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"THREE yellow, five red, two blue," chanted the convict behind the growing carpet. "As thou sayest so let it be done," chorused the convicts sitting in front of it, as they slipped the thread within the warp. Opposite them, and further up the long factory, and further back and opposite that, rose more chants, and after each the vociferation, "As thou sayest so let it be done."
It was a queer sight to come on in the middle of the central jail. It sounded from outside half like breakers on a shingly shore, and half like a board school at the multiplication-table. "That sounds like noise, you know," said the superintendent; "but really it's honest toil." Inside was a long aisle of looms with many-coloured carpets gradually creeping up them. One man called the pattern — the number of stitches to be plaited in of each colour; with a roar the brown-backed criminals, squatting in a row over the carpet, picked out their threads and worked them in. "Eight green, two pink." "As thou sayest so let it be done."
The Oriental, as you know, cannot work in concert unless he chants in concert too. And he has a wonderful ear for his own uproar. Here, for instance, on the floor were two men bending over the same pattern-carpet. One was dictating to a gang on one side, the other on the other; they were at different places, and as each bawled out a direction to his men the others were revelling in their "So let it be done." Yet there was not a mistake in either, though the carpets were only just beginning: each gang must have caught every word. At the big fifty-seven-foot carpet, of course, the directions were hardly needed: it has been a-making for many months, till the leader reels off the colours and numbers by heart, and the dozen workers, each opposite his strip of pattern, put in the stitches like automata. All the carpet-workers are picked men: it is not every malefactor that has the brain to take in the directions, or the eye to distinguish the colours, or the hand to put them in. Such as have prize the work, for it is the only task in the central jail at which you are allowed to make a noise.
It is different with the half-hundred or so of habitual criminals behind the inner wall which isolates them from the comparatively innocent. Their labour lies in pumping up water for the whole jail. In two shifts — half a day each — they tug and strain at the cranks — chocolate bodies, stark naked but for a wisp of loin-cloth, and shaven heads with one tiny tuft left on the top — and only punctuate their toil by grunts. These are all men past reformation; many of them are born thieves, and thieves for life. We talk of born thieves at home, but our hereditary crime is a casual accident compared with India's. India has its castes and tribes of thieves, and every member of them is born to robbery as naturally and inevitably as you are born to your father's name. They glory in their calling; but even if they did not, they could follow no other. To steal is not merely a social duty, with its own traditions and its language, which is never divulged to the outsider, but a very religion, with its own thieving god. For a member of these tribes to be honest would be an impiety. Only occasionally and accidentally can they earn an honest living as watchmen against their brothers. For India believes literally in setting a thief to catch a thief, although to catch he has no need, because his brothers abstain so long as his employer gives satisfaction. Meantime, the watchman himself steals only as much as is necessary to keep his hand in, and generally returns the loot immediately. He cannot afford to let himself get rusty, especially if he be a bachelor; for the religion will not allow him to be married till he has achieved the qualifying number of larcenies.
But even these inbred criminals, together with amateurs who equal their unwearied ill-doing, are not in this prison set to purposeless labour, such as is our crank at home. There is an overflow-pipe, which shows in a moment when everything has been filled, and if the water rises in that half an hour or an hour before the day's end they knock off triumphant. In any case, pumping water is just the work whose utility the native understands. It is better than grinding the air.
The pump is only for the definitely depraved. But every convict on entering must work through a spell of heavy labour — stone-breaking for road-metal or corn-grinding. The jail, like most at home, is all but self-supporting: the assassin grinds the flour for his own supper. The mill is like that at which two women shall be grinding when one is taken and the other left — a couple of grindstones with a hole and a handle in the upper one; the men's tasks lie in a stone bin beside each, and they grind away — a row of full-muscled, flour-dusted, bronze statues. On the other side of the circle the kitchen swelters in the sun — a curving bank of coppers and griddle-plates. Up about their rims stroll bare-footed, bare-bodied attendants, and prod caldrons of hissing cabbage and cauliflower with baulks of timber. "Better vegetables than most sahibs get," says the superintendent; and if an unrepresentative sahib may judge, it is so indeed. But the bodies of the prisoners are the diet's best recommendation — plumper than the ordinary villager's, thinner than the ordinary bunnia's. India has the convenience that every native's poverty or wealth is inscribed on his belly.
