The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 110/My Heathen at Home
MY HEATHEN AT HOME.
Kicking my "Dutch wife," that comfortable Batavian device, to the foot of the bed, and turning over with a delicious stretch just as day began to dawn, I opened my eyes with a drowsy sense of refreshing favor,—a half-dream, mixed of burning and breeze,—and discovered old Karlee, my pearl of bhearers, waiting in still patience on the outside of the tent-like mosquito curtain, punka in hand, and tenderly waving a balmy blessing across the sirocco-plagued sand of my slumber.
"Good morning, Karlee."
"Salaam, Sahib-bhote-bhote salaam! Master catch plenty good isleep this night, Karlee hope."
"So, so,—so, so. But you look happy this morning; your eyes are bright, and your kummerbund jaunty, and you sport a new turban. What's the good news, old man?"
"Yes, Sahib. Large joy Karlee have got,—happy kismut,—too much jolly good luck, master, please."
"Aha! I'm glad of it. None too jolly for my patient Karlee, I'll engage,—not a whit too happy and proud for my faithful, grateful, humble old man. And what is it?"
"By master's favor, one man-child have got; one fine son he come this night, please master's graciousness."
"A son—your wife!—what, you, Karlee, you?"
"Please master's pardon, no,—Karlee wife, no; Karlee daughter, Karlee ison-in-law, one man-child have catch this night, by Sahib's merciful goodness."
"So! your daughter and her husband, the young kitmudgar, they that were married last year. Good! let us exalt our horn, let us glorify ourselves; for is it not written, 'By a son a man shall obtain victory over all people; by a son's son he shall enjoy immortality; and by a son's son's son he shall reach the solar abodes'? Verily it is pleasant to have a boy-butcha in the house,—the heir and lord. So we will even make merry to-day; to-day we will take holiday. Let the buttons wait, and the beard go awry; send the barber away, and tell the tailor to come to-morrow; for one day Sahib, the master of earth, abdicates in favor of Puttro, the 'Deliverer from Hell,' the true king for every pious Hindoo. And here are some rupees to buy him a happy horoscope with, and to pay the gooroo for a good strong charm, warranted to avert the Evil Eye."
"Ah! Master's bountiful favor too much compassion have,—too much pitiful munif—"
"That's all right, old man. Salaam now; and good luck to the baby."
Now here, thought I, is a chance to observe my pagan at home, under the most favorable circumstances. Karlee will devote the occasion to the domestic felicities; he will spread holiday fare, and there will be neighborly congratulations, and a hospitable relaxation in the family of the orthodox heathen rigor. I will make a "surprise party" of myself, and on the recommendation of a string of corals for the new butcha I'll catch him in the very dishabille of his Hindooism. And I did.
I had often heard that Karlee lived well, and that his household enjoyed substantial comfort in a degree notably superior to the general circumstances of his class. With eminent intelligence and devotion he had served for more than forty years various American gentlemen residing in Calcutta, by whom, in his neat-handedness, he was esteemed a sort of he-Phillis; and for his housewifely dusting of books and furniture, his orderly keeping of drawers and trunks, his sharp eye to punkas and mosquito-nets, and his exacting discipline of sweepers and messengers, barbers, tailors, and washermen, he had been rewarded with generous buksheesh over and above his stipulated, wages, which were liberal; so that among bhearers he was distinguished for respectability, by income as well as influence, and represented the best society. Between his own savings and those of his wife,—who, as an ayah, or nurse, in an English family high in the Civil Service, was extravagantly prized for her fidelity, skill, and patience,—Karlee had laid up a little fortune of ten thousand rupees; but that was partly by dint of a clever speculation now and then in curiosities and choice presents, which he disposed of among those of his American or English patrons who happened to be homeward bound. As it is not permitted to a bhearer to engage directly in trade, these neat little transactions were in all cases shrewdly managed by a friend of Karlee's, a smart sircar, in the employ of a banyan, the bhearer resting strictly in the background, a silent partner, and limiting his co-operation to the prompt furnishing of capital, which consisted not of rupees merely, but of many a cunning hint as well, as to the tastes, ways, and weaknesses of his customers. It was a mutual understanding: we knew of Karlee's interest in these sentimental "operations," and we openly patronized him; he knew which of us had wives, and which sweethearts, across the black water, and he mysteriously patronized us. On that subject my heathen was always at home; and so it happened, by a happy dispensation of cause and effect, that at home he lived like a gentleman.
