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THE GOLDEN EAST
WE call the East golden and India the brightest jewel in the British Crown. Let us examine physical and practical facts a little more closely, and see whether figurative fancies are founded on them.
The East is so far golden that it is certainly a land of sunshine. You can predict a fine day six months, or, for the matter of that, six years ahead. Theoretically, you can also predict a rainy one, but the clouds are not so consistent as the sunshine. The rainy season sometimes belies its name, and then comes famine. In England people grumble at meteorological conditions; curse the unwelcome rain, protest against a three weeks’ drought, and have fault to find with fogs and east winds. But, with the exception of a few bronchial folk, these climatic freaks do not kill; one is not dependent on the skies for life and fortune. The Indian is. Two inches of rain withheld in its due season will destroy more human life than a quarter of a century of European warfare, and cause as much human suffering as Bonaparte did in his career.
A very worthy Kentish farmer was grumbling to me one day because the rainy summer had ruined his hops, half ruined his corn, and damaged his hay. “Are your wife and children alive?” I asked him. He replied, with some surprise, in the affirmative. “Your horses seem pretty sleek?” I observed. He admitted they were in capital condition. “And your cows?” Ah, they had done well, the pasturage was good. “Poultry?” The wife looked after them, and she had not complained. “You have not been compelled to shut up your house, and leave it to look after itself whilst you emigrated?” He thought I was a lunatic. “But you say this is the very worst season that any man ever suffered?” Of that he was perfectly sure; he had not paid his rent, and some of the wages still would have to come out of his pocket. “Well,” I said, “if you had been an Indian farmer, and this had been the worst season that any man ever suffered from, your wife, children, horses, stock, and poultry would all be dead, and, presuming you had been so lucky as to escape with your life, you would be handling a shovel on relief works on the west coast of Ireland.” “Gor! Get out,” he said.
But the analogy is absolutely correct, and the possibility of such an experience threatens millions of homes every year in India in that acute and critical time when the rainy season is due.
For India may be golden in legend, but is not a fruitful garden land in fact. Take it, square mile for square mile, and it is infinitely more barren than fertile. Outside the favoured zones, it is, in places populously inhabited, less fruitful than Scotland, whilst vast areas are waterless desert and sandy waste. You may pass in a railway-carriage for hour after hour through long tracts of country, where the spiritless vegetation and the bare rocky hills appal, and see “crops” you would think only fit to plough into the ground.
British ideas of India are often gathered from those rich coastal districts which they first settled, narrow zones for the most part, or fertile river basins like Bengal. But India away from its rivers and its cloud-catching mountains is a dry, drear land, and the popular conception of its tropic prodigality is completely erroneous. It is so barren of timber, for instance, that the soil is deprived of the fertilising elements it requires by the universal use of cattle manure for fuel, and so dry that the fields have to be irrigated by the primitive process of the Persian wheel, where a man on a treadmill doles the water out of a well in quarts to dribble it over his fields in cupfuls.
Nor are the elements man’s only enemy. Pestilence and plague scourge him, and fever, insidiously but surely, kills more every year than famine. A great cholera-wave or a plague visitation startles people, and arrests the attention by the suddenness or magnitude of its holocaust. But of fever, infinitely the greatest death-dealer in India, comparatively nothing is heard. With its alternate shivering and burning fits, that rack the system, it is as common in many places as influenza in England. You see a man huddled up on the ground, shaking and groaning, and hardly trouble to ask “What ‘s the matter?” “Oh, it’s only fever,” conies the stereotyped reply. The disease is too common to cause the slightest surprise or evoke the crudest compassion. The victim must go through his bout. He is left on the ground, and, when the fit is over, gets up and goes about his work, and continues to do so until the system is worn out or a cold contracted, and he “snuffs out.” No inconsiderable portion of the mortality in India is “snuffing out.” Sickness is bad enough in England, where there is a doctor in every community, but in India, where at least two hundred million persons cannot get one unless they are prepared to walk or be carried to the dispensary, which may be twenty or fifty miles away, sickness is the half-way house to death.
I have mentioned the word plague, and the reader has probably associated it with the bubonic plague; but there are other plagues in Indian life similar to those which the Egyptians suffered. Wild beasts and venomous reptiles enter into the economy of daily life with a shocking freedom. Of savage wild beasts, such as the tiger and wolf.
