under construction

Mrs. Mullan:

talking about the Khasis, and her daily life in Assam

                                  (15th September, 1973).

Miss Thatcher:- "Now, Mrs. Mullan, perhaps you'd tell us something about the Khasi

amongst whom you lived for some time in Assam [now Meghalaya]."

Mrs. Mullan:- "Yes, well I'll do my best. I spent very happily a great many of the

years that I spent in Assam were spent in Shillong, which lay in open rolling country.

spectacular peaks, the Himalayas, were far away to the north and the Khasi

and Jaintia
Hills, as the district was called, was made up of a number of small

Native States, some
quite tiny each with it's own Syiem [or Siem] or Chief.

The township of Shillong was a small enclave of British India in the midst of these

small States and was the headquarters of Government for the whole of Assam. The Khasi

people were quite unlike the people of the Plains, rather Mongolian looking in features, and

when young, the girls were most attractive, their skins quite fair and almost peach-like but

unfortunately they lost that bloom very early. The women were the workers in every sense

of the word. They carried enormous loads in cone shaped baskets on their backs. Nearly

always surmounted by a baby, and travelled miles on bare feet but invariably knitting as

they walked the puttees [pattis] that they wore on their legs in cold weather.

Not only did the women do most of the work but they really wielded the power, and

the whole system of property tenure was matriarchal. Everything descended through the

female line because you could be sure who your mother was, but very far from certain who

your father may have been. Husbands were hired and fired at will and the net result on the

male population was a rather feckless individual, shorn of responsibility and given to

archery and locally brewed liquor.

In their natural state the Khasi people were animists and Christian Missionaries of

various denominations shared the field. The WelshMissionHospital trained their girls into

the most excellent nurses, with no caste prejudices to contend with. They achieved

standards which could be envied nowadays elsewhere, and I personally really enjoyed the

two confinements I had under their care. They were not without their lighter moments of

pleasure and amusement. When my eldest son was born, the labour ward seemed to me

unnecessarily full of staff, but not until my protesting infant was delivered did I realise that a

choir was necessary. His first vocal efforts were drowned by a burst of song, in the Khasi

language, led by Dr. Roberts and the Welsh Sister-in-Charge, in thanksgiving for the safe

deliverance of a child into this world. It was really very moving and took my mind off my

own troubles. It was a night of events as, to start with, the new infant was born with a caul.

In many countries, and particularly amongst sea-going people, this is considered a great

sign of good fortune and a sure security against death by drowning. When things had

quietened down for a much needed rest for all, we had an earthquake, quite sufficient

movement to get me instantly on the alert to rescue my new and hard-won son. However, it

was of no consequence as earthquakes go, but further consternation was caused in the

morning when the proud father turned up, much more interested in retrieving the caul,

admiring his son.

The nurses, when qualified, did valuable work in the remote villages, on their own,

and one enterprising lady set up in Shillong as a dentist. I doubt if she had any

qualifications other than a powerful tug, but the notice on her door was quite clear in it's

meaning 'Mary Lindo, Dentist. Extractions = 3 rupees with pain, 5 rupees without'.

For those of us who employed the Khasi women as ayahs for our children, how

fortunate we were, and how often I have wished that my daughters and daughters-in-law

had the similar care and attention to rely on to relieve them of some of their maternal

duties. They were patient, kind, and as the children grew older, totally hopeless as

disciplinarians, but faithful beyond words. And their own babas were absolutely without

comparison when it came to comparing them with the next door children, and tremendous

rivalry was set up as to what party frocks should be worn to the Club next week, so as to

out-do the ayah round the corner, who had worn hers two weeks running, and it was time

they had something new.

But the Syiems already mentioned, the more or less rajahs in a small way,

essentially clung to their ancient customs and more particularly funeral customs. The death

of a chief entailed propitiating their ancient deities, and for a Khasi this always meant a

prolonged party, with heavy consumption of local brew. Eventually the corpse of the

departed was embalmed in honey, and when the comb had thoroughly set, Grandpa was

propped up in a corner of the house where he apparently caused no inconvenience to the

rest of the family for at least a year, when further celebrations took place, and this time,

culminating in the burning of the revered corpse, who certainly want off with a bang, with all

that highly inflammable beeswax to get things going. At certain times of the year we used to

buy the most delicious honey in the comb, gathered in the wild from hollow tree trunks, but

we were always careful to ascertain that it was not on the market following one of these

cremations. The frugal Khasi women would rescue what they could, to try and turn an

honest ?...?

