I HAVE just arrived at my destination, but I haven't had time to see the city. My billet is fairly cool and comfortable, though completely lacking in any privacy. I'm stationed here at the general hospital in Poona for a training period of several months. My bed is out in a general ward that has been turned over to this new group of trainees. Fortunately I have this little room where I can write and keep a few of the books I am reading. I'm anxious to get into Poona cantonment, for I understand it is a relatively nice place.
We have just been having "caste" trouble here, and though I call it trouble, it was really quite funny. A cow wandered into the barracks this afternoon when none of the men were here to see it. Our bearers refused to touch the beast or to agitate it in any way. As they were Hindus, it was quite unthinkable to shoo the animal or drive it out. As one would expect, the cow presently vacated, leaving behind a small remembrance. When we returned we were disgusted to find this material, if not concrete, proof of her presence. We called at once for the "dry sweeper" and asked him to remove the mess from the floor. He hemmed and hawed for a moment or two, then wailed, "No, sahib, I cannot do it."
Now this fellow was generally quite accommodating, so we were all surprised at the sudden reversal. "Just why can't you do it?" one of us asked. "You're getting paid for such work."
The sweeper repeated, "No, sahib, I cannot. I am a dry sweeper and this is wet." We were all quite amused by his subtle distinction, but we demanded that the sweeper get to work at once. "I cannot, sahibs," he wailed again, wringing his hands and contorting his face. "I am a dry sweeper, like my father before me. This is wet, and I cannot sweep it."
Finally we yielded to the servant's protests, and we sent him out to find the wet sweeper. But after he had been gone for half an hour, a few of the men went out to help him. Finally they managed to corner their man and explain the situation to him. Reluctantly and sadly he followed behind, back to the barracks and into our room. "There is the mess. Clean it up," said one of our fellows with admirable simplicity.
The wet sweeper circled the mess on the floor, squinting at it and then at us. Finally he went over to get his broom, bringing a pan of water back with him. But just as he was about to begin the job, he backed away and shook his head. "No, sahib, this is dry and I am wet sweeper. Cannot sweep, sahib. I am wet sweeper." We looked in astonishment around at each other and then at the sweeper, who was waiting still. Right enough, the dung seemed quite dry; it had taken us too long to find our man. Someone suggested that we get the dry sweeper again, but in the end we drew straws to see who would clean up.
The "fruit wallah" has just finished making his rounds, and I am munching on tomatoes and onions that he brought. He shows an amazing sense of balance, running about with his basket on his head. Even when he jumps off of the three-foot porch he doesn't bother to steady the thing; he simply bounds off with his hands at his sides, quite gracefully and with apparent ease.
I have begun to worry about the possibility of catching some disease from unwashed fruit. This afternoon, in my best "sweeper Urdu," I asked the fellow what precautions he took. He seemed not to understand me at first; my command of his language is notoriously bad. "You wash fruit?" I repeated several times, pantomiming the washing of an orange.
"Nay mallum, sahib" (I don't understand), the fruit wallah answered, smiling at my motions. After many more tries, I gave up and called a British soldier who was near at hand. He asked the Indian, in flawless English, whether he had taken "the prescribed sanitary precautions." Understanding my question at last, the fruit wallah answered it quite as glibly in perfect English. "Oh, yes, sahib. You see, I have here a bucket of potassium permanganate solution into which I dip every piece of fruit." I was tempted to exclaim, "Dr. Pasteur, I presume," but I retired to the building feeling quite abashed.
I have noticed that whenever the fruit wallah enters, he stops at the door to take off his shoes. Once or twice he has forgotten to do this, and in each case he's been very severely reprimanded. I asked one of the tommies about this yesterday and the reason he gave is rather idiotic. It seems that Queen Victoria is responsible, having issued an order in a fit of temper. When visiting Agra, the story goes, that great lady entered the Taj Mahal. She was stopped by one of the faithful worshipers and was asked to leave her shoes outside. Now anyone who enters a Mohammedan mosque is requested to show the same simple courtesy, but Victoria considered it unbridled insolence and refused to submit to such an indignity. Gently but firmly the priests insisted, till at last her courtiers persuaded the Queen to yield. She allowed her shoes to be removed, but she vowed that she would have her revenge. Leaving the Taj, the Queen proclaimed that every Indian must do as she did. Whenever one entered a British-owned building, he would be expected to remove his shoes. In most parts of India the order has been forgotten, but occasionally a garrison still takes it seriously. Apparently the officers who are stationed here enjoy this little vindictiveness.
Our training has proceeded at such a rapid pace that I haven't had time for any sight-seeing. I'm very anxious to get away, since there are some very fine Hindu temples in this district. I passed near one of the better ones yesterday, while out on a scheme with a map-reading class. We weren't allowed to stop and explore it, though we wasted time in a dozen different ways. The temple was set in a broad declivity, overlooking the spread of its widening valley. It was built during the time of the great Maharati Empire and it stands near the ruins of their ancient city. That city itself is not deserted; and though I know this fact, I can hardly believe it. As an empire, it has completely returned to the dust; its inhabitants are like rats in the ruins of a house. The walls are crumbling and broken away, revealing elaborate and beautiful interiors. But wind and rain have spoiled these too, chipping and cracking the ornate wall carvings. As we neared the city I was sure it was dead, but when we passed close by I could see its people. They crawled out, like bugs from under the walls, staring and blinking as we drove by. Then I could see the bitter contrast between the grandeur of the past and the degeneracy of the present. Tiny thatch dwellings had been thrown together in the shadow of the ancient and classic walls. Huts of clay were plastered about, littering the broad, majestic wreckage. This is truly an exotic enigma. Whatever has happened to those builders of the past? It hardly seems possible that these are their children, these dirty-faced people who climb through the ashes. What buildings are left are extremely beautiful, decorated with the most intricate workmanship. Gargoyles and gods peer down from the cornices, brooding on the silent wreckage below. There is much grandeur rising out of the filth; an art of the past surveying the present. It stands like a dark and ominous specter, passing a cruel judgment on the people below.
