THE LAND OF IRONIES
INDIA is amazing and stupefying at the first glance, and amazing and stupefying it remains to the last. The long panorama ends as it began with the dazed murmur, "A new world."
The habit of travel extinguishes wonder, and begets a tranquil if curious acceptance of new surroundings. The professional traveller takes it as part of his daily life that he should wake up among habits, climate, growths, languages, and people which he never saw before. He knew they existed, and they are not much different from what he had pictured them.
But India disquiets the most sodden traveller. That it is vast and complex is nothing; but with its vastness and complexity it yet remains utterly alien to everything else. You have no foothold whence to advance upon a closer comprehension. Shut by its mountains into a corner of the earth, it has ever pursued its own mysterious ends; the breeds of men who broke through the passes it absorbed and quietly assimilated to itself. Stranger breeds of men have come over the sea; India has taken no heed of them. India is India, and ignores the world.
Other countries have a measure of consistency: they are either wholly civilised or wholly barbarous, affect splendour or accept squalor. India sees stateliness in the filthiest faded silk so it be shot With pearls; and a trained mechanician burns a man alive to propitiate a defective steam-engine. Other countries hold a degree of privacy essential to self-respect; India has deliberately, by caste-brotherhood, cut privacy out of its existence. Other countries aim at doing; India's idol is inaction. Islam influenced other lands of the East; India influenced Islam. The learning and the letters of the West were sluiced into India in one sudden stream; after a moment's astonishment India accepted them, and studied them with prodigious facility, but without a spark of interest or an effort towards appreciation. To the West, the ordinary native of India is almost inhuman. The West can admire the strength of his affections within his family, and detest his cold-blooded malignity outside it; but for the rest he appears now unearthly wise, now childishly inane. The grave Brahman will unreel you systems of metaphysics compared with which the "Criticism of Pure Reason" is simple and concrete; then he will depart and make his offering to a three-headed goddess smeared with grease and red paint. The very ryot seems an incarnation of the spirit of husbandry, a part of nature, a primeval Pan — and he will carelessly beggar his family for three generations because it is the custom to waste money on funeral feasts. Two students attend a college: one becomes senior wrangler, and the other is hanged for assassinating a policeman.
Into this maze of contradictions, to rule this blend of good and evil, steps Britain. And not content with ruling him — which is easy, for he accepts any master that comes — we have set ourselves to raise him, as we put it. Which means to uncreate him, to disestablish what has grown together from the birth of time, and to create him anew in the image of men whom he considers mad. This is surely the most audacious, the most heroic, the most lunatic enterprise to which a nation ever set its hand.
How, now, have we succeeded? Let it be said first that we have deserved success. If any enterprise in the world's history has deserved success, it is the British empire in India. Our connection with the country began as most legitimate and mutually beneficent commerce. It developed into conquest — not through any lust of dominion, but almost accidentally, and certainly against our will; it was the inevitable consequence of the weakness and dissensions of the Indian races themselves. Having acquired the empire, we have administered it with a single-minded devotion to the interests of its own people which has never had a parallel. We make India pay its own way, but beyond that Britain gets not a penny from it for any public purpose. We have imposed duties against our own products; in a hundred ways we refuse to facilitate the business of our own countrymen.
It is sometimes said that India offers desirable careers for our superfluous youth. This may be true spiritually. A nation like ours does well to offer adventures to its sons. Yet even spiritually we get nothing indispensable from India: the empire has half-a-dozen spheres where hardships and dangers can be had on terms as favourable as any that India offers. Materially, it is enough to say that every officer in our service, except less than a thousand civil servants, is heavily underpaid. If any nation ever deserved the reward of good work done for its own sake, it is Britain in India.
And on this comes in the hideous, if most inevitable, irony that the reward of our work is largely failure, and the thanks for our unselfishness mainly unpopularity. You might almost imagine there was a curse on British India, which ever turns good endeavours into bad results. The great gifts which we are supposed to have given India are justice and internal peace — and each has turned to her distress. The one is driving her peasantry off the land, the other is preventing an effete race from the renovation brought in by alien conquerors.
When we say we have given justice, we only mean that we have offered it — tried to force it upon peoples which dislike and refuse it. What we have really given is a handful of incorruptible judges, whose experience enables them to strike a rough balance between scales piled up with perjury on either side. Often and often a litigant comes to the European judge and says, "You were wrong to give that case against me, Sahib. The other side were all lying, and we — well, of course, we lied too; but the truth was such and such, and we were right. But of course you could not tell which was lying most, and we knew you did your best to decide rightly, only you were wrong." The litigant believes absolutely in the honesty of the sahib, and accepts it as part of his inexplicable idiosyncrasy; he does not seek to emulate it. As for the great mass of native judges, subordinate and supreme, who do the greater part of the ordinary business of justice, some are incorruptible: there were incorruptibles in India before we came. But the mass of them, as of the other native officials, are just as they ever were, and, with the whole country leagued to screen them, it is impossible that they shall be otherwise.
