Here to return to
MEN-AT-ARMS AND SOME OTHERS
UNTIL the Pax Brittanica turned swords into ploughshares, India was an ideal land for the soldier. In its social system, the fighting castes trod close on the heels of the privileged priestly one, and men-at-arms were as sand on the seashore. For those who were fortunate there were kingdoms to be won, and for all, adventure and pillage. The feudal system which obtained presented countless posts of command, and a bold heart seldom had to wait long for promotion. But in this peaceful generation the soldier’s sun has set, and there is only employ for a quarter of a million of men, where a century ago three millions would have been a moderate estimate of the aggregate strength of the standing armies permanently employed.
Except in the military stations, known as “Camps” or “Cantonments,” which correspond to English garrison towns, the Indian soldier is as little in evidence in the daily life of town and country as his brother-in-arms in England. His profession, however, continues to hold its high place in popular esteem, and to have a relation in the army creates a feeling of pride. In popular assemblies, the “sepoy” is accorded a place of honour, and is not debarred admission to the seats of the high, and in private life he is an object of respect and admiration, not to say envy. Nor is this to be wondered at, for he is remarkably well paid and treated. In a country where, as a viceroy has stated, the average monthly income of the population is five shillings and fourpence sterling, the soldier draws a comparatively princely pay of nine shillings and fourpence when he enlists (wherewith he has to feed, but not to lodge himself ), rising by handsome increments to thirteen shillings and fourpence. When he has accomplished a sufficiently long service he retires on a munificent pension of tuppence ha’penny a day. So you may put it that he is able to live in luxury and die in comfort.
Then, again, he is elevated by the prestige which attaches to military service under the ruling power of an empire ruled by the sword. He is a Jack in Office, but generally unobjectionable. Army discipline and the nature of his calling lift him far above the blood-sucking myrmidons of the civil administration, and, apart from his profession, as when he is at home on furlough or has retired on his pension, it is ever a pleasure to meet him. It happened that for some years I employed a large body of native labourers, amongst them many boys of sixteen to twenty, of whom a few here and there used to enlist. And when they next turned up, and came to make their salaam, well-set, smart, soldierly, respectful men, but with the national characteristic of servility eradicated, it was a delight to note the improvement in them. They seemed to have benefited as much under Government military service as their fellows who went into the police and other civil employments had degenerated, and they verified the assertion sometimes made by old martinet drill-sergeants, that there is no school like the army.
The native of India in private life is a slovenly man when he is in the habit of wearing clothes; the very fashion of his costume is a premium on untidiness, and his detestation of physical exertion makes him a sloucher. You may tell a sepoy by his carriage as easily as you can a London policeman by his boots. And when he is in uniform there are few more picturesque soldiers in the Empire, as London has observed and noted. Hodge, translated from the plough to the parade-ground is a difficult subject to etherialise, even when you dress him up in a scarlet coat; but Kareem Bux and Poorun Singh, togged out in khaki “to kill,” with smart puggari, accoutrements, and arms, seldom fail to do justice to their cloth, especially if they come of one of the superior fighting races, whose physique only needs the drill-sergeant to bring out its admirable points. Even the little Ghoorka, with his bow-legs, squat frame, and Mongolian features, presents a pleasing picture of smartness in uniform.
In England, there are four international groups of fighting-men associated with the four divisions of the United Kingdom and Ireland. In India, as befits its cosmopolitan nature, the martial races are numerous, and merely to catalogue them would fill a page, and leave only bewilderment behind. The Indian soldier always serves with his fellows, whether it be in a regiment composed exclusively of his own caste or race, or in a “mixed” regiment, in which some companies are of one, some of another caste. Racial feeling runs strong, and leads to great emulation, and the older corps, who have a history (the Mutinies terminated the majority of them), are as proud and tenacious of their traditions as the most famous of British and Irish regiments.
In the piping times of peace, the Indian soldier is a singularly peaceful man. Where his caste permits, his womenfolk live in barracks with him, and the cantonment is a small city in its way, with its own bazaar, its numerous “followers,” and innumerable wives and children. Very interesting and curious is it to note the way in which these latter learn to drill and fit themselves for their father’s profession, which, in this land of inherited occupations, they usually follow; and to see the little chaps, down to veritable toddlers, going through regimental evolutions and manoeuvres with the precision of the parade‑ground, is an object-lesson in the hereditary tendency.
