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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess – Part 22 The Curious Mystery of the Linguistic Competencies of Ram Dass

Thursday, July 21, 2016 - 21:00

Before I dig into the chapter in which Sara meets Ram Dass, I'd like to talk a bit about one curious inconsistency regarding him.

I presume that the character of Ram Dass in A Little Princess was named after one of the significant early figures in the development of the Sikh religion in the 16th century, Guru Ram Dass. I have no idea whether it is a typical Sikh practice to name children after significant founding figures. It's interesting that the book never identifies him as a Sikh specifically, but rather as a "lascar", which is neither an ethnic nor religious label, but more in the line of a job description. Per Wikipedia, the term lascar applied originally to sailors from India or south-east Asia generally who took service on European ships. But it also came to be used to indicate an Indian servant, especially those employed by British military officers. It is in this latter sense that Ram Dass is identified as a lascar, although the nautical sense is used early in the book as well. Ram Dass is desribed as wearing a turban, which is strongly consistent with identifying him as a Sikh. We may easily presume that he entered Mr. Carrisford's employ in India at some time well previous to the disaster around the diamond mines, and traveled with him to England.

One of the first things we learn about Ram Dass is that he speaks Hindi. (WIkipedia indicates that the primary language associated with the Sikh community is Punjabi, but that Hindi is also spoken.) In fact, later in the book, in the context of his interactions with the Carmichael children, it is noted, "[Ram Dass] could have told any number of stories [about India] if he had been able to speak anything but Hindustani." And when Sara first meets him and speaks to him in Hindi, "[Sara] thought she had never seen more surprise and delight than the dark face expressed when she spoke in the familiar tongue."

So. In that case, when Ram Dass is describing his interaction with Sara to Mr. Carrisford, how does it never come up that the little girl who lives in the attic next door speaks Hindi? Now, it's possible that Ram Dass never mentions this point, and that he describes Sara's circumstances without ever mentioning that they'd had a conversation. But the subject is touched on again when Ram Dass and Mr. Carrisford's secretary are surveying Sara's attic in preparation for redecorating it as a surprise. Ram Dass mentions that he spies on Sara sometimes at night and has heard her describe to her friends her "pretends" about how the attic could be made over into something more comfortable. Presumably Sara wan't speaking Hindi to the other girls!

We can squeak through on plausibility if we make two allowances. First: that Ram Dass--as most multilingual people--has a passive linguistic competency that's larger than his speaking competency. So it's plausible that he could follow what Sara was describing in English but that he wasn't comfortable telling stories in English to the Carmichael children. Secondly: we may presume that Mr. Carrisford's secretary is fluent in Hindi and this is the language in which they are discussing the redecoration of the attic.

But that still leaves us with the puzzle that Ram Dass knows that his employer is searching for a little girl who was born and raised in India, and he knows that the little girl in the attic next door speaks Hindi, and he never thinks to mention this matter. It is, of course, an essential plot element. But this goes beyond Donald Carmichael's observation that if he'd just asked Sara's name when he gave her his Christmas sixpence, then he could have told Mr. Carrisford exactly where Sara Crewe was, the first time Carrisford mentioned who he was searching for. After all, one doesn't typically ask the names of beggar girls. But conversely, running into a servant girl in London who speaks fluent Hindi would seem to be a matter worth mentioning.

Of course, the other option is that I'm looking for logical consistency in an idiot-plot motif.

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Obviously, my usual weekly schedule got hijacked yesterday in favor of the Storybundle announcement. For the next three weeks, you're going to get regular reminders about the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle that Daughter of Mystery is included in. I'll be running some guest-posts on that topic periodically. If you want a sampler of a variety of great stories by fabulous authors (and especially if you like your history a bit on the queer side), check it out!