Taking on the cook

Taking on the cook

It happened in Munnar in the 1960s, when many Britishers still managed tea-plantations. Memsahib was at her wit’s end trying to figure out how eggs were being filched from her pantry.  She kept a careful watch on the domestic helpers but to no avail.  Finally, one daylight dawned and she confronted her cook. “When did your turban become a nest?” she snapped sarcastically. “I just found three eggs in it!”

This was typical of the battle of wits played out in many tea planters’ households in those days – with a sometimes unscrupulous domestic trying to fleece his employers and the memsahib determined to nip any ‘sleight-of-hand’ in the bud.

Lacking entertainment in the remote tea estates, servants were often tempted to switch on their employers’ radio when the latter was away – something strictly forbidden. One cook, however, didn’t quite reckon with the memsahib’s astuteness. On being asked whether he had switched on the radio in her absence, he promptly denied having done so. “Then how come the radio’s quite warm?” she retorted.

Quite inevitably, some domestics became Scotch-fanciers – which, of course, explained why liquor levels in the sahib’s bottles sometimes dropped inexplicably.

When buttonholed, one cook blithely explained away the mystery, attributing it to the bottle not having been properly corked by the sahib and the consequent evaporation! 

One Sunday morning, a young, newly-recruited Scottish planter lazed in bed, listening with pleasurable anticipation to the sizzling sounds of ‘dosais’ being baked in the kitchen.  At breakfast, however, he was dismayed to find only four on the table. “I counted no less than eight sizzling sounds this morning,” he chided the cook. “Where are the remaining ‘dosais”? The cook was bewildered initially, then light dawned and he explained painstakingly that it took two sizzles to make one ‘dosai’ – the first when the batter was poured out and the second when it’s turned over.   The youngster’s sheepish but contrite simper made adequate amends for his faux pas.

Communication was often a stumbling block. Another freshly recruited Brit returned home dog-tired and told his cook, “Get me a cuppa.”  Thirty minutes later the tea hadn’t come, so he bawled out the cook who soon appeared, beaming, with a plate of steaming tapioca, explaining apologetically that he had to get it from the bazaar. The young Brit then learnt, to his consternation, that ‘cuppa’ also meant tapioca in Tamil!

Yet, for all their shortcomings, domestics were an indispensable necessity in Munnar’s former British households. For the Brit needed his Man Friday-cum- scapegoat, as much as he did his cuppa and ‘chota’ peg!