Through narrow, dingy miles of scrambling bazaar, redolent of all the unfragrances of that dusty, sweaty, greasy, jabbering quarter, I rolled in my light buggy, behind a nimble Arab mare, to a suburban retreat on the eastern skirt of the Black Town, where, just beyond a cluster of mean huts of the sooa-logue, the low laboring rabble, I found Karlee's genteel abode, and was refreshed by the contrast it presented to the hovel of his next neighbor, whose single windowless apartment, and walls of alternate rows of straw and reeds, plastered with mud, proclaimed most unpicturesquely the hard fate of him who springs from the soles of Brahma's feet. Karlee's walls were of solid clay of substantial thickness. His floor was raised a foot or two above the ground, and there was a neatly thatched roof over all, swelling out in an elongated dome, and oddly resembling an inverted boat. As in the rural districts, Karlee had fenced in his privacy with a thick hedge of clipped bamboo surmounting a quadrangular embankment. Before the grateful porch two beautiful tamarind-trees and a palm bestowed their kindly shade, and in the hedge the bamboos, with their golden stems and bright green leaves, rustled cheerfully.
On the other side of the road, and shyly retired from it in a close bamboo covert, dwelt Karlee's partner in the curiosity and general fancy line, the sharp sircar, with whom (both being soodras, and of the same sect) his social relations were intimate and free. The sircar, having thriven under the patronage of more than one rich and liberal baboo, to whose favor he had recommended himself by his business alertness and his ever-politic compliance, had attained unto the honor of a brick house of two stories, plastered and whitewashed without and within, with a flat roof, having a low parapet, and laid with a rain-proof composition of clay and lime. Though his stairs are narrow, his veranda is commodious; and when he shall have made his fortune in the curiosity and general fancy line, he will have wings, with a central area open to the sky, and a double veranda with a lattice. Then, his accommodations being sufficiently enlarged, the proudest wish of his heart shall be gratified in the reunion of his entire family—children and grandchildren, even uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces—under the same roof.
As I drove up to Karlee's hedge, and, tossing the reins to my syce, passed under the tamarind-trees to the little porch, the old man came out to meet me with unwonted precipitation; and, although he maintained with admirable presence of mind that imperturbable gravity, that tranquil, expectant self-possession, which is the study of a Hindoo's life, and to which he gives all his mind from the time when he first begins to have any, ever solicitous to be master of himself though China fall, it was not difficult on this occasion to detect in the fluttering lights and shades of his countenance an expression mixed of astonishment, gratification, and confusion, very natural to a poor bhearer who had never before been taken by a Sahib in the very bosom of his family. There was something at once pitiful and comical in the subdued "fidget" with which, applying his joined palms to his forehead, and lowly louting, he made his most obsequious salaam again and again.
"No, no; everything all right and proper. I have come to bring good wishes and a lucky eye to all this house, and a small salaamee, a pretty gift, for the new Suntoshum,—the jewel that hangs on its mother's bosom."
"Ah! master make slave too much happy honor. Master's pitiful graciousness all same Barra Lard Sahib" (the Governor-General). "Poor, foolish bhearer kiss master's feet."
"Well, another time for that. Lead the way now, and let me make my salaam to your coolest mat and your largest punka, for I am hot and tired."
"S'pose Sahib like, Belatta pawnee have got?"
"Acha; Belatta pawnee lou."
Here, indeed, was a wide stride in the direction of refinement and Evangelism! Soda-water in a bhearer's house! Karlee had not served the Sahibs, and observed "Young Bengal" baboos, in vain. From Belatta pawnee to Isherryshrob and Simpkin (sherry and champagne) is not far, and well does Young Bengal know the way.
A quick glance, as I passed in, informed me that Karlee's house consisted of four rooms; probably two sleeping apartments, one for the men and another for the women, a kitchen, and a common room for meals, family chats, and visitors. Like all true Hindoo houses, uncorrupted by the European innovations which snobbish baboos affect, it contained but few articles of furniture, and those of the simplest and most indispensable description,—nothing for luxury, nothing for show. To the outfit of the poorest laborer's domicile he added little more than a white cloth spread over checkered Chinese matting, to stand for chair, table, and bed; a cushion or two to recline upon; a few earthen vessels of the better quality, to hold rice or water; a brass lamp for cocoa-nut oil; several more primitive lamps rudely made of the shell of the cocoa-nut; an iron mortar and pestle—foreign, of course—for pounding curry; a couple of charpoys, or wooden cots; a few brass lotahs, or drinking-cups; and two or three hubble-bubbles. But the crowning glories were a Chinese extension chair, of bamboo and wicker, and quite a pretty hookah,—both evidently dedicated to company occasions. These were all that I could see in the two rooms to which I was admitted, and these were no doubt the very splendors of Karlee's establishment. If he had been a rich Anglicized baboo, he would have had a profusion of hot, tawdry chairs, and a vulgar-gorgeous cramming of gilt-edged tables, sweaty red sofas, coarse pictures in overdone frames, Bowery mirrors, and Brummagem chandeliers.
