Stray Stories From India


Stray Stories From India


Stray Stories From India


From Blackwood’s Magazine

TO my thinking the best stories from India are those which have a savor of the finesse or subtlety that is characteristic of the Eastern mind. The type of such stories is the well-known reply of a Mahommedan servant who had been out with his master for a day’s snipeshooting, the result of which was a very meagre bag. He was asked whether his master had shot well. “Yes,” he replied gravely, “the Sahib shot excellently, but Allah was very merciful to the birds.” The following story, which is not so well known, has something of the same character about it. An old friend of mine once asked his Madras servant about his religion, and the following conversation ensued. “Hallo, Ramaswami ! what's your religion?” Ramaswami, who came from a missionary district, thought that he would please his master by an assumption of humility, and accordingly replied, “Beg pardon, sar,”—a favorite form of beginning a sentence with the English-speaking Madras servants,—“Beg pardon, sar. I’m a heathen.” “What do you mean by a heathen?” said my friend, genuinely surprised by the answer. “Beg pardon, sar,” replied the man, with the missionary ritual still in his mind, “a worshipper of stocks and stones.” “Oh! confound it!” ejaculated my friend, “I can’t keep a man like that in my service.” To which came the immediate rejoinder: “Beg pardon,

sar, in your Iiighness’s service no time to worship anything!” The quickness of the change, in order to fall

in with his master's mood, was as characteristic as the adroitness of the evasion.

The reply evasive has its special home, of course, in the East, though it is indigenous in certain Western countries also ; and indeed the ministerial answers to questions in our own House of Commons provide a liberal education in the art of evasion. I he native of India usually shelters himself behind a universal “God knows,” but his variants of this safe text are sometimes amusing. On one occasion I was driving up to Simla in an open carriage, and at one of the stages noticed that a bank of heavy clouds, which had previously been concealed by the high hillside, was moving up in an ominous wasy. My waterproof and umbrella were in another conveyance behind with my servants, and I was doubtful whether it would not be wiser to wait for them to come up. Accordingly I asked a Hindu Inspector, who had been deputed to accompany me, as the conveyance of mails and passengers on the hill road to Simla was a service managed by the Post Office, whether he thought that we should have rain before we reached the next stage. At first he fenced with the question. “Did his Highness wish to be driven more quickly?” But when I pressed the point, drawing his attention to the clouds and saying that with his experience he must have some knowledge of he signs of the weather, I received the following oracular reply: “Without doubt there are clouds, but the matter is in the power of the

Almighty.” After that there was nothing to he clone but to drive on, and, as it happened. I was fortunate enough to arrive in safety at the next stage before the ram came down.

This habitual unwillingness to give a direct reply has a counterpart in the propensity to adopt indirect methods, to go round about, and often a very long way round about, towards an object which may be perfectly legitimate in itself. Everyone who has had to deal with large numbers of subordinates must have had some curious experiences of these tactics, which are seldom of much avail, though they involve a waste of valuable time and cause irritation, or sometimes, perha]is. amusement.

(hie morning 1 found among my telegrams the following message from an old Mahommedan postmaster, whom I knew personally, and had seen two years previously on his return from China, where he had been in charge of a held post-office with the expeditionary force sent from India: “Myself and family members continue to pray for your I fonor and Lady Sahib.” That was the entire message, and it came like a telegraphic bolt from the blue, as for two vears I had heard nothing of the man. The assurance it gave was no doubt flattering. and the word “continue" almost pathetic; but why should it suddenly have been thought necessary to send me this assurance? 1 wrote on the telegram an inquiry whether any appeal or representation from the sender was under consideration ; and was informed that nothing had been received from him except a formal request, forwarded through the proper official channel, that his name should lie registered for field service. Tie had alreadv been twice on field service, once at an earlier stage in his career at Suakim. and more recently to China, and bore an excellent character, but was not considered to be qualified for a more important charge than the one which he was actually holding, though there had been every desire to treat him generously. The

time for his retirement was drawing near, and he knew perfectly well that he would not be asked to go on field service again ; and the man's whole object was to suggest to me afresh that he had not been adequately rewarded for his late service in China. The request that his name should be registered was intended to bring himself again to notice in connection with field service : and the telegram to me was to ensure, as in fact it did. that I should make some enquiry about him, and learn what he had done, and then perhaps be led to review his case and give some final promotion to the man. who up to the last had shown himself ready to go on field service. I ought to add that this postmaster had, I believe, a genuine feeling of loyalty towards myself, and if this had not been the case, the actual wording of the telegram sent by him would, I think, have been different.