Two children approached me just a moment ago, each one trying to hide behind the other. The little girl was about four or five, while her brother seemed just a. year or two older. At first they were both too bashful to speak to me, so they whispered together, eying me with fright. I called, "Hello, there," to put them at ease, and the older finally managed to say a few words. His English was surprisingly good for his age, but he mumbled so that I could hardly understand him. "Speak up," I said. "I'm not going to hurt you. Do you and your sister want something of me?"
My voice seemed only to frighten him again, and he edged toward the door, where he was stopped by the little girl. She remonstrated with him severely in her native tongue, then boldly approached me to speak for herself. "Sahib," she said, "we want to be your bearers. We both work for you ... same price as one. Make your bed, shine your shoes, tend your mosquito net for ten chips a month." Her courage was exhausted by this extended speech, and she immediately ran back to her brother's side. At first I could hardly believe she was serious; these children were too young to be hiring out!
"Why, you chotah wallahs," I cried, "you're much too little, and besides, what in the world would I want with two bearers?"
The boy answered both of my questions at once, shouting, "Two little fellow as good as one big fellow, sahib."
I was impressed by this logical line of argument, but I began to laugh at the lad's phraseology. I caught myself quickly when it became apparent that the children were hurt by my lighthearted reaction. "Look here," I pleaded, trying to make amends, "I really wasn't laughing at you." But already the little girl was ready to cry, while the boy simply glared at me with a cold, controlled fury. "Come back here," I shouted, running out to the steps. "I'll hire you if you really want to work for me."
I was issued a motorcycle this afternoon, which should increase the range of my explorations considerably. I have been trying to get one for quite a while in order to travel about the countryside. I was just about ready to concede defeat when this gift from the gods at last descended. I still cannot understand the reason for my good fortune; a cycle is about as necessary to my work as an eleventh finger. But I will certainly put it to my own good uses, provided we are granted enough spare time. The training program keeps us all quite busy, but it should be possible to find a few free days.
The farther I get from Poona cantonment, the more beautiful and natural the scenery becomes. just a few miles from here it is completely unspoiled, with never a signpost or a sight of the sahib. There's an old fortress city somewhere up in the hills, an outpost of the vanished Maharati Empire. It is miles away from the nearest trail, but I hope it may be reached by some overland route. There are only a few gravel roads leading out of Poona, chiefly those leading to Bombay and Scholapur. The majority of others are bare mud trails, plunging through streams and ascending steep slopes. It is virtually impossible to learn where they lead, since everyone seems to have a different idea. The natives probably know more about them than the British, since most of the tracks are age-old folk paths. There's a narrow pass in the ghats to the east, and Sasvad lies somewhere in that general direction. I was given a compass reading by an old lance corporal, but I'm afraid to trust his indefinite ideas. I've five different sets of directions from the Indians, all supposed to lead to this self-same village. But I suspect that all of them are in conscious error, since I was wearing my uniform when I talked with them.
This was quite a day! I was out in the hills from dawn to sundown, searching for Sasvad. I found a million potholes and gulleys, unnumbered blind alleys and wandering trails. But I have come to the conclusion that this bushwhacking is useless. My only chance lies in getting a map. Perhaps one of the bearers can give me some help. Perhaps I can buy off one of the hillmen. The cycle and I absorbed a terrible punishment as we labored through rocky ravines and passes. The temperature was well over a hundred degrees and my hands almost fused on the bucking handle grips. I thought I was lost any number of times, but somehow I eventually made my way home. I am not especially proud of myself, since most often I found that I was going in circles.
As on the train that brought me here, I again had the feeling that I was traveling through a land deserted of people. There were enormous valleys stretching out before me, countless slopes, but nowhere a building. Generally, when I managed to get deeper into the countryside, I found the areas actually teeming with life. But the people were living in tiny grass dwellings that could scarcely be seen from a hundred yards. The landscape was completely primitive and wild; man had adapted to its natural forms. It had yielded nothing, suffered nothing except fences and houses of its own straw and mud.
Just ten miles out of Poona cantonment the "great city" is almost a fairy tale. For the hill people, the world is their peak and its valley; they know very little of what lies beyond. But at that they know their country much better than the Briton, to whom all local geography is a sheer enigma. I cannot understand such a state of affairs, an empire operating in such impersonal terms.
The children were terrified by the presence of a white man, and they ran to call their mothers and fathers. Animals and people were equally afraid of my motorcycle and the roaring noise it made. I couldn't stop near any of the farms without explaining my presence to the elder males. They would approach me suspiciously, but with a perfunctory courtesy, asking me, in Urdu, to state my business. This last rather pleased me for some strange reason, probably because in the city Urdu is so seldom used. An Indian, to communicate with his white master or patron, must learn to speak the sahib's foreign language. This conversation in the hills was more as it should be, I think; I was the intruder and the one to explain. What is more, I am here in India, and I am expected to speak the country's language.
"Farm" is a peculiar word to choose in describing these washed-out, ramshackle plots. Most of them are barely an acre or less, an acre of bedrock loosely sprinkled with dust. The families scratch and hoe at this surface, working over every square inch of the ground. Even in the valleys, where the soil is better, hand labor and poor tools bring a miserable return. There is no irrigation where it really counts, though a storage of water could quadruple the yield. Individual farmers have deep little wells, but they cannot fight the tropical weather with their hands.
I must confess that I often get terribly disgusted with the attitude of the Indian bearers and servants. It is almost easier to do things for myself than to try to explain to them just what I want. Their command of English varies from day to day, depending chiefly on what is being said; they are supremely capable of understanding when told that the sahib is to be away for a few days. Yesterday I tried to explain to our cook that I wanted two eggs prepared for my supper. He protested, at first, that this was not on the menu, but after some discussion he agreed to oblige.
