Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE IMPERIAL BABU
"BUT you English have the best of everything in India," said the Brahman; "you can surely afford to be generous."
"O, have we?" says I. "Now what, for instance, have we the best of? Money, pleasure, leisure, satisfaction in work?"
He smiled the wonderful Indian smile, inscrutable and irresistible, winning and fawning at the same time. "You have," he said, "the consciousness of being the dominant race."
That is exactly what we have; and that is all we have. It is a very fine and enviable thing to own. And yet even that is half-fallacious; for the real ruler of India is the babu.
India is governed by natives of India. The last word, doubtless, is with us — with the Secretary of State and the Viceroy and Atkins in his grey flannel shirt. But then the last word in government is hardly ever said. The first word and the second and the third are those that make the difference to the subject. The minor, everyday machinery of rule is the native's. Nearly all the lesser magistrates are natives, and a large proportion of the judges. In the executive part of Government — revenue-assessment and collection, engineering and public works, the medical services, the forest department, the salt department — there are a handful of white men to order and a host of brown ones, half-supervised, to execute. At the centres of Government — the provincial capitals, and Calcutta or Simla itself — where you would expect to find British influence at its strongest, the babu clerks in the Government offices exert a veiled but paramount influence. And the very heads of everything — Lieutenant-Governors and sometimes very Viceroys — uninfluenced by clerks, bow before the prattling philippics of the native press. Theoretically India is helplessly dominated by Britons: actually native influence is all but supreme.
You will call these assertions preposterous, and I shall not be able to call leading officials of the Indian Government to corroborate them. The cause of the British in India is not a popular one, either there or here; yet there is hardly a Briton of experience in India, if I may judge by samples, who will not admit privately that these assertions are mainly true. To the stranger from England it is far the most striking and disquieting discovery that India has to offer. The cry of recent years has been for more Indian influence in India's Government; then you find Englishmen admitting the existence of abuses, incompetence, corruption in the services they are supposed to direct, lamenting them, breaking their hearts over them, but utterly powerless to purge them away. You find men giving orders which they all but know Will not be executed, because it is physically impossible to go themselves and watch over their execution. Higher up you find men longing to get work done for India's benefit, but clogged and strangled by meshes of routine, which exist solely to furnish salaries for more and more brothers and nephews of native clerks. You find a Lieutenant-Governor refusing to take measures against plague solely from fear of abuse in the native press. Then you realise that it is not more native influence that is wanted in India, but less — not fewer Britons in the services, but more.
The white man's say becomes daily less, the black man's daily more. The reasons are not on the surface, but, when stated, they make things clear enough. The first, perhaps the most potent, is the new swiftness of communication between England and India. You would expect that to increase English influence, but in India you soon grow inured to paradoxes. The nearer India comes to England the less will Englishmen have to do with it. When Warren Hastings went out in 1750, the voyage to Calcutta lasted from January till October. Hastings, once in India, had to make India his home, his career, his life. It was worth his while to study the ways of the natives and to write Persian verses. At this time there were none of the conveniences — the ice, the railways, the hillstations — which make life in India tolerable to white women; most of the Company's servants lived With native mistresses and some married native wives. It was not edifying, but it made for comprehension of the East. Money was plentiful, Europe and retirement were far away; the Company's servants spent their income in India and lived in style. Old natives will still tell you of residents and collectors who kept more elephants than now men keep polo-ponies. Above all, the white man in the Company's days was something apart and mysterious and worshipful in native eyes. No man knew whence he came or whither he went; no man pretended to know his ways. He was a strange and superior being — all but a god.
Now London is sixteen days from Calcutta. The modern civilian takes three months' leave every third year and a year's furlough every ten or so. He is married to a white wife, and his white children are at home; he looks forward to reuniting his family when he gets his pension, and then — he will be but forty — to letters or politics — a new career. For this and his periodical flights homeward he saves his money, so that the native is less impressed by the white man's magnificence. The British merchant and barrister expect an even shorter period of exile — a competence in five or ten years, and then the beginning of their real work at home. Nowadays the great Indian merchant lives in London; in Bombay and Calcutta are only salaried partners and managing clerks; Parsis are far richer and more influential than these. Instead of a man's life, India has become an apprenticeship, a string of necessary, evil interludes between youth, leave, furlough, and maturity. You might imagine a burglar so regarding the intervals which the exigencies of his profession compel him to spend in Dartmoor.