The great majority of the so-called good stories from India are stories of the ludicrous mistakes made by natives of the country in speaking and writing English, and here I should like to make one point quite clear. Many natives of India both speak and write English with wonder facility, and in the offices of the Government of India there are many Bengali assistants who not only write excellent English, but also prepare admirable notes on the papers with which they have to deal. There is, however, a large body of clerks on small pay in every part of India who have only the most imperfect acquaintance with English, though most of their work is carried on in that language, ami it is these men who are responsible for the comical blunders of which one hears, and have created what is popularly known as Bahn English. The word Bahn, in its proper meaning, is a title used in addressing all Bengalis of a respectable position in life, but has come to be accepted hv Anglo-Indians in Bengal and Upper India as signifying much the same as the word clerk.

Of mere Balm English 1 do not propose to give any specimens, as 1

cannot help thinking that this vein has been more than sufficiently worked; but it may be said with safety that the Bengali Bahn is still the chief master of this new medium of expression. He is endowed with ‘‘a bright, soaring” imagination, and possesses, moreover, plenty of self-confidence and a natural disinclination to descend to details and verify facts. When these qualities are united with that proverbially dangerous possession, a little knowledge of the language which he professes to speak or write, it can hardly be a matter for surprise that he should play fantastic tricks with the English tongue.

The quality of imagination is one that is shared by other races of India, and it finds scope in many unexpected ways. A young Maratha Bramin, whe had taken a good degree at the Bombay University, and secured a higi place in the public service examination, was given a superior grade appointment in the Post-Office ; but within the first year of his service was detected in sending in a travelling allowance bill, supported by a false diary, for a journey which he had never performed. In his defence he wrote sheet after sheet of impassioned English, and surrounded this journey with a wealth of imaginative detail. One part of it was said to have been made at night, and he described how the moon was high, and how he had lingered at a particular point of the road, where an old Maratha fort stood out in dark outline in the distance, in order to enjoy the romantic scenery. This young Brahmin came to Calcutta when his case was being finally dealt with ; and after I had gone through all the circumstances with him, practically admitted that the journey had been made only in fancy, though, of course he was perfectly familiar with the scene in which it was laid. The real facts were that he had gone by railway to his native town, and remained there for three days without permission ; and this journey was invented to account for his absence, and not with any de-

sire to make illicit gain, as the amount involved was quite insignificant. In consideration of his vouth he was allowed to resign, so that he might not be debarred from making a fresh start in life under happier ausipces, and it may be hoped that he had learnt a lesson as to the necessity of controlling the play of his imagination.

But it is the desire to be idiomatic, in an imperfectly acquired language, to use phrases and expressions which are not really understood, that is the most fruitful cause of ludicrous mistakes, just as the same desire is the parent of numerous malaprops in all countries. 'Flic American lady who accounted for the successful decoration and furnishing of her rooms by assuring a friend that she had given a well-known London firm bete noire in the matter, was making exactly the same kind of mistake as the native of India who said that Bangalore was forty miles away as the cock crows. As the phrase carte blanche carried no precise significance to her mind, so the expression “as the crow dies" had no real meaning to him; and another expression with a “crow” in it came with equal readiness to his lips. Moreover, the line between the correct use of an idiom, or the correct application of a simile, and the ludicrous, is often a very narrow one, as the following story will serve to illustrate. A Bengali clerk who had been transferred at his own request, from my office to another Government office in Calcutta, was anxious to return, and wrote me personally on the subject. Although not a Christian himself he was evidently acquainted with the familiar lines of Bonar's hymn—

“I was a wandering sheep,

I did not love the fold ;”

and this is how he applied then to his own case: “It is true I have wandered from the fold, i.e., the Director-General's office, but I trust that your Honor will be merciful and receive back an old sheep.

The desire to be eloquent, like the desire to be idiomatic, is a great snare

to the youth of India. The young men who leave our schools and colleges have made acquaintance, in however slight a degree, with some of the great writers of English, and have learned by heart passages from Shakespeare and other English poets. In the majority of cases, however, tliev have not learnt to write plain.straightforward English, and in their desire to be eloquent they pelt their official superiors with quotations ( I should be afraid to say how often “to err is human, to forgive divine,” has adorned appeals which have come betöre me), or they rush into poetrv, and strive to reproduce the grand style. This may be due in part to temperament, but it points also to something defective in the method of teaching. A young Englishman beginning life in a French business house would not ' dream of embellishing an explanation, to be submitted to the head of the firm with lines from Moliere or phrases from Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables’ because he had read these books at school.

As an example of the grand style I give an extract from an application received by me on returning to India after being absent on leave in England. The writer was a young Hindu clerk belonging to Northern India, and the request he had to make was that the orders, passed in his case during my absence, should be reconsidered. The application began as follows: “As the rising of the glorious sun is welcomed by shipwrecked sailors, so is your Honor’s return hailed by the members of this department.” The man who wrote that sentence was clearly familiar with extracts from Shakespeare, but had never been schooled to understand that such flights of fancy were entirely out of place in official or even in ordinary correspondence. The textture, indeed, of English, and especially of literary English, is rich with the images and the thoughts and the language of Shakespeare, but none the less is it true, despite V ordsworth’s noble line, that the tongue

that Shakespeare spoke is not always the tongue we speak in everyday life.

