‘For the longest time I thought Her Ladyship was overbearing’

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Illustrations: Mayanglambam Dinesh

The 1960s and the ’70s had been time machines for me. From England, my native land, to Canada was a leap forward. And then I found myself in Nepal, my husband’s native land, where I realised finally that I should have packed my grandma’s old appliances and brought them with me.

I remember receiving what became my favourite heating appliance. My children would often feel cold and their grandmother presented them with a heater that dated back to her husband’s grandfather-in-law. It had been stored in the vast attic or dhukuti. It had two lightbulbs, each inside a long glass tube, and glowed when switched on and that was all.

“It’s not a heater,” the children moaned. “Yes it is,” I said, “It’s a psychological heater.”

Our home was in a rambling mansion of 60 rooms, designed like a Swiss chalet almost, a far cry from apartment living. Our ‘quarters’ ran down one side of the central courtyard.

It was here I discovered who I was or who I had become in crossing the ‘black waters’.

A young girl had been assigned to look after our domestic needs. She entertained the kids no end and they could soon speak Nepali fluently whereas I struggled learning the language thanks to the only grammar book I have ever owned. It actually had a chapter called ‘Lo the Postilion was struck by Lightening’. It had been given to my father-in-law by a colleague who was a British Gorkha officer. The book may have been useful to my father-in-law at some point, but it was difficult to glean the kind of vocabulary I needed from it. And so I bought a couple of grammar books that taught Nepali through the Devnagari script. This was bound to be a slow process because my other languages were all romance languages, but I laboured on and used the army book as far as I thought suitable.

Meanwhile, the kids spent copious amounts of their day playing new games with Didi. It seemed by then that all the tasks my mother-in-law had decreed that Didi should help me with could not be undertaken because there was this woman, ‘Her Ladyship’, who had always ordered her to do so many things — from the laundry to helping to clean our wing of the house, to getting the kids off to their new school in time — that it was impossible to get anything done within a single day. Soon, I began to nurture a strong dislike for this pompous, imperious, overbearing ladyship. She was lenient about storytelling and games of hide and seek, I was told, but drew a line when any real housework was needed. Understanding Didi’s predicament, I slogged on as best as I could; after all, never let it be said a Yorkshirewoman was daunted by elbow grease!

And then came the day when I finally lost my cool. On requesting that Didi carry out a simple ‘go and bring’ task, she murmured something about Her Ladyship ordering a plethora of tasks. For once, I burst out in my stumbling Nepali: “That’s not fair, that’s too much for one person. When are you going to do the work I need done? Show me this ladyship and I’ll tell her she has no right to give you so many orders.”

Didi was amazed. And then she laughed.

“Don’t get hysterical. I won’t let her scold you,” I said. More giggles followed.

“Come, show me to Her Ladyship!”

Almost choking from the exhaustion of her own laughter, Didi gestured towards me. Impatient now with all this dithering around, I boomed at her:

“Look, come on. Who is this Ladyship?”

“ But huzoor, it’s you!”

A bully or a fool, I’m still not sure what exactly I was even 40 years later.

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