Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Illegal and inhumane: A rescued child domestic worker.

They sweep, they swab, they wash, they cook, they take care of our children and our pets, they look after our elderly. We see them every day. Yet they are invisible. Yes, millions of women, men and children — India’s large force of domest ic workers, or “servants” as most people call them — remain unseen, undervalued and denied rights that all workers deserve.

This is a subject to which we are forced to return every now and then. Sometimes it is a tragedy that forces us to think. Sometimes a positive development. In June 2006, when 10-year-old Sonu was sadistically tortured and killed by her employers in Mumbai, the invisible world of the domestic worker, and especially of the child worker, lay exposed in all its brutality. With the New Year, the possibility of changing the conditions of work and life of such people comes in the form of the Maharashtra Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Bill that was passed by both houses of the legislature during the recently concluded winter session. Although the law has many shortcomings, it is important because it recognises the rights of these “invisible” workers.

Beyond legislation

Of course, laws alone cannot deal with a problem that constantly plays hide and seek. For decades, groups like the National Domestic Workers’ Movement have campaigned for recognition of domestic work as a form of labour. The diligence and persistence of such groups has resulted in some States initiating legislation. For instance, both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have included domestic workers in the legal provisions for minimum wage. Tamil Nadu has included domestic work in the Manual Labour Act and in January 2007 set up the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board. Kerala has taken some steps in this direction, as have Bihar and Rajasthan. The Central government has included domestic workers in provisions under the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act that was passed in January last year. And now Maharashtra has passed its own law.

Most labour laws face the challenge of implementation but amongst the most difficult must surely be the ones linked to domestic work. To begin with, there are no clear statistics of the number of people working as paid labour in people’s homes. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “A domestic worker is someone who carries out household work in a private household in return for wages.” The estimated number of domestic workers in India is 90 million but this is probably an underestimate as there has been no systematic study to document such workers throughout the country.

From the data that exists, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of domestic workers are women and girls. There has been considerable documentation of the abuse young girls, in particular, suffer at the hands of their employers. Sonu’s was not an exceptional story. It was just a reminder of what goes on behind many closed doors.

An estimated 20 per cent of domestic workers are children below 14 years of age. Under child labour laws, these children should not be employed. Yet those who do employ them, get around the law by claiming that they are “looking after” these children when in fact it is the children who look after them, usually with little or no pay. Such child workers slip between the cracks of labour laws as most laws cover workers over the age of 18. The Maharashtra law, for instance, addresses domestic workers between the ages of 18 and 60 who are now eligible to register themselves at district welfare boards. But what happens to those under 18?

Laws are necessary but those relating to domestic workers can only be effective if there is a change of attitude in the people who employ them. Do employers of domestics even know what the minimum wage is? Do they care? How will they be penalised if they refuse to pay? Can domestic workers ever be strong enough to refuse to work in a labour surplus market like ours? Every day, changes in the economy and developmental policies are pushing more people into domestic work. With extended families being replaced by nuclear families, there is increasing demand for domestic workers. This ought to push up wages. But simultaneously, the increasing number of infrastructure projects and industries are displacing millions of people, particularly from tribal areas. These are the women, especially, who are now joining the growing force of domestic workers in our cities.

Ground realities

Slavery would be considered a harsh term by most Indians who employ domestic workers but the reality is that even today in many homes, the domestics — especially those who work full time — are often no better than slaves. They are usually in debt to their employers and work their whole lives to pay off the debt. Generations work to pay off the debt. And it never really ever gets paid off. They are on call 24 hours of the day, 365 days in the year. And they can never ever dream of freeing themselves from such bondage. How can laws intervene in such situations?

Ultimately, things can and will change only if those who employ domestics accept that these workers are first of all “workers” and not “servants”. That they are individuals with rights like any other person. That they should be paid a fair wage. That they deserve time off. That they too have families to care for. That they should not lose wages when they fall sick. That they are valued human beings without whom our lives would be impossible.

Such a change of attitude cannot be legislated.


Rahul is a perfect example of being in constant motion: running, jumping, talking, fidgeting, never a still moment … it’s difficult to hold his attention. As you speak, within seconds, he’ll break eye contact and you’re left talking to the air.

