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CHAPTER XVII

SEPIA SURROUNDINGS

THE Anglo-Indian cannot escape from the tyranny of the brown skin. There is no privacy in India; the fierce glare that beats upon a throne is hardly less inquisitorial than the quiet glances of apparently mild brown eyes directed at the unconscious Anglo-Indian unceasingly.

The magnificent staff of native servants, about which so much has been written and remarked, is, in effect, a staff of spies. There is no escape from them, and from the time that you tumble out of bed in the morning to the hour when you turn in again, you are never free from the sensation of “somebody there.” Even through the silent night hours the periodical cough of the punkah coolie serves to remind you of the ever-watchful presence. Von live in a perpetual qui vive, for amidst these sepia surroundings you know you are the conspicuous object.

By nature, natives are a most inquisitive folk, and India is a land of gup, which is the vernacular for gossip. Whatever you do, say, and (I was almost adding) think, is reported, and whatever happens in your bungalow becomes common information to your neighbours. Anglo-Indians, and especially their wives, are in many cases confirmed gossips. The ayah, or lady’s-maid, has a genius for disseminating scandal, and I have been led to believe that more tittle-tattle is talked during the hour when the hair of Anglo-Indian womankind is being brushed than at any other of the twenty-four. Nor can I acquit the masculine sex of freedom from a similar curiosity, for it often displays a distinct partiality for listening to the gup of the barber, or the babblings of the bearer who dresses his master.

And here, in passing, I may make a note of the lazy and luxurious habits into which sepia surroundings seduce the Anglo-Indian, and the royal way in which he adapts himself to being waited upon. There are many little personal offices in India which it is derogatory to perform for yourself, and the extension of this leads to the performance of several others by proxy. No one, for instance, laces up his own boots, or carries a parcel, or undertakes anything in the nature of an errand, and I have seen Europeans walking in the rain with natives to carry their umbrellas over them. But it is in his dressing-room that this peculiar trait in the Anglo-Indian character is emphasised. Many a man reverts to the habits of his childhood, and practically allows his bearer to dress him. His vest and shirt are held open for him to slip his head and shoulders into, the passage of his trousers is simplified, his socks and shoes are put on for him, and assistance with his cummerbund, or waistband, follows as a matter of course. It is sometimes really ludicrous to see young fellows, a few months in the country, adapt themselves to these Sybaritic idiosyncrasies! As for old stagers, they really become almost as helpless as infants, and will employ the barber to cut their toenails. After a day’s shooting, the sportsman’s feet are usually washed by his faithful attendant, and the brushing and folding of clothes are performances that the average Englishman in India forgets how to accomplish.

If you do not find privacy in the dressing-room, you can hardly be free from espionage in the rest of the bungalow, where it is chronic. The verandah is guarded by the chupprassi, who squats or stands there to run errands, carry letters (there are no messages despatched in India, where all communications are sent by chits, which is the anglicised and abbreviated Hindustani for “notes”), and act generally the part of a human bell. In Egypt, you “clap hands, clap hands till somebody comes;” but in India, you lift up your voice and shout, which is sometimes inconvenient and often irritating. By the word you use, you reveal to which Presidency you belong. If you belong to Bengal, you cry, Koi hai? which means, “Is anybody there?” if to Bombay, the summons is for “Boy!” The chupprassi is the chief of spies. Lesser ones are the gardener, who keeps his eye upon you as you lounge in the verandah; the groom, who attends you when you are out riding, and is an athletic runner; the kitmudghar, who waits behind your chair at table, and the native clerks who squat round your feet at office. Try how you will, you cannot get away from the native; he is “in the air,” so to speak, and you come at last to resign yourself to a species of tyranny that completely robs you of the charm of solitude. It is an atmosphere difficult to realise in England, where an Englishman’s home is his castle; in India, the bungalow is a combination of a conservatory and observatory.

And what makes this state of things so anomalous is that there is no assimilation between black and white. They are, and always must remain, races foreign to one another in sentiment, sympathies, feelings, and habits. Between you and a native friend there is a great gulf which no intimacy can bridge — the gulf of caste and custom. Amalgamation is utterly impossible in any but the most superficial sense, and affinity out of the question.

