Indian History

The Memsahib and the Ayah

The memsahib – a European lady given this respectful title by the natives to show the hierarchy status; to differ between employer and servant, the rich and the poor.  

When I hear the word “memsahib”, I think of the times of British colonization, when British families resided in India. I would think of the memsahib’s smiling face, holding a baby in her arms or holding the arm of a husband or lover. They would have elaborate hairstyles and wear beautiful bonnets; sometimes they would hold a frilly white umbrella. Of course, I am seeing the “perfect” memsahib.

But what I want to talk about here is the ‘real’ memsahib – her social interactions and her relationship to her children’s ayah.

The Ayah and The Memsahib

They were the wives of officials, military officers, business men; they played bridge with other high society ladies and seldom spent time with their children. Some even had the Ayah breast feed their infants. British wives depended in the Ayah’s to nurse their children as European nurses were not available. The mothers were told by doctors to not breastfeed as the climate was too weak.

The Ayahs or sometimes called Amma’s were low-caste Hindus and Muslims.

An Ayah was an employee who looked after the memsahib’s children and in turn the children loved their Ayah. Anglo-Indian children were taught the Hindi language by these servants – this was seen as unacceptable by the British mothers as they thought the intimacy would make their children imitate the native habits, behavior and manners. The British wives  tried to keep a distance between their children and the Ayah but this never worked as the children became very attached.

Another tactic was to bring in hired English women. This clashed with the native Ayah and more often than not, the British women won the argument.  

Social Endearments

British wives were expected to manage the household and support their husbands in their activities and their work. With no other burdens, the wives spent more time at leisure – socializing with other respected women, going to bazaars, attending parties and balls and generally having a good time.

Some also went one step further and wrote. Though doing this didn’t make them any popular for they were undervalued by scholars, calling them “lady-romancers”. These women wrote journals/memoirs of their lives and how they saw life in India; their relationship with the natives and so on. This wasn’t deemed important or worthy by the highly educated and so these works were dismissed.

With time comes change and perhaps one of these changes were the major uproot of an English lady into a Memsahib, deeming quite bothersome at first as they followed their husbands to the Indian sub-continent. The drastic climate change, the language that was alien to them, the Indian customs, the dirt and dust – was probably a little too much for them. The expectation from the husband of an amiable and respectable wife, who was to foresee any household matters and nothing much else was probably accepted with grace but to go further than that – to show respect to the Ayah and other servants and natives was not seen to do.

This racial discrimination was popular with all British families and thus shunned the natives unless they were wanted.

Do I dislike the “real” memsahib – the British wife and mother? My answer is no. As a spectator from these modern times; to me, this would seem unacceptable and intolerable. But in colonial times, this behavior was accepted by the natives and probably expected too. They may have abhorred their employees for the unfair treatment but they also had to earn money.  To be a low caste native, these people had no real respect from the high caste  and wealthy natives and so this hence,  was nothing new to their standard of living.

There were some British ladies who did extend their friendship to the natives but this was frowned upon.

Freedom of the Monsoon  depicts a character called Mary. She is a Memsahib friend to Amit who falls in love with her. Unlike some British wives, Mary’s behavior is the opposite. She is someone who cares. She is one of those who like the natives and their culture.  Although there are no references to the British wife and her Ayah in the book, we do see some cultural aspects that the memsahib likens to.                                       

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