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FROM RYOTS TO RAJAHS
EVERY one knows what a rajah is, but the ryot is not such a widely recognised man. Yet two thirds of the population of the British Empire is composed of ryots, who outnumber the inhabitants of the British Isles by five to one. The ryot is, in short, the Indian peasant, and in the census papers he conies out easily top of the list with a score of over two hundred millions. He is the poorest man who owns allegiance to the King, and his average income is three halfpence a day. Oftentimes it comes to pass that between him and salvation only hovers a shower of rain. For a wage of twopence halfpenny or threepence a day, he will emigrate to distant parts of the Empire; offer him eightpence, and he will go to the West Indies or the islands of the Pacific. He is chronically in debt, and when his creditors sell him up they are lucky if his estate realises ten shillings. Of such is the ryot as a pecuniary asset of the Empire.
He is nominally a civilised man, on whom caste has conferred an elaborate social system, and he has behind him a history from which he has evolved a policy — patience, — and a philosophy — fatalism. Khoda jáne! (“God knows!”) and “Khoda ka merzee” (“It is the will of God”) sum up his speculations of the future, and register his resignation to the past. He has nothing more to say. And yet this humble creature produces rajahs — pages of them, as any Indian directory will certify — as penny fares produce railway kings, or the soil of a flower-bed tulips. In fact, the rajahs are the tulips that spring out of this sad clay of humanity. Without the ryot, there would be no Golden East. He is the atom of dust which, mingled with millions of other atoms, gives growth to those gorgeous blossoms that shed their lustre in England, when Jubilee or Coronation calls them to her shores. Those gems and jewels you see decorating the portly exteriors of dusky potentates are paid for with the sweat of the ryot’s brow. A large portion of the eighty million pounds of revenue annually extracted from India comes from the pockets of the peasantry.
“The ryot at home” can be drawn with a piece of charcoal on a whitewashed wall. Item, a single-roomed thatched hut, built by himself, without doors, windows, or chimney; item, a floor, plastered with cow-dung, and three or five bricks, set like a robin trap, to serve as fire-place; item, a rough framework of wood with some coir rope strung across it to act as a bed for the master of the house; item, a few earthenware pots to contain water, and ditto dishes to serve up food in; item, something which looks like a patchwork door-mat, but is in reality his bedclothes; item, a cloth for his loins, another for his shoulders, and a third for his head; item, his wife’s petticoat, bodice, and saree (into which, woman-like, she manages to get a dash of colour and look picturesque). The inventory is complete. We read in the Bible of a man taking up his bed and walking; the ryot can in many cases not only take up his bed, but all his family’s belongings, and trot off with them.
His uneventful life is one of dreary monotony and labour, with a week of seven working days. Perhaps three or four times a year, he enjoys a holiday, when some festival of his caste permits the opportunity. If he has saved up fourpence to squander on sweetmeats, he is a jubilant man. But a little of this dissipation has to go a long way, and his eye is always on the sky, looking for that shower of rain. If it does not come, he is bankrupt. Nay, as like as not, the blue firmament may have his death-warrant written on it.
The field he tills is not his own, for in India all land belongs to the ruler of the territory, and rent has to be paid for it; he is assessed from an eighth to half his produce. If he has mortgaged his land, and he nearly always has, it is never less than half.
If he has no land, he must still be taxed. It is naturally rather difficult to levy on a person whose income is tenpence halfpenny a week; but still it must be done in order that the wheels of the chariot of British Empire may roll on. You would think that a man who was too poor to hold land under the conditions described would be too poor to tax. Excise cannot reach him; it would be positively indecent to demand tribute from his dress, although if in his vanity he demands English cotton goods he has to pay duty on them. But the Government of India in its infinite wisdom has discovered a method of bleeding stones. In the economy of nature, man is an animal who cannot avoid eating salt, and that necessary article of diet has been put under contribution, whereby even the beggars of the Empire pay their tribute to Cæsar. The salt-tax is one of the soundest fiscal resources in India.
In the district where I lived there were some mines that yielded black salt, a villainous-looking substance like dark sandstone. I have known natives to travel three days’ journey to those mines, to give a day’s free labour for quarrying, and go home again three days’ march, in order that they might lay in their year’s supply at the cheapest rate. It cost them a week’s travel, plus a shilling, and most of the shilling went to Government in the shape of salt-tax.
