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THE first sight of India is amazing, entrancing, stupefying. Of other countries you become aware gradually: Italy leads up to the Levant, and Egypt passes you on insensibly to the desert. Landed in Bombay, you have strayed into a most elaborate dream, infinite in variety, spinning with complexity, a gallery of strange faces, a buzz of strange voices, a rainbow of strange colours, a garden of strange growths, a book of strange questions, a pantheon of strange gods. Different beasts and birds in the street, different clothes to wear, different meal-times, and different food — the very commonest things are altered. You begin a new life in a new world.
It takes time to come to yourself. At first everything is so noticeable that you notice nothing. You pin your eyes to the little fawn-coloured, satin-skinned, humped oxen in the carts, to the blue crows that dance and spar in the gutters. They are the very commonest things in India, but just because they are common bullocks — yet with humps! — common crows — yet blue! — their fascination is enthralling. The white ducks you wear all day are like a girl's first court dress, and you sit down to breakfast at eleven off a fish called pomphlet with the sensations of a Gulliver.
When things begin to come sorted and sifted, Bombay reveals itself as a city of monstrous contrasts. Along the sea-front one splendid public building follows another — variegated stone façades with arch and colonnade, cupola and pinnacle and statuary. At their feet huddle flimsy huts of matting, thatched with leaves, which a day's rain would reduce to mud and pulp. You sit in a marble-paved club, vast and airy as a Roman atrium, and look out over gardens of heavy red and violet flowers towards choking alleys where half-naked idolaters herd by families together in open-fronted rooms, and filth runs down gullies to fester in the sunken street. In this quarter you may see the weaver twirling his green and amber wool on a hand-loom — a skeleton so simple and fragile that a kick would make sticks of it; go to the street corner, and you see black smoke belch from a hundred roaring mills, whose competition cuts the throat of all the world. In the large open spaces Parsis bowl each other under-hand full-pitches and cry, "Tank you, tank you," after the ball; by the rail squats a Hindu, who would like, if only the law would let him, to marry babies and burn widows.
Yet, for all its incongruities, Bombay never will have you forget that it is a great city. If it had no mills it would be renowned for its port; if it had neither it would be famous for its beauty. Its physical configuration is something like that of New York. Bombay lies at the southern end of a long narrow island; its oldest part, the Fort, is toward the southernmost extremity. Here are the landing-piers, the public buildings, the newspapers, the principal business centres. Next comes the native city; and the fashionable quarter for residence once lay northward where the Byculla Club, the best in Bombay, still marks its site. But flowing business, as in New York, has risen and surged over the city; it has washed the native quarter northward, and the Club now stands an almost solitary land-mark among cotton-mill chimneys and teeming native tenements. The Europeans, with the ever-multiplying class of rich natives, now live further westward on the Ridge or on Malabar Hill, which, turning south to face the old town, forms the western horn of Back Bay. From the narrowness of the original city, and the four-miles' drive between it and the Ridge, it follows that rents are high and land continually more valuable; and from that follows that the native town is not one-or two-storeyed as elsewhere in India, but laid out in great tenement blocks, which lend themselves to picturesqueness and to plague.
So that in the drive from the Apollo Bunder to Malabar Point, all India is unfolded in one panorama. First the business houses and the great buildings — those the richest, these the stateliest in India, and challenging comparison with almost any city in the world. Every variation of design is theirs, but they find a link of uniformity in the red-brown colours common to most, and in the oriental profusion of ornament. First comes the Venetian Secretariat, then the Gothic University Library and the French University Hall; between them the great Clock Tower, which peals forth hymn-tunes on Sunday, and on week-days "God Save the Queen!" and "Home, Sweet Home." The white-pinnacled Law Courts follow in Early English, then the Post and Telegraph Offices in Miscellaneous Gothic. But the jewel of Bombay is the Victoria Railway Station, a vast domed mass of stone fretted with point and column and statuary. Between them all you catch vistas of green mead and shrubbery, purple-belled creepers, scarlet-starred shrubs. The whole has its feet in bowers of succulent green and its elbows on shining-leaved banyan-trees. A proud and comely city, you say, the Briton feels himself a greater man for his first sight of Bombay.
Then suddenly the magician turns his ring and new has become old, plain is coloured, solid is tumbled down, the West has been swallowed up utterly by the East. Cross but one street and you are plunged in the native town. In your nostrils is the smell of the East, dear and never to be forgotten: rapturously you snuff that blending of incense and spices and garlic, and sugar and goats and dung. The jutting houses close in over you. The decoration of Bombay henceforth is its people. The windows are frames for women, the streets become wedges of men. Under the quaint wooden sun-hoods that push out over the serried windows of the lodging-houses, along the rickety paintless balconies and verandahs, all over the tottering roofs — only the shabbiness of the dust and dirty plaster relieves the gorgeousness of one of the most astounding collections of human animals in the world. Forty languages, it is said, are habitually spoken in its bazaars. That, to him who understands no word of any of them, is more curious than interesting. But then every race has its own costume; so that the streets of Bombay are a tulip-garden of vermilion turbans and crimson, orange and flame colour, of men in blue and brown and emerald waistcoats, women in cherry-coloured satin drawers, or mantles, drawn from the head across the bosom to the hip, of blazing purple or green that shines like a grasshopper. You must go to India to see such dyes. They are the very children of the sun, and seem to shine with an unreflected radiance of their own. If you check your eye and ask your mind for the master-colour in the crowd, it is white — white bordered with brown or fawn or amber legs. But when you forget that and let the eye go again, the scarlets and yellows and shining greens — each hue alive and quivering passionately like the tropical sun at midday — fill and dazzle it anew: in the gilding light the very arms and legs show like bronze or amber or the bloom on ripe damsons. You are walking in a flaring sunset, and come out of it blinking.
