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ANGLO-INDIAN LIFE

CHAPTER XIII

THE LAND OF EXILE

INDIA has often been called “The Land of Regrets.” It is the logical result of exile. The pervading sentiment in Anglo-Indian life is the consciousness of exile; the dearest word and thought, “Home.” And yet, curiously enough, there are few retired Anglo-Indians who are not often heard to wish themselves back in India!

I have never been able to decide in my mind whether the charms of Anglo-Indian life outbalanced its defects. It is such a mass of contradictions; of sunshine and gloom, of luxury and squalor, of comfort and discomfort. You recall one phase with delight to shrink at the reminiscence of another. India is something more than a foreign country, it is a fantastic country, and it is almost impossible to come at a comparison between the conditions there and those in England, because they differ as much as life at sea and on shore.

People in England have a habit of beginning all conversations with a reference to the weather; this can hardly be avoided when you come to talk of India, for the climatic conditions dominate life there, and make it for the greater part of the year an indoor one. Take a census of the European population any time between ten and four, from March to September, and you shall find it indoors. This, of course, is a very stale piece of information, and you may retort that all office-men and most women in England suffer the same confinement. True, but from a very different necessity, and under very different conditions. There are times on a hot summer’s day when indoors becomes oppressive even in England: it is always oppressive in India. At seasons it is overpoweringly so, as when you live for two or three months at a stretch in a bath of perspiration, and wonder whether you will ever know what it is to be cool again. It debilitates and depresses; the punkah that sways above you with its drowsy rise and fall, and keeps you imprisoned to a square of the carpet, is either an irritant or a soporific; the darkened room affects you with the sadness of a perpetual twilight. Life resolves itself into a negative state, and inanition supervenes on apathy. There are six hundred minutes in some Indian hours, I am sure, and not one of them bearable.

The new arrival, in his fever of Saxon energy and impatience, puts on a hat (that is in itself a handicap on ordinary comfort) and makes a plunge into the roasting sunshine. If under such conditions you can train your mind to think of anything so delicious as an icy blast, it may be said that the east wind is tempered to the shorn lamb; for it is undoubtedly the case that the “Griffin” — who corresponds to the “New Chum” of the Colonies — feels or fears the heat much less than the presumably hardened old stager. I cannot explain this, but it is notorious, and the old Anglo-Indian who returns to England will often find its summer temperature more oppressive than a man who has never experienced a tropical one.

But when you have dared the sun, and are once out of doors in India, what do you gain by it? I vow the only thing more physically disagreeable than indoors is out of doors, and you must be very much in a hurry to see the country to stick to the exchange. There is nothing to recommend it, and your last state is worse than your first. There are only heat, glare, dust, thirst, perspiration, flies, and a conviction that you are not in your proper element; and that is what makes the imprisonment of indoor life in India so hard to suffer — there is absolutely no refuge from it.

Except for the members of the commercial community, India is a land of locomotion and unsettled habitation. Two or three years in any one “station,” as towns are called, is the utmost that can be anticipated. No man lays himself out for a long residence any where, and a permanent home is an unknown quantity to the majority of Anglo-Indians, whose life is practically passed in a succession of furnished apartments. Far more often than not his furniture is hired, and his bungalow rented on a monthly tenancy, so that he may always be ready to strike his tents and shift station at the shortest notice. A man deems himself lucky who is permitted to pass four undisturbed years in one district.

It must not be presumed from my reference to furnished apartments that there are such conveniences in the East, except in the sense that house and furniture are both rented. In city life, a few men reside in hotels, which are cheaper in India than anywhere I know of in the world, the charge being seven to eight shillings a day, and the comfort in ratio to the charge. In the finest hotel in Bombay you will be supplied with only one knife, fork, and spoon, which will be taken away and cleaned after every course! In Calcutta there are a great number of boarding-houses, but the average Englishman, be he married or single, has to keep up his own house and establishment. With bachelors, “chumming” is very common, where there is any one to chum with, but, taken on the whole, life is solitary and ungregarious.

