Summer is here and flocks of expats gather in the evening sky twittering together, feeding themselves up in preparation for the long migration west. Their winder coats have been shed and they and their young are easily distinguished by their ripe, pink summer hue. An intrepid Brit-watcher, I was privileged to observe them at close quarters at the High Commissioner’s residence in New Delhi, a vital watering-hole for the species, where they annually flock in early May before the females and young prepare to undertake the difficult and taxing journey back to Surrey and Kent, leaving the males to hibernate in the isolated air-conditioned pockets of multinational offices in the city.
Armed with only my light tan camouflage and a notebook, I was able to spend time with them unobserved, without the use of a hide, thick or otherwise. Luckily my part-English parentage and BBC vowels provided me with the perfect cover, and none of the individuals either took startled flight at my appearance or mistook me for a wandering ayah.
We had been relieved of a few hundred bucks at the gate by a horsey woman with a bucket of cash and a penetrating stare.
“For charity, you know.”
“Of course,” we mumbled, fishing deep into our undernourished handbags and pockets. “Super.”
My friends had come prepared, armed with a rice salad. I was tagging along, hoping that no one would notice I had brought neither salad nor pud to add to the buffet, and send me away empty-handed and empty-bellied. I found a fellow-saladless lass who fixed me with a baleful stare and said, “I was going to bring a salad, but we’ve just had to fire our cook.” I made what I hoped passed for a sympathetic noise and sipped my gin.
The trestle tables were dotted with bowls of pasta, trays of sausages, quiche Lorraine and baked potatoes in jolly silver foil wrapping. The garden itself was more like an eighteen-hole putting green, the lawn clipped to perfection. I wondered if Sir David Gore-Booth had a mali who, like those in the days of the Raj, swept the dew from the grass blades each morning so that the sahib’s trouser cuffs would not get wet. The trees were aglow with lights – not the little star-like sprinklings that glitter at Indian wedding parties, but huge, round, tissue lampshades, as though, having trawled the night sky, they had come back with a rich haul of full moons trapped between their twigs.
It was a perfect evening. The light rain earlier had threatened to dampen Lady Mary’s careful arrangements of origami napkins – there’s nothing like limp table linen to put a downer on the evening – but luckily it had cleared up before the guests descended and our serviettes were as crisp as the salad, and as stiff as our upper lips. The wine was flowing and the gentle chink of silver cutlery on monogrammed china provided the background music to the happy English chatter. We found ourselves a quiet corner table to chow down at.
The horsey woman fetched up at our table and showed her teeth. Her husband sat meekly by, doing his best to disappear behind a densely wooded beard. He was clearly one of those men for whom facial hair is a way of keeping life at bay, and he peered from behind owlish glasses with the air of a startled faun.
“Eighteen years,” she bellowed, leaning back from him and miming surprise. “God, darling, have we really been married that long?” The hunted look intensified a notch and he managed a week smile before darting back behind his shrubbery.
There was a gentle ripple of applause as another extraordinarily long wedding anniversary was announced, and couples slipped each other looks ranging from affection to disbelief. Given the average age, income and physical appearance of most of the company, they tended towards the latter.
Oh, but pity the poor expat wife. ’Tis a hard road to tread and not one to be undertaken lightly. Think of the tedium, the claustrophobia of travelling from one country to another, only to be partnered in cards and clobbered at croquet by the same florid features and floral prints.
“So,” I ventured, encouragingly, to the dumpy lady on my left, “what do you do?”
“Do?” she said blankly.
“Umm, yes, you know…”
There was a short pause as she flipped through the thin card index of her brain.
“Well, bridge.” I presumed she meant cards rather than civil engineering. “And socials. We do a lot of those.” Another pause, followed by a flash of inspiration. “And of course we all do our bit for charity. That’s so important, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” I nodded.
“I mustn’t say this,” she added conspiratorially, “but Indians are the worst at looking after their own.”
I declined to point out that the British expat wives’ contribution to the educational, social and economic reforms in the country is a mere droplet in a very Indian ocean, and that as we were sitting there exchanging pleasantries, Britain itself had just put to rout – finally – eighteen years of Tory rule in which the national health service, the welfare state and the social security system had been ritually sacrificed to the great god of ‘free’ market economics and his prophet, La Thatcher. Instead, I returned with renewed concentration to my quiche, while she examined a fifth glass of water for microbes.
Sir David and Lady Mary, our hosts for the evening, sailed among their guests like galleons among a flotilla of dinghies, charming, urbane witty and at ease, their blue blood flowing as serenely as the English Channel on a sunny August day. Instead of complaining about the servants, which seemed to be the main activity of most of the people there Lady M arched her delicate eyebrows and exclaimed how ridiculous to have so many staff (twenty) for a house of this size – she gestured expansively to the sprawling palace behind us – though she conceded that she did need a bit of help, what with 9,000 visitors a year. There was an audible gulp, as harried wives did a quick mental calculation. That means a well-attended coffee morning every day for three years on the trot. While they still work at the level of village fête and biscuit-tin-on-the-mantelpiece economics, her cheerful sang froid could only come from years of upper-class grooming.
To the manor born, rather that towards the manor striving, the HC and Lady M’s presence threw into sharp relief the class divisions which are the weft and warp of British social fabric. Only in the hothouse world of Expatland will you fine nice middle-class girls from Wimbledon putting on the airs and graces of Earls and Graces and getting away with it.
“We’ve got a mahv’lous ayah for Timmy and Louise. We’re so lucky. They simply adore her. ’Course she really runs the house. Dam’ bossy actually, but couldn’t do without her. Had a lot of problems with your servants?”
