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.
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"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.