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THE MAHARAJAH BAHADUR
THE first time I met my friend the Maharajah, he was wearing his blue and green. An ultramarine satin tunic over grass-green silk trousers is a combination which arrests the European eye at any time. In this case it enclosed a little wizen-faced man, with eyes now tending together, then flitting here and there with an abundance of white eyeball. Add a little jewelled satin cap, a drooping black moustache, and pointed yellow-leather shoes: with joyful recognition — Heaven forgive me — I cried, "An illustration of Aladdin!"
I repented of my irreverence later, for he is one of the greatest men in Bengal, which is little, and deserves to be, which is much. He is the largest landowner in the province, and his tax-free rent-roll comes to about a quarter of a million a-year. Elsewhere in India, you must understand, the State is usually the landlord, according to the immemorial custom of the land. But in Bengal, a hundred and six years ago, the Government made what is called the Permanent Settlement — giving over the land to reminders, who, under the Mogul rule, had been hereditary land-agents and tax-collectors. Finding the zemindars collecting rent from the cultivators, it is possible that the Indian Government mistook them for landlords in the European sense; at any rate, they were declared proprietors of the land, subject to a fixed yearly tax, which was never to vary. It never has varied; in the meantime, the population of cultivators has increased vastly, and their industry has reclaimed vast tracts of waste land. All this increment has been swallowed by the zemindars, who have repaid the ryot in many cases by raising his rent and confiscating his land. The average zemindar does no public service in return for the vastly enhanced income which he owes to the security of our rule: he does not even pay income-tax, since in India income-tax and land-tax are never paid together: thus the Bengal zemindar escapes on both counts. On the other side the Government loses revenue which it would otherwise reasonably exact, and the ryot loses everything he has. It is encouraging, in the face of accusations of perfidy, that our Government in India prefers to struggle against deficits when it could easily put its Budget straight by breaking the promise of a century back — an expedient that any other Government there ever was or could be in India would have flown to long ago.
The Maharajah is a zemindar among zemindars — the richest of them all — yet no true zemindar at heart. The ryots of his estate — until a few months back his brother's — instead of having the records of their rights suppressed and destroyed and their fields then let to a higher bidder, have found their landlord always munificent in every public enterprise. The new Maharajah, to complete the inventory of him, has spent a couple of years in the Civil Service for the benefit of his mind, and a couple as a half-naked fakir for that of his soul, is a member of the Viceroy's Legislative Council, and a constant reader of the London newspapers. I mentioned this to a friend as almost incredible. "If he told you so," was the reply, "he does. He always tells the truth, and so did his brother. It's unusual in this country."
To-day he was to be formally invested with the title of Maharajah Bahadur — which means "Lord Great-King" — by the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. His village is comparatively near Calcutta, so that I only had to start the night before. I changed carriages, half-asleep, and the next thing I knew — the Ganges.
The holy Ganges floated great and grey at my feet. Out of the blackness of the west it came naked into the muffled grey of dawn. Except the hare train that had brought me to the ghat and the bare steamer that was to carry me across, I could see nothing but chill yellow shore and sandbank and chill white water. A pilgrim issuing from some little shrine, where he had slept, shivered and shook knee-deep in the stream, and his soaked white drawers clung to him dankly.
When you travel in small countries you generally find that you start and arrive at convenient hours — catch your train after a comfortable breakfast, and get to your destination in easy time for dinner. In a country of the size of India you must take your arrivals and changes as you find them. So that I found the palm-fringed, basking Ganges of my dreams to be a broad, noiseless, colourless flood, which the red ball of the sun hardly awoke to more than the clammy lustre of a dead fish's eye. The seams of sandbank were pale with cold; the shores were only sandbank prolonged to a greater capacity for numb desolation.