Other mistakes are of frequent occurrence which, though not necessarii}' ludicrous, have an interest of their own, as showing the difficulties which natives of India have to contend with in learning English, or the manner in which the}' acquire their English vocabulary. ( )n one occasion a burly Farsee Inspector, who had been deputed to the scene of a highway robbery of the mail, met with a railway accident on the way. The train in which he was travelling was literally blown over by the force of the wind on an exposed part of the Kathiawar coast, and he described the occurrence in the following telegram

to me: “Train upset near ( 1by

heavy gusts, myself hurled, proceed scene robbery to-morrow.” The accident was an unusual one, and the word “up-set” was not. perhaps, the right word to use in describing it. while the epithet “heavy” was misplaced. The telegram, however, gave a vivid account of what had occurred and for graphic force the two words “myself hurled" could hardly be bettered, bringing up, as they still do. before my mind's eye a vision of a stout man, with flying skirts, shot through space and sprawling on the sand. 1 will give only one other instance, and that a generic one. of mistakes of this character. The word “drown" is constantly used by natives of all parts of India for the sinking of a boat, and I have mvself received numerous reports by telegram and letter that mailboats or mails had been drowned at sea or in rivers. The mistake, which has a comical sound to English ears, is instructive. In Urdu, and in several of the vernacular languages ot the country, the same word is used for the drowning of a man and the sinking of a boat, and it is only natural, therefore, that it should be a common mistake to use the same English word in both cases.

I close the present article with an account of one of the quaintest incidents in my own experience, a tete-a-

tete dinned which I had some years ago with the old Jam of Jamnagar in his fortress palace on the coast of Kathiawar. The Jam at that time, though no longer young, was still vigorous, a Rajput of the old school, with some eccentric hobbies of his own, and closely wedded to the routine of life which he had laid down for himself, but always glad to welcome an English officer.

I arived at the palace shortly before six o’clock in the evening, and was ushered into a small room, where the Jam was seated in the midst of a wonderful array of cheap, modern clocks, the collection of these articles being one of his hobbies. Then as the hour of six was “clashed and hammered’’ from a dozen clocks, all striking at once in that confined space, he lifted to In’s lips from a table as his side a small silver cup, and with an apology to me, drank off the contents, a strong infusion of native spirit scented with roses. Having done this, he explained with some pride that it was his invariable custom to take his first dram for the day precisely at that hour—a statement which was received with a chorus of approval from the kinsmen and others who were present. To drink by the clock had evidently been raised to the dignity of a virtue in Jamnagar, though, to do the Jam justice, he was just as methodical in his early rising and his morning orisons, as he was in his evening potations. A short conversation followed, and then the Jam took me by the hand and, followed by the kinsmen, we passed hand-inhand into a long, dimly-lit corridor where dinner was served. The Jam sat at a small table towards one end of the corridor, with a cluster of kinsmen and attendants behind him, while facing his table a separate table had been placed for me about ten yards away. As a high-caste Hindu, the Jam was precluded from taking his meal at the same board as his guest, and I was provided with an excellent dinner cooked in the European fash-

ion. The corridor was bare of hangings, but down one side, half in shade and half in light, were ranged the picturesque figures of the Jam's bodyguard, fierce-looking Rajputs, armed with shields and spears; from outside came the wailing of native music, and amid these strange surroundings we sat down to dinner.

During the early stages of the meal the Jam sent his private secretary several times to ask whether everything was to my liking, but later he began to call out his own genial inquiries across the intervening space, inquiries which might, perhaps, have been embarrassing if other Europeans had been present: “Sahib, is your

Highness’s stomach well-filled?” To which, with due gravity, I replied: “By your Highness’s favor, my stomach is exceedingly well-filled.” Still later, he ventured on his one English phrase: “Sahib, are you ’appy?” To which, again with due gravity, I replied: “Thank you. Jam Sahib, I am quite happy.” Then he sent me a glass of his own special liquor, and was delighted when I told him that the drink was very well for Rajputs, but was far too strong for Englishmen ; and certainly it came nearer to the Irish member’s description of the House of Commons whisky, that it went down your throat like a torciilight procession, than anything I had previously tasted. Finally the old Chief rose, and with all dignity and decorum proposed the health of Queen Victoria, who was then on the throne: “Rani Sahib Mubarik!” Mav the Lady Queen be blessed ! I stood up at once, and we two loyally drank the toast, which was acclaimed by the kinsmen and retainers, while the men of the bodyguard clashed their sb’-uds and spears together. After that, dinner being over, the Jam and I passed out of the corridor together, the Jam leaning on my arm, and he insisted on accompanying me to my carriage, where we parted on terms of great good-fellowship.