Life in India/Housekeeping in Madras

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Housekeeping in Madras.

After a two months' residence at Chintadrepettah, during which we pursued the study of the Tamil language with a native teacher, Royapooram, a district three miles distant, was assigned to us as our station, by the mission. We had hitherto been guests, but this decision set us busily to work preparing for the new undertaking of housekeeping in Madras. It was the month of April, here one of the hottest months of the year; and it proved warm work going from bazaar to bazaar with an interpreter, in pursuit of gridiron and spit, pestle and mortar for rice-pounding, stone and roller for grinding curry stuffs, and the numerous essentials of an Indian house. Furniture can be had in Madras at a reasonable rate at the auctions held for the sale of the effects of Eng- lishmen who are returning to England, or who have been cut off by death.

On the day appointed for our removal from Chintadrepettah, a crowd of coolies, (hired labourers,) both men and women, were in waiting at an early hour, anxious to secure a job. These poor creatures, who live by such work as they can get from day to day, can always be had at a very short notice to go anywhere and do any thing, whether it be to go one mile with a note, or to carry a piano five hundred miles upon their heads. They need but a few hours warning for a journey that may occupy many weeks or even months. Part of the stipulated pay is given in advance for the support of their families and of themselves while the work is being done. This is necessary, for they never have any thing on hand; and the trust thus reposed in them is rarely betrayed, although in most other matters they are very dishonest.

Before seven o'clock our goods and chattels were all off. Four men, naked except a piece of cloth around their loins, mounted the bookcase on their heads; four more the clothes-press; two seized a settee as their portion, while the women snatched up the chairs and lighter articles. Our newly-engaged matey (house-servant) was all life, activity, and zeal, seeing that each cooley had a fair load, so that “master might not be cheated.” Soon all were off, laughing, talking, and joking, happy to earn five cents each by carrying their burdens three miles in a broiling sun; a sum, small though it be, sufficient to support a Hindu family for a day. Following the coolies, we took possession of our new home. After turning out a scorpion or two, some mammoth roaches, and a goodly quantity of dust, we installed our goods in their proper places, and entered upon the duties of housekeeping at our own station.

Royapooram is the most northern suburb of Madras. It lies without the city wall, and upon the sea. Through its centre runs an Englishmade road, on each side of which are denselypacked masses of houses, threaded by narrow lanes. At the extremity of this road, and facing you as you pass out from the walled town, stands our neat little church, with a belfry near it, in which is hung a good church bell. Close by is the mission-house, in the centre of a compound prettily laid out with flower-beds. The house is one story in height, with a brick-paved verandah, and a flat roof guarded by a ballustrade. Back of the house, and quite separate from it, stand in a row the kitchen, godowns, (storehouses, school-bungalow, and stable. Although the soil is sandy, (for it is but a little distance from the sea,) yet, when well watered and cultivated, it yields flowers and fruits abundantly. All the year round the rose, the crape-myrtle, the pomegranate, the oleander, and other shrubs fragrant or beautiful, made our compound attractive and homelike. A few fruit-trees, the custard-apple, the papaw, and the banana, furnished additions to our table. The banana or plantain, which is well known in our Atlantic cities, being brought from the West Indies, is the fruit of a plant which, in about two years, attains a height of ten or twelve feet, when from amid its large, glossy, and delicate leaves, it throws out a long spike of flowers; these are succeeded by comb-like clusters of yellow fruit. Then, having fulfilled its mission, as each stalk bears but once, it is cut down, to be succeeded by suckers from its root. The fruit is cheap, wholesome, and pleasant, and forms a staple article of food. The small yellow species is, in the East Indies, called the plantain, while the term banana is applied to the large red fruit of the same species. Though the house
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Plantain in fruit. p. 112.

has a bare aspect from the want of trees, which are here thought to be unwholesome when too near the house, and though India is in some respects truly a weary land, yet many a less pleasing spot may be found than the mission station at Royapooram.