Look under the turbans. At first all natives look alike, but soon you begin to mark distinctions of dress and even of type. The first you will pick out is the Arab horse-dealer. His long robe and hood, bound round With cords and tufts of camel's hair, mark him off from the wisp-clothed native of India. The Arab gives you the others in focus. He is not much accounted by those who know him; yet, compared with the Indian, his mien is high, his movements free and dignified, his features strongly cut and resolute. The Bagdad Jew is hardly a type of lofty manhood, but under his figured turban and full-tasselled fez his face looks gravely wise. The blue-bloused Afghan is a savage frankly, but a strong man also. By the side of any one of them the down-country native of Bombay is poor and weak and insignificant. He looks as if you could break him across your knee. His formless features express nothing; his eyes have the shining meekness, but not the benevolence, of the cow's; he moves slowly and without snap, like a sick man. He seldom speaks, and when he does his voice is small. Sometimes he smiles faintly — laughs never.
To the nervelessness of the Bombay natives one race furnishes an exception — the Parsi. The Parsi, as his name tells you, comes from Persia, whence he was persecuted for worshipping fire. Persecuted races develop their own virtues and their own aptitudes; and now, under the British peace, the Parsi flourishes exceedingly. He is the Jew of the East — leaves other people to make things while he makes money. Banking, agency, commission, brokerage, middleman's profits are the Parsi's Golconda. He has perceived the advantages wherewith a European education equips him for these pursuits, and has sedulously educated himself into the most European of all Asiatics. He walks out with his wife — a refined-looking creature in a pale pink or lemon-yellow gown, with a pea-green, crimson-edged shawl passed over her head — to hear the band at sunset, and talks to her as a man might talk to his friend. He takes a holiday at Darjiling in the starving frost, and professes himself much braced by it. And when the young Parsi speaks of "going home," he means not Persia — where he would nOt be received with enthusiasm — but England.
You can see the change in the dress of two generations. The elderly Parsi wears his shirt outside his cerise trousers, and on his head a weird plum-colour structure, like a Siamese-twin of a hat that you can put on either way up. The young Parsi wears, as a rule, a short frock-coat buttoned over white duck trousers, and on his head a linoleum helmet, something between a Prussian grenadier's and a fly-paper man's. He is shocked at our denial of representative institutions to India, conceiving that if they were granted he would be a representative, and forgetting that, we once gone, the Mussulmans would straightway push him into the sea and take his rupees unto themselves.
For the Parsi's rupees are very many. Sir Jamshidji Jijibhoy, the richest, is worth about five millions sterling. Many others hasten in his footsteps. So greenly flourish the Parsis that they have nearly filled up all the eligible sites on the Ridge, the best part of Bombay, and soon there will be no place for the Briton. While the rich Parsi lives in an airy bungalow, English ladies have to hire land and live thereon in tents.
Bombay is the extremest case of a commonplace but irritating evil which is felt in Calcutta also, and will in time be felt, unless it be provided against, in all the great Indian cities. The British residents, supposed to be lords of the city, have no place to live in. Our rule has enriched the natives till they outbid us for the luxuries and even the necessities of life. The pinch has come first in Bombay, partly because the Parsis have been quicker and abler than other races in taking advantage of the peace and industrial facilities we have afforded, partly because the city, lying on a narrow island, can only extend in one direction. Nobody grudges the Parsi the fruits of his level-headed enterprise. But he is not always a pleasant neighbour to the fastidious eyes and ears and nose of the European — though, indeed, things have now gone so far that the European would put up with that in return for a possible bungalow, and cannot get it. The best part of Bombay is the Ridge and Malabar Hill, and here house after house is passing into native occupancy. The result is that young and slenderly paid Europeans — and even many married men — have literally nowhere to live. The chambers in the clubs are all full, and so, in the season, are the comfortless hotels. At an exorbitant rate they hire land to pitch tents on; and even from this they may be driven at the will of the native owner. The remedy for this state of things is to mark off reservations in all large cities to be occupied by Europeans alone. It should be done at once, for every year makes it more difficult and expensive.
It must be said that if the Parsi knows how to get, he knows also how to give. Every Parsi educational institution or charity, for men or women, is endowed beyond the dreams of London hospitals. One cotton-spinner is said to have given 200,000 to the University of Bombay; many others are hardly less munificent. To them, to the Bagdad-Jewish Sassons and — last, but after all essential to the prosperity of the others — to the British Government, Bombay owes the stately public buildings, the spacious open places that give her the grand air above almost every city of the West.
For Bombay is indeed a queen among cities. Drive down from the Ridge by the white, flooding moonlight, beneath fleshy green leaves as huge and flowers as languorously gorgeous as in any fairy tale, — beneath hundred-fingered fronds of palm and wax-foliaged banyans that feel for earth with roots hanging from their branches; past tall, broad-shouldered architecture rising above these, Western in its design, Eastern in the profusion of its embellishment; looking always out to the blue-veiled bay with the golden lights on its horns. Then think of the factory smoke, the numberless bales of cotton, the hives of coolies, the panting steamers in the harbour, the grim-eyed batteries, and the white warships. Bombay is a beautiful queen in silver armour and a girdle of gold.