Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
In India
Content Page

Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


ONE letter of introduction, discreetly managed, will furnish you with lodging, board, drinks, fire, mounts, shooting, fishing, carriages, servants, books, flowers, and clothes from one end of India to the other.

I never heard of anybody who was shameless enough to do it — I did hear of two Frenchmen who went forty days on the strength of letters from a native prince neither of them knew — but I am certain that, discreetly managed, it could be done. It would be better, though not absolutely necessary, to have a suit of clothes to start in, and it is not usual for your host in giving you his introduction to your next host to add a railway ticket. Short of that, Indian hospitality is limitless.

You get out at the station and find a bearded Mussulman salaaming over a letter. The letter informs you that the bearer will do everything — and he does. He puts you into a carriage, and an attendant or two he has brought with him, after a short, shrill controversy with your own servant, grapple with your luggage. On the easiest of springs and cushions you roll along broad, straight roads, arcaded with trees, the dust carefully laid by half-naked watermen sluicing out water through the necks of the goatskins on their backs. From time to time you pass gateways; but, unless it is evening and lamps are lit, you can only guess that there are houses behind the trees. Presently you swing through one of these: there appears a broad house, too high, it seems, for one storey, too low for two, with pillared front, verandahs on all sides, and a porte-cochère. They take you to a vast bedroom as lofty as the big saloons of a grand hotel, laid with matting and rugs, with at least one long, cane-seated lounge-chair with forward jutting arms that will serve indifferently as table or leg-rest. In the matted bathroom adjoining your hot water is waiting for you. A servant, or two, or six, will hasten at your command, while your own bearer is struggling up with the luggage, and bring you anything you may be pleased to desire from a newspaper to a joint of mutton.

Next morning you find that the house stands in a compound: even Government offices and banks and shops possess it. It is a large walled or hedged enclosure, part garden, part mews, part village. The Indian garden is almost the most pathetic thing in a whole land of exile. In the morning the bullocks will be hauling at the creaking well, and all the little baked squares of light grit wallow under water. The native trees and shrubs and plants — huge leaves, garish petals, heavy perfumes — flourish rankly. But the poor little home flowers — the stocks and mignonette and wallflowers! They struggle so gallantly to pretend that they are happy, to persuade you that this is not so very far from England; and they fail so piteously. They will flower in abundant but straggling blossoms; but the fierce sun withers the first before the next have more than budded. They make no foliage, and they are drawn into leggy stalks, all out of shape. It is a loving fraud, but a hollow one. The very wallflowers cannot be more than exiles.

In the mews, past the big carriage Walers, the Arab hacks and polo ponies thrust trusting heads over bars in hopes of carrots, or pluck impatiently at their heel-ropes. Then there is the village — a whole village of servants in every compound. The principle of division of labour, of one man one job, has been taken up by the Indian servant with a grasp and thoroughness that would move the despairing envy of a modern trade-unionist. Every kind of work requires its special man, so that a normal Indian household is something like the following. The sahib's bearer or valet, 1; the memsahib's ayah, or maid, 2; the khansamah, or head cook and caterer, 3; the cook's two mates and the scullery-boy, 6; the khitmagars, or table-servants, 8; the tailor, 9; the dhobi, or washer-man, 10; the bhisti, or water-carrier, 11; the sweeper, 12; the gardeners, 15; the syces, or grooms, 19; the grass-cutters — for in India not only must you have a groom to each horse, but a grass-cutter to each groom, 23. Some add a dog-boy, but that savours of luxurious ostentation; as a rule, the sweeper will kindly consent to fill up some of his leisure with the care of dogs.

But that is not all, or nearly all. If the sahib is in Government service, you must add from one to three munshis, or clerks, and from two to four chaprassis. These are a kind of cross between messengers and lictors: their scarlet coats and sashes are symbols of the presence of the Sirkar. A small man may have no more than two; a Lieutenant-Governor will have four tongas full, and a Viceroy, I infer, a special trainful. How many red chaprassis there must be in the whole of India it beggars statistics to compute. That brings us up to a household of thirty. If the sahib is in camp, as nearly everybody in India is for a part of the year, he will probably have a double set of tents, of which one goes on by day to be ready for him next morning. That means an extra bhisti and an extra sweeper, say a dozen tent-pitchers, and the same number of camel- or bullock-drivers. Grand total, fifty-six persons to attend on one married couple.

Arrogant satrap! you cry. But it is not the satrap's fault. On the contrary, his household is the curse of his life and of his memsahib's. As each servant takes a new wife, he wants space in the compound to run up a wicker-screen round her; hence, and from other sources, perpetual quarrels. Perhaps the sahib, as yet unbroken, desires to have half as many servants with double the work and double the pay. He may argue and beseech and swear: he might as well hold a public disputation with a bullock-team. The servant prostrates himself and says, "O Presence, it is not the custom."