I vow there is no more pathetic figure in the British Empire than the Indian ryot. His masters have ever been unjust to him, and ground and ground him until everything has been expressed, except the marrow of his bones. Even Nature has scant pity on him, for she constantly scourges him with famine, and (as happened three years ago) exterminates a million lives with a dry breath. A sword, like that of Damocles, hangs permanently suspended over the ryot, and every sowing season, he sees the hair that sustains it stretching like a piece of elastic. Perhaps it is a merciful thing for him that he is a fatalist, and that “the will of God” sufficiently explains for him the multitude of his hardships and the inequality of his state.
As in England, so in India, it is a great step up from the agricultural labourer to the artisan class. The latter are a well-to-do folk, and you seldom see them suffering the pinch of poverty, except in the universal cataclysm of a famine. The system of caste has in practice made a trades-union of each calling, and very definite are the rules and conditions under which members work. A strike, in the English sense, does not enter into the policy of the Eastern artisan; but, nevertheless, he has an acute appreciation of the exact amount of work to be rendered for his remuneration, which is regulated by custom, and not individual ability, and you cannot hurry him.
He is often an ingenious fellow, and his æsthetic sense is proved by his ornamental metal work, his exquisite wood-carving, his elegant architecture, and his masterly moulding. Sir George Birdwood has it that he is a born artist. If you let him go to work his own way, he will often surmount difficulties you would not give him the credit of being able to overcome. I can remember a village blacksmith who was employed as an assistant handy-man to an engineer, and eventually stepped into his place, not only driving an engine, but keeping its working parts in repair. I have known a mason whose wage was sixpence a day to build a house from a plan, when he himself could neither read nor write; and a carpenter on four shillings a week to copy most excellently well the design of a piece of English furniture from the illustration in an advertisement.
In many cases, not only is the calling of the artisan hereditary, but his particular appointment. Each village has its blacksmith, carpenter, and potter, who are communal functionaries, and bound by immemorial custom to render certain services, for which they get what is in effect a salary from the village, and each villager has a prescriptive right to have certain things done for him. But amongst these skilled folk you shall look in vain for a plumber, a painter, or a cabinetmaker, as you may for a chemist’s, a stationer’s, or a bookseller’s shop. On the other hand, you will find many more workers in brass, silver, and gold than in similar communities in England — for this reason, that all the native’s domestic utensils are made of brass, and most of his savings go to making silver or gold ornaments for his wife. That is his “capital.”
The common carrier does a great business in India, though much less now than in the days before railways. In many parts, beasts of burden, chiefly oxen, are the principal means of transport, and the brinjari’s life is much like that of the gipsy’s. You meet him everywhere, with his droves of pack-oxen, carrying grain and merchandise from distant places to feed the great lines of railway. He seems out of date in this age, and yet a hundred years ago his prototype was common enough in England, when the roads there were certainly not to be compared with those in India at the present day.
Of all classes in Indian life there is no one who seems so admirably suited to his setting as the Indian tradesman. In the first place, he lives in an atmosphere of money, be it silver, copper, or cowrie shells, and that appeals to the national character. In the second place, he can be indolently industrious, that is to say, put in a long day’s work sitting on his hams.
In a calling where competition largely enters, the Indian tradesman is curiously conservative. He does not go about looking for a good “pitch,” or trying to find a neighbourhood where he will have a monopoly of the article he deals in. Custom has ordained that in an Indian bazaar birds of a feather shall flock together, and the different streets become a sort of exclusive market for each commodity. In this place, you will see a row of grain sellers, in that, a congregation of hardware merchants; the butchers are all established cheek by jowl yonder, and the cloth merchants cluster in a quarter of their own. A morning’s miscellaneous shopping takes you “round the town.” The art of advertising is absolutely unknown, and the shopkeeper’s name is more often than not considered unnecessary above his shop. You would think that the communal system, which is so characteristic of the Indian village, had entered into the trade of the country, and that it was conducted on the principles of a trust, with no need to compete.
The shopkeeper sits on the floor of his shop, surrounded by his various goods, and his client addresses him from the street or gutter. He never rises to serve a customer, for everything is within reach of his hand. He may solicit the passer- by to purchase, but if unsuccessfully, his philosophy is much the same as the ryot’s — it is the will of God. If, however, any one stops to deal, he will haggle for all time. Providence having sent a customer his way, the personal equation enters, and he must not be allowed to depart without buying.
