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CHAPTER XVI

OUT-OF-DOOR LIFE

OUT-OF-DOOR life in India may be divided into three categories. First of all there is the life known as “going into camp,” or “on tour,” which many Government officials are obliged to follow during the cold weather in the execution of their ordinary duties; then the habitual open air employment of engineers, forest officers, planters, railway employees, and so forth; and lastly, out-of-door life in the shape of sport and recreation.

From the beginning of November to the end of February or March as much of Anglo-India as is able keeps in the open, to make up for those eight weary months of confinement, during which it has been imprisoned under punkahs and bottled up in bungalows. This is the season when the Government officials travel about their districts on inspection tour, which, to those who like riding and shooting, is the most enjoyable of all the various phases of duty.

Camping life is, indeed, a delightful institution of India. The itinerary of the district tour is mapped out, and preparations are made for a three or four months’ gipsy existence under the skies, but accompanied with the refinement of comfort which the Anglo-Indian knows so well how to secure under such conditions; for tent-life has been brought to a high pitch of luxury. The camp equipage will consist of a big office tent, and a couple for dwelling in, with accommodation for the servants. There will be bullock-carts, or camels, to carry the baggage, including the most ingenious articles of camp-furniture, which can be telescoped or folded into portable dimensions. Indeed, you will sometimes see superimposed on a couple of camels a variety of beds, tables, chairs, and chests of drawers (these take into halves, and are slung one on each side), which, when opened and set out, suggest the requirement of a small pantechnicon van for their removal. Generally a portion of the poultry-yard is carried during these excursions, and a goat or two driven along to supply milk. And when the camp is pitched under a shady mango tope, or grove of trees, the dhurries or carpets laid, the ingenious collapsible furniture arrayed in its expanded usefulness, the camp-lamps shedding their bright glow within the tent, a crackling fire blazing in front of the door, why, there are very few habitations for which you would wish to change this travelling one.

The cold-weather tour of the head official of a district, who is in effect its governor, is a sort of triumphal progress. He lives on the fat of the land; at his nod transport and provisions of every description appear in plenty; for him, the best khubber where game is to be found, and beaters galore to drive it out of its haunts. At each halting-place the headman comes to offer him welcome, and the finest the village can afford, and all the ryots assemble to make their salaams. His tour is like an old English “visitation,” and, if an energetic officer, he probably does more good in his district during these few cold weather months, when he is brought face to face with its requirements, than during the rest of the year. For they bring him into touch with the people in a way that can never occur in station life.

I know few people who fail to appreciate tent-life in India. It carries with it a sensation of its own of novelty, freedom, and movement. Here to-day, and there to-morrow! Away from the civilisation of the head station, and in a delightful atmosphere of unconventionality! Not until a man has spent several long months in office and bungalow can he fully realise the joy and relief of the plain and jungle, far transcending the pleasure of a seaside holiday in England, or a trip to the northern moors. And, best of all, camping out amalgamates duty with pleasure. What health, what spirits, what appetite it brings; all the rust of bungalow life is soon rubbed off, and the jaded palate, that has toyed with three nominal meals a day all through the burning hot weather and the steaming rains, now astonishes even its owner.

One is accustomed to associate tent-life in England with wet Wimbledons or blazing Bisleys, or excursions up river, and experiments in cooking that are generally unsuccessful. But they know how to do the thing better in India, where a camp conducted by experienced and expert servants is apt to astonish the new-comer. Do not imagine you rough it because you live in tents. Excepting that your roof is canvas, there is little difference between your comforts on tour and those in your bungalow. You will dine as well as in your dining-room, though your kitchen is nothing but a few stones grouped to support the cooking-pots under a tree. And you may reckon upon absolutely fine weather, with a temperature like the English climate in July or August, unless your fate takes you to some of the hotter districts. But, ordinarily speaking, no one goes out into camp until the temperature is in the pleasant stage.

If you are fond of shooting, there are few places where you cannot indulge in it. Shooting is perhaps the greatest charm of official camp-life. It is easy for the official, who in camp is entirely his own master, to arrange his office hours so as to permit of three or four hours with the gun. In the open country there is coursing also, and a couple of greyhounds will afford a pleasant variation of sport. An hour’s stroll in the evening nearly always takes you for a round where you can add to your larder.