Locomotion is rendered comparatively easy by the railways, but the distances that have to be traversed are enormous. I remember once being a week in trains travelling from Calicut to Lahore, and two to three days is quite an ordinary journey. For shorter distances, every one who can manage it travels by night. No European travels third‑class, and as many as can first, the charge for which is a fraction over a penny a mile. There are in every train carriages set aside for ladies, an arrangement which is very necessary when the railway carriage practically becomes a place of residence for two or three days. Every carriage is a saloon or half-saloon, with a bathroom and lavatory attached, and the seats are so constructed that the backs turn up and form couches or bunks. It is the universal practice in India to carry your bedding about with you; in fact, no one ever leaves home for a single night without his proper complement of quilts, sheets, and pillows, so that the matter of bed-clothes gives no trouble. Male passengers habitually undress and tumble into pyjamas, and ladies adopt the negligé of a dressing-gown. Meals are provided at “Refreshment-room stations” at stated intervals on the line, and, being ordered in advance by the guard, are always ready when the train draws up; the charges vary from two to three shillings for breakfast, tiffin (the Anglo-Indian name for luncheon), and dinner. In the hot weather, the guard always carries ice and soda-water in his van, and these can be purchased at any stopping station en route. A dining-car is unknown in India, where, judging by the length of stoppages at insignificant stations, saving time is of little consideration. The speed of the trains varies from sixteen to twenty-five miles an hour, with the exception of a few mail trains, which may attain thirty. This is quite in accord with the sentiment of the East, where hurry is against the etiquette of native good manners.

A great deal of travelling in India has to be accomplished by horse transit, and a tonga, which is a sort of two-horsed dog-cart, is the commonest vehicle in use, and ambles along at the rate of six miles an hour. After this comes the dák-gharrie, which runs on four wheels. In this you may bridge over the seats, spread your bedding out, and take your ease. Failing these methods of crossing country there is the dhoolie-dák, or palanquin, which still survives in some of the out-of-the-way places. Here you are carried in a recumbent position in a closed-in litter on the shoulders of four men, with a couple to relieve, at a stereotyped pace of three miles an hour, and in a cloud of dust churned up by their shuffling feet. The experienced dhoolie-dák traveller never allows his dhoolie to be set on the ground, whereby he avoids exasperating detentions at the stages where the bearers are changed. In these methods of travelling you put up at dák-bungalows, or Government hostelries, which are erected all along the main Indian roads. They are comfortless places as a rule, in charge of a cook who generally catches and kills a fowl for you when you arrive, and serves it up within twenty minutes. The dák-bungalow is one of the trials of Anglo-Indian life, and has probably had more jokes fathered upon it than English seaside lodging houses; but when you are in one, the joke is not appreciable.

Such are the means by which the Mofussil, “up-country,” or provincial Anglo-Indian will reach his station or district, and unless he is going to Bombay or Calcutta, which are practically the two entrance doors of the Empire, with Madras for a back door, his first experience of Anglo-Indian life will be of travel; and the land journey will often prove much more trying than the sea-voyage. India is, as I have called it, a Land of Locomotion.

Outside the principal cities and towns of India, shopping is impossible. This does not refer to household shopping, which is always left to the servants, for, wherever you are, it is beneath your dignity to have personal transactions with your butcher, baker, grocer, or milkman. But European luxuries, which include wines and tinned provisions, you may select yourself without any loss of caste. India luxuriates in hermetically sealed stores: tinned salmon and lobster, tinned bacon and cheese, tinned soups and sausages, tinned asparagus and fruit, tinned jam and potted meats — good heavens! what is there that is not tinned? These are the dainties of Anglo-Indian daily life, the delicacies of the dinner-party. “I suppose,” the “country-bred” belle is reported to have said, “the Queen of England has tinned tidbits at every meal!” They correspond with the truffles and turtle-soup of English banquets. I remember a very worthy Scotchman who used to allow himself a tinned Finnan haddock every Sunday for breakfast; he said it was an extravagance, but it reminded him of Scotland! I have myself found tinned lobster in the solitudes of the Himalayas reminiscent of the Isle of Sark, where I spent the most delightful holiday of my life. Taste is as great a refresher of memory as smell.

In small up-country stations there are generally one or two “Europe shops,” kept more often than not by Parsees, where one can purchase the most miscellaneous assortment of articles, ranging from patent medicines and Scotch whisky to composite candles and Christmas cards. But for other tradesmen, such as the tailor, bootmaker, draper, and barber, you send for them to attend you. Your tailor, indeed, you often keep on the premises, for the Indian derzie, or knight of the needle, squats in the verandah, and can adapt his art to either sex, turning out hot-weather suits of white drill, or tea-gowns, or summer frocks with a sort of ambidexterity. The hat is another affair; in the land of the turban you will do well not to rely on the vernacular hatter. It is well to obtain your topee from a reliable source, for the native-made head-gear of the Mofussil, a monstrous “mushroom” made out of pith an inch in thickness, is the sort of thing to provide novelty and amusement in a pantomime. Your washerman is your private property, and resides on the premises; if you are a bachelor, you pay him four or five shillings a month, and he does all your washing; even if it runs to seven suits of white drill clothes and fourteen shirts a week there is no extra charge. The Anglo-Indian changes his linen very frequently, and when he returns to England the first thing he curses is the laundry bill.

