Here to return to
MANNERS AND CUSTOMS
MANY hundreds of volumes have been written descriptive of the idiosyncrasies of the peoples of India, whose civilisation is a compound of unpleasant manners and incomprehensible customs, as judged by Western standards, and presents to the English mind a source of perpetual bewilderment. Open-mouthed wonder is the permanent attitude for many months of the new arrival in that strange country. To attempt any regular and ordered survey of the subject within the limits of a chapter would be like trying to enumerate the streets of London on the back of a visiting card. In default, I propose to jog the kaleidoscope of my recollection and present the result in the hope that chance may flash a more graphic suggestion here and there than I could accomplish by any attempt at a nutshell catalogue of the subject.
India is a country where the climate takes the place of the costumier, and the population goes unclad. This is the first thing that arrests the Western eye, with its suggestion of indescribable indelicacy, where the ordinary dress of a man approximates a pair of bathing-drawers, and the women veil their faces and display their legs.
It is a country where politeness requires the feet to be naked, but the head covered on entering a room, a bare poll being a sign of self-abasement, and his turban as necessary to the native’s sense of respect as a pair of breeches to an Englishman. Take a native unawares with his puggarie off, and the first thing he does is to adjust it hurriedly. Catch a native woman en déshabillé, and she cares for nothing except to veil her face.
It is a country where everybody habitually sits on the ground and eats off the floor, and throws away the food that cannot be eaten at a meal, and often the crockery ware after once using it; where it is forbidden to eat with the shoes on, and customary, in not a few castes, to strip naked for dinner; where three men out of four consider beef-eating worse than cannibalism; and the fourth is morally convinced that a ham-sandwich could send him to hell; where vegetarianism is the rule, and never an egg is used in cooking; where there are a hundred sweetmeat shops to one public-house, and a native restaurant is an absolutely unknown thing; where every one smokes, but the same pipe travels from mouth to mouth; where every one washes, but no one uses soap; where not one man in ten, and not one woman in a hundred and fifty, can read.
A country where boys are husbands before they have shed their baby teeth, and brides are married in their cradles occasionally; where there are no unmarried girls under fourteen, and many widows of half that age; where there is no courting before marriage, and a husband may not notice his wife in public, nor a wife so much as pronounce her husband’s name; where husbands and wives cannot travel in the same railway carriage third-class; where you never see a “lady” in the streets, and to address one would be considered a gross insult.
A country where more men shave their heads than their chins, and widows are compelled to go bald (though in this conjunction we may recall to mind that less than a hundred years ago widowed ladies in England customarily had their heads shaved, and wore wigs in order to supply the deficiency); where wives wear a nose-ring in token of being in a state of subjection to their husbands; where there is sorrow over a daughter’s birth, and rejoicing, or at least satisfaction, over a widow’s death; where a man may have four legal wives, and, in some castes, a woman four legal husbands, if they are brothers.
A country where venomous snakes kill thousands of human beings annually, and yet are venerated; where the powdered liver of a tiger is a specific to instil courage; where the tails and manes of white horses are painted pink to improve their appearance, and a wall-eyed brute is considered peculiarly beautiful; where most wheeled vehicles are drawn by bullocks, and no other animals used for ploughing; where many people keep goats, and very few poultry, and no one keeps a dog.
A country which has no Sunday observance; no poor-houses, poor-rates, or poor-law; no places of entertainment or national pastimes; no public institutions except temples and mosques; no public opinion; no political privileges; no representation, and no Members of Parliament.
A country where beggars are accounted holy, and “ballet girls” of loose morals held in high esteem; where the priests countenance prostitution, and often live on its proceeds; where incontinence is not held to be a vice in married men, and religion teaches its votaries to hate, despise, and grind down their less fortunate neighbours; where equality in the eyes of the law is unknown, and the killing of some human beings is accounted a far less serious crime than the slaughter of a cow; where women are treated as creatures born for the gratification of man, and “a man’s a man for a’ that.”
