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CHAPTER XV

BUNGALOW LIFE

THE Anglo-Indian’s bungalow is as different from an English house in its external appearance and internal arrangement as is a temple from a church. It is always a detached building standing in ground of its own, which is called the “compound,” single-storied, rambling, and flat-roofed. The doors are ill-fitting and clumsy, the windows small and often not made to be opened, and a “sash”  window is unknown. The walls are whitewashed or distempered, and the floors are of cement. Every room has direct access to a verandah, and all enter one into another, for there are no passages. Each bedroom has its own bath and retiring room, there being no drains in India. A room with a single door in it is unknown; all have two, and many three, four, and even six, and those leading into the verandahs are generally glazed, which saves windows. Very few bungalows have halls, the verandah in the front of the house doing duty for such. Cellarage does not exist, and naturally there are no fireplaces, save in those districts in the north of India where the nights are chilly in the “cold weather,” which is the Indian name for winter. Except in the capital cities, water and gas are conspicuous by their absence, and you may call at every house between Cape Comorin and Cashmere without finding a bell to pull.

The kitchen is a detached building erected as far away as possible from the bungalow. The only connection with your commissariat allowed in the dwelling is the storeroom, invariably known in India as the “godown”; and the sole domestic duty of the diligent Anglo-Indian housewife is to “do her godown” every morning. The cook comes with an assortment of plates and pots, makes his suggestions for the menus of the day’s meals, and proceeds to help himself to the exact amount of ingredients necessary for them. This is a check upon pilfering, for all Indian servants feed themselves, and at your expense if they can. Meat in its uncooked state is never kept in the house, and only brought there for casual inspection; and on the fowl that enters so largely into Anglo-Indian dietary you cast a discriminating eye as it is being chevied round the compound preliminary to slaughter. In the kitchen, the cooking arrangements are primitive. The “range” consists of half a dozen small open fireplaces, each about eight inches square, grouped in a nest on the floor, or on raised masonry, and the fuel is wood or charcoal. Natives are so accustomed to the floor that they prefer to work on it; and a cook stirring a saucepan, is much more comfortable squatting on his haunches, than in a more elevated position.

The servants’ “lines” are a row of huts, often mere hovels, adjoining the stables, and in the most distant corner of the compound. Each servant has one room, wherein dwell himself, wife, and family. If he is a Mahomedan he will not unfrequently enclose a small patch in front of his compartment with an erection of bamboo matting to form a screen, and thus secure the privacy of his hareem. The servants form a small colony in the compound, and a very moderate householder may find he is in practice the supporter of twenty human beings.

Very few ladies ever enter their kitchens. In the words of the poet, “‘t is better not,” for where ignorance is bliss, why set yourself against your food? But once a month, the prudent housewife inspects her cooking-pots, the reason being that they are always made of copper, and have to be periodically tinned, or they become poisonous. Many lives have been lost in India by the neglect of this precaution, and any sudden and inexplicable indisposition always elicits the question, “When were the dekjies last tinned?”

A bachelor’s bungalow is not unfrequently a barn in appearance, for, with the constant shifting of residence, furnishing is reduced to a minimum. His goods and chattels are hired, and of the most primitive description. Anything uglier and more cumbersome than the Anglo-Indian’s furniture it would be hard to find. All the chairs are cane-bottomed, heavy, and with arms, and the only comfortable ones are those for lounging in on the verandah, which have extending arms on which to elevate your legs. The tables are solid and ugly, generally a huge round one in the centre of the room and several small ones called “teapoys,” set indiscriminately about. A mat on the floor may or may not be relieved with a few rugs; but often the plaster is in bad repair, and crumbles under the foot. There are no blinds, and the curtains are purely practical, and not ornamental. If possible, the bedroom furniture is a cut more simple than that in the dwelling-rooms. A bed made of broad tape woven across a wooden framework is the usual couch for reposing on; a chest of drawers is a luxury, its place being more often taken by an almirah, or cupboard, with shelves in it. Looking-glasses have a way of distorting the visage which is useful in putting people out of conceit with themselves, but leads to bloodshed in shaving, unless, as is often the case, you turn your cheek to the barber, who gladly calls every morning. The toilette table is never draped, and the whole scheme of comfort is crude. All ablutions are performed in the bath-room, wherein a huge tub or zinc bath, and several clay gurrahs or earthen pipkins filled with water are the prominent features. Every one in India bathes once a day, and in the hotter districts often twice or thrice, with a night-bath thrown in. The bedding nearly always shows sign of travel, and has not that neat inviting appearance associated with the white counterpaned cot in England.

