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THE tents of my host, the landlord of fifty villages, were pitched under a black-green mango-grove. The headman of the next village but one had come into camp to conduct the Presence to see his property — a tall, thin-legged old man with white hair and moustache, wearing only a dust-white shirt and drawers and a little linen band round the middle of his right calf. When he came up he salaamed and salaamed, and then held out a rupee in the palm of his hand. The landlord touched it and salaamed, — the one signifying thereby that all that was his was his lord's, the other that of his bounty he remitted the same.
We plodded off in the happy sunshine, over a switchback track of caked mud and powdered dust, through cornfields pancake-flat for as far as a man could see. With the barley they had sown rape, now in tall, yellow bloom or just making seed. Here and there a grove of trees; now and again a brown-legged, bowing cultivator; all the rest was a canopy of pale-blue sunlight spread over a carpet of full-blooded green shot with gold.
When we came to the tumble of mud-wall and grass thatch, peasants streamed out from every hole! All bore rupees, and hurried, salaaming, to have them touched and remitted: such is the use of India. But as rupees have ever been scarcer than men, you saw one furtively pass the wherewithal for the necessary salutation behind his back to another. They led us with ceremony to the village meeting-place — a fair-sized open portico of sun-dried mud brick, with a yard before it under trees. There two old wicker chairs were set for the sahibs, and the village stared in a semicircle before us. A few white-bearded elders — the ryot does not often live to fifty — many young men, more children, they stood or squatted on their heels after the native mode; not on the ground, understand, but literally on the tendons of their heels. As it was midday, most of them were naked but for a loin-cloth. There was little enough of the rainbow brightness of city costume; a shawl or two had once been red, but most had never been more than white, and were now but a shade whiter than their owners' fields. As the landlord discoursed of crops and rain and canals, fathers held their babies on their hips — the women, of course, were hidden indoors — and it was a little pathetic to contrast the pot-bellies of the children with the skin-and-bone of the men. It is scarce exaggerating to say that every rich native in India is fat: watch him shovelling rice into himself by the handful, and you will agree that it would be a miracle if he were not. Wherefrom you infer that the hundreds of millions of skeletons are lean because they must — because they live from harvest to seed-time and through to harvest again with bellies half empty.
But they are a patient people, the villagers of India; they have been hungry these thirty centuries or so, and it has never occurred to them that they have any claim to be filled. They grumbled a little, to be sure: what tiller of the soil ever did else? They could not get enough water from the Government canal, and the Christmas rains had not fallen; and they were poor men. When, in due course, we went out to inspect everything — from the fields to the cakes of cow-dung fuel that were being stacked and covered up against the rainy season — the landlord observed a broken well, and offered to pay one-half of its repairing if the village would pay the other. They responded with effusion that if the sahib would find bricks and mortar and labour they would do the rest. Yet, though not self-helpful, they remained polite, and desired that their lords Would honour them by drinking a cup of milk. So two little earthen cups were brought, of the material of flower-pots, and into them was poured milk still hot from the udder. Their lords drank; and then the cups were smashed to earth. They were useless now: the man of meanest caste would never drink out of a cup that had been polluted by white lips. Water was brought, and the man who had poured out the milk washed his hands thoroughly. The landlord asked his manager if he would take milk too: he shook his head, With a smile; for he is a Brahman, and is as much above drinking from a vessel that a lower caste has touched as the lower caste is above drinking after a sahib.
Now, as the bits of potsherd were still trembling on the ground, there struck up a loud, half-rollicking, half-wailing chorus behind the corner of the wall. There appeared a little group of women in very faded garments, half-veiling their faces carefully, half-turning their backs. These were low-caste women, and they were singing a hymn expressive of the virtues of the landlord. That also is use and wont. The subject of their praise called up one grand-dam and gave her silver, and the chorus stopped, amid the approving salaams of the village. They will call you "Lord" and "Protector of the Poor"; they will sing hymns to you; but they smash the bowl you drank from. What could be more eloquent of the land of contradictions?
