I watched “The best Exotic Marigold Hotel” on TV and was touched by the relationship between Maggie Smith who played the wheelchair bound Muriel Donnelly and the untouchable Indian servant woman who swept her room and served her meals. It was more than hotel service. It was whites with native servants; it was a touch of the old colonial world.
It took me back to my parent’s life in Malaya. My father was a soldier serving in Johor Bahru in the mid 1960’s. Malaya was now independent and no longer a colonial possession but there was still thousands of British soldiers stationed across the peninsula and although they no longer lived as colonial rulers they still lived a protected and privileged life, with strong echoes of their old colonial world.
Soldiers adapt to their environment quickly and almost without thinking. If they are fighting they live in trenches eat combat rations and use holes in the ground as latrines. If they are at peace they adapt to the local life, take servants, employ natives, take local lovers and sail unthinkingly through their new life. But soldier’s wives are quite different. They never adapt to the same degree. My mum was working class York; she had lived in tenements with communal toilet blocks where poverty was the norm. Work was in the chocolate factories or the railway sheds and was low status low paid and bleak. Marriage to a soldier took her to married quarters in Gibraltar, Germany, throughout England and now, Malaya. As Dad moved up through the ranks, Corporal, Sgt, staff Sgt, warrant officer, so the quality of their accommodation improved and their life became more materially comfortable. In Malaya they received an allowance to employ an Amah, a native servant. It was not to this my Mum was born!
The amah was a local girl. She may have been pure Malay but I thought there was a bit of Chinese about her. She cooked and cleaned and did the laundry, went to the shops and fussed over the family as if they were her own. I can’t even remember her name. Mum was at a loss as to how to deal with a servant. It left her with little or nothing to do. She wanted to help with the washing up or putting the laundry out to dry. But the amah would be hurt by her interfering and Mum would get embarrassed.
It was one of those echoes of colonialism. Soldiers living in the barracks had cha wallahs and Indian dhobi wallahs, They didn’t even have to spit to shine their boots for there was a low caste servant for that too. Natives were so cheap and their cheapness was heavily exploited as if it was normal and natural for the white man to have such privileges. We were other ranks. Officers had allowances for more than one savant and even had servant gardeners.
How it must have stoked the firery independence of Malaya. How they must have despised the humility of it all. No wonder they were so pleased to finally see the back of the British!
Mum went to visit the amah’s family. The photograph shows Mum with two of my brothers outside the amah’s home, the amah with her three sons. The two younger boys had put on their Sunday best to meet the white people and the boy on the left looks so strong and resentful. Oh I hope they grew up fierce and strong and were able to look after their Mum into her old age.
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