European and Indian Barbers and the Refined Culture of Indian Letter-Writing

In the fourth part of this series, we see Dr. Francis' minute observations on mundane things like waking up, the Hindu attitude to farming, efficiency of Hindu barbers, and the cultured art of letter-writing in India.
European and Indian Barbers and the Refined Culture of Indian Letter-Writing

In this series

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European and Indian Barbers and the Refined Culture of Indian Letter-Writing
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European and Indian Barbers and the Refined Culture of Indian Letter-Writing
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European and Indian Barbers and the Refined Culture of Indian Letter-Writing

Habits and Customs

In India, if a woman is ashamed of having committed some social impropriety, she puts out her tongue which, with us, is usually protruded only for the inspection of the doctor. A man thus guilty, seizes the lobe of one of his ears, stands only on one leg like a stork, and cries, taubah, taubah (forgive, forgive).

Khuda Jaane

We are apt to be angry when the only reply received to a question Khuda Jaane (God only knows); or hum ko kya malum (how should I know?). But the Englishman’s shrug of the shoulder is equally unsatisfactory.

Pedal Dexterity

Manual work is mostly done by Western nations with the hands; hence the name. Indians find the feet almost as useful: witness the dexterity of the darzee (native tailor) any day in one's own verandah.


The English farm-labourer whistles cheerfully when going to his daily labour. The Hindu never whistles, but, as he sows his seed, invokes the Almighty, his rulers, and the money-lender.

Uncomfortably seated

Untraveled Indians are never quite comfortable when seated on chairs. And, when the sitting is prolonged as in the case of a Munshi or Pundit—the latter particularly—giving a lesson to a European, there is a tendency, after a time to draw the legs up and bring the feet on to the seat. This is especially more if an insect should have crawled up from the floor on to the teacher's dress. With reference to this possibility, it has been proposed to isolate the tender hearted man, who instead of killing it would gently deport the creature on to the floor, on a, chair with glass legs!


The English barber lathers his customer's face freely with soap. The Indian barber uses none, except when his European customer particularly wishes it. Western civilization calls for every new variety of shaving soap in sticks and tubes with high-sounding names, whilst the unassuming Hindu operator is content with cold water. His results will bear favourable comparison with those of his European' confrère. His razors are always sharp, and he is never in a hurry. Both possess an abundance of local information; but the Hindu barber, from the nature of his position unless encouraged, imparts it with less readiness.

Dyeing Hair

English people dye the hair brown or black, or some modification of these colours. The Indian prefers a reddish tint, obtained from Mehendi (Lawsonia Intermis).

Woman's Position

In countries, where woman occupies her proper position in society, it is "Place aux dames." In India it is hat jao, farq (get out of the way).


Indians do not, when they meet, slap each other on the back, or give facetious pokes in the ribs, however intimate they may be. Nor would they appreciate such boisterous acts of familiarity on the part of Europeans towards themselves. As observed, their salutations are less exciting being limited to Ram Ram, or Bam Bam Mahadev, for Hindus, and Salam Aleikum for Muhammedans.

Letter Writing

Great importance is attached amongst the upper classes to the preparation of a letter, which, written sometimes on paper bespangled with specks of gold leaf and couched in terms of the most fulsome flattery, is carefully enclosed in a silk bag and sealed with a broad seal. Bishop Heber thought that this resembles that of a University diploma. Such, letters are despatched by private hand. With the gradual introduction of Western Customs, it is probable that this system of letter writing will, in course of time, become obsolete.

Personal Civilities

The amenities of social, and home life are understood, and practiced by Indians—e.g., rising on the entry of a guest, showing kindness to strangers, and reverence to the elders, of their own family. A native will not smoke in the presence of his own father or of older members of the household.


This is the Indian mode of dunning. A creditor in England sends in his bill, and, as a rule, patiently awaits the debtor's convenience –merely forwarding an occasional reminder before resorting to the ulterior measure of taking legal proceedings.

But, in India, not only a creditor but anyone who insists upon a demand being complied with, or who desires a grievance to be redressed, sits before his neighbour's door to die, if need be. This he does either by fasting, by stabbing himself with a dagger, or by poison, unless he gets what he wants. The practice is now confined for the most part, to mendicants, who sometimes prove exceedingly troublesome, threatening to undergo torture, or to starve, or to gash themselves with knives, unless their demands for alms are acceded to. To get rid of them, those demands are usually complied with.

Europeans are seldom annoyed in this way. But some years ago, an obnoxious house-tax being imposed by the local Government, about 300,000 persons shut up their shops, ceased work of every description, and sat in dharna on the plain surrounding Benares, intending to remain so till their grievance was redressed. The obnoxious tax was finally repealed, and the people at once returned to their work.


When passing through a Hindu village, the traveller may see pennant-like rags of various colours (usually red or white) hanging from the branches of a large tree, commonly the Pipal over the village idol. He sees also, on temple walls, on the city gate, or on house-fronts, both in town and country, red finger-marks, commemorative-tokens of a Sati thereabouts performed; and consequently held in high esteem by the people.


There are certain practices common amongst Indians which, not by any means viewed as disrespectful or rude amongst themselves, are so considered by Europeans if indulged in in their presence.

Of these practices, the most conspicuous are spitting, chewing, and what is euphemistically known as happy returns [burping]. Should an Englishman be so unfortunate as to be overcome by the last, he would, probably apologise for the accident. Not so the Indian who, on the contrary, would regard the act with complacency and satisfaction. He may even take it as a compliment to his host should he be dining out! Europeans should not, therefore, be offended at this practice.

The first (spitting), a recognised habit in America, is a breach of etiquette in society in England, except in smoking-rooms, where vessels, are provided for the purpose. The act being liable to misconception, is sometimes done to signify contempt. It should be avoided in a mixed society of Englishmen and Indians. The caution is not unnecessary as serious Consequences may sometimes ensue from disregarding it. A case was tried in Calcutta some years ago where a European considered himself insulted by a Babu spitting on a mat (in the verandah) on which they were both standing. The Babu was acquitted, as no intention to insult could be proved.

Chewing being a decided breach of European etiquette, native gentlemen should be careful not to indulge in it in English society. . Europeans have no objection to smoking with Indians.

To be continued

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