Comfortably installed in the Chinese chair, and refreshed with the Belatta pawnee, I proceeded to take notes. Karlee had discarded his working dress for festal attire,—the difference being one of quality merely. Round his waist he wore a dhotee of coarse muslin, tight above, so as to form the kummerbund, or waistband, but thence falling in loose and not ungraceful folds down the legs to the ankles. Over his body another ample mantle, in no respect differing from the dhotee as to texture or color, was wrapped like a broad scarf, and carelessly flung over the shoulder in the fashion of a Highland plaid. In the "cold" season he would draw this over his head for a hood. These sheets of cloth are worn just as they come from the loom; needle or pin has never touched them, and they are held in place by tucking the ends under the folds.
Being a Hindoo gentleman of the old school, Karlee repudiated the headdress at home; for the puggree, at least in its present form, was adopted from the Mohammedan conquerors, and is, historically, a badge of subjugation. So when he met me at the door his head was uncovered; but I had no sooner crossed the threshold than he made haste to don his flat turban,—reflecting, perhaps, that I had never seen him without it, and might resent his bare head as an indignity. Of course his feet were unshod. To have worn his sandals in my presence would have been a flagrant insult; but on the porch I espied those two queer clogs of wood, shaped to the sole of the foot, and having no other fastening than an impracticable-looking knob, to be held between the toes.
This is the orthodox Hindoo dress; but the costume for public occasions of many Hindoos of rank has been for a quarter of a century in a state of transition from Mohammedan to British. By way of turbans, loose trousers, Cashmere shawls, and embroidered slippers, they are marching on toward pantaloons, waistcoats, shoes and stockings, stove-pipe hats, and tail-coats. A baboo of superlative fashion, according to the code of Young Bengal, paid me a visit one day in a state of confirmed "pants" and "Congress gaiters"; and, on seating himself, he took off his turban and held it on his knee. I need hardly say that he was a fool and an infidel. And I have seen an intrepid buffoon of this class in an English shirt, which he wore over his pantaloons, and hanging down to his knees. But, after all, these clumsy desecrations are confined to a small minority of the population, if not strictly to that "set" which is brought most closely in contact with Europeans; such as a few native gentlemen in the Presidency capitals, some of the pleaders and principal employés of the higher courts, not a few of the teachers and pupils in the Anglo-Indian schools, and many of the native Christians.
Karlee's politeness, superior to that of the more servile bhearers, was a fair type of the pure Hindoo manners of that well-bred middle class which clings with orthodox conservatism to its dear traditions, and spurns as unconstitutional all upstart and dandy amendments of the old social and religious law. He had invariably one salutation for an equal,—the right hand gently raised, and the head as gently inclined to meet it; another, for what I may term a familiar superior (such as myself),—the hands joined palm to palm, and so applied twice or thrice to the forehead; and still other, and more and more reverential, ceremonials for gooroos, Brahmins, holy sages, and princes,—the brow touching the ground, or the whole body prostrated.
If it was an indispensable requirement of respect that he should leave his slippers at the door on entering any house, it was no less important that he should resume them on taking his leave. To have appeared in public with uncovered feet would have been a gross breach of propriety. Fine old Hindoo gentlemen, all of the olden time, find it difficult to express their mingled contempt, indignation, and regret for the innovation which substitutes the Cheapside shoe for the ceremonial slipper, or permits the wearing of the latter in a Sahib's office or drawing-room. It shows, they say, that the natives are losing their respect for the Sahibs. And yet the British authorities stupidly sanction it, even set the seal of fashion upon it, by allowing natives of rank, who visit Government House, to appear in the presence of the Governor-General, and the élite of the European society, in their slippers. The fact is, these impious disturbings of the established order of things are most shocking to the well-regulated heathen mind, to which no spectacle can be more monstrous than that of a Hindoo of good caste and old family performing with some arf-and-arf Cockney visitor a duet on the pump-handle, and directly afterward wreathing his apoplectic neck with flowers, and sprinkling his asthmatic waistcoat with rose-water. You see they both back "Young Bengal" in the Barrackpore races.
