THE PASSING SHOW
It is difficult for a stranger to India, especially when paying only a brief visit, to lose the impression that he is at an exhibition - in a section of a World's Fair. How long it takes for this delusion to wear off I cannot say. All I can say is that seven weeks are not enough. And never does one feel it more than in the bazaar, where movement is incessant and humanity is so packed and costumes are so diverse, and where the suggestion of the exhibition is of course heightened by the merchants and the stalls. What one misses is any vantage point - anything resembling a chair at the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, for instance - where one may sit at ease and watch the wonderful changing spectacle going past. There are in Indian cities no such places. To observe the life of the bazaar closely and be unobserved is almost impossible.
It would be extraordinarily interesting to sit there, beside some well- informed Anglo-Indian or Indo-Anglian, and learn all the minutia of caste and be told who and what everybody was: what the different ochre marks signified on the Hindu foreheads; what this man did for a living, and that; and so forth. Even without such an informant I was never tired of drifting about the native quarters in whatever city I found myself and watching the curiously leisurely and detached commercial methods of the dealers - the money lenders reclining on their couches; the pearl merchants with their palms full of the little desirable jewels; the silversmiths hammering; the tailors cross-legged; the whole Arabian Nights pageant. All the shops seem to be overstaffed, unless an element of detached inquisitiveness is essential to business in the East. No transaction is complete without a few watchful spectators, usually youths, who apparently are employed by the establishment for the sole purpose of exhibiting curiosity.
I picked up a few odds and ends of information, by degrees, but only the more obvious: such as that the slight shaving of the Mohammedan's upper lip is to remove any impediment to the utterance of the name of Allah; that the red-dyed beards are a record that their wearers have made the pilgrimage to Mecca; that the respirator often worn by the Jains is to prevent the death of even a fly in inhalation. I was shown a Jain woman carefully emptying a piece of wood with holes in it into the road, each hole containing a louse which had crawled there during the night but must not be killed. The Jains adore every living creature; the Hindus chiefly the cow. As for this divinity, she drifts about the cities as though they were built for her, and one sees the passers-by touching her, hoping for sanctity or a blessing. A certain sex inequality is, however, only too noticeable, and particularly in and about Bombay, where the bullock cart is so common - the bullock receiving little but blows and execration from his drivers.
The sacred pigeon is also happy in Bombay, being fed copiously all day long; and I visited there a Hindu sanctuary, called the Pingheripole, for every kind of animal - a Home of Rest or Asylum - where even pariah dogs are fed and protected.
I was told early of certain things one must not do: such as saluting with the left hand, which is the dishonourable one of the pair, and refraining carefully, when in a temple or mosque, from touching anything at all, because for an unbeliever to touch is to desecrate. I was told also that a Mohammedan grave always gives one the points of the compass, because the body is buried north and south with the head at the north, turned towards Mecca. The Hindus have no graves.
In India the Occidental, especially if coming from France as I did, is struck by the absence of any out-of-door communion between men and women. In the street men are with men, women with women. Most women lower their eyes as a man approaches, although when the woman is a Mohammedan and young one is often conscious of a bright black glance through the veil. There is no public fondling, nothing like the familiar demonstrations of affection that we are accustomed to in Paris and London (more so during the War and since) and in New York. Nothing so offends and surprises the Indian as this want of restraint and shame on our part, and in Japan I learned that the Japanese share the Indian view.
It seemed to me that the chewing of the betel-nut is more prevalent in Bombay than elsewhere. One sees it all over India; everywhere are moving jaws with red juice trickling; but in Bombay there are more vendors of the rolled-up leaves and more crimson splashes on pavement and wall. It is an unpleasant habit, but there is no doubt that teeth are ultimately the whiter for it. Even though I was instructed in the art of betel-nut chewing by an Indian gentleman of world-wide fame in the cricket field, from whom I would willingly learn anything, I could not endure the experience.