Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
Indian Life in Town and Country
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo



IT would require a thousand interviewers to report on “The Indian at Home” in all his phases. From the palace of the rajah to the hut of the ryot; from the furnished mansions of the Europeanised Parsees to the cave dwellings of some of the religious devotees; from the Swiss châlet-like cottages of the Himalayan mountaineers, perched high on craig, to the boats on the sea and river that give residence to an amphibious population; from the tents of the nomadic tribes in the deserts and the tree that shelters some of the pastoral races, to the crowded ant-nests of humanity in some of the city caravanserais, — from all these specimens of town and country life, city and jungle life, river and desert life, it is impossible to make a typical selection.

“There is safety in mediocrity,” I was once informed by a Bengali baboo, who inclined to a middle course. And perchance a middle-class Hindu’s house in Bengal will give us a sufficiently good idea of domestic life. I am beholden for my details to two or three Hindu gentlemen who have written on the subject.

The house is that of a well-to-do retired tradesman, let us say, who can afford to live comfortably. He is an elderly man, but his old crone of a mother is still alive, his four sons are all married, and have children, whilst two of his brothers and a son, deceased, have left widows, who, under the patriarchal system, all dwell under the same roof. It is a little commune, where the money earners contribute their wages to a common purse, from which the expenditure is apportioned by the head of the house, and where the womenfolk undertake all the domestic duties, with considerably more than their share foisted on the widows, except the old grandmother who rules in the zenana. Children tumble about promiscuously, and there is a general sensation of over-population within the walls. Privacy there is none, saving the fundamental privacy which partitions off the women’s from the men’s quarters.

The house stands in a garden, well cultivated, and containing a well or tank, and several shady trees. It is double storied, and the upper floor is reached by a cramped corkscrew staircase. The ground plan forms three sides of a square, with a courtyard in the centre, and the fourth side contains a dállán, or open reception-hall, which is a sort of general room, drawing-room (no ladies admitted), clubroom, schoolroom, and chapel. The most distinctive feature of the building are its verandahs. The interior is barn-like, owing to the absence of all furniture, and your first impression, as a European, is that of entering a disused house. One or two of the ground-floor rooms may be paved, but those upstairs are plastered with a coating of cow-dung over a layer of earth, as wood is not considered clean enough to eat off of. The walls are distempered, such a thing as wall-paper being unknown in India, where the damp of the rainy season would soon peel off that which the white ants spared. If you are permitted to peep into the zenana, in the absence of the inmates, you will see a little more decoration than in the men’s quarters; but even here the most noticeable article is a commodious bed, and a few rude pictures painted on the walls are the only relief to the general suggestion of bareness. In lieu of chairs, there are small rugs or mats for the women to sit on, and the narrow windows are grated, not glazed. The whole interior is singularly dark and gloomy. There is no glass- or china-ware, brass taking their place, and you particularly observe the brass spittoons placed conspicuously about.

The karta, or head of the family, is a fat and elderly gentleman, whose costume consists of a single sheet wrapped round his waist, much as Englishmen adjust a bathing-towel on issuing from their tubs. We should call him a scandalously indecent old fellow, but you will find that all the men in the house adopt this principle of semi-nudity in their homes. Here, too, the turban is generally laid aside, and, needless to say, all the shoes have been left at the threshold, just as Europeans leave hats on a hall-stand. The karta’s head is shaved, except for a tuft on the back centre of the poll; he wears a necklace of beads to assist him in his prayers, and a “sacred thread” girdles him from shoulder to waist, which is the insignia of his high caste. His brown naked skin shines from its polish of mustard oil, a very favourite application, and his chief employment is squatting on his hunkers and smoking a hookah.

The routine of household life is singularly simple. At the earliest sign of dawn, for all India is awake and stirring long before sunrise, the widows of the house come stealing down from the upper rooms to perform their ablutions, which, in the chilly morning air of the cold weather, consist of a perfunctory pouring of water over hands and face, to be followed by a bath later in the day. The sweeping and dusting of the house is a very simple operation, and where the floor is the common table, it is necessarily kept scrupulously clean. Then follows the milking of the cows and goats, for every one who can, keeps these in a country where milk takes the place of tea, coffee, cocoa, ale, wine, and spirits. The drawing of water also is no slight task where the household is a large one, but it is not necessary for washing purposes, as everybody goes to the well or tank for that purpose, and even the women bathe in the open, changing their wet garments for dry ones with such quickness and dexterity as to deceive the eye like a conjurer’s trick.

By this time, the men of the house will be beginning to stir, and custom demands that the women should retire to their own part of the building. Dressing with the men is a simple affair, but their ablutions take a long time, being accompanied by an immense amount of teeth-washing and expectoration. Cleansed and purified, the worship of the household gods next demands attention. These are rather images than idols. In a niche of a room, squatting upon its own little altar, is the representation of the deity the family worship, In front of this, puja has to be made, and its precincts sprinkled with rice and flowers. There is more punctuality about family prayers in Bengal than in Britain, only ladies are not admitted. After this observance, hookahs are lighted, and the lords and masters while away the time until the womenfolk serve the morning meal, which is the principal one of the day.

