Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE DISTRICT OFFICER
AT the moment the camel deposited me at his camp he was hearing appeals from the orders of his subordinate magistrates. The furniture of the court consisted of a desk, all in clamps and joints and hooks for taking to pieces when camp is struck, and two chairs, Its officials were three native clerks, cross-legged on the floor with piles of papers and inkhorns, and a red-coated, gold-sashed orderly at the tent door. In the shadow of the tent snored another, also red-coated and gold-sashed, like all Government messengers. A little way off squatted a circle of bottomless-eyed brown men — some fat with gay mantles, some thin with wisps of calico — litigants, appellants, petitioners, policemen in dark-blue tunics, and prisoners in irons. There floated in faint cries from the village, a quarter of a mile away, the pipe of birds and the guggle of camels.
At the desk sat the Presence — British rule incarnate in a young man in long boots and a green waterproof-khaki shooting jacket, clean-shaven, with an eye and a mouth and a chin. Thus he rules, by himself, his kingdom of 5000 square miles and 800,000 souls.
"Roti Ram" says the cross-legged clerk on the carpet; "Roti Ram" bawls the beckoning orderly at the door. There appears, slipping off his shoes at the entrance, a sleek creature in a flowered cotton tunic, like the chintz in which ladies cover up their sofas. He scoops unctuously at the carpet and brings his hand thence to his turban; then bows his head and clasps his hands in the attitude of prayer. The clerk patters out a flowery rigmarole of mixed Arabic and Persian, blotted only by a few bare necessary disfigurements in the way of Hindi words, — that is Hindustani, the official language of Northern India. When he has finished, the District Officer raises his head and asks three questions in the vernacular; Roti Ram replies, with voluble self-abasement. Then the Sahib utters six words, ending with "Go." Roti Ram takes a scoop at the carpet, and, shuffling into his shoes, goes.
He is a landlord, and had desired to evict certain of his tenants. They had applied to the British assistant to be made permanent, occupancy tenants, or, in the alternative, for compensation. Now the landlord appealed against the rate of compensation allowed; the assistant is young and new to the district, and had fixed it at a rate which his experienced superior, knowing his district like a book, knows the land will not bear. Appeal allowed; Roti Ram happy.
"Mukkan Singh!" "Mukkan Singh!" A wisp of brown arm and leg in a dirty orange turban palpitates in, and clasps his hands. "O Cherisher of the Poor," he begins, and then falls to weeping. "Stop that," says the Cherisher of the Poor, with sternness; he stops instantly, and in a voice of anguish pours forth his tale. A villain has taken away his wife and married her: he wants to prosecute them for bigamy.
"Where did you marry your wife?"
"O Presence, here — no; in Gurgaon — no; it was in the native state of — but no; the Presence will know that —"
"Where is she now?"
"O Presence, here — no; in Gurgaon — no; she was in the native state — but no; my wife left my house, O my father and mother, and went first to Gurgaon, and there she and the man remained but a little while, and then — "And then Mukkan Singh's brain gives altogether, and he sobs limply. He is removed and set down at the tent door, and a native clerk with a soothing manner is set by him to extract his story in bits as his senses return. Eventually — Application for warrant to be made elsewhere; Mukkan Singh slightly comforted.
So they file in and out, one after another, confirming the Persian proverb that gold, women, and land are the seed of all troubles. Presently they are all done with for the moment; the sun is dropping down the sky, and their father and mother takes time for a cup of tea. But he is instantly back in his office again; he has yet to hear the points submitted to him from the outlying parts of the district, besides a multitude of petitions. When you hear them, you begin to realise what a District Officer is.
1. A peon, who Was a Mussulman, went to serve a process in a remote Hindu village. There the natives detected him about to slay for his supper, with his official sword, a brood of young peacocks, and the defence of the sacred birds resulted in a free fight. The peon denied the impeachment with pained indignation: the fact was, he saw the boys of the village going about to slay the pea-chicks, and, knowing that Hindus held them sacred, was putting them into a tree for safety, when the villagers fell upon him. Note by the local native authority — The peon is known to be fond of roast peacock, and is it likely that Hindu boys would kill the holy chicks? Question, What is to be done to this peon? Peon dismissed.
2. A lady whose son and son's estate are under the court of wards — "which is practically me," explains the District Officer — asks for money wherewith to celebrate the consummation of the boy's marriage. Recommended that he be declared of age and put in possession of his property.
3. Ten native gentlemen of independent means have promised to subscribe for school prizes to the total amount of £1, 2s. 8d. When it comes to buying the prizes, only one of them can be induced to pay. What is to be done? Nothing.
4. A woman has accused a man of looting her house; it turns out he is her lover, and she adopted this device to conceal the fact from her husband. No charge.
5. An old woman accused a man of stealing two pennyworth of green stuff from her field; it turns out that, having a grudge against him, she has hit on this device to work it off, whereas in fact he took the stuff from his own field. No charge.
6. Two Government orderlies have had their official sashes three years and they are worn out; authority is sought to buy new ones. Granted.
7. A headman of a village has sold his land; therefore, according to law, he ought not to remain headman, nor to collect the Government revenue, nor to receive his five per cent. commission thereupon. But the times are hard, and he has a brother, a fakir in Boondi, who will give him up his land and thus re-qualify him. Allowed.
8. A head-headman — one who is set over a group of villages, and gets one per cent. on the revenue raised therein, which is paid out of the revenue of one particular village — points out that, owing to hard times, the revenue of this village has been suspended, and there is nothing to pay his commission with. May it be paid from the revenue of the others in his group? Yes.