A local custom pertaining to marriage, which among the Khasis was a very loose

affair anyway, took place in the spring at a village called Nongkrem, where the annual

nautch was organised. It was really a marriage mart, where all young men in search of a

wife, and all eligible girls assembled. The nautch, or dance, was a very discreet shuffle, the

girls in a circle in the middle moving in one direction, and an outer circle of young men

shuffling in the opposite direction, all to the strains of a phoo-phoo band and drums. All

were dressed in their very best, the young men moving horsehair flywhisks, the girls very

demure with downcast eyes, looking delightful, and wearing all the family jewelry, which

consisted of large coral bead chains round their necks, ear-rings and nose-rings, with a

good deal of gold leaf decoration. And of course the girls who had the most jewelry had a

flying start over the others. They invariably wore velvet blouses in rich, pure colours under

their chuddars, which must have been very hot for such prolonged activity, but each girl

had a thick wad of newspaper under each armpit, which you were not supposed to notice,

as the girls kept their arms straight down, all the time. By the end of the day the nautch

broke up into smaller circles, and by nightfall no doubt every couple had been suited.

There were lovely places to go for picnics, which we very often achieved on

Sundays, and long rides through the hills, which a great many people enjoyed for paper

chases, though we were generally pedestrians, loaded with baskets and kettles for our

Sunday picnic. And these were always outings that were a wonderful break in the normal

routine, and getting away from it all, which was about the only respite in the week's work

which the father of the house got. The rest of us led a much easier life than he did."

Miss Thatcher:- “Now, can you tell me something about your daily life in Shillong? What

time did you get up in the morning?"

Mrs. Mullan:- "Well, we were fairly early risers. Luckily for us the early morning tea

was brought to us at about half past six, and Ayah arrived, smiling, with orange juice for the


Miss Thatcher:- "And she had been sleeping where?"

Mrs. Mullan:- "At home; in her own home. She went home and spent the night at

home with her own family, but she always seemed to arrive absolutely bang on the dot,

though of course we'd had them for the night. Not that they were any trouble, because they

were all good sleepers like their parents, but they had their orange juice, got up and went

for a walk, and the syce brought the pony round, and they took it in turns to go on Boga, the

pony, and once round the polo ground, and then back again in time for breakfast with us.

During the pre-breakfast time, my husband would have done an hour or two in his

daftary as it was called, the office attached to the house, and after breakfast he would be

off to the Secretariat or cutchery, or whatever his job happened to be, and was there for the

rest of the day. He did come home for lunch, but that was a very loose arrangement as far

as he was concerned, because he never was punctually there at one, and I used to always

have lunch straight away at one, with the children.

The morning went for me mostly in confabulations with the cook, all the delightful

parts of housekeeping like counting the linen, and doing the flowers, and all the things that

are the niceties that people do now when they have time, but at eleven o’clock the Ayah

had three hours off, always, it was absolutely the thing. She had her own family to look

after. Oh yes, you see, she had her own children. Luckily for her, there was always a good

supply of grandmothers and aunts, who coped with her family because they were single

parent households. All those Khasi women coped with their families without much help from

the husbands, who were a pretty nebulous quantity at the best of times. And so she was off

back to, quite a long distance, to her own little house and had three hours off from eleven

till two, during which time I just about managed to cope with my offspring unaided. I gave

them their lunch, and then everybody had a little rest after lunch, and then as soon as it got

cooler it would be another little walk, and another little ride, and perhaps I might cajole my

husband up for a game of tennis, at the Club, or I might go on my own, and have a game

with somebody else. And the children had their tea rather late, a sort of high tea at about

five, and I was always back for that because that was the big moment - we had great

musical games with a piano, and singing, and reading, and my husband used to turn up

when he could. And we were not very great Club people - in fact our going out in the

evening was generally going out to dinner once the family had been bedded down, and it

was about the only time of the day they saw their father really. And as they got bigger,

great gambling games. There was a wonderful game called 'Sorry' which they loved, and

that used to cause great excitement. And as they got older he used to coach Eileen with

her Latin, and at a later date, when we had Ann, we took an English Governess out with us

for the last few years of the girls’ time in India. They did their lessons on the PNEU

programme, which worked out very well because they certainly got plenty of individual

attention and seemed to get into the right classes when they were left at home at school

eventually and didn't seem to be backward at all. And they led a very simple, rather

Victorian life you see, there was none of this telly or wireless, no wireless: we had an old

gramophone that you had to wind up, and we had the piano, and a great deal of singing

and playing the piano, and singing games; and when we had our Governess, we had a very

nice dancing class every week, which she ran at the Club, and all the small fry of Shillong

came to the dancing class, and it was great fun really."

Miss Thatcher:- “What was the Club like, because I think people today think of them as

the height of sophistication, rather like Hurlingham, but actually it was just a little Club

house where people fore-gathered wasn't it?"

Mrs. Mullan:- "Well, actually the Shillong Club was quite an imposing building, with a

big ballroom. I mean it was really quite a big Club, and a place that big social events could

be held in at the time of the Puja holidays, and that sort of thing. But then as a contrast

you'd have a tiny Club in a small district station in the Plains, where you might have a

billiard table in one room, and a bar, a few bridge tables in another room, and a few

apathetic ladies sitting round looking at last month's 'Queen', and scratching themselves

because the mosquitoes were having a go at them, and begging their husbands to take

them home. No, they varied very much.

