WE SIGHTED land this afternoon and put into Colombo early this evening. We're lying now in a row of ships off to the side of the main harbor channel. We are partially blacked out, but a while ago the Swahili built a tribal fire on deck. We'd been promised by their officers that they would demonstrate some of their traditional ceremonial dances. A group of the men, hand-picked by their juniors, built the bonfire on a sheet of metal. Even the lighting was a serious incident, being done, of a necessity, with certain flourishes. Finally, when the logs began to blaze, the tribesmen dropped back and started a chant. A crude sort of improvised drum was brought out, an empty oil barrel covered with cowhide.
At first the rhythms seemed awfully common, and I suspected the dance would be a disappointment. But the longer I listened (or the longer they played), the more delicate the shadings and nuances I noticed. Many of the most complex modern orchestrations appeared in precise and conscious form. There were delicate statements of theme, reiteration, development, and finally inversion; all this on a single ridiculous instrument with little, if any, adjustment of tone. The beat was impelling, and the dancers began by swaying and tapping their feet where they sat. They closed their eyes and moaned together, not unlike some modern jazz addicts. There was something clearly sexual about the tempo, a reluctant, hesitating coquetry. Finally the men had arisen to their feet and were following the subtle insinuations. They moved with nervous though sinewy steps, faster and faster as the dance progressed. When the tempo increased their fervor heightened, till finally they whirled and shrieked in excitement. Then the dance was ended. They dropped to the deck, dissolving in sweat and prostrate with fatigue. They rolled about and panted together like a pack of hounds at the end of a hunt. One young lady who was standing immediately to my right was staring at the fire as though she were in a trance. I spoke to her but she did not answer me; suddenly she shivered and broke out crying. Later I heard her say to a friend, "I can't understand why it affected me so."
I have been asked to speak to a troop officers' assembly, discussing America's social problems. The subject is alarmingly broad in scope, and I don't know exactly where to begin. But there is nothing that I would rather discuss, in spite of the delicacy which this demands, for the British know very little about America aside from what they have learned from the Hollywood facsimiles. This, of course, is less than nothing, for it is the sheerest fantasy accepted for fact. Most of my companions are beyond seeing America as a vast plain populated by cowboys and Indians, but they are much closer to that ludicrous misconception than I would ever have dared imagine possible. Some have confided to me, with obvious pride, that they appreciate my country's civilized condition, but they have done it with such relished self-satisfaction that I suspect their discovery was fairly recent.
I was rather proud of my speech last evening, but the meeting as a whole was a bitter disappointment. I had assumed, from the topic which I had been given, that a candid and critical talk was in order. I had counted on frankness and genuine humility to win the approval of my British audience. But I early realized that my complete sincerity was only leading to general embarrassment. The "social problems" which the officers had in mind concerned table setting and conversational localism.
My listeners were amused by the "cut and switch" system, but the term "Jim Crow" seemed to make them uncomfortable. They sat through my speech as an unwitting neighbor might sit through an impromptu family brawl, trying hard to seem undismayed, yet obviously convinced that they intruded upon my privacy. I realized as I brought the talk to a close that all would breathe easier when I was through, when I ceased dragging out these family skeletons which they felt should be guarded from public scrutiny. I concluded as quickly as I reasonably could, with a minimum of reiteration and summary. Though a question period had been previously planned, the chairman of the meeting was bent on ignoring it.
I was just angry enough to resent his attempt and to insist gently on the original schedule. Finally, after a meaningful glance at his watch, he mumbled a general solicitation, inviting "all those who care to remain" to gather for a few more minutes. Oblivious to the chairman's offered reprieve, the officers remained, with Etonian deference. A major sitting in the rear of the room raised his hand and was quickly recognized. He wondered, apologetically, if the expression "good show" was used in America. I assured him that this was a peculiarly English usage, but I added with more than a hint of sarcasm, "I really can't answer as an authority on the subject, since I lost track of slang since leaving my adolescence." The questions continued for half an hour, varying around that depressing level. Finally Richards came to my rescue, rising to speak without recognition. "Mr. Muehl," he said, "your speech was excellent, though I'm afraid that some of us missed its meaning. I'd like to impose on your generous frankness by returning to your own more serious theme." I never learned what the question was to be, for Richards was interrupted by his brigadier. "I say," he broke in, without deigning to rise, "I'm sure that Muehl is tired of all that. I suggest that all questions that are put to the speaker be in the same good taste as those that have preceded." I was placed in an awkward and embarrassing position, for I felt that I must come to Richards' defense. "In that case," I said, "I may as well sit down, since there is no use continuing on the present level. The answers to all those questions which have been asked till now could be found in any World Almanac. I had hoped to cover a significant topic. If I cannot do that, then I think I must retire. Thank you, gentlemen, for your courteous attention. Richards, I hope to see you later."
I had begun to worry about the wisdom of my action, and particularly about its effect on Richards' position. I am not personally worried about the Brigadier, but Richards, on the other hand, cannot help but be concerned. However, I now have it on the best authority that the Brigadier considers us "intense young fools," which, according to my translators of his terminology, is a rather more fond than angry denomination.
I cannot get used to the nationalized terms in which these fellows habitually think. To argue politics with anyone is automatically to indulge in personalities. To look with disfavor upon the imperial system is to condemn every English man, woman, and child. A disagreement with anything British amounts to a large-scale assault against England. When I argue with them it is like the circling of two planets in the farthest reaches of outer space; we move and turn in traditional patterns, and a collision would be as rare and as terrible. Most of them begin with the unfaltering belief that they have no principles in common with a foreigner. The whole point of view is adequately expressed in Williams' exasperating offhand statement, "Well, you're American and I am British, so it's quite natural that we cannot agree." Damn it, I'm primarily a human being, and I do Williams the honor of considering him the same. If morality and intelligence are relative to nationality, then how can we object to the Nazi doctrine?
