Alois: Purdah

A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge

The Friedel Chronicles
9 min readMar 23, 2021

Purdah. Behind this short word lies a large part of oriental morality and way of thinking, which often leaves for us Europeans a great puzzle, which we are not able to solve with our way of thinking.

‘Purdah’ is the shutting off of women from public life, as is customary among some Hindu castes, but especially among the Mohammedans. The woman’s realm is the home, not the street, and only close relatives are allowed to see the woman’s face without a veil. One finds ‘Ladies waiting rooms’ at railway stations to which no man is admitted; and there are separate ‘purdah’ compartments with thick shutters on every Indian railway train.

Although I had been in India for some time, I had never come into contact with this branch of Indian life, though the closely veiled women I had seen in the streets of Bombay and Ahmednagar had become a familiar sight to me.

During my conversations with Dr Winzer, which were sometimes attended by other doctors, we also talked about this subject, and I regretted never having had the opportunity to see this side of India. “None of us white people will ever get to see it in its entirety,” Dr Winzer said thoughtfully. “But every now and then we doctors are allowed a little glimpse of the ‘purdah’.”

“How?” I asked eagerly. “Very simple,” laughed Dr Winzer, “some of the local potentates prefer the help of a Western doctor to that of their countrymen and come to us when it is necessary. Of course, their progressiveness never goes so far as to let us into their wives’ or women’s rooms, when they are ill. But at least this way you get to know the family’s living conditions from the outside.”

“But if someone is ill, you have to examine them,” I objected. “You can’t make a remote diagnosis, can you?”

“Yes, it is exactly like that,” Dr Winzer explained to my astonishment. “I sit in the drawing room with the master of the house and talk to him for a good while. We drink coffee or tea and smoke. You know that in the East, good manners forbid you to come straight to the point.”

“When we have satisfied social decorum in this way, the master of the house explains to me at length that his wife, mother or sister is ill. Usually he goes on to explain where she is in pain, if any ailments are present, and expects me to make a diagnosis immediately and prescribe the necessary medicine.”

“But that’s impossible,” I objected. Dr Winzer smiled and lit a cigarette. “Sometimes it is,” he said, blowing out the smoke in a blue cloud. “There are cases where you know immediately what’s wrong. But most of the time I have to have additional information about the nature of the complaint. Then I ask the man about it, he goes into the patient’s room, makes inquiries, and brings me the answer. Sometimes I have to ask seven or eight questions before it’s reasonably clear, and the poor man walks several kilometres as a messenger between the salon and the patient’s room.”

“And then you have a clear picture?” Dr Winzer shook his head. “By no means always. Sometimes the symptoms of illness are misrepresented, some are concealed, because they are judged to impinge on their honour. Often thorough laboratory tests are necessary; but tradition and religious taboos are still stronger than practical thinking.”

I shook my head. “But there are always young generations growing up who have attended schools and universities and for that reason alone should be smarter than their parents and grandparents.”

“Yes, they should be,” Dr Winzer said, “but in many cases they are not. You see,” he continued, “for us Europeans it is a matter of course that children seek their own way as adults and master their own fate. Here in the Orient, however, the millennia-old principle of patriarchal rule still applies. The larger family, including uncles, aunts and cousins, are all absolutely subordinate to the head of the family and follows his orders without protest, even if it runs against their own convictions. Under this male head of the family, the eldest woman is the unrestricted and usually quite despotic ruler over its female members. You should know that with this unrestricted respect for the views and attitudes of those at the top, no progress can ever come about. I know a young Indian doctor whose clear, modern attitude to life I greatly appreciate. But his wife, like her sisters from less educated families, lives in strict purdah. I once confronted him, and he told me that he would like to grant his wife the same freedoms as women of the West enjoy; but he must bow to the will of the family elders.”

You can imagine that after these little glimpses of ‘purdah’ I was eager to experience it for myself and took Dr Winzer up on his promise to allow me to accompany him or one of the other doctors on a visit to a wealthy Indian home.

The opportunity arose a few weeks later, not through Dr Winzer, but through our dentist, Dr Hull. The mother of a Muslim councillor of Ahmednagar was suffering from toothache, and he was called to relieve her of it. In order not to attract any unwelcome attention, I was to accompany him as his assistant.

The patient’s house was an older, rambling sandstone building on the outskirts of the city. A servant in a white dhoti (long wraparound for the lower body), a collarless shirt, and a wide, fire-red sash, led us into the drawing room. We sat down at an uncomfortably small table with a white marble top and gilded feet, high-backed armchairs, and waited for the patient. At first not a soul was to be seen, with the exception of the butler, who served us a cup of tea, and a lowly domestic servant who squatted silently in a corner on the floor, pulling on a long rope that kept the fans on the ceiling, two large, heavy velvet vanes, in constant motion.