"Sahib," he said, "the fires have gone out and will not be lit again till five o'clock."
I replied, "But supper isn't till six o'clock and that leaves you a full hour to cook my eggs."
At this the cook, unhappily named Shankar, nodded agreeably so that I assumed he understood. When I went to the kitchen at six, however, I found that no eggs awaited me there. "Cooky," I groaned, "where are my eggs?"
The cook looked bewildered and scratched his head for a moment. "Sahib wanted the eggs tonight?" he asked, wincing a little at his own temerity.
I exploded, "Of course I wanted the eggs for supper! I told you to have them ready at six o'clock."
Shankar began searching for an explanation but he answered before he had found a good one. "But sahib did not say on which day," he wailed. "I did not know that it was tonight!"
This is typical of a constant frustration we meet in dealing with most of the Indian servants. They seem lazy and opposed to efficiency by principle, contrary and unwilling to do more than they must. And yet this is only an immediate reaction. Having noted it, I should note some sounder reflections as well. I have noticed that the bearers respond to good treatment, that their efficiency triples when they are working for Americans. It is only when in contact with "His Majesty's representatives" that they seem so completely and hopelessly incompetent. I am not surprised that they react as they do to serving the men whose presence they hate. I can think of no more natural, justifiable reaction than this mass "slowdown strike" that is practiced throughout India. It is a source of the most genuine amazement to me that the colonial administrators so seldom see through it, that they take this intentional bungling for granted. But perhaps in the end it is just as well, since it saves the bearers from many possible reprisals.
My two little bearers returned this evening, though I'd have sworn I had seen the last of them Tuesday. When I awoke at seven they were crouched by my bedside, eyes bulging out like two little crickets. Almost as soon as my lashes first fluttered they were both in a state of absolute frenzy. Apparently they had been here for quite a while, eager to anticipate my very awakening. I wanted very much to roll over once more, but I decided that the children would burst if I did. The boy was extending my bathrobe from a distance, evidently expecting me to leap into it from the bed.
The girl was even more excited as she offered me a cup of steaming tea. I quickly cautioned her to keep her distance, paled by the prospect of a momentary shower. But when I began crawling from under my mosquito net, both children decided that it should have been raised. They made a simultaneous dash for it, pushing me back into bed in their enthusiasm.
"Now take it easy, both of you," I cried. "You're sure to kill me with kindness at this rate. I'm paying you by the month, you know, and you'll scarcely last a week if this continues."
The youngest beamed up at me and clasped her hands, touching them to her forehead with a little nod. "Good morning, sahib," she murmured quietly, her brother joining in the last two syllables.
"Good morning, bearers," I said with a laugh as they looked at each other in obvious pride.
Babu, the proprietor of our unit canteen, has just got out of the hospital. I've noticed his absence from the Café la Trine, but only today did I learn the reason. Last week, it seems, he had rented a tonga and was riding through the European section of Poona. A British soldier stepped out to the curb and hailed the driver, demanding a ride. The driver apologized and explained to the tommy that his wagon was already occupied. But the soldier persisted, drunken and surly. "Then where is your fare, you lying wog?"
The driver repeated, "Already taken. Another tonga across the street, sahib."
At this point another soldier joined the first one, adding his voice to the angry protests. "Say, tonga wallah, you heard this sahib! We don't see no passenger there in your tonga. Only this little raghead friend of yours; get him out of that seat in a hurry."
At this the driver motioned Babu down, but Babu refused to yield his place. "Gentlemen," he tried to reason with the two, "there is another tonga right across the street. I think you've had a bit too much to drink, and you're just in a rather angry mood. I paid this driver and I must be on my way. That driver over there will be glad to carry you."
At this one of the soldiers pulled Babu from the tonga, while the other began taking off his belt. The first one swung hard, knocking Babu to the ground; then he kicked at him viciously till he was almost unconscious. But to judge from the looks of Babu's face, the beating did not stop for quite a while. The belt buckle left deep lacerations in his flesh, and one eye was nearly torn from its socket.
I talked with Babu early this morning and I was surprised that he felt so little bitterness. I was furious when he told me that the military police had virtually refused to locate his assailants. But Babu himself was very philosophical, and he stopped me when I referred rather heatedly to "those swine." He said, "It is not any one man's fault. These two were drunk and didn't know what they were doing. They've all been away from their homes too long, away from their friends and their sweethearts and their country. They're angry now with the entire world and that has a bad effect on men."
I admitted, "Yes, I suppose it does, but that certainly does not justify their behavior toward you."
Babu replied, "Oh, it's much too simple to blame the individual soldiers for it. How can these tommies understand my people when even your scholars find it hard to do so? It's really a clash of outlooks, of peoples; the British and the Indians are strange to each other."
I answered, "All right, but strange or not, they have no right to do this sort of thing! They have no right to treat you as dirt beneath their feet, to violate your person without the slightest provocation."
Babu sighed. "No, my boy, they have no right. But it is inevitable under the circumstances."
I'm beginning to understand what Babu meant, now that I consider his argument objectively. His beating was not just a personal thing, to be considered apart from the general problem. The indignities, disgrace, and the suffering of this people are inseparably linked with foreign rule. They are not regrettable breaches of its discipline, but inherent axioms in its very philosophy. It isn't a question of personalities, or a question of Babu and two drunken tommies. The punishment of these two would be less than justice; it would only be a second injustice related to the first. Hatred and friction and occasional beatings are a part and parcel of the colonial system. Fists and oaths and flying belt buckles are necessary tools of any imperialism.
Babu's case is typical, I'm afraid. I've learned that from talking with other officers. A major whom I met in the canteen last week was bragging about just such an incident as this. We were talking, originally, about the war inflation and I was bemoaning the increasing cost of living. But the major insisted that in spite of the rise he refused as a matter of principle to pay more than previously. "They'll ask you for twice as much," he agreed, "but there's no reason why they should grow rich off this war. I pay them what is right for whatever I want, then I pick it up and carry it off."
