A Hindu Marriage

Gabriele Annan

  • Mamaji by Ved Mehta
    Oxford, 334 pp, £6.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 19 502640 3

In 1956, when he was 22 and about to go up to Oxford, Ved Mehta finished an autobiography, Face to Face: a provisional one, naturally, under the circumstances. In 1972, he published Daddyji, a life of his father. Daddyji was born circa 1895, but the book reaches back to the birth of the grandfather, and beyond: though the beyond is rather shadowy. ‘By extension’, it was ‘the story of an ancient Hindu family from an Indian village, aspiring to enter the modern world’.

Mamaji is the story of Mehta’s mother and her family, ‘this time not so much aspiring to enter the modern world as trying to consolidate its place in that world’. Daddyji and Mamaji cover many of the same events, though from different angles: for this reason alone they ask for commitment from the reader. The Western reader needs extra commitment because only by incessantly consulting the family tree at the beginning of each book can he hope to keep some sort of track of these huge Indian families where the maternal grandfather is called Babuji and the paternal grandmother Bhabiji, their real names being Gurga Das and Ganga Devi. There are six other Das’s: Ishwar Das, Bhagwan Das, Narinjan Das, Dwarka Das, Lakshman Das and Gopal Das. And seven other Devis: Durga Devi, Kesra Devi, Lal Devi (this is Mamaji’s mother, known as Mataji), Shanti Devi (this is Mamaji), Gulab Devi, another Ganga Devi and Parmeshwari Devi. Das means servant of God, devi means goddess, and the suffix -ji denotes respect and affection.

Daddyji and Mamaji had six surviving brothers and sisters each, and Mamaji had an older stepsister and two stepbrothers besides. One stepsister had died in infancy, as did five of her full brothers and sisters. One little brother died in her arms (she was 14 and he was two) after swallowing a bottleful of chocolate-covered quinine pills. That was in 1922, by which time infant deaths had become less grimly normal. Mamaji’s grandparents had lost ten children before her own father, Babuji, was born. Babuji kept a diary – never more than a page for each year – which Ved Mehta reproduces. Almost every year contains births and deaths of children and grandchildren. Laconic expressions of sorrow and resignation to the divine will follow the deaths. 1913, for instance, goes like this:

Firefly my favorite horse died on 14th Dec. after good service.
A beautifull and serviceable animal.
Born a daughter at Lahore on — named Sheila.
Died above girl on — of high fever and breathing trouble.
His will be done.

This quotation actually gives an unfair picture of Babuji, who loved his older children deeply: in 1911, when a son was bitten by a rabid dog and had to be left at a special hospital for rabies, Babuji wrote: ‘Most miserable time. One of the bitterest moments of my life. Most anxious. Depends upon His Mercy.’ Surprisingly, the boy recovered – to die seven years later of influenza.

The period covered by Daddyji and Mamaji coincides with those in Kipling’s and Forster’s books about India, but the world of the Mehtas and Mehras (Mamaji’s family) seems very unfamiliar, except possibly at the time when Daddyji was a young ‘England-returned’ doctor leading a merry life on tennis courts and cricket pitches, and at the bridge tables of various social clubs: British clubs admitting Indians, or Indian clubs admitting British members – he was not keen on exclusively Indian ones. At this stage, you feel he might just have come across Dr Aziz. Seen from the chaubara (women’s quarters), however, life seems far from exotic: monotonous, in spite of constant moves (always, in the case of these families, into better, more modern houses); puritanical, in spite of the gigantic consumption of sweetmeats; and fairly quarrelsome. This is middle-class India. ‘The members of this class were not well-born, like the maharajas and nawabs of the hundreds of semi-independent princely states that made up the so-called “Indian India”, but, rather, had risen by dint of their own efforts and gone on to become babus and the like, who helped the British govern their colony, the so-called “British India”.’

