Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
AT last! I arrive in Madras, and here at last is the India that was expected — the India of our childhood and of our dreams.
The endless corn-fields of Hindustan, the rolling dry downs of the Dekhan — and then in a night everything has changed. The air is moist, the sky intensely blue. You drive on broad roads of red sand, through colonnades of red-berried banyans and thick groves of dipping palms. In pools and streams of soft green water men fish with rods, only their black heads above the surface; at the edge slate-coloured baffaloes wallow to the muzzle.
And the people are just as you have always seen them in your mind. Naked above the loins, petticoated below, any colour from ochre to umber, sharp-featured and quick-eyed, with heads close-clipped before and streaming with ragged locks behind; the fat Brahman under his white umbrella, and the moist-backed waterman under the jars swung from his bamboo pole, — they pass by in a perpetual panorama of India — popular India, missionary India — India as you knew it before you came.
It never struck me before, but it is certainly so: our picture of India at home is the reflection of Madras. You never thought of India as barley-fields and big men in sheepskins; but toddy palms, rice-stalks standing in water, lithe little coolies in loinclothes — all these you have known from a baby. The reason is that Madras is the oldest, the most historic province of British India, and the nursery does not change its ideas lightly. Moreover, the nursery looks for its Indian literature mostly to missionaries, and the missionary has taken a far firmer hold on Madras than elsewhere. I am convinced that Little Henry's Bearer was a Madrasi.
The loyal nursery clings to Madras; the rest of India calls it "the dark Presidency," and affects to despise it. Nobody can deny that it was the first province where British arms began to overthrow all comers. Who can forget Clive and Dupleix, and Coote and Hyder Ali, and Tippu and the Nabob of Arcot's debts? But they say up North that Madras's future lies all behind it. I came there against the strongest advice of the very best authorities on the Khyber and Waziristan — came, saw, and was conquered.
For to the transient loiterer Madras appears by far the most desirable of the great cities of India. In Madras there appears to be room to live. In Bombay you camp in a tent; in Calcutta you contract your elbows in a boarding-house. In Madras houses are large, and stand in compounds that are all but parks. The town spreads itself out in these for miles and miles: you might call it a city of suburbs. You can drive out six miles one way to a garden-party, and three the other to dinner. Looking down on it from the top of the lighthouse on the High Court, Madras is more lost in green than the greenest city further north. Under your feet the red huddled roofs of the Black Town are only a speck. On one side is the bosom of the turquoise sea, the white line of surf, the leagues of broad, empty, yellow beach; on the other, the forest of European Madras, dense, round-polled green rolling away southward and inland till you can hardly see where it passes into the paler green of the fields. Down below, though the streams and the Black Town fester poisonously enough, you never seem to be in a crowd; there is room to see the people. Madras, further, is never very cold and never very hot, never very wet and never very dry. Space, green, white and scarlet and yellow blossoms on the trees, the night-breeze from the sea, the very mosquitoes so strong on the wing — they give you the feeling that Madras, so far from dead, is consistently alive, and not merely tiding over from one season to another.
Nor can the wandering eye detect signs of mental darkness. The railway that brings you into Madras has more comfortably arranged carriages and fills you with better and cheaper food than most, if not than any, in India. The railway that takes you out again, southward, gives by far the best travelling of any metre-gauge line I have tried. In Madras, it is true, you are conveyed away from the station in a sort of perforated prison van, but that happens in Calcutta too and Delhi. Your hotel is without honour in its own country, but in Bombay it would be even as the Ritz in Paris. The native enjoys cheap, rather rapid, and very crowded transport, such as he loves, in electric tramcars. Wherever space needs to be economised, the wire and its uprights are carried along the edge, not the middle, of the roadway, and the trolley-arm leans over to follow them. Also Madras enjoys a telephone service; while as for shops — the leading tailor, who also sells lamps and tinned apricots, employs his hundreds, and the leading chemist's might be mistaken for the town-hall.
Then where is the darkness? It is geographical. Madras has many virtues, but it has fallen into the fatal vice of being out of the way. Before the age of railways every considerable city in India was in the way, was its own centre. Madras had, to a great extent, its independent government. But now, when rails have knit the country together, and the centre of it oscillates between Calcutta and Simla, Madras is left away in a corner. The Calcutta mail goes almost to Bombay before it turns north-eastward: either to the winter or to the summer capital it is nearly four days' journey. Madras swims strongly in its backwater, but in the main stream nobody cares. Other voices make what they call public opinion; other hands clutch the money that is to be spent; other armies fight the wars. The function of Madras is to pay. Its lands are all held direct from the Crown, there is no permanent settlement, and the assessment rises steadily. Madras raises the revenue, and the North spends it; and the more loyally Madras pays, the less constrainedly the other provinces squander.