I was rather surprised at the major's blithe methods and I asked, "But don't the merchants object?"
The major laughed. "Oh, occasionally they do, in which case I just belt them aside with my swagger stick. I remember the time when I was up in the Punjab; I thrashed one fellow soundly for arguing with me. He insisted that I give him eight annas, if you please, for a tonga ride which was worth only three. I finally just walked away from the beggar, ignoring his jabbering and his arguments. But he had the infernal nerve to chase after me, shouting as I climbed the steps of my billet. I turned around and told him to leave. When he stood his ground, I took his whip from him. I gave him one hell of a good beating with it and got back my three annas for the lesson I'd taught him. Oh, I tell you, young fellow, they're a sneaky lot and you've got to be careful or they'll rob you blind." The major leaned back and beamed with pride, musing, "But after twenty years, you'll know how to handle them."
I remarked that I already knew "how to handle them," sneering a little at the major's bigotry.
"Well, good for you," he babbled without thinking, then suddenly my intent began to sink in.
These oldsters place a premium on such cruelty; it proves that they are genuine "pukah sahibs." Often they will berate a servant quite needlessly, just to impress some younger officer. They enjoy relating incidents like the one above. Sometimes they actually compete in it. They suppress any feelings of justice or mercy as something unbecoming a colonial officer.
I AM learning quite a bit about Hinduism, and the more I learn, the more intelligible it becomes. Now that I see it from the inside out, it seems much less exotic and bizarre than it did. There are many taboos and theological principles which still are quite incomprehensible to me, but then, I have never heard a Christian minister make very good sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. On the surface, many features seem barbaric and crude, sociologically quite untenable. But the more I talk with my Indian friends, the fewer and fewer these features become. For example, the myriad number of gods, each holding sway in different districts or castes; these, I have learned, are simply manifestations of a very few religious figures. In various places they are pictured differently, and called perhaps by different names. But in a country of as many languages as India, that is scarcely perplexing or hard to explain.
Many of the so-called "special gods" that particular religions adopt as their own are no more than the saints which we enlightened Christians choose as our individual and collective patrons. Essentially, Hinduism is monotheistic, holding to one God who is manifested variously. There is a beautiful passage in the Bhagavad-Gita which expresses this idea clearly and vigorously. Still, it seems strange that the Hindu icons demonstrate such impossible natural forms. Seven-headed cobras and twelve-armed gods are rather primitive theology, it would seem. The Hindu can admit this without losing much ground, taking refuge in a further plausible argument. He can point out to the Christian the cherubim and angels, which, though immediately irrational, possess mythological significance. But easier still, the enlightened Hindu can trace the origin of his exotically formed deities.
It is almost impossible to mold in bronze the figure of a supremely powerful being. However muscular and wise he may look, he will still partake of our human limitations. But sociologists will tell us that this mere difficulty will not result in the abstraction of the deity. Somehow, with the tools and insight at its command, a society will symbolize its good through the arts. The simplest expedient for a primitive people is to express this power and wisdom quantitatively. Seven heads would be better than one, and twelve arms are a clear demonstration of strength. Of course the Hindu knows well what this means; he does not expect to see such creatures. But still the symbolism is suggestive to him and he appreciates the icon for its aesthetic validity.
I was down in the city this afternoon, looking for some good native handmade textiles. I have developed a rather expensive taste for Benares silks and Kashmir peshmina wool. The proprietor of the Kashmir Art Emporium is a man of better than average tastes. His store contains some wonderful handmade shawls, embroidered tapestries, and bordered saris. He apparently approves my taste in materials, since he has saved some pieces of unusual value for me. Though his prices were really quite high at first, they have become more reasonable with each successive purchase.
I have been interested to notice the unusual attitude displayed by most of the Poona shopkeepers. They will actually reduce the price of their wares to sell them to someone who will particularly appreciate them. This afternoon I bought a jade brooch that was marked, in a showcase, for one hundred rupees. When I admired it, identifying its type and origin, the proprietor seemed anxious for me to have it. But since I had heard him refuse an offer of eighty chips, I protested that I was in no position to buy it. "How much?" he asked, ignoring my words. "I will sell it to you for less than that."
I replied, "But I have only thirty rupees with me and five or ten more back at camp, at most."
He removed the brooch from its box in the showcase and began wrapping it up in heavy brown paper. "Pay me thirty rupees then," he said. "Or pay me later, whichever you'd rather."
I stammered, "But I cannot accept it for that. At thirty rupees it is practically a gift. You previously refused an offer of eighty. Why should you give it to me for less?"
The shopkeeper explained, "You are a man of good judgment; I know that from the dealings we have had before. When you go back to America you must take good things with you because you really appreciate their worth. I am not a poor man. I can afford to help you. I want to see this brooch in the right person's hands. To that woman the jade didn't mean a thing; she would only have bought it if it seemed like a bargain. Many hours of work went into this carving and a great deal of skill, too much to waste. Take it, I insist, for whatever you like." He handed me the package after a last fond pat.
Last week I had a similar experience with Raman, owner of the Poona Arts Depot. I priced a lapis lazuli carving and was astounded to hear that it was only twenty-five rupees. Since Raman himself was not in the store, I insisted that his helper read the tag again. "Twenty-five rupees, sahib I " he repeated, "and a very good bargain at such a sum."
I agreed, "A very good bargain indeed," as I drew the requisite bills from my pocket. "I still have a feeling that you've made a mistake, but if you're sure that's the price, I'll take it immediately."
At this point Raman himself appeared from the street and greeted me with a friendly smile. "I think I'm getting the best of you," I laughed, showing the carving which I had just acquired.
"Getting the best of me?" Raman asked. "Well, just how much did you pay for that?"