I tried to involve the Brigadier in a serious discussion of international affairs, but as I had expected he slipped away like a well-greased pig. As a social experiment, I repeated the bid with a resolution that showed my determination. The Brigadier hesitated for only a moment, then moved around for a flanking maneuver. "You know," he said with a mischievous smile, "America must plead guilty to crimes of her own. I'm really not anxious to dwell on the embarrassing, but take your racial problem as an example. While you criticize our treatment of African colonials, you treat birthright citizens almost as badly."
I questioned the Brigadier's terminology, asking, "Whom do you mean by 'you'?"
He answered, "Why, I mean America, of course. I assume that's where you originate." I agreed that I did "originate" in America, but I insisted that I was primarily an individual. "I'm not the personification of any nation, nor even the complete defender of my own. I can see her faults as clearly as you, and I only hope that I can bring them to attention. I don't criticise England out of self-satisfaction or in the belief that America is unassailable. I'm interested in defending justice where I find it, not in comparing any two nations. The fact that my country is as guilty as another has little bearing on the question as I see it. That doesn't change the nature of justice, nor force me to condone injustice in others."
The Brigadier replied, "That's all quite true, but you can never expect a nation to be moral. So I insist that we must accept the evils which are always a necessary part of national identity."
The Brigadier's line of argument was shifting and I wheeled to meet his attempted escape. "Accept them is just what we cannot do. We may recognize and expect them, but never accept! It is true that a nation is never moral, for it is simply not a thinking creature. Neither is an automobile ever moral; still a certain morality governs its use. Injustice of the state is injustice of its citizens, not a mysterious self-generated evil. And it is the duty of a people to act as vigilantes, keeping the error of their country at a minimum. The greatest sin of. the German people is that they 'accepted' the ruthless behavior of their leaders. Most of them never participated in the horrors, but they share the guilt because of their acceptance. In the case of the Englishman, as in the case of the American, the same is true in lesser degree. We accept the profits of imperial systems and thereby take our share of the blame. A lynch mob merely accepts a lynching, the great majority of the people, that is. And yet every person stands condemned, simply because he accepted injustice!"
The Brigadier replied, "You play havoc with a word, but you still don't understand my point. When you're older you'll realize that nations aren't concerned with the rigorous dialectic of ethical argument. They are concerned primarily with their own well-being, with their own military power and general security. Whatever we may decide about right and wrong, imperialism will remain as long as it is profitable. I'm deliberately side-stepping the moral issue; I'm scratching it off as unimportant."
I remember what Richards had to say about his countrymen, about the subtle intellectual erosion at work. I recall particularly one of his statements concerning the danger of an imperial psychology. "Gradually, you see, we are poisoning ourselves, destroying our self-respect as a nation." The Brigadier has demonstrated this moral suicide, the adoption of Richards' "damned Continental attitude." At first the Brigadier was anxious to maintain some semblance of a belief in international justice. But in the end he was driven, by his own dialectic, to the sorry extreme of a fascist psychology.
The closer we get to India, the less subterfuge I find in the men around me. There are very few imperialist apologists aboard, fewer, it seems to me, than when we mounted the gangplank. There is hardly any reason for apologetics; we are now on the brink of the concrete reality. And I am too preoccupied with the anticipation of India itself to argue in terms of the isolated theory.
The first few hours ashore in Ceylon were disappointing after the more colorful Mombasa. The place is neither clean nor dirty, advanced nor backward, in dramatic proportions. It hasn't the exotic charm of Africa or the practical advantage of an American city, and with several others I sat for hours on one of the piers, pouting over its mediocrity. We had expected to be met and driven to our billet, and disappointment mingled with disenchantment. But gradually we ceased feeling sorry for ourselves and began shuffling off our provincial attitude. Just when we decided to see the city, a sergeant major strutted up to us. He came to attention and saluted smartly. We identified ourselves and returned the salute. He clicked his heels and picked up our bags, asking us to follow to his waiting lorry. We wheeled recklessly through the streets of a deserted city, plunging up and down unlighted alleys. The lorry was almost completely blacked out, but the driver assured me that he could see his way and that he was quite accustomed to driving at night. I answered that I could not see my way and I was sure that I would never become accustomed to this. But at length we stopped before a well-kept building, set comfortably back from the street and walk. The sergeant climbed down and took my luggage around and in through a side entrance. As I entered, I was welcomed by an effusive major who immediately stuck a glass in my hand. "We've expected you, and if you've just disembarked your tongue's hanging out for a gin and lime."
I wondered what I'd say if I weren't whom he expected or if my tongue weren't hanging out for the proffered drink. I dismissed the speculation on the very sound grounds that in both cases the questions were academic. "You're right," I agreed, "on both of those counts. Here is my hand, and here my tongue." The major laughed and slapped my back, asking me to follow him into the bar.
As I passed through the door I suddenly realized that I had walked into the middle of a passage from Kipling. Handsome young officers lounged about the room, with sun helmets dangling from their relaxed fingers. The men wore a great variety of dress, from Highland tartans to tropical shorts. An occasional dress saber was sported from a belt; silver spurs were much in evidence. Most of them had conventional headdress, but there were two or three regimental turbans. A majority of the officers were obviously tipsy but carried their drunkenness aristocratically. Even their violence was of "genteel" nature, a breaking of glasses, an abusing of servants. Again I felt they were playing a part; again I think that they probably were.
A barefooted Indian padded up to us, touching his prayer-clasped hands to his forehead. He mumbled something to "major sahib" and the major answered in facile dialect. Presently the boy appeared again, bearing a tempting tray of food. The sandwiches were cut into minute pieces, so I helped myself to three of them. When the major sensed my ravenous hunger he shoveled a dozen more onto my lap. My glass had been emptied and refilled by now, and Colombo began to look more attractive. The. scene was dramatic and the food was good. The whole imperial system seemed pleasant!