The British public has a very fair idea of the Indian soldier or trooper from the opportunities of study presented by the representative bodies that have from time to time paraded the streets of London. Looking at their fine stalwart figures, at the mere height, weight, bulk, and girth of some of them, it is difficult to credit the simplicity of their fare and the frugality of their lives in their native land. Most of them are vegetarians, and those big-boned frames and brawny muscles are innocent of any bolstering up with flesh food. Even in a country where meat sells at a penny a pound, the sepoy (putting his caste aside) cannot afford such luxuries as beef, mutton, or goat, except on high days and holidays. Wheat and Indian corn are his staple food. In drinking, he is even more temperate, confining himself to water and milk. It is not our ideal diet for a martial folk; but what shall we say when we cone to his idea of a “treat”? Not for him the amber ale of the canteen, or the nut-brown rum associated with splicing the main-brace. Give him a good junket of sweetmeats or treacle! You cannot offer him anything he appreciates or enjoys more.
In short, the man-at-arms of modern India is no longer a blustering, blood-drinking, pillaging freebooter, but a temperate, orderly, well-behaved individual, who sends a great portion of his pay home to his people in his native village, or deposits it in the regimental bank. Notwithstanding, when it comes to the day of battle, you shall find him not a whit less brave than those heroic fighters who faced the English at Laswarrie, Sobraon, and ChillianWallah. Under British officers there are few tasks he will not attempt, and as the Sikhs proved at Saraghari, the Ghoorkas at Dar-gai, and many of the other races in the brilliant military annals of India, Jack Sepoy is a first-rate fighting-man.
When you come to the soldiery of the native states, there is another tale to tell, with the exception of the Imperial Service troops, lately introduced, who are as fine material as any commander could wish to lead. For the rest, the rajahs’ irregulars fully deserve the designation of rag-tag and bob-tail usually applied to them, and in a service where the pay is not only poor, but problematical, and the pension to seek, they are apt to degenerate into Jacks in Office of the predatory sort. But they serve the useful purpose of reminding us what the man-at-arms of India was in the past, and engender a pleasant sense of satisfaction at what he has developed into under British rule.
So much for the administrative and military classes, the Jacks in Office objectionable and unobjectionable, who loom large in the eye, although they only represent a minute fraction of the total population of India. They are men of assured employment and pay, and by reason of it stand out as a privileged class. The Indian Empire, it must be remembered, is an empire of paupers; nine out of ten are agriculturists, and we have seen what are the conditions of the peasant’s life. The trading classes can be passed without particular description, whilst we take a glance at some of those callings which are indigenous to the soil, and have an established place in the economy of daily life in India.
And first of all the barber, no insignificant personage in the East, where every man is obliged to shave, and forbidden by his religion to operate on himself. The barber has an official appointment in the Hindu village, with au endowment of land to support its dignity, and a vested right to the shaving of its inhabitants, which can be protected by legal injunction in case of infringement. With the exception of a few races, every native of India shaves his head, and not a few of them their faces. Amongst the Hindus, the business is compulsory, for sin is supposed to adhere to the hairs of the head, and they can undertake no religious ceremony or rite without being divested of their locks. The dead are always shaved prior to cremation, and shaving the face by the survivors is the outward and visible sign of mourning. The Mahomedan, too, shaves his head (leaving a tuft for the Prophet to pull him into heaven by) but never his chin, although he clips his moustache close to his upper lip, thereby often spoiling the effect of a magnificent beard.
The Indian barber attends his customer, not the customer the barber’s shop. This carries him into the home-life of the people in a way which is open to no other calling. He enjoys an even greater reputation for gossip than the barber in other countries, and might, indeed, be termed a peripatetic “Daily Male.” Prom the nature of his business, he has become the matrimonial agent of the East, and, with his wife, arranges most of the alliances, being the accredited go-between and matchmaker of Hindustan. He is skilful with the razor, and will cut your nails, clean your ears, and manicure you after his fashion. He travels about with a little bag under his arm, containing his instruments, and the looking-glass, which plays a most important part in his profession. There is no more essential personage in the daily life of the East than the barber, without whose aid the marriage market would languish, and the dead carry with them to the other world as many sins as there are hairs on their heads, for such is the superstition of Hinduism.
Another important individual is the astrologer, who is naturally a Brahmin, and often the family priest. He, too, may be said to be indispensable to the Hindu, for he is supposed to be able to avert all sorts of evil influences in a country which is crushed by superstition; where a child who accidentally kicks its foot against a stone makes a salaam to it to propitiate the evil spirit, and the man who ascends a ladder mutters a pious prayer to it not to collapse under his weight. No prudent Hindu does anything material without first consulting the family astrologer. When a child is born, the Brahmin casts its horoscope; when a marriage is arranged, he fixes the auspicious day and hour; when a journey has to be undertaken, he advises the time to start; and he has his say in the initiation or completion of every important business. In marriages especially, he is a despot, and there are extended periods during the year when no Hindu would dream of marrying. In his priestly character, the astrologer blesses houses and wells, consecrates new idols, purifies people who have accidentally slipped from caste, and officiates at weddings and funerals, for all of which he draws his fees. He is a prodigious humbug, who earns a very nice income by charlatanism.
