The Jewel in the Toast Rack
What is “The British Toast Rack”?
There is a larger, more sweeping, even epic event that The British Toast Rack could symbolize, one that we might envision together this way:
Lots of warm and toasty countries where the air is very hot and balmy.
Toasty places with warm climates like Kenya, where I am from, or the hot and steaming climate of India, where my grandfather was from… all these toasty countries and many more… Toasty Trinidad, Tobago, Tanzania… Zambia, Zimbabwe… all finding themselves unceremoniously inserted within the cold steel dividers of The British Toast Rack of Colonialism.
They just sat there, these toasty countries, and waited… and waited. And waited. As toast patiently waits on a toast rack.
India sat on The British Toast Rack for 300 years. From Kathiawar in the Gulf of Kutch in the state of Gujarat from where my grandfather emigrated to British East Africa… to the shores and beaches and fishermen of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, where Janet Echelman found her inspiration for her art installations.
India sat in the toast rack. What was sitting in The Rack (The Raj) all about? And how could India ever extricate herself from The Rack?
“You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India?” says the British Brigadier.
“Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.” Gandhi replies.
(film script for Gandhi, Richard Attenborough, 1982).
British colonialism was an epic toast rack.
And the warm and hot climate countries that were systematically inserted into the dividers of this epic toast rack were countries like India.
Of course dividers of the British Raj, just as the dividers in a toast rack, were essential. There was the divider for the Hindus and the divider for the Muslims and the divider for the Sikhs and the divider for the Indian Maharajas.
Divide and rule. That is what toast racks do to toast, is it not?
Toast racks determine the destiny of the toast in the rack. The toast fights to keep its warmth and its character, its freshness and its crispness, while the toast rack subjects it to a cold, unrelenting detention.
“With respect, Mr. Gandhi, without British administration, this country would be reduced to chaos,” says Mr. Kinnoch.
“Mr. Kinnoch, I beg you to accept that there is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power,” replies Gandhi.
“My dear sir! India is British. We’re hardly an alien power!” squawks the British Brigadier.
(film script for Gandhi, Richard Attenborough, 1982)
The toast rack detains the toast with a sense of entitlement.
The toast rack is a detention center. The toast will be generously buttered but it will also be gregariously devoured.
It was hard to let go of India, because for the British Empire this glorious India was The Jewel in the Toast Rack. It was the hot buttered scone, the most delicious piece of crumpet, the one upon whom you opened and spread your most prized jam jar of Dundee marmalade and enjoyed with your choicest Darjeeling tea.
The toast rack is a detention center.
And the toast thinks of nothing other than how to get out. To escape, albeit nonviolently.
Millions of Indian workers toasted in the hot sun serving the British Empire.
My grandfather never liked the divide and rule detention of India which was designed to exploit the Indian worker.
He respected Gandhi for protesting this rule with the Quit India campaign. And although he never admitted it openly, my grandfather also had his own little side campaign going:
I call it the “Quit Bone China Cup Campaign.”
It may have just been a storm in a teacup. But it was a storm nonetheless.
My grandfather never liked drinking tea in a British bone china cup. He preferred to drink tea in the earthenware mud cup (fired in a hot village kiln) of the chaiwalla, the servers who served you chai from the train window when the train stopped in a village. If you poured tea into a bone china cup and placed it in front of my grandfather he often simply ignored it. It was his form of a silent protest.
Sometimes, he would deliberately let it get cold.
Instead, he would use the time when the bone china tea cooled to daydream about his youth, when he boarded a train on the Indian Railway and sat next to an old man who shared his wisdom with him…
…Here it was in his face as I sat across from him as a child… the past more present than the present. A present from the past. A present being passed.
The clouds in his expression were clearing and making way.
I could see the emerging radiance, the gentle glow dawn in my grandfather’s countenance. He looked pleased and content and serene.
I could see the lights swiftly switch on, a fiery flickering firmament in his eyes – and a mischievous twinkle.
And now, I could almost imagine the dim and distant chatter, the faint and faded voices of his happy youth…
“Ah! Chaiwalla is coming. Now we can have our morning tea.”