In those houses where the expense can be afforded, a Brahmin is kept as cook, for any one can eat of what he has prepared, whilst if the women of the house do the cooking, only those of the same caste can be entertained. It requires no small amount of skill to obtain variety and tempt the appetite with the somewhat limited resources of a Hindu larder. You may enumerate the contents as ghee (rancid butter), oil, spices, vegetables, grain, and fish, which is a permissible diet, and almost a staple where a river or the sea is at hand. Allowing for the difference of taste, Hindu culinary science leaves crude British methods far behind. The possibilities of rice have never been suspected in England, where it is only imported to be barbarously treated, whereas, properly boiled, spiced, and flavoured, it has inherent capabilities not inferior to maccaroni. Cooking is a universal accomplishment in the East; amongst those who profess the art are chefs whose skill is exquisite, such for instance as the Mugs of Chittagong; but apart from the professional cook, “every schoolboy” can prepare his own dinner, and when in service every man is his own cook.

The Bengali’s menu is varied, and his appetite enormous. Measure for measure, your Indian will far outstrip the European in eating capacity. On the floor, four or five large dishes and as many small ones figure, consisting of soup, fish, currie, rice, cakes, puddings, porridge, pulse, and fruit, but very different in their component parts from what the English are accustomed to under the same names, and in their order of serving.

Every one eats with his fingers. The women wait upon the men; withal very carefully, for each man has his own platter, and to touch it or him, even though it is his wife who does so, contaminates his food and renders it uneatable. Another peculiarity of caste is that no individual may leave his seat until all his fellows have finished their meal. Any food remaining uneaten has to be thrown away, or given to pariahs, human or canine. In some castes, it is essential for a man to bathe before partaking of food, and the meal is often required to be eaten in nudity, with merely a loin-cloth worn.

After the morning meal those who have occupation depart, not to eat again till nightfall, unless it be a few sweetmeats to stay the pangs of hunger. The master of the family, in such a household as I am describing, who has grown-up sons to carry on his business, will probably leave it to them, and pass his time till the heat of the day in smoking and chewing pán, which is a sort of “quid” indulged in inordinately by both men and women. It is composed of betel nut, spices, and lime, and the spittoons to which I have referred are a very necessary adjunct in a house. In the heat of the day, every Indian who can manage it indulges in a siesta. With the decline of the sun at three o’clock, the social hours begin, and the men wander forth to “eat the air.” Pastimes, in the English sense of the word, the Hindu has few or none. He does not ride, shoot, or subject himself to any physical exertion; indeed, such is held to be derogatory. Fishing is an exception, and he is remarkably fond of the piscatorial art. He also plays cards or chess occasionally. But his chief pleasure consists in chattering and visiting, disputing and arguing, and if he has the chance of dissipation it is freely indulged in. His life is full of holidays, which have to be respected on religious grounds, and afford him much scope for the exercise of his lazy and dilettante idiosyncrasies.

Meanwhile, the women remain shut up in the seclusion of the domestic part of the house, but far from idle. The superintendence of the cooking is in itself a task that occupies a long time, and there are three meals to be served, one for the men, another for the children, and a third for the women themselves. They, too, must have their midday nap, and bathing and devotions cannot be neglected. Perhaps in the afternoon the Hindu lady finds a little spare time for visiting or receiving a visit from her women friends, and even playing a game of cards. Later on, she makes her toilette, and although compliments or admirers can never come her way, she bestows great attention upon her dress and ornaments, and daily smears her forehead with the patch of vermilion that denotes her married state. In the evening, there may be a story-teller, an old woman eloquent with ancient legend, called in to make an hour pass, but you will find no such things as books, musical instruments, sketching materials, or the ordinary diversions and distractions one is accustomed to associate with womankind in her boudoir. The Bengali lady’s costume, it may be noted, consists of one piece of cloth wound round her body in a way to cover it, but it hardly serves to conceal the symmetry, and the thin muslins in fashion often render it indecorous. In those parts of India where the Mahomedan influence has made itself most felt, the women wear trousers, which are always fashioned of coloured cloth in contradistinction to the men’s, which are seldom anything but white. A more hideous garment than the woman’s pyjama probably does not exist. But the Bengali lady is very classically draped, and sometimes presents a most voluptuous sight.

The evening brings supper and the preparations for it, and this is the concluding function of the day. There is no recreation afterwards, for as it is early to rise, so it is early to bed. Indeed, in the ill-lighted Hindu house, any recreation, except conversation, after dark is practically impossible.

The home-life of the peasant presents a more primitive picture. The distinction of a zenana is beyond his means, or, more probably, not necessary in his caste. His home is a hut, containing a single room, the walls of mud, the roof thatched, and the interior as bare as a barn. In the plains country, he lives in a village in which the houses cluster together, a survival of the old predatory days of rapine and foray, when men had to gather in communities in order to protect themselves, and many a field was ploughed and many a harvest gathered under an armed guard. Even now the custom has survived of enclosing villages within a wall, making each a miniature stronghold. Around them stretch the cultivated lands and fields, not divided by hedges and ditches, but apportioned off in tiny plots, intermingling with one another, their boundaries defined by low earth banks. A man may possess half an acre cut up into half a dozen such plots, and interspersed with the holdings of others, like the black and white squares on a chess-board.