We are accustomed to speak of the “humble” potter, perhaps because he works with mud. But the potter in India is an artist, and there are three and a half millions in the land. As there are men, mustard manufacturers to wit, who make their fortunes out of what is thrown down the sink, so the Indian potter makes much of his livelihood by what is cast on the dust-heap. The poorer class natives of India dine off the rudest earthenware platters, and there is a caste prejudice against using the same dish twice, which creates an immense demand for cooking pots and plates. Water is always stored in pitchers, and we know what happens to the pitcher that goes to the well.
The Indian pitcher is called a gurrah, and is circular-shaped, with a small mouth. It contains as much water as you would ordinarily care to lift, and its price is three farthings if you buy a rupee’s worth, or a penny for one. Such a thing as a metal water-can was practically unknown in India until within the last decade, when the empty five-gallon kerosene-tin has been adapted to that purpose, much to the prejudice of the potter. However, he has a monopoly of making clay gods and roofing tiles. Sir George Birdwood, in his striking book on the Industrial Arts of India, displays an enthusiasm about the potter, “under whose hand the shapeless heap of clay grows into all sorts of faultless forms of archaic fictile art.” The potter is a hereditary village officer, and receives certain very comfortable fees. His position is respected, and he enjoys the privilege of beating the drum at merry-makings. He shares with the barber a useful and lucrative place in the community, and there is probably no member of it who is happier in his lot, and less liable to the vicissitudes of fortune.
The mention of the drum recalls to mind the musicians and dancers of the East, who are in great request at all festivities. The dancing-girl will be dealt with in another chapter, for she deserves more than an incidental notice. The musical artist plays upon a variety of instruments, skin, string, and wind, and manages to evoke from these, sounds that convey the maximum of discord to English ears. Performers apparently derive more pleasure from beating a drum than the average British four-year-old in the nursery. Moreover, their music, such as it is, goes on for ever. Having engaged his band of musicians, the Indian employer insists on having his money’s worth. The Oriental concert lasts as long as a cricket match. Tomtoming and twangtwanging, varied with constant and inconsequent blasts from a horn, continue from morn to long past midnight. The orchestra sits in a semicircle on the ground with stolid, solemn faces, which periodically break out into terrifying grimaces as they expel a series of notes intended to be song. That the native ear enjoys it, there can be no doubt, but it is equally certain that it enjoys English music played out of tune. One of the most curious importations into India is what is known in England as the “German Band.” This has become a recognised institution in the East, and has superseded the native one as being more noisy, I imagine, and more fashionable. The instruments, with the exception of the drums, are all of brass, and there is a decided partiality for those which assume the shapes of antediluvian monsters, and wind about the person. I remember one such band visiting the jungle I resided in during a particularly auspicious marriage month. Its répertoire consisted of four or five tunes, which it repeated with a maddening monotony, and all out of tune. A very favourite tune with these wandering minstrels is For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, and another, Yankee Doodle, and they are played indiscriminately at marriages and funerals. The social status of the musician is low — which it decidedly deserves to be.
Entertainers in India are always “on tour,” for there are no fixed places of amusement. Conjurers, acrobats, monkey men, bear leaders, snake charmers, perambulate the country, picking up a precarious living. They “pitch” where they can, like Punch and Judy men. I do not remember ever to have seen one who could be considered anything but a beggar; but the better class are probably confined to the palaces of the rajahs and the houses of the wealthy. The population is too practical and joyless to waste money on amusement; the native never gives a hearty laugh, indeed, it is a breach of good manners to do so. How shall you expect him to pay for the pleasure of laughing or being amused? He scorns delights; nothing shocks his sense of propriety so much as a ball, and he calls a picnic a “lunatic feed.” You may look in vain throughout India for such means of entertainment as a picture-gallery, a music-hall, a promenade-pier, a recreation-ground, a magazine, an illustrated or comic paper, a pleasure-boat, a horse-race, a regatta, or a museum, except where the Englishman has established them. These things are quite outside the genius of the people.
