Here to return to
IN THE SUNSHINE
“ARE you happy?”
“I am happy.”
That is one of the commonest forms of salutation in the East, corresponding to our “How d’you do?” — “Quite well, thank you.” But the conventional inquiry and stereotyped reply mean little. “I am happy,” a man answered me once, with a very lugubrious face, who, I learned on further questioning, had lost nine of his nearest and dearest relations from cholera during the three preceding days.
I am conscious that so far in this attempt to depict daily life in India the colours used have been sombre. It has been unavoidable, for India is a land of penury and privation, struggle and starvation, woe and want, for the vast majority. England is not “merrie” when times are hard; in India, the times are always more or less hard. A popular handbook tells us that the Indian peasant is at the best of times not far from the verge of starvation, and the statement is not exaggerated. I harp on the peasant, but, after all, he is nine tenths of the country.
Let us see what sunshine there is in the lives of the native Indians over and above that superabundance poured upon the land, what are their theories of enjoying themselves, their amusements, their diversions, and recreations. Prosperity and happiness are often synonymous terms, and I think material prosperity yields more unalloyed delight in the East than in the West. There is much of the miser in the native of India, and the accumulation of money, or its equivalent, brings rapture to the brown soul. The money-lender’s ledger is a book whose perusal brings him more pleasure than all the other literature of the East. I have seen a spiritual gleam of happiness on the face of a shepherd, whose features were ordinarily as witless as those of his own sheep and goats, what time the lambing season came round, and things were going well. And I have often observed a peasant squatting on one of the banks that divided his fields, contemplating his ripening crops with a smile that intimated sunshine in his soul. The happiest ryot I ever knew was a landless labourer, who, after twenty years of frugality and self-denial, saved sufficient to buy himself an acre of land. I vow that man was a monument of merriness; his face always engendered a sympathetic grin in mine; it made one happy by infection to look at him. “Happy! Bigly happy!” was his spontaneous ejaculation every time I met him.
But this, after all, does not describe the sort of sunshine the chapter-heading aims at, which rather refers to moral than material cheerfulness. The basis of happiness in England is home life; if a man is happy at home, it makes up for all the kicks he gets abroad. How about the home life of the native of India?
His ideas of domesticity are very foreign to ours, and it is difficult to enter into his feelings. Where he has sons I think probably you can account him content. A son is something more to him than one to the Emperor of Austria or the Tzar of Russia, for a male child is necessary to his salvation in a future state. A great light beams on his house when a son is born. As for his wife, she is quite a secondary consideration; she can be replaced, but a son cannot be assured. I remember sympathising with a native friend, quite a superior man, whose wife and son were both dangerously ill. He was filled with anguish for the latter, but when I ventured a guarded inquiry ( as etiquette demanded) about the former, “Kúch perwáni!” was the reply — “No matter about her.”
The native is a fond parent, often a doting one. He systematically spoils his children. Even a daughter, whose advent is dreaded, will worm her way into her father’s heart. There was another native friend of mine I used to visit periodically who always had a bed brought out for me to sit on, and placed in the shade of a tree in front of his house. By-and-by, as I became a familiar figure, his little daughter would shyly steal out to reconnoitre the sahib, and, growing bolder, nestle in her father’s lap, and proceed to tease him. The thing told its own tale, and I cannot conceive that man was anything but happy in his domestic relation with that daughter. And when she married at the age of twelve, and left his home for good, I often used to think he missed the childish caresses, which he accepted before me with such an air of apologetic shamefacedness, from a loving little girl who would not be denied her demonstration of affection. And I should certainly say that the girl-child, so unwelcome at her birth, had come to be a ray of sunshine — whilst it lasted — in her father’s life.