Notwithstanding the bare and desolate nature of the bachelor’s abode, the Anglo-Indian lady generally manages to make the drawing-room in her bungalow pretty and artistic. There is great emulation in its decoration, and it surprises one to see what marvels of transformation can he effected by feminine taste and ingenuity. The first thing to catch the eye is the array of photographs displayed; it is the link with home. Then the tall ugly walls are hidden from sight with curtains, screens, fans, ornaments, and phulkarries. The floor is carpeted with a dhurrie, and the disposal of the furniture reflects resource if it sometimes leaves little space; whilst the piano at once brings you face to face with Western civilisation. It is generally iron-framed, and constructed to withstand the climate, before the scorching heat of which an English instrument acquires a habit of collapsing. The room is always dark, partly because there are no windows, but also for the sake of coolness, or imaginary coolness, the subdued light lending itself to that state of self-deception. All light has to filter into the rooms through the verandahs, and these are protected with “chicks,” which are screens made of loosely woven slips of bamboo. They stretch from pillar to pillar, and in practice make rooms out of the verandahs. The doors are also guarded by similar contrivances to keep out flies. The trouble of drawing aside the chick on entering or leaving a room is one of the petty irritations of Indian life.

In her drawing-room, for the chief portion of the day, the Anglo-Indian lady is as much a prisoner by reason of the heat as the zenana woman is from custom. There is no shopping, and only the minimum of domestic duties to occupy her. She is by herself all day long, and thrown on her own resources of music, reading, letter-writing, or sketching. “The long, long, weary day” of the German song has been well parodied in one that bewails the “long, long, Indian day.” The only break is when an afternoon caller drops in; but callers are few in an up-country station. And, besides, every one meets every one else at the universal gathering-place in the evening, which is probably the public gardens, “the Company’s Garden,” as it is still sometimes called in old-time association with the East India Company.

An afternoon nap is almost universal, if the flies will allow it. Flies by day and mosquitos by night are distinct trials. Most beds are smothered with mosquito curtains, which effectually keep away any little breath of air there is. But in the hotter districts no one ever dreams of sleeping without a punkah going all night, which is as necessary for rest and comfort as a pillow. The punkah, it is hardly needful to observe, is a huge swinging fan, pulled by a coolie, who squats in the verandah outside, and under it a great majority of Anglo-Indians pass their lives for no inconsiderable time of the year.

The servants in an Indian bungalow are numerous, though you have to engage many more in some presidencies than in others. In an average district, the bachelor will keep a cook, a man to do the waiting and house-work, a water-carrier, a horse-keeper, and probably a grass-cutter, a couple of punkah-coolies, and a scavenger, who is known as the “sweeper,” and is an absolutely indispensable individual under the sanitary conditions that exist. A married man, living “comfortably,” will be called on to keep a cook, table-attendant, bearer, who combines the duties of valet and housemaid, water-carrier, washerman, a couple of horse-keepers, and as many grass-cutters, ditto punkah-coolies, a gardener to keep the compound under cultivation, a chupprassi or peon, to hang about and make himself generally useful for messages and carrying letters, and a sweeper. In more extravagant households, the cook has his “mate” or scullion, and the number of table-attendants, bearers, and chupprassis is multiplied, as also the horse-keepers and gardeners; and in nearly every establishment there is a derzie, or tailor and milliner combined, who does all the mending. I have quite forgotten to mention the ayah, or lady’s-maid, who is absolutely essential when there is a lady in the house. The cost of these establishments of servants will vary from three to twenty pounds and more a month, their wages ranging from six shillings for the punkah-coolies and grass-cutters to two pounds for the cook. It is a false economy to have a bad cook, for you want an artist to deal with the inferior raw material of the East, and to tempt the jaded appetite.

