This unexpected and delightful autobiography would have been extra-ordinary enough for its lively, concrete and witty prose (all qualities rarely found in English written by Indian authors) but becomes even more so when one discovers it is the work of a Bengali Muslim who left school—the Victoria Memorial High School at Memari, a country town a few miles away from his village in the Burdwan district—at the age of fourteen to start earning his living. He did this in a rich variety of ways that make for a positively Rabelaisian recital which proved, in my case, such enjoyable reading that I wished for a second volume. Mr Rasul has not only the gift for living fully, an attractive enough feature, but also an unusual gift for infusing his prose with this quality. The picaresque account of his search for a living follows him from his Bengal village, just barely set rippling by the flung stone of the Civil Disobedience movement, to New Market in Calcutta where he worked as a shop assistant.
For a while he was enthralled by his view of Calcutta society as it strolled through his shop to buy stationery, toilet goods and perfume but that soon palled and he returned to his village to work in a shoe set up by his brother-in-law. This, he discovered, was a grave mistake: after the excitements of the metropolis, he could not settle down to running a village shop and selling shoes to peasants. He ran away, along with the village thief, to Delhi where the two slept out under the trees in a park till a kindly Mullah came along and took them home and even found him a job in a shoe shop (a Freudian interpretation could possibly be given to the ever-recurring shoe in this account). But the village thief became homesick and persuaded him to return to their village. Faizur was too restless to remain there for long and took a job in Shillong, a new and therefore irresistible place to him. Here he was assistant to the contractor who supplied meat to the army and had to count the sheep and the goats and watch their slaughter. He has amusing incidents to relate—how two Hindu youths setting out to become monks at the temple of Kamarupa take him along with them to this isolated, mysterious and notorious hilltop temple, and how he takes fright at the sight of some village women, thinking them to be the fabled witches, and runs away, and how he is sent, in place of a timid tailor, to the house of the English Deputy Commissioner to try on a pleated skirt on his daughter (like all good raconteurs, Mr Rasul adroitly sprinkles the spice of fiction on unpromising lumps of fact, making of them a tasty curry).
Eventually he loses the job and travels, ticketless, to Delhi again and finds a job as an errand boy in the Anglo-Arabic School. For the first time he finds himself in touch with the urban, educated class and hears of strange and distant lands. He becomes obsessed with the idea of running away to England although the students, his friends, try to dissuade him. He goes on to spend some time in the Bombay Medical College hostel as a kitchen hand but cannot settle down and finally runs away by becoming a stowaway on the P & a liner, the S.S. Rawalpindi. He sleeps with the deckhands and the sahib-log’s servants on deck, they feed and shelter him and help him slip off the boat undetected at Tilbury Docks. He is in England at last. It is 1929.
Here he trusts to his faultless instinct and makes his way to the mosque at Woking where he is put to work in the kitchen at one pound a week. From this moment on all the false starts, hesitations and setbacks of his life are over and his progress takes on a breathtaking pace. He learns English by studying the newspapers—and it is the Daily Herald that is taken in by the mosque kitchen. Having mastered the alphabet and a small vocabulary, he goes to the public library and the first book he picks up happens to be one by Bernard Shaw. This is the fateful moment of his life. He becomes a Socialist. He thinks and talks, he hopes, like Shaw.
‘From then on for many years I read only Shaw’s books, and my reading remained my main pursuit next to earning a living. The combined onslaught of Shaw and the Daily Herald gained ground for Socialism in my soul, while Islam began to recede’.
It is saddening to read later that when he went on a pilgrimage to Ayot St. Lawrence, Shaw was not at home and he was thrown out by a servant. He wrote to Shaw but got only a printed reply:
‘Please do not ask Mr Bernard Shaw for money. He has not enough to help the large number of his readers who are in urgent need of it. He can write for you, he cannot finance you,’ t9 which Shaw had added, in his own hand:
‘There are 300 million Indians in the British empire. 299,999,999 of them have requested me to adopt them just as you have. This is not only impossible but stupid as I am too old for such an arrangement to last and I have already too many dependents. Think of something else.’
Mr Rasul took the insult manfully and persisted both with Socialism and Shavianism. The latter influenced even his conduct with women and led to the most hilarious encounters and conversations that he recounts with a perfect ear for dialogue; no Indian novelist has ever reproduced English dialect with such accuracy: he had studied his Pygmalion attentively.
When he stands shyly watching the English plunge into the river Wey for a swim on a sunny summer’s day, an old man walks up to him and says ‘Don’t be shy, son, you are a nice mahagony colour, I wish I were like ye’, and he promptly strips off his clothes and his shyness and plunges in. It is a symbolic moment.