But the sun climbed undiscouraged, rent the mists, and began to warm India into life again. The ceaseless caw of crows began to half-soothe, half-madden for another day; the keen smell of dung-fires rose into the lighter air. By the time the melancholy Ganges had sunk into its desert behind us the land was possible for life, and we were puffing briskly through the brilliant tobacco, dark indigo, and pale opium-poppies of Behar. We puffed and puffed, halting or changing now and again, till the astounding sight of five white men in a carriage together hinted that something unusual was afoot. A station or two later, sure enough, appeared arches shouting "Welcome!" and "Long live the Empress!" There was a concourse of servants in maroon and gold liveries, and a great array of dust-clothed natives. From the station the road was marked by green and red flags every ten yards or so, with half-uniformed native policemen standing at attention to guard them. We were plainly there.
As we drove from the station, the crowd became every moment thicker. By the time we swung in under the last of the arches there was a wall of them — a purple or yellow turban here and there, but for the most part an unaffected peasant crowd in the labour-stained white calico of their working days. Their demeanour was respectful but confident, they came very near the apogee of looking glad. And it was evident in a minute that we were on a model estate. The garden we were rolling through was without reproach for order and neatness — perhaps the only native's garden in India that is. Presently we came to the stables: I rubbed my eyes, and asked if this were really untidy India. Solid buildings, speckless cleanness, sound drainage, air everywhere — it was no wonder that coats were like satin, eyes bright, and action free. Here was a scion of the house of Danegelt, English coachers, Arabs, Walers, countrybreds, and scientific crosses — well over a hundred in all. Not that either the late or the present Maharajah is a great sportsman; they are simply needed to do the work of the enormous estate and household.
While we looked, the team was put into the coach and off we went, four-in-hand, to see the grounds. It was not easy to tell their size, for the drives wound in and out, twisting till you could hardly tell whether you had gone a couple of miles or had circled back to your starting-point. In this season they were parched; leaves were pale, and grass almost white. But even so they were cooled to the eye with blue lakes and the shade of swishing trees. They Were tufted with every variety of palm, pillars of grey stem with capitals of green sheath, or the dwarf crowns of fronds that till lately it cost a man's life to smuggle out of Japan. Below them sloped tiers of bushes, green, red, and yellow; below these nestled flowers. It was the East for profusion, the West for trimness.
So we came to a denser crowd before a walled court, and entered; and then looked and blinked. There was a guard of honour of police and half-a-dozen finely mounted sowars in the Maharajah's maroon and gold. There was a Eurasian band in short jackets, white-braided trousers, and little round braided caps stuck on one side — the band from a South Coast pier slightly soiled. But that was nothing. Besides them, standing vacuously or lolling on the grass, were wondrous creatures in the most flaring raiment eyes ever ached to contemplate. Their tunics were of such a green as cold words can never hint at — the colour of green baize fired with a tinge of the hottest yellow. Below they wore orange trousers, and vermilion decorated and inflamed the whole. They bore great fans on long silver poles — fans of yellow and crimson satin, with suns and stars embroidered on them with gold thread and pearls.
Suddenly the Maharajah bounded on to the scene, again in his ultramarine and grass-colour, dashed into the durbar tent, rushed at his guests, his English tumbling over itself in all the excitement of a child on his birthday. Then he sprang into his state carriage, amid a boom of blessing from selected priests, and was away to meet his Honour. I went inside the durbar tent, and gasped again. On a dais stood the Lieutenant-Governor's chair — green velvet back, rose velvet seat, silver frame, gold borders, promiscuous pearls. Before the dais, on the right, was a similar chair for the Maharajah. Behind was another group of baize-and-fire green, orange and vermilion; more fans; also an old gentleman in silver-flowered crimson silk with a bossy silver trumpet-shaped mace as long as himself: he smiled with concentration at nothing, and appeared to have been drinking his new lordship's health. And to round off the silver and gold and pearls, there depended from the roof about forty chandeliers and lamps, cheap green, cheap blue, cheap purple, their wire skeletons askew, short of a drop here and a drop there, insulting the daylight, reminiscent partly of seaside lodgings, partly of the morning after an Oxford wine-party. O India!