The shops in a bazaar all seem about the same size. There are no large establishments, and a Corner Grocery or Cash Stores are out of the question, because each man sells his particular wares and nothing else. There are no shop-assistants, and, needless to say, no early closing. Women never meddle with trade, which is solely in the hands of the men. Credit is universally given, and huge interest added. Short weights are common, and the milkman waters his milk to an atrocious degree. Scales are made of wood and string, and before weighment are ostentatiously suspended to demonstrate that they hang evenly, whilst when it comes to the balance, the side of the hand is always on the side of the commodity being weighed, and seldom idle. A native will brag that he “saved” or “made” so much in the process of weighing. Silversmiths require particular attention, or they will mix alloy with sterling metal. The ambition of every trader is to become a money-lender, for usury has an irresistible charm to the native mind.
The moneyed classes in India are either landowners on a large scale or merchants trading in a large way. They form a small percentage of the population in point of numbers. The investment of wealth in India inclines to land, for in a country where the soil theoretically belongs to the ruler, to possess a share carries a certain prestige with it, and the instinct of the Hindu race is agricultural. The Indian system of registration makes land tenure far more safe and simple than in England, with its intricacies of titles and title-deeds. There is, however, a growing tendency to invest moneys in securities, and the Government savings banks are well patronised. In the head centres of commerce, the mercantile classes have been bitten with the mania of speculative investment, and the cotton market of Bombay and the industrial ventures in Calcutta supply plenty of media for gambling. When gold was discovered in Southern India some years ago, many companies were formed, and the wild speculation in their shares was quite Western in its intensity. The spirit of gambling is curiously pronounced in a race that is otherwise thrifty by instinct. The Marwarries, or native bankers of Calcutta, wager wildly on the rain when the monsoon is about to burst, and, to draw illustration from a trifle, in bargaining between Europeans and shopkeepers, a proposal to toss to fix the price is seldom declined, and sometimes proposed,
“Hoarding” is very commonly adopted by those who have money, and mother earth is probably the principal of all Indian banks. To dig a hole in the floor of his house and bury his money there is still the favourite resource of many a native, and could all the buried treasure in the country be brought to light, it would probably be sufficient to pay off the national debt of the Empire. In my own experience, I have frequently, in the course of business transactions, had money tendered me in bags the shaking of which disclosed a very fair sample of the soil from which the rupees had recently been disinterred; and I have known much wailing and lamentation to follow the sudden death of an individual who had omitted to disclose the spot where his money was hidden from his own heirs.
The homes of the moneyed classes do not, as a rule, display the striking contrast to the homes of the poor to which one is accustomed in England. Drawing and dining rooms there reflect the taste and indicate the care of English wives, but in India, the woman has no voice in these matters, for her apartments are separate and secluded. Then, again, there is no furniture; chairs and tables are unknown in Indian native life, not to mention glazed windows and chimneys. The Indian has no sense of surrounding himself with comfort, in English home phrase. Cover the floor with mats or carpets, and you have finished his house-furnishing. He would feel as awkward in a furnished room as Europeans would to live in one of his bare apartments. The love of display is a guiding principle in the lives of the wealthy, and if they squander money, they would much rather buy an equipage that will attract attention when they are abroad than furnish their homes in a way which only the occasional European visitor could appreciate, and to adapt themselves to which would be positive discomfort. You have but to see a native sitting on a chair to realise this, albeit the offer of one is the most coveted compliment you can pay him. He writhes in it much as an Englishman would do were he compelled to sit for any length of time on the floor.
High, high on the top of the Indian social tree, whose roots draw nourishment from the two hundred millions of ryots, blossoms the rajah. How many there are of him, big, little, and middling, it would be hard to say (for the principle of petty principalities is as indigenous to Hindustan as to Germany), but it may safely be stated as not very far short of a thousand. How petty some of them are who are, nevertheless, entitled to the distinction of “Rajah” can scarce be credited. One I knew would hobnob with my servants, and his revenue from his hereditary kingdom was considerably less than £200 a year. He lived in a most picturesque old castle, inhabited chiefly by snakes, scorpions, and bats, but he spent most of his life in the neighbouring British law court defending actions for debt. I remember entering a walled town in Kattywar and seeing what looked like a loafer drinking gin out of a bottle as he squatted in the gateway. “Who are you?” I asked. “The King of this country,” he replied with perfect truth. He boasted an ancestry that was supposed to go back to the sun. And talking of ancestry, ill the published life of “Lútfullah,” a respectable Mahomedan gentleman, you may see in the beginning a pedigree extended back to Adam in sober pride and credulous satisfaction.
