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THE Assistant-Commissioner wore a khaki uniform, a braided jacket, and a crown on his shoulder-strap; yet he did not look like a soldier. He looked overworked and underfed. His eyes were pools in pits of socket; the bones cropped out of his cheeks and chin. He looked like a man who was always travelling, eating sparely and irregularly of jungly food, often down with fever, oppressed by unrelenting anxiety.
Being in the Salt Department, it is not wonderful if he was all this. Salt, as you know, is a Government monopoly in India: Government controls its production, prevents its illicit manufacture, and sells it to the consumers. For these functions it needs a considerable staff' of Europeans; and the European of the Salt Department is the pariah of white India.
Not that he is looked down on like a pariah; as a rule he is simply not looked on at all. As a rule he is dumped down on a salt-marsh with no white man within a journey of days. His work makes him unpopular among the natives about him: naturally they do not see why they should not scrape up the salt which God has evaporated and spread at their feet. His work is cruelly hard. At any minute of the night he has to get up to inspect the guards posted round the factory, or hurry for hours to surprise illicit manufacturers. Now he toils forward on horseback, now he flounders afoot through marshes and sliding sand-dunes, now crouches in a sluggish boat on a rank canal. When he falls ill — and of necessity he is often put down in festering fever-beds — he will likely enough have to shiver and sweat for a week in a canal-boat before he can so much as see a doctor. Month by month, blistered with sun, quivering like a leaf with ague, no time to lie up, his English tongue going rusty, — and by way of compensation for his lonely labour he receives £125 a-year when he begins, and after fifteen years or so will perhaps be enjoying £300.
However, this particular Assistant-Commissioner was by way of being a lucky man. His district is only 6000 square miles, against some people's 12,000. When he is at home, which he is almost one month in three, he is only fourteen miles from Madras; the trains of the new East Coast Railway are seldom over three hours late, so that you can generally reckon on doing the twenty-eight miles there and back in a day. Also there are two European inspectors at his station, which is one of the largest salt-factories in the Presidency.
You land on to a railway embankment of red sand, and look about for the buildings and the stacks of the factory. You will see nothing of the kind: it is less a factory than a salt-farm. But first begin at the beginning. You get into a punt and embark on what seems a great lake; it is really a backwater of the Bay of Bengal. Once upon a time this was a sanitarium for Madras. The shores of the backwater are densely planted with caserina, a fir imported from Australia, which will grow to firewood on dunes that will nourish nothing else. Out of the black-green depths of these plantations appear crumbling ruins of the half-classical end of last century. Here is the abandoned Government House; beside it moulders the derelict club. Half-a-dozen villas are still owned by residents of Madras with a view to boating and fishing; but hardly a soul ever comes to boat or fish. For all this dates from the days before railways; now people spend their hot weathers in the hills about Ootacamund. And now the old sanitarium — whether the caserina plantations blanket it from the sea-air, or the new railway bridge has unprisoned all the filth at the bed of the backwater — has developed into a fever-nursery instead. Nobody remains except the salt-officers: it is part of their business to have fever.
At the lower end of the backwater the turquoise waves curl in snowy foam over the bar, and swish in through the breach in its middle. At the point — they tell you with a kind of grim pride — lies a salt inspector, who died alone of cholera on a Christmas Day. He was buried in a piece of canvas before his colleagues came back in the evening to hear that he was ill.
The factory itself is on the opposite shore, and farther inland. When you land again and climb over the railway embankment, you see it stretched at your feet — a few little white shanties on the horizon, and nothing else. Nothing but a great flat of broken, dull-brown, muddy soil. When you get down on to it you see less still. Nothing grows except a red thing like a stone-crop and a few coarse grass tufts on banks and tumbling hillocks. Under wan, lustreless clouds the ground looks barren of all goodness, numb and despairing. You slither along through slime, and presently find that the whole place is seamed with watercourses — broad channels like canals, with ditches and runnels taking out of them. The soil is marked into checkers by little banks. It is like richly irrigated land under a curse of utter sterility. Water all about you, earth under foot, yet everywhere this melancholy and haggard desolation.