“So what? He’ll grow out of it,” say many. The problem is Rahul is 12 years old. A stream of complaints — restless, distracted, lack of concentration, disturbing other children — has seen him move schools in quick succession. A family friend, who works with special children, suggested that Rahul be evaluated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) but the diagnosis has to be made by a psychiatrist. “How can I take him to a psychiatrist?” asks his mother Radhika.

Take 17-year-old Nisha. For years, she struggled with lessons, spending hours where others needed only minutes. No amount of effort seemed to get her any closer to that holy grail of our education system — the marks. Lazy, stupid, not enough effort… were some of the milder epithets hurled her way till, three years ago, a new teacher gently suggested evaluation for dyslexia. Bingo! “The relief of knowing it was not my fault was enormous,” smiles Nisha, now facing her board exams with less trepidation than before.

“Both common enough cases,” sighs Dr. Mohan Raj, Chennai-based consultant psychiatrist. “And it highlights two crucial issues in dealing with such problems: one, the need to sensitise teachers. Two, accept that the child has a problem.”

These sentiments seem to echo across the country. Dr. Jacob Puliyel, consultant paediatrician at New Delhi’s St. Stephen’s Hospital, points out that even kindergarten has become “a high pressure” zone. “Teachers scold and ridicule children who don’t score marks instead of focusing on what they are good at. Result: the child ends up with poor self-esteem and oppositional behaviour.”

Both cannot emphasise enough the need for early identification. And agree that the first line of defence is teachers.

Teachers’ views

Do the teachers agree? Ekta Malhotra from Sanskriti School, New Delhi; Sudha Rangarajan, a teacher at Carmel Convent, New Delhi; Girija Varma, a Bangalore-based Montessori teacher and special educator; and Lalita Srimurthy, a counsellor who runs a pre-nursery school in Bangalore accept that conclusion but point out that very few actually know enough to spot the problem.

“Some teachers are sensitive almost instinctively, says Ekta, “but you need a special educator to handle these children.” Sudha remembers how a 6-7 year old was made to stand outside the class every day and beaten. “Teachers don’t know what to look for,” she says.

Girija, however, feels that awareness may have increased but “not to the extent that immediate assistance can be provided. These children are dealt with strictly or disciplined.”

Gayatri Kiran, a Bangalore-based psychologist, finds “almost all “naughtiness” is termed ADHD and serious ADHD is termed “lazy-stubborn” combination. I think it is part of the teachers’ job and duty to screen children. They require only keen and patient observation (and a positive mindset/attitude).” The consensus here is for training the teachers to identify early the signs of both ADHD and dyslexia.

In the case of children with ADHD, one can’t help wondering if the paediatrician can help in early diagnosis. The doctors agree that it is possible if the paediatrician is aware of such problems and secondly sees the child more regularly. But Gayatri feels it might work with severe cases but “teachers would be a better first screening for LD and, to an extent, ADHD. Paediatricians could watch out for and make the family aware of developmental social/language/cognitive and motor milestones so that at-risk children can be identified and early intervention provided. Proper referral after identification is a must.” Once the identification is made, the parents’ reaction is crucial. Often it is denial or not knowing what exactly is wrong.

“We thought Attention Deficit meant deficit of attention from our side,” say Nikhil and Maya sheepishly. So they lavished attention on their son, compounding the problem with a spoilt kid, till matters were explained. Dr. Puliyel also stresses that guilt is not a factor here. “These are not caused by faulty upbringing,” he says.

Parents’ reactions

In general, says Lalita, teachers have trouble convincing the parents that “their child may have a problem. Parents are critical of the teacher/school and sometimes change the child’s school a couple of times before coming to terms with the problem” , an issue that Sudha also raises.

Agrees Aparna Singh, counsellor at Carmel Convent, New Delhi, “The main job begins after identification. Often parents too need counselling about handling the children, the use of behaviour-modification techniques. Participative activities where parents and child are involved help.”

But it is an uphill task. Where ADHD is involved, severe cases require medication and Dr. Pulieyl admits “we doctors do tend to medicalise problems excessively and use drugs more often than they are absolutely required.” But there are times when there is no other option, says Dr. Mohan Raj, though he too admits that “the concern over medication is genuine.”

While medication can help control hyperactivity, the child will also need counselling and therapy appropriate for him/her like occupational therapy, behaviour modification therapy, special tutoring.

This is crucial because ADHD carries over into adulthood.In most cases, though not in all, hyperactivity may reduce but the attention deficit component has to be dealt with. Also, ADHD can overlap with other problems like oppositional or conduct disorders, learning disabilities, anxiety or mood disorder. So the need for a specialist diagnosis cannot be over emphasised.