The room, with its ostentatious furniture made of gilded wood and red fabric, and the semi-darkness created by lattice blinds, created a subdued, uncomfortable atmosphere, heightened by the mute person pulling on the cord, and the soft squeaking of the ceiling fans. After finishing my tea, I went to one of the windows and looked out onto the unpaved street, which was garish yellow in the bright sunlight.

A one-horse gharry (two-wheeled cart) came towards the house at a leisurely trot and finally stopped in front of a side gate. Normally, these little carriages are open, just a frame on wheels, with seating for the coachman and for one or two passengers. But this one had a small superstructure, the sides of which were covered with black curtains, so that the passengers could not be seen.

“Aha, now our patient seems to be coming,” said Dr Hull, who had stepped up beside me, unnoticed, and was also looking out through a gap in the blinds.

The coachman got off his seat and called out something into the house. A little later four servants appeared, stretching two long linen sheets from the carriage to the door, holding them with their heads turned away. After less than a minute they folded the sheets again and went back into the house. The coachman got back on his seat and drove away, probably to the stable. The curtain was now drawn back, and gave us a glimpse of the cushion-lined interior of the carriage. But the passengers were no longer there. They had exited and walked behind the sheets into the house, safe from the view of all present.

The toothache must certainly be stronger than the tradition of the ‘purdah’, I thought to myself as I went back into the room and sat down in my armchair. For dental treatment one can ill appear veiled, or hidden behind a sheet. I don’t know what made me so eager to see the face of this particular woman. After all, there were a large number of Hindu women in Ahmednagar who did not go around veiled. However, I think it was the cherries in my neighbour’s garden that lured me. Precisely because no stranger ever got to see the ‘purdah’ women, I was pleased that one of them had to come out from behind her veils in obedience to necessity.

The first sign that the treatment could start was given by the entrance of the master of the house. He was a Muslim, about 30 years old, and wore a short beard shaved off at the cheeks.

After the greeting, tea was drunk again and for ten minutes we exchanged the meaningless, formal pleasantries of which the Orient is so rich. Only when this ritual was satisfied did the master of the house declare that treatment could now begin. He went to fetch his mother.

But before he reappeared on the scene with her, two servants came and stretched a sheet in front of one of the doors leading into the drawing room. After a while, you could hear soft whispering behind this curtain and see, from some movement, that people were gathering behind it. Finally the master of the house stepped out from behind the drape and declared that they were now ready.

I was still expecting the patient to appear, but I had no time to ask questions, for Dr Hull and I were busy taking the instruments out of the case and arranging them on a tray.

“Take the tray and hold it for me while I treat,” the doctor whispered softly to me. “That way you can see everything closely without your immediate presence arousing suspicion.”

I nodded silently and walked behind Dr Hull, who was now moved towards the covered door where the householder stood waiting. When we got there, I saw that the Muslim master was holding a large pair of scissors. Wordlessly, he cut a round hole, about ten cm in diameter, in the fabric.

“Which tooth is it?” asked Dr Hull, looking at the hole. Approaching curiously, I looked through the hole in the fabric directly into an open mouth, its tooth stock already abundantly depleated. A brown finger passed from the side into the narrow field of vision and pointed to a molar that had a large brown spot.

Dr Hull took an instrument from the tray I was holding and tapped on the tooth. A soft cry and an instinctive closing of the mouth revealed that it was indeed the culprit.

“Injection,” said Dr Hull, taking a small vial from the tray and filing off the tip. “It would be good if you went to your mother and held her head,” he said to the householder. When the latter had followed this request, he administered the anaesthetic injection and, after waiting for a while, he pulled out the aching tooth. With that, in passing, the dental treatment was completed.

“Well, did you expect anything like this?”, Dr Hull asked me on our way home again. “I think this sheet solution came as a bit of a surprise to you.”

“Frankly, yes,” I replied. “Couldn’t you have filled the tooth?” And a sudden thought occurred to me. “I was wondering when you unpacked your instruments that you didn’t have a drill with you.”

Dr Hull smiled. “Can you imagine drilling out and filling a tooth through a hole barely the size of a hand? I certainly can’t. Either the women get sensible treatment, or they have to resign themselves to having any damaged tooth pulled out immediately. There is no middle ground.” “It seems that every tradition has its victims,” I said, closing the topic.

A short time later we approached the hospital. Noisy cheerfulness greeted us from afar. Dr Hull scowled, and when he saw the sergeant of the guard and a couple of orderlies in the guardroom emptying a bottle of whisky in broad daylight, a holy thunderstorm seemed to be on the horizon. But before he could open his mouth to unleash his wrath on the culprits, the chorus of revellers noisily greeted him:

“Have a glass with us. The war is over.”

Alois Friedl biographical stories

  • 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
  • 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
  • 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
  • 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
  • 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
    How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
  • 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
  • 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
    Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.



The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.