I answered airily, "Why, twenty-five rupees, the very first price your man here asked."
Raman seemed rather puzzled by my answer, then he spoke to his assistant in Gujarati. "I believe you did get the best of me," he said. "The price was supposed to be two hundred fifty."
I could not conceal my disappointment as I sighed, "Well, in that case, I'm afraid I can't keep it."
But Raman replied, "It is already yours and there is nothing that I can do about it now."
I laughed. "But Raman, I refuse to hold you to this sale.. I realize that it was simply a silly mistake."
Raman shook his head and refused my offer, saying, "A bargain is a bargain and the carving is yours."
As I look back over my earlier entries, I can hardly believe that I wrote some of them. Impressions of filth and apparent degeneracy have by now given way to a deeper understanding. When I first came in contact with the people of India, I was struck by their terrible poverty. I judged them harshly in terms of it and I did not look beyond these immediate appearances. But now I must confess that I am ashamed of these judgments and of the materialistic outlook that was responsible for them. To be truthful, I seldom have the temerity now to talk blithely of what these people must do or learn. They are far from the ignorant children I thought them; it is I who feel like a schoolboy in their presence. For they are wise in the most important respects, in terms of morality and human values. They are not exotic abstractionists, as I thought, who sit in silence, contemplating their navels. They are rather a very direct and friendly people whose wisdom is simple, like the wisdom of a child. The Indians have a pitiful lot to learn, but not in the realm of the humanities. Their insight and sincerity are profound and amazing; their personal integrity is almost unquestionable.
How ironic that we should send missionaries out here to convert the "heathen" to our way of thinking! How much like sending a salesman to Alaska to distribute refrigerators to the Eskimos! I am not reflecting on the Christian religion or comparing it unfavorably with Hinduism. I am talking rather about the results of each on the lives of the people who profess their beliefs. We send very little material help to this country, but we send an abundance of earnest young clerics. I think we might better reverse the process, since the Indian's belly is more lacking than his soul. I suggest that we exchange a few bulldozers for Hindus to teach Americans morality and courtesy. To paraphrase an age-old axiom, with their principles and our technical knowledge the whole world could really go places.
I spent the morning out on the drill field, watching the men rehearse for parade. I have seen them in close-order formations before, but I had never really learned the formal movements. The whole procedure seems awkward to me, terribly exaggerated and overly severe. The men are admonished by their sergeant major to "Stomp 'em down so they loosen your teeth." A march at attention looks much like the goose step, since the hands of the soldiers must be swung "shoulder high." "To the rear march" is an even more silly spectacle, being executed to a count of four. The men revolve in a tight little circle, bringing their knees up under their chins. Even "at ease" the men are rigid, jaws thrust out and stomachs. pulled in.
Whenever a soldier makes a sloppy motion, he is called out of line by the drillmaster in charge. He holds out his hands like an errant schoolboy while the sergeant raps his knuckles with a swagger stick. The pain cannot really be very great, but the humiliation can hardly be borne.
Grown men appear on the verge of tears when told, "You're a sloppy soldier, Smith."
Once in a while a unit will rebel when a very unpopular drillmaster leads them. Men in the ranks will call out commands and the others obey, confused and misled. I saw one group put on such a show, to the utter consternation of the fellow in charge. He was a newly promoted unit corporal and the men resented his inferior status. Finally he placed one of the men in charge, sure that this would stop the insurrection. "Stonewall," he cried, "take over the men. I shall hold you responsible for their absolute obedience."
Stonewall came out to the front of the line and was greeted by a flurry of wild laughs. "Fall out and dismissed," he shouted loudly. The unit obeyed without hesitation.
How I wish I could record the conversations which I have with the high ranking officers here! It seems I am accepted as a member of the raj, for the pretense at sincerity itself is dropped. I have tried to argue seriously with some of them, but they don't seem concerned with the vital issues. They begin their reasoning from the unfaltering assumption that since Britain benefits from India, her presence here is justified. I should think they would at least pretend a concern with the welfare of the Indian people. But so far everyone has been completely candid, quite willing to admit his profound disinterest. I can retain my composure in the face of anything---anything, that is, short of blatant selfishness. But yesterday afternoon while I was talking with a colonel I almost completely lost my temper.
"Don't tell me," he remarked with genuine boredom, that you're concerned with the welfare of the wogs hereabouts. Well, no matter, you'll get over that in a hurry---that is, if you know what's best for yourself."
I ignored the obvious warning in his words and snapped back a rather peevish answer. "I was brought to India under false pretenses, Colonel, under a pretense that Britain is interested in these people. In America we are told that your country controls India at least partially for the good of the Indians themselves. We are told that the .rule is kind and humane, designed to prepare these people for self-government."
The Colonel could hardly believe his ears; he spun around toward me and threw down his swagger stick. "Well, now you know better, don't you?" he shouted, striding out to end the discussion.
This isn't the first time I've been ridiculed for believing what I've read in Information Service releases. Time and again I have been brusquely told to forget these imperial apologetics. just a week ago I was arguing with another fellow, this time a major in Field Security. We were talking about the terrible famine in Calcutta and what seemed to me a needless loss of life. "I can't understand it," I repeated over and over, trying to make sense of a senseless thing.
"Of course you can't," my host snapped back. "You're eating up our own propaganda. Don't be so damned naive, young fellow. The Empire isn't a charitable institution. As long as the natives get along, that's fine. When they don't, it's hardly our responsibility. The Army isn't out here to feed this country or wipe the noses of these dirty beggars. We're out here to see that British interests are protected, and believe me, that's a big enough job in itself."
I protested, "But even assuming what you say, surely you'd benefit from building this place up. My God, in its present run-down condition India can't begin to produce to capacity."
The Major smiled for a moment at my naïveté, rose to leave, then turned in the doorway. "Here's a rule of thumb to follow: Britain wants India, but she doesn't want the Indians."
