Under the Sun/In my Indian Garden

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A GARDEN everywhere is to the natural world beyond its walls very much what a good Review number is to the rest of literature. Shrubs and flowers, indigenous or of distant derivation, jumbled together, attract an equally miscellaneous congregation of birds and insects, and by their fresher leaves, brighter blossoms, or juicier fruit, detain for a time the capricious and fastidious visitors. An Indian Garden is par excellence Nature’s museum — a gallery of curiosities for the indifferent to admire, the interested to study. It is a Travellers’ Club, an Œcumenical Council, a Parliament of buzzing, humming, chirping, and chattering things.

The great unclouded sky is terraced out by flights of birds. Here, in the region of trees, church-spires, and house-tops, flutter and have their being the myriad tribes who plunder while they share the abodes of men; the diverse crew who jostle on the earth, the lowest level of creation, with mammals, and walk upon its surface plantigrade; the small birds whose names children learn, whom schoolboy’s snare, and who fill the shelves of museums as the Insessores, or birds that perch. They are the commonalty of birddom, who furnish forth the mobs which bewilder the drunken-flighted jay when he jerks, shrieking, in a series of blue hyphen-flashes through the air, — or which, when some owlet, as unfortunate as foolish, has let itself be jostled from its cost hole beneath the thatch out into the glare of daylight, — crowd round the blinking stranger and unkindly jeer it from amongst them. These are the ground-floor tenants, our every-day walk acquaintances, who look up to crows as to Members of Congress, and think no mean thing of green parrots. And yet there are among them many of a notable plumage and song, more indeed than among the aristocracy of Volucres; just as, if the Indian proverb goes for aught, there are more pretty women among the lowest (the mehter) than any other caste. On the second floor, where nothing but clear ether checks their flight, swim the great eagles, the knightly falcons, and the vultures, — grand when on their wide, loose pinions they float and circle, — sordid only, like the gods of old, when they stoop to earth. These divide the peerage of the skies, and among them is universal a fine purity of color and form — a nobility of power. They are all princes among the feathered tribes, gentle and graceful as they wheel and recurve undisturbed in their own high domains, but fierce in battle and terribly swift when they shoot down to earth, their keen vision covering half a province, their cruel cry shrilling to the floors of heaven. See them now, with no quarry to pursue, no battle to fight, and mark the exceeding beauty of their motion. In tiers above each other the shrill-voiced kites, their sharp-cut wings bent into a bow, their tail, a third wing almost, spread out fanwise to the wind, — the vultures parallel, but wheeling in higher spheres on level pinions, — the hawk, with his strong bold flight, smiting his way up to the highest place; while far above him, where the sky-roof is cob webbed with white clouds, float dim specks, which in the distance seem hardly moving — the sovereign eagles. They can stare at the sun without blinking; we cannot, so let us turn our eyes lower — to the garden level. Ah! pleasant indeed was my Indian Garden. Here in a green colonnade stand the mysterious, broad-leaved plantains with their strange spikes of fruit, — there the dark mango. In a grove together the spare-leaved peepul, that sacred yet treacherous tree that drags down the humble shrine which it was placed to sanctify; the shapely tamarind, with its clouds of foliage; the graceful neem; the patulous teak, with its great leathern leaves, and the bamboos the tree-cat loves. Below them grow a wealth of roses, the lavender-blossomed durantas, the cactus, grotesque in growth, the poyntzettia with its stars of scarlet, the spiky aloes, the sick-scented jessamine, and the quaint coral-trees; while over all shoots up the palm. The citron, lime, and orange-trees are beautiful alike when they load the air with the perfume of their waxen flowers, or when they are snowing their sweet petals about them, or when heavy-fruited they trail their burdened branches to rest their yellow treasure on the ground.

And how pleasant in the cool evening to sit and watch the garden’s visitors. The crow-pheasant stalks past with his chestnut wings drooping by his side, the magpie with his curious dreamland note climbs the tree overhead, the woodpeckers flutter the creviced ants, the sprightly bulbul tunes his throat with crest erect, the glistening flower-pecker haunts the lilies, the oriole flashes in the splendor of his golden plumage from tree to tree, the bee-eater slides through the air, the doves call to each other from the shady guava grove, the poultry —