The native Indian doctor is a quack pure and simple, who works much with nostrums, incantations, and charms. When he is called in, it is often as a resident, for he proceeds to take up his abode in the patient’s house, and lives there as long as he decently can. He has no diploma or qualification, and any one is at liberty to practise the healing art if he can get patients. His reputation is made by word of mouth, and did you analyse the result of his practice, you would probably find he was a wholesale manslaughterer. In India, no death-certificate is required, and the coroner is unknown. It is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands die annually from preventable causes. Cremation follows death in twelve hours at the utmost, often in three or four, and inquests are impracticable. Speedy disposal of the dead is not only a climatic necessity but a religious duty. No one may eat whilst a corpse is in the house. Nay, this rule is extended in some cases, and in my plantation, no one might eat whilst a corpse remained within the boundaries of it, and, when one of my coolies died, it meant the entire establishment fasting until he was carried out to be burnt. Under such conditions, investigation into the cause of death is impossible, and when you add to them the privacy of the zenana system for women, you arrive at a premium on secret assassination. That this is largely practised in India, there can be no doubt.
But the native doctor assassinates openly, and his instrument is ignorance. He divides all maladies into “hot” ones and “cold” ones. Bleeding is as favourite a remedy with him as it was in England a hundred years ago. Every native of India, well or ill, is periodically bled, and would conceive himself in mortal danger if he omitted it. A common domestic cure for a headache is a plaster of cow-dung smeared over the forehead. There are many useful drugs in the Indian pharmacopoeia, but quantity rather than quality seems to appeal to the native mind. I have often been informed with pride that the mixture prescribed by a certain baid or hakim contained ten, fifteen, or twenty ingredients, as though efficacy lay in numbers. In this connection, I may notice one thing, namely the quick and beneficial effect medicine has on the vegetarian constitution, which seems to respond to treatment much more easily than that of the flesh-eating European. I have been astounded sometimes at the “cures” effected by a dose of chloradyne and a mustard plaster, which seemed to “touch the spot” with miraculous precision. In my plantation, I dosed many hundreds of coolies for many years with not more than half a dozen drugs, and though I have just previously referred to defunct labourers, I have few sad memories in that connection, whilst, on the other hand, I have many very satisfactory recollections of men restored to health who appeared far more ill than I should like to be.
Perhaps the most important personage in India, if you bear in mind the influence he wields, is the village headman. The village system is communal, and the lumberdar or patél is the hereditary functionary who governs it. He is the link between the villagers and the Government, and collects the taxes, on which he draws a dustoorie of five per cent. He has many privileges, as one in authority, and makes the most of them; but if he squeezes where he can, he is, on the whole, very loyal to his flock. He is much more than a tax-collector or a mayor, being invested with a patriarchal prestige, and, if he is a man of force of character, exerts great personal influence. In the first place, he is the recognised mouthpiece of the community he governs; then he is called in to settle disputes, expected to entertain strangers, and the effective working of the village machinery depends upon him. His charity is frequently encroached upon to relieve the needy. For another of the anomalies of India is that, although it is the poorest country in the British Empire, and boasts a civilisation two thousand years old, there is absolutely no provision for the poor throughout the length and breadth of the land. The charitable instinct of the people is the only thing that stands between its poor, its aged, its infirm, and death by starvation. Only when a famine scourges the land does Government grant any “relief,” and in this Empire of paupers there is not such a thing as a poorhouse!
Whereby begging has become a recognised institution and sometimes a lucrative profession in India. The poor and needy we may pass over with the remark that they are desperately poor and pathetically needy. The crippled and de. formed require notice. Such loathsome and terrible sights as you may see are too horrible to attempt to describe. Perhaps the worst of all are the lepers, who infest the highways, and when they fail in obtaining compassion have a power of compulsion in cursing; for a “leper’s curse” is a calamity few will dare to encounter, and the leper vituperates roundly when he conceives he has a cause.
Apart from those miserable creatures who owe their deformities or diseases to Providence, there is a large class who maim and deform themselves in the name of religion, and trade upon their deformities. You see them in thousands at the places of pilgrimage, with shrivelled limbs, withered from deliberate disuse, and other incredibly dreadful contortions, contractions, and deformities. These are not impostors, but men who have wittingly maimed themselves and thereby incurred a certain character for sanctity. The tortures they must have endured before the limb dried up from disuse, or the finger-nail grew through the palm, or the uplifted arm was stiffened in its posture above the head, appeal vividly to the charitable eye, and represent their stock-in-trade as professional beggars. Kings amongst them are the fakirs, and other religious mendicants, who clothe their nakedness in ashes, roam the land in thousands, and batten on the superstition of the people. These have no self-inflicted deformity to parade; inherent holiness is their cue, and their craft a complete knowledge of the weakness of womankind. Impudent, lazy, good-for-nothing rogues, many of them grow fat, and do far worse things in the course of their abominable careers, practising their arts and seductions, and under the specious guise of asceticism living the lives of debauchees and blackmailers.
India is a strange country of contrasts; and one of the strangest of them is the stark poverty of the starving, industrious peasant, and the sleek impudence of the lazy, improvident beggar, who masquerades as a holy man and lives comfortably on the charity of the neediest nation in the world.