Britain wants India, but she doesn't want the Indians; that is indeed our slogan out here. I am sick of searching for justifications of the unconcern and brutality toward the natives. Of what importance are the academic arguments for and against this country's independence? Only a fool, after seeing this from the inside, could ever believe Britain was even sincere. Why should we consider what the raj could do, when it is so sickeningly apparent just what she is doing? Why should I engage in esoteric discussions when the men of the raj itself are so candid? I am through making an absolute ass of myself by trying to tell these men their own rotten business. I'm through assuming a basic justice, a fundamental interest in the welfare of the Indians. I've never yet been taken seriously by the very men who should want most to agree with me. I've been patted on the head and treated like a child who is only slowly learning the facts of life.
In the past few months I've learned a lot about human nature, imperialism, and power politics. But most of all, I am learning against my will that the raj is a fraud on a national scale. Its storied benevolence is a shabby pretense, laughed at by the people who are supposed to practice it. Its concern for the native is absolute fiction; he is nothing more than a slave to us. How can this monstrous evil persist? Why have we never learned the truth? Hitler was right; if a lie is great enough, people are all the more apt to believe it!
This afternoon on my way back from town I happened to cross the regimental drill grounds. I noticed some sort of activity at one end, but I assumed it was just some informal maneuver. When I had got just about halfway across I was stopped in my tracks by a ground-shaking squeal. As I turned, what I saw sent a chill through my spine and a thrill through the entire length of my body. The disorganized groups I had seen before were marching in a solid, compact formation. They were bearing directly down on me as if their marker used me for his sight. The flashing tartan of the Scottish Guards was whipping to the rhythm of the pounding feet, and as the men swung along they kept briskly in time with the monotonous skirl of the regimental bagpipes. I stood blinking for almost a minute and a half, fascinated by the approaching columns of men. Finally a corporal tapped me gently on the arm and said, "Beg pardon, sir, but they're headin' dead for us." I retired, at his suggestion, to the end of the field, but I stayed to watch till the show was through. In just a few moments we were surrounded by natives who were apparently overawed by the spectacle, as we were. The guardsmen seemed completely unaware of our presence, unaware of everything but the commands of their sergeants. At times they would march directly toward the crowds, which would melt from beneath their very feet. I wondered at the time what would have happened if the spectators hadn't moved quite fast enough. From the set of the jaws of the sweating troops, I decided we would all be ground down as by a juggernaut.
I must confess that while I was watching the parade I was taken in like any of the natives. I stood on my tiptoes and stared through the crowds, like a young farm hand at the county fair. But as the men left the fields a couple of their officers passed near by on their way back into Poona. A captain sauntered over and observed with a smile, "I guess that will hold them for another week."
I snapped to my senses just quickly enough to agree, "It certainly seemed to impress the natives."
The Captain laughed. "Well, that's what's intended, but you know, I get a thrill from it myself. I've been in the Guards for nearly five years, but the sound of the pipes does something to me yet."
I agreed, "That's easy enough to believe. I have the same reaction myself."
The Captain was beaming, as were his fellows, who had just turned friendly eyes toward me. "Really?" one said.
"Come along with us. We're bound for the Poona Club to celebrate this campaign."
I protested, "But I'll have to change from my shorts. The M.P.'s will take a dim view of this costume. Suppose I slip into long sleeves and trousers and join you there in half an hour?"
Bailis (I later found out his name) agreed that this sounded like the wisest course. "We'll see you there at half six, then." I promised to meet them in the center lounge.
When I stopped in the barracks Byron was waiting, and he urged me to go into town with him. When I explained that I was bound for the Poona Club, he finally agreed to compromise on that. I had never been to the club before, and I was a little uneasy on several scores. Chiefly, I recalled the occasion on which another of our unit was refused admittance. Like the rest of us, he wore no sign of rank, and a bearer assumed that he was an enlisted man. When he tried to explain his special status, he was met with a stony, unyielding stare.
"Byron," I ventured, "do you think we'll have trouble? Having no sign of our rank, I mean."
Byron returned, "That depends on our methods, upon the air we assume, that is. When we enter the place, remember this: These pukah sahibs will accept you at your own valuation. If you enter timidly, hat in hand, you'll probably wind up on the steps outside. So charge right in as if you owned the place and push anyone aside who seems to object. If you're stared at by any of the dismal old officers, why, stare right back and breathe fire in their faces. That's the thing that's really important in establishing your status here in India. If you're rude to a person, everyone assumes that your social position is better than his. In conversation, be blunt to unpleasantness, and don't be afraid to step on people's toes. If someone asks for a duel of wits, give him just what he is asking for. Don't hold back for politeness' sake; it will be taken as a sign that you fear the man." I wasn't too sure about this advice of Byron's, but I resolved to put it to the test at any rate.
As we entered the Poona Club several old colonels began wondering who and what I was. While Byron was checking his cap and mine they stared in shifts at my bare epaulets. I tried to ignore them for a moment or two, but finally the suspense got the better of me. I glanced at them with what I had intended to be a look of haughty, self-assured indifference. Apparently it miscarried, for they grew more suspicious and finally began working their way toward me. At last one was just a few feet away, and we glared toward each other at a very close range.
Byron appeared at this opportune moment and immediately took command of the situation. He strode up to me in mild curiosity and said, "Muehl, if you know this joker, why, say hello to him."
I replied, "But I have never seen him before. I can't understand his curiosity."
Byron laughed. "Oh, he's probably a bit tight. Come along, we mustn't keep Bailis waiting."
At this the colonel turned rather regretfully toward me, while I held my breath expecting a shout. "I'm terribly sorry," he apologized stiffly. "I didn't realize you were an American. I thought . . . Damn! Never mind what I thought. I beg your pardon for my inexcusable rudeness."
I walked away, trying hard to look stern while Byron made that increasingly difficult. "You see," he kept muttering. "It's as easy as that. Don't even answer him. Cut him dead."