With dyslexia the only way out is remedial training and the sooner it begins the better. “If the problem is caught or diagnosed early and remedial treatment started the child in later years can easily merge into the mainstream without much difficulty or stigma.”

“Sometimes I feel my schedule revolves around my child’s,” says Prema who quit her banking job and moved house so that she could take her son around to his various classes. When pressed she admits to regret for her own dreams but “what else can I do?” she asks. “If my husband quits to care for the child, can you imagine the consequences?”

Caring for a child with ADHD can be stressful and Dr. Mohan Raj emphasises the importance of not over-reacting. “Some mothers get too involved and shut out the siblings and even the father. That can cause resentment and trouble in the family.”

The other issue involved is visiting a psychiatrist/psychologist. The stigma of mental illness hangs over the children. and concerns for the future often stray into social realms. Expressing the attitude of the teachers and doctors, Gayatri doesn’t mince words. “I think it is a matter of priorities: is temporary stigma preferable to lifelong difficulties and inefficiencies? After all, if your child needed to visit a Urologist regularly you wouldn’t hesitate, would you?” she asks forcefully.

But that’s not enough to convince hesitant parents. Radhika shudders, “What would people say if they knew I was taking Rahul to a psychiatrist?” Aparna has a sensible solution. “Don’t tell the world,” she says matter-of-factly. “Just the immediate family.”

Battle in the family

But sometimes even that’s battle enough. “Both my parents and my in-laws had major issues with the fact that we chose to consult a psychiatrist for Abhishek,” says Priya. Home was more like a battlefield since both sets of grandparents were involved in caring for the child. Priya’s response was to quit her job and take over her child’s care. The next salvo was to organise a joint sitting for the grandparents with the psychiatrist. “It’s not all hunky dory yet,” smiles Priya “but they’re definitely more tolerant of the idea now.”

If this doesn’t work, Gayatri is firm that “lines may need to be drawn with the clear understanding that this is for the child’s benefit and no other reason.”

Ask them what else can be done to help these children and a pretty much unanimous answer is “reform of our education system”. “Our system is a total no for any kid not just children with problems,” says Sudha firmly. Lalita also says, “The emphasis on exams and marks certainly exacerbates the problem. These children know much more and are far more intelligent than what they can express on paper or in a written exam.” Schools now offer special privileges but many parents are either unaware of or unwilling to opt for these; the latter because they don’t want it to be known that their child has a problem.

“I wonder how many kids went undiagnosed or were labelled and punished in the past,” muses Dr. Mohan Raj, “because ADHD is hereditary. If you look back carefully, you’ll probably see where it comes from


Only marks matter: What about perseverance and hard work?

As her 12th standard Board exam looms ahead, Indu awakens at night in a cold sweat. Though sleep-deprived, she is unable to fall into a restful sleep. During the day, she is jittery and unable to focus on her studies. Tension pervades her entire house. Her younger brother cannot call friends home as they might disturb Indu.

Her mother religiously wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to ensure that Indu has not slept through the alarm. Even her dad’s T.V. time is rationed, lest Indu is tempted. Her mother’s watchful gaze shadows Indu’s every movement: Why is she taking so long for a bath? Why does Indu get up to answer the phone? Why is she wasting time chatting with the tutor?

The atmosphere at school does little to alleviate Indu’s anxiety. Between mock exams and revision tests, students are chastised about their poor performance. Frenzied, frenetic friends shuttle between school and various tuition classes and have little time for each other. A teacher even threatens students that if they score below 60 per cent on the mock exam, they will not be allowed to appear for the Boards. Not surprisingly, Indu believes that the Std. XII exam is the be-all and end-all of life.

A do well-or-die scenario is thrust on adolescents, who are just beginning to make a foray into our competitive world. Not only are students repeatedly told that failure is the end of the road, but are also made to believe that anything less than 90 per cent is “just not good enough”.

No second chance

While it is natural to feel some amount of stress during exams; the intensity of fear that throttles students in India is alarming. Various cultural forces compel us to pressurise children. Foremost, as a culture, we are generally unforgiving of failure. One reason why Board exams assume a larger-than-life status is that children are made to believe that there are no second chances. This mindset that we have to succeed in the first shot pervades our educational system right from kindergarten.