The peasant rises early and performs his ablutions, and in this respect the native of India might set an example to his agricultural brother in more civilised lands, for he laves himself with water very frequently. He is off early to the fields, taking some cold food with him to break his fast. At noon, his wife brings him his dinner, which is generally followed by a sleep. From three till sunset, he is again at the plough or whatever work is in progress. Ploughing is the only operation not shared in by the women, who, in addition to helping their husbands in the fields, perform all the household work. If the fine zenana lady has cause to complain of time hanging heavily on her hands, her humbler sister cannot. Apart from her domestic duties, there is water to be brought in, often entailing a long journey, and fuel to be provided. The working up of cow-dung into what are familiarly known as “cakes” for fuel, and plastering them on the side of the but to dry in the sun, absorb no inconsiderable portion of her time; or, maybe, wood has to be cut and carried from the distant jungle if the house is in a timbered district. At the busy seasons, you may see the woman working whilst her husband is enjoying his siesta, and it is rarely that any time is restful for her. She knows, too, what it is to be hungry whilst her husband is satisfied, and the pride and satisfaction of “dressing the baby” can never be hers, whose children are habitually naked.

The thriftiness of the peasant is marvellous. I have often seen the women sweeping the little khéts, or fields of rice, with a hand-broom after harvest to collect the fallen grain, and gathering singly those ears that happen to have ripened before the bulk of the crop. In the mango season, it is not an uncommon thing to suspend one meal because sustenance can be derived from the wild fruit. And, for waste, the care with which grain just sufficient for a meal, no more and no less, is estimated, indicates a mind as calculating as it is frugal. And this grain, be it noted, except in Bengal and other favoured rice-growing districts, is rarely rice, which is far too much of a luxury for the peasant’s fare. His ordinary food consists of millet, pulse, and other coarse grain, with salt and chillies for a condiment.

Cattle have been called the peasant’s children, and next only to himself is his heed for them. If you wanted to express the ryot’s idea of perfect prosperity, you have only to add a yoke of oxen to the three acres and a cow which were once held out as a lure to the English agricultural voter.

There are millions of peasants in India who exist on half an acre, and whose cattle for eight months in the year are little removed from walking skeletons. In Australia, they allow an acre for each sheep; were it possible to allow the same in India for the human being, the standard of comfort would be considerably increased.

The native of India has one capacity which more civilised people do not possess. He can make himself at home anywhere, and adapt himself to all sorts and conditions of places. Away from his own home, he experiences no trouble about lodging. He will “fix up” anyhow. His bed is a blanket, which he invariably carries with him; his impedimenta a water-vessel and a pan to cook his food in. His apartment is a circle swept clear and clean on the bare earth, under a tree for choice. Except in the colder latitudes, where a tent is necessary, there is no need to make any arrangements for servants when travelling or camping out. They turn in like dogs; on the floor of a verandah, at the door of your tent, in the stable, under a tree, or sheltered by the bullock cart that is carrying your equipage. On the highways of India, you will see under almost every shady tree the ashes of burnt-out fires, which represent the camping-grounds of wayfarers. In towns and cities, there are places called “serais,” where the charge for accommodation varies from a halfpenny to fourpence a night, but they are merely open sheds, and many a native prefers to save his halfpenny and camp under the walls outside. When the crops are ripening, the peasant erects a machán, or elevated squatting place, in the middle of his fields, and remains on the watch all night to scare away the deer, jackals, wild pig, and other predatory animals that loot his crops. A man will make a pilgrimage that takes him many weeks, and never pay a farthing for lodging all the time. Many of the pastoral tribes have no roof, except the vault of heaven.

In city life, the case is very different, and the many-storied human warrens of such places as Calcutta and Bombay can only be likened to ants’ nests. In a native city like Lucknow or Hyderabad, where the Mahomedan element predominates, and the seclusion of all the women is necessary, the overcrowding transcends the Jews’ quarters in Whitechapel. Under such conditions, caste, and even custom, have to give way to convenience, or, at least, what is practicable, and domestic privacy in its rural state becomes impossible except for the wealthy. For rents have to be paid, and that is a very disagreeable form of expenditure in a land where, although the population is as poor as the proverbial church mouse, yet it is a fact that more than four fifths of the people pay no rent, but live in their own houses!

To summarise the Indian home, you may say that it affords shelter from the sun and rain, and supplies that amount of privacy which walls can afford. But when you seek for comfort, taste, and decoration, you seek in vain. In its social aspect, it is entirely wanting in that spirit which lends enchantment to our own idea of home life, and leaves us little cause to regret that in his selfishness and suspicion the native of India is practically always “not at home” to callers.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.