Actually, Bailis had yet to arrive, so we adjourned for a few moments to one of the bars. Two women, apparently of good social standing, greeted us unexpectedly as we sat drinking at our table. They were very plain and unattractive, but they were passably interesting by virtue of their preoccupation with sex.
"I see you're an American," one said to me. "You men have quite a reputation, you know."
"Really?" I parried. "What kind of reputation? If you'll tell me I promise I'll try to live up to it."
We played cat and mouse for about fifteen minutes, in spite of any number of proximate eavesdroppers. I was a bit uncomfortable about this for a while, but I relaxed when I saw that the women did not mind. Byron finally became bored with the proceedings and casually announced that Bailis was waiting. I excused myself with a little difficulty, rather glad of a chance to break away.
As we approached his table Bailis observed, "So you've already made a conquest, have you?"
I replied, "A conquest? Well, hardly that. I barely said hello to the girl."
Bailis laughed. "Then I see you don't know her. Hello to her is tantamount to a proposition."
I admitted, "Well, that makes her a bit more interesting, but still, she doesn't seem to be my type. just who is she, and why is she here? Have I ruined my good name by talking with her?"
At this all the officers reared back in their chairs and roared at some humor that completely escaped me. "Well, she's not a him," Bailis finally answered. "On the contrary, she's the wife of our most promising civil service officer!"
I cried in amazement, "The wife of a civil service officer? You're joking! You can't be serious."
Bailis insisted, "I was never more serious. She's an acceptable matron. She only acts like a prostitute." I lowered myself into one of the chairs, wagging by head in disbelief, as Bailis gently patted my shoulder saying, "You've a lot to learn about Poona society."
Yesterday morning a group of the officers asked me if I would teach them how to play baseball. Soccer, they said, was "a bit too rough" and hockey required "too much constant practice." I suspected that they underestimated baseball if they felt it was less demanding in either respect, but after a very few moments of futile argument I agreed to teach them the fundamentals.
Most of the men were dressed in full uniform, but they laughed when I suggested that they change to something else. "We've always managed to play cricket this way," one said, "and I understand that baseball is very much like it."
I protested that though I knew nothing about cricket, I could guarantee that baseball was a strenuous game. "If you try to slide in those shorts," I said, "I'm afraid you'll be skinned from hipbone to heel."
One or two of the fellows mumbled something to the effect that they did not intend to "go sliding about." Then the Major called cheerily, "Well, come now. Let's get on," so I decided to let them all learn from experience.
I led the men out to a soccer pitch and began laying out a regulation diamond. There were a few crisp comments on the length of the base lines, but I reminded the officers, "But we must obey the rules." This was met with such immediate agreement and enthusiasm that I suspected I had acquired a useful technique. Then suddenly I turned and began counting noses, only to find that we were several men short. "Well, this won't do," I said to the fellows. "We've got to get a few more men. We'll need someone to bat the ball around." A few of the lieutenants took exception to my statement, suggesting that we play a few innings "shorthanded." I gasped, "In contravention of the rules?" and won the immediate repentance of the offenders.
"But most of the others are busy," said one captain. "I doubt if we can find another soul."
For a moment the problem seemed insurmountable; then suddenly I hit upon a possible solution. I held my breath, but tried to sound casual as I suggested, "Well, how about a few enlisted men?"
The Major muttered, "Enlisted men? Well! To tell the truth, I hadn't thought of that." It was quite apparent that he not only hadn't, but that he didn't intend to, seriously, now.
"Lieutenant," I cried in synthetic enthusiasm, "get a few of your men out here."
The Major began stammering, "I'm not quite sure ... but his indecision was buried in the excitement of the rest.
When Lieutenant Audley returned to the field, he was leading two bedraggled, unhappy-looking tommies. It was apparent that while this might be a game to the rest of us, it was just an unpleasant assignment to them.
"What ho, men! join in the fun," one of the captains cried in a forced camaraderie.
"Beg pardon, sir?" said one of the tommies, coming to attention and banging his heels.
"Stand easy, men," the Captain replied. "We want you to join in the game with us."
The little fellow replied, "Yes, sir, we know. What would you like us to do first, sir?"
I broke into the dialogue at this tragic point, exhorting all the men to fan out across the field. The tommies hung together around second base, eying each other with a pitiful uneasiness. "You two, spread out," I called to them. "Don't crowd together behind the pitcher."
As they began to separate, the Major cried sharply, "Here, you! Not so damned close to the shortstop!" At this the fellows scrambled back together like an isolated pair of lonesome sheep. I decided to leave them where they were for a while, since this burlesque of theirs could have gone on all morning.
For a time the game progressed quite satisfactorily, with much fumbling and wild throwing, but in general good spirits. Then suddenly I hit a fly to the infield which the enlisted men. allowed to drop between them. This annoyed the Colonel quite beyond all reason; he felt that such stupidity could not be allowed. "See here, you clowns there on second base," he called, "I want to see you go after that ball. You've been brooding out there like two sullen owls and it's just about time you changed your attitude. The rest of us are enjoying the game and I expect to see you enjoy it as well."
The tommies listened at respectful attention, but their enjoyment did not at once visibly increase. Instead, they became more uncomfortable than ever, so I tried to avoid hitting the ball into their territory.
"Hit the ball over there," cried the Major, pointing in the direction of the unfortunate pair. "And you two, I want to see you catch this. There is no earthly reason for your failure to do so."
I popped up a very easy fly just beyond the second base line. But the tommies ran into each other trying to field it, and the ball dropped safely beyond them. At this the Major became apoplectic, and he berated the men for several minutes. They stood unflinching, at attention again, murmuring an occasional "Yes, sir" or "No, sir." Finally the Major had exhausted his rage and he came in to take the bat from my hands. He looked toward second base and choked, out of breath, "Catch this, now. Catch it! That is an order."