Students are seldom given a second chance when they do poorly. The rigidity of our educational system is a reflection of our inflexible standards. If a child does not make the cut-off of 95 per cent, her lifelong passion of becoming a doctor may be thwarted. Admission criteria usually involve fixed scores — the Boards and possibly admission tests. The rest of the child’s academic history is paid scant regard. Colleges do not value extracurricular activities and focus solely on academic achievement. Attributes like perseverance and tenacity for hard work are not necessarily prized by educators.

Learning process

Another cultural trend, deeply embedded in our educational system, is a preoccupation with results without laying any emphasis on the process. Time and again, children are told that the only thing that matters is marks. The educational establishment does not question if children are actually learning while getting marks.

Consequently, students show little interest in learning something that is not in the syllabus. The most valuable lesson of a good education — acquiring the ability to learn for the sake of learning — is, unfortunately, not imparted to our children.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, describes two types of mindsets with which we might approach any task. The fixed mindset views abilities or qualities as entrenched within an individual, and, thereby, fixed or determined for life. In contrast, the growth mindset involves viewing various abilities and qualities as mutable based on experience and effort. In India, parents and educators tend to subscribe to the fixed mindset. We view attributes like intelligence and athleticism as inherent. When a student does well, she is complimented for her intelligence. However, if the child fails, he is made to feel dejected that he is a “no-good”. People with the fixed mindset overplay talent and downplay effort. In contrast, those with the growth mindset value perseverance and hard work.

Appreciate effort

According to Dweck, it is possible for people to change their mindsets. Parents and educators should appreciate effort and improvement rather than bestow praise for sheer talent. Instead of rewarding success with comments like “You are so talented”, we need to reward the effort that children put in. Likewise, when a child fails to do well, we need to motivate him to try harder the next time. Dweck also noticed that children who are praised for their abilities as opposed to effort shy away from challenging tasks for fear of failure. Thus, we need to shift the locus of attribution so that students feel empowered to learn from failure. People with the growth mindset do not necessarily see failure as a permanent setback; rather, they embrace the lessons gleaned from it.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology, rightly says that it is not failure per se that is damaging, but rather our interpretation of it. By elevating Board exams as the pinnacle of a child’s school career, we view poor performance on them as catastrophic. Parents and educators need to ‘de-catastrophise’ this perception so that children see failure as a temporary setback and continue to persevere despite the odds.

Spirit of enquiry

We also need to point out to children that the journey is as, if not more, important than the destination. Schools and families should foster a spirit of enquiry that is not based solely on outcomes or what other people think. It is our obsession with outcomes that drives students to cheat on exams. What starts as a minor peccadillo on a school test may grow into a criminal offence if left unchecked.

Following the Enron scandal, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker on the “talent myth” that gripped corporate America. Besotted by the talent pool that corporations were attracting, they begun to see themselves as indispensable. Individuals with prestigious degrees were paid enormous sums for their ‘talent’. This culture pushed people into the fixed mindset. So what do such people do when times get tough and their image jeopardiaed? According to Gladwell, “They will not take the remedial course. They will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie.” These words could just as well apply to the Satyam fiasco.

There are no shortcuts to success. Seligman says, “Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good”. As scores of students across the country appear for their Boards in March, parents and teachers may temper fraught nerves with positive, flexible mindsets.



Non-negotiable: The right to choose what to do with one’ s life or time cannot be hijacked in the name of religion or tradition.

The attack by the Sri Rama Sene on five women in a Mangalore pub on January 24 was an assault not just on those five but on all Indian women. And on Indian society. And on Indian “culture”, however we might choose to define it.

Since that widely televised crime, that has been repeatedly aired, showing men in saffron pulling women’s hair, pushing them to the ground and openly molesting them without a trace of fear, a great deal of anger, frustration and outrage has been expressed by women’s groups and others. We have also witnessed the meekness with which even ostensibly “liberal” politicians quake when “Indian culture” comes into the picture. Note the strange responses from people like Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, for instance.

The attack on the women at the Mangalore pub is not the first such incident. It has been preceded by many others, in and around Mangalore, in Karnataka, and in the rest of the country. What we need to think about is what these incidents say about our society, our systems of governance and our politics.

