The servant in India conducted his work with a commitment that even in Britain would have been hard to command. The duties, for example, of the khitmagar, or bearer, might include standing behind his master’s chair at mealtimes and stirring his tea, cutting his meat – everything short of actually eating the food for him. By the mid-1920s, even the most self-important pukka sahib found this kind of behaviour a little embarrassing.
Her servants were generally the first people from whom the Raj housewife, if she were curious, learned about India. There were the minutely calibrated differences in religious observance and caste to begin with. Intricate sectarian distinctions meant that each job came with its own religious significance to be carefully respected. The cook (always a man) would not touch pork if he were a Muslim or beef if he were a Hindu. The khitmagar, who had the task of managing the other servants, would not undertake anything but his own tasks; even moving an article of furniture would be beneath him. The work of sweeping, scrubbing or emptying chamberpots was done only by Untouchables; the work of looking after dogs by yet another caste – and often a young child. Untouchables would not handle dead animals, the disposal of which required the services of another group altogether, and the Goddens remembered that ‘if a crow fell dead into our garden or one of our guinea-pigs died, Nitai, our sweeper could not pick up or touch the corpse; a boy of a special sect had to be called in from the bazaar; he put on his best shirt of marigold-coloured silk to do this grisly work’.
Most servants were men, with the exception of the ayah, who was the household nanny, but the cook (khansama) would often have helping him in the kitchen a tunny-ketch, a woman permitted to feed the poultry, grind the spices and cook the rice, attend to the lamps and clean the master’s boots, work considered beneath the dignity of the cook. A musalchi helped with the washing-up, a kind of scullion, described in 1890 by Flora Annie Steel: ‘bearing, as his badge of office, a greasy swab of rag tied to a bit of bamboo’. In most large households, a derzi, or tailor, endlessly stitching at clothes he was mending or copying, might be found sitting on the verandah; then there was the dhobi, who had the never-ending labour of the family’s laundry (and most people changed at least twice a day in the heat, and then for dinner). In those places where there were no telephones, chuprassis were employed to send messages and acted as informal bodyguards, always on the lookout for people going in and out. And because many rural areas had no electricity and therefore no electric fans, there was also the punkah-wallah whose sole duty was to pull the rope that operated the fan, or punkah, day and night to create a cooling breeze. The night punkah-wallah could do it by fixing a rope to a foot and could perform the movement while almost asleep.
13 November 2016
Roles of British Servants in India
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1718-1740: