MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS IN INDIA
AUSTRIAN MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
The second book we recommend concerns a mother and daughter who first went to India as sympathetic visitors, and later returned so that the daughter could marry an Indian she had known in England. This time the mother is the author.
Indians themselves - Hindus, Muslims and Parsis---urged Hilda Wernher to write a book on India. That fact attests her capabilities better than pages of commendation from any reviewer. As one of the author's friends-a Maharani who was disturbed by the written trash which has accumulated regarding India-said, "No Western man can write on India, because he doesn't get to know Indian life from the inside. And that he can't." (For in many parts of India women still keep purdah, hence family life which, with religion, is the very center of an Indian's existence cannot be studied.) She did say that some Western women have produced good books, but felt that they, too, were usually interested only in superficialities-the glamorous, strange (to them) world of processions, jewels and elephants.
To the Maharani's query, "Why are Westerners only out for externals?" Hilda Wernher replied, "They are thrilled by ceremonial and display, not realizing the Hindu religion that stands behind them. That's why they describe India 'from outside,' so to say. Elephants, but not what the elephant means." The misunderstandings between Orientals and Occidentals who seem to judge wholly by externals, she blames upon a lack in the educational system. "How can a Westerner, having never learned about the cultural background of India, not knowing what a peacock or a lotus-flower or a cow means in this country -and why! - understand what's going on?"
At last, after many refusals, Hilda Wernher did give us a picture of Indian life. But she chose to ignore politics and statistics, and to let the intimate, day-to-day incidents of her life among Hindus and Muslims illustrate the reasons behind some of the conditions noted by more pretentious authors. The result is a heart-warming record, calling forth-from anyone who is at all drawn toward India--loving sympathy and, at times, awed respect
This biographical account begins with the day Hilda Wernher found herself a somewhat baffled third party on her daughter's honeymoon. Forty-eight hours after landing in India, Mary Ann married Rashid -a Muslim scientist whom she had known in Europe. Since he had just finished a year's accumulated leave there and had to return at once to the Laboratory of which he was head, and since he would be away at work all day and there were no other Europeans around, she was persuaded to accompany them because Rashid pleaded, "Mary Ann would be too lonely without you, Mother. Life in India is not easy."
Even her decision to stay at a hotel in Akbarabad was soon overruled by the two honeymooners. Mary Ann, with an innate understanding of the Indian viewpoint, put aside her arguments by exclaiming, "Oh, you incorrigibly Western soul! What am I to do with such a mother! An Easterner wants all his folks around him, the closer the better. You are the first and only mother he has known in his life. Moreover, he is afraid that people might say you stay away from us because you dislike him." So began her life in an Indian bungalow, staffed with Hindu and Muslim servants; meeting the new in-laws-including an aunt who kept purdah; learning the social rules and prohibitions of not one but two groups.
From Mary Ann's life with Rashid, and from other mixed marriages mentioned, one learns much about the dangers, and the delightful possibilities, inherent in such marriages. This particular match proved idyllic (as did the marriage between Shivan and Kitty in the book reviewed previously), but it is only fair to note that the people concerned were above the average in education and in knowledge of each other's cultures. Rashid-with a string of degrees, a reputation as a scientist, a knowledge of European customs and beliefs, and an ardent desire to free his people from useless and harmful customs and bring them some of the scientific benefits of the West. Hilda Wernher-a cosmopolite who had loved India before, who had taught her daughter to look behind racial, religious or class background in choosing her friends, and was now seeing her put those teachings into practice in an unexpectedly personal way. Mary Ann herself-yes, above all, Mary Ann-who, as a child had played at being a veiled Eastern princess; who had a fervent love for India and her people, and whose occasional faux pas were minor ones since she usually knew intuitively how to respond to any unexpected situation if there is any basic rule by which to judge the feasibility of mixed marriages, it must be the one which emerges here: If a Western girl is to make a success of marriage in India or China, it is not enough to love an Indian or Chinese; she must love the country itself, for itself, and understand, or want to understand. its customs and spiritual beliefs, Ethnically such marriages are perfectly normal and failures are frequent only because so often mental and cultural backgrounds are not on a par. As the author points out, often a Hindu student while in England falls in love with a middle class girl who thinks of India as a fairytale land. If she is suddenly thrust into the midst of a family whose ways differ from those she has known, she mistakenly jumps to the conclusion that those ways are "inferior" and shows her disgust and contempt openly-never realizing that the Indian family finds many of her ways abhorrent and feels disgraced by her inharmonious presence.
Adoption by India
But Indians are quick to respond to love and courtesy, and they accepted Mary Ann and her mother, gave them love in return, assistance in the new way of life, and tolerance in respect to their occasional social errors, since their intentions were so good. One joins them in adoring Mary Ann who adopted saris, omitted none of the little courtesies through which respect is shown to guests; conformed to the customs Of the country at every crisis, even when her neighbors had cause to feel she might fail them through lack of understanding-such as the time a large cobra which lived in the compound was seen on their front lawn, and she had to decide whether the mali should kill it, or it should be spared and fed in accordance with custom.
It is a great temptation to quote the incident in full since it shows why the people accepted, loved and even reverenced Mary Ann, and respected her mother. But the book is full of incidents equally tempting to a reviewer. Yet, lifted from the day by day account of their lives, some of the poignancy might be lost. Hilda Wernher's style does not call attention to itself. Seemingly, she gives a simple account of the things which she saw, felt, and witnessed; but soon you "know" the people she knew and rejoice or suffer with them. That is why the dreadful tragedy which later struck the household has such an impact upon the reader. It is so gripping that you must read it for yourself, as well as the incidents which followed in this unusual life with her "Indian Family," experiences which show so many facets of the Indian character, the reason and emotion behind so many actions and situations which might seem strange to US.
Even though it is fallacious to say, "Indians are this or this or this," still, certain general traits do reappear again and again in the characters. Taking these as a criterion, one could say that Indians are very sensitive, often over-sensitive and inclined to fancy slights; that they are jealous of favor shown or praise given to others; that they are suspicious of other groups (Hindus of Muslims, etc.); and that they do not always say what they mean. But that they are equally sensitive where the feelings of others are concerned, having an intuitive knowledge of one's emotions at any given moment and of the kindest response they can make under the circumstances; that no one can equal them in the courtesy shown to guests, regardless of the wealth or importance of the guests; that they tender love and respect to their elders; that they do not crave solitude and privacy, but wish to be surrounded by friends and loved ones; etc. etc. Yet, any single statement could probably be disputed upon authoritative grounds. (For example, if a religiously inclined student from America should tour India, visiting ashrams and schools., meeting yogis, swamis and renunciates of various faiths, be would be certain to report that Indians do crave solitude, that silence and solitude are important in fostering the spirit of contemplation that is an inherent part of the Indian character!)
Hilda Wernher's contacts were not confined to family, friends and servants either. She met royalty, business men, scientists, merchants, outcastes, lepers, women in purdah women doctors, those who were militant workers for social reform, young intellectuals, government officials, etc. She learned of the progress being made against caste restrictions in other parts of India, but she also discovered, through several personal experiences, how difficult it is to take the firs step toward breaking them down f one happens to live in a conservative community.
All her experiences with Easter hospitality were pleasant. With Rashid and Mary Ann she visited high caste Brahmans who could not eat with them but prepared delicious meals (though they could never again use the vessels or goblets used by the Muslim guests, nor even wash the things in their own house) and the host served them himself as an added courtesy. They noted that once, at a dinner especially prepared for a few select guests, rustic friends from a village were accorded a warm welcome when they appeared unexpectedly, the meal was delayed until they had caught up on previous courses, and the host "was not a shade more polite to the Ministers and ourselves than to the rather coarse, intruding youngsters."
She remarks that few Western hosts or hostesses could rise to the occasion with such perfect tact, and adds, "Every Oriental I have met would behave like that. The guest is sacred. Rashid, tired and wanting to rest, will smile at visitors at every time of day or night, minister to their comforts, take them about, and so on. Mrs. Ram Chandra, Lavanyia or any other lady will cheerfully prepare a full meal for an unexpected visitor exactly thirty minutes after the family meal is over, even if she wants to go out or to rest. And an Indian meal is not a Western one! To begin with, there are no leftovers in the house, owing to the tropical climate and the Hindu fastidiousness. When the family and servants have eaten, what remains goes to the sweeper. The next meal must be prepared anew. In addition to this, our makeshifts of cold luncheons would never satisfy either Indian guest or host. Cold food is no food at all-or good only for Westerners, who are crazy anyway, poor things!
"So the unexpected guest, loved or unloved, much thought of or despised, is served a complete meal the preparation of which takes hours. Suppose an hour after he leaves there is another unexpected guest? Another meal is prepared, uncomplainingly, cheerfully."
When hospitality is extended to the poor the same rules of courtesy prevail. During certain festivals, and also at times sacred to individual families, the day is marked by feeding the poor. "This is a very beautiful custom, in India as well as in other oriental lands. Whether funeral or wedding, funeral pyre or birth, one feeds the poor; according to wealth and status one does so in tens, hundreds or thousands." When such an occasion arose for this Indian family, Hilda saw huge cauldrons set up in the yard by the caterer and his staff, and was asked to inspect all the supplies. Because they were feeding Muslim poor that day, these included two legs of mutton "of superior size and quality." When she commented on the fact that this was finer meat than they ever had on their own table, and asked where it could be gotten, she was told, "You cannot get it in the ordinary way, Mother. The best animals are reserved for such occasions. Why do you voice astonishment? Was not 'grand' the word you used? What is grand in it? Do not quests always get the best, especially guests on such occasions?" This reminded her of experiences in other parts of the world where guests were not only seated according to protocol but fed according to rank too.
Those Peculiar Customs
Whose customs are peculiar? After reading this book you may hesitate to answer. Westerners say Hindus are unclean because they eat with their fingers and often live in smelly surroundings, near open sewers, etc. Hindus say Westerners are unclean because they use utensils which others before them have used, and which may not have been properly cleaned (whereas a Hindu always sees that his hands are clean), don't bathe more than once a day, and don't always even wash their hands before each meal!
Westerners frown upon the morals of Easterners who keep more than one wife, who keep their women in purdah, and plan their children's marriages. Indians frown on the morals of Westerners who make love in public, are promiscuous and have a weakness for lovers and mistresses, force their women to face the world and to compete with even the coarsest men, found their marriages on sex instead of compatibility, with no study of comparative traits-not even a horoscope to guide them!
Westerners say one should wait a "decent" interval before marrying again, if one marries at all, and not take a wife at once as many unfeeling Indians do. Indians say one should forget one's grief in the quickest manner possible. Marriage is for children and companionship, not something connected with the eternal soul. So why dwell on something that is past, as Westerners do, maybe having illicit relationships in the meantime? As Hilda Wernher remarks, "We should not forget the premises for love and marriage are different in East and West. In Islam a wedding is no sacrament, but a social contract only; consequently, once the material presence and tangibility is removed, nothing remains. Hindu marriage is a sacrament; but in Hindu conception the departed soul proceeds according to the laws of reincarnation and transmigration to a new life in new surroundings. The bereaved should not even by thoughts chain it to its former existence."
Tact Or Evasion?
Travelers, British Officials and superficial writers have built up the fiction that Easterners are liars, have created that stereotype "the crafty Oriental." They complain that Indians always agree with them, failing to realize what constant friction and discourtesy there would be if opinions were stated bluntly. One official, wiser than most, attempted to explain this to a junior colleague. "I said that to Easterners politeness meant much more than to us; that if truth was hurting another's feelings, it could not be uttered This was part of the religious code of hospitality of the East, extended into not hurting others by pointing out possible defects of thought or action. I further explained that Indians do convey unpalatable truths, but in a veiled form. If he'd care to study the slight differentiations in his head clerk's answers and smiles, my young friend would soon know whether the answer meant yes or no.
As the author points out, this one difference in approach (harsh truth vs. politeness) is at the root of much East-West misunderstanding. The average Westerner is no more aware of these subtle nuances of manner than he is of the nuances in Indian music whose intricate scale, with quarter notes, is unfamiliar to him. One of her own experiences along this line was with their Brahmin chaprassi. "When Maharaj for the first time told me that he wanted to go to the fair, I was clumsy enough to point out that there wasn't any on. Now I know that this was merely a polite, considerate way of indicating that I'd kept him after his working hours."
Competition In Kindness
Indians appreciate any attempts on the part of Westerners to conform to their rules of hospitality and courtesy. They prize any signs of good will and "are extremely generous in acknowledging the slightest bit of it," Toward those who make an effort they show a warm appreciation. Such an effort outbalances any breach of etiquette which may occur, and their overwhelming tact covers the lapse. For instance, no friend or servant corrected Hilda when she made the mistake of handing sweets to the high caste Hindus during Divali festival. Even the poorest children accepted them with smiles knowing they could not be eaten. Upon learning of her mistake (from Rashid) she admonished the serve ants for their silence. But Maharaj said, "Who son is Mother to tell!" (She was Mother to the whole household.) People were glad Mother's hands from sweets to get. They say: Mother good is. They say sweets always are, but Mother not always is." And the woman' insisted that Hilda's good will meant more to the people than sweets---even to the poor people. "Your kindness means more. The children will tell of it to their own children. Fancy a memsahib doing what you have done." Her error was turned into something praiseworthy because she had stood for hours to serve even the poorest of them with her own hands, and to their perception the motive far outshone the action.
This same tendency to value her love and attention above her material offerings was evident in the household servants. They wanted to be considered her "sons" but any effort to help them in a material way was countered by a return courtesy that drained the meager wages they received. She could not alter the wage system without being considered unfair to the rest of the community and even to half her own household, since three of the servants were furnished by the government. After a few experiences with their pride she developed elaborate subterfuges to prevent them from returning more than she had given. Sometimes she was completely bested.
It was one such experience that tempted her to write a book on India after all. "Wouldn't it be a glorious thing to dispel the wrong conception of India as a bakshish hunting land?" she thought. "True, the Westerner knowing but Bombay or other big towns has every excuse to think so, for he is surrounded by professional beggars wherever he goes; but the pity is that he thinks 'So this is India.' It isn't. Professional beggars beg; that is their particular and often unsavory job. But average Indians are proud."
In the long run, the servants were definitely the winners in this loving contest. What they did for her in two of the greatest crises of her life you should read for yourself. The episode which closes the book is so touching that one asks, "With such experiences to bind this woman to her Indian family, could she ever return to the comparatively callous ways of the West?"
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