Nor in its material sense is affinity desirable. Without wishing to say anything offensive about my black brother, I must protest that when the atmosphere is too redolent of him and the unguents with which he anoints himself, he is decidedly objectionable, and there are times, many times, when it is as well that he should not get between you and the breeze. It is a delicate subject to dwell on, but decidedly one of the drawbacks of too “close” sepia surroundings. I will only instance a single illustration. It is one of the anomalies of railway travelling in India that whilst third-class carriages are reserved for the “poor-white,” the first- and second-class passengers have no guarantee against the intrusion of gentlemen of colour whose domestic and social habits are not in accord with our ideas of delicacy of behaviour. There are native “compliments” after a hearty meal which are simply disgusting to an Anglo-Saxon; and nature did not build the white man and black on suitable lines to hugger-mugger it in a small saloon on a railway, which may be their mutual abode for two or three days. I am not exaggerating when I say that the presence of a native in the same carriage with you doubles the disgust one feels for a long, hot, and trying journey in a small, stuffy space.

Let us turn to another and less unpleasant aspect of the sepia. It is particularly conspicuous in office life, where all clerical work is performed by educated natives. A civilian’s office is manned with Hindu and Mahomedan scribes, and all the “writers” in a commercial house are natives. That they make industrious machines no one can deny; but they are apt to be trying to the temper at times, and require an extraordinarily alert check kept on their manoeuvres and blunders. Once get them outside their routine of work, and occasion them to draw on their imagination, and the result is disastrous. They cannot be used for correspondence, for they think on an entirely different plane from that of the European, and their eccentricities of composition are phenomenal. “Baboo English,” as it is called, is often more comical than Mark Twain. It revels in polysyllabics and lexicographers’ terms; straightforward English is a great deal too simple for the Baboo, and single syllable words are insufficient to show off his learning. “So much for your boasted British jurisprudence!” was the crushing commentary fired off by one indignant Baboo when an Englishman accidentally trod on his toes in a crowd. A European out shooting peppered a villager with snipe shot, and compensated him with ten rupees. In order to retain a written record of the transaction, he ordered his clerk to obtain a receipt for the money, and the phraseology the native wit hit on was, “To compounding one bloody murder, ten rupees. Omissions excepted.” “Sir,” wrote another of these clerkly originalities, “pray excuse from office this day on account of boil on left elbow as per margin,” and illustrated the tumour, to scale, on the side of the sheet. Letters in this style are common in India, where the sepia thinks the Englishman much better approached by epistle, and hires scribes to write “petitions” detailing complaints or aspirations. The professional letter-writer is an established and well-patronised functionary in India.

I have no doubt the other side of the picture, which shows the mistakes English folk make in expressing themselves in the native languages, can display just as many comicalities if they were brought to notice. Meem-sahib-bát, or the ladies’ rendering of the vernacular is notoriously unconventional, and Tommy Atkins speaks a lingo of his own which nobody outside a regimental bazaar can understand. The Indian Charivari, an attempt at an Oriental Punch, which has long ceased to exist, enshrined in its pages many gems of Anglo-Hindustani. But it is against the code of a native’s etiquette to laugh, much less to deride, and he allows such lapses to pass without a change in his sober countenance. Very rarely he is unconsciously sarcastic, as when a European calls him “the son of a pig” (a too common formula of abuse), and he meekly rejoins, “Your honour is my father and my mother!” which is the commonest metaphor of compliment. But hilarity is foreign to the native character, and if he is surprised into a smile he will bend his face and relieve himself of it with a hand veiling his mouth.

