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Indian Life in Town and Country
THE GLAD CRY
WHAT are the pros and what the cons of Anglo-Indian life, and to which side does the balance incline? I think I can strike it at once in the words of the familiar song, Home, Sweet Home. But there are two good columns of debtor and creditor considerations on either side before we arrive at it, and to some of these I will address myself.
The Anglo-Indian does not take his pleasures sadly, and, speaking generally, manages to have a good time of it during his period of exile. There is no place like India for gaiety and amusement, and no society which lays itself out more thoroughly for enjoyment. Within the short limits of the cooler evening hours, a vast amount of outdoor revelry is squeezed in. I do not speak of the cities, where there are large communities and amusement is conducted on a colossal scale, but of the petty out-stations which, weather permitting, become the headquarters of enjoyment, and in this respect contrast favourably with the dulness of life in English rural towns and villages.
In fact, they compare rather with those places in England which are called pleasure resorts. The reason is not far to seek; there is little of the English stiffness in Anglo-Indian society; everybody knows everybody else; and the hours of recreation are of necessity the same for all. Moreover, it often happens that there is only one meeting-place where the Europeans foregather with regularity and punctuality. These conditions bring people together, and having grouped themselves, they proceed to make the most of it. A similar system in England, that assembled acquaintances at a stated hour and for a stated time every day, would probably show the same results.
Then hospitality is universal in India, and dinner parties, dances, balls, private theatricals, and evening entertainments are far commoner than in England. This, again, is not to be wondered at, for you have servants to do everything for you. The commissariat is a simple affair relegated to your major-domo, and a Cinderella dance or garden-party comes within the means of many. Nor should I forget to mention that the racecourse, the polo ground, the cricket pitch, and the tennis courts cost practically nothing for their use, being Government lands allotted to every station for the benefit of the European community. In short, amusement is made easy in India, and the expense of a trifling subscription will make you free of everything.
Nor is India without its pleasure resorts, where the fun is fast and furious. The Hill Stations in the hot weather are places where little else but gaiety and amusement is talked of or indulged in. Here are gathered together the fair sex, who cannot stand the heat of the baking plains, and hither flock men of all sorts and conditions “on leave” from their several duties. English novel readers know a good deal about Indian Hill Stations, which form the background of so much fiction; but apart from this not very wholesome atmosphere of flirtation and intrigue there is much that is harmless and happy. I do not know any sense of relief and delight greater than that of breathing in the mountain air after a long spell of the stifling heat below, or any scene more grateful to the eyes than the verdure of the hills and the panorama of distant snows after the drab monotony of the dusty plains. It is better than the sea to a Londoner, the Highlands to a Glasgow man. For it means something more than health; it brings a certain rejuvenisation of physical and mental energy. The cool wind soughing through the firs, the nights that require a blanket, the days that can be enjoyed out-of-doors instead of only survived under a punkah — these are things that make a run up to the hills the greatest treat of Anglo-Indian life.
Ladies find a compensation for their lonely Indian days in the gaiety of the evening hours. Although they are no longer all reckoned princesses, as was the case in the good old times, and may not always be able to fill their ball programmes, they have little cause to complain. For Anglo-India is very attentive to its womankind, and ladies are admitted to not a few of its clubs. And although the girt who goes out to find a husband may not be so uniformly successful as were her foremothers thirty years ago, I fancy there are few “spins” — if they are still “spins” — who look back to the life they spent in India without pleasurable feelings, even should the campaign have been a failure from a matrimonial point of view.
To the man who loves hunting, riding, and shooting, India is an ideal land. What are luxuries confined to the rich in England become every one’s property in the East. For myself, I always associate sport with my pleasantest recollections of exile. No holidays since those of one’s schooldays can compare to the Christmas week, or fortnight, spent in camp, shooting and riding. I can call to mind many such, when with four or five genial companions we cut ourselves adrift from railways and roads, and lived the gipsy life. Dear are the memories of the snug tents pitched under the shady mango topes; the morning gallop and the midday sport; the evening stroll with a shotgun; the dinner partaken under a green canopy, with the camp-fire roaring and brightening up the scene, and the chairs drawn around it presently for sing-songs or discussions of the varied adventures of the day.
Another advantage of Anglo-Indian life is that money goes further and provides more in certain directions. People naturally go to India to improve their circumstances, and you may say, in a general way, every one is better off than he would have been in England. Even the man on small means can get a vast amount of pleasure and comfort out of his income, and there is but little of that struggle which we associate with genteel poverty. Taken all round, the Anglo-Indian is a well-to-do individual, and if his ship is not sailing smoothly, it is mostly his own fault. The scale of salaries is arranged on a far more liberal basis than in England, and “dreadfully poor” folk are only so in comparison with the dreadfully rich ones.