And then the pleasure of marching. You are going, let us say, to shift camp to-morrow. After dinner, your big dwelling-tent is struck and packed whilst you are enjoying your postprandial cheroot over the camp-fire, and, with its furniture, sent ahead to the next halting-place. Your sleeping-tent remains for you to spend the night in, and after early breakfast the next morning, you mount your horse and canter the ten or fifteen miles that have to be travelled, or perhaps shoot over a part of the ground, arriving at your new camp at ten or eleven o’clock, to find your tent pitched and a breakfast awaiting you, for the cook went on ahead after serving your dinner. By tiffin-time, your sleeping-tent will have arrived, and by three o’clock, except for the change of scene and surroundings, you will hardly tell that any alteration has been made in the encampment. And so you march, from place to place, always comfortable, never put out, and living with as much regularity as you would at home, except for that unpunctuality which is often a concomitant of shooting, when a long chase after a wounded quarry, or the seductions of a particularly hot field of quail, or well-stocked swamp of snipe, keep you abroad longer than you intended.

Take it for all in all, there is no phase of Anglo-Indian life so delightful as camping out. Whether it is the official on his rounds of duty, or the soldier on the route march from cantonment to cantonment, or the sportsman engaged in the pursuit he loves best, you may be sure one and all are enjoying themselves. For my own part, the happiest holidays I spent in my life were under canvas, and when I look back to those camping-days on the plains of Kattywar or the Punjab, in the jungles of the Ghauts and the Terai, or on the slopes of the Himalayas, I have an idea that I would change the civilisation of this congenial home-life for India again, if it only meant camping out and shooting !

Let us turn now to those whose duties are always more or less out of doors in India. I will pass over the soldier, because his career in cantonments is not an open air one except so far as the cooler morning hours are concerned, and in the cold weather he camps it during the relief season in much the same way as the civilian official. Saving when on active service, he is practically resident in his barracks or bungalow during those fierce noontide heats when exposure is trying.

Perhaps the hardest life of any lived by a European in India is that of the engine-driver on the railway. True, he gets remarkably good wages, two to three hundred pounds a year; but he earns them! In the hot weather it is by no means an unknown thing for an engine-driver to be found dead from heat apoplexy on his engine, and many European guards suffer in a lesser degree. And on the railway generally there is a constant exposure to the sun that makes it a far from enviable line of life.

Civil engineers in the Public Works Department have also a great deal of hot-weather outdoor work. It is a good season for building, and they are constantly called upon to inspect the works, such as roads, bridges, and canals, under their charge. For them, camp-life does not bear such a pleasant complexion as for some of their confrères in Government employ, and to keep well in touch with your district in May and June, and “slog at it” out of doors in a temperature of over a hundred in the shade, is apt to try the strongest man. Officials in the police suffer the same inconveniences, whilst the forest officer, the “jungle sahib,” as he is called, is by the very nature of his occupation a man of the open. Such officials are practically touring nine or ten months out of the twelve, only housing up in the headquarters station during the monsoon months, when they do all their office work and annual reports.

Perhaps of all out-of-door workers the planters have the best time of it, especially those favoured ones who live in the “hills,” like the planters of Darjeeling and the Neilgherries. Even under much less pleasant circumstances they get acclimatised, and there are old stagers in steaming Assam who vow it is one of the best climates in India. The tea-planters are the most numerous in this body, and are chiefly distributed over Northern and North-Eastern India, with a few in Travancore. In Southern India are the coffee-planters, confined practically to the Madras Presidency. Indigo planting, whose home is in Bengal and Behar, is a decaying industry, but the life used to be reckoned the best of the three. All enjoy a holiday more or less in the cold weather, when work is slack.

Life on a tea plantation, when markets and seasons are favourable and the climate good, goes as near perfection as Anglo-Indian life may for a young and active man. The home is often a settled one, and that is a great factor in making yourself comfortable in an Indian bungalow. You furnish your house for living in, not for scrambling out of; you plant your garden with trees whose fruit you may legitimately hope to eat, and you settle down to make yourself comfortable. Unhappily, the good old days are past when prosperity was universal, and the modern tea-planter has to bear a heavy burden of anxiety under the altered conditions that have made the industry a precarious one.