Some romantic persons, looking upon missionaries as heroes, and their work as one of unmingled toil and self-denial, may be surprised that they should value the beauty and fragrance of flowers or seek for the comforts of life. We have known of visitors to India condemning missionaries as lacking in self-denial on account of the sweetness of the gardens with which (after many years of residence) their houses were surrounded. Such persons mistake the aim of the missionary: it is not to deny himself for the sake of denying himself, but to be willing to deny himself for the sake of doing good; and to encounter whatever selfdenial he is called to by God in his providence, for the sake of making Christ known among the heathen. It is not to degrade himself to a level with idolaters, and to despise the gifts of God, but to convert, elevate, and refine those who are degraded, that he leaves his home. Such persons, astonished that Christian missionaries do not live like the heathen, returning to Christian lands, spread reports often as foolish as they are false. Even our predecessor in Royapooram, though the very last person chargeable with caring for show or luxury, did not escape the imputation of self-indulgence. An American sea-captain, after dining with him, looking out from the verandah on the blooming flower-beds, exclaimed, “Ah! this is the way the modern St. Pauls live!” Would such persons be better satisfied were they to find the missionary seated on the floor of a mud hovel, and eating with his fingers from an earthen pot, in true Hindu style ?

Housekeeping in India is in many respects a different thing from housekeeping in America. The activity and laboriousness habitual to dwellers in a temperate climate cannot be maintained by them when in a tropical country. New-comers are not commonly willing to believe this. Full of the vigour of their home constitution, and with the ardour of youth, they are slow to believe the cold Indians." They are tempted to waste on matters of minor importance the strength that should be husbanded for work that cannot be done by others. The Hindu can cook, wash, iron, and run on errands; but he cannot preach. Better pay five or ten cents to a cooly or servant to do a half or whole day's work, than exhaust yourself, and take from the strength that should be devoted to study and missionary duties. Many a young missionary rebels against this necessity of being served, and of conforming in India to Indian ways; and often have they paid the penalty in broken health and an early death.

More especially are you compelled to conform to the customs of India in the matter of servants. The Hindu is immovably set in the way of his fathers. He will do what it is “custom” for him to do, and no more. The matey who waits at table, cleans the knives and lamps and dishes, and does your shopping, would no more think of feeding or harnessing a horse than of preaching a sermon or painting your likeness; and the syce (horse-keeper) would laugh at the idea of his undertaking the duties of the matey. The cook goes to market, but must have a cooly to carry home his purchases, and a woman to bring water, pound rice, and make curry for him. The ayah who takes care of the children will not sweep the floor; and the woman who brings water and sweeps would be horrified if asked to make a bed or dress a babe—“What does she know about such duties! She is turney-katchy, not ayah!" It would be like asking a horse to catch mice and the cat to draw a carriage.

It will be readily understood that you must have several servants, or give up your time to household cares. The pay of servants is small, and they board and lodge themselves away from their employer's house. A cook (a man) can be hired for three dollars a month, (though more is given to an accomplished cook by English gentlemen ;) and his female assistant, the turney-katchy, receives a dollar and a half a month, with which she will support a husband and children. The simplicity and cheapness of their food, and the small amount of clothing, fuel, and protection from weather needed in this climate, enable them to live on these very small sums. So few are their wants, and so great their preference of idleness to labour, that a whole family will depend upon one member for support, without troubling themselves to seek employment while he can give them rice and curry.

The trial of Indian housekeepers does not consist in the lack of suitable furniture, food, and dress, so much as in the deceit and dishonesty of the people. This is truly indescribable. You cannot take it for granted that a thing is true because a Hindu says that it is true, even though it may be probable. It may or it may not be so; you need further evidence than his word, especially if it be a matter in which he has any interest. You doubt at times the evidence of your senses when you hear the clearness and vehemency with which they will deny what you have seen with your own eyes, and the earnestness with which they will call the gods to witness the truth of their assertion. But what else can we expect, when they believe that the gods themselves are liars and thieves ? A nation will not be better than its gods; the Hindus are not.

The lady of the house, if she cannot afford to be cheated, must be constantly on the watch. Coffee, sugar, tea, oil, and other stores, must be weighed in her presence. Bundles of wood, grain, potatoes, salt, &c. must be measured or counted before her. The cow must be brought by the milkman to the door, his pot be turned upside down to show that there is no water in it, and the cow be milked in the sight of some of the household. Every day the rice and other articles of food must be unlocked and measured out to the cook. If you buy a store of sugar, of coffee, or of any thing else, you must not send it to the godown (storehouse) by the cook alone; you must go with him, and then see that nothing is abstracted while you are there; something, pretty certainly, will be, if your back is turned. Grain for the horse must be measured out to the horse-keeper in the morning, and When cooked must be measured before you to show that it is all there, and then the horse must be brought to the door and fed, that you may know that he has had his full meal. In short, you must everywhere, at all times, and with every one, be on the alert to prevent innumerable little thefts. Even servants whom you esteem most highly, and whom you would trust with large sums of money, seem to be unable to resist the universal custom of pilfering. The moral sense of the whole nation is degraded by a hundred generations of heathenism, so as almost to destroy the reproving power of conscience. Their souls are dead in trespasses and sins.