After endless drinks and endless food, I was led to my quarters by another Indian boy. He was clean and pleasant, studiedly respectful, yet clearly endowed with individuality. I instinctively felt his capabilities, his worth as a servant and also as a person. This lad was to be my bearer while I remained; he would make my bed and tend my clothes. We walked down one of the garden paths that led to a cement-floored grass-thatch hut. A kerosene lantern burned beside the bed, which was draped with a filmy mosquito net. My bearer turned back the covers for me and hung my uniform over his arm. He blew out the lantern when I had retired, and left, taking with him my shoes and clothing. A very light rain began to patter, but my hut remained quite comfortably dry. I dozed away in luxurious comfort, well attended and well installed.
I was awakened in the morning by a pleasant sound which I first mistook for a leaking of the roof. As I opened my eyes I saw that my bearer was pouring hot tea into a delicate china cup. As soon as he was sure that I had awakened, he padded away as quietly as he had come. I sampled the tea and found it delicious. I peeled a banana which was there on the tray. This, I have learned, is chota hazri, a little breakfast before the main meal. When I finished I found that my mouth tasted quite fresh and I vowed to continue this institution.
I have just finished breakfast with the other officers, but most of them were too tired to be pleasant. It appears they were up till a few hours ago, continuing the party long after I retired.
I spent a part of the day in the city, shopping around for a good star sapphire. I had been warned not to buy without expert advice, since the amateur judge can be easily cheated. Every shop in the commercial district advertises its own distinctive line. But more often than not the stars are blurred and, what's more, the prices are surprisingly high. I soon decided that, as I am an amateur, any purchase I would make would amount to sheer gambling. Hence I avoided the well-known firms and scoured the shady sidestreet shops. I wanted to buy a cheaper stone from one of the less reliable houses, hoping through bluff and sheer dumb luck to get a real bargain that way. If I were fleeced, I knew I could console myself with the thought that I had lost less money, anyway. I finally engaged a native lad to lead me back to the "wholesale" districts. It seemed reasonable to believe that the original miners might avoid the raucous, hawked-out sections. A number of boys volunteered to guide me, all with tales of fabulous shops where rubies and sapphires glistened in piles and the best of the lots could be had for a song. Though I didn't believe the stories for a moment, the romance of them intrigued me at once. I felt that though I might be robbed, the trip itself would be well worth my loss. My guide and I set out for the back streets, still surrounded by disgruntled competitors.
"Sahib, this boy doesn't know where he is going"; "Sahib, he is a thief," they cried after me.
Finally my guide stopped and drew my attention to a mud hut standing near the street. He went to the door and drew back a burlap curtain, shouting in his language to the people inside. A dark-skinned giant appeared, rubbing his palms together and bowing. "Sir, come in!" he said with sweetness, looking for all the world like a Shylock. I stepped inside, into an ugly room furnished only with simple fiber floor mats. I squatted in the dirt at my host's suggestion, watching him unwrap two cases of gems. "You're a miner, I understand," I ventured absently, fingering the sapphires in the box before me. "Huh, sahib," he replied with a nod of assent which I took to imply that "Huh" meant yes. "I own a very large and important mine. Here, I have a picture of it." He produced a clipping from Time magazine, trimmed and framed to look like a photograph. It showed an Alaskan placer mine, complete with rubber hoses and derrick. "You own these bulldozers and all that equipment?" I asked, trying hard to keep a straight face. "No bullock cart, sahib," my host returned. "All modern machinery; very large mine."
I had previously decided not to buy at once, but to play the first merchants for information. After I had talked with a few, I fondly rationalized, I would know enough to bluff the others. I did acquire some terminology and, more important, considerable self-confidence. I acted on the advice of my fellow officers, deprecating most of what I saw. But in one of the shops the proprietor asked me if he was correct in assuming that I was American. I admitted reluctantly that his guess was correct, his guess or interpretation of my accent.
"Young man," he said kindly, after showing his stock, "forget what your companions have told you. We argue over price in India, that is true. But it is not necessary that we insult each other." I was embarrassed and dumfounded by the directness of the man; I protested that I was saying only what I thought. "No, you do yourself an injustice. You are new to this country and acting on bad counsel."
I realized that my devices had got me nowhere so I let my guard completely down. "I guess I must be a very bad actor. It's true, I'm a stranger, and following instructions. I've been warned that I must deprecate your wares in order to obtain a reasonable price. How shall I bargain, if not in that way? I shall turn my embarrassment into a lesson."
He answered, "There is no reason for embarrassment. Your only error was in believing untruths. It is only natural that, being a stranger, you should rely on the counsel of the men around you. Still, many of them know less than you, for they are convinced there is nothing to learn. If you will listen to me, I will try to tell you a little about the customs of trading in India."
"A little about the customs of trading in India" turned out to be almost a two-hour lecture. Though it was growing late, I was completely fascinated, much too interested to leave in the middle. The merchant talked of many things, of religion, philosophy, and anthropology. It was obvious that he possessed no formal schooling, but in spite of that he was genuinely educated. Most surprising of all were the terms in which he spoke, strange terms for a businessman in any land. His grasp of values was profound and amazing; I marveled that he managed to succeed in commerce. At the end of our talk he said to me, "But you came for a sapphire in the first place, I believe."
I answered, "Yes, that was my purpose, but I think that this visit is already justified. I doubt if I could haggle with you now, even in the polite way that you advise. I've always hated doing business with friends, and it seems I've come to consider you one."
I would have been embarrassed had I made this speech to anyone else under different circumstances. But somehow this occasion seemed to demand it, and it came out quite easily in the face of such kindness. "We will not argue over prices," said my host. "I will give you your stone for whatever I paid for it. Select what you wish from the cases before you. I promise that I will make no profit." I protested that this was really unnecessary, that I would take his word for the reasonable price. But in the end I chose a smoky blue stone, weighing roughly thirty carats. It was wrapped in a receipt for one hundred rupees; I paid with thirty American dollars.
When I returned with my stone to the officers' mess, I told the major about the episode. He laughed and said that I had obviously been swindled, asking to see my sapphire at once. The others crowded around the major, waiting for him to open the package. But when the wrapping came off and the stone lay revealed, the expressions gradually changed to astonishment.
"Why, I've never seen such a stone," one said. "Where did you say you got the thing?"