When Karlee visits his friend the sircar, he is scrupulous not to make his parting salaam until his host has given the customary signal. He waits to be dismissed, or rather to receive permission to withdraw. The etiquette supposes that his inclination is to prolong the enjoyment he derives from the society of so agreeable a gentleman; it is, therefore, not until rose-water has been presented to him, or betel-leaf, or sweetmeats, that he will venture to take his sandals and his leave.
The style of Hindoo politeness is format and imperturbably grave, utterly devoid of heartiness or impulsiveness; and the cordiality which distinguishes the intercourse of American friends appears to the native gentleman boisterous and vulgar. I never saw Karlee laugh; and if I had happened to snatch him from sudden death by fire or water, I think he would have acknowledged the obligation with precisely the same mathematical salaam, or at most the same sententious obsequiousness, with which he accepted a buksheesh of a half-rupee; and yet in both good-humor and gratitude he was as cheerful and as worthy as the most giddy and gushing of damsels. But I must acknowledge there was something truly corpsy in the solemnity with which he would "lay out" a clean shirt. Even so, in the midst of all the jolly uproar of a mess dinner, our Kitmudgars would stand in grim deadliness at our backs, like so many executioners, only waiting for a sign from the ruthless Kousomar, who was just then horribly popping the champagne corks, to behead us,—each his own doomed Sahib.
No wonder Karlee was a gentleman; for the Vishnu Pooran was his Chesterfield, and he had its precepts by heart. "A wise man," he would say to the pert young Kitmudgars, as they bragged and wrangled, between their hubble-bubbles, on the back stairs,—"a wise man will never address another with the least unkindness; but will always speak gently, and with truth, and never make public another's faults. He will never engage in a dispute with either his superiors or his inferiors: controversy and marriage are permitted only between equals. Nor will he ever associate with wicked persons: half an instant is the utmost time he should allow himself to remain in their company. A wise man, when sitting, will not put one foot over the other, nor stretch forth his foot in the presence of a superior; but he will sit with modesty, in the posture styled virasama. Above all, he will not expectorate at the time of eating, offering oblations, or repeating prayers, or in the presence of any respectable person; nor will he ever cross the shadow of a venerable man or of an idol."
For those who imagine that polygamy is a popular institution in Hindostan, the answer of a Hill-man to a Mofussil magistrate should suffice. "Do you keep more than one wife?" "We can hardly feed one; why should we keep more?" In fact, the privilege of maintaining a plurality of wives is restricted to a very few,—those only of the largest means and smallest scruples,—except in the case of Kooleen Brahmins, that superlative aristocracy of caste which is supposed to be descended from certain illustrious families who settled in Bengal several centuries ago. Wealthy Hindoos of low degree eagerly aspire to the honor of mixing their puddle blood with the quintessentially clarified fluid that glorifies the circulatory systems of these demigods, and the result is a very pretty and profitable branch of the Brahmin business,—Kooleen marrying sometimes as many as fifty of such nut-brown maids of baser birth, in consideration of a substantial dowry attached to each bride, and a solemn obligation, accepted and signed by the paternal Puddle, forever to feed at home her and her improved progeny. So the fifty continue to roost in the old paternal coops, while Kooleen, like a pampered Brahmapootra, struts, in pompous patronage, from one to the other, his sense of duty satisfied when he has left a crow and a cackle behind him. It is said that many fine fowls of the Brahmin breed, who do not happen to be Kooleens, complain of the monopoly.
So Karlee had but one wife,—the handy, thrifty ayah already mentioned. She was nine and he twelve years old when they were betrothed, and they never saw each other until they were married. A professional match-maker, or go-between,—female, of course,—was employed by the parents to negotiate terms and arrange the preliminaries; and when horoscopes had been compared and the stars found all right, with a little consequential chaffering, the hymeneal instruments were "executed." There was no trouble on the score of caste, both families being soodra; otherwise, the sensitive social balance would have had to be adjusted by the payment of a sum of money. When the skirts of the bride and bridegroom had been fastened together with blades of the sweet-scented cusa grass,—when he had said, "May that heart which is thine become my heart, and this heart which is mine become thy heart,"—when, hand in hand, they had stept into the seventh of the mystic circles,—Mr. and Mrs. Karlee were an accomplished Hindoo fact.
To the parents on both sides, the wedding was a costly performance. There were the irrepressible and voracious Brahmins to propitiate, the hungry friends of both families to feast for three days, the musicians and the nautch-girls and the tamasha-wallahs to be bountifully buksheeshed; and when the bridal palanquin was borne homeward, it was a high-priced indispensability that the procession should satisfy the best soodra society,—
"With the yellow torches gleaming,
And the scarlet mantles streaming,
And the canopy above
Swaying as they slowly move."
