by Jane Haggis
By the end of that first day on board the Conte Rosso, squidged into a tiny second class cabin with three previously unknown women, hungry for the lack of vegetarian options at meals, tired and a little dispirited, Mrs Kuttan Nair wrote:
‘As I retired to my cabin, I was too listless to listen to the story of a “fiend” that stalked the corridors in the form of a steward peeping into the cabins making faces at and frightening, the girls. … I went to sleep.’
The next day, she awoke feeling brighter and cheered by the much improved fare for the ‘four grasseaters’ in the group, and the courteousness of the Italian crew which ‘soon made us feel at home on the steamer’. Later in her account of that day however, she notes that ‘the incessant complaints from our neighbours (other women on the tour) about the strange steward who went about frightening them, did disturb us a bit’. Mrs Kuttan Nair, married and around 27 years old at the time, notes most of the group were young women ‘who had not, till then, stirred far beyond their homes and they seemed to be really upset in spite of our assurances that they were as safe as if they were at home’.
I had to read that sentence twice. What? I am a twenty first century feminist reader, immersed in the #MeToo campaign on social media. How is a strange man making frightening faces at young women through the door of their sleeping quarters ‘safe’? especially when the man is an employee of the ship, charged with serving them as guests. Look at the photo below, a second-class cabin was tiny and any face peeping around the door would loom large to the young women inside. Before I could think too much about this, the writer returned to the issue with more detail.
I was in the cabin lying on my berth reading Lalaji’s Unhappy India when something like a scream and the sound of loud voices from the adjacent room, roused me up. I almost threw down my book and jumping down from my bed rushed out. Well, there stood the much-talked-of individual surrounded by my friends, trying to scare him with threats and warnings of a fearful kind. He seemed to have been caught red-handed in his usual game of making grimaces at members of the ‘weaker’ sex on the boat.
Mrs Kuttan Nair thought it best to join the group ‘while the culprit stood listening to us with a calmness that amounted to stoic indifference’. When the girls paused in their remonstrances, the steward, in a form of broken English that stretched their powers of comprehension, ‘delivered a short sermon on the necessity of young women developing the indispensable virtue of courage and a better understanding of human nature. Then without any apology or any expression of injured feelings, he solemnly marched out of the room, leaving us thoroughly baffled.’
The story gets curiouser and curiouser however, at least for this feminist reader. Not long after the earlier incident, the same steward entered the author’s room, uninvited and unannounced, to ask where they were landing in Italy. ‘Then without further invitation from us, he immediately started expiating on the beauties of his motherland, indifferent whether we listened to him or not’. In a segue I find odd, Mrs. Kuttan Nair responds with what she refers to as a ‘sudden idea’ and asks him if he has seen Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy. ‘The effect was magical. The round face with a decided squint in the eye lost its philosophic (sic) calmness. It became all animation.’ Thence followed a brief conversation about the various virtues of Mussolini on his part and their mutual admiration of Gandhi, whose secretary Mahadev Desai, he had met on a previous voyage. Mahadev Desai was Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary and a notable Indian Independence activist in his own right.
By now, the steward has a name, Mario. Mario turns his attention to analysing the problem with India as having too many religions, unlike Italy “all Catholics – no trouble.” Mrs Kuttan Nair makes a tart response, asking him about the Fascist regime’s treatment of Socialists. The conversation ends with a ‘fervent request’ from Mario and another surprising response:
‘“Please tell the girls, miss, not frighten – I no bad. I same, you same – no fear,” and of course we felt rather small in the presence of the chivalrous young Fascist with his exalted notions of the ‘sameness’ of life.’
Mario and his antics disappear from the narrative with the observation that he ‘is now quite a popular figure amongst us. He knows we trust him and even the younger girls treat him as a human being. His hands are full, yet … he finds time to assume the role of teacher towards us’, including imparting some Italian to them. She concludes by noting that it is only occasionally they surprise him ‘sipping a rather suspicious-looking liquid, but then, he is too gentlemanly not to turn round and politely add, “Only rum, miss, very good for Malaria”’.
What captures my attention about this shipboard anecdote is the lack of surprise, urgency, dismay or anger conveyed by Mrs Kuttan Nair about the steward’s behaviour. Neither her friends nor her seem to have reported his behaviour to their tour leader, Mrs Datta, or to the shipboard officers. Was this seen as ordinary male behaviour, even by someone equivalent to a servant in terms of his role, and therefore barely worth complaining about? Did the fact that he was a European and they were newcomers to shipboard life, inflect Mrs Kuttan Nair’s account of the women’s responses? On the other hand, these young women were not passive in the face of the steward’s frightening behaviour. As she records, the women encircle the man ‘trying to scare him with threats and warnings of a fearful kind’. So, is Mrs Kuttan Nair’s way of casting the anecdote a reflection of how the women dealt with men behaving badly? The story certainly suggests these women were no pushovers!
So far this is the only account of Mario the steward I have unearthed. I dream of someone emailing me about the stash of letters they have of their great-great aunt or grandmother’s trip to Europe on the Conte Rosso in 1935 ….