Rent is an expensive item. In a small upcountry station you may get a bungalow for three pounds a month — salaries, wages, house-rent, bills, and everything in India, are, or should be, paid monthly — but five to ten pounds is the average rental, and in the metropolitan cities the cost is enormous, and people pay up to three and four hundred a year. Servants and house-rent are the two heaviest items in keeping up an Indian bungalow. Otherwise the cost of living is comparatively small. Bachelors very often contract with their cooks to feed them, paying a lump sum per month of from two to five pounds, and receiving in return breakfast, tiffin, and dinner, and early morning and afternoon tea. A lady who looks after her “godown” can do it for considerably less per head. In Bombay or Calcutta, most of the hotels and boarding-houses will lodge and feed a bachelor exceedingly well for ten pounds a month, and this saves all expense of servants except bearer and horse-keeper. When I first started housekeeping in the jungle, I used to pay two pounds for servant’s wages, two pounds for house-rent, two pounds for my cook’s contract for food, one pound for the keep of a horse, and allow three pounds for such luxuries as tinned English stores and liquors, lamp-oil, and the daily paper, which, in those days, meant eight shillings a month. And I lived like a fighting cock! A quarter of a century later, my household expenditure, including a considerably larger staff of servants, ranged from twenty to twenty-five pounds a month, and this is probably the average expended by the ordinary Anglo-Indian outside the centres where living is proverbially expensive. For myself, I did not notice much difference in the cost during those twenty-five years, and European luxuries were decidedly much cheaper and better. Meat varies from twopence to threepence a pound; bread is a penny a small loaf; vegetables, butter, and milk, the latter sold by weight, are much cheaper than in England; eggs run two for a penny, and tea you can purchase ridiculously cheaply, even so low as sixpence a pound. On the other hand, beer is a luxury that you will not drink in the jungles for less than eightpence or tenpence a pint, unless you get country-brewed, which is a little less expensive, and moderate in quality, and whisky will cost you four to five shillings a bottle. But soda-water is obtainable at sixpence or eightpence a dozen, and there is a manufactory in every considerable place where three or four Europeans reside. You can get good cigars for two shillings and eightpence to four shillings a hundred, but tobacco is dear. Russian and American kerosene-oil is purchased by the five-gallon tin at about the same price as in England, and is the universal illuminant. Lamps are made especially for India, the ordinary English ones being of little use in the bungalow’s large rooms, often with dark ceilings that absorb a great deal of light. I once took out half a dozen duplex-burner lamps from England, and discarded them all within a month, as they were utterly powerless to perform their purpose. All cooking is done by charcoal, and this is one of the heaviest expenses in the kitchen, as also is firewood if you happen to live in one of the untimbered districts.

The Anglo-Indian is, or should be, an early riser. To lie late in bed is called a “Europe morning.” A cup of tea is always served when you are awakened, and as soon as you are dressed comes chotahazri, or the little breakfast, consisting of tea, toast, eggs, and fruit. The morning ride follows, and the most is made of the cool hours before eight or, at latest, nine o’clock. With the military, however, this is the busiest part of the day, being devoted to parades. But office men, by which you include most Government officials and all commercial men, have to breakfast at nine to reach their courts or offices in time for ten o’clock opening. Two is the hour for tiffin, often served at office; in fact, in some of the merchants’ offices in Calcutta this meal is provided by the firm. Dinner is always as late as possible, for after sunset the gay and social part of the twenty‑four hours begins. After dinner every one adjourns to the verandah, and stretches himself out in a lounge-chair to smoke, and, the process of digestion over, it is early to bed if you want a full night’s sleep.

In the hot weather, it is customary to “shut up the bungalow” at about seven in the morning, when the temperature is moderately low in comparison with what it will rise to a few hours later. Every door and window is closed, and thereafter the greatest care taken to make entrances and exits as quickly as possible, for a door left open for any length of time soon raises the temperature. If kept carefully closed, it is remarkable how cool the room keeps compared with the heat out of doors. Thermantidotes and tattis are other devices for generating cool air, being a system of forcing a draught through wet screens of grass, which are cooled by the evaporation. They are delicious but dangerous. Water is cooled for drinking on the same principle (if ice is unprocurable), being placed in a porous earthenware vessel, and swung to and fro in the heated atmosphere, with the result that what was tepid and nauseous becomes sufficiently chilled. In old days, a special servant was kept, who was an expert at water-cooling, and did nothing else; but in modern days, few places except those off the line of rail are out of reach of ice, the price of which is within the range of even the natives, being retailed at about a halfpenny a pound.