The consequences of the new order are inevitable and pernicious. The Anglo-Indian does not shirk his work; to say so for a moment would be the grossest slander. No class of men in the world toil more heroically, more disinterestedly, more disdainfully of adverse conditions. But while his zeal does not flag, his knowledge fails to keep pace with it. Partly this is due to the dislocation of his work by frequent returns to England; partly, and more, to the fatal tendency of the Indian departments towards red-tape and writing. The officer knows well enough that the more time he spends at his writing-table the less efficient he will be among the men he has to rule. He knows that if ever our rule were in danger, the man who kept his district together would be the man who knew his subordinates and whom his people knew; but he also knows that his future career depends far more on his reports than on his personal influence. Can you wonder that he devotes himself to what pays him best? He would be more than human if he did not. Being only human, he has to pay for his devotion to forms and minutes in loss elsewhere. The new generation of Anglo-Indians is deplorably ignorant of the native languages; after a dozen years' service the average civil servant can hardly talk to a cultivator or read a village register. Of the life, character, and habits of thought of the peasantry — always concealed by Orientals from those in authority over them — the knowledge grows more and more extinct year by year. Statistics accumulate and knowledge decays. The longer we rule over India the less we know of it.
Summarily, our knowledge of the natives grows less and less, as the natives' knowledge of us grows more and more. For while the very march of civilisation seems to conspire with fate against our comprehension of the masses of the people, on the other side is the babu, each day more superficially fitted and more greedily willing to serve as middleman between the ruling race and the uneducated mass. In old days few natives knew English; now there is a yearly swarm of graduates only too eager to make things easy for the European official. In Madras, where the native tongues are especially difficult and English education especially diffused, there is hardly an official who can talk freely with the uneducated: the babu interpreter is master of the situation. Other provinces are going the same way. It is so easy to ask your clerk, "What does he say?" — and so easy for the clerk to earn a couple of rupees by putting things before the Presence in the right way.
The divinity that hedges a sahib is slowly breaking down. There are so many sahibs nowadays that they have ceased to be wonderful. And they are not all like the old sahibs: there are little sahibs, country-bred sahibs, hardly better than Eurasians, globe-trotting sahibs, whom a child can deceive, and who let you come into their presence with shod feet. And then remember the other side — that the babu has often been to England. The "Europe-returned," as they proudly call themselves, are usually of the inferior native races, and are of small account even among them. Yet they have been received in London or Oxford or Cambridge as equals — sometimes, on the strength of bold and undetected claims to social importance in India, almost as superiors. They have lost all respect for the European as a master, and acquired no affection for him as a friend. Every young Hindu who returns from England is a fresh stumbling-block to government in the interests of the Indian people.
For the babu does not govern for the people, whom he despises from the height of his intelligence, and whom it is his inherited instinct to fleece, but for himself, his relatives, and his class. To him mainly — helped by British pedantry — India owes the impenetrable buffer of files and dockets and returns which interposes itself between the white ruler and the brown millions of the ruled. The first impulse of the native who gets an appointment is to get some of the swarm of brothers and cousins who live in the same house with him to fatten under his shadow. He cares nothing for efficient work — why should he? — but he cares very much for his family. Instead of making less work, he strives always to make more. He sits a lifetime in the office and knows its working as do few of his fleeting European superiors. Everything — in the public offices, the army, the railway offices, it is all the same — must be copied out in triplicate, in quadruplicate, in quintuplicate. If a new and energetic European attempts to cut away the hamper, "We cannot do this," he murmurs, "under rule 12345, section 67890." The Briton sighs, but life, he thinks, is not long enough to try to move the limpet babu. But the babu, when he likes, can easily make out a case for the addition of sub-sections 67890 a, b, c…z — and there is more work for his nephews. "Your accounts have come up quite correct," wrote the leading clerk at Calcutta to the leading clerk in a provincial government; "do not let this occur again."
So the white man in the district sits at his desk writing papers which babus will docket and nobody will read; and, outside, his underlings oppress the poor.