This sample is like a handful drawn at chance from a sack of wheat, but each grain is a solid fact, and there are thousands more like them. Wherefore I say that the attitude of the new arrival in making himself acquainted with India is one of open-mouthed wonder, not unfrequently stiffened with a strong dash of disgust.
And now a few words of general description of the people who adopt these manners and customs. The Hindu first. Patience and thrift are his pre- dominant virtues, instilled into him in the hard school of subjection, long-suffering, and poverty. He is docile to servility, especially when anything is to be gained by it. Except in the lower castes, he is sobriety typified, and, indeed, by far the major part of the population of India is qualified to wear the blue ribbon of temperance. He has industry of a sort that is not very energetic, for he distinctly dislikes physical exertion, and none of his few recreations comprehend bodily exercise. Sleeping, smoking, and eating sweetmeats would enable him to get through an ideal bank holiday, He cannot be commended as a husband, for custom makes him barbarous and discourteous from a Western point of view, but he is an affectionate father. On the other hand, he is narrow-minded, parsimonious, and avaricious; cheats and lies by the light of nature; and the word “money” is assuredly more often on his lips than any other in his vocabulary. He is cunning and contentious in argument, and his intellectual powers, when educated, are capable of considerable development. In this respect he puts the Englishman to shame, and were all posts in the Indian Government thrown open to examination in India, we should probably see the administration filled with Bengali Baboos and Mahratta Brahmins. The gratitude of the Hindu is in inverse ratio to his greed, and his proverbial mildness prevents any manliness. Although he worships a variety of animals, the meaning of cruelty to them is outside his comprehension. The Indian ox, which is sacred in theory, is perhaps the most ill-used and overworked beast of servitude in the world. The Hindu is callous of suffering, to the point of wanting to make you kick him. He will not take life, but he will watch it, unmoved, dying by inches in agony.
The Mahomedan is a far more virile personality than the Hindu. He is free from the cramping influence of caste, but his bigotry makes up for it. He has been termed “devout,” but I think he gets his religion by gusts, which often lead to fanaticism. The self-imposed Lenten penances of the Catholic faith fade into triviality compared with the way in which the majority of Mahomedans mortify the flesh during the month of fasting, when not a particle of food, drink, or smoke passes their lips between sunrise and sunset. The Mahomedan is manly and proud on the one hand, and indolent and dissipated on the other. He is a spendthrift when he has money to squander, and in this respect compares with a Hindu as an Irishman with a Scotchman. The descendant of a conquering race, and the inheritor of a great history, he has something of the Spaniard in him, and lives more in the traditions of the past than in the achievements of the present. At times, when he sees his opportunity, he is turbulent and disorderly. His fortunes have fallen low under British rule, and he is impatient of the fact. The British eye him with suspicion, and they, “Káfirs” in his esteem, keep him down on the same low level as the Hindu unbelievers, whom, in his secret soul, he despises only one degree more than he does them. Here and there, where he takes to trade, the Mahomedan thrives, but he lacks the patience and thrift of the Hindu, and commerce is foreign to his genius. Intellectually he is on a lower scale than the Aryan, but his unbounded self-esteem enables him to carry his head higher, and gain some advantage from his competitor. He is a tyrannical husband, a doting father, and can be socially a very good fellow if he likes, displaying courtesy and frankness of character. But he is a decaying influence in the land, and nothing short of a miracle can restore him to his former pedestal. In the economy of government, he supplies a useful counterbalance to the aspiring Hindu races, who, having once experienced his yoke, are not likely to invite it again. Between Mahomedan and Hindu there lurks an antipathy too deep-rooted ever to be eradicated, and, in their mutual hatred and distrust, we honest men continue to hold by our own with tolerable ease.
The Sikhs are a provincial folk, yet free from provincialism in the sense of being small-minded. Amongst all the native races they stand out as liberal-minded and capital citizens. There is a nobility about their national character which you seek for in vain amongst Mahomedan and Hindu, and as soldiers they are drawn more closely towards their British officers than any other of the fighting races. Their physical development is superb, and they are a sober and industrious folk. Two of their peculiarities may be mentioned; the men never cut their hair, and, when uncoiled, you may see it stretching almost to their knees, and in a country where tobacco smoking is universal, they abjure the habit. There is a quiet and independent dignity about them which seems to place them on a higher level than other brown races; but in their practical treatment of their women they fall behind the high standard of their general creed.
