Chatterati and Chatterjee

Read this rather whatever-you-want-to-call-it piece by Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin. She was talking about how women are addressed in Pakistan (“Baby” and then “Baaji”, then “Begum sahiba” etc.) What intrigued me was her recollection of a recent trip to Jaipur and how she was feeling slightly bored as her Indian friend went through the sarees at a store. (Oh dear. Most Pakistani women love sarees, but I guess the trip here is something different.)

Now in her words:

“I continued to sip my Coke. He (the salesman) picked up a sari and thrust it in my face. Yeh pasand hai, memsaab? I looked over my shoulder. There was no white woman. He was speaking to me. Me? A memsaab? A memsaab in my mind is a white woman in a calf-length belted dress and a wide brimmed hat. She has firm opinions, a loud voice and belongs to the Raj novels of Paul Scott. I fail to qualify on all counts. Something about my demeanour or dress (a salwar kameez) may have signalled my foreignness to a particularly observant shopkeeper, but surely I didn’t look like a mem? But Indian friends informed me afterwards that the term was not meant personally. Memsaab in India is as generic as baji in Lahore. Indian ladies have also become memsaabs. Why it should be so remains a mystery, but so it is.”

Two observations from me:

* Terminology evolves over time. Men are routinely referred to as Saab, right? No problems with that? Such stereotypes really. So, how many women in Lahore are begums that they qualify as Begum sahibas? Does she turn around to look for some nawaabi thaat, a pankha, maybe a palanquin?

And why assume only white women have firm opinions and loud voices?

* Since when has the salwaar kameez come to signal foreignness for Indians? If she had looked beyond the straw of the Coke at the street, she might have watched women riding scooters wearing salwaar kameezes. Puhleeze. You want to sound exotic, try saying you were wearing a Lahori sombrero or something.

- - -


"Aap ka kya pareshan hain?" (When he really wanted to know what the problem was.)

Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, in his broken Hindi, to a disruptive member during the trust vote.


  1. FV:

    Can you provide the link to this piece by Moni Mohsin?

    I hope you remember what JFK said-- "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." Let us keep the mythology alive.

  2. Memsaab is probably a corruption of "ma'm sahib". However, because of some reasons, many women do not like to be called "ma'm" - which, in reality, is a term of respect!

  3. PS:

    I like my mythology with flying carpets and all, not sarees in small shops.

    The link is here; it may nto work, so you go to e-paper, look up y'day's issue in the 'global' section.



    Ma'am is a short form of Madam...anything said with respect is welcome.

  4. Moni Mohsin is very much 'into' stereotypes, to the extent of being unreadable most of the time. This "mem mystery", however, is perhaps not entirely baseless. Indians do come across as being overly sensitive about anything to do with colonialism, and having gone to the trouble of changing the names of some your cities...why stick to mem, which does mean white woman?

  5. But yes, terminology does evolove over time. My thoughts are slightly scattered, sorry.

  6. Mask:

    We have changed the names of our cities but most still refer to it by the 'old' names.

    And the 'memsahib' mode of address honestly does not even register...maybe WE are just so to the manor born :)

    Btw, 'begum sahiba' does give a huge kick...but what is really funny when this 'feminist' who thinks she is the only existing feminist in the whole wide world refers to me as Versey Begum...but she don't know 'Oodoo' (Urdu), and the nuance that you use the first name with begum, not the last.

    So, why were your thoughts scattered???

  7. Most feminists, if not all, do believe they're all alone, for some reason.
    As for scattered thoughts...I suppose that's the price one pays for trying to do away with sleep. I've fallen in love with the dawn.

  8. No, the reference to this feminist is about feeling superior...all others are lesser in their feministic zeal...

    As for the dawn, it must reciprocate your love.


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