Here is a description of a tea-planter’s day on his estate. He is up before sunrise, and after a good chotahazri, to which he seems able to do better justice than most folk, off to his factory to take the morning reports and inspect the earlier stages of manufacture. This keeps him fully employed until nine o’clock, when he will jump on his horse and ride round the outdoor work, inspecting the gangs of coolies in the field until the eleven o’clock gong sounds to suspend work. Galloping back to his bungalow, he enjoys a bath, and sits down to the “planter’s breakfast,” which is not a mere bacon-and-eggs affair, but a déjeuner à la fourchette, with a reputation of its own. Often it is partaken of in the verandah, and is always an elaborate function round which the working-day revolves. Then comes the lounge in the long grasshopper verandah chair and the luxurious cheroot that has a better flavour than any other in the twenty-four hours, with, perhaps, forty winks to be winked, though as a rule the planter is far too busy in the hot weather to snatch a nap. About half-past twelve there is another visit to be paid to the factory and office, a court to be held at which administrative work is gone through, such as paying the men, giving out contracts, physicking the sick, and finally there comes the hot afternoon visit to the operations in the field, the most trying time of the whole day. At half-past four the planter knocks off, and may be considered to have done a fair day’s dág, or work. Now comes recreation — lawn-tennis, a ride to visit a neighbour, or a walk with the dogs. This in the manufacturing season; in the cold weather, when the factory is shut, one round of the outdoor work generally suffices, and there are long afternoons to be spent in shooting, or playing cricket, or other sports in which many can find time to meet together and take a part. Sunset, with the short twilight of a southern land, terminates the afternoon all too soon, but not the pleasure, for now all collect in the verandah for pegs and pipes until dinner. Or perchance there is a piano in the bungalow, by no means an uncommon thing, and then there is a musical interlude, or, equally popular, a rubber of whist. But whatsoever form of diversion occurs, it is flavoured with “planters’ hospitality,” which has won a name for itself. After dinner there is little going on, for the planter as a rule falls asleep after a long day in the open, and if he manages a game of whist it will be as much as he cares to keep awake for, for he will get up at or before sunrise next morning.

A planter is an autocrat on his estate, and if he is lucky enough to live in a district where the labour is easily done, and what is more important, easily obtained, there is no man in India more free and independent. But of late years, a cloud has hovered over the planting industry, and the “good times” for indigo, tea, or coffee have gone by. “Economy” is the cry, and a cutting down of salaries, never munificent, the result — in some cases to the extent of half the former emoluments. Indian planting was a fine opening once for energetic youth, without much brains; it is so no longer, even if the youth has brains as well as energy.

Lastly, in this review of out-of-door life in India, we come to sport and recreation, and here is a feast of good things. The Europeans in the East enter with a peculiar zest, both from enthusiasm and because of the benefit that comes from physical exercise into sports that take them out of their bungalows. I suppose the game of lawn-tennis has done more for the average Anglo Indian than all the drugs in the pharmacopoeia. I have seen men playing it in the height of the hot season, with a turkish-bath towel hung on a pole just outside the court, the condition of which at the end of a set was eloquent of some evil humours expelled from the body. Tennis is a game adapted for the limited society of an up-country station, and one in which ladies can not only join, but in India, from constant practice, become almost as proficient as men. The courts are very hard as a rule, many being made of beaten earth, and the game requires a display of far more agility than when played on grass.

Cricket is indulged in a good deal in the cold weather, on very fast pitches as a rule. It is particularly popular amongst the military, for in civil society it is not often feasible to get up a full game. But in a cantonment there are often a grand series of matches through the winter. Football is not unfrequently played in the rainy season, when the temperature is most trying, and the energy and enthusiasm shown under such circumstances speak eloquently for its popularity. The inter-regimental Football Challenge Cup gives rise to an exciting competition; in fact, for the keenest rivalry in purely English games you have always to go to a cantonment. Otherwhere, except in the big cities, the population is too small to supply full sides for cricket or football.

Racing has been the favourite sport in India from time immemorial for those who can afford it, but, of recent years, the rich rajahs have stormed the turf, and monopolised all the prizes. There are, however, a large number of “sky meetings,” as they are called, where the man of small means, who loves the sport for the sake of the horse, is able to enter his own nag and ride it, and at these, if the business is less imposing, the fun is none the less. The gymkhana meet, which is a purely local affair, gives the amateur a field day, and brings the pastime within reach of all, and as every one owns a “gee,” and riding is a universal accomplishment, the “scurry stakes” appeal to all. Nor are these gymkhanas limited to racing, but are an olla podrida of all sorts of sports, and you can spend an exceedingly entertaining afternoon at them, engaging in, or looking on, a variety of competitions which include tent-pegging, lime-cutting, and kindred exhibitions of skill on horseback, for the art of equitation enters largely into all sportive gatherings.

Polo is a very favourite game in India, as may well be imagined in a country where every subaltern keeps a horse, and has not the slightest objection to risking his neck. No military cantonment and but few of the larger stations are without their polo ground, and there is always a “polo evening” once or twice a week. The caricaturist who is good at horses with his pencil will find many humours on the Indian polo field, where men with slender purses play the game on the same long-suffering animals they ride in the morning, and trap in the middle day, and whose original cost may not have exceeded a ten-pound note. For you can get a very passable country-bred nag for that sum, and for twenty pounds a mount you need not be ashamed to be seen striding. Some of the hill ponies will give you extraordinary value for money. I remember buying one for six pounds that I rode every day for twelve years, and he was good enough to give away but too good to shoot at the end of that period. But that was up in the Himalayas, and the same pony would probably have commanded three times the price in the plains. I have owned perhaps a score of what are called “plantation ponies,” and never gave more than twenty pounds for the best of them; several of the cheaper ones carried me forty and forty-five miles a day.