Collective responsibility

Why is the burden of upholding “tradition” and “cultural values” placed exclusively on the shoulders of women, young or old? Do men and their behaviour have nothing to do with the degradation of “culture”? And what exactly is this “Hindu” or “Indian” culture that the men from the Sri Rama Sene claim to protect? Is it Indian culture to publicly thrash and molest women? Is it Indian culture to kill women — and the men they choose to marry — if they are from a different caste or community? Is it Indian culture to torture and kill women who fail to produce the desired amount of dowry? Is it Indian culture to gang rape Dalit women who dare to challenge regressive traditions like child marriage? Indeed, is it Indian culture to sit back and accept that mothers will die during childbirth without feeling a sense of outrage at the inequity in our society?

If we wanted to find reasons for so-called “moral outrage”, there are plenty. But “pub culture”? Boys and girls going out together? Public displays of affection? Even Valentine’s Day? In any case, what is “pub culture”? Is it a disapproval of alcohol being served in public places? Or is it only about women?

The real reason for such an attack, and previous attacks, is that outfits like the Sri Rama Sene have no understanding or commitment to anything that could be understood as “culture”. They represent a primitive patriarchal mindset that is all about control — particularly over women. At a time when more women in India are getting educated, becoming economically independent and gaining the confidence to make their own choices — a process that has extended now to even smaller towns and cities — our own version of the Taliban feels emasculated. They have lost control.

So how should they assert it? By making a public and violent display of intolerance. The founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, Pravin Valke, a 40-year-old school dropout, is quoted in a newspaper (Indian Express, February 3, 2009) saying, “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chappatis? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”.

In that quote you have a clear explanation of the mindset of these men who speak in the name of culture. Women should stay at home and make chappatis while men can go out and drink, rape and molest women, cheat, murder or do whatever they wish. Thereby our “culture” will be preserved!

The Sri Rama Sene is a fringe element. But lurking under the skin of many men, irrespective of caste or community, is a similar view of what women should and should not do. Men fear women’s autonomy, for, it challenges their power. And they fear women’s sexuality even more. Hence, the desire of fundamentalists of all types to control women’s sexuality.

With the changes taking place in Indian society, both economic and social, we are likely to see more such Senas claiming to speak in the name of “culture” — Hindu, Indian or even regional, such as Raj Thackeray’s grand plan to preserve “Marathi” culture. Their tactics are identical — plan an attack on people who cannot hit back, take a television camera crew with you, and use the media to amplify your message. To quote Valke again, “You think the boys didn’t know what they were getting into? They did it in broad daylight, before TV cameras. Don’t you think every girl will now think twice about entering a pub? The strategy was a success.”

But the Mangalore incident, as well as the repeated actions of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, also raises crucial questions about governance. Why are governments standing by and watching? In Karnataka, the BJP government will not oppose its own brothers-in-arms. It is on the back of these extreme groups that the party has steadily consolidated its base, particularly in South Karnataka. But what about the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra? Why is it sitting on its hands? After the November 26 terror attack on Mumbai, people wanted the government to take tough measures to deal with terror. But should we not equally demand that it deal with such localised terror?

Paralysed system

Mangalore also exposes our politics and politicians. Barring a few honourable exceptions, if you scratch any of our politicians, you will find underneath a deeply conservative person who quakes at the thought of offending anyone’s “cultural” sensibilities and the resulting loss of political support. Even non-saffron parties now fear being seen as promoting so-called “Western” culture and do not dare emphasise the rights of citizens in a democratic society. The Sangh Parivar does not rule all of India, but its cultural agenda seems to have succeeded.

This is an important juncture for Indian politics and society. If the autonomy and freedom that development and education have gifted millions of Indian women are snatched away by outfits like the Sri Rama Sene, who would like to push them back into the four walls of domesticity, then the purpose of such developmental efforts will be entirely negated. Women’s status is in many ways a litmus test of the maturity of a society. This is an issue that must concern all those who believe in democracy and secularism, and the fundamental right of all Indian citizens to free choice and expression.


Towards the end of World War II, there was a real probability of Japanese air raids and Delhi was under strict blackout. A sharp whistle from the street would send us scurrying to check the curtains.

When we arrived on a fine spring day in 1943, Luteyn’s New Delhi was a revelation. Built to commemorate the British Empire, it was a poem of symmetry and sovereignity. The wide boulevards and avenues lined with flowering trees were interlinked by roundabouts of greenery. Built in sandstone on the site of seven fallen cities, it was meant to last forever. As the jewel in the crown, the British kept it immaculate.