If you question the memsahib of the ordering of her household, you will find that she knows very little about it. She knows that the bearer is supposed to dust the drawing-room and does not, and that the khansamah presents a monthly account. This account is almost the most wondrous thing in India. A khansamah who knows his business fits it to the sahib's income with undeviating precision. Servants at home know everything; in India they know yet more. The quiet men who wait at table know more English than they pretend; usually there is somebody in the house who can read English letters. Anglo-Indian life is all under verandahs, behind open windows, transparent blinds, and doors that will not shut. Also every servant knows every other servant, as well as the clerks at the bank and in the Government offices; therefore a man will first hear of his impending promotion or transfer from his bearer. And when he is promoted, his wife, hoping to save money to eke out the ever-nearer retirement pension, will discover that the expenses have risen in exact proportion to the rise of pay. "The Presence has more pay now," says the virtuous khansamah. "Does it become the Presence to live like a mere assistant-commissioner? I have seen many sahibs, and I know what is fitting."

Where does it go to? Do not ask, but count from time to time the bangles on the ankles of the khansamah's leading wife. You will notice that they enlarge and multiply. The word for this process is dastur; in French it is spelt mes sous, and in English "housekeeper's discount." You may say confidently that no money changes hands between the sahib and a native without it has borne commission. "What is the price in the bazaar of a tin pail?" the memsahib asks of a chaprassi. "God knows. I am a poor man. Yet by making inquiries it can be known." So he disappears round the corner, where waits the pail merchant, and by making inquiries it is known. Every man has his pice.

But if the rich man's expenses increase with his pay, the poor man's remain steady. The pinched married subaltern gets exactly the same food and servants and everything else as the plump commissioner. The Indian servant may be a tyrant, but he is also a providence. He asks no more than your all: give him that honestly, and he will see that you want for nothing. His honour is in his sahib and his sahib's establishment. It is his pride that he never steals contrary to custom: he will take half a farthing commission on the expenditure of 2d., but he is safe as the grave with your whole month's pay in his pocket. When the exile is over, and the sahib returns across the black water, the bearer weeps quite sincerely. "Behold I am grown old in the service of the Presence. The Presence is my father and mother: what now shall this dust-like one do?" Then one day, in the riced-and-buttered ease of his native village, he hears that his old master's son is on the way to India. God knows how, but he hears it. And when the boy lands at Bombay, an old man creeps up to him bearing a chit from his father. "Behold it would be a shame to me if any but me shOuld be the Presence's bearer, seeing that I have many times held him on my knee when he was so high." So he is the Presence's bearer. The old man, who had retired rich for life from a general's establishment, begins again in a subaltern's quarters and serves the young sahib till his infirmities will let him serve no longer. Then he goes back to his village again with a pension, and sends his son to serve the Presence instead.

The bearer and khansamah may well take loads on themselves, for there are agonies in Indian housekeeping which must fall on the memsahib alone. How would you like to do your shopping at a thousand miles' range? Except in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta there is hardly a possible shop in India. You must think what you want, and order it a fortnight in advance; even so, it will probably arrive a fortnight late. And then, if people are coming to stay over Christmas. . . . I have heard of a Resident's wife who had to send two hundred miles for a flock of sheep for the needs of her house-party, and then the local Brahmans intercepted them and put them in the pound; and religion ordains that what has once been in the pound can never be slaughtered.

There are other sorrows. Go into the Indian drawing-room: it is shady and cool and charming, but nearly always it seems a little bare. The rest of the furniture — the pretty nothings — are packed in boxes at depots in Calcutta or Bombay or Pindi. The piano is staying with a friend, and the silver has not yet come back from the bank. Leave one year and transfer the next, camp next month, and an imperative change to the hills for the memsahib the hot weather after that — the Indian house is ever a place of transition. It is a mere caravanserai — a double exile. The Anglo-Indian has not even a fixed place of banishment. It is not enough that the mother must send away her children: she may not even live with her furniture.

In this fugitive encampment on alien soil the very order of meals is shaken. When it is hot you rise before dawn and take your chota hazri of tea and toast. Then for your ride, your bicycle spin, your game of racquets in the first hours of the sun. Then home to dress, and then breakfast, and then a day's work through the long, long heat and glare. Tiffin you have no stomach for, and so you wait for tea.

After that life is bearable again: there is air if you only gasp hard enough. There is the drive by the Hughli at Calcutta, on the shore of Back Bay at Bombay, on the Marina at Madras. Then for men the club: in smaller stations the club is free to women also. All prepare for dinner with billiards or badminton, which is battledore and shuttlecock over a net. Then dinner under the punkah; or maybe it is dance night, and everybody forgets hot to-day and hotter to-morrow and the whole weary year.

Sunday brings little respite. Man has his week's arrears of work. For woman, if she cares, there is church at the big station; and in the small the little Scotch missionary, or the Resident, or the Deputy-Commissioner reading the service in a drawing-room to his wife and his assistant and the engineer's wife — the engineer is out on the canal, and the doctor is a native — the railway-man and his wife and his children. It does your heart good to see how the missionary enjoys his sermon — the one taste of theological Scotland in his week of stupid scholars and stupider patients; it does you good to hear the railway-man growl out the hymns of his childhood.

There is one day yet more sacred than Sunday mail-day. Nobody makes calls that day: nobody is to be seen; next day is a sort of lazy holiday. Everybody hates mail-day, they tell you; nobody misses it. Across five thousand miles.

Still it is something.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.