In living amongst natives, as many Europeans have to do, it is necessary to attune your mind to theirs. India is a land of lies, inhabited by peoples who express a virtuous indignation against lying. It is also a land of unconscious exaggeration, for native has the poorest idea of assessing things correctly, and in all information you receive you must make an allowance. If you are travelling and ask a wayfarer how far it is from your destination, he will, in all probability, assure you “one kos,” a distance that answers to our mile, though it sometimes extends to two and a half. The place may be ten kos distant, but the formula remains the same, and until you begin to fall into the native’s ways of thought and usage, you will meet with many bitter disappointments in trusting too implicitly to his word, and especially his ideas of computation. In this particular respect there is no one who can compete with the shikari, or man hired to show you the haunts of game. The roseate hues of early dawn, which predict tigers considerably over twelve feet from nose to tip of tail, blackbuck with thirty-inch horns, and snipe like locusts, if credited, fade into grey chagrin later in the day. It is not so much lying in many cases as an inability to speak the truth; in other words, the speaker tells you what he thinks is the case, when as a matter of fact he is depicting what he wishes it may be. He does it not unkindly, if you could only appreciate his line of reasoning. “What was the size of the wild-boar?” you ask of one who has come in with news of pig. “That size,” is the reply, the horizontal hand indicating the altitude of a full-grown donkey. If you bid the man reflect and indicate again, he will, as likely as not, increase the height.

Sepia surroundings sometimes bring serious nuisances with them. In the most fashionable part of Bombay is situated the Hindu burning‑ground, whereof ladies returning from the bandstand often have olfactory proofs. Conceive the scandal it would occasion in England if one of the principal thoroughfares were tainted with the smell of roasting human flesh! In the capital of Western India, you sniff suspiciously, shudder out an “Ugh!” cram your pocket-handkerchief to your nose, and there is an end of it. It is a custom of the country. Then, again, the native contaminates water with a most disgusting unconcern, washing himself in the tank from which you may be obliged to draw your drinking supply, and defiling it in sundry ways. I have alluded to the native’s scantiness of attire; it is certainly something to shock, and a man taking his bath in public, with nothing on him but an exceedingly diminutive loin-cloth, is a common wayside spectacle. In parts of Southern India, the women are undraped from the waist upwards, the survival of an old custom which decreed it as an incentive to matrimony. All along the seaboard, you may put it that the female costume transgresses the laws of Occidental decency. Many of the lepers and beggars whom you see infesting the public highways are such loathsome sights that they would not be permitted abroad in civilised communities; and the cruelty to animals habitually practised in overworking them is a constant disgrace. Bullocks whose tails have practically been twisted off are exceedingly common, and the saddle sores and girth galls of horses and mules employed as pack animals, or in wheeled vehicles, make you shudder.

Minor nuisances are many. Nothing is more distracting to the nerves than the tom-toming that goes on all through the night when marriages or other festivals are in progress. What are the intermittent concerts of tom-cats on the tiles to the prolonged and maddening monotony of a single dull note repeated at short intervals, making night hideous? Then there are native caste prejudices which create inconvenience. In some Hindu districts, where the slaughter of kine is prohibited, it is impossible to get beef. For nearly twenty years, off and on, I never tasted it between February and October, and have sent seventy miles for a Christmas sirloin, and had it brought up by men on foot, relieving each other in relays. A mere trifle, you may think; but it becomes a little trying when you live on a diet of mutton and fowl every day for many months. Pork flesh, be it ham or bacon, you know to be unclean to your Mahomedan servants, and eat it “with all risks,” as the auctioneers say. Under the same category, curiously enough, comes turkey, accounted a relation of the pig by the followers of the Prophet, because it carries a little rosette of bristles on its breast, though this may be news to the general.

In another part of these pages, I have mentioned the system of dàlis, or complimentary offerings. At Christmas these assume the form of an epidemic. Here the sepia has you on hip and thigh, for the system of the Christmas-box brings East and West into line at once. It is a moot question whether the word “box” may not be derived from bucksheesh, often abbreviated into “bux” in the colloquial. In India, the Christmas-box is a reciprocal function; all your servants and hangers-on and understrappers seize the opportunity to present you with a dàli, which you cannot very well decline. And, of course, when a native tips you, you must tip him back, and return nothing less respectable than silver for his copper. The dàli, with its little heap of sugar candy and rice, flowers and fruit, costs but a few pence at the utmost, and the procession of these gifts only finds a termination in the number of those who conceive that now the time to make a good investment. They come and come, and, with a sickly smile and sullen eye, you salaam and submit yourself to the craftily disguised blackmail of Christmas bucksheesh, inwardly cursing the accumulation of sour oranges, and the ascending pile of sugar-candy, and the hillock of rice as it expands into a young mountain, and consigning Christmas customs to the same inferno to which you habitually consign native ones.