The inaccessibility of an Indian home makes it impossible for the European to form any trustworthy opinion of its constitutional happiness or otherwise. Hindu writers insist on its joys, and, while admitting the harsh conditions under which they live, declare the womenfolk are contented and happy. This may be true, but it is seldom, if ever, indicated in the external behaviour or the appearance of the females, which rather create the idea of a subdued melancholy. But for the men, I readily admit that affection for “home” in the abstract is a feature in their characters; but I should hesitate before I committed myself as to whether it is for the place or the people in it. It is a difficult topic to touch on in conversation with a native, who never “lets himself out” on this aspect of his life.
Coming to the amusements of the people, you find them singularly crude. There are no national games, save those the English have introduced through the medium of schools. Cricket and football amongst the schoolboys of the modern rising generation are now common enough, but they are only played by the educated youth, and that in India is the equivalent of what the conditions in England would be if the great public schools monopolised those sports. All the world over, children will play, but they have fewer toys to play with in India than in any land I know of, and leave off playing sooner in life than elsewhere, and, as they marry early, grow staid early. I remember talking to a Mahomedan youth twelve years of age, the son of a Nawab, who was going to England to be educated at Harrow. He was married earlier than usual in life for a Mahomedan, because he would be absent when the proper time arrived, and his father wanted the match secured. He was the most precocious boy I ever conversed with, entered into a description of his home life, told me his step-mother was very jealous of him and he always went in fear that she would poison him, described his bride and criticised her want of accomplishments, and protested that he spent his leisure in reading Sadi and the Koran. An Englishman of double his age would not have talked more seriously and soberly, and for his deportment, it was that of a grown-up person. In my plantation I employed a great number of boys from ten or eleven to fifteen or sixteen years of age, and I can never call to mind seeing them playing out of work-hours.
The Indian Tamásha, or entertainment and amusement combined, is one where a few perform and the many look on. Festivals are far more numerous than in England, but (except in the case of fairs, with which I shall deal presently) frolic enters only into one. The annual Déwali festival is a saturnalia of horse-play and indecency, during which the mild and staid Hindu seems to lose his head utterly. He expends his energies in sousing everybody he meets with red water and yellow powder to a chorus of “Holi, holi, holi,” and a commentary of obscene jests and jokes. At certain other festivals, he goes in for gambling. But his general idea of a Bank Holiday has physical laziness at the back of it, and a good long sleep or bask in the sun, smoking his hookah, affords him all the relaxation and enjoyment he seeks.
Horse-racing is unknown to him; cricket and football he does not understand; rowing is the privilege of a caste, being a calling; theatres he has none; the pleasures of a walk for walking’s sake are outside his comprehension; “courting” is against his custom; reading is beyond his powers. If I were asked to summarise his idea of thoroughly amusing himself, I should say sight-seeing. He wants something to look at, not something to do. He dislikes manly sports and hobbies he has none. The idea of a native training for physical proficiency, or bicycling for pleasure, or pigsticking, or taking up photography, or going in for botany, or collecting anything for art’s sake, is too remote to be considered. What are the sports of the great and the rich? Nautch-girls and music, cock-fighting and pitting wild animals one against the other, hunting with a cheetah, or falconry. A few shoot, but from the ease of an elephant’s howdah, or for the “pot.” Ask them to walk up a marsh for snipe and they will think you mad. To aim at a flying bird is accounted folly by the native shikari.
Nor is the native capable of deriving any pleasure from the beauties of nature. A pretty scene, a lovely sunset, an artistic blend of colours lack the power of appealing to him. His nosegays are red and yellow; his finest artists have not the remotest idea of depicting a landscape; he will look at an English picture upside down. Music he enjoys, but it is the sort of music that sends a European distracted. He is not ordinarily tickled by a joke, and he laughs little, and never loudly. There is a certain sour dignity in his code of etiquette which debars him from romping with children, or indulging in any physical pastime, and this repression is extended to those feelings the exhibition of which indicates pleasure with Europeans.
Women are naturally more restricted than men in their pleasures and amusements. Even in the zenanas of the rich, books merely mention their love of dress and jewellery, as constituting their chief pleasure, and story-telling and a game of cards are their principal amusements. The recreations of the lower orders are even fewer, and perhaps their most enjoyable hour is that when the gathering round the well to draw water permits the luxury of a gossip, which they thoroughly appreciate.
