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"His Highness," perspired the babu, "trusts that you are in the enjoyment of good health."
"Thanks to the beneficent climate of his Highness's dominions," I replied, "I am in the enjoyment of especially good health."
With such momentous words opened my first serious interview with a Rajah. As I drove up to his palace on the hill I noticed an elephant or so left casually standing about at the corners of his crooked streets. This was his ingenuous way of hinting to the mind of the stranger at his rank and wealth and importance. An elephant is a peculiarly royal beast, as a peacock is a royal bird, and without one, at least, of each no Rajah is complete.
At the door of the stucco palace a dishevelled sentry presented arms with even more than the usual fervour. After a moment I understood — and perceived coming down a corridor slowly, slowly, and quite noiselessly towards me, a small human figure. It wore a white turban, a tabard of lilac silk lined with salmon satin, a long muslin scarf round the neck, snow-white linen drawers, tight yet shapeless, and white cotton socks. It came up, always quite noiselessly, appearing to be moved rather than to move: I saw a brown face, melting black eyes; a long-haired, fine-haired, oiled, black beard.
The figure took my hand in a hand that seemed made of soufflet, and with the same mysterious, unmoving motion led me across a high-roofed hall, with chandeliers like forest-trees and the paint peeling off the skirting-board, into a verandah that overlooked a reeling chasm of torrent-bed and a towering heave of mountain beyond. He set me in a chair beside him, the interpreter opposite, then turned and fixed his eyes on me. If the movements were inhuman the eyes were unearthly. Eyes weary beyond satiety — eyes utterly passionless and purposeless, as if their owner neither desired anything nor intended anything, had either never had any interest in the world or had quite finished with it. Looking into those black pools of sheer emptiness, you wondered whether he were a new-born baby or a million years old; you almost wondered if he were alive or dead.
That was the Rajah. And then, in a voice that seemed to fall among us from nowhere, he told the fat-cheeked, gold-spectacled babu to tell me he trusted I was in the enjoyment of good health.
Awhile the conversation floated at this level, and I began to think that this Nirvana-eyed Rajah was — if one may so speak of princes — a fool. But presently the babu's circumambient periods began to coil themselves round a definite subject, and the Rajah was instructing me on the political question of the hour. It does not matter to you what the question was; it did not matter to me. The interest to me lay in comparing what the Rajah suggested with what I knew to be true. In black and white he said nothing, but he hinted worlds. The suggestions were so subtly nebulous that you could hardly be sure they meant anything at all; the subject seemed to be in the air rather than in his conversation. I found it quite impossible to speak a language so evasive, and had to fly to brutal verbs and nouns. He accepted my remarks, though with deprecation of their bluntness; so that at least I had the satisfaction of knowing we were both talking about the same things.
But the astonishing and inhuman feature of his talk was that he continually conveyed to me views of the questions of the hour which I knew to be false, which he knew me to know to be false. At least he knew that I came with the Resident, and might have known that I would ask him about things and believe what he said. Yet, without the least encouragement, he insinuated and insinuated and insinuated away, till I felt almost a traitor to sit and listen to him. He cannot have thought I should take his side, or that I could be of any service to him if I did; but that appeared to matter nothing. Intrigue was his nature, and in default of a better confederate he kept his hand in by trying to intrigue with me.
And then suddenly, without a flicker in the eyes of either Rajah or interpreter: —
"His Highness hopes that on your return to your country you will write to him from time to time, and give him your advice on affairs of State."
I gasped. "His Highness has heard much of your good name and high reputation," pursued the bland, relentless voice — he had first heard and forgotten my name three hours before — "and he is sure that your opinion on the government of his country would be very valuable to him."
And while I still gasped, his Highness motionlessly rose, handed me out of the chair with his soufflet touch, and prattled in English, "Do not forget me."
I shall not forget him. Nor yet the Commander-in-Chief of the army — a mild little man with a stammer, who sat on the extreme edge of his chair. Nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chancellor — the two officers combined in one beaming babu, who told us how he intended to decide cases which had not yet come on for hearing. Nor the feudal chief, a relative of his Highness, educated in England, who wanted to raise money. "But you're very well off, surely?" said the Resident. "I regret to have to state, sir, that such is not the case," replied the descendant of a hundred bandits. The next functionary — so clumsy is destiny — complained that "I got plenty pay, sir, not got no work."