Beyond the necessaries of life, whatever you want you must send for by post. There is a system in India called the “Value Payable Post,” or briefly “V.P.P.,” by which the value of the parcel delivered is at time of delivery recovered from the purchaser, who must pay before he gets his goods. This has been a great boon to the shopkeepers of the country, where, until its institution, credit was universal, and not always immaculate. All petty shopping is done by V.P.P.; it is the recognised arrangement, and seldom abused except where the unkind cut is practised of sending an old unpaid bill, receipted, through its medium. The European tradesmen of the cities make this method of shopping easy by distributing the most elaborate illustrated catalogues and price-lists, many of them in bulk equal to the Field. The nuisance of circulars is greater in Anglo-India than in England.

One of the luxuries of England is the daily morning paper to be purchased everywhere and in endless variety. Except on the line of rail in India, you cannot buy a paper, and then only for fourpence in the majority of cases, though a penny paper exists in Calcutta. The Pioneer, or Englishman, or Times of India is always received by post, and imparts a peculiar sense of welcome to the man in scarlet, the distinctive uniform of the Indian postman. The craving for home news is very marked, and the London cablegrams are the first things glanced at or inquired about. They not unfrequently constitute the one excitement of the Indian day. After them, the advertisement columns attract as much attention as any other, for here you shall glean much personal information that is vastly interesting. You do your shopping from them as a matter of course, but more edifying than this is to learn who is selling-off and going home. For the first thing an Anglo-Indian does who premeditates a trip to England is to advertise his household goods in the Press. If you want to buy a piano, horse, dog, tent, dinner service, or anything substantial in value, your first course is to scan the advertisement columns of your paper, wherein from March to June, the season when every one desires to leave India, you can rely on a plethora of bargains offered to you; but prices go up from October to December, when all who are on leave, and can fix their own time, return to the country, and are “on the buy.”

The Indian daily paper is far more to the Anglo-Indian than you would suppose; it is his living link with England, and its meagre cablegrams — for they are miserly meagre — bring delight to thousands of exiles. That feeling of being “in touch with home” cannot be understood by any one who has not left it. There are men parted from those they hold most dear who keep account of the approximate speed of the various mail steamers, and will tell you at a moment’s notice whether the week’s mail may be expected a day earlier or a day later than the average, or on the contract date. And they eagerly trace its course from Brindisi to Port Said, from Port Said to Aden, from Aden to Bombay, and are all agog to know whether a special train has been put on to expediate the bags to their part of India. That is where the sense of exile comes in, — the looking and longing for the English mail.

Except in the Hills, which are elevated sanatoriums on the slopes of the Himalayas or other mountain ranges, and which correspond to English holiday resorts, there is not much walking done in India. First of all the act of walking is derogatory, and no native gentleman ever travels on “Shanks’ mare.” When a viceroy indulged in a walking tour in the Himalayas the natives were scandalised. Then, again, the majority of Europeans keep at least one horse and trap. You may almost call it a necessity for the European character. In the commercial centres an “office carriage” is often kept for the clerks of the mercantile houses, or at least a palanquin. At those times when the English would consider walking a pastime the Anglo-Indian rides or drives; a gentle stroll in the cool of the evening is the limit of his exertions, except when he is out shooting. Of course, climate has a good deal to do with this lassitude, not to say laziness; but when people can afford horse-flesh, it is extraordinary how soon they learn to become “carriage-folk,” who had never kept a carriage in England did they live there for a century. The cost of keeping a horse is comparatively small, though each horse has a groom and grass-cutter attached to it; you may put it down at about fifteen-pence a day, and the purchase of a hack at twenty pounds, though a “country-bred” can be picked up much cheaper.