Of course, some of the Plains Clubs centred very much round games and, of course,

polo was the tremendous thing amongst the tea planters. Oh yes, they all played polo and

in fact every young tea planter had a polo pony. They had very small pay when they first

came out, but they had certain perquisites, a free house and things like that, and the polo

pony was pretty well essential, and they got a free syce to look after the pony and fodder

and that sort of thing.

But the actual long term object of this was to form the Assam Valley Light Horse,

and in the case of the SurmaValley, the Surma Valley Light Horse, which was a reserved

force of young tea planters who were there in case of emergency. And in point of fact my

husband had to call on them on one occasion, in Jorhat, when he was Deputy

Commissioner of Jorhat. The local armed police went on strike and a very nasty situation

arose in which they mutinied. And these armed police were not local chaps, they were

actually the descendants of the original Pandays who mutinied in the Mutiny in 1857. They

were people recruited from Bihar and they were the same type of people. They were

difficult to handle but had to be imported because the local Assamese was a very peaceful

person, and not at all anxious to shoulder arms for anybody: and these armed police had to

be relied on. Well in this particular instance, I don't remember what their grievance was, but

they did mutiny. I happened to have just left Jorhat, with the children, to go up to Shillong in

the hot weather for a month or so, so I managed to evade that issue because I think all the

women were put together in a kind of safe custody spot in the cutchery, while the armed

police were dealt with. And my husband had to call on the Assam Valley Light Horse, who

were all the planters in the area, and they came together very rapidly, very efficiently, and

the armed police were disarmed without any bloodshed. And my husband got specially

commended by the Government for the affair, and also he made a particular point of

recommending for special commendation a very young Superintendent of police, who had

only really joined the force and done awfully well. His name was Burbage and he was a

very stout young man and did very well subsequently. And that all simmered down and all

these Pandays were bundled off, and, I can't remember, I presume they were stood down

because they were thoroughly unreliable, they couldn't go on with that lot. But it did show

how very necessary the A.V.L.H., as they called themselves, the Assam Valley Light Horse.

And so this polo playing was just a spare time way of using their horses which they needed

for military purposes very occasionally. I mean, I can't remember any other occasion in all

our time in which they were ever called out."

Miss Thatcher:- “What happened in the war? Did they form a corps at all in the war?"

Mrs. Mullan:- 'Well I wasn't in Assam during the war so I wouldn't like to be too

dogmatic, but I fancy a great many of the younger tea planters joined the ordinary

regiments, joined up in the ordinary way you see, and possibly a very heavy burden was

placed on the older men, as happened in every walk of life during the war."

Miss Thatcher:- "I was wondering, could you say something, perhaps, about the

contacts you had with Indians. Did you meet them socially on an equal level at all?"

Mrs. Mullen:- "Oh yes. Very much so. I mean we had a lot of very good friends

because, of course, at that stage the Services were being Indianised, you see, and I can

think of three or four on the Cadre in Assam who were members of the Indian Civil Service,

and they were educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and that sort of thing, and they were

very sophisticated, and lived in a European way."

Miss Thatcher:- "Did their wives live in a European way'?"

Mrs. Mullan:- "Oh yes, indeed. But there were degrees. I mean, then you'd find

others who the wives hadn't advanced quite so far, and it was more of an effort for them to

meet one on a sort of natural level, socially, though they liked to be asked to tea and to

bring their children and that sort of thing."

Miss Thatcher:- "Well I always thought they were extremely brave in this because they

hadn't been educated, like their husbands."

Mrs. Mullan:- "No, it was a very big step for them because an Indian woman is

naturally shy and retiring, and I remember in my very early days, going to purdah tea


Well they came to an end fairly soon because strict purdah was not enforced for

very long after I got to India, but I distinctly remember purdah tea parties in which I, and a

few other European women were asked, you see, and we had to try and make

conversation with all these young women, and older women, all in one room, all gazing at

you, fingering your clothes to see whether it was silk or cotton, asking you how many sons

you had. And that was a little embarrassing when you were only just married, you see. And

then they'd bring in the refreshments, and you were plied with all sorts of sticky cakes and

things, And when I'd been to one or two of these things I began to get rather clued up on

what to do. I used to take a grease-proof paper bag, and put it as a lining into my handbag,

and every half-eaten sweet, or cake, or sticky thing that I simply couldn't get through, I

popped it into my bag, you see, because you never could say no. If they asked you to have

something, you could never say no: it was bad manners, you see. And they kept on plying

you until you nearly… in the end you had to say, 'Well, I must be excused: I have to go

home', you see, and it was bad manners to ever refuse anything."

Miss Thatcher:- "But they didn't mind you popping it in your bag?"

Mrs. Mullan:- "Oh no, no, no. I had to do that very surreptitiously, and when the bag

got too full, it was time to go, you see. But the only male was the husband, you see, who

occasionally popped in anxiously to see how things were going. And he was probably

entertaining my husband, and a few other men outside, to tea, and they were having their

sticky time with the sticky cakes, you see."