The cultivator, to whom both these formalities are religion, is not, you will have concluded, a being of developed intelligence. He is neither beautiful nor rich, gifted nor industrious, nor especially virtuous, nor even amiable. He loves and cherishes his children with a solicitude that is truly beautiful: for that, and because he is a simple creature, you love him. Yet he is as malignant as he is simple, always has an enemy, and sticks at nothing in the world to ruin him. The cultivator presents only one point of interest, which is that there are two hundred and forty millions of him. He is clothed in calico and fed on unleavened dough, called chaputties, and on pulse. He has two distractions — marriages and funerals. At these he feasts all his neighbours, and spends all he has and more. To make up, he borrows from the village bunnia, who is shopkeeper and Shylock in one. The bunnia charges thirty-seven and a-half per cent. as a minimum. When harvest comes, he takes over the ryot's corn and credits him for it, not at market price, but on a scale of his own. The ryot keeps back, enough, perhaps, for a few weeks' food: after that he must come to the bunnia for seed at sowing-time, and weekly through the year for his children's food. The bunnia lends him back his own corn at thirty-seven and a-half to seventy-five per cent. Presently, it may be, the bunnia takes one of the ryot's bullocks in part-payment, and the man makes shift to plough with one. He does it very badly, though not much worse than he would have done with the two. Then, perhaps, the bunnia takes the other bullock, and then — but rarely, for this is killing the goose — the land. Or it may be the ryot has the luck to live all his life without paying his creditor anything beyond his whole income, less his bare livelihood. Then he dies happy, and bequeathes the remainder of his debt to his son. On that capital the son cheerfully starts upon life, and never dreams of repudiating.
Nevertheless, when the landlord offers to buy crops at market rate and to advance seed-corn at market rate, charging only six per cent. interest, the cultivator smiles cunningly and declines. He knows that the landlord will not lend him for weddings and funerals, and if he borrows seed from the landlord neither will the bunnia; so he goes back to his thirty-seven and a-half. He has only his own ignorance, indolence, and thriftlessness to thank for his wretchedness. He is miserable, and he is content. Everybody else in India has a grievance: the cultivator, the backbone of the country and the worst-used man in it, has none.
That his situation really is his fault, you may convince yourself by going on ten miles or so to a Jat village. The Jats are a not very illustrious tribe, whose centre a hundred years ago was Bhurtpur: at that period they rose to military eminence, and whenever they were short of cash looted Agra; also they inflicted on our arms one of the severest defeats we ever got in India. As cultivators, the Jats are excellently good, being both expert and of an unwearied industry.
Even before their village peeps from behind its thickets, you notice that the road is exceptional — not metalled, of course, but still flat and fairly level. The bullocks you meet in the heavy-wheeled carts are big and well-thriven. In the village itself, the houses are mostly of sun-dried mud, it is true, but they are stable and lofty; moreover, before several of the best lay piles of fire-burnt brick. One Croesus actually had a tall burnt-brick gateway with a many-pointed arch. There were more brass vessels to be seen than earthern, which is a sure sign of prosperity. Then there was a little hole in the corner wall for a lamp at night, which reeked of public spirit; and in one rich man's court were no less than two horses. His house was well-built; its sole furniture was six wood-framed cord-strung bedsteads and some brazen pots. But that is all he and his family want, and his two-year-old filly will bring him a little fortune at the horse-fair next month.
Even in the excitement of the landlord's visit, the secret of Jat prosperity was plain enough — simply work. At the entrance to the village the sugar-mill was going — three dumpy, upright rollers revolved by a lever, which two oxen pulled round and round; as a boy thrust in the cane, the squeezed fragments of stalk fell out on one side to be used for fuel, and the juice ran into a tank on the other. It was boiling in vats under a roof hard by, and the yellow result pease-pudding you would have called it at ten yards — was already being made into cakes of the finished product. The man who invented the machine gets back its cost in two years' hire of it, and has made a fortune. But the Jats do well with their sugar, despite the rent of the machine. They Work day and night at it, yoke relieving yoke of oxen; and they toil thus at everything.
But in this world even fats are not always happy. When, at the village meeting-place, after the milk-bowls were duly smashed, the landlord asked if all was well, a mean-looking young man, holding the manager's horse, cried aloud that it was not. He was of a low caste, which in towns usually works in leather, in villages does any menial labour it can. Now, in this village were sixteen families of the caste, and the manager had promised them the lease of certain land then held by the headman of the village. But Hukm Singh had not given it up, cried the shabby youth, and, moreover, had oppressed their people and got a decree from the law-court by fraud and attached their standing crops. "Is it even so?" said the landlord. "Come then to my tents in the afternoon, and let Hukm Singh come also." For the headman, at the moment, was discreetly absent. "Will I come?" cried the young man of low caste. "I will run; I will follow my lord now."