Daddyji and Mamaji belonged to the Kshatriya or warrior caste, but their forebears’ occupations were neither warlike nor glamorous. Daddyji’s family were poor country people barely subsisting on subsistence farming: there was no primogeniture, so holdings got smaller and smaller. They had lived for generations in a predominantly Muslim village in the Punjab: ‘villagers too poor to bring up their children often gave their sons to the mosque, and the maulvi (Muslim priest) brought them up. He fitted the little boys with iron skull caps, and they grew to manhood with the heads – and brains – of children. They managed to keep alive by trooping behind religious mendicants – begging and giggling – from village to village.’ Women frequently died in childbirth, Hindus sometimes with help from in-laws who hoped for a second daughter-in-law with a second dowry. As a small boy, Daddyji lived with his parents, grandmother, uncles, and their wives and children, in a mud house with four windowless rooms, one a storeroom. From there to the cosy Bloomsbury boarding-house where he lodged as a graduate student, and from which he even took a trip to the casino at Deauville, the leap seems inconceivably wide.

Daddyji’s father (Lalaji) was a patwari, a petty official who assessed how much water each farmer used and therefore how much tax he owed. It was a job with ineluctable built-in corruption, and Lalaji was ashamed of it and in later life begged his son to banish the memory of it from the family’s consciousness. He was determined that all his younger brothers and his sons should be educated and break into middle-class careers in the city. This seemingly fantastic ambition was not only largely fulfilled: it has its counterpart in the Mehra family. The author makes one realise what a strong feature of Indian life it was. In fact, all the men seem to fall into one of three categories: losers, wastrels and these high-minded strivers.

Daddyji was 29 when he married in 1925. He was a public health officer with a good job. His bride was 17, older than most, and he never saw her until the wedding. As an ‘England-returned’ doctor (he was actually America-returned as well, having won a Rockefeller Fellowship) he had received plenty of proposals. He regarded himself as progressive and did not care about his bride’s dowry. All he wanted was that she should be musical, speak English, and be socially accomplished. He was promised all these things when he was shown Mamaji’s photograph (which he liked), and got none of them. This was bad luck, because in terms of Westernisation Mamaji’s family were a generation ahead of his own. They were city people from Lahore, where the father, Babuji, was at the High Court bar and a member of the university senate. He kept a carriage and syce (or groom – later there was a car and chauffeur), and many servants. His father had been illiterate, an itinerant bundleman selling cloth: but he was determined to educate his only son (Babuji and his sister were the survivors of 13 children). As well as selling cloth (eventually from a shop), Babuji’s father practised Ayurvedic medicine – a kind of herbalism based on Hindu scripture. Meanwhile his son at the Anglo-Vedic High School was doing dictation –‘in the pleasant valley of Ashton, there lived an elderly woman of the name of Preston’ – and history – ‘What do you know about the following battles: Crecy, Mortimer’s Cross, Brunanburgh, Ethandune, Mesham, Hastings, Stanford Bridge, Bannockburn, and Felkirk?’ – and English literature: ‘How would you characterise Scott’s genius?’ In this way he ‘acquired a solid Indian Victorian education, which eventually helped him ... to become a member of the Indian establishment – a sort of shadow of the British establishment’. Indian education had ‘a distinctive colonial flavour, like Indian English’. Yes.

Babuji was 15 and still at the High School when he was married to a 12-year-old girl. By the time she died in 1902, Babuji was 31 and had three surviving children. The following year the matchmaker called once more and Babuji married Lal Devi, who became known as Mataji (second wife). Her own mother, Malan, had been married at the age of eight: she had not even realised what was happening, and thought that she was celebrating the wedding of one of her aunts. Only when she was lifted into the bridal palanquin did the truth dawn on her ‘and she started wailing. The family covered the palanquin with a heavy woollen shawl to muffle her screams, and she was taken away.’ Her husband was a widower, and she lived in his house for several months before she realised that the little boy and girl who played with her were her stepchildren. She herself was widowed and living with Mataji and Babuji when Mamaji, their second child, was born in 1908. This was just too soon in that family for her to receive a full secondary education as her younger sisters were to do. She was taken from school at 14 and confined to the chaubari in spite of her father’s progressive principles. For he belonged to the Hindu reform movement Arya Samaj, and that was why Daddyji, also an Arya Samajist, had felt certain his daughter would be an educated girl.

Arya Samaj was both puritanical and progressive. Its aim was to abolish the superstition, idolatry and elaborate ritual that had encrusted the pure teaching of the Veda over the centuries, and to produce well-educated Indians, self-confident, proud of their own culture, and with no need or desire to ape the British. Its development, its internal fissures, and its relations with the Congress movement, are an important thread in the book.