Without doubt, feasting affords the greatest general gratification. It is the leading form of entertainment. To feast the Brahmins is particularly enjoined in the sacred books of the Hindus, and no ceremony or festival is complete without a banquet. Beggars congregate on such occasions with the knowledge they will not go away empty. In nine cases out of ten, when your native asks you for leave of absence, it is to attend some burra khána, or big dinner. Backslidings from caste invariably require the giving of a feast to secure forgiveness and purification. In a land where hunger is chronic, and death from starvation periodical, it is easy to understand that a full stomach may mean the acme of joy. No native feeds oftener than twice a day, and in some cases only once. They have prodigious powers of eating, and I have known men lament their Gargantuan appetite as a handicap on their livelihood, and put it forward as a plea for extra pay. On the other hand, there is a species of rice which is very expensive, and only purchased by the wealthy, because (as was explained to me) it is easily digested, and you get hungry again within two hours. The term “prosper and wax fat” has its many illustrations in India, where a man’s worldly circumstances may be correctly gauged by his circumference. Fatness is a charm in women, and a cause for envy in men; khub moti (beautifully fat) is a common phrase of compliment. Eastern life is sensual, and the appetite of the stomach not the least source of pleasure. What drinking is in the West, that is eating in the East; the medium of self-indulgence and conviviality.
I should also feel inclined to rank idleness as one of the chief delights of the Indian. “The apathetic attitude of contemplative Asia” has been made familiar to us in books of travel, but I do not think we quite realise what pure enjoyment there is in some of that apathy. The native is an adept in the art of doing nothing; it never bores him to be idle; on the contrary, he seems to take a positive pleasure in prolonging his inaction, and will squat on his hams by the hour, like a crow on a wall, and enjoy it as much as Western people do reading a novel in an easy armchair, or listening to a concert. I would even go so far as to say of the average native that he is seldom so happy as when he is idle; and outside the islands of the Pacific I doubt if you will find a more devoted disciple of the dolce far niente. The educated mind and the active body of the mentally and physically energetic Briton may make him scout such a contention, but feed the Anglo-Saxon on vegetable diet for three generations, plant him in a tropical climate, eliminate from his resources the ability to read, and reduce his surroundings to those which are within reach of the native, and I fancy he would begin to discover unsuspected possibilities of enjoying himself in the passive.
There is one species of amusement which stands out in the economy of Indian life as universal and supreme, and that is the méla, or fair. It may be a religious festival in honour of some shrine, or a great annual gathering like that of Hurdwar, or a purely commercial business like the cattle-fairs held in various parts of India, but it represents the native’s most extended idea of dissipation. For weeks before, it is the one subject of his anticipation; for weeks after, the one topic of his conversation. It is the single species of festivity in which the women have almost as great a part as the men; not, of course, the poor zenana captives, who are never let out of their prisons, but the ordinary native woman who leaves her home for a holiday as seldom as the omnibus-driver does his box. To them, the fair is what the Christmas pantomime is to children who are taken to the theatre once a year; their glee is childish, and to be forbidden the treat would certainly reduce them to tears.
An Indian fair is a far more picturesque scene than an English one, and none held in England can compete with even a moderate gathering out in the East. As the population of India is numbered in hundreds of millions and that of Great Britain in tens of millions, so it is with the vast and overwhelming multitudes that attend these fairs. They gather together such crowds as nothing short of a Coronation or Jubilee can collect in England. To English eyes, the most extraordinary part of the spectacle is the sudden apparition of more women than you ever suspected were in the land; one wonders where they all spring from, and marvels that so much comeliness should remain hidden, if it is lawful to be seen. But there is a sort of license allowed to women in attending a fair, and for once in a way, all their faces are smiling instead of decorous. You may live many years in India and form the opinion that the women are — I will not say ugly, but decidedly unattractive. Go to a fair, and the revelation bursts on you that they can hold their own in looks with any country in the world. Perhaps it is the unaccustomed smile that lights up their features — usually prudish and stand-offish in the ordinary episodes of life. And yet, no; I can call to mind mélas in the hill-country, where the lighter complexioned races live, which left me with a suspicion that, after all, the Anglo-Saxon woman might not be so beautiful as the Aryan. And one thing is certain about these fairs: they serve to bring out the fair. I do not mean an abominable pun by that, but the simple statement of fact that you see at them a vast number of women who are not daily exposed to the sun, and realise that the women of India are far lighter complexioned than the men.