If I have left pig-sticking and shooting to the last, it is certainly not because they are the least in the sporting pleasures of India. The former is accounted the finest of all field sports, and takes the place of hunting in England, with the additional advantage of being within the reach of many who could never afford to ride to hounds at home. The sport is fostered by “tent clubs,” which are practically camping-out clubs, and Sunday is perhaps the most popular day for a meet. The members ride out to a pre-arranged camp on the Saturday afternoon, hunt all Sunday, and are back at their stations on Monday in time for office or parade. The sport dates from the eighteenth century, and the old term of the “fraternity of pig-stickers” still holds good, for there is a veritable brotherhood amongst those who follow this entrancing method of hunting.

Last of all comes shooting, which I may call the universal sport of India. Poor in resources is that Anglo-Indian who does not possess a gun. The game is free to all to shoot, the only restriction being a “close” season, and, in some districts, a regard for the prejudices of the natives.

Thus peacocks in many places and neilghai, or wild cattle, are accounted sacred, and, in fact, so tame, owing to immunity from chase, that no sportsman would shoot them. The former may be seen sunning themselves on the village walls, and the neilghai is a privileged despoiler of crops, who has never experienced anything more dreadful than a hoot. Tiger-shooting is the sport of the wealthy, for it entails a heavy expenditure in elephants, beaters, and general arrangements. Jungle hánking for big game, such as sambre, deer, and animals which require to be driven towards the guns out of thick jungle, also costs a considerable amount, for although beaters are only paid twopence or threepence a day per head, when you have to engage them in regiments, it is prudent to tot up the outlay. But antelope stalking in the plains is open to most people at the expense of a railway fare — you may occasionally see the buck as you pass through the wilder parts of the country in the train — and can be combined with small-game shooting. The railways have, however, done much to exterminate the antelope in many parts of India, and render them very wild. I remember, thirty years ago, shooting in Kattywar, and seeing herds of many hundreds of buck where nowadays ten are quite difficult to come across. It is the same with the more savage wild animals. In my plantation was a ravine called the “Wolves’ nullah,” from the wolves that once swarmed in it; but not one has been seen there for twenty years.

It is, however, the small game that never fails to give sport. Partridge, hare, snipe, wild-duck, and quail are open to almost any Anglo-Indian who takes the trouble to look for them. There is no fun equal to snipe and quail shooting for the amount of blazing away it gives you, and both birds are excellent for the table, which is more than you can say for Indian game in general. Few sports surpass duck-shooting, if you get into a good spot, and, after the woodcock, the mallard is about the best eating bird in India. I do not think English people realise how easily Indian shooting is to be enjoyed. In 1874, I made a sporting trip to India for six months, and after deducting two for the voyage, much slower then than it is now, had four months as good sport as any one could desire, and, big and small, killed about three thousand head of game. The entire cost of the trip was under two hundred pounds; but I “gipsy’d” it in camp, knocking about with a single small tent, one horse, and a couple of camels. Two or three going together could accomplish such a trip nowadays as economically, and if “furloughs” in England were as long and as common as in India, I could not imagine a better way of spending them than three or four months’ camping under an Indian sky.

The out-of-door recreations of city life in India need little description. There is something of the cockney in the Anglo-Indian who lives in Calcutta or Bombay. A ride is generally the limit of his outdoor exercise, and he “Rotten-rows” it as gingerly as you may see in Hyde Park. More frequently the limit of his horsemanship is the bandstand, where he lolls in his saddle, or nerves himself for a walk by strand or seashore. In Bombay, there is a good deal of yachting, and in the swift-sailing lateen-rigged boats, it is passing pleasant to spend an evening in the harbour, and better still to take an extended trip up some of the creeks. But the more strenuous exercises always gave me the more pleasure and profit, and I look back to the days I spent in jungle and jheel, with rifle and gun, a couple of good nags to carry me afield, and a leash of greyhounds to encourage me to a gallop after a jackal now and again, I look backward to those with a sigh, as I find myself surrounded with the bricks and mortar of London, and recognise that there are some phases of Anglo-Indian out-of-door life you cannot duplicate in England, wish you ever so hard. If Eastern exile were all composed of camp-life, very few would care to terminate it until overtaken by that fatal ailment called Anno Domini.


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