The pavilion was already full. There were the European managers of the estate — something like a dozen of them — and the babus of the estate also. Portly gentlemen in spectacles and weak beards, in black or fawn garments, half coats, half shirts, but with clear skins, twinkling eyes, and smiles neither fawning nor patronising — these Behari babus were by far the cleanest men of this class I had seen. And there, especially, were all the Maharajah's rich relations to support him — and his poor relations also, to be supported. They are all Brahmans of the most exclusive sanctity: all wore white turbans of a peculiar shape, with a low peak over the forehead, and all had elaborate designs in white and red paint on their foreheads. All dripped with attar of roses. One tiny, liquid-eyed, small-boned nephew wore Prussian-blue velvet and lemon yellow; his brother at his side, droop-headed like a flower, and dissolving in smiles like a woman, was content with black and a faded Kashmir shawl — again that seaside landlady! — worn something like a bath-towel. Others wore flowered silk — lilac shirt and carmine trousers, both rippling with silver. Behind you could see the headpieces — half crowns, half pastrycooks' caps — of solemn-faced babies. And most gorgeous of all was a very important relation from off the railway line, a big man, speaking nothing but a kind of jungly Hindustani, with a caste-mark as elaborate as a cobweb on a forehead the colour of a pickled walnut, attired in a gown all of white satin and gold and pearls, twitching his leg incessantly on the pivot of a yellow-leather toe, massive, grim, and gorgeous — Mr. Rutland Barrington as Pooh-Bah.
The scrunch of wheels outside, the splutter of the everlasting salute, "God Save the Queen," from the Eurasian band, with one flute playing like a dentist's file! Then the Maharajah for a moment: but he must not be seen at the beginning. Then another carriage, and a rosy, rather chubby, British gentleman in a plain frock-coat with the Star of India. The Lieutenant-Governor bowed his way through bows and salaams to the dais. Then two of his staff walked to the farther door and led back the Maharajah. The little Maharajah — but how resplendent! His rose-silk turban sparkled with bullion and diamonds, and three jewelled aigrettes stood up from it. Over the blue and green he had a mantle of black velvet, richly broidered with white: the white was all pearls. Round his neck was a heavy necklace, with sapphires and topazes and diamonds and emeralds as large as your finger-tip.
He crept rather than walked forward to the dais. The fresh-coloured, bright-eyed Lieutenant-Governor stood up; the Viceroy's patent was read, and then his Honour addressed his Highness in a speech. The Maharajah, so radiant and so tiny, crouched before him; he crushed his handkerchief in his damp hand, and the caste-mark was sweating off his forehead. He looked again like a little boy, not quite sure whether his schoolmaster would call him good or naughty.
It was all over in ten minutes: a shining attendant brought forward attar of roses and beetle-nut in gold vessels, the Governor dispensed a little of each, and the Maharajah was now Maharajah indeed. Then, as all filed out, he slipped off his velvet mantle, for the pearls shower from it so peltingly that he has to be followed by a man with a bag. After that, it was just like a coming-of-age — lunch, which the orthodox Brahman host did not attend, speeches, sports in a meadow so thronged that you could have walked on brown heads. But you seldom see a coming-of-age at home with forty-five elephants in line, swaying their great foreheads under pink and scarlet silk, and flashing back the sun from howdahs of silver and carved ivory.
Yet the sight of all that stuck was the little scented, jewel-crusted atomy perspiring before the gentleman in the plain frock-coat. If the Maharajah came to England he would have all our greatest men and fairest women in a ring round him; St. James's and the Mansion House would compete for his smiles, and Windsor would delight to honour him. When the Lieutenant-Governor comes home, the odds are he will take a little place in the country, and be very poor and not over-healthy; and his neighbours, who will find him rather dull, will say that they have heard he was something in India. The man that was as God to seventy-five million people! And the other that cowered at his feet! Good Lord! what do we know?