Happy State, you cry. You will say so still more when you hear that there are only two acute questions of party politics at present before it: (a) Whether a certain member of the royal family ought to be allowed to shoot pig, instead of preserving them for sticking; and (b) Whether a nilghai is a cow. A nilghai, as you know, is not a cow, but an antelope; it destroys crops, and the Opposition press a bill to legalise the shooting of it. But, on the other hand, urges the Government, it looks like a cow, and there is a strong body of tradition in favour of regarding it as such, and therefore holy. So the matter has been referred to arbitration. A college of saints at Benares has ruled that a nilghai is not a cow; but it is quite capable of ruling, on — and for — a sufficient consideration, that, though not a cow, it is as it were a cow. Meantime party feeling runs strongly — as does also the nilghai.
But, indeed, the native State is, in its way, a paradise. As long as the Rajah behaves with tolerable decency, and his people are not quite outrageously overtaxed or disorderly, he can do exactly what he likes. In the old days, if he shut himself up with opium and nautch-girls, a neighbour would come and take his country; now the Government of India instructs the Resident to use his influence on the side of virtue, and meanwhile sees that the frontiers stand fixed. Then his subjects might rise against misgovernment; if they did it now British troops would come in to uphold him. A few years ago the Thakurs of Bikanir — the feudal nobles, mostly of royal blood — did actually set about to depose their king for incompetence and exaction. This has ever been the Rajput method of constitutional government — but the Sirkar sent a column to put the Maharajah back again.
But when the Maharajah goes too far — squanders his revenues, or hangs his subjects up by the toes — the Sirkar sends him a Resident with power to do more than lecture on the beauty of virtue. The Resident becomes an administrator. Mysore was governed thus for over fifty years; now, restored to a wise Queen-mother and a promising prince, it is the most flourishing native State in India. Kashmir was on the verge of bankruptcy a few years ago; now, under the Resident as virtual Prime Minister, with officers lent from British India and a carefully selected Council of State, the land revenue has been increased and the burden of taxes decreased simultaneously, the army decreased but made efficient, the Customs revenue and forest revenue doubled, and Kashmir's feet are on the road of prosperity again.
Of Rajahs there are very many kinds, and much thought and care have been expended on the theory and practice of their production. The Government of India, while usually leaving them to themselves, has made an exception in the case of their manufacture. It is exceptional that a native State passes to an adult heir — a Rajah's life is not a healthy one: the average age of ruling princes appears to be about seventeen — and the Government of India educates the minors. For young Rajput chiefs there is the Mayo College at Ajmir; rulers of wider influence usually have a Governor told off to them from the Indian Civil Service or Staff Corps.
The question is, what sort of man you should aim at producing. The old-fashioned good Rajah — the conservative, pious ruler, on good terms with his Resident and his subjects alike, but impartially disliking champagne, sanitation, bookmakers, female education, and trousers — was perhaps the most satisfactory, certainly the most dignified, type; but he, alas! though still extant here and there, must shortly die out. With him, as a compensation, will probably perish the old-fashioned bad one, the intriguer and blackmailee, the tormenter of subjects and would-be assassin of Residents, who took greedily to champagne and bookmakers and — now and then — trousers, but hated sanitation and female education none the less. Of the new generation the most familiar type is the sporting Rajah. In what was practically the final of this year's polo championship, the Patiala and Kotah teams were each captained by the Maharajah. Other young chiefs are not less eminent in the saddle, and the Maharajah of Patiala is a keen and useful cricketer. The Nizam of Hyderabad is, or was, almost the best shot in the world. At his best the sporting Rajah is probably the best solution of the difficulty of keeping a man manly when you deny him his hereditary pursuit of war. At his worst — and there is a worst — he becomes a bad imitation of the less dignified kind of sporting peer.
In both cases it is hard to get him to take the least interest in the affairs of his subjects. After all, why should he? If a second Akbar were born in India we should not let him rule in his own way, and he would in that case rather not rule at all. It is childish to blame the Rajah for being oriental.
Thus seesaw the native States of India — over a third of its area, over a fourth of its population. Up with a good Rajah, down with a bad; most up with a very bad who brings in a British administrator. Many of their people would like to be annexed to British India; others prefer things as they are — especially everybody even distantly connected with the public service. We might annex them — there is never any lack of pretext — and we might leave them entirely alone to serve as awful examples, and make our subjects contented by the contrast. Instead of that we do — as always in India — the straight and disinterested thing. We are tolerant of the Rajah as long as he is possible, and succour his people when he is not. Thus — as always in India — we get no thanks from either.