A City Of The Dead
What would be your choice if you had to choose between being blind and being deaf? Nine people out of ten answer this question by positively preferring deafness to blindness. And one whose good fortune it has been to contemplate, even for a moment, some fantastic fairy-like corner of India, this country of lace-like marble palaces and enchanting gardens, would willingly add to deafness, lameness of both legs, rather than lose such sights.
We are told that Saadi, the great poet, bitterly complained of his friends looking tired and indifferent while he praised the beauty and charm of his lady-love. "If the happiness of contemplating her wonderful beauty," remonstrated he, "was yours, as it is mine, you could not fail to understand my verses, which, alas, describe in such meagre and inadequate terms the rapturous feelings experienced by every one who sees her even from a distance!"
I fully sympathize with the enamoured poet, but cannot condemn his friends who never saw his lady-love, and that is why I tremble lest my constant rhapsodies on India should bore my readers as much as Saadi bored his friends. But what, I pray you, is the poor narrator to do, when new, undreamed-of charms are daily discovered in the lady-love in question? Her darkest aspects, abject and immoral as they are, and sometimes of such a nature as to excite your horror - even these aspects are full of some wild poetry, of originality, which cannot be met with in any other country. It is not unusual for a European novice to shudder with disgust at some features of local everyday life; but at the same time these very sights attract and fascinate the attention like a horrible nightmare. We had plenty of these experiences whilst our ecole buissoniere lasted. We spent these days far from railways and from any other vestige of civilization. Happily so, because European civilization does not suit India any better than a fashionable bonnet would suit a half naked Peruvian maiden, a true "daughter of Sun," of Cortes' time.
All the day long we wandered across rivers and jungles, passing villages and ruins of ancient fortresses, over local-board roads between Nassik and Jubblepore, traveling with the aid of bullock cars, elephants, horses, and very often being carried in palks. At nightfall we put up our tents and slept anywhere. These days offered us an opportunity of seeing that man decidedly can surmount trying and even dangerous conditions of climate, though, perhaps, in a passive way, by mere force of habit. In the afternoons, when we, white people, were very nearly fainting with the roasting heat, in spite of thick cork topis and such shelter as we could procure, and even our native companions had to use more than the usual supplies of muslin round their heads - the Bengali Babu traveled on horseback endless miles, under the vertical rays of the hot sun, bareheaded, protected only by his thick crop of hair. The sun has no influence whatever on Bengali skulls. They are covered only on solemn occasions, in cases of weddings and great festivities. Their turbans are useless adornments, like flowers in a European lady's hair.
Bengali Babus are born clerks; they invade all railroad stations, post and telegraph offices and Government law courts. Wrapped in their white muslin toga virilis, their legs bare up to the knees, their heads unprotected, they proudly loaf on the platforms of railway stations, or at the entrances of their offices, casting contemptuous glances on the Mahrattis, who dearly love their numerous rings and lovely earrings in the upper part of their right ears. Bengalis, unlike the rest of the Hindus, do not paint sectarian signs on their foreheads. The only trinket they do not completely despise is an expensive necklace; but even this is not common. Contrary to all expectations, the Mahrattis, with all their little effeminate ways, are the bravest tribe of India, gallant and experienced soldiers, a fact which has been demonstrated by centuries of fighting; but Bengal has never as yet produced a single soldier out of its sixty-five million inhabitants. Not a single Bengali is to be found in the native regiments of the British army. This is a strange fact, which I refused to believe at first, but which has been confirmed by many English officers and by Bengalis themselves. But with all this, they are far from being cowardly. Their wealthy classes do lead a somewhat effeminate life, but their zemindars and peasantry are undoubtedly brave. Disarmed by their present Government, the Bengali peasants go out to meet the tiger, which in their country is more ferocious than elsewhere, armed only with a club, as composedly as they used to go with rifles and swords.
Many out-of-the-way paths and groves which most probably had never before been trodden by a European foot, were visited by us during these short days. Gulab-Lal-Sing was absent, but we were accompanied by a trusted servant of his, and the welcome we met with almost everywhere was certainly the result of the magic influence of his name. If the wretched, naked peasants shrank from us and shut their doors at our approach, the Brahmans were as obliging as could be desired.