“I didn’t hear anything…”
“…they’ll serve the British sahibs in first class before they get to third class…”
“See! I told you Chaiwalla is coming!”
“Papu, don’t wake up your mummy, let her sleep till chaiwalla brings tea.”
“What do you mean ‘serve the British officers in First Class’? You think they drink tea in First Class from the chaiwalla’s earthenware cup! You two young boys haven’t seen much, hm? They close their train windows when they hear the chaiwalla shouting ‘chai-chai’ on the platform. They don’t like the noise. And they don’t need tea from chaiwalla. They have their tea served from teapots by Indian stewards in white uniforms. Starched white. It’s your first time on a big India Railway train, isn’t it? Otherwise you’d be knowing these things.”
“Yes, Bapu first time.”
“Where you two boys are from?”
“Mahabalipuram. We are going home to train as fisherman you see? But actually the British sahibs they use teapots, is it?”
“Teapots, bhai. Teapots. Bone china teapots and bone china teacups.Haha! You think I’m joking your leg, isn’t it!”
“No, no! Leave your pockets, young man. Let me buy your tea when chaiwalla comes. What village are you from, young man?”
“Jamnaghar. Where are you going? Bombay?”
“I’m going to Africa.”
“I’m sailing from Bombay.”
“Please, old man, you go first. Please…”
“No, no! I’m talking to this young man here. He’s going to Africa! Wawa! You go on, get your tea. We’re in no hurry. We Indians don’t need to hurry. We know we’re coming back to the world. Only the British they hurry, because they are not sure if they’re coming back. Are you in a hurry chaiwalla?”
“I’m in no hurry, Bapu. What is there to hurry for?”
“See! He’s in no hurry. And these two Mahabalipuram boys also they are in no hurry… You have steamship ticket to Africa, young man?”
“No. I’m going to find some work on a steamship so I can go there.”
“You’re a man of big dreams, isn’t it? I had big dreams when I was your age.”
“Sorry Bapu, trainmaster is blowing his whistle. British officers must be in big hurry…”
“No, no! I told you young man! Let me buy the tea.”
“Chaiwalla, how many children you have?”
“Six children, Bapu. Four sons.”
“Then you take these rupees and buy them some thali tonight, eh?”
“Namaste, Bapu. Namaste.”
“…You think I’m rich, don’t you, young man?”
“You must be.”
“Haha! You think a rich man travels third class! I’m not rich, but whatever I have, it is time for me to give it away.”
“Why is it time to give it away?”
“There… Ah!… Wawa! Let those British drink from their bone china. For me there is nothing like chaiwalla’s tea, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s good chai.”
“Sit, sit, old man. Sit, Bapu, you’ll spill your tea, train is moving. Sit. There is plenty of room… we chapies are both going up on the roof now.”
“Sit, young man. Sit next to me, bedtho, bedtho…”
“Papu, let those boys climb on the roof, beta…”
“Mummy can I go with them?”
“Good cup. In this cup you can taste the common earth of India. You can taste life in this cup. In bone china you can’t taste life. The life has been killed. It is for show only. Have you ever drunk from bone china cup, young man?”
“No, does it have bones in it?”
“It has the ashes of bones. They cremate dead bones. That’s how they make their bone china teacups, then paint them with royal crest. There is no soul inside them but they are always dressed nicely. Ah! That was good chai.”
“Let me take your cup, if you’re finished.”
“No young man, I always like to throw it myself. Let’s go to the window…”
“Ai! Papu! Make room so these men see from window, yah? …Namaste.”
“Namaste. Young man, let’s pass this village…. Now. Now I’ll throw my cup. There. There! It’s between that tree and that bush. It will not take long now.”
“For the cup to mix back into the earth. And then, from that, maybe a new bush will grow, or a tree, or a flower… Wawa! See, this is how you finish a cup of tea in India. By seeing that all is life and there is no death. You have to know how to finish a cup of tea. That is the secret. Chaiwalla’s cup is made from brown mud. So it can mix back. A bone china cup is not part of life. If you throw it out of the train window, it is not going to mix into the earth. It can never mix, isn’t it? How it’s going to mix? Cup is white. Earth is brown. Hmm? They came here to drink our tea but they don’t know how to finish. That is why they are still here.”