Within the last weeks an event had happened which ought some day to change all that. The East Coast Railway had been opened for traffic between Madras and Calcutta direct. As yet the many rivers on the way are not permanently bridged; the line is still in sections; the trains are very slow and grossly unpunctual, even for the East. But when time has shaken it into shape this railway should bring Madras as near to Calcutta as Bombay or Lahore is. Then the whisper of Madras may penetrate even to the throne, and the very Financial Member understand that a province would fain receive as well as give. Certain material benefits should follow, too. Coal will come down from Bengal or Hyderabad to replace the failing supplies of firewood. In time a line will be built from Madras to Paumben, opposite Adam's Bridge. Near there lies the island of Rameshwaram, which is the holiest place but two in all India. The others are Benares and Puri, Juggernaut's seat, near Cuttack. Between Puri and Rameshwaram the myriads of pilgrims will throng the East Coast Railway, to its own benefit and that of Madras. Later, it may be, the line will be carried right over Adam's Bridge into Ceylon. Then Madras would stand on a direct route from Europe by Colombo to Calcutta — a route that, since the P. and O. meets competition at Colombo and none at Bombay, should be somewhat cheaper, less plaguy, not appreciably longer, and, when it saves the change at Aden, decidedly more comfortable than the present way by Bombay. If that comes about Madras will have its chance of coupling up with the world again.
Meanwhile there are advantages in being remote. Distant from seeds of war and sedition, Europeans and natives appear to live better together here than elsewhere. The native of the Madras Presidency is all new types. For the most part he is Tamil, small and intelligent in the northern part, robust and rowdy in the southern, long-haired, all but naked, speaking a language whereof Sundaraperumalkoil is a fairly representative mouthful. From the west, on the Malabar Coast, you hear tales of still stranger men and manners, — of Malayalis and Kanarese, Christians with Portuguese names — they were converted in blocks by the Viceroys of Goa, and each block took the name, Albuquerque or D'Souza, of its apostle — Arab-mixed Moplas, Syrians, black Jews and white Jews, two distinct breeds, in Cochin. In this Presidency, too, and especially on the sequestered west coast, you can see what Brahmanism is like when wholly undiluted with Islam. There a Brahman is so holy that nobody ever sees him: he has his home and garden and temple all inside his own wall. He goes abroad, when he must, in a closed palanquin, and its bearers shoo every caste-less man off the road. If a low-caste man has got nearly to the end of a long narrow bridge and meets a Brahman's palanquin, he must turn back and withdraw into the fields out of pollution-shot. In this country the very measures of distance are fixed by the spiritual infecting-range of various lower castes: instead of speaking-distance or a stone's-throw they talk of the distance a man of such or such a caste must get out of the path when a Brahman comes along. More than that, only the eldest brother of a Brahman family marries; the rest have the right by custom — which is law and religion added together and multiplied by a million — to range at large among the women of lower caste. Until lately custom ordained that the Brahman was not responsible for the maintenance of his children by such women — as a rule he never so much as sees them. The magistrate who first dared make a maintenance order in such a case was, to his honour, a Brahman himself.
But all that, of course, is outside the city of Madras. In Madras itself the native is perhaps better educated than anywhere else in India, and — what by no means goes with education — is neither captiously discontented nor complaisantly submissive. The newspapers splutter a little occasionally, but you must remember it is not always easy to say quite the correct thing in a language not your own. For the rest, they appear to be by far the best-written of the native journals. Here again Madras has the advantage of its age. Whether education in Madras — notice that education always means higher education, not primary, which hardly exists — has not gone too far is another matter. I went one day to the Convocation of the University: when the Chancellor said, "Let the candidates step forward," the whole great ball rose and moved a pace to its front in battalions of B.L.'s and B.A.'s. Are they all wanted? The supply of B.A.'s exceeds the demand even in England: what then of Madras?
But never mind that for now. The air of Madras does not agree with problems. It is enough to be in the India which you had divined and have found at last — to breathe its air and moisten your eye with its green. About Madras, too, you can notice what in chattering Bengal and the fighting Punjab you are apt to miss. There, alone on the field, picking at the earth with a single careless hand on his plough or standing, a lean, naked figure among the sleepy goats, you see the bed-rock of native India. The man who neither chatters nor fights, but does what the Brahman tells him, looks languidly to the land and the stock, and pays taxes. He is essential India.