And then their dresses! The fashion may be two thousand years old, but the wealth of colour, the tinsel, the prodigality of silver jewellery taken in the mass present such a coup d’oeil as would make Ascot or Goodwood look comparatively colourless. It is as an Autumn sunset shining upon Autumn leaves, all warm and glowing, with the glint of running water counterfeited in the abundant silver necklaces, hair-ornaments, bangles, and anklets. The display of jewellery, which assumes a snobbish aspect with the English, never seems excessive in the native woman. I have seen her laden with it, and yet could never think to myself, “You would look far better if you left half of those ornaments at home!” There is no “snobbishness” in the Indian, except in the case of the Europeanised native.
The fun of an Indian fair is noisy and demonstrative; the merry-go-round is a feature of it, and the music is of the loudest. There are the Oriental equivalents of all the itinerant entertainers to which one is accustomed in the West, and the trash offered for sale is quite equal to that purchased at a charity bazaar. As a rule, every one has money to spend, for all have been saving up for this day for months past and temptation to spend it is spread around. A nation which “thinks in cowrie shells” (whereof a hundred go to a penny) can probably make sixpence go farther than any other, and enjoy the going of it more than a people to whom the patronage of a penny-in-the slot machine means a bagatelle and not a day’s wage expended. The slot-machines of India would have to be manufactured to respond to cowrie shells.
I have altogether forgotten fireworks, which are a distinct item in the list of native amusements. The evenings are cool, fine nights can be discounted, and the form of entertainment is one you can enjoy sitting at your ease on the ground. That meets every requirement of the East, and fireworks are one of the most popular forms of amusement. Illuminations, too, must be mentioned; to a people accustomed to live in the dark after nightfall, such exhibitions have a special delight, and the Indian chirág, or oil-lamp, especially adapts itself to the occasion.
If a contented mind is a continual feast, it should take little to make the native happy, for so little contents him, and his horizon is small. He tires slowly of a toy, and in this his otherwise childish capacity for enjoyment contrasts with the easily tired nature of English children. He will listen to the same tune, look at the same performance repeated over and over again, without any apparent diminution of satisfaction. Music and mirth are too rare in his life to bore him easily. He cannot have too much of a good thing, and his entertainments are seldom affairs of less than twelve hours.
I have left to the last perhaps the most typical, as it certainly is the most contradictory, example of the “sunshine of life” in India. Were I asked which was the happiest moment of any year to the average native, I would say, without hesitation, the one in which the sky was dark and threatening — the breaking of the monsoon. There is no music in India like that of falling rain in May or June; no sunshine, literal or metaphorical, that can bring such joy as the clouds which sweep up from the south-west. What the rising of the Nile is to the Egyptian fellah, that and something more is the breaking of the rainy season to the ryots. Out they come tumbling from huts and hovels at the first pitter-patter of the great drops, their grateful eyes lifted to the skies, and the paean of thankfulness, “Rám, Rám, Mahadeo!” bursting from their lips. Here is salvation, here not the happiness of a passing hour, but security for the whole year. I have myself in that arid land felt something of the thrill that follows the falling of rain after a long, hot drought, and for the poor peasant — well, it may be a paradox, a contradiction in terms, but the weeping rain-clouds bring the greatest amount of sunshine into his life.