“I’m going to throw my cup now…”
“Good throw. Ha! You can throw much farther than me! That’s because you are much stronger. You are a strong young man. I’m old and weak.”
“But… but my cup will become part of the earth, just like your cup?”
“Wawa, young man! Wawa! You are understanding. See, in the end it makes no difference, because we all return and come back in time. So don’t hurry your life. Live your life. Don’t forget to live.”
“Shall we go and sit again?”
“Yes, my old legs are tired. Ahh! Good to sit. Next stop, we have another cup of tea, eh? That is how it is. You empty your cup, you throw it away, then you get new cup and you fill it again. I am emptying my cup now. That is why I am giving away all rupees I have left. They are no use to me where I am going. Maybe they will be of use to you, where you are going…”
“Where are you going?”
“Himalayas. I am going to prepare myself to mix back in the earth. I have this old book of Upanishads, that is the only possession I need now. And you, young man? Why you go Africa?”
“I want to open a ration store. They say dukkawallas can make lot of money in Africa.”
“You want to be rich, eh? It is good to be rich as long as you can still mix with the earth. But if you become a bone china cup, you will have nothing in common with the earth… Oh! Here come those two Mahabalipuramboys, back from the roof!”
“We’re coming to next station, Bapu!”
“Good, then I can have another cup of tea…”
“Chaiwalla’s near third class this time…”
“Let me pay this time.”
“No, no! You save your money for your ration store in Africa. Take this money and buy us some tea. Then we’ll discuss the business about your steamship ticket. I want to help you with it…”
“What is it Papu? Why you look scared?”
“Look daddy, British sahibs are coming!”
“He’s right, they’re walking this way…”
“We should have stayed on the roof, yaar? We can see better from up there.”
“It’s too late now. Anyhow, we didn’t know they would get off this stop.”
“Daddy, are they coming to see us?”
“No, Papu, they just will walk by our window. Don’t worry, just keep quiet… better we keep quiet.”
“Why must the boy keep quiet? We don’t need to keep quiet, we haven’t done…”
“Even chaiwalla is keeping quiet.”
“I mean look at it! It’s immaculate. How on earth does your dhobi keep that uniform so starched white?”
“It’s all a matter of the training Toffer. I trained my dhobi to do a proper job.”
“Well, if there’s going to be another world war, which seems rather likely at this point, Sebastian will just have to bring his old dhobi along with him, what?”
“Look at how many suitcases they have!”
“They were talking about that man’s dhobi, isn’t it?”
“If we had stayed on the roof we could still be watching them…”
“…You think there’s going to be a war?”
“Here’s the tea.”
“Look! Chaiwalla has piping hot tea for us.”
“Ngeri! Bring some more teacups. There are only five cups and we have six people for tea. Quickly, Ngeri! Tut-tut… I tell you, you have to train these Africans to do everything these days…”
“Ahh! Good. Hmm… Good tea. Good cup, hmm? Now young man, let us discuss your journey to Africa…”
“…We’ll be flying first to London, to pick up Dilip. He’s at Eton, you know? From London we’re going on to Switzerland. Swissair. First class.”
“Bapu, you’re tea is getting cold.”
“Bapu, you’re tea…His hearing aid isn’t working, Sanjay…just point to the tea… Bapu, the tea…”
“My hearing aid is working fine, thank you!”
“I was just remembering when I was a young boy in India, travelling on a third class train to Bombay from my village town in Jamnaghar. I wanted to come to Africa, but I didn’t even have money for a steamship ticket…”
“…then he met this old man on the train who told him he was going to the Himalayas…”
“…then I met this old man on the train, and he told me he was going to the Himalayas. And he insisted on paying for my steamship ticket…”
“…and that’s how he was able to come here and open his first ration store in the African bush fifty two years ago and build up the business…”
“…and that’s how I was able to come here and open my first ration store in the African bush fifty two years ago and build up the…”
“Bapu. Your tea is getting cold, Bapu.”
“I know. My tea always gets cold. Then afterwards, I ask Ngeri to throw the tea out.”
“But why, Bapu?”
“Because I don’t like the taste of tea in a British bone china cup.”