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’Um ’indoostani

Sixty-bloody-three years later, a type of Indian gent finds himself hurtling towards extinction — the brown saheb.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2010 20:28 IST
Ronnie S Mukherjea
Ronnie S Mukherjea
Hindustan Times

Before you can call the beyara (waiter) and chastise him for bringing you the wrong knife for your mooli ka paratha, another Indian with manicured English and clipped toenails is still lurking in the wings, even after 63 years since his decline began. There was a time, till not too long ago, that the entity anthropologists without an Oxbridge degree called a brown saheb (BS) — and that anthropologists with an Oxbridge degree called an Anglophile — roamed the plains of the Indo-Gangetic plains with the aplomb of a nabob.

Down from a post-independent India peak population of 180,000 in the early 70s to 1,480 today, the BS can still be identified as that chap under the slowly revolving fan wearing a cravat in July, that Brahmin in beiges teaching bemused youngsters how to use a soup spoon (‘Away from your bowl end if it’s hot soup, towards your bowl end if it’s cold soup’), reacting to key moments of the day by quoting lines from Shelley or Shakespeare (“Go, get thee to a Morarji! Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” on finding the missus wearing a salwar kameez), and generally making avant-garde moans about how good things could have been if the English had remained in India — or, at least, if they made people like him an honorary citizen of England (away from those horrible people speaking Bengali and Punjabi in Birmingham and Southall, of course).

The brown saheb, till the advent of the East India Companywallas in the 17th century, was somewhat of a tautology. Used as an honorific or a polite form of address, the term ‘saheb’ applied to subcontinental gentlemen in general who by dint of sun and shine were brown in skin and eye. So, calling someone a brown saheb was as silly as calling someone a white country-singer.

That’s until colonialism gave a racial twist to the whole enterprise. Instead of people calling Europeans who behaved like Indian gentry ‘sahebs’, they started calling all Europeans that, turning a suffix into a stand-alone noun. So we have the strange case of, say, the perfect gentleman Ram Guha being called ‘Guhaji’ while Willie Dalrymple is called ‘the last saheb’.

But returning to our modern ‘coconut’ — brown on the outside, white on the inside — the English language played a crucial part in his self-styling. It was one thing to master the language; it was quite another to master the diction. Addicted to the thought of pronouncing ‘tomato’ and ‘Mehrauli’ correctly and thereby making him stand apart from the mob, the BS has bull-shitted his way up the social mobility ladder by dint of a carefully rolled ‘horrendous’ and a daintily thrown line from Charles Lamb.

But this mutated into something more. The BS picked up gin and tonic that changed to single malt — nothing wrong with that, except he would be mortally afraid if anyone got to know of his secret taste for shikanji. He picked up a dislike for ‘native’ languages as well. Why speak in Hindi when you could revel in broken Hindustani in your dressing gown? Why know anything about the raath ki rani growing behind the house when all you need to know is Wordsworth’s daffodils?

Thirty years since his last propah hurrah, the blighty bugger’s become a bit of a freakshow — brought into the living room to correct split infinitives and being an object of amusement each time he winces while others use the perfectly logical word, ‘prepone’.

You kind of feel sad for the fellow, who dreams of London and nightmares of modern England with its chavs and hoodies and multi-culti-balti — all while being surrounded by Mr Ahluwalia, Prasant-ji, Dolly and Polly. Poor sods, let the government provide the patriotic brown sahebs — they’ve sacrificed their dreams and keep living in India, don’t they? — a quota. Jai ’ind!

Ronnie S Mukherjea is a former member of a prestigious Delhi club before he was expelled for pronouncing ‘gymkhana’ incorrectly

First Published: Aug 14, 2010 20:24 IST