Drinking is far more prevalent in Anglo-India than in England. Up-country, to omit offering a “peg,” which almost invariably assumes the form of a whisky and soda, is a great lapse from propriety and decency. But the Indian “peg,” albeit copious, is fairly innocuous, a small modicum of spirit being usually drowned in a pint of aerated water. Many men fight shy of beer on account of liver; light wines are coming more into favour; but brandy, once the typical Anglo-Indian drink, is unknown. Of course, the thirst is abnormal, and a long drink before midday probably the custom. But by eleven o’clock, when the sun is supposed to come over the fore-arm, the Anglo-Indian has been up for five or six hours, and for my part I always considered that the middle of the working-day, and a legitimate hour to refresh. The really insidious time for “pegging” is in the cool hours of the evening after sunset, and before dinner, when people meet for company and too often for conviviality. But, taking him for all in all, the Anglo-Indian has made a greater stride towards sobriety in the last thirty years than England did in the nineteenth century, which is saying a good deal. Without calling him temperate, I should decidedly call him a sufficiently sober soul, considering the aggravating conditions of thirst under which he lives.

The food in India, whilst far inferior in the raw material to that of England, is rendered much more tasty by the excellence of the cooking. No one ever sits down to a dinner of less than four courses, and the native chef is peculiarly skilful at entrées, or “side dishes,” as they are called. The country itself provides some excellent appetisers, and pillaos, ketcheries, and curries will tempt the most jaded palate when English cooking would nauseate it. For tiffin in the hottest weather there is nothing like currie. Joints are at a discount in a country where all the meat is bad, and people who turn up their noses at Australian mutton would find it convenient to be born snub-nosed for a residence in the East. Chicken is the standard dish of India, and beef the least consumed. Eggs enter very largely into the dietary, but they are small, scarce bigger than bantams’; and, in the season, game can be shot or purchased almost everywhere.

There is no difficulty in making acquaintances in India, for the first call is the prerogative of the last arrival. Every Anglo-Indian’s bungalow stands in its own garden, and at the gate hangs suspended a board with his name painted on it. Each station is a directory in itself, and all the new-comer requires is a sheaf of visiting-cards. Having delivered these he enters society, and his subsequent experience depends upon himself. Hospitality, though behind the standard of the pre-Suez-Canal days, is still a shining virtue of the Anglo-Indian, and a stranger who is able to make himself agreeable is never a stranger long. His chief difficulty will be to avoid the cliques into which society in the East habitually falls; this is perhaps a natural result in a community where every one knows every one, and a splitting up into groups of affinities is the corollary, — and not only knows every one else, but his income, his prospects, and his particular social status in a select population governed by the strictest laws of precedence. There have been more quarrels over precedence in Anglo-India than over any other cause; it is regulated by a table edited and issued by Government, which is, in effect, the charter of Anglo-Indian society. Ladies are pedantically jealous, and woe betide the unhappy hostess who makes some quite unintentional error in the order in which she sends her guests in to dinner. It often leads to a row royal. When it becomes very acute, some one pitches the Table of Precedence at the parties, as Moses did the Tables of the Law, and that settles it.

And talking of Anglo-Indian ladies, their position in the East is not what it was. The fatal Canal supplied them in such legions that the difficulty of the modern hostess is to get dancing men, not spinsters. In the “good old days,” a ball was often put off when it was known that an unmarried girl or two — ”spins,” as they are called in Anglo-Indian phrase — were dáking up to the station, consequent on the arrival of a ship from England; nowadays it is deferred until a polo match of gymkhana (a gathering for sports) is due, to bring the men into headquarters. When I went out to India in 1871, there were nine “spins” in a passenger-list of forty, and all were married within the year; returning in 1896 in a P. and O. mail steamer, there were more blighted ambitions on board than I counted. The modern Anglo-Indian is prone to marriage, but he goes home to get him a wife in the majority of cases. And if there is one thing he avoids, it is the “country-bred.”

“Country” is a peculiar adjective in Anglo-Indianism that at once diminishes the value of anything. It is a sneer and a condemnation. A “country-bred” individual is at once stigmatised by the appellation. “Country-made” goods are a synonym for inferiority. On the other hand, anything “English” or “imported” at once acquires a special value, and an imported dog, iron bedstead, carpet, or article of furniture stamps the owner as a man of taste and means, and sheds dignity over him. “What is she?” a man asks, nodding towards a pretty brunette in a ballroom. “Oh, only a C. B.” That suffices. But you must know your audience in using the initials. There is a story told of a gentleman who was ex.. tolling the merits of a certain handsome young official, already a Companion of the Bath, to a lady of the country, and observed he was a “C. B.” “What is that?” she inquired, half daring, half doubting, for she could not believe the individual in question was not “imported.” “A Companion of the Bath,” came the explanation. “Oh, you must not speak to me like that!” was the protest of the coy creature.


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