August 08, 2009

This is the house where Terry lived...

This post which originally appeared on Terry Fletcher's ANGLO INDIAN PORTAL gives us a close-up view of a typical railwayman's quarter during the Raj era. Thanks Fletch for an outstanding post, and let's hope we hear from you soon again !
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THE REASON FOR starting at this point, apart from having to start somewhere, is that our recent personal circumstances seemed to take an upward turn. Through sheer chance, a property to which we took an immediate liking, turned up out of the blue. We saw it as a place to which we could 'retire' - permanently. From the daily grind and the rat-race of the city. But for the moment that is all it remains - a dream.
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My background is that of railway-brat, born and brought up in India. It is also where I completed my studies, without distinction, excelling on the sports field whilst under-achieving in the classroom. Not an uncommon trait for an Anglo-Indian boy of the time, but eminently regrettable with hindsight!
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A railway-brat, contrary to popular belief, lived a pretty spartan life. Sure, there were houses with verandahs and 'compounds' (far too large to label them mere gardens!) that had outhouses for the servants. Yes, there were servants (for the politically correct - "domestic help"); at least two, often three and sometimes four. But the built-in facilities of those standard railway houses were fairly limited. No running water, sometimes not even electricity. Two areas that were afterthoughts or 'add-ons', were the kitchen and the bathroom. Two tiny rooms were thrown up at each end of the house, leaving the occupants to adapt them to their lifestyle.
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The kitchen was a cramped space, annexed to a larger room that was grandly labelled the "Dining Room" by the lady of the house. It had a brick and mud fireplace built into one corner and a sunken wash-up area in another. It was the domain of the cook who lovingly tended to his or her fire, heaping on piles of good quality anthracite that came from the many tenders of the many locomotives in the shunting yards, and all for free! The coals, once lit in the early hours of the morning for boiling water for 'bed-tea', burned throughout the day until the cook was dismissed to his or her quarters. Now you know where the idea for your Aga Cooker originated, although the modern Aga doesn't use solid fuel as its heating source!
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At the opposite end of the house, well away from the main living areas and usually attached to the 'Master Bedroom' (we only had one), was the bathroom cum toilet facility. Without wishing to plumb the depths of this subject, just accept that this room, across the breadth of the railway colony, was not the most popular room in a house. We railway-types only had a fleeting acquaintance with flush toilets and Thomas Crapper. The good old 'commode' was the accepted utensil, and if you were really well off, there might be one for each member of the family. In our house there were a couple of ornate wooden stands for the man and woman of the house with a scattering of metal flowerpot stands to serve the rest. By now you're either cringing with embarrassment, curling your lip with disgust, or even laughing out loud at a memory revived, but in those days this detail was not a cause for concern, nor was it one to be remarked upon. It was a fact of life; the way it was. Imagine my astonishment when, some 17 years later, I arrived in England in the early 60's to find that a huge percentage of dwellings didn't have indoor toilets. They relied on a 'thunder-box' (an ancient version of the loo) at the bottom of the garden.
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The washing and bathing facilities were equally primitive. A metal oil drum, recycled and painted inside and out, held water that was drawn from an outdoor standpipe and was filled daily by the cook who hand-carried the water in buckets, making several journeys of 50 metres or more. It served as the source for sluicing oneself down when washing or bathing. A bucket of hot water was usually whistled up from the kitchen and a bit of deft mixing served to take the chill off the water in the drum. As a quick aside, the soap was usually a brick of 'Lifebuoy' or 'Carbolic' that would refuse to lather even in the softest of water, despite what the makers claimed. In retrospect, this was the epitome of water conservation; we didn't have running showers or overfilled baths to waste the precious commodity.
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Since leaving India over 40 years ago I have lived in 27 houses whose appointments have varied from 'adequate' to 'luxurious', depending very much in which part of the world I found myself. I have to say that none of the dwellings that I have occupied over the years have been without a flush toilet or a bath or a shower. Indeed, for the last 8 years I have also been in close and intimate contact with that typically French invention, the bidet. It is not uncommon for people who have never used bidets to think that there is something strange about them. In contrast, residents of countries where the bidet is to be found in every private house, find it a perfectly normal and acceptable adjunct to their daily ablutions.
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I may have lived in many houses, but I have never owned my own. I have been a gypsy all my life, a circumstance imposed on me by the moving around with my parents during dad's postings from one railway colony to another, followed during my own working life by the flitting between one RAF station and another every two or three years, or when the dreaded posting notice dropped on the movement clerks desk. As a consequence I have never felt the urge to actually invest money in something that I could not pick up and take with me.
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But, as mentioned earlier, there is an air of expectancy all around just now. I anticipate that circumstances will change for us soon. Whether for better or for worse, only time will tell.