Consign them, and yet too often accommodate yourself to them! Things which you know to be constructively wrong you acquiesce in, and condone methods which are obsolete fetishes. Take the Indian ayah, or lady’s-maid; she is in nine cases out of ten of the scavenger caste! No fastidious Englishman will touch a sweeper or scavenger, and yet he allows his wife to be waited on by a woman of the same low breed. You can hardly believe it, but it is the “custom,” and the husband is often valeted by a high-caste Brahmin or Rajpoot who would decline to tread on the same carpet as the ayah! Of all the anomalies and topsy-turvies of Anglo-Indian domestic economy, this has always struck me as the most remarkable in its surrender to caste prejudice and sexual inferiority. Look at your horse, hobbled by the hind leg as well as haltered; that is a custom of the country which many people in England would denounce as cruel. But you will find it adopted in most Indian stables, because it has been handed down by the forefathers of your groom as the proper way to secure a horse. Observe the domestic utensils in common use in an Anglo-Indian’s house; the gurrah, which (pace Sir George Birdwood) is like a wobbling football filled with water, is permitted to survive when a water-can would be infinitely more convenient to fill your bath with. And those copper cooking-pots, which can so easily become poisonous, remain in use because your cook prefers them! Can any one conceive a more clumsy device than the punkah for creating an artificial draught, with two coolies permanently attached to it? And yet we are only just beginning in the centres of civilisation to adopt electric fans and other substitutes suggested by Western ingenuity. The British have occupied India for a hundred and fifty years, and have left the building of their houses to the native architect, whose ideas have not changed since the times of Clive and Warren Hastings. The Indian bungalow is a century behind the age, but it is fashioned according to a hoary old custom, and we remain content with it. I know only one house in India designed on an English model, but with the addition of verandahs; it was called the “Folly.” I must myself plead guilty to having built three bungalows, all on native lines, and I cannot explain why, except that it was the custom. Even in this age of cheap Swedish and Japanese matches, if you call for a light for your cheroot in Bombay, you will be supplied with a piece of glowing charcoal between a pair of tongs, because that is the method adopted in lighting the native hookah. The palanquin, carried by native bearers, still survives in the metropolitan cities, although it is as antiquated as the sedan chair, and more awkward to get out of than a social scrape. Yet a pious custom helps it to linger on in an age of motor-cars! But I could go on indefinitely multiplying these immutable mysteries of Asia that link us with the Georgian period in the economy of daily life; these tinderboxes and elastic-side boots, as it were, used and worn under the dominion of the Emperor Edward the Seventh! And side by side with them, you have the intensely Western spectacle of a Hindu running to catch a suburban train, or a Mahomedan reporting the tramway conductor because he omitted to punch the penny-fare ticket!

The moral influence of sepia surroundings on the life of an Anglo-Indian is another matter altogether, and of this I have left myself little space to write. There is no doubt that the atmosphere puts a man’s character to the test; some come out of it well, some uncommonly badly. The Anglo-Indian, be he ever so humble, finds many humbler beings to bow before him. The loafer on the highway has no need to shoulder the black man off his path, who voluntarily makes way for him. As you ascend in the social scale, this servility increases, and the sepia is ever metaphorically grovelling in the dust to the white complexion. It is not a wholesome atmosphere to live in, this conscious sense of social superiority, and is apt in some cases to turn heads. The Anglo-Indian becomes arrogant, quick-tempered, and impatient. He loses the knack of saying “Thank you,” and acquires that of bahaduring, which is the importation of imperialism into private life. He is always “My lord” or “Your honour” to the native, or, for a variation, “Protector of the poor!” or “Cherisher of the needy!” Do you wonder that the Anglo-Indian becomes puffed-up? That he thinks more of himself than is compatible with his gifts and attributes? That he becomes curt in his treatment of the sepia? Such is not unfrequently the case, and an undue exploitation of “side” is a weak point in the Anglo-Indian’s character. A six-months’ furlough to the Colonies of Australia should be included in the curriculum of his life to negative the ill-effects of sepia surroundings and sepia servility.


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