On the Coromandel Coast/Chapter 6

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

CHAPTER VI

THE RIVER

Take care not to fix your abode in a place where there is no temple, no headman, no school, no river, no astrologer, and no doctor.-Sloka.

BOOKS on geography assign no river to Madras, and the map confirms the implication that it is without a water-way. No crinkled black thread is to be seen marked across the Coromandel Coast having Madras as its termination. It is, therefore, a surprise to the visitor to find what is to all appearances a handsome stream winding through the town and suburbs and presenting broad stretches of silvery water at various points. The calm surface reflects the quaint oriental buildings, the beautiful palms and trees that nourish on its banks, and the gorgeous colours of the sunset, with a picturesque charm that delights the artistic eye. Like the Adyar, the Cooum River is nothing but a sandy watercourse that merges into a broad backwater as soon as it arrives within sound of the surf. In bygone days it was connected with the sea. The immense tract of sand thrown up since the building of the harbour arms has divorced the Cooum from the ocean, and closed it against the small country ships, which were said in the old days to seek an anchorage across its bar. It still has its river craft, rafts and barges, which travel for miles without haste or hustle to distant villages by way of the silent canals with which the river is connected. At the end of the eighteenth century, when the country was beginning to settle down and before railways were projected, the East India Company spent some thought and money upon the making of canals. As early as 1802 the waterway to the north was opened and much used. In more recent times a great deal of the material that was once carried thus has been diverted to the railway ; but bulky country products such as firewood, palm leaves, cocoanut fibre, and bamboos are still transported by the leisurely barge that is towed and punted between the high banks of the canals and over the glassy water of the Cooum. Appearances are nowhere more deceptive than in the East. The canal looks an ideal stream for the house-boat, but it is hot and stifling. The sea-breeze sweeps over its high banks, rustling through the trees with a sound that is suggestive of coolness and shade without touching the surface of the still water below; and the mosquito is the only creature that feels thoroughly happy in that muggy heat. Vegetation grows luxuriantly ; and there are spots where the pampas-grass flourishes and the wild caladium lifts its graceful triangular leaves. The long flowing foliage of the pampas lies like the combed locks of a water-nymph upon the banks of the canal,

Dropt in its Lap from some once Lovely Head,

as the Persian poet sings of the hyacinth. At other places palms and trees bend over the water with their glistening mantles of evergreen ; and the impudent mynas, the starlings of India, on insect-hunting intent, tumble in and out of the leafy shade as if they were playing at hide-and-seek. At night, when the chatter of the mynas is silenced in sleep, the fire-flies bring their fairy lamps among the palms and hold their revels.

In the old days, when the English first settled in Madras, the Cooum washed the walls of Fort St. George, and a State barge was kept upon it for the use of the Governor. In 1688, when the Dutch Commissary-General paid a visit to the Governor, he was entertained at dinner in the fort, and afterwards went by water to the Com- pany's garden to partake of a sumptuous supper. The barge was adorned with scarlet and gold, as was becoming to the dignity of the English Company of merchants ; and doubtless the banks of the Cooum were lined with the dark-skinned inhabitants of Blacktown eager to see the show. The centuries that have elapsed have made no difference in the sightseers. Their dress is the same and their curiosity is undiminished. They still come in crowds to the river, not to see a State barge, but to gaze in stolid silence at the games of football which the soldiers of the garrison play on the island. The fortunes of the game do not appear to interest them, but the struggle for the ball, the chance slip and overthrow of one of the players, elicit sudden shouts of laughter. The laughter dies as suddenly as it is roused ; and at the end of the game the crowd melts away in the sunset light with no sign of emotion at the issue of the contest.

The island is formed by the branching of the Cooum near the sea. It is a level piece of grass-land full of historical interest. It was here that the contumacious old soldier, Captain Francis Seaton, commandant of the garrison, marched his troops over the Company's calicoes to the great indignation of Governor Pitt. At that time the Company had a large dyeing establishment on the island by the edge of the river, where the washers could work in safety under cover of the fort guns. It was usual for the Governor to attend the fort church in state every Sunday. He sat in the gallery, and reached his seat by way of the outside staircase, which is still to be seen. The duty of the commandant of the garrison was to parade his troops and line the road. When the Governor lived in the fort this was done without much trouble, but when he chose to occupy the garden-house by the river, the Sunday parade was a much more arduous business.

The calicoes on one particular Sunday (1708) were spread out in the sun after having been dipped. Pitt was proceeding to church in his palanquin. Instead of finding the road on the island lined with troops as usual, he saw Seaton parading them all over the calicoes. His wrath knew no bounds. Descending from his palanquin, he went in person to the spot and ordered the men off, but they had already done considerable damage. The next day the commandant was called before the council to be reproved. The reproof was not received with proper humility, so he was suspended until the matter of 'breaking him altogether' could be discussed. There was further friction between Seaton and Pitt, and it was decided in council that the captain should be sent home by the first ship sailing. This happened to be the Heathcote, commanded by Captain Tolson. When the time came to embark Seaton refused to stir. The council ordered him to be carried on board, and told off an officer with a file of soldiers to carry the order into execution. It was easier said than done. They succeeded in getting Seaton through the surf and alongside of the ship ; but they could not put him aboard without the assistance of hoisting tackle, and this Captain Tolson refused to lend. He said that he was quite willing to receive anyone as a passenger who desired to sail with him, but he would carry no one by force. He asked Seaton if he wished to come on board ; and, on his replying in the negative, the captain ordered the boat to leave the ship's side. Against this decision there was no appeal, for the commander of an East Indiaman was a veritable monarch on board his own ship. There must have been much amusement in the fort over the incident and possibly some gratification, for Seaton had friends and relatives on the council who sympathised with him rather than with Pitt.

The shape of the island has been slightly altered since those days and the river reduced in breadth, but Nature remains the same. The birds that haunt its borders are unchanged. The timid sandpiper still runs over the mud-banks by the water's edge after the still fleeter land-crab that scuds along like a piece of thistle-down blown by the wind. The kites sail overhead with their melancholy scream, and the vulgar voice of the crow sounds in the trees. The fluttering kingfisher drops like a stone upon the unwary fish as it comes for its draught of air to the surface of the water. There is a splash and the fisher-bird is on the wing once more, a dazzling spot of black and white in the sunlight, the silver fish in its beak. As I passed by road and bridge I bade the coachman stop that I might take my fill of the tropical sights. He obeyed the order without a shadow of wonder upon his placid face. Now and then his eye would follow the flight of a bird or mark the passing of a human being. He would watch apprehensively for the ominous spotted owlet, lest it should settle in a tree hard by, and with one shrill screech tell him that grim death was overshadowing his family; or for man, woman, or animal whose approach would signify bad luck. If he pondered at all on my eccentric conduct in sitting by the roadside in the carriage where there was nothing to wait for, he probably came to the conclusion that I too was looking for omens and reading the future in the face of Nature.

Good dressing goes a long way towards giving dignity to a woman ; good bridging does the same for a river. The Cooum is spanned by no fewer than ten bridges between Chetput and the sea. Nine of them are of stone Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/90 Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/91 Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/92 Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/93 Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/94 Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/95 Page:On the Coromandel Coast.djvu/96