I replied in vague and general terms, anxious to keep the location a secret. "How much is it worth?" I asked the major, who was well acquainted with Indian gems.
"I really can't say about the American market, but in Australia it would bring fifty pounds," he answered.
I have learned at least one thing from the incident, I cannot rely on the judgment of others. I have got to avoid their prejudged stereotypes; I've got to look for the answers myself. Strangely enough, the men who have remained in India longest seem to know the least. Their prejudice has got hold of their minds and most of them are thoroughly blind. The major is busy rationalizing the apparent generosity of my Indian merchant. He insists that the stone was probably stolen. "That beggar sold it just to be rid of it!" He looked at my sapphire again just now, muttering, "You can never be sure of these things. Why, some of these bastards have ways of concealing even the largest and most serious flaws." All the others have been busy warning me not to "generalize from this exceptional case." They are obviously trying to justify their own notions; secretly I am enjoying their discomfort.
This officers' mess is a well-kept building, surrounded by breath-taking tropical gardens. The estate was once an expensive girls' school, and its atmosphere and beauty have been maintained. Its trees are grown to enormous size, shading almost every square foot of ground. The flowers are even more surprising in size, some of them being two feet across. The grass is closely mowed and trimmed, giving the impression of a well-kept golf green. The edges have been meticulously clipped to form clean crisp lines at the edge of the walk.
I shall really be sorry to leave this place; supper tonight will be my last meal here. I must arise in the morning and catch a train that will take me north on my trip to India proper. I am sure that this was a lull before the storm, this pleasant interval in such lovely surroundings. The officers speak of the Indian peninsula as if it were a sort of annex to Hell. They talk of beggars and the filth of the place, and they offer their sympathy when I say I must go there. But actually I suppose that it's all for the best; I would not want to remain in Ceylon indefinitely. This part of my life is dedicated to experience---time enough for creature comforts later.
Supper tonight was a wild affair with most of the officers turning up drunk. They had all been swimming and sunning at the beach, soaking up more alcohol than vitamin D. At least five dishes were smashed on the floor and an equal number turned over on the table. The servants came in for all the abuse whenever they were close enough to be blamed for the accidents. One captain poured soup down the front of his tunic when he failed to aim accurately for his mouth. A waiter happened to be close at hand so the officer turned and shouted that he had been bumped. The Indian servant wisely apologized, realizing that the captain simply wanted a scapegoat. But the other officers kidded their fellow till he grew angry and lashed out at the native's stomach. The Indian doubled up and ran from the room while the assembled company simply laughed at the scene. The captain swung back around toward the table at a sharp word of command from the major. He pouted in his cups for the rest of the evening, in spite of the solicitousness of his companions.
As the night wore on, the table remained crowded, though the food gave way to wine and whisky. I was toasted roundly, as were all the others who were scheduled to leave on the morning train. I drank a little and pretended a lot, unloading my alcohol on those seated around me. Around twelve o'clock I decided to turn in, so that I might be fresh for my journey tomorrow. As I rose to leave, my eyes were caught by the words of a grace embossed on the wall above the table. It was clearly a hangover from previous days, inscribed, perhaps, when this was a girls' school:
Lord Jesus, be our heavenly guest,
Our morning joy, our evening rest.
And with each daily meal impart
Thy love and peace to every heart.
I suspect that "Lord Jesus" has long since been driven out by such spectacles as tonight's debauchery, that is, assuming that he obliged in the first place and agreed to become "our heavenly guest." That is just as well, for if he'd been here, he'd more likely have hurled lightning than imparted love and peace!
I was driven to the station to catch my train by the same sergeant major who met me at the pier. It was just about light when we left the mess, so I was spared the wild blind ride this time. The daylight sobered my driver up, for it showed the variety of things we might hit. In addition, he was conscious of my critical attitude regarding our previous dance with death.
I'm traveling north with four other Americans, on a stubby little wood-burning train. The coaches are arranged on the European style, with a complete compartment running the width. For lunch we had to run to the diner during a very brief stop where they watered the engine. Once aboard it, we were stranded until the next long stop, when we could make our way back to our own compartment. It's strictly a matter of guessing correctly; an error may cost your lunch or your train. I pity the unfortunates who postponed their meal till we stopped for the second time. We've been riding now for about half a day, and we're soon to detrain to cross the straits. Lacking a bridge or a railroad barge, they unload our cars and reload in India. The northern tip of this island is filthy, not nearly so pleasant as Colombo and its surroundings. Dirty black crows perch on every upright, picking alike at the animate and inanimate.
The water buffalo doesn't seem to mind them; he permits them to rest on his bony back. The bird and beast understand each other, or perhaps they have a contract relating to fleas. As I passed the last station I saw a bird trying hard to swallow a clot of sputum. It was stringy and thick and came up in gobs, but the crow tried hard to down the stuff. I turned away as my stomach revolted, but I couldn't help thinking about the ominous implications. If a crow can find no other food, the land must be wretchedly, unbelievably poor. If this free wild thing is so close to starvation, just how far from it can the people be?
Our train has come to the end of the line, and a ferry is waiting to transport us to India. Even before our wheels stopped rolling, swarms of coolies invaded the coaches. One entered our compartment and stood in the doorway, smiling for a moment in obvious triumph. Others behind him looked enviously in, offering to help him carry the load. But he refused to share our baggage with anyone, though I would have sworn that no human being could carry it all. He knelt for a moment and motioned for us to pile the load on top of his head. A dirty turban unwound on his shoulders, revealing a shaven, misshapen skull. His legs were no bigger than my forearm, I'm sure, but somehow he managed to stagger from the car.
Some of these coolies are very old, but you have to look closely to see any difference between them. All have the same grotesque little bodies, bulging in the bellies and curving through the spine. Their bare feet are split and cracked from the pavement; stones and slivers grind into the flesh. But no one worries about the pain of a moment. A greater agony hurries them on. Their motions are jerky and visibly forced; the matchstick limbs seem ready to collapse. The faces are set in the painful determination that I have seen before in photo finishes.