Every afternoon the sahib sits in his office-tent and his tenants squat before him and cry aloud their plaints, and he does justice between them, as it was in the age of gold. First comes, out of politeness, the owner of the mango-grove we are camped in. "You see, I am again camping on your land," says the sahib. "I am my lord's," replies the owner, radiant in gold braided cap, dove-coloured cloth coat, and clean white drawers that cling like a skin, "and all that is mine is my lord's." Then he goes on to complain that he has lost three thousand rupees by a speculation in corn, and more besides by hoar-frost and the want of the Christmas rain. He recalls with a sigh the golden day when a cavalry regiment, marching from Aligarh, camped in the middle of his wheat-field; whereafter the native officials did indeed intercept his compensation on its way to him, but by reason of the manure he got the best crop ever seen in any country. "If the merciful God will send us rain," he sighs, rising, "it may yet be well"; and goes out, knowing himself none the less to be a rich man and the best-reputed in all the country-side. For when his father died he feasted sixteen villages!
Next the complaints. The manager sits on the floor at the landlord's feet, and the clerk, sitting beside him, reads out Hindustani documents in a decorous official drone. While he still reads, the plaintiff, squatting on his heels in the dust-clothed, pucker-faced, starveling ring outside the tent, breaks in; before he is well started the defendant adds a third voice to the chorus. Each slaps his palm and waves his arms with conviction. All the complaints are of robbery, of fraud upon the poor by the not-quite-so-poor. An official of the estate has taken five shillings of rent and given no receipt; a man was granted a plot for his house, but his brother, who already had enough, has seized it, and will not let him build thereon.
Then come the low-caste people and the headman. The case, which the courts only made worse, now takes what you call a sensational development. "My lord," says the defendant, "it is even so. I lied before the court, but before the Presence I cannot lie. It was thus. When I told the manager I would quit the land, I believed it was to be let to men of my own caste. But when I found it was to these, what could I do? So I told the manager I would give up the land and did not." It should be explained that a landlord can only evict a tenant during three months of the year, when the fields are presumably bare of tillage; and by his promise to the manager the wily headman had staved over this period. "Then, when these people trouble me," he adds, entirely unashamed, though his victims and half his acquaintance are squatting by, "I went to the village accountant, and since three families of them owed me money and I had no bond, I induced him to write in his register that this was not a loan but rent. So I went to the court and we swore, and attached their crops." Again, it must be explained that there is a summary process to recover rent, but not to recover other debts: the headman had bribed the accountant to falsify his register by way of putting on the screw; and the court had believed the headman and the registrar.
The rich man told his story without a blush, and none of his countrymen condemned him. But the Presence ordered that the attachment should be taken off and the land leased to the poor families; at the same time the debtors must give a bond and repay by easy instalments at six per cent. From all of which proceedings you will perceive that the ryot's foes are of his own household.
So, having protected the poor, the landlord strolls forth into the divine Indian evening. The pungent peat-smelling smoke from the fires lies in low grey stripes in the breathless silence. From a tower in the village floats the voice of the muezzin as he calls the believers to prayer. At the well mild-eyed bullocks draw a rope down an incline; a huge leather bucket comes up, and is emptied into the stone cisterns and conduits about the base. Men are washing their clothes, women their cooking-pots; the water-seller fills his skin and carries it away, dripping, on his brown back. Through the conduits the water sluices out among the barley; in the fields men with big-bladed hoes break down or build up the little earthen embankments that guide the blessed water this way and that. The canal the Government made is full to-day, so water is plentiful; it runs even into the waste pool whence the Government made a drain and siphoned it under the canal to carry off the waterlogging of the wet season. At the pool the washermen are beating clothes clean against large stones.
In a field embanked into little chequers an old man is pricking out onions. "I am planting them for my lord," says he with politeness, "since frost killed the potatoes that were here." "Did the frost then go so deep down into the ground as to kill the potato roots?" asks the landlord, incredulous. "If you cut off a man's head," responds the sage, "how shall he walk upon his feet?"