I will not pause to write; they are too well known by repute. But many a peasant s life is rendered a burden to him by wild pig, deer, jackals, and monkeys. Where a man is dependent on the produce of an acre for his sustenance for a year, any of the above can dock his commissariat considerably. The mere driving of them away constitutes a serious tax on his time. When crops are ripening, it means a month of wakeful nights, perched upon a platform on poles stuck in his field, and I have often been aroused in camp in a wooded country by the voice of the sleepy watcher hooting at four-footed depredators through the night. And this brings me to another reflection. How happy would the British agricultural labourer be if deer and game were common in their fields and open to any one to slay and eat! Most parts of India swarm with game; hare, partridge, and quail abound round every village; many cultivated areas are devastated by deer, antelope, and wild pig; there are few jungles which do not harbour pea-fowl and jungle-fowl, and scarce a sheet of water but holds teal and wild-duck. But the Indian peasant, unless he is a hunter by caste, seldom disturbs them, and the men who starve on a diet of pulse and millet take no advantage of the sumptuous feast of venison and game which can be had for the snaring. In some cases, of course, it may be against their caste to eat flesh, but in numerous instances it is not, and I can only ascribe to the native’s listless apathy this rejection of plenty thrown in his path. He sadly wants a few lessons in the finer phases of the art of poaching. Here, at least, Nature is bountiful to him, and he takes no advantage of her bounty!
Snakes, scorpions, and centipedes are amongst the inconveniences of native life, and where the population goes about with naked feet, the risk is much greater than with the booted European. Few Hindus will, however, kill a snake, and the foul reptile lives and deals death unscathed. I have seen a man guide one out of his path with a stick to the accompaniment of apologetic salaams and prayers, and I have been besought on bended knee not to discharge my gun at one at which it was levelled! To the lesser pests of life, flies, sand-flies, mosquitoes, et hoc genus, the native seems impervious, but he endures much tribulation from vermin of an unpleasant nature.
In a country where vegetarianism is adopted by most of the people, you would think the art of fruit and vegetable growing would be brought to a high pitch. But such is not the case. The native palate in this respect is terribly coarse — I am talking of the commonalty — and assimilates unripe fruit and indigestible roots with content, not to say gusto. Strong-flavoured turnips and radishes are the varieties chiefly vended, and leaf products which are equivalent to spinach, but lacking its delicacy of flavour. Two or three of the indigenous vegetables commend themselves to English taste, but the majority are such as we would toss to our cattle and sheep. Few countries in the world can grow more delicious fruit than India, and those varieties you purchase in the markets of Calcutta or Bombay, where the European and wealthy native demand has made their cultivation and development profitable, are things to dream about. But they are Covent Garden luxuries to what is obtainable in the country at large. The peasant’s mango bears the same relation to the luscious fruit of Bombay as the crab-apple to the Ribstone pippin, and the plantain of the up-country bazaar is appropriately named the “horse-plantain.”
Meat in India is as bad as it can scarcely fail to be in a parched land were you have to kill it and eat it the same day. The favourite flesh of the native is goat, which is like a very rank, sapless, sinewy mutton. The Mahomedans eat beef, but in the Hindu centres, the killing of kine is prohibited by law. Butter and milk are poor in quality, but goat’s milk may be accounted an exception. The water is universally bad, and, in those localities where “tank” or pond water has to be used, too vile and contaminated to be described. The contents of a London third-class swimming-bath would be as distilled in comparison.
Food grains, except some of the better classes of wheat and rice, are inferior. The sowing of mixed crops in the same field, and the crude methods of reaping, threshing with cattle treading out the straw, and winnowing — every operation conducted on the surface of the bare earth — make the bulk dirty and full of foreign substances. The quality, too, of some of the commoner sorts of rice renders it unfit for European consumption. Probably not more than a third of the natives of India eat rice as a regular diet; the majority exist on unleavened cakes, called chuppattis, made from flour of inferior grains. These cakes are circular in shape, leathery in consistency, and flavourless. They require a relish, and have given rise to the chutnies and condiments associated with Indian dietary, which are the apotheosis of the crude relishes peculiar to the different countries of the Empire.
Sweetmeats hold a high place, and the sweetmeat shops in the bazaar present a pleasing variety and ingenuity, but the ghee, or rancid butter, which enters into their composition renders an appreciation of them by the English palate impossible. Of the intoxicating drinks, the use of which has increased under British rule, there is not one, with the exception of newly drawn “toddy,” that does not merit the usual epithet of “rank poison.” They are chiefly consumed by the lower classes, opium being the aristocratic intoxicant of the East. In India, it is swallowed, not smoked, as in China, and is the daily vice of countless slaves to the habit. The smoking of bhang, or Indian hemp, is very common amongst some orders; it is the most deleterious of drugs, producing a state akin to delirium tremens, and as a factor in crime takes the place of drink in England. Amongst the wealthier classes, European wines and spirits are commonly consumed, though it may be on the sly, and champagne backed with brandy is the tipple of many rajahs.
Crime and litigation give plenty of work in the law courts, where three million civil suits and two million criminal cases are disposed of annually, or, respectively, one in a hundred and one in a hundred and fifty of the population — a very high average. But the native character finds a positive charm in litigation. If lawyers do not grow fat in India, it is only because there are so many of them. They are as wolfish as the usurers, and, after them, the principal cause of the impoverishment of the people. A vast revenue is raised by stamps, every approach to the bench of justice having to be made on stamped paper, and court fees are one of the heaviest items of litigation. Although it is unprofessional, a great number of native lawyers tout for clients, and as a body they are a grabbing lot.