One of the customs of the country is that of taking a percentage on every thing they buy, charging each article a fraction above its actual cost. So universal is this, that they hardly think it wrong. A cook in Royapooram, who had been a Roman Catholic, but became, I think, a truly Christian man, remarked that he had formerly been in the habit of taking four annas in the rupee[1] as a commission on his marketing; but that, on consultation with his friends, he had come to the conclusion that this was wrong, and that hereafter he would only take one anna in the rupee; this, he thought, would be about fair.

The washing and ironing are done by two persons, and these not women, as with us, but men. The dobey (washerman) is responsible for the clothes, and usually receives pay for both operations; but the ironing-man is commonly in his company on pay-day, to see that the dobey does not cheat him as to the amount of wages received. They do their work well, but must be watched to see that the articles taken away are not kept back for their own benefit. They call for the clothes with poor little donkeys, and go off bending under great bundles on their own backs, driving before them the poor donkeys staggering under still greater loads, seemingly enough to crush their slender legs. The washing is done by sousing the clothes in water, and beating them on large, smooth stones. It is certainly an alarming sight to housewives to see garments swinging over the dobey's head and descending again and again with no small force on the washingstone. Though the first washing is usually enough to greatly reduce the number of your buttons, and to reveal any weakness in sewing or in fabric, the damage is less than might be expected from such harsh treatment.

Our ironing-man was quite an elegant-looking personage, always well dressed, and with the mark of his sect handsomely painted on his forehead–with his fine turban, gold ear-rings, white robe, and stately mien, he would have passed for something better. Mrs. D. was a little amused one day with his reply to an inquiry as to how many children he had. “No children," he replied with a doleful shrug of the shoulders, “no children; only three girls !" Girls were not to be counted as children, in the estimate of the Hindu, and this is the sentiment not of our ironing-man alone, but of the whole community, both male and female.

The cares of housekeeping in India are at first discouraging. You seem to be spending your time to no purpose. But it is not lost time. It is a good apprenticeship to the newcomer, and serves to make him acquainted with the modes of thought and action common among the people. Every question asked or order given to a servant or workman, and every answer received, is a lesson in the language. Every blunder made and corrected is a preparation for your work among a people so far removed in all their ways from us as are the Hindus.

The housekeeper in India soon finds that he is not to enjoy his dwelling alone; that he must consent to the society of many a family of fellow-lodgers, who do not wait for invitation or introduction, and make up in numbers what they lack in size. The insect tribes of India must not be overlooked in our chapter upon housekeeping. At your first meal you discover that whole armies of ants are hurrying back and forth on the floor with the crumbs that have fallen from the table. Nor are they too honest to enter the meat-safe, if its legs do not stand in vessels of oil or water. The mosquito netting which surrounds your bedstead must be well tucked under the bed, and carefully lifted when you get in, or hordes of hungry mosquitos will give you their company; with all your care a select band will manage to find some place of entrance, and torture your ears with their music as well as your body with their bites. In the morning you must shake out your shoes, so as not to intrude on any stray centipede, roach, or scorpion that may have ensconced himself there for the night. In the evening, at certain seasons, while taking your tea, a swarm of winged ants will make their appearance; they drop into your cup, become entangled in your butter, fill your plate, and enter your mouth; there is nothing to be done but to beat a retreat, leaving the table with its lights to the enemy. In the morning you will find the table strewn with wings which the ants have left behind them, marching off upon more humble limbs.

A small gnat, known as the eye-fly, is exceedingly annoying, especially to children. They manage, notwithstanding all your efforts, to get into your eyes, causing much irritation. A very distressing ophthalmia is supposed by the natives to be carried from one person to another by these minute creatures. The cockroaches which swarm in this country, though less trying than the eye-flies, are destructive to clothes, and compel you constantly to look over your drawers and trunks. The ants, mosquitos, and other insects are thinned off by active little lizards, that live about the furniture and pursue their prey on the walls and ceilings. Sometimes, when unwarily darting upon a mosquito or ily, the lizard will come dropping upon your table or yourself–more to his fright, however, than to yours, for they are harmless creatures and the allies of man, as they attack his enemies of the insect tribe. Lizards of a larger kind inhabit the gardens, and a still larger species is by some classes eaten, and accounted a delicacy.

