Miss Watts and the little pink piglet

Miss Watts and the little pink piglet

Miss Watts was our English Governess.

She had been first appointed as Royal Governess, when she must have been in her very early twenties, to my grandmother and then to my mother and aunt. When I first knew her she was probably in her late fifties, but she didn’t look her age. Her pale magnolia complexion was as flawless as that of a young girl. Despite her rather intimidating first names— Dorothia Henriett— Miss Watts was as lovely a person as she was to look at.

I used to eagerly await her arrival, twice a week at Satelmond Palace. I was six years old . My two younger siblings were deemed not old enough to be burdened with an extra language, as we already had a tutor who was referred to as “Aasaan”, who taught Sanskrit. I had heavier learning to do than my two sisters, aged four and three respectively.

I was fascinated with English purely because the teacher was the most fascinating individual I had ever encountered until then.

She was tall and extremely good to look at, with her honey brown hair in a roll at the nape of her neck, according to the fashion of the 20s— from which she never deviated— her amber eyes and her lovely smile. She always wore flowery dresses which fell below her knees, and elegant, pointed shoes. There was the enticing fragrance of old English lavender about her.

I found it extremely interesting to learn my lessons from a person like her. Hence I avidly lapped up every word she uttered.

Miss Watts, impressed with my abilities, extolled my “extraordinary“ grasping capacities to my grandmother, who was, of course, extremely pleased. Neither knew that it was not my own ingenuous learning skills that made me my teacher’s excellent student but her enchanting personality! I was so wrapt in attention I never forgot a single thing she taught.

Miss Watts had had a great many admirers among the nobles, dignitaries and officers of the time, but she had never married and never accepted any advances from her numerous would-be beaux.

What was the most wonderful thing was the blank notebooks and beautifully sharpened pencils she brought! I loved them passionately, and, even to this day, a blank sheet of paper has an undying fascination for me, sending me into sheer ecstasy. So much so that I always preserve sheafs of A4 sheets, together with blank pages cut out from behind large envelopes that come by post! Alluring surfaces for scribbling and writing whenever fancy dictates.

Our studies with Aasaan were on slates, using slate pencils. This was my first sight of notebooks!

Within the close confinement of the palace, always under supervision, one of the things to look forward to was the daily walk at precisely 4 p.m. around the front portion of the sprawling, 35-acre palace premise, accompanied by maids and pattakkaars— footmen — in their white liveries with red turbans and dazzling silver paraphernalia, signifying our emblem, covering their chest.

The most exciting thing was to break through the entourage when we reached the gates, and cause the guards stationed there to present arms and blow their bugles, which they had to do each time at the sight of us! While my sisters revelled in this sport, my most exciting thing was my session with Miss DH Watts.

My birthday was a week away, when Miss Watts told me, in a conspiratorial whisper, and a twinkle in her eye, “I have a surprise for your birthday!”

I was so excited I couldn’t sleep until the day arrived.

She always arrived exactly on time, but this time she came a quarter of an hour earlier, at precisely 3.45 p.m.

I was waiting for her with bated breath, in my grandmother’s private drawing room, seated prim and proper, in a tall, carved, ornate period chair, wearing a printed frock, barefooted but with heavy gold padasarams around my ankles.

I jumped up from my seat and ran forward to greet her. She instantly gauged I was “dying” for the “surprise”.

“Happy Birthday,” she said, with her charming smile, and extended towards me a basket which she carried.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I responded, dutifully, itching to grab it, but holding back unless given, as protocol demanded.

“You may take what is inside,” smiled Miss Watts.

I did exactly that.

What was inside was a container made of palm fronds woven together, the sort that holds ripe mangoes. I hid my disappointment. Was that all? A bag of mangoes?

Miss Watts sensed my fallen hopes. She quickly put the basket down , took out the palm frond bag and gave it to me.

“Isn’t it heavy?” she twinkled, “You must not open it here. Do it when you are by yourself.”

I took it from her and made my way to the back stairs, where there was a space below the steps— our secret hiding place.

I ordered my maids, who had run behind me, in my best grandmother-like authoritarian manner, to stay away until called. They daren’t disobey me, at the same time they couldn’t flout their duty, which was to be always in attendance, so they hovered nearby.

The bag was bound on top. I pulled at the strings and opened it.

Lo and behold! Within was the sweetest, most endearing tiny pink live pig you can ever imagine! I took it up in a frenzy of delight. I loved it!

Miss Watts had known how much I loved the story of the Three Little Pigs which she had taught. How well she had guessed my mind!

I started up at the shrieks of my maids who had seen the little piglet.

The next step was inevitable!

Grandmother was informed that there was a pig in the palace!

A pig in a poke, yes, but a pig in a palace? Outrageous!

I refused to let go of the pig.

Grandmother soon appeared, august, elegant, beautiful.

“You cannot keep a pig here, kunje,” she said.

“Oh, but I will take care it won’t run around, Ammoomma,” I protested, “I will be very careful to keep it in place.”

“I’m afraid that would be impossible,” grandmother remarked, firmly, “it would be impossible to ever keep a pig in place!”

Grandmother had never denied me anything before this. I realised how much this ruling hurt her. I could see it in her wonderful eyes— the lotus eyes of the iconic beauties painted by her own grandfather Raja Ravi Varma. I simply couldn’t disappoint her. Even though the little pig was to me the best gift I had ever received in my young life, far more desirable than all the new jewellery and new clothes I was presented with, I finally allowed it to be removed from the palace.

I didn’t have to shed tears for long, for a concession was made. A large wired enclosure was made for the little pig outside, near the main gates, where other similar enclosures housed a variety of fauna — bear cubs, peacocks, deer, white rabbits, even little leopard cubs—all brought home from the forests, a veritable private zoo made by my grandfather, each time he returned from his hunting expeditions.

These forays into the forests were always at the requests of tribals and villagers who had trekked miles from their homes in the hills and jungles to seek grandpa’s help in hunting down man-eating big cats and rogue elephants that were plaguing their lands.

Grandmother hated the idea of keeping caged animals, but grandpa had them at a safe distance.

Now the pig joined them!

I would visit it every day with a pot full of edibles.

It soon grew quite big.

One day, Aasaan was on his way to the inner closed terrace on the second floor of the West Wing of the Palace, where we had our lessons. He always looked at his feet while he walked, mumbling bits of Sanskrit, talking to himself gesturing with his hands which he flayed wildly above his head as he went through points of grammar as he moved along. We used to watch him from above, when he came within our sight past the inner gates, giggling at his quirky behaviour and his funny appearance. He wore a dhoti and had an untidy kudumi to the right side of his head. His torso was bare as was the custom, except for an angavastram over one shoulder.

As he furiously mumbled and gestured to himself, he went past the enclosures. He suddenly tensed, sensing he was being watched. He stopped in his tracks, turned sharply to his right— and there was the pig staring at him through the wire fence.

He dropped the books he was carrying, yelled as if all hell had broken loose, and ran for his life, towards the gate.

The guards asked him what was the matter, and he gasped, “The palace is infested with bhootha pretha pisachis!” and hastened away.

Of course, we laughed uncontrollably when the maids recounted this to us.

But it was no laughing matter for granny, since Aasaan could not be persuaded to enter the palace premises. He had not thought much of the other “recognisable” animals in their enclosures, but a pig was just too much for his strict orthodox upbringing!

And soon it turned out to be no laughing matter for us too, for Grandmother ordered that all the confined animals be handed over to the State zoo.

Rukmini Varma

Rukmini Varma is a leading Indian artist who paints in the classical tradition.