Karlee has assured me that neither his father nor his father-in-law, although both were soodras of fair credit and condition, ever quite recovered from the financial shock of that "awspidges okashn."
A Hindoo very rarely pronounces the name of his wife, even to his most intimate friends,—to strangers, and especially foreigners, never; on the part of a native visitor it is the etiquette to ignore her altogether, and for the husband to allude to her familiarly is an unpardonable breach of decorum. When, therefore, Karlee, to gratify my friendly curiosity, led in the happy grandmother, I felt that I was the recipient of an extraordinary mark of respect and confidence, involving a generous sacrifice of prejudice. As she made her modest salaam, and, in the manner of a shy child, sank to the floor in the habitual posture of an ayah, I had before me the well-preserved remains of a Hindoo beauty, according to the standard of the Shasters,—a placid, reposeful woman, almost fat, with rather delicate features of Rajpoot fairness, the complexion of high caste, wealth, and ease, such as her less-favored sisters vainly strive to imitate with a sort of saffron rouge. Her expression was chaste and gentle, her voice dulcet; and to the practice of carrying light burdens on her head she was indebted for a carriage erect and graceful. On Broadway or Tremont Street, Mrs. Karlee would have passed for a very comely colored woman. If she was not like Rama, fair as the jasmine, or the moon, or the fibres of the lotos, neither had she, like Krishna, the complexion of a cloud. If she was not so delicate as that dainty beauty who bewitched the hard heart of Surajah Dowlah, and weighed but sixty-four pounds, neither did she reproduce the unwieldy charms of that Venus of one of the Shasters "whose gait was the gait of a drunken elephant or a goose." A prudent man, says the Vishnoo Pooran, will not marry a woman who has a beard, or one who has thick ankles, or one who speaks with a shrill voice, or one who croaks like a raven, or one whose eyebrows meet, or one whose teeth resemble tusks. And Karlee was a prudent man.
From the extravagant and clumsy complications, the stupid caprices and discords, and studious indecencies of our women's fashions, to the prudent simplicity, the unconscious poetry and picturesqueness and musically blended modesty and freedom of the good ayah's unchangeable attire, my thought reverts with a mingled sense of refreshment and regret. A single web of cloth, eight or nine yards long, having a narrow blue border, was drawn in self-forming folds around her shoulders and bosom, and hung down to her feet,—the material muslin, the texture somewhat coarse, the color white. No dressmaker had ever played fantastic tricks with it: it was pure and simple in its entireness as it came from the loom.
Other women, of the laboring class, and very poor, passed to and fro on the street, half naked, their legs and shoulders bare, and with only a piece of dirty cloth—blue, red, or yellow—around the loins and hips; while here and there some superfine baboo's wife floated past in her close palanquin, or sat with her children on the flat roof of her house, or peeped through her narrow windows into the street, arrayed in fancy bodice and petticoat,—Mohammedan fashion.
But the simplicity of Mrs. Karlee's attire began and ended with her drapery. Her ornaments were cumbersome, clumsy, and grotesque. On her arms and ankles were many fetter-like bands of silver and copper; rude rings of gold and silver adorned her fingers and great toes; small silver coins were twisted in her hair; and the naturally delicate outline of her lips was deformed by a broad gold ring, which she wore, like a fractious ox, in her nose. This latter vanity is as precious as it is ugly; in some of the minor castes its absence is regarded as a badge of widowhood; and for no inducement would the pious ayah have removed it from its place, even for an instant. Had it fallen, by any dreadful chance, the house would have been filled with horror and lamentation. The half-naked wife of my syce rejoices in a nose-ring of brass or pewter, and her wrists and ankles are gay with hoops of painted shell-lac; and even she stains her eyelids with lampblack, and tinges her nails with henna. Much lovelier was our pretty ayah in her maidenhood, when her dainty bosom was decked with shells and sweet-scented flowers, and her raven hair lighted up with sprays of the Indian jasmine, which first she had offered to Seeta.
But that reminds me that, when I approached her, and presented the string of corals, my small salaamee, and bade Karlee tell her that it was for the baby,—for she understood not a word of English,—and that I wished him happy stars and a good name, riches and honors, and a houseful of sons,—she uttered not a word; but with eyes brimming with gratitude, flattered to tears, by a sudden graceful movement she touched my foot with her hand and immediately laid it on her head,—and then, with many shy and mute, but eloquent salaams, retired. It is difficult to imagine such a woman scolding and slang-whanging as low Hindoo women do, accompanying with passionate attitudes and gestures a reckless torrent of words, and fitting the foulest action to the most scandalous epithet.