And, to most people, the object attainable is satisfactory. The civilian has opportunities of great distinction open to him, and more rewards and decorations than in any other civil service under the Crown. The soldier sees plenty of camp-life, and the fortunate one a full share of fighting, and is not the poor man, financially speaking, he remains in other outposts of the Empire. The merchant has a prospect of a quick fortune, and professional men — doctors, barristers, dentists, and experts generally — make a larger income than they would in England. Mechanics enjoy handsome wages, and “poor whites” are rare, and chiefly confined to the loafing class, whose misfortunes you may trace to intemperance. The missionary lives a far from arduous life, and the chaplain is the best paid clergyman in the church, with a pension of a pound a day after a comparatively short term of service. For his cloth, indeed, there is nobody better off than the Anglo-Indian “padre.” And you may say of the Anglo-Indian generally, he is a prosperous man, and judge it by the way he grumbles when he returns to England, and misses all the luxuries of Indian life.
The climate is, of course, the great drawback, and yet sometimes when I get climate-cursed in England I think not unkindly of the hottest days I ever spent in India. The skies were blue, at least, and when it did rain it rained to some purpose. Englishmen grumble under any circumstances, and do so with undeviating regularity against the heat of the East; and yet, I think, not so much as at the perverse variability and cosmopolitan detestability of English meteorological conditions. For when the weather is a fixed equation you can circumvent it, and do in a measure, in India; but when it shifts and changes, as it does in England, you can in practice do nothing but swear at it. And put east wind and London fog against hot winds and monsoon vapour, and I honestly prefer the latter.
As regards the quality and strenuousness of work, the Englishman cannot, does not, and is not called upon to do as much in India as at home. In commercial life, the office hours are from ten to five; but there are many more holidays than in England. In a country where there are three creeds, each with its festivals to be observed, there are three sets of holidays, and the Doorga Poojahs supply a week straight off the reel. In Government employ, Sundays and festivals account for almost a third of the year. Then, again, you seldom see the Anglo-Indian bustling. If you go into a shop or office in the larger cities, there is a distinctly placid air, which argues no high amount of pressure. The tiffin hour is an oasis that occupies a big slice in the day, and I have known business men nap in their chairs, under the drowsy influence of the punkah. Another point to be remembered is that nearly all the uninteresting clerical work in India is done by native clerks. It is true the civilian is rather surfeited with writing reports, and I have heard dignitaries of the administration, with inky fingers, swearing at the bureaucratic head centre for its appetite for unnecessary details. But over his more practical duties the same high functionary may often be observed with a cheroot or cigarette in his mouth. In fact, nearly all Europeans smoke in their offices, and this habit faithfully reflects what I may call the sauntering ease of Eastern life. Military men are notoriously unemployed during the hot weather months, and the enforced idleness of barrack bounds is the greatest curse of Tommy Atkins’s Indian career. The artisan classes are by no means driven, except on the railway, and there is a decided “consideration” shown to everybody which allows the Anglo-Indian a great deal of latitude, not to say lassitude, in the execution of his duties. Moreover, there is the ever-present native to serve him and be at his beck and call. Sepia surroundings are often a nuisance, but on occasions mightily convenient. Sometimes, when I look at the kitchen-midden heap that constitutes my writing-table in this land of civilisation, I sigh for my duftri, who used to tidy my desk twice daily in India, wipe my pens, fill my inkpots, set me out a new sheet of blotting-paper every day, array my writing-paper and envelopes, copy my letters in the press, fold and enclose them in their covers, and finally weigh and stamp each! Not to mention altering the date-rack, killing flies, abusing. the punkah-Wallah when he failed to create a strong draught, preparing a “peg,” advising me of the time, acting as a notebook to remind me of things to be done, and, so far as my personal comfort went, thinking for me when I was too lazy to think for myself!
Occupation for occupation I would sooner be a European working in India than in England, and to sum the matter up generally I should call Indian life, in its working aspect, a “jolly easy one,” with many compensations to make up for local drawbacks of climate.
Having thus sketched in broadest outline the advantages of the Indian life, a few words must be devoted to its disadvantages, without necessity to refer again to the climate except to point out the lassitude to which it gives rise, and the disinclination for work which it engenders. I know few things more trying than the obligation to carry out duties when all energy is gone, and the task that under ordinary circumstances would yield satisfaction, if not pleasure, in its accomplishment, becomes an effort of compulsion very like slavery. Lassitude is not necessarily laziness; it is a running down of the system, a condition of mind and body for which the man who suffers from it cannot be blamed. It incapacitates, and makes work a “grind.” As a rule, I think Anglo-India grinds a great deal at its work. There are weeks and months when the Anglo-Indian does not enjoy the happiness of a mens sana in corpore sano, which is so essential to the proper conduct of the affairs of life. A man suffering from a chronic headache or permanent lumbago is not the individual to solve acrostics or dig the garden; the disabilities of lassitude are, in their way, just as great, and it requires the exercise of no common amount of will-power to “buckle-to,” when all the starch has been melted out of the system, and mind and body are in a limp, negative state.