You do not require gold to pay wages in the Golden East, where silver is the currency, and bank or “currency” notes the convenient monetary medium in common use. These notes vary from seven and eightpence in value to very large amounts, and become, in process of circulation, almost as “microbic” as the coppers of the country. Sixteen is the principal numerical factor; sixteen annas make a rupee, sixteen rupees a gold mohur, and it enters into some of the weights and measures. The sixteen-times multiplication table is one of the stumbling-blocks that have to be surmounted.
The mention of wages suggests that a list of those I paid in a prosperous tea-planting district of India may not be without its information. The able-bodied men received six and eightpence a month, common coolies five and fourpence, women four and eightpence, and useful boys four shillings, in all cases with huts to live in, but no other perquisites, and, of course, without food. Men in superior positions, such as gangers and overseers, drew from eight to sixteen shillings, and the head-carpenter was a comparative Croesus on twelve pounds a year. When I first started, in the ‘seventies, the “English writer,” or clerk, was paid two pounds a month, but twenty-five years later, I could get the work done by better educated “Baboos” for little more than half that salary. For less than three pounds a month I engaged a “Doctor Baboo,” who had passed through the medical schools at one of the universities, and was a qualified medical practitioner — ”qualified to kill,” some one unkindly suggested! The native engineer who had charge, and drove a tolerable amount of machinery, was paid two pounds a month. All these figures take the rupee at its present exchange value.
These may seem small wages, but “they can live on half their pay, and save the other half,” said my head overseer to me one day when we were discussing matters. And then he explained how a man on five and fourpence a month expended sixteen-pence on thirty-two pounds of rice, which served him for a supper for as many days, eightpence on thirty pounds of Indian corn, which provided a good midday meal, and eightpence on such luxuries as salt, ghee, condiments, and lamp-oil; total, two shillings and eightpence, on which expenditure those men kept themselves in hard-working condition, able to do ten hours’ hoeing in a stiff clay soil, a task from which most English labourers would have shied off; and for carrying burdens no English porter could have competed with them. I have frequently despatched a man with a load of sixty or seventy pounds weight on a twenty-four mile journey, and he did it, both literally and, in English slang, “on his head” — carrying the burden I allude to.
It may be said that the Indians as a nation are as much boggled in debt as the Government of Turkey or some of the South American Republics, and with as little chance of paying off their liabilities. The rate of interest in India is usually twenty-four per cent., sometimes twelve, very rarely nine, and frequently thirty and thirty-six. The banks habitually charge the up-country European ten per cent. It is a curious thing that the native, perhaps the most thrifty, prudent, and economical man in the world after the Chinese, should be utterly reckless in borrowing and litigation. A portion of his neediness arises no doubt from want, owing to bad seasons; but in that case he goes to the shopkeeper, who, although a grasping individual, is moderation compared to the extortion of the usurer. It is for his ceremonial expenses, his marryings and his funerals, that the native runs into debt headlong and blindly. The curse of custom compels him to this, for it insists he shall be lavish. The debt, too, is regarded as one of honour, and although he may willingly seek to repudiate or wriggle ont of a commercial obligation, his code demands that he shall not deny the liability incurred for the execution of a religious duty. Moreover, for a man who thinks in shell coinage, it is difficult to attempt to shuffle out of a situation which requires him to expend in one week a sum equal to many years’ income; his very character is bound up in the glory of that reckless week; it would never do to say it had cost him only five or six pounds when all the world had assessed the expenditure necessary on such festivities at ten or twenty.
If he has land, the peasant can always raise a loan, but seldom if ever comes the season when the land can repay it. And the usurer who holds the mortgage-deed has the law court to go to, that fount of British justice which will place him in possession of his own, as it has done. “Under the British Government the land in India has, to a large extent, passed away from the cultivator,” writes Sir George Wingate, with the weight of authority. “In Assam, sixty-eight, and in the North-west Provinces, nearly forty-eight per cent. of the landlords are of the money-lending class. In the Punjab, the change is fraught with grave political danger.”
The despotism of usury is weighing heavily on the Golden East. Under native rule, these things adjusted themselves in the throes of periodical change, and the absence of smooth-working legal machinery. But under the Pax Britannica, too many scoundrels, who prey upon the ignorant and poor, come by other people’s property which they claim as their own on the strength of a liability much more than half of which is accrued compound interest. The place of the predatory Pindaris of the past, who lived by foray and rapine, has been taken by the money-lender and the lawyer, and these latter are the blood-sucking vampires who have battened on the want and witlessness of a population sunk in ignorance and apathy, and, under the shadow of British justice, live and thrive on the gains of injustice.
The Golden East! You have but to scratch the plating with the nail of your forefinger to find that it is a mere tinsel thing which disguises about as much real prosperity as the phrase “the good old days when George the Third was King!”