I have watched men working on the Ohio River, fighting to hold back the high waters of spring. I have seen rescue parties in the Kentucky coal fields, clawing their way through fallen tunnels. But I have never before seen life and death so plainly written on anyone's face. I have never before seen the expression of frantic hurry that is written across the coolie's bitter features. Every second seems to be an emergency, a new necessity to fight for life. Every breath seems to be a victory, an unexpected triumph in the battle for existence. Every load must be carried quickly, so that the fee will pay for the moment of its earning.
"Just one more step, and then I'll lie down and rest for a while," they seem to be saying. They seem to believe "Just one more trunk," and yet they come back again and again. They seem to be hoping, "Tonight I may die." But I know they will be here tomorrow and the next day. They will be here for infinite time in the future, just as they have been here for ages in the past. There is no summer or winter in India. There is no starting or finishing for these men. Their tragedy is as old as man himself, and their agony will endure throughout all time.
We entered India through the long sand spit that sweeps out in the direction of the island of Ceylon. Our ferry docked at a rickety pier where little native children were diving for coins. I threw an anna to one little girl, but a bigger child managed to beat her to it. I felt sorry for her, for she seemed to get little, so I beckoned her down to a deserted stretch. I threw two annas into the water; the little girl dove, but came up empty-handed. I threw another, closer to shore, but still she could not reach it at the bottom. I threw my last coin far in toward shore, but the girl surfaced empty-handed. As I turned to leave, she smiled very broadly and swam out where I had thrown the first two annas. She flipped up her feet and went straight to the bottom, cruising around till she found them both. In quick succession she found the others, exhibiting a new-found swimming ability. Then she waved her skinny little hand in the air, and beckoned to the boy who had robbed her before. The two sat down on the hard-packed beach and began sorting out the money they'd retrieved. The total was divided carefully and evenly, each of the children taking one pile. I was more amused than angry at this strategy, but I wished they had waited till I turned my back.
As I got off the ship a boy accosted me, reaching out to take my hand. An Indian Army officer struck out with his swagger stick, raising a welt across the boy's forearm. "You've got to be careful," he explained to me. "These beggars are hopping with all sorts of diseases." The boy had run with a cry of pain, and I wondered audibly if there weren't a more humane way of being careful.
The lieutenant disappeared in the direction of the train, so I followed after the lad he had struck, and when I rounded the corner of a near-by freight station I found him standing there, confidently expecting me. I asked him what he wanted and he grinned insinuating that I must know. "Ten anna, sahib," he screamed at last, without offering any explanation. I turned to leave, rather angry by then, but the lad ran after me and tugged at my shirt. "Five anna, sahib," he screamed in despair, and at this I turned to face him again.
"Just what in the hell have you got to sell that you're asking five or ten annas for?"
He shuffled for a moment, kicking up the dust, and fixing his gaze down upon the ground. Finally he looked up at me, smiling too sweetly; he reached out a hand to touch my leg. I realized belatedly what he had "to sell." I was disgusted and embarrassed as I strode back to the train. "Three anna, sahib," the boy called after me. "Two anna, sahib. One anna, sahib."
The lieutenant who had struck the lad was waiting beside his coach, laughing uproariously as I approached. "So you insisted on ignoring my good advice," he said, managing to control himself for a moment. "I knew what that fellow was up to right along, but I didn't want to explain it there on the docks. Oh, well, you learned a good lesson, anyway; I hope you gave the beggar a thrashing." I agreed that I had learned a very good lesson, but I was too upset to laugh about the thing. I climbed into the car assigned to me, and washed my hands twice in succession.
At supper I met the lieutenant again, and he insisted on reopening the same nasty subject. He used it as a starting point for a general lecture on the inadequacies of the Indian people. The thesis was that they were all no more than animals and that one had to get used to treating them as such. I refused to argue with such an obvious fool, but I sat uneasily through his long soliloquy. Finally he sensed my antagonism and began, rather subtly, to abuse me for it. When I would not fight back, he grew more angry and began heaping one insult upon the other. But I must say one thing for the man, at least: he insulted in a completely offhand manner. He threw his remarks out so casually that I was almost ready to agree with them.
"You Americans" was his most oft-labored phrase; never did he become entirely personal. Still he managed to get my goat in the end, and I waited for a chance to silence the man. "These Indians don't know the meaning of morality. Their civilization is perverted throughout. Why, look at the absolute innocence and freedom with which this boy approached you this afternoon."
I replied, "They may be full of such tricks, but I wonder who put them on a commercial basis. It's significant that those whom he approaches with such 'freedom and innocence' are not his own people, but the sahibs, lieutenant!"
We are passing through a desolate stretch of country, over hot gray sands, almost naked of grass. The surface of the earth has been parched and wrinkled, blown away to reveal bedrock. Long, deep gulleys slant out from the rising tracks, eroded away by the monsoon rains. There are no respectable trees in sight, only a few scrubby bushes trying hard to stand upright. The wind has cut in around their roots, shriveling the leaves and bending them down.
The morning sun has just come up, flooding the sky with color and heat. Even in the reflected glow of the sky, this burned-out land can offer nothing. It is simply a study in dead monotony, a promise of abject and utter failure This land seems nothing but the useless scraps that God threw away when he made other continents. I would swear that no living thing could stay here, living among the dunes and dry wild grasses. But people appear to greet the train, arising, apparently, out of the earth. They come, like prairie dogs out of their holes, curious and staring as the train goes by. They stand there blinking, chattering together, pointing at the engine and at the people in compartments. When I open the window to hear the voices, a raucous, singsong flood wells in. It sounds almost more like the braying of cattle than like any human sound I have heard before. The heat waves rise and shimmer between us; the people seem to float in a dream of Hell. Sweat runs down into their eyes and mouths. They blink and lick at it, too tired to wipe their faces.
When the train slows down whole families appear, crawling out of their clumps of thatch. Almost every third person is crippled or blind, hobbling along or led by others.