That is the farm — a farm watered with brine, whose crop is salt. With relief you come upon something doing — a few poles and bars, black like gibbets on the bleak horizon, with men about them. Nearer, you see that they are water-hoists. A cross-bar balances on an upright; at one end hangs a palm-fibre bucket; a man standing on the bar shifts back and forward, and seesaws the bucket into the water and out again; another on the ground empties it into a channel. This leads it to the flat checkers; and here are a couple more naked men paddling in the shallow brine as for their lives. Stamp, stamp, stamp, up and down, back and forward, across and across, in a kind of combination between a treadmill and a palsied step-dance. They seem so gravely concentrated on nothing that at first you think them mad, then learn that they are making the floor. They stamp and stamp and stamp it down hour by hour, day by day, till it is as hard as concrete. Then with floor and banks the pans are complete.
They let the brine stand first in deeper, then in shallower, pans, and evaporate in the sun for about ten days — until the intensity of its saltness rises from three by the halometer, or whatever it is called, to twenty-five. Then the salt is precipitated at the bottom of the pans and raked off with broad wooden hoes like squeegees. The natives are as light-handed as they are heavy-footed; they never break the floor which they made with their own soles. The salt drawn off is dried in the sun on the ridges of the pans, then broken up, then put into sacks, then put into boats, and taken to Madras to be sold. And that is all about it.
That is all — except crushing sun and blinding white glare and all-penetrating salt-dust for the salt-officer. In the hottest part of the hottest days other men get under roofs: that is just the time that he must be out all day in the sun. The factory is a chessboard of twinkling brine and snow-white salt, more scorching to the eye than flame. While his eyes are being toasted before a quick fire, salt-drifts are banking up in them and in his ears and his nostrils and his mouth. He looks round, and, like Lot's wife, becomes a pillar of salt. 'With it all the few salt-officers I have seen appear to grumble almost less than anybody in India. They say it is a healthy life — as long as you are well: when you begin to be unhealthy at all you are quickly very unhealthy indeed. Perhaps one reason for their comparative contentment is that they are justly proud of their department. For in salt, as in most things connected with revenue, Madras sets an example of efficiency and honesty to the whole of India. The salt revenue, you understand, is Imperial — goes, that is, to the treasury of all India, though it is collected by the provincial Governments. Now the salt-tax is very unpopular; therefore a timid and dishonest provincial Government will be lax in putting down illicit manufacture and pressing the sale of the licit product. Thus it keeps its subjects in good humour, and after all it is not the province that suffers, but India as a whole. The Bengal Government, for instance, has long winked at contraband salt-scraping all along its coast; as the result, it sells its people only two-thirds or so of the salt they use, and defrauds the Government of India of £666,666, 13s. 4d. or so a-year.
In Madras, on the other hand, Government sells 16½ lb. of duty-paying salt per head of population per annum. It has been pronounced on good authority that man needs 16 lb. of salt in a year; so that the Madras Government can congratulate itself that its subjects do not deny themselves of an ounce of necessary salt, and that, at the same time, the State profits by every ounce consumed. Furthermore, this result appears to be attained without hardship to the natives. Of prosecutions initiated by the department in the last year, over ninety-nine per cent. have resulted in conviction; during the same time, charges have diminished by twenty-three per cent. Finally, there were only eight cases of assault on servants of the department. That, in a country where the only known expression of genuine public opinion is riot, goes to prove that the salt-tax, and the salt administration, and the salt-officer are not so unpopular as they are sometimes painted.
Where the white salt-officer probably is unpopular is among his own native colleagues. A young man sends down a bottle of illicitly distilled spirits — he is excise officer for liquor purposes also — to his native superior. It is his first case, and he is pleased with himself — till he meets the native. "What was in that bottle you sent down?" "Arrack, of course." "Ah, I thought so. When I got it there was nothing in it but sweet-oil. However, don't worry; I've emptied it and filled it up with arrack and sealed it. I'll swear it had arrack in it all the time, and we shall convict the fellow all right."
It is rather hard for the young man to have to begin his official career by ruining a man who only meant to keep him out of trouble. Still, that is just what the young man is there for. There are fine openings for bribery and put-up cases in the salt and liquor department. Here, as elsewhere in jesting India, the native draws the British rate of pay and the Briton supplements the native's work as well as doing his own. He has to guard the guardians.