The army dhobi has just brought our laundry; what is left, that is, of my socks, shirts, and pants. I'm amazed that, without any chemical bleaches, he manages to soak the color out of things so quickly. Most of these pieces have been washed only four or five times, but already they are bedraggled and streaked with white. Considering the methods the dhobi uses, I suppose I am lucky there is anything left. Yesterday, on my way to the Royal Connaught Boat Club, I stopped on the bank of the river. Beneath me, far down on the rocky bottom, the laundrymen of Poona were hard at work. Till then I had not known what methods they used; perhaps it were better if I had not learned. Soaps and solutions were unheard of here. Plain river water was the dhobi's only helper. The men would swing the clothes above their heads, then dash them down across protruding stone surfaces. They would draw the clothes across the rock face to loosen the dirt which clung to the fabric. After this the piece would be swished back and forth in the water of the swiftly running channel. What few worn threads survived all these tests would be laid on the clean white banks to dry. From a distance the scene was really quite beautiful; the shores of the river were splotched with color. Blue and yellow saris lay there, stirring in the gentle summer winds. Red and purple turban bands fluttered and dried in the hot morning sun. The sky, as always, was a cobalt blue, reflected in the narrow wisp of water. As the dhobis worked, a spray flew up and the droplets formed tiny rainbow arcs. The brown bodies bent and swayed in rhythm; I could barely hear a chanting tune.
It would be easy to conclude this story here, where any well-timed travelogue would end. But for the sake of truth, if at the expense of beauty, I must relate the rest of this pastoral scene. Intrigued by what I had seen from a distance, I refused to let well enough alone. I rode down a little winding path and stopped within a few yards of the river. I leaned across the handle bars of my cycle, nodding in time with the song of the dhobi. I must have remained there for several minutes, almost enchanted by the scene before me. Suddenly I began listening to the words of the chant, and I realized with a start that they were not Urdu, but English. What had seemed like a gentle, happy work tune suddenly became a bitter lament. "Brown man good man," the dhobi would sing, raising the washing above his head. "Brown man good man, white man bastard!" The clothes would crash down across the rocks. Each time the washermen repeated their motions, they repeated the angry words of their chant. "Brown man good man, white man bastard" thundered in time with the vigorous pounding. I flushed and felt rather out of place, though none of the dhobis seemed aware of my presence. I turned and rode back up the hill, strangely but genuinely perplexed and sad.
I sometimes feel like a man without a country, for I am not at ease with the British or the Indians. I cannot accept the first group as my own and the latter would probably never accept me. I am becoming ashamed of the uniform I wear, for in it I stand for something I hate. Whenever I near a group of Indians, they become stiff and formal, courteous but unfriendly. I've tried very hard to break down this reaction, but the majority cannot help resenting me a little. And yet in spite of the gulf between us, I have more in common with them than with the men close around me.
I went to the cinema this afternoon at the suggestion of Bisbee and some of his friends. Though the feature was old, the advertisements were worth a great deal more than the price of admission. As in any American vaudeville house, the curtain bore a number of lettered signs. But those merchants who were willing to pay a little more displayed their advertisements on slides instead. I recall one slide in particular now, bearing the hand-lettered name of Cheap John. "Old Brass and Gems at Rockbottom-Cut-rate Prices. Come and see me, Joe, don't be cheated." The hand of some GI was discernible in this, his hand and perhaps his sense of humor.
Another slide that caught my attention warned patrons of the dangers and evils of smoking. It was probably inserted by some Moslem philanthropist who was anxious to sell his ideas and his talents.
It soils your fingers, stains your clothes,
And makes a chimney of your nose,
So for the delicate ladies refrain
From doing this habit ever again.
(And also for innocent kiddies)
I have been upset by several other advertisements that have been appearing regularly in the Indian papers. They indicate a dangerous patent medicine racket that is bent on milking the most ignorant natives. "A Lady in Worry Must Use ---- Tablets, for ---- is sure and safe. Dependable. Quick and easy to use. All experienced doctors recommend their use. Delay due to any reason can be definitely put right within the space of 24 hours. Note: These tablets, being marvelous in effect, should not be used in pregnancy." This last, of course, is a rather broad wink, designed to protect the manufacturer and distributor. How many Indians have been taken in by this obvious and yet very vicious hoax?
A similar advertisement pictures a woman in the company of an extremely dejected gentleman. To judge from the diaphanous drapery of the girl, the man is not worrying about his losses in the stock market. "Take-----," this advertisement advises, "which regulates your period within 24 to 48 hours . . . contains 10,000 units of the costly hormone Estrin and that's why it never fails." Again there is the warning, printed in small type, half-heartedly warning against use in pregnancy. But this product, just as clearly as the other, is aimed at the poverty-ridden, overly fertile masses.
Finally, there is a picture of an African chieftain, showing him with his many wives and children. "Zooloo," the picture is captioned boldly, "a medicine used by the Zulus for increasing VIGOUR and VITALITY." Below, another streamer mysteriously announces, "A secret zealously guarded by the witch doctors." Then, "Thanks to the enterprise and years of labour and perseverance on the part of the Africa Corporation in securing the secret from the witch doctors, we are today in the proud position of placing Zooloo before the Indian public to the great relief of many unhappy men. . . . Unlike so many drugs which claim to cure debility by making men take tablets or liquids by mouth, the Zooloo oil is a local tonic. It has a most pleasant smell and works like magic." Finally, the ad promised to send on request a booklet entitled "The Magic of Simba."
I was discouraged to think that such promotions could go on under the very eye of the British "protector." But I was even more discouraged to think that the Indians were turning thus on their own countrymen. In a nation where ignorance is as widespread as here, to spread more intentionally seemed almost like treason. It would retard development when quick development was the goal of all. I don't know whether I felt better or worse when I noticed the legend "Made in England" in one ad. But I do know that I became very angry indeed when I found that the vendors of all three were British.
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