From the riffraff of royalty, to whom I have alluded, it is a far cry to such potentates as the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Guicwar of Baroda, or the Maharajah of Mysore, rulers who govern kingdoms as extensive as the British Isles in whole or in part. Nor must mention be omitted of the Rajah of Udaipúr, whose proud boast is that he never bent the knee to the Great Mogul. His absence through “indisposition” from the Delhi durbar ceremony of January, 1903, when the King was proclaimed Emperor of India, was, I make no doubt, due to his disinclination to yield precedence to other rajahs placed above him.
Officially the nice degrees of, what I may call, the superior kings are indicated by the salutes they are entitled to receive. Thus there are some three or four to whom the compliment of twenty-one guns is accorded on State occasions. From this, by diminutions of two guns, the salutes dwindle down to nine. The greatest punishment that can be inflicted on an Indian king is to dock him a couple of guns in his salute. It sends him down a place in his class, and the jealousy amongst these sovereigns transcends description.
Another mode of assessing a rajah is by his income, which is in practice the entire revenue of his state. As the English talk of six-pounders, twelve-ton guns, and eighty-ton guns, so they talk in India of one-lakh, ten-lakh, and thirty-lakh rajahs, a lakh being a hundred thousand rupees. The rajah fixes his own civil list, and expends the balance of his revenue on the expenses of his state, and his life is often one long struggle to keep the major portion to squander on himself.
The Indian courtier has brought the art of fawning and flattering to an acme, and words would be powerless to describe the atmosphere of adulation in which the rajah lives. To see him lost in self-indulgence is the one end and aim of his ministers, in order that they may be left a free hand. Thus every temptation is spread before him, and every snare set that safety permits. When a rajah takes to vicious ways, it may be said that what he does not do to disgrace humanity leaves very little to be done. Happily the power of life and death is not left in his hands by the suzerain power.
There is a school for young rajahs, where they are trained in the way they should go, and afforded an education on good wholesome public-school lines. It has worked wonders, and is turning out a new race of rajahs to take the place of the old, besotted, obese brutes, who have disgraced so many thrones in the East. The new rajah is a very decent fellow — certainly for some time after he has left school. He can ride, shoot, play polo, cricket, tennis, and other games, and comport himself like a man; dance, too, and behave in a drawing-room like a gentleman. If he avoids drink, and rises superior to the almost overpowering temptations of the zenana or the harem, he often becomes a first-rate governing man, especially if he belongs to one of the martial races.
The power for good and evil vested in the hands of a rajah is enormous, even though he have a British official Resident at his court to keep an eye on how he is conducting himself. No Viceroy or Governor can appeal to the people of India like one of their own rulers. The Englishman is an impersonal potentate; no matter what his status, he is “unclean” to the Hindu, a “Kafir” to the Mahomedan. He lacks colour and picturesqueness, even though he be a Lord Curzon, and altogether fails to elicit the same genuine admiration in an Indian durbar that an Indian rajah does in an English assembly. On the other hand, the rajah is in accord with his subjects in sentiment, creed, and thought. He appeals to their instincts with his display. They love to see his elephants and gaily caparisoned horsemen, his silks and his jewels, his retainers and entourage. His barbaric pleasures delight them; he tosses money to the multitudes in his progress; he feasts them at appropriate seasons; he is a link between the present and the past. What is the coming or going of a sober-coated foreigner to them? What, even, the marriage of a Viceroy? But when a rajah comes into his own, or marries, or has a son born to him, then is the whole kingdom interested, entertained, and made happy in a round of feasting and festivities free to all.
And if he “squeezes” his ryots to get money to build a new palace, or deck with jewels the latest favourite in his zenana, or to entertain a Viceroy, or — newest and most extravagant whim of all! — to make a summer trip to England, well, there is the land; it bears crops. There is the land-tiller; he is patient and long-suffering. He has paid the piper for ages, and never called the tune. He can go on paying! And whilst his liege lord and master is astonishing the richest city in the world with the glitter of his gems, and the magnificence of his establishment, the poorest subject in the world merely turns his eyes to the blue skies and sighs.