“Well, actually,” I risked admitting, “I don’t have anyone…er, just at present.”
“Poor yoouu. Isn’t that frightfully difficult?”
These are folks who have trotted happily down to the supermarket for years with their toddlers perched on their shopping, gone home, vacuumed the living room, whipped up a quick dinner, eaten it with their hubbies, watched telly, done the washing up and held down a full-time job as a marketing assistant for years, without so much as a butler. Suddenly they’re uprooted and transplanted into tropical soil and they wilt like rain-sodden serviettes, unable to buy a carrot from the local market without the help of at least four domestics.
By this time of the evening, we have made short work of the sausages and are taking the puddings in our stride. Death-by-chocolate fudge cake, black forest gateau, blackcurrant cheesecake, apple and cinnamon flan, lush trifles, lemon meringue pie. I put all my socialist principles on the back burner and prepared to prostrate myself before the sweet trolley. Much rolling of eyes, surreptitious loosening of belts and patting of girths ensued.
More than his fabulist prose, more than the Satanic Verses controversy, more than his catapulting the modern Indian novel onto the international stage, Salman Rushdie must be congratulated for coining the slogan for the Milk Marketing Board to advertise fresh cream cakes: ‘Naughty… but nice.’ These three words capture perfectly the ‘oh, go on, indulge yourself – you deserve it’ ethos of middle-class, middle-Englanders with their middle-aged spread and their mid-life crises.
At this point, I was nearly rumbled. My BBC vowels, greased along by quantities of Gilbey’s Gin, had started to slip and my carefully cultivated Anglo-Saxon mask was in danger of following:
“Where to you live?”
“Oh, Vasant Vi…”
“No, Mayur Vihar.”
“Ah.” Blank stare. “Where’s that?”
“The other side of the river.”
“Yes, you know: the river. In Delhi? The Yamuna?”
“Oh. Oh. That river.” Pause. “But that’s miles away.”
“Mmmm. Well, not really. I mean, I get to CP in forty minute by bus.”
At this point, I knew the dame was on to me. There was a long pause, the lemon meringue earning a brief respite on its way to meet its lipstick-y end.
“Ummmm… do you… I mean… is there, by any chance some, ah… Indian blood in you?”
She didn’t actually say ‘touch of the tar brush’, but it was there, the nasty taste of racism quickly subsumed beneath the sweet cloud of white meringue. I deftly turned the conversation away from my own mixed parentage and to more immediate concerns.
“Oh I’m glad you mentioned that, because I’ve been wanting to find out about the expat blood donor group. Are you involved in that at all?”
“Oh yes, it’s a marvellous scheme – so reassuring. You know that if you ever need blood you can just pop over to Sally’s (we call her ‘The Vampire’, ha ha) and she’ll just ring around and get you some. You know it’s really shocking but,” again lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “they don’t screen their blood.”
“Really? Don’t They?”
Any pretense at scientific rationalist explanations for this little scheme holds little water – and even less blood – in light of the rest of the evening’s conversation. It isn’t HIV they’re scared of. It’s that (um… ah) Indian blood which she so subtly pointed out was coursing through my adulterated veins. Perhaps she would come round from a transfusion suddenly overcome with the urge to leap onto a blueline bus, or make her own salad – my god! Who knows where it might end?
While the husbands washed down their cheesecake with Chateauneuf Du Pape, the wives shook their ample booties on the dance floor. “That Jenny,” remarked one cigar-toting aficionado of the female form. “God! What a body. Marvellous after three kids, eh?”
The Expat Group Newsletter this month featured an ‘Expat Husband’s Lament’, which gives a rich and varied insight into the mindset of this creature:
“Dear Heavenly Father (it starts off), Try not to look down upon our disgruntled, disobedient and dishevelled Expat Wives with whom we are doomed to travel this Earth – following us through ‘thick and thin’ as we provide for them. We are carrying out our hardworking lives in lands unknown while they are roaming and groaning about the heat and the mosquitoes and then ‘chicken out’ by taking flight to cooler climes when they feel like it…
Oh Great One! Give our beloved wives divine guidance in their selection of houses in totally unscheduled caste zones and in their selection of cooks to ensure that we fulfill our duties each day without getting clobbered by Delhi Belly. …
We beseech you, O Lord, to smile down on our lovely ladies and forgive them when they nag us about feeling bored our of their little female minds… Please Lord, control our wives each day with their impatience with the maid and try to help us to ensure that they do not thump the maid, especially if she is beautiful and we fancy her.”
With the departure of their mates and offspring, the remaining males hatch plans for a ‘boys’ weekend away’ in Bangkok or Amsterdam – presumably to admire Buddhist stupas or see original Van Gogh paintings, since it wouldn’t do to suggest that they might be tainting that expat blood with unscreened un-British bodily fluids.
As the alcohol took hold, and the night drew on, the men also hitched up their tummies and took to the floor. There are few less edifying sights that English men trying to dance. Their gyrations and twitches were evidence enough that they wouldn’t recognize rhythm if it were served up to them with side-order of watercress. The hi-fi blared out ‘We gotta get outta this place’ and, as the stars wheeled over Rashtrapati Bhavan, this anthem of teenage rebellion was transformed into another anti-India winge by these overfed, fed-up, nouveau Rajas and their bored, expat Maharani-manqués. The hour was late and Mayur Vihar suddenly seemed like a long way away and a far, far better place to be. My friends and I took the lyrics at a more mundane level, and quietly slipped away.
First published in The India Magazine, 1997.