Of the Burmese, it may be reckoned to his especial credit that he allows his women liberty, both in the ordering of their lives and in the selection of their husbands. In the all-important point of the equality of sex, the Buddhist religion is the only one that approaches Christianity in its liberalism. The subjection of woman in Mahomedanism and her degradation in Hinduism reveal the true characters of the races which, in denying the spiritual equality of the weaker sex, display their baser manhood. Of the aboriginal tribes of India, it need only be said that they are true children of the forests, mountains, and deserts, and you find in them some of those virtues, notably truthfulness and candour, in which the higher civilised Hindu is sadly deficient. They are a primitive people, and some of them in the remoter parts decidedly deserve the appellation of “savages.”
Passing now from manners and customs in the concrete, and the people to whom they are peculiar, we come to the consideration of “custom” in its abstract sense, and its distinct characteristic as the guide of life in India. “Custom,” an advanced Hindu reformer has declared, “is a god whom our race devoutly worship; it is our religion.” You may go further, and say it is the religion of all India, where the lex non scripta can overrule the lex scripta. The British Government, apt to be a little brusque and overbearing in its financial legislation, cries canny and is most considerate of custom. There are customs in India the law dare not touch which would be considered criminal in England. The word is one to conjure and defy with. When, recently it was sought to diminish plague infection by house to house inspection, custom got its back up and the Government was obliged to cave in. In the statute book are laws quite inoperative because they are opposed to custom.
Dustoor hai (“It is the custom”)! — The inquiring soul who sets about asking questions in India will save himself much time if he stereotypes that reply in his mind at the start. For it is the one he will have to content himself with in the majority of his investigations.
Custom is the child of caste; in many cases, it is begotten of it, and inherits its narrowing influence on the national character. It is easy to perceive that the general life will run in a groove when the limit of a man’s aspirations is determined by the obligation to follow his father’s calling, and his ambition to improve his social status is rendered impossible by the accident of his birth. The caste system is a very jealous and obstinate one, and as iron when you attempt to bend it. It will admit no infusion of new blood, and when the same exclusive spirit is imported into the ordinary dealings of life, you arrive at that stagnant conservatism which is called Custom in the East.
Caste is restricted to the Hindus, but custom is universal. In many cases, it has almost constructed itself into caste amongst non-Hindu races. There is a tendency to follow hereditary callings. In parts of the Punjab, the work of expressing oil is practically a monopoly of the Mahomedans; it has almost come to be regarded as their caste, and they are put down in the census-returns as “oil-pressers.” To tell you a man is an oil-presser is equivalent to informing you he is a Mahomedan. The same with silk-weavers. There are some forms of employment a Hindu may not follow because it infringes some law of his caste, and these are in consequence undertaken by other races, and custom soon makes them prescriptive. Moreover, there is a certain unavoidable contagion in caste when you live in a country where three fourths of the inhabitants profess it. You do not ask a Mahomedan what his race or profession of faith is, but what is his caste? In the census returns you fill in your own caste as “Christian.” It is the custom. You talk of a high-caste Arab horse, a dog with no caste at all, a tea-plant of very decent caste.
Custom in India frequently overrules commonsense in material matters, and imposes an insuperable impediment on improvement. Look at the Indian peasant’s plough. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of India are dependent on the land, and their crops would be much increased by better methods of cultivation. The plough in use is an implement which merely scratches the surface of the earth; an heirloom from remotest antiquity. A new plough was introduced by an enterprising firm of manufacturers, and lent free for trial broadcast over a province. It admittedly did the work more thoroughly, and was offered at a price within the peasant’s means. But it did not “catch on.” Why? Simply because the ploughman could not get at his bullocks’ tails to twist them. The superior tillage, the increase of crop, could not compensate for the relinquishment of this time-honoured custom. The antediluvian plough still holds the field, and the system of cultivation is the same as it was in the time of Alexander the Great.
