February 11, 2014 | 4 Comments | Betsy Woodman
At our house in New Delhi, during the 1950s and early 1960s, our head bearer (major domo), Pratap Singh, ran the show.
Pratap came to us on our first night in Delhi. My travel-weary parents were already on the job and had to go to a formal reception; the hostess told them that she’d send someone over to mind me, Lee, and Jane, then aged eight, six, and two.
Come evening, there was a knock on our hotel room door, and there stood a mild-looking Nepalese man in a high-necked jacket. My parents introduced him to the three of us children, and off they went.
It was around Easter time, and Pratap came equipped with a wad of cotton and some toothpicks. These he made into bunnies and chicks. Then he drew us pages of elephants and horses and told us stories beginning “in the days of old.”
By the time the grown-ups got back, the three of us were totally sold on Pratap and I guess it didn’t take much of a job interview to win over my parents, either.
At our house, Pratap waited on table, drove the car, and gave orders to the rest of the staff (which included cook, second bearer, ayah (nursemaid), washerman, gardener, night watchman, and sweeper. He kept the accounts of food purchases and a log of dinner and luncheon guests–one year they totaled over 900. He got to be revered in diplomatic circles; it seems that he mixed a superlative gimlet.
Theoretically, he was not in charge of us kids, but actually, he was a much more stable figure in the household than the ayahs, who tended to come and go. “Eat your vegetables,” he would tell us, “they are full of vitamins from A to Zed.” He taught Jane and Deb to ride bikes, and me to drive a car. On our birthdays, he found the street performers to come by and entertain us.
He had been through about six years of school, and was literate in Hindi, English, and Nepali. On his days off, he read, fasted, and prayed, combining his own Hinduism with elements from other religions.
He loved animals, and had a pet mongoose that he walked on a leash around the garden, scaring away the snakes.
Like Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey, he even made hiring decisions. My parents learned early on to stay out of the process of selecting someone new; an ayah they hired on their own didn’t work out, and Pratap’s demeanor suggested “I told you so.”
Here he is reading to Jane; his protective and nurturing nature shines through.