The scorpion is a small creature, from three to five inches in length. In appearance it much resembles a little lobster. The smaller species is of a brownish-white colour, and is more venomous than the large black scorpion, though less repugnant to the eye. They are found under the corners of mats, in storehouses, on shelves, and in other unswept places. When disturbed, they run over the floor with their jointed tails arched over their backs, and ready to strike with the hooked sting in which it ends. The sting is severe, but scarcely dangerous.

A more pleasing class of visitors are the little gray squirrels that abound in Madras. These pretty little creatures live on the house-tops and in the verandah blinds, and claim a right to eat of all that grows upon the premises. Not content with injuring the fruit, they make inroads upon the provisions of the house when an opportunity occurs.

The crows are innumerable. They are not useless, for they clear the streets of garbage that might produce disease, but their impudence is quite provoking; they perch upon the housetops and trees, with their shining heads outstretched, and their keen eyes on the watch, so that nothing can be left uncovered with safety that suits their very accommodating appetites. When a fair opportunity occurs, they dart into the house, (which, it must be remembered, is almost without closed doors or glazed windows) thrust their bills into the butter, or take the bread from the plate. They do not hesitate to snatch a biscuit from a child's hand, and flying off, coolly to eat it on a neighbouring house-top.

Add bats, mice, muskrats, sparrows, and monkeys to the list of a Madras housekeeper's visitors, and you will believe that some care is needed in housekeeping, house-cleaning, and house-walking. Yet the evil is greater in appearance than in fact. Habit soon makes these sights and sounds so familiar that they are almost unnoticed, and caution becomes so habitual that accidents are rare. Against the minor insect tribes and other depredators you adopt precautions, and you think before you unroll a mat or thrust your hand into a dusty corner, and so avoid a sting. But one case of stinging by a scorpion occurred in our household, and no case of injury by a serpent.

I must not omit to notice a most formidable, though apparently insignificant insect, not yet mentioned – it is the white ant. This is a small, semi-transparent insect; in appearance most harmless, in reality most destructive. The habits of the white ants are peculiar. They live in houses partly under the earth, but frequently built up in hills two or three feet above it, and pierced in every direction with halls and galleries. They issue from their home in long lines, each one carrying a load of mud; with this they form a covered way about the size of a pipe-stem, under which they pass to and fro, extending their gallery. They do not cross a floor or climb a post except under this cover. In the morning you will find a line of hard brown clay commencing at an unseen hole in the mortar floor, and extending, it may be, up a door to the ceiling. You break away this gallery, and find a troop of white ants hurrying back and forth, extending their road and boring or furrowing the door. But as soon as they are exposed, they run hither and thither in great terror, seeking for their hiding-place. If they cannot reach it, they are lost. The red ants attack them, and seizing their soft bodies with their nippers, after a short struggle bear them writhing away to their holes. The lizards, too, prey upon them, and fowls eat them with eagerness. Thus one tribe is kept in check by another, so as not to increase beyond endurance.

The white ants frequently do much mischief before they are discovered. A woollen rug carelessly left upon the floor but a single night, was brought to us the next morning with a great slit, three feet long, cut down its middle. It was the kareyan had done the mischief. Coming up through the plaster floor, they had in one night furrowed the rattan-mat and spoiled the rug. In the mission printing establishment the boxes of paper are kept upon raised frames which are swept under, and inspected with care. On opening a box, however, its contents were found to be completely riddled with small holes. On examination, it appeared that one end of a piece of rope thrown on the box rested on the ground; along this they had advanced and done their destructive work.

Many a resident in India can sympathize with the worthy Carmelite friar, San Bartolomeo, who thus narrates his first acquaintance with these little intruders, when at Pondicherry: "I had put all my effects into a chest which stood in my apartment; and being one day desirous of taking out a book, as soon as I opened the chest, I discovered in it an innumerable multitude of those white insects which the Tamulians call kareyan. When I examined the different articles in the chest, I, to my sorrow, found that these little animals had perforated my shirts in a thousand places, and gnawed to pieces my books; my girdle, amice, and shoes fell to pieces as soon as I touched them. The ants were moving in columns each behind the other, and each carrying away in its mouth a fragment of my goods. My effects were more than half destroyed, but it was very fortunate for me that cotton goods were sold exceedingly cheap at Pondicherry.”

A Scotch gentleman once assured me that on opening an almirah (wardrobe) he found his glass tumblers cut in ridges by the white ants; but as he was noted for telling wonderful stories, I had my doubts whether it might not be a fellow to the account of the Hindu cashier, who, when a deficiency of some thousands of silver rupees was apparent in his books, charged it as "Destroyed by the white ants!"


  1. There are sixteen annas in one rupee.