On his weekly visits to the Co-op to make purchases for the mosque, the shop-girls ask him into the canteen and give him tea.
‘Come on, learn us your swearwords. There’s nobody here now, only us. Don’t be shy’.
‘What do you want to know for?’ I said.
‘We want to learn your language,’ said the one.
‘Language, with swear-words?’ I exclaimed.
‘That would do for a start, wouldn’t it?’ said the other and both of them giggled.’
He has the same free and easy conversations in the kitchen of the mosque with the other servants who are English.
‘As the Imam, following the Koran, didn’t believe in depressing the human spirit, we three or four domestics in the kitchen were free to enjoy ourselves, laughing, singing, shouting and shrieking. After lunch I would sometimes read to them from a book I had been reading the previous night, usually a play by Bernard Shaw. The exchanges about his married life between Androc1es and his wife, and between Caesar and Androc1es and Liza’s talk and behaviour, drew peals of laughter from Miss Bowden. Tom, the gardener, was used to “funny” non-English names at the mosque. Still, when I read out the name of Cleopatra’s nurse Ftateteeta, he had an attack of convulsive, rumbling laughter, shouting “Who?” and fell off his chair, broke a cup, spilling the tea all over. And Miss Bowden gave a piercing shriek. None of us had been to a theatre out we enjoyed the dramatic arts in the kitchen in our own way.’
The most hilarious sequences are those in which he finds his way about with English girls. He starts with the ones who work in the mosque kitchen of course. Miss Bowden is prim and proper— ‘she made abundant use of the word respectable—and used such words as consequently, eventually, consolation, possessive, episode, etc. and lady-dog for bitch and perspiration for sweat.’ She invites Rasul to visit her and her mother at home, and he goes on a trip to Portsmouth Harbour with her and her brother. They go up to London to see the illuminations on the centenary of Faraday’s discovery of the current, and take country walks together. She asks him if he would walk with a girl in India, too. Never, he replies.
‘No, you don’t say so! There must be some men and women who go out together, aren’t there?’ she asked, still curious.
‘Yes, there are,’ I agreed. ‘But they don’t walk side by side, like a couple of draught-horses pulling a ploughshare; they walk one behind the other, like goats going out to feed.’
‘No, it isn’t you talking,’ she said indignantly. ‘It’s Bernard Shaw talking through you,and ridiculing everybody in the world. I don’t want to hear any more.’
Once he uses the expression ‘pig in a ‘poke’ which makes her exclaim:
‘Listen, you oughtn’t to use such expressions.’
‘What you just said.’ ‘Pig in a poke?’
‘Yes, where did you learn it?’
‘From Roy, I think, our Rosie’s husband.’
‘That sort of expression is for ordinary people. Gentle folk wouldn’t use it and you shouldn’t.’
‘I shall cut it out. I pick up all kinds of English and get them all mixed together.’
Nor will this eminently respectable lady be seen with him in public in Woking—only in towns where they are not known, or in the country—nor will she allow him to touch her. When he does, she instantly resigns and leaves. The girl he engages to take her place in the kitchen is called—incredibly—Maggie Thatcher, a girl of fifteen who, to begin with, looked ‘like one of those women who trailed behind the blonde barbarian intruders who roamed over the lowlands of England in the fifth sixth centuries A.D.’ She proves generous and accommodating. She not only agrees to bathe in the mosque bathroom, to wash her clothes and wear clean underwear—he says of her ‘Although she was normally docile, obliging and good-tempered, she could occasionally be pig-headed and disobedient. But she could quickly be brought under control by the magic words ‘lady’ or ‘ladylike’ which fascinated her and her kind, just as the word ‘respectable’ fascinated the lower middleclass girls’—but soon began to look ‘like a half-ripe Victoria plum strongly pink.’ Naturally she becomes attractive to other boys as well. He reproves her. She replies.
‘Oi see’d in the pictures, most of “merican wimmin” and “merican iris kissin and cuddlin” in the woods “An in the streets”.’
‘True, but the Americans are only a lot of colonial riff-raff, fussing about the Declaration of Independence and jingling dollars in their pockets. But you? You belong to the old, proud, aristocratic England, Mag! If the good King Charles II were still about, you would have been a second Barbara Villiers, the Duchess of Cleveland, or, better still, another Nell Gwynn. As it is, you are going to be a lady. No American woman will ever be one. Read Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart. No, you can’t. Never mind.’