It seems a grim joke to talk of a prison as an Arcadia; yet these plump, industrious jail-birds somehow gave more impression of happy usefulness than a dozen villages. It was so compact, so well ordered, so well directed. In the next circle were a couple of yards full of bamboo-workers — the men sitting under the verandahs with chisel and hammer; inside the sheds the long double-row of bare sleeping-banks — hard, but scarcely harder than their beds in the villages, and, Lord! how unspeakably cleaner! While dacoity was flourishing a number of Burmans came to this jail; they were set to work on their beautifully delicate bamboo tables and chairs and screen-work. There are only half a dozen or so left now — little, button-nosed, yellow faces among the amber ones — but there are enough to teach the Hindus, and do the finer work. It was pleasant to see the pride with which they displayed the latest masterpiece; pleasant to go into the next yard and see the old, old men — too frail to serve out a life sentence of twenty years in the field-work of the Andamans — dozing out the afternoon over a pretence of twisting yarn. "This is the yard I don't like to show to a visitor," says the superintendent. "There's almost sure to be some breach of discipline — an old chap gone to sleep."
Yes, it was a pleasant sight, this jail. For you must remember that the prisoners are not merely better housed and better fed and better — though hideously — clothed than they would be in their villages; they also have no sense whatever of guilt. This prison leaves no flavour of crime in the mouth. There is no evil conscience and little sullenness. The convict really cannot see why the Sirkar should take that little affair of killing the co-respondent so seriously; still, it must be accepted as part of the general madness of sahibs, and, after all, the place is not such a bad one.
It sounds queer to the home-keeping mind — and perhaps queerer still that most of the warders are murderers. A simple society like most in India has no exaggerated respect for human life, and kills where we merely assault or revile; therefore the murderer, judged by the standard of criminal intention, is often less guilty than the authors of what we call minor crimes. A first offender can rise by merit to be a watchman in a blue-and-white cap, and then to be a warder in lemon-coloured breeches. Every prisoner, by a combination of good work and a blameless walk, can purchase remission of sentence, and pay which means to him a handsome capital to re-commence life with. And the murderer-warders do their work very well, especially considering that some of the prisoners are millionaires compared with themselves. One great point is that many of them are utter foreigners to the mass of the convicts. Here is an Arab from Aden, there a Shan from Mogaung in Upper Burma, there a Pushtu-speaking Pathan from the Northwestern border; in the European quarter is a Greek from Zanzibar. It is a microcosm of India, which remains conquered because it is divided.
At certain seasons of public rejoicing Government follows the good old oriental custom of opening the prison doors — only ajar, and with circumspection. "We haven't recovered from the Jubilee yet," mourns the superintendent: "lost all our best men." Everybody released on that auspicious occasion was carefully interrogated to make sure that he understood why. As the result, that one simple soul explained that after sixty years of reign the Rani had a son. Another, more sophisticated, opined that the Rani had at last been allowed by her grateful people to retire under the long-service regulation. A third argued bluntly that it was his right. "People were released in '77 and '87; so, of course, I ought to be in '97."
And for the end, there is one spot more which is not Arcadia — the European quarter. There is not very much of that, thank Heaven! and what there is is not full, and of those there some are not Britons. Yet there are a few Britons — and in the drawn faces and the eyes that dodge past you what a difference from the Arcadians! You look down yourself and hurry on, and almost blush when next you meet the first-class assassin in lemon-colour.
It is all but Arcadia — and then, as always, comes the strange, malignant, hardly human twist that appears in the native's mind just when you are beginning to love him. In jail it takes the form of false witness and most astonishing malingering. The other morning the superintendent, on his round, saw through a grille a quarrel between a warder and a Brahman. That afternoon the Brahman brought a complaint against the warder, and twenty unanimous witnesses to prove what the officers own eyes had showed him to be false. Another had been struck by a warder, and next morning appeared covered, not only with weals, but with raw strips of flesh torn away also. The doctor was puzzled, till an ancient warder whispered, "Examine their pyjama-strings, Sahib." So each man had to bring up the string that runs round the waist of his drawers, and the tenth or so was found covered with blood and skin. The man had spent all night at this torture merely to make the case sure against his enemy.
Not less inhuman was the group who pierced their thighs with bodkins and strings soaked in oil and dung, giving themselves agonising tumours to avoid a moderate day's work. Or the men who conceal pills to make them ill in holes cut in their flesh — it is too sickening to detail. A little needed comic relief was furnished by a Sikh, who evidently got forbidden opium, though nobody could tell how. At last it was observed that his hair — a Sikh's religion forbids the cutting of his hair, so this is not done, even in jail — was curiously sticky. It was washed, and the results analysed, whereon it turned out that the night before imminent conviction the Sikh had soaked his head in a strong solution of opium. He absorbed enough to last him for months, and sucked it off his hair by night.