Partly arising from climate, partly from circumstances, comes the question of health. Ill-health is one of the drawbacks of life in the East. The liver is a permanent misery, and many other ills to which man’s flesh is heir follow close on its heels. A great number of Anglo-Indians suffer from chronic complaints who would assuredly have escaped their afflictions in England. It is a trite observation to say that good health is the greatest of all blessings, and yet it is not until you begin to have experience of sickness that this elementary truth is realised. In a planting life in the jungles, it is especially trying. In the district wherein I lived, I remember over a dozen Europeans dying without medical aid, and in not a few cases from preventable causes. Three succumbed to cholera, and were dead before the doctor, who lived over twenty miles away, could gallop in. It is dreadful to think of life so needlessly squandered, and when the bitterness is brought home to you by seeing your own friends passing away, and yourself unable to help them, it is hard to bear. Moreover, the funeral has to follow death so immediately in the East that it hardly seems decent. You may be called on to bury a man with whom you were lunching the day before, and experiences like these score a deep mark in the recollection. But the saddest memory of all is the Indian cemetery, with its crowded, uncouth, masonry monuments, and its general air of desolation and abandonment. In India, the dead are not treated well, and it is one of the disgraces of British administration. In the humblest English village churchyards you will see more respect and attention paid to the resting-places of the departed than is paid to the tombs of many of the heroes who helped to win India for Great Britain. Indian cemeteries are hideous with neglect, and in some of the out-of-the-way, up-country stations are even given over to the jungle and wild beasts.
However, this has little to do with life in India. We are talking of its drawbacks, and chief amongst these must be placed the perennial partings between husbands and wives, parents and children. In England, man and wife hardly know what it is to dwell apart; in India, it is a common condition of matrimonial life for four months in the year, when wives have to be sent up to the Hill Stations. But this, again, is a far less unhappy state of affairs than that other alternative of sending wife and family home to England. The sorrow of separation from all he holds most dear hangs over the Anglo-Indian, and makes his life one clouded with constant and prolonged partings. And I think it is from this phase of it that India has been called the Land of Regrets.
But there is another species of separation I must mention, and that is the exclusion from civilisation which a life in the jungles entails. In the selection of his career, the Anglo-Indian cuts himself off from much that goes to elevate life in the West. He is out of touch with art and literature, and seldom keeps up with the tide in politics and graver thought. It is only when he returns and tries to pick up the threads of English life again that he realises how far he has fallen behind the times. I am not speaking of those whose good fortune it is to be able to run home for a trip every two or three years, and so polish themselves up, but of the less happily situated, who do their six and seven, and even more, years in the country without a change. I did nine years once on a stretch, and confess to an utterly “lost” feeling when I first returned to England. For one gets, in the phrase of the East, “jungly,” and that is far worse than ordinary provincialism. And then, again, after these prolonged absences there are so many changes in others as well as in yourself. Not till you return “home” and visit your old haunts and old friends do you realise how many faces are missing, and that those partings on the outward-bound steamer, when you were so full of excitement and anticipation of your new life, in the Golden East, had in them the finality of death-bed partings. Nor is it only faces that change; friends change, old familiar landmarks change, and feelings change. There is often a grievous disappointment in store for the returned Anglo-Indian, and I have frequently heard him sigh, “Home is not home!”
And that is a sad note to strike, for, as I began by saying, the Anglo-Indian’s dearest word is “Home.” To our cousins in the Colonies, the land they live in is home, and England only “the old country”; but to the Anglo-Indian, India is never anything but a place of exile, and when he returns to the scenes so fondly remembered, only to find that he has been forgotten, and to feel himself — as so many have done — a stranger in a strange land: well, you may score that down as a big debit item in the pros and cons columns we are considering! And I think I may say that home-sickness is the commonest complaint in India, cheerfully borne in the general, but always twinging. In the monotony of life, and its loneliness and lassitude, the thoughts fly back to England with a feeling Mr. Kipling has finely described in one of his earlier poems:
“Give me back one day in England, for it’s Spring in England now!”
I do not doubt that there come many seasons when the Anglo-Indian would willingly barter a month of his life for a single day in England. There is an overpowering sadness which steals over a man at times, and the exile casts his eyes over his surroundings, and ponders upon the vicissitudes of life and health and the spirit of the Land of Regrets enters into his soul!
And I think it is here you must strike your balance between the pros and cons of Anglo-Indian life. You will find no difficulty in arriving at a conclusion. Ask the Anglo-Indian at any period of his career what he would most like, and he will answer you, “To be going home.” That is the glad cry of the East — going home! And its gladness is the best commentary on Anglo-Indian life!