There are many more such obviously Shavian dialogues:
M: ‘Wot’s bourborin?’
I: ‘A barbarian is somebody like you’.
M: ‘Isn’t good?’
I: ‘Of course. You are a generous barbarian and I am a noble savage. We make a good pair’.
M: ‘Wot’s sibilois?’
I: ‘Civilization is a flea that bites and worries some people, like a dog’.
M: ‘Ud it bite you?’
I: ‘It has bitten me a little, I wish it hadn’t. But don’t worry, it won’t bite you; you are better off. ‘.
Although they become ‘more than just friends’, both are sensible and keep their heads in true Shavian style:
‘I: ‘What about us, Mag? Don’t you
want to marry me’?
M: ‘0 luv a duck! Wot ud the people sai’!
I: ‘Ha ha, ha! You are the only one in the whole of England who has hit the nail on the head, Mag’!’
However, they have ‘gone too far’ for the Imam who sacks him. On leaving Woking, he becomes a. house-servant in one London home after another, amongst them Sir Abdul Qadir’s, the distinguished Member of the India Council, where he furthers his own education as well as his employer’s.
‘We would have long talks on books. He introduced me to Dickens and Tolstoy. And I introduced him to Shaw and H.G. Wells. Later, when the Odham Press began to sell Shaw’s Complete Plays and Prefaces at six and nine pence each, H.G. Well’s 12 volumes of novels at seventeen and six a set, and other World classics, I bought as many as I could afford, and Qadir bought some of them too. I provided the coupons cut out of the Daily Herald. This trick of getting books cheaply drew Sir Abdul to my Daily Herald. Leaving his Times aside, he would borrow my paper and presently he felt that the Socialist fellows had a different point of view on the world-shattering news of the thirties that bombarded us all.’
The halcyon world of pre-war Europe was drawing to a close, as he was aware, but he managed quite a few more adventures before the curtain came down finally. Taking to the highroad, he showed card tricks and sold horoscopes in market-towns all over the north of England.
‘I brought a packet of a thousand horoscopes for thirteen shillings and a gross of Buddhas for four shillings’ .and he sold the horoscopes for three pence a time and, with the Buddha, for sixpence. Although he was hauled off to goal a couple of times ‘for obstruction’, mostly the police winked at him and let him carryon so that he made his fortune and ‘realized that golden dream of the British working-man’ and became the proud owner of ‘Fred’s Cafe.’
He never stopped reading Shaw and went on to reading H.G. Wells and to running an Advice Bureau for Immigrants. I have no idea if he is still there or not.
But what an extraordinary book he has produced—extraordinary because of his own lively, resilient and adaptable spirit that shines through the prose—proving Sir Sidney Lee’s adage that ‘the aim of biography is the truthful transmission of personality’—and extraordinary, too, for its portrait of a multiracial world that no longer exists in the post-war period of ‘race relations’ and Immigrants, Nazism and Fascism. He has drawn a remarkable picture of a Britain in which the British working class could still take a black man to their hearts as they did him and such amusing incidents could occur as the one he describes towards the end of his book, and which took place in Leeds:
‘At one side of the park the Cameroon Regiment, just returned from India, had been quarantined in a roped-off compound. Some soldiers, seeing me, made a hullabaloo in broken Hindustani and began to wave to me. I went over the rope and into the compound, and was talking to them when an orderly came and told me I was wanted in the Sergeant-Major’s tent. I followed the orderly, who took me and left me with the Sergeant-Major in his tent. The S-M, a middle-aged man, got up from his camp-chair and began to embrace me, and put his head On my shoulder, furiously maudlin, with tears streaming down his face from his reddened eyes. Fortunately he didn’t have the traditional handlebar moustache to tickle my neck. I was surprised. I felt awkward. When he had recovered his emotions sufficiently he made me sit with him, and told me he had been twenty-one years in India. He· had loved India and the Indian people, and he hadn’t wanted to come back. He felt homesick for the India he might never see again. That was why he had sent for me, to have a last glimpse of a last Indian before he returned to the oblivion of his highland croft in wildest Scotland.’
But, Shavian to the last, Rasul comments:
‘When great empires begin to get sentimental sergeant-majors, their days are numbered.’ As indeed they were.
It is laudable achievement to have ridden the waves wherever he was – a Muslim in largely Hindu India, and a black man in largely white Britain with such aplomb, humour, resilience and humanity. The achievement is all the greater since it is that of a village boy who left school when he was fourteen and worked for the better part of his life as a shop assistant and a cook. It is possible that is the very reason for his jauntry success.
Anita Desai is a well known novelist.