9. A native magistrate has remanded a prisoner for fifteen days, whereas the law only allows a remand for fourteen. But on the fifteenth day a superior magistrate, who has power to try him, will return, and he will be saved the trouble and delay of a journey to the central town. Permitted.
10. There is a leper at Chotapur; what is to be done with him? Look up the latest of Government's innumerable regulations on the point and act accordingly.
11. Some prisoners in Jail for non-payment of fines allege that money is due to them for railway work at Hazirabad wherewith they could pay. Write and find out.
12. On the salt-line — the old barrier across country where the salt-tax used to be collected, the land of which is still Government property — a tree has fallen down. May it be sold by auction? It may.
13. A sepoy on furlough has brought Government cartridges to his village, which is contrary to the Arms Act. Communicate with his regiment.
14. A recruiting party enlisted two men in the jungles of a native state and brought them into the district, where they were found to be possessed each of a sword, contrary to the Arms Act. What is to be done with (a) the swords, (b) the recruits? (a) Confiscated, (b) nothing.
15. Certain villagers — having presumably quarrelled with the village accountant — demand an audit of the books of the village funds. Granted.
16. May a headman attach a villager's buffalo in default of water-rate? He is able to pay. Yes.
17. May a headman attach standing crops in default of land.-tax? Yes — to the extent of the taxes due.
18. Government granted 1.0,000 rupees for wells in this district. Hitherto, times being hard and demand for water great, it has only been granted for cheap kutcha wells (unbricked holes), which silt up in a couple of years. Only 2000 rupees have been applied for, and in seven weeks the unused part of the grant will have lapsed. May it be proclaimed that applications for pukka (bricked)) wells will be received? Yes.
19. Saltpetre licence requested. Saltpetre is won by washing the earth that bears it and then evaporating in the sun; as salt is found with it, and salt is a strict Government monopoly in India, Government controls the saltpetre industry to the extent of charging two rupees for a licence. Licence granted.
20. Question of liquor licence. Liquor can only be obtained from Government distilleries, and the price of licences acts as a check on drinking. This is a case of a joint-concession, of which one partner has quarrelled with the other and wants him ejected. Refused.
21. May a registrar's clerk, who is the son of a Worthy man and is well reported on, be confirmed in his appointment? Yes.
22. A question of tenant-right not contemplated in the Act. Decided on general principles of common-sense.
23. Gun licence applied for. Granted.
24. Gun licence applied for in same village. Refused.
24a. Two more applicants, who had intended applying in case of the others' success, go away.
25. An old gentleman with flowing white beard applies for the right of sitting on a chair on public occasions. This privilege is only granted by Government as an honour, and he produces a pile of testimonials from former Government officers. The sahib asks him, "District Board ke member hai?" which is pure Hindustani. Recommended that it be granted.
26. A shivering, threadbare, skin-and-bone greybeard says that his land is about to be sold, in default of payment of debt, by the village usurer. Law is law: nothing can be done for him.
27. Village messenger, whose salary is 16s. a-year, complains that his pay is 10s. 8d. in arrear. Advised to get work elsewhere, of which there is plenty.
28. Village leather-worker, same salary, 9s. 4d. in arrear. Same advice.
By now the huddle of petitioners outside the tent has melted away. There remains (29) a pile of papers ten inches thick to be signed. "Every one of these means the ruination of some poor devil," says the District Officer; they are notices of proceedings to recover debt. "But I can't do anything."
And that will give you an idea of some of the things on which a District Officer had to keep his eye. Not all, for he has a light time just now: big questions like organisation of town councils, or waterworks, or new canals, or famine-works, have let up for the moment. The Presence talks as familiarly of abolishing octrois and suppressing town councils as you do of engaging a housemaid. Nor yet does this give you an idea of all his work; for before this chapter began he had ridden four hours from village to village. A most commendable regulation directs him to spend so many weeks a-year in camp, journeying from point to point in his five thousand square miles. When the day's work is over the sahib strolls into the sunset with a gun, as he has done every evening for years, till the sight of black-buck and partridge has grown odious to him. That moment an army of tent-pitchers hauls down the court, takes the bench to pieces, and the whole thing is off on camels and carts to the next stopping-place. We remain in the living-tent to dine and sleep, for it is still cold at night; but there is a second living-tent already awaiting us at the next halting-place. We tumble out in the darkling twilight and start off through the country. At every cross-road there await the Presence salaaming villagers and more rule to be exercised.
Here — dismounting by the wayside before a semicircle of dark faces muffled in shawls against the bitter air of sunrise — he inspects the village registers, there checks the cattle-census returns, there refutes complaints of destitution by pointing to stacks of last year's fodder — which proves by one example the wisdom of going into camp — and at the next turning goes over the new village meeting-house. I saw that house — a huge double-towered building, higher than that of the next village, they tell you eagerly — faced with white plaster and adorned with wondrous frescoes of men and beasts and crinolined gods spearing dark-blue devils. On the roof above are revealed more esoteric studies, — a gentleman removing a lady's veil, and a white man drinking — O shame! — out of a bottle. There the men meet in the hot-weather evenings to smoke on the roof; here they put up the village guests at the expense of the village fund. At one place, by a rare exercise of self-help, they are using the village fund to pay the destitute to dig out the village tank. The same fund is used for judicious bribes to small officials when the village has a law-case.
Through all this primitive hospitality, primitive corruption, primitive joy and sorrow, moves the Father and Mother of District, granting, refusing, punishing, fostering. Respected, feared, trusted, to his 800,000 he is Omnipotence. I should have mentioned that he is thirty years old, and has been at this kind of work for six years.