As the train rushes past the crowds scream wildly, pointing to the most sickening and hideously deformed. But far from resenting the attention of others, these unfortunates dramatize and exploit their conditions. I watched one fellow with a withered arm who was popping it into and out of joint. A child with cataracts over both his eyes was throwing sand across their filmy, blind surfaces. A woman pointed to her ulcerated breasts, flapping them and groveling in pretended agony. And the "less fortunate" people, those who are physically sound, practice any number of self-abuses. Occasionally a coin is thrown from the train, raising a speck of dust where it hits. The crowds rush in like swarms of black ants, clawing and digging in the soft dry sand. The crippled and blind are invariably deserted in the frantic search for the trampled coin. They crawl or stumble vaguely about, jostled and ignored by the excited mob.
Our train has stopped for some unimaginable reason, out here in the middle of an utter wilderness. There is no station or other installation which would seem to account for our strange delay. The others insist that I'll get used to this; they say that the engineer most probably is snoozing. Apparently these trains stop for anything and nothing, in completely unpredictable and unexplainable places. We've pulled down the shades to discourage the natives from poking their hands through the widely barred windows. For the whole population of this Godforsaken area seems to consist of beggars alone. While our shades were up they crowded close to the car, pushing and jostling each other about. Hands and arms were thrust up from the crowd, stretching and writhing like snakes, trying to enter. They were actually lined up three deep by the windows, thirty or forty on either side. The smell of their bodies Poured into the compartment like an avalanche of rotting cheese. They pushed their faces up to the bars, slobbering the beggar's singsong endlessly. I avoided the windows and tried to ignore them, but they seemed to know and enjoy my discomfort. The monotonous chant is still continuing as they move back and forth beside the train. I'm sure that the wail of lost souls in Hell could not be more horrible than this mournful dirge.
A leper woman came out of the crowd; the others gave way to clear a broad path. She approached the track like a beast on all fours, like a sick beast too weak to raise its head. Her hand and one arm had been eaten away, so she crawled on the putrid stumps of her elbows. Her head hung low, and when the sand was soft her face actually dragged in the dust and gravel. I wondered at first why she did not walk; then she turned far enough so that I could see what was left of her legs. Where the feet should have been, scabby flesh sloughed off, ending a mass of dead, damp rot. Her hair was matted with filth and leaves, falling indiscriminately to cover her face. But something could be seen when she raised her head to utter her ugly, guttural cry. The eyes were sunken into bony sockets; they were black and excited, feverishly alight. Saliva drooled down her lips, out through teeth that were black and decayed. The hair on my arms began to stand erect, as if I had touched a beetle or June bug.
A moment ago the stump of an arm was poked through the window and laid on my shoulder. I screamed an oath and struck at the limb with a rolled-up newspaper that lay in my lap. When I looked around, I saw a young man squeezing his arm and feigning great pain. I jerked down the shade and jumped from my seat, standing for a moment in the middle of the coach. Now that the shades have all been drawn, we can hear occasional scratchings outside. What I feel is not simply fear, it is a disgust, a revulsion as at a rat or a fat grub worm.
We are moving again, thank God. The beggars can only scream from the distance. It is growing dark, but in the western sky is the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen. it's one of those sights that cannot be described, full of unimaginable peach and greens. If I had ever seen a painting of it, I would have accused the painter of gross romanticism. While I was watching the shifting clouds I was rudely awakened from my pleasant revery. A stream of betel juice hit my elbow, spattering across the front of my tunic. Betel juice is the revolting crimson saliva of one who has been chewing the betel nut. This nut is the Indian equivalent of chewing gum, or perhaps I should say of chewing tobacco, since it is about as sanitary and aesthetically pleasing! The stain of the stuff is over everything, sidewalks, buildings, and even monuments. I suppose that the stream which hit my arm was spewed from one of the third-class compartments. After I wiped it from my coat sleeve, I stuck out my head to try to locate the offending party. But I withdrew again, much more angry than ever, with another red fleck across my forehead. When I told one of the British captains about this, he laughed and told me to make this note: "Keep hands and body well inside all Indian trains while they are in motion."
The coach pitches about in an alarming fashion, threatening to overturn on every sharp curve. The gauge appears ridiculously narrow, something around thirty-six inches, I would say. I've been told that this line was dynamited last month by a group of Indian nationalist terrorists. But when I expressed surprise and natural uneasiness, I was told that "this is no longer August." I couldn't derive much comfort from the fact till someone explained that August is "riot month." I am told that most of the violence and plotting usually occurs in that month, for some reason.
We have just pulled into the station in Madras, the one real city in southern India. It is crawling with life, both insect and human, so I am waiting till the rush subsides before leaving. I never thought a flea-ridden, hot little coach could ever become an ivory tower, but it is with the profoundest misgivings that I contemplate leaving. I find that I've come to consider the compartment a sanctuary from the agonies of Indian life. But sooner or later I must step out into the streets, to face, for better or for worse, what is there. A mangy dog is skirting the platform, nosing at orange peels and dodging people's feet. His skin is open in several places, angry and red and covered with mucus. Flies swarm heavily on these festering patches, buzzing and biting, caught in the stickiness. Occasionally the dog jumps and yelps with pain, rolling over to rid himself of the tormentors. I suppose my adjustment has already begun; I would be hurt and worried about this dog at home. But somehow I can watch him with very little interest, after seeing human beings as badly off. He reminds me vaguely of the leper woman and the trail of matter which she left in the sand.
The captain assures me that I'll get used to all this. "Just kick them aside and forget about them." But even if I manage to "kick them aside," I'm sure that I'll never be able to forget them. I wonder if I'll ever really get used to it. I wonder if I actually want to get used to it.
A boy just came into the compartment to sweep it, and he was startled to see me sitting here alone. He bent over to brush the dirt out the door, and I noticed that he was naturally hunched from his job. When he finished, he turned and held out his hand, smiling at me and expecting a tip.
"Go away," I told him. "The railroad pays you. You're not going to get any more from me."
He wailed, "Sahib, baksheesh," in answer, still standing before me with his palm outstretched. He guessed, I suppose, that I wished to be alone, and he knew I would be willing to pay to get rid of him.