The wives of the native servants are generally industrious. This one, Karlee boasted, was a notable housewife. Before she went out to service as an ayah she had cleaned the rice, pounded the curry, cooked all the meals, brought water from the tank in earthen jars on her head, swept and scrubbed the floor, cultivated a small kitchen garden, "shopped" at the bazaar, spun endless supplies of cotton thread on a very primitive reel, consisting of a piece of wire with a ball of clay at the end of it, which she twirled with one hand while she fed it with the other; and every morning she bathed in the Hooghly, and returned home before daybreak. Sewing and knitting were unknown arts to her,—she had no use for either; and her washing and ironing were done by a hired dhobee.
True, it was not permitted to her to eat with her husband; when Karlee dined she sat at the respectful orthodox distance, and waited; and if at any time they walked out together, ayah must keep her legal place in the rear. Saith the Shaster, "Is it not the practice of women of immaculate chastity to eat after their lords have eaten, to sleep only after they have slept, and to rise from sleep before them?" And again, "Let a wife who wishes to perform sacred ablution wash the feet of her lord, and drink the water." Nevertheless, ayah exercised an influence over her husband as decided as it was wholesome; she did not hesitate to rebuke him when occasion required; and in all that related to the moral government of her children she was free to dispute his authority, and try parental conclusions with him,—kindly but firmly. As for "the tyrannical immuring of the Oriental female," the cruel caging of the pretty birds who are supposed to be forever longing and pining for the gossip of the ghaut and the bustle of the bazaar, the only fault she had to find with it was that she did not get enough of it. The well-trained Hindoo woman has been taught to regard such seclusion as her most charming compliment, and a precious proof of her husband's affection; to be kept jealously veiled from the staring world, is associated in her mind with ideas of wealth and rank,—it is the very aristocracy of fashion.
According to the Code of Menyu, "a believer in Scripture may receive pure knowledge even from a soodra, a lesson of the highest virtue even from a chandala, and a woman bright as a gem even from the lowest family." So if Karlee's wife, instead of being of the same social rank as himself, had come of basest caste, she would still have been a treasure. Soon after she had retired, she gently pushed into the room, to pay his respects to the Sahib, a shy little boy of five years, whom Karlee presented to me as the child of his only son, a bhearer in the service of an English officer stationed at Fort William. The mother had died in blessing her husband with this bright little puttro. In costume he was the exact miniature of his grandfather, except that he wore no puggree, and his hair was cut short round the forehead in a quaint frill, like the small boys one sees running about the streets in Orissa. His ankles, too, were loaded with massive silver rings, which noticeably impeded the childish freedom of his steps. When he has begun to understand what the word "wife" means, these must be laid aside. In his manners, likewise, little Karlee was the very tautology of his namesake with the gray moustache,—the same wary self-possession, the same immovable gravity and nice decorum. Like a little courtier, he made his small salaam, and through his grandfather replied to some playful questions I addressed to him, with good emphasis and discretion, without either awkwardness or boldness, and especially without a smile. When I gave him a rupee, he construed it as the customary signal, and with another small salaam immediately dismissed himself.
Little Karlee must have taken lessons in deportment with his primal pap; and in India all good little boys, who hope to go to heaven when they die, keep their noses clean, and never romp or whistle. As to girls it matters less; the midwife gets only half price for consummating that sort of blunder; for when you are dead only a son can carry you out and bury you dacent,—no daughter, though she pray with the power and perseverance of the Seven Penitents, can procure you a respectable metempsychosis.
So far little Karlee had been lucky. This house, where he was born, was lucky,—no one had ever died in it. When his dear mother could not spin any more, they carried her to the Hooghly on a charpoy, and she had breathed her last on the banks of the sacred river. Besides, his grandfather had immediately stuck up a cooking-pot, striped with perpendicular white lines, on a pole at the side of the house; so he had never been in any danger from malicious incantations and the Evil Eye. His education had been begun on a propitious day, else he might have died or turned out a dunce. The very day he was born, a Brahmin—O so pious!—had hung a charm round his neck, and only charged grandpa fifty rupees for it; when he went to the bazaar with his grandmother he was always dressed in rags, to avert envy, and no one out of the family knew his real name except his gooroo; all the other boys, and the neighbors, called him Teencowry (three cowries),—such a nice mean name against spells and cross-eyed people! Once a strange Melican Sahib had said, "Hello, Buster!" to him; but he wasn't at all frightened, for his gooroo had taught him how to say a holy mautra backwards; and when the Melican Sahib passed on, he spat on his shadow and said it. Last week a lizard dropped on his foot, and yesterday he saw a cow on his right hand three times,—he had always been so lucky!