Nothing strikes the English eye so much on first taking up residence in an Indian bungalow as the tameness of the bird and animal life that haunts it. The sparrows are in and out of all the rooms, and even build their nests in a chink of the ceiling. I have watched the most prodigious battles between a cock sparrow and his reflection in my mirror, and he and his kind are the most abandoned pilferers when the table is set for meals. The minah, or Indian starling, is tamer than the English robin, and a noisy nuisance, being engaged in permanent feuds with all his connections. The crow is a noted robber, and nothing is safe from him; leave a cutlet on a plate, and he will snatch it off in a twinkling. Kites swirl over the compound all day long, and make the sweeper’s life a burden, watching over the chickens. Monkeys in some districts play havoc with your garden. The little grey squirrels are in and out of your verandah all day long, and ugly lizards bask in the sun on the floor, with occasional swift darts at a resting fly. All these are “shockingly tame.” If the list of aliens in your premises ended here, you would not have much to complain of. But there are other and less agreeable inhabitants, such as snakes, scorpions, and centipedes. Spiders, too, of hideous dimensions, and rats, called “bandicoots,” of gigantic size, and musk-rats, that leave an odour behind them most horrible. It is said, I believe with perfect truth, that a muskrat running over a bottle of wine or soda-water will taint its contents. You seldom hear of Europeans being stung by snakes, scorpions, or centipedes; but the pests are, nevertherless, often numerous, — how common in some places, may be gathered from the fact that I have known a dog, that was particularly clever at the trick, to kill nine scorpions in my drawing-room in one evening, just after the bursting of the monsoon, when the creatures were swarming out of the cracks and crevices in which they had passed the hot weather. I have known only two cases of fatal snake-bites, both natives, during a period when I must have seen some thousands of the reptiles, and never without a shuddering horror I could never overcome. Lesser pests are found in the flying insects of the rainy season, smelly objectionables, and winged ants that swarm in millions, and, attracted by the light, seem to take a delight in flopping into your soup at dinner. Nor must white ants be forgotten, which perhaps do more damage than any other insect. They will eat away the bottom of a portmanteau, or the sole of a boot, in a single night, and they make it impossible to have boarded floors. Window frames and doorposts require to be periodically renewed, for you suddenly find them collapsing, and on examination discover they are perfectly hollow, having been burrowed into by white ants so artfully that only the thin skin of the surface is left intact. Fish-moths are a funny little insect, very like a silvery fish, that dine off your books, binding or inside, with impartiality. Rats and mice of the common English variety haunt your “go-down,” and as nobody keeps cats in India, you are very much at their mercy. You are spared the ravages of the cat, only to find sometimes a worse thief in the mongoose, which, if it gets into your fowl-house, will kill every inmate, and drink its blood, and decamp. And for your water there are times when you have to beware of guinea-worms, and always of the microbes of dysentery and cholera. Fleas, et hoc genus, you cannot keep out of a house with its cement floors, and mats for them to find instant refuge in, and probably dogs enjoying the run of your rooms. In the rainy season, I have often suffered from a regular invasion of fleas, when they came into the house in legions and established themselves until fine weather set in, and then took it into their head to depart almost as unanimously as they entered. Lastly, the night brings with it bats, some of them harmless little fellows, but very irritating in your dining or drawing room; others, huge brutes, called flying foxes, that pillage your fruit trees. “The naturalist on the prowl” (to quote the title of a very entertaining Anglo-Indian book) will find plenty of subjects for investigation in and around the bungalow.

Looking back on Indian life, the one place in the bungalow that always recurs to my memory with pleasurable sensations is the verandah. There is nothing like it in English homes. There you always find the most comfortable armchairs, each with its small teapoy by its side to hold your peg-tumbler. With the chicks down, the glare kept out, and the sun round at the other side of the house, the shady verandah becomes the abiding-place. It is generally festooned with creeping flowers, and you can see to read in it without that straining required in the darkened drawing-rooms of Anglo-India. And it is inseparably associated with that delicious hour after dinner, so cool and sleepy and lazy, when you lay yourself out for perhaps the only part of the day free from positive physical discomfort. It has, too, many other associations; here your dogs, best companions of your lonely exile, lie and stretch themselves all day long; hither are your horses brought to receive their morning treat of bread or sugar-cane. From here you can loll and watch the sparrows and the squirrels and the minahs, and last, but not least, the crafty crows, that each and all “have a song to sing, oh!” if you can only understand their language, and enter into their idiosyncrasies. And here you receive your guests, if there is any intimacy between you and them, without stiff formality. I vow it is the pleasantest spot in Anglo-India; the one associated with its pleasantest moments, and to which memory recurs with just a soupçon of regret that in returning to England we have cut ourselves off from verandah life!


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