Somehow, I feel more guilty now than before, when I gave no alms to the beggars. Then I could pretend that I stood outside all this, but now I have admitted my involvement in it. I suppose that I might as well leave the car; I wish it were night so I could slip out unnoticed, but the hot, bright sun is beating down like a spotlight played on me for my entrance.
I am waiting for the train to leave the station after spending a terrible night in Madras. We slept at the local Y.M.C.A. without blankets, sheets, or mosquito netting. The blankets and the sheets were easily dispensed with, but mosquito netting might have spared us much agony. I managed to drop off after an awful battle, worn out from slapping and waving at the insects. When I awoke this morning I could not open my eyes till I reduced the swelling with cold compresses. My lips and cheeks are puffed and painful, and I attract the attention of every passer-by. The rope beds were full of bedbugs too, which left their marks on my body and legs. But their effect was really more mental than physical, since they bit me only in five or six places.
The dog I saw yesterday was run over this morning, just as I entered the station to wait. He was lying on the tracks too weak to move, barely able to lift his head. Flies were settling on his tender parts, unwilling to wait till death rendered them insensible. They swarmed across his moist black lips, crawling even up into his mouth. He blinked his eyes repeatedly, but the insects covered their glassy surfaces. The train moved slowly and heavily down on him, but he could not drag himself out of the way. People ran back and forth before me, but no one tried to save him from the train. At first I was enraged by this apparent callousness, and I stepped out to remove him from the tracks myself. But as I bent down to do so, I hesitated, seeing what terrible agony he was in. A bearer ran up and tugged at my sleeve. "No, sahib," he said very simply to me. I turned to see that the crowd was watching. "No, sahib," a few of them echoed. I suddenly realized that they were not cruel, but rather quite intelligently kind. I left the dog on the tracks where he lay; a few moments later he was out of his pain.
Some American soldiers have entered the station, carrying their luggage on their heads, like the bearers. One is carrying a little native boy, who is obviously pleased with the attention he is getting. The Indians seem to enjoy the show; they are having as much fun as the GI's themselves. They are laughing and kidding the soldiers as they walk on, and the Americans are ribbing the crowds in return. The humor of the two groups seems to meet head on, unlike the Anglo-American exchanges. One soldier has cried, "What's the matter, folks? Do you have to have a union card to work in this joint?" Another GI stepped out into the crowd, extending his hand and wailing, "Baksheesh!" An Indian, dressed in European clothes, flipped an anna piece into his palm.
But a British officer has interrupted the show, demanding that the Americans "behave like gentlemen." One GI has respectfully asked if that wouldn't constitute "misrepresenting myself as an officer." The others are obeying, but with obvious disgust, while the Indians talk "together" in loud tones. A soldier named Tex (says the legend on his hat) has handed the little native boy to his bearer. "Here, Mahatma, this's part of mah luggage, and this captain sahib says that you fellows should be carryin' it."
A little native girl slipped in between the trains that are standing here by the loading platform. I suppose she was seven or eight years old; yet she offered to do a strip-tease for us. I felt so very sorry for the child that I gave her six annas, telling her to forget the quid pro quo. But I noticed that she was up by another coach, going through the same suggestive motions. She was trying very hard to interest the tommies by pulling her dirty skirt aside. What was revealed beneath could only excite pity, the swollen stomach and the spindly little legs. Some of the tommies threw money out, as a joking gesture, I thought at the time. But the little girl pulled off her blouse standing nude to the waist, completely undeveloped. The tommies seemed to enjoy the show and I began to realize that she actually intrigued them. Another anna was thrown from the coach, and another anna after that one. Finally the child stood completely naked, a study in malnutrition and shame. She was obviously embarrassed and her head hung down, but she remained to fulfill her part of the bargain. One fellow beckoned suggestively from the car, and I realized, then, the extent of his perversion. I have been in India for only three days, yet I have seen a terrible amount of this. Apparently these tommies, in the words of Pierce, have "been out here just a bit too long."
A third-class coach is standing next to us, headed south on the opposite track. It's a rickety collection of nails and boards, barely able to hold together. I have never seen so many people jammed together in such little space. I would swear there are three hundred people in the coach, impossible as that looks in black and white. Humanity projects through every crack, like a load of hay from an overstuffed wagon. It oozes out through the windows and doors, through breaks and cracks in the battered framework. The car is rocking about on the rails by virtue of the sheer weight and motion within, and the springs and shock absorbers creak a dull accompaniment to the laughter and singing of the people above. This all reminds me of a church picnic at home, though I'm sure that no church function ever drew such numbers. Women carry lunch baskets and mind their children, while the men trail along, glowering from under their turbans, feeling quite obviously overworked and put upon by the simple necessity of following through the crowds. As the vendors walk by the loaded car, annas and pice shower out on the ground. The vendors distribute their wares among all the claimants, apparently quite satisfied with their absolute honesty.
I have just bought some tea from the "cha wallah" who passes; it comes in a disposable baked clay cup. It tastes very strongly of his copper urn, but it's hot and I'll drink it for that. The track and platform are littered with clay pieces, presumably from the cha wallah's sanitary vessels. Now the shrill little whistle has blown, so I suppose we will get under way very shortly.
I was almost stranded at the last stopover, when the train got under way while I was eating. I had expected a twenty- or thirty-minute wait, but the engineer apparently had not read his timetable. I just glanced up as the coaches began to move; otherwise, I might still be back in the station. I ran for my car, but it was well down the track and I decided that I had better settle for any. I jumped up and into a second-class compartment which, at a first and fevered glance, seemed empty. When I got in, I found an Indian soldier stretched out for an afternoon nap on the seats. He opened one eye with an angry growl, then jumped to his feet and saluted in surprise. "I beg your pardon," I said, rather embarrassed, "but I had to get on wherever I could. This damned train almost got away from me, and there was no time to look for my own compartment."
The soldier laughed a little self-consciously and agreed. "Yes, I know how easily that can happen." Then he added, "Sit down, please. It will probably be quite a while before you'll get a chance to find your own coach."