There is a story, well enough known in India, of a contractor engaged in a railway excavation, who recognised that the soil could be far more expeditiously removed in wheelbarrows than carried away in baskets on the heads of coolies. So he invested in some, and showed how they were to be trundled, and flattered himself upon having introduced a useful reform. But that sanguine reformer did not know his India. The next time he visited his works, he found his men filling the wheelbarrows with pinches of dust, and carrying them away on their heads.
The paraphernalia of Indian daily life all belongs to the barbarous ages. Observe any article of familiar use and you will find it primitive to a degree that strikes the Western eye as ludicrous. The pen is fashioned out of a reed, native paper a veritable papyrus, such as the ancient Egyptians might have used, the inkpot a piece of absorbent rag or sponge saturated with a liquid more or less black, and sand still takes the place of blotting-paper. The scribe, who may by reason of his superior attainments be accounted in the van of civilisation, is an individual who squats on the ground and writes on his knees even if you offer him a table and chair. Note the cumbersome native saddle for a horse, the heavy solid wheels of a country cart, the cart itself, constructed with a circular floor for things to slide off from, the artisan’s clumsy and insufficient tools, the weaver’s prehistoric loom, the shape of the domestic utensils, the machinery for drawing water from a well, the style of dress — ay, of women’s dress. Novelty or reform never enters into any of these or kindred things. They retain the fashions of Before Christ in this twentieth century. Attempt to introduce any other and you are rebuffed with the reply, “It is not the custom.” For many of these things there is not the excuse of ignorance. The native has the superior model before him, and deliberately rejects it. It is the crass prejudice of a conservatism more crusted than the laws of cricket, and not to be beguiled by any demonstration. “My father used this article, and therefore it is my duty to use it; would you have me set myself up for a wiser man than my revered parent?” is the reply which stifles all attempt at reform.
But stay. There is one notable exception to this rule which I should be guilty of a gross injustice to omit. The Indian tailor has thrown away his needle and taken to the sewing-machine. It comes upon you with something of a shock when, as you chance to pass through a bazaar, you suddenly become aware of the whir of mechanical action, and, lo! there is a grave bearded man, squatting, near by and driving his Singer, which (to add appropriateness to the picture) he has purchased on the hire system. I cannot explain this departure from custom, unless it be that the Hindu derzie, like the English cobbler, is a Radical from the force of a calling which lends itself to contemplation.
When you come to abstract custom, you cannot stir the Hindu off his line of rail. This man will not do this, nor that man that, for no earthly reason except that it is against his custom. This is at the bottom of those enormous domestic establishments which enter into the prodigality of Anglo-Indian life. The combined work of the army of servants is capable of achievement by a general servant in England. But when a European attempts to shift things out of their eternal groove, he is at once confronted with that one reply which admits of no argument in the native mind. And I must candidly admit that the plea of dustoor nahin hai is often a conscientious objection, although this does not prevent it from becoming a comfortable excuse on occasions.
In social and religious matters, the despotism of custom is perhaps most pronounced. It leads to preposterous and extravagant expenditure on marriage and funeral ceremonies; it entails long and expensive pilgrimages; it established Suttee, or the self-immolation of the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre; it permitted, nay, even now permits, infanticide; and the sale of female children for immoral purposes and the institution of the Temple prostitute are crimes created by custom and not religion.
The Brahmins are, in the main, the supporters and guardians of custom; they themselves, whose privilege it is to prey upon the people, are bolstered up by it. Their hoary despotism is the oldest and cruelest custom of all.
Truly has it been said that custom is the greatest obstacle to civilisation. It stands in the path like a lion. It dulls the moral sense and cramps material effort. It has left tile natives of India without originality, independence, or powers of initiation. India is a country incapable of in. digenous reform. Two thousand years ago its social life reached a certain standard of civilisation, and it has stayed there ever since. The limitations imposed by custom have been the cause of this national paralysis.