My husband had been loaned by his firm to the Government for the war’s duration. Our first accommodation was in Western Court, a temporary shelter for civil and defence officers. I still remember its large rooms, standard government furniture and terrible cuisine. The war was in full swing. New Delhi was crammed to capacity.

Soon we were desperate for a place of our own. The food didn’t suit our little son and he was clearly unhappy. Then someone in my husband’s office hesitantly offered to rent a part of his house in Karol Bagh. We went to look. It was new, small and seemed all right. The rooms were tiny, the kitchen a disaster. Maria and I looked in dismay. Sitting on a low school and cooking with firewood had not been my vision of life in New Delhi. Parsi girls were usually sent to cooking and sewing classes after finishing school.

Weeping into the wood smoke, I thought viciously of the sunrise puddings and cheese souffl├ęs I had wasted my time on. If only they had taught us basic meals, I wouldn’t have felt so helpless now. Maria took over and we ate from her limited repertoire. Fiery Goan cuisine was forbidden.


At last we were allotted a small bungalow on Keeling Road within easy distance of Connaught Place. A little front garden, two bedrooms and a kitchen separate from the house. Then miles of wasted space at the back before reaching the servants’ quarters. If we needed someone we trudged this length before getting within hailing distance. No tenant had installed a bell because government bungalows were never considered home. A couple of years’ stay, then the next posting. The furniture was standard Government issue. Wives made curtains and cushions to make it habitable. However to us, after Karol Bagh, Keeling Road seemed like heaven.

One evening my husband mentioned casually that he had engaged two servants and had interviewed them in the office. I was suspicious. Right so, as it turned out.

The duo came punctually next morning. I stared in shock and awe. The bearer was a burly Pathan, loose pyjamas, embroidered zari jacket and distinctive cap. The cook was a handsome Moradabadi with a gorgeous complexion. Both were over six feet tall. I was appalled at the thought of being in charge of these worldly giants. They would make rings round me.

The bearer didn’t last long. His body odour was so pungent that we tried to stop breathing when he was near. Poor man, he must have lost many jobs for no fault of his own.

The cook requested an oven to be made for his kitchen. We were unprepared for the culinary masterpieces that he produced in his iron tandoor. He was such an excellent cook that even left-overs tasted fabulous. We had few friends, seldom entertained and the cook lamented that his superb cooking was wasted on just us two. I wondered why he stayed. Perhaps free lodgings for half of Moradabad may have been one reason.

New Delhi was lovely in winter. The bracing cold, flowering gardens and parks, proximity of Connaught Place and Janpath brought everyone out in the sun. The different uniforms of the Commonwealth troops and their enjoyment of the brief R&R made the strolls more interesting. One gained an idea of India’s immense diversity while lingering among the pavement sellers: Plump smiling Tibetan women selling prayer wheels, scrolls and turquoise jewellery, Kashmiri’s extolling beautiful embroidered shawls, bronze idols from the South, handicrafts from the north-east – all dressed in their regional best.

I chatted with a Banjara woman whose mirror-work embroidered costume and heavy silver jewellery were strikingly colourful. Towards the end, she demanded two rupees. I asked, “What for?” She answered, “That’s my charge for a photograph.” But I didn’t have a camera. “That doesn’t matter. I talked to you, didn’t I?” I laughed and paid up.

The evenings were very different. The strict blackout forced an early exodus homewards. Streetlights were so dim as to be useless. Car headlights were screened and it took hours to find an unfamiliar neighbourhood. We found this out to our cost when, one evening, we decided to drop in at a friend’s house. When we finally located the place and slowed down before the closed iron gates, two sentries sprang out from the shadows, their bayonets glinting. “Have you an appointment?” We said no and beat a hasty retreat.

After that we spent most evenings listening to All India Radio, BBC and VOA. What the government omitted was sure to be found on other channels. Nothing but bad news. Apart from the war, pre-partition riots were springing up everywhere. With their forces and resources diverted east, the British were hard put to control the country. The Treasury was empty. They could no longer afford an Empire. What had been unthinkable so far, Indian Independence, was now under real consideration.

One momentous day, the world electrified by the shock of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans. The Japanese surrendered and suddenly the war was over. There was a rush to go home. Within a short time we were back in Calcutta trying to pick up the thread of our normal lives.