of the 1993 Miss India Pageant and both of us were dreadful — I came back from Mumbai to Delhi, wiped off my disgust, and decided to go up to Mussoorie in the Garhwal Himalayas to study Hindi at the Landour Language School, and finish my first novel, which, despite a deal with a decent publishing house, I never completed. I had been living at a friend’s farm in Mehroli, now a suburb of Delhi, but then still very much a quasi-rural area. I knew I needed a “man” to help me. In a country with no running water, and sporadic electricity even in the largest towns, which means no refrigeration, no automatization of any kind, you need help, unless you are going to spend the greater part of your day looking after yourself and not working. So I did what any Indian in that position would do, which was to try to poach a servant from the vast ménage of the house I was renting.
Not as easy as you might think. None of the house staff, who had already climbed up from misery in a rural community to land a choice position in a foreigner’s household in Delhi (the family whose house I was renting was Italian), wanted to go back to an even more remote place than they originally came from, in the service of someone who was destined to leave the country at some point and might abandon them in some godforsaken perch in the mountains. A future with me was a movement backwards and too limited, even for such a fatalistic culture.
Just as I was going to give up and simply wing it once I got to Mussoorie, one of the gardeners, Jamuna, approached me when I was out surveying the farm’s marijuana crop, deciding what I would have dried out to take with me. As in Downton Abbey, outside staff were never allowed indoors, certainly not past the kitchen, so I rarely came in contact with these guys. While hacking down a particularly splendid female cannibis indica, Jamuna expressed a willingness to go with me on my journey.
I’m not an Indian, so I didn’t give a damn that Jamuna was a mali, a sub-group of the harijan Untouchables. If I my understanding of India was enough that I had already hosted the Miss India Pageant because I not only looked like David Letterman but I could pronounce the names correctly, I also knew that all foreigners are untouchables: we are born “out of caste,” literally outcastes. We are only given an exemption in most circumstances, with the notable exception of admission into the most sacred Hindu temples, because of the color of our skin; India is a fanatically skin-conscious society.
So off we went, nine hours drive up to the old hill station in the Himalayan foothills, where the British Raj escaped the heat of the plains, as I was doing. I rented a magnificent house built in the 1850s called Seaforth Lodge, which overlooked some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, as well as terraces of rice paddies cut into the foothills. The place was way too big for me, but in no time I had guests draped all over the joint. With no small amount of tongue-in-cheek, I dubbed myself Lord Seaforth, and Jamuna, now elevated from the garden to the house, was my man. Yes, it was Kipling in 1993.
The bazaar is the center of activity in any Asian town, just as the mall is here, and Jamuna proved to be a bit of a consternation there. The local inhabitants in places like Mussoorie are overwhelmingly from the rajput, or warrior, caste. They pegged Jamuna for an Untouchable immediately, but because he was working for me, he had to be treated with a respect not normally accorded to Untouchables. Other servants in the area shunned him, but, even though he had no friends and zero social life, Jamuna didn’t mind. In the bazaar, he became known as the lambu shahzada ka chela, “the tall prince’s follower,” and that was more than enough for him. Like the butler Carson in Downton Abbey, his reflection of himself was mirrored in me.
My Hindi lessons progressed further than my novel did. I hated the book; I was writing it for all the wrong reasons. I practiced my childlike Devanagari script whenever I could, which usually meant the daily shopping list. My morning began with being asked over breakfast what the next two meals would be. As ingredients were always bought fresh owing to the erratic refrigeration, this meant a Jamuna had a one-hour trek each way down a steep mountain to the bazaar and back. I would make out the grocery list in my proud Hindi and sign it so the shopkeeper knew it was me. On occasion, the rajput chowkidar of the property, the groundskeeper, still no friend of Jamuna’s for caste reasons, but tolerant of him, would go down on his scooter and buy supplies.
One night, I had finished dinner with an Indian friend and was settling back for a spliff and a cup of masala chai, when Jamuna came in with the chowkidar. It appeared that in my writer’s spaced-out-ness, I had forgotten to fill in an item on my grocery list; I’d put the amount we needed, but not what it was that we needed. I remember it was milk, or dood; in all likelihood, I was trying to figure out which of the several Ds in Hindi I should use — Hindi is spelled phonetically, but if you’re not quite sure how to pronounce something, it’s still a bitch — and then got distracted and didn’t finish writing the item on the list. This is the sort of thing that can produce panic amongst the staff.
It so happened that in class that day I’d learned how to say “stupid” in polite Hindi, rather than the usual slang term. Like so many things in India, it was a case of a reversed cultural symbol; for instance, they bring in the cake, blow out the candles, and then sing “Happy Birthday.” Over there, the owl is the symbol of stupidity, rather than wisdom as it is for us.
I smacked my forehead, laughed and said, “What an owl I am! I meant to write milk.”
Jamuna didn’t laugh. Nor did the chowkidar. In fact, Jamuna looked stricken. “Achcha, sahab,” is all they said. Very well, sir. And they withdrew.
I commented to my friend that maybe I’d said the wrong thing. Wasn’t “ullu” the word for owl? Had I accidentally blasphemed against the gods?
My friend said matter-of-factly: “Leaving it off the list was a mistake. Or you forgot. Or they can get it tomorrow. Whatever. But you are never, ever stupid.” By denigrating myself, I had insulted them.
And here is where in typical fashion I somehow try to tie in the previous rather grandiose story with my ongoing rants about Mama Gaddafi.
The shopkeepers in the Landour Bazaar didn’t call Jamuna my naukar, the Hindi word for servant. They called him my chela, which is a disciple, a religious follower. As graceful as the gesture was, it took me a good two weeks after he started working for me to get Jamuna to stop touching my feet in respect every morning, but he still did it from time to time. Even though I knew better by then than to try to elevate him through education and put him on the path to becoming a good American, the pride he took in being servile, in being willing to follow me anywhere, is still completely alien to me. But that is the Upstairs, Downstairs of it, I guess. Change as we might as global society evolves, there will always be masters and servants.
In the larger world, as we watch an entire culture heave against centuries of various tyrannies both governmental and religious, it mystifies me when people identify so strongly with leaders that they are willing to follow them into anything, against all reason. Hundreds of Jim Jones’s followers willingly drank that Kool Aid. Indeed, history is littered with lemming-ish follies committed by hoards of people following a single leader or a set of nonsensical social dictates. What makes a group of people throw their lives down for an eccentric, manifestly malevolent weirdo like Mama Gaddafi in the face of an onslaught from NATO? You’d think they’d all seize the opportunity to be free with open arms.
I dunno. Personally, I killed my heroes years ago. No regrets there.