Friday, March 25, 2011

White Whines of the British Empire

You might think that, for a servant of the British Empire in its heyday, life was a bowl of gulab jamun: there are servants and tiger-hunting, your license to behave eccentrically is basically unlimited, and your hotel’s transportation-request form has a check-box for elephant (“One hour’s notice should be given, for Elephant one and a half hour’s”; p. 59).

But for Radcliffe Sidebottom, Sir Penderel Moon, Alan Snelus, CMG, et al., life in India or Africa had its share of third-world first-world problems.

You might, for instance, find yourself forced to convict an intractably self-assured murderer:

The accused would invariably plead guilty. You asked him, “Did you kill this man?” He said, “Yes.” “Did you mean to kill him?” “Yes, of course. He was stealing from my palmyra tree.” Then you said, “Well, was he armed?” “Oh no, he wasn’t armed.” “Then why did you kill him?” “I killed him because he was stealing from my palmyra tree,” and you couldn’t get away from it.

Or have it suggested by the native population that those khakis do make your ass look big:

The African women in that area had a custom of wearing strings of beads round their waists which protruded underneath their cloth and gave them a sort of bustle appearance. Well, one of the chaps had a bottom that stuck out like that so he was known as Jigada, which is the name for these beads.

Knowing that so many people had got nicknames, I made enquiries about my own and I was rather sorry I did, because I was particularly corpulent at the time and my native name turned out to be Miliafu, which is “waterbelly.”

Or frighten the girl at the general store into thinking you are a sun-stricken lunatic:

I remember on my first local leave arriving at a big European store in Chingola where I wanted some chocolate very badly — but I was unaccustomed to speaking in English.

There was a great pile of chocolate behind this girl at her counter, and I approached her slowly and carefully and I chose my words with care. I said to her, “Do-you-have-any-chocolate?” and the unfortunate girl was extremely worried and said, “Oh, oh, yes, yes, yes! Take as much as you like!”

All excerpts from Plain Tales from the Raj (first one) and Tales from the Dark Continent (second and third ones), two oral histories of the late British Empire.

I don’t really mean to suggest that these stories constitute whining. But the interviews for these books were conducted in the 1970s, and I do think it’s funny that, forty years on, a man would note that he was sad the natives called him Fatty.

The closest thing to a British-colonial “white whine” I’ve come across is in a travel book by Robert Byron (this guy) — but however fussy his complaint might sound to some, my personal position is that his problem was perfectly serious and its gravity should not be minimized:
I dined alone in my room, assailed by the sensations of a first day at school, and experiencing that singular feature of Indian life, the difficulty of ever lighting a cigarette owing to the unceasing fans.

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