Now, time, place, and mood being favorable, I called for the company hookah, and, extending the long Chinese chair, smoked myself to sleep under the punka. My nap was a long one, and when I awoke there watched and waited Karlee, tenderly patient, with the fly-flapper.
In the hospitalities thus far so handsomely extended to me, the reader will recognize and appreciate an extraordinary display of liberal ideas, for which, however, considering the sound common sense of my affectionate old bhearer, I was not altogether unprepared; but when, his little grandson being gone, he conducted me into another room, to partake of what he humbly styled a chota khana, a trifle of luncheon, my astonishment exceeded my gratification. I doubt if such a thing had ever before happened in the life of a bhearer.
On the floor a broad sheet, of spotless whiteness, was spread, and beside it a narrow mattress of striped seersucker, very clean and cool, and with a double cushion at the head to support the elbow; on this my host invited me to recline. Here then were table and chair, but as yet the board was bare. Presently little Karlee reappeared, bringing a great round hand-punka, formed of a single huge palm-leaf, and, standing behind my shoulder, began to fan me solemnly. Immediately there was a subdued and mysterious clapping of hands, and the old man, going to the door, received, from behind the red curtain which hung across it, a bowl of coarse unglazed earthenware, but smoking and savory, which he set before me, together with a smaller bowl of the same material, empty; and to my lively surprise these were followed by English bunns and pickles, a jar of chutney, a bottle of Allsop's ale, my own silver beer-mug, knives and forks, table and dessert spoons, fruit-knife, and napkin,—all from our quarters in Cossitollah, two miles away. By what conjuration and mighty magic Karlee had procured these from my kitmudgar without a chittee, or order, I have not yet discovered.
The tureen contained delicious Mulligatawney soup, of which, as Karlee well knew, I was inordinately fond; and as he opened the ale he modestly congratulated himself on my vigorous enjoyment of it.
After the soup came curried prawns, a very piquant dish, in eminent repute among the Sahibs, and a famous appetizer. Tonic, hot, and pungent as it is, with spices, betel, and chillies, it is hard to imagine what the torpid livers of the Civil Service would do without their rousing curry.
The curry was followed by a tender bouilli of kid, sauced with a delicate sort of onions stewed in ghee (boiled butter), and flanked with boiled rice, sweet pumpkin, and fried bananas, all served on green leaves. Next came pine-apple, covered with sherry-wine and sugar, in company with English walnuts and cheese; and, last of all, sweetmeats and coffee,—the former a not unpleasant compound of ground rice and sugar with curds and the crushed kernel of the cocoa-nut; the coffee was served in a diminutive gourd, and was not sweetened. Last of the last, the hookah.
And all these wonders had been wrought since the grateful ayah retired with the corals! But then the bazaar was close at hand, and in the sircar's house help was handy.
Whilst I kanahed and smoked, Karlee, humbly "squatting" at my back, allowed me to draw from him all that I have here related of his house and family, and much more that I have not space to relate. Of course, he could not have shared the repast with me,—all the holy water of Ganges could never have washed out so deep a defilement,—but he accompanied my hookah with his hubble-bubble. The reader has observed that, although the viands were choice enough, they were laid on the cheapest pottery, and even on leaves, that the plate from which I ate was of unglazed earthenware, and that the coffee was served in a gourd. This was in order that they might be at once destroyed. By no special dispensation could those vessels ever again be purified for the use of a respectable Hindoo; even a pariah would have felt insulted if he had been asked to eat from them; and if the knives and forks and spoons had not been my own, they must have shared the fate of the platters. But this prejudice must be taken in a Pickwickian sense,—it covered no objection simply personal to the Sahib. In some castes it is forbidden to eat from any plate twice, even in the strictest privacy of the family; and many natives, however wealthy, scrupulously insist upon leaves. All respectable Hindoos lift their food with their fingers, using neither knife, fork, nor spoon; and for this purpose they employ the right hand only, the left being reserved for baser purposes. In drinking water, many of them will not allow the lotah to touch the lips; but, throwing the head back, and holding the vessel at arm's length on high, with an odd expertness they let the water run into their mouths. The sect of Ramanujas obstinately refuse to sit down to a meal while any one is standing by or looking on; nor will they chew betel in company with a man of low caste. Ward has written, "If a European of the highest rank touch the food of a Hindoo of the lowest caste, the latter will instantly throw it away, although he may not have another morsel to allay the pangs of hunger";—but this is true only of certain very strait sects. There are numerous sects that admit proselytes from every caste; but at the same time they will not partake of food, except with those of their own religious party. "Here," says Kerr, "the spirit of sect has supplanted even the spirit of caste,"—as at the temple of Juggernath in Orissa, where the pilgrims of all castes take their khana in common.