As an Arya Samajist, Babuji discouraged those of the traditional customs in his house which he thought unworthy (and was considered very stingy when he married off Mamaji without all the usual elaborate wedding celebrations): but the women carried on the old ways just the same behind his back, and went on believing what they pleased. Mamaji absorbed all their superstitions and rituals, and though her dowry included a Chevrolet (it was the previous year’s showroom model and not in the best condition), she herself was almost as naive, ignorant and unwesternised as her own mother had been. Among other things, she thought that she brought bad luck, and her lack of selfconfidence was one of the problems Daddyji faced and gradually solved.

Daddyji had admired sophisticated and accomplished Indian girls in England and India, and his disappointment with Mamaji was great: she could not even remember the name of the school she had briefly attended. Immediately after the wedding night, she returned to her parents’ house for a few days, as was the custom. Daddyji sent her a long letter in English, and expected a reply ‘in girlish convent English’. When, after an anxious wait, he finally got it, it told him, in ‘simple’ Hindi, that his wife knew no English and little else.

These letters are the point at which Mehta’s literary intention reveals itself most clearly. Daddyji dwells, not too heavily, on Daddyji’s disappointment. Mamaji tells only Mamaji’s bewilderment on receiving her husband’s letter: ‘even after struggling through it, she did not understand much. Medical doctor, postgraduate studies, United States, Europe, health officer, Montgomery (the town where Daddyji was posted) – all these meant little to her ... Daddyji ... had not only studied, but played mysterious games called cricket and hockey.’

From the moment of the marriage across this gigantic culture gap (actually no bigger than the gap Daddyji had already bridged within his own career) the story of Daddyji and Mamaji is not so much one of mutual adaptation, as of mutual acceptance and co-existence.

Ved Mehta was born in 1934, and incurably blinded four years later when meningitis destroyed his optic nerves. Even in the mid-Forties, Mamaji, a Westernised doctor’s wife of 20 years’ standing, was still applying painful quack remedies to the boy. Daddyji found out and exploded with rage: ‘He said that her superstitions far surpassed those of any village woman ... any person with the slightest consideration for her husband would have adjusted her ways ... Even then she did not defend herself.’

She never did defend herself, and she was proud of it, proud of being ‘a good Hindu wife’ – the phrase recurs over and over again – her life totally subservient to her husband’s, her will totally submissive to his (except occasionally behind his back). She drew strength from her limitations. If her husband had married ‘an educated woman who could speak English and sing, that woman wouldn’t have lasted in his household for ten days’. She even slightly despised Daddyji’s openness: she herself could keep her own secrets and other people’s, and the fact that she had learnt to do it through fear never struck her as petty or unworthy.

He was sometimes irritated by her backwardness: she was bewildered and frightened by things that seemed normal to him, like playing bridge (they would be ruined) and consorting with people who drank whisky (he might be a drunkard, and all drunkards beat their wives). In spite of their lack of agreement about matters that would seem fundamental in a Western marriage, theirs was a happy one. An enchanting scene shows them celebrating their golden wedding anniversary with their children and grandchildren around them. ‘In her hesitant English’, Mamaji read out the letters Daddyji had written her fifty years ago. They are affectionate, sentimental, solicitous, absurd, and full of respectably conveyed physical desire. ‘Both of them laughed so much over the letters that she could scarcely read and he could scarcely hear what was being read; at times their eyes teared so much with their laughter that it was hard to tell whether they were laughing or crying. We children listened to the letters, joined in much of the laughter, and felt no embarrassment at being with our parents at such an intimate moment.’ It sounds like a testimonial of perfect family relations.

All the same, in spite of touching passages and funny passages, this book seems less lively than Face to Face or Daddyji; and less clearly structured – a bit measy, even. This is surely deliberate, and one must read it as part of the larger edifice of which, with Daddyji, it is to be a cornerstone. Meanwhile, although the author never changes his tone of voice – it is matter-of-fact, even deadpan (he is a staff writer on the New Yorker) – and makes no attempt at empathy, let alone interior monologue, this is Mamaji’s book, and her view of the world is disjointed, hazy, slightly bemused. Daddyji used to tell his children ‘how naive Westerners were about the Indian way of life, or indeed about all Asian peoples’. His son is obviously labouring to break down this naivety, but it would be presumptuous, faced with this complex and mysterious book, to feel sure that one had really understood him fully. In a way, human beings and their relationships seem more of a mystery than ever in a modernised mysterious East.