The difference under our rule is not so much that justice is done as that the law is enforced. The rich man benefits under this, for a Rajah's government would seldom let a rich man get out of a lawsuit with a full pocket; but the poor man suffers in the same proportion. In the old days the poor debtor was protected by the rapacity of judges and Government. The usurer dared not go before the Rajah for leave to attach the peasant's stock and crops and land. "Aha," his Majesty would say, "you must have been making money, my friend. We must look into this." But in a British court the sacred contract must be upheld, and the ryot is ruined.
The irony of peace is as bitter. Peace is sometimes a blessing, no doubt; but then so sometimes is war. War was the salt that kept India from decay. It caused horrible suffering, presumably, though in India not perhaps much more than peace; at least it conspired with famine and pestilence to keep the population down. All three have been greatly mitigated under our rule, and now a prodigiously increasing multitude is a dead weight on the general prosperity of native India and a night-mare to her foreseeing statesmen. But that is not the only, nor the direst, curse of peace. India is effete. It strikes you as very, very old — burned out, sapless, tired. Its peoples, for the most part, are small, languid, effeminate. Its policies, arts, industries, social systems stagnate, and the artificial shackles of caste bind down their native feebleness to a completer sterility. Now the old wars periodically refreshed this effeteness with strains of more vigorous blood. Most of the greatest names of Indian history, the wisest policies, the bravest armies, the noblest art, belong to races of newcomers. It seems that the soil and climate of India need but three or four generations to sap the vitality of the most powerful breed.
Now that Britain keeps the peace in the plains and guards the passes of the hills, there will come in no invaders to renew the energies of the weakened stocks. With each generation of firm and just rule the ill effects will percolate deeper and deeper. Failing some new process of quickening, the weary races of India must inevitably dwine and die of sheer good government.
Whence is the new life to come? From us? The gulf between Briton and native yawns no less deep to-day — perhaps deeper — than when the first Englishmen set up their factory at Surat. Our very virtues have increased the gap that was in any case inevitable between temperaments so opposite as Britain's and India's. Justice India can do without; for peace she does not thank us. This, too, will grow worse and worse with time, instead of better. The men who knew the sufferings of intestine war are long since dead; their grandsons, not knowing wherefrom we have delivered them, are naturally not grateful for deliverance. Even the best educated natives are very ignorant of Indian history; they simply do not know from what we have saved them. Even if they did, things would be little better; for, although it is a silly fiction that no native of India can be grateful, political and national gratitude is a watery feeling at the best.
What else have we to count on for the regeneration of India? Christianity? It has made few converts and little enough improvement in the few; is it not too exotic a religion to thrive in Indian soil? Actual fusion of blood has done as little. It is usual to sneer at the Eurasian as combining the vices of both parents, but this appears to be a slander. In the days when generals married begums Eurasians counted many men of ability and character; that you hear of few now is more likely due to the fact that the modern breed is almost necessarily of a low type on both sides. As it is, Eurasians fill a place most creditably which nobody else could fill. Industrially, as overseers, foremen, railway-guards, and the like, they are an almost indispensable link between white and native. But to expect them to form a link in any deeper sense, even though a Viceroy expresses the hope, is over-sanguine. It may be unjust, but there remains a prejudice against them among white and native alike.
And after all, what link could bind together such opposites? Language and education and assimilation of manners are powerless to bridge so radical a contradiction. What close intercourse can you hope for, when you may not even speak of your native friend's wife? Native men are antipathetic to European women; native women must not be so much as seen by European men. A clever and agreeable Brahman told me that he would not let even his own brother see his wife. I do know one white man who did once see his native friend's wife. "This is my study," said he; "that" — as a swathed figure shuffled silently and rapidly across the room from door to door — "is my wife; that is the presentation clock from my pupils at the college." And he was an exceptionally broad-minded man. Those who know and like the natives best tell you that you can never speak with the best-known and best-liked of them for any time without a constraint on both sides which forbids intimacy. "Of all Orientals," says the one Englishman who has come nearest to knowing them,1 "the most antipathetical companion to an Englishman is, I believe, an East Indian. . . . Even the experiment of associating with them is almost too hard to bear. . . . I am convinced that the natives of India cannot respect a European who mixes with them familiarly." Nature seems to have raised an unscalable barrier between West and East. It has lattices for mutual liking, for mutual respect; but true community of mind it shuts off inexorably.
Every loophole of optimism seems closed — except one. When all is said and done, we have only been in India a little over a hundred years — in many parts of it hardly fifty. To immemorial India that is like half an hour; and when we first went to India we were, after all, not very much less corrupt — whether there or at home — than India is to-day. To move the East is a matter of centuries; and yet it moves. Often it seems that to mean the right thing only ends in doing the wrong one. We have made, and are making, abundant mistakes: in administration and education we seem to be running further and further off the right lines. But in the East it is especially fatal to say "Too late" too soon. We have done much good material work; everywhere we have made two blades of grass grow where there was but one. We have been honest and we have done our best. Whatever we have done or left undone, we have imported into public affairs a new morality. It may not yet have been widely imitated, but that is rather a reason for hope than despair. No morality worth having was ever adopted from the Sinai of a conqueror. What there is in native India of public spirit, of unswerving public integrity, of unsparing devotion to public duty, we may set down to our credit; and we may say that if it grows slowly it is the likelier to live long. It is far too early to despair of India yet. It is not only the land of ironies, it is also the land of patience.
1 Sir Richard Burton.