At our quarters in Cossitollah even this progressive Karlee will not taste of the food which has been served at our mess-table, though it be returned to the kitchen untouched. But at least he is consistent; for neither will he take medicine from the hand of a Sahib, however ill he may be; nor have I ever known him to decline or postpone the performance of this or that duty because it was Sunday,—as many knavish bhearers do when they have set their hearts on a cock-fight. To compound for sins one is inclined to, by damning those one has no mind to, it is not indispensable that one should be a Christian.
The amiable Mr. James Kerr, of the Hindoo College of Calcutta, has contrived an ingenious and plausible apology for the constitutional (or geographical) laziness of Bengalese servants. He says: "A love of repose may be considered one of the most striking features in the character of the people of India. The Hindoos may be said to have deified this state. Their favorite notion of a Supreme Being is that of one who reposes in himself, in a dream of absolute quiescence. This idea is, doubtless, in the first instance, a reflection of their own character; but, in whatever way it originated, it tends to sanctify in their eyes a state of repose. When removed from this world of care, their highest hope is to become a part of the great Quiescent. It will naturally appear to them the best preparation for the repose of a future life to cultivate repose in this." Therefore, if your kitmudgar, nodding behind your chair, permits his astonished fly-flapper to become a part of the great Quiescent, or if your punka-wallah, having subsided into a comatose beatitude, suddenly invites his compliant machine to repose in himself, in a dream of absolute stagnation, with the thermometer at 120° outside the refrigerator, you must not say, "Damn that boy,—he's asleep again!"—but patiently survey and intelligently admire the spiritual processes by which an exalted sentient force prepares itself for the repose of a future life. But our reckless Karlee took no thought for the everlasting rest into which his soul should enter "when removed from this world of care," according to the ingenious psychological system of the amiable Kerr Sahib; for when he had anything to do, he kept on doing it until it was done, and when he caught the punka-wallah reposing in a dream of absolute quiescence, he bumped his head against the wall, and called him a sooa, and a banchut, and a junglee-wallah.
Though possessed of a lively imagination and all his race's sympathy with what is vast, though he saw nothing extravagant in the Hindoo chronology, nor aught that was monstrous in Hindoo mythology, Karlee yet served to illustrate the arguments of those who contend that Hindoos need not necessarily be all boasters, servile liars, and flatterers. He was not forever saying, "Master very wise man; master all time do good; master all time ispeak right." He never told me that my words were pearls and diamonds that I dropped munificently from my mouth. He never called me "your highness," or said I was his father and mother, and the lord of the world; and if I said at noonday, "It is night," he did not exclaim, "Behold the moon and stars!" He never tried to prove to me that the earth revolved on its axis once in twenty-four hours by my favor. "What! dost thou think him a Christian that he would go about to deceive thee?" No, he was as proudly truthful as a Rajpoot, as frank and manly as a Goorkah, and as honest as an up-country Durwan.
Good by, my best of bhearers. To the new baby a good name, and to the faithful ayah enviable enlargement of liver! Khodá rukho ki beebi-ka kulle-jee bhee itui burri hoga!—I owe thee for a day of hospitable edifications; and when thou comest to my country, thou shalt find thy Heathen at Home.
- A long, round, narrow bolster, stuffed with very light materials (often with paper), and not for the head, but embraced in the arms, so as to help the sleeper to a cool and comfortable posture.
- A salutation of particular respect and well-wishing.
- Destiny, fortune.
- A table-servant.
- A spiritual teacher.
- Writer, clerk.
- Banker, merchant in foreign trade.
- The fourth caste—originally laborers.
- A native gentleman, of wealth, education, and influence.
- Hostler and footman.
- Lit. Fan-fellow.
- "Good! Bring the Europe-water,"—Bengali for soda-water.
- Showmen and puppet-dancers.
- Little shells, used as coins by the poorest people to make the smallest change.
- Pig, sot, and jungle-animal.
- "God grant the lady a substantial liver!"—"the happiness and honors which should follow upon the birth of a male child being figuratively comprehended in that liberality of the liver whence comes the good digestion for which alone life is worth the living."—Child-Life by the Ganges.