I was silent for a while, so that the soldier might sleep, but in the end my curiosity got the better of me. I learned that my companion was a habeldar, a viceroy-commissioned officer of some sort. I was surprised that he spoke such excellent English, but he explained that he had attended a Methodist mission school. He was quite pleasant and friendly, which is more than I would have been had he burst into my car while I was sleeping. With a minimum of subtlety and a maximum of nerve, I directed the conversation toward politics. At first the Habeldar was rather unwilling to speak; then suddenly an important truth seemed to dawn on him.
"I say, you're American, aren't you?" he asked.
I admitted the truth of the conjecture, eagerly. "I'm simply attached to the Indian Army. My soul and my politics are entirely my own."
He caught the meaning of that last remark and he laughed as he extended his hand to me. "My God, that's different! Now, what were you asking about the British a few moments ago?"
I was amused and pleased by the Habeldar's frankness, but I was genuinely surprised that he was so outspoken. After all, he had only my word that I was sympathetic; in his position I should have wanted more definite proof.
When we stopped again I did not get off, but I bought two bottles of pop from a vendor. The Habeldar, "Jam" to his friends, he said, insisted on opening them both with his teeth. We talked for most of the afternoon, about his people, my people, and the British raj.
"Why did you join the army, Jam, to support the British in India?" My initial question was something like this; it was answered at once with a bitter laugh. "I joined the army because I had to, because there was no other way to feed my family. I joined for twenty rupees a month, subsistence for myself and an allotment for my wife. In other words, sir, I joined the army for exactly the same reason as all the others." I had expected this answer, so it did not surprise me, but I pressed my new friend for further details. "Then you didn't join because you wanted to fight for Britain in her war against the Axis?"
The Habeldar avoided the quick, direct answer, but he made his position clear enough. "India wants to fight with Britain in her war for freedom against the Axis. But sharing the fight, it is only natural that we should want to share the victory as well. If we fight against oppression, we want to be rid of it. If we fight against tyranny, we want to destroy it. If we fight for the 'self-determination of peoples we want to determine our own people's government."
I agreed that this was reasonable enough. "But you overstate your case," I said. "I'm sure that if it were just as simple as that, Britain would give you your independence."
Jam was rather disgusted by this last, and be made little effort to conceal his feelings. "My God, man," he said, "do you really believe that? Do you think that Britain would give up so easily? One out of every five Englishmen is dependent on India for his livelihood. Churchill himself has made it clear that he would not liquidate the British Empire. Mind you, he didn't say that he couldn't do it; he simply insisted that he would not consider it."
I readily agreed that Britain didn't rule India from any altruistic or charitable motives. "But at the same time, some benefit probably accrues to a nation as backward as India seems to be. Certainly it is to the benefit of both India and Britain that the former progress as rapidly as possible. Britain has innumerable technical advantages which she will gradually pass along to India."
My friend fairly screamed. "That is not true! Britain is afraid of progress in India! Two hundred years ago we had many industries, some of them known all over the world. But when Britain took over, all this disappeared, until now there is almost no industry left. India has been systematically reduced to a plantation that simply provides labor and offers a market. Her whole economic value to the British Empire would be destroyed by a development of manufactures at home. No, Britain doesn't want to see progress in India; she wants that colony to remain just as she is. The entire logic of the imperial relationship depends on our depressed condition. The best proof of this is the simple fact that the indigenous industries were destroyed by the raj. As a matter of fact, our whole standard of living is lower now than when Britain appeared."
I could not easily think of an answer for this, for I knew the Habeldar's facts were correct. Still, I could not believe that it was all so simple, so I shifted my attack to another side. "Is India ready for independence?" I asked, rather ashamed of the trite phraseology.
"What do you mean by 'ready for independence'?" the Habeldar asked, after a moment's hesitation.
"Why, I wonder if India is sufficiently developed to settle her problems without outside help."
My friend shook his head and smiled sadly. "You Americans think in peculiar terms! What bearing does a country's technical development have on her readiness to rule herself? Why, India was ancient when your country was discovered, and she had ruled herself without technology. What do you think we did in Asia before the white man appeared to 'bear our burden'? We really managed for quite a while, better, by far, than we're managing right now.
"I realize that," I admitted uncomfortably. "But India was hardly a nation then. She was simply a collection of native states, a mere geographic aggregation."
The Habeldar brushed aside my criticism. "Collection of states or nation, no matter. The fact is we lived freely and prosperously together, without all the dire results you'd predict. China is not a nation, properly speaking; she is 'a mere geographic aggregation.' Still, I hear no one advocating her annexation until she learns to rule herself. What is the difference whether we are one nation or many? The point is we can manage very well by ourselves."
I asked, "But what of the religious friction? India is a hodgepodge of conflicting groups."
Jam corrected me. "Differing, not conflicting. We can manage together quite peacefully. This 'friction' arises only in those cases where British pressure is brought to bear, in the Punjab, for instance, where criminal punishments vary depending on whether you're a Moslem or a Sikh. Naturally this sort of thing causes trouble; that is exactly what it's designed to do. I hope you'll pardon me when I say that you're very naive to believe that such things require your help.
"Try to look at the issue in perspective, in terms of history, European if not Asiatic. Problems much more serious than this have been settled by relatively simple methods. And suppose it actually comes to war; suppose that the Hindus attack the minorities. Even that proves very little; your own country had its civil war. You see, we've got to settle this for ourselves. We appreciate your interest, but it is a problem for us. You know, sometimes I want to pat you fellows on the head and say, 'Take it easy, little man. It isn't all as new as you think. Such things as this have been solved before. How do you think we've survived so long?'"
I was altogether pleased with this vigorous speech, though Jam seemed to suspect that I might not be. I knew, at the time, that I was losing the argument, but I also knew how much I was learning.
"There is no substitute for experience," Jam continued. "You cannot learn self-government from a correspondence, school. You've got to try, and you've got to make errors. As you westerners say, 'It just takes nine months.' "
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