Poultry? Yes, they do not, it is true, strictly appertain to gardens, but rather to hen-houses and stable-yards, to the outskirts of populous places and the remoter corners of cultivated fields. Yet they are — and that not seldom — to be found and met with in gardens where, if ill-conditioned, they do not scruple to commit an infinity of damage by looking inquisitive, albeit without judgment, after food, at the roots of plants, and by making for themselves comfortable hollows in the conspicuous corners of flower-beds, wherein, with a notable assiduity, they sit to ruffle their feathers y during the early hours of sunshine. These pastimes are not, however, without some hazard to the hens, for thereby they render themselves both obnoxious to mankind and noticeable by their other enemies. A cat who has two minds about attacking a fowl when in a decent posture and enjoying herself as a hen should do, does not hesitate to assault her when met with in a dust-hole, — her feathers all set the wrong way, and in an ecstasy of titillation. A kite will swoop from the blue to see what manner of eatable she may be; nor, when she is laying bare the roots of a rosebush, is the gardener reluctant to stone her, whereby the hen is caused some personal inconvenience and much mental perturbation, determining her to escape (always, let it be noticed, in the wrong direction) with the greatest possible precipitancy. These same hens are, I think, the most foolish of fowls; for on this point the popular proverb that makes a goose to be a fool is in error, as the goose is in reality one of the most cunning of birds, even in a domestic state, while in a wild state there are few birds to compare with it for vigilance. The hen, however, is an extraordinary fool, and in no circumstance of life does she behave with a seemly composure. Should a bird pass overhead she immediately concludes that it is about to fall upon her head; while if she hears any sound for which she cannot satisfactorily account to herself, she sets up a woeful clucking, in which, after a few rounds, she is certain to be joined by all the comrades of her sex, who foregather with her to cluck and croon, though they have not even her excuse of having heard the original noise. But their troubles are many.

Life is many-sided. Indeed, you may examine it from so many standpoints that had you even the hundred eyes of Argus, and each eye hundred-faceted like the orb of a dragon-fly, you could not be a master of the subject from all sides. And yet how often does the man who has surveyed his neighbors from two points only — the bottom of the ladder and the top — affect to have exhausted the experience of life! For Man to dogmatize wisely on this life is to argue simplicity in it.

For instance, have you ever looked at life from the standpoint of a staging-house fowl? Perhaps not; but it is instructive nevertheless as exemplifying the reciprocity of brain and body, and showing how one trait of character, by exaggerated development, may develop and exaggerate certain features physical as well as mental, obliterate others, and leave the owner as skeletonized in mind as in body. Suspicion is the fungus that, taking root in the mind of the dâk-bungalow fowl, strangles all its finer feelings (though fostering self-reliance), and makes the bird’s daily life miserable. Think of the lives cursed by suspicion, and confer your pity on the hen, — Cromwell shifting from bedroom to bedroom, and the royal Louis refusing food. Adam Smith was stolen in infancy by gypsies, and his parents lived ever afterwards in terror for the rest of their children. But what was this compared to the life of the staging-house fowl? His whole life is spent in strategy. Every advance in his direction is a wile, each corner an ambuscade, and each conclave of servants a cabal. With every sun comes a Rye-House Plot for the wretched bird, and before evening he has had to run the gauntlet of a Vehm-gericht. His brother, suspicious yet all too confiding, would trust no one but the wife of the grain dealer who lived at the corner; and this single confidence cost him his life. So our bird trusts no one.

Indeed, now that I come myself to think seriously of the staging-house fowl, I would not hesitate to say that the washerman’s donkey has the better life. The donkey can remember childhood’s years as an interval of frivolity and light-heartedness; and even in maturer life it is free (with three of its legs), after the day’s work is over, to disport itself with its kind. But the case is different with the bird. Pullets of the tenderest years are sought out for broth; adolescence is beset with peril in hardly a less degree than puberty; while alas! old age itself is not respected. Like Japanese youth it fives with sudden death ever in prospect; but the hara-kiri in the case of the fowl is not an honorable termination of life, while the lively apprehension of it unwholesomely sharpens its vigilance. It has, moreover, nothing to live on and plenty of it; and this diet affects its physique, inasmuch as it prevents the increase of flesh, while the constant evasion of death develops its muscles — the thigh-bones assuming vulturine dimensions. The feathers, by frequent escapings through small holes, become ragged and irregular; the tail is systematically discarded as being dangerous and a handle to ill-wishers. Death therefore must come upon some of them as a sharp cure for life — il est mort guéri.

But to others it is the bitter end of a life of perilous pleasure, — to such a one perhaps as the following. The bird I speak of was a fine young cock, a Nazarene in his unclipt wings, with the columnar legs of an athlete, snatching life by sheer pluck and dying without disgrace. His death happened in this wise. There came up the hill one day some travellers with whom the cook at the staging-house wished to stand well, and when they asked, “What is there to eat?” he replied with suavity, “Whatever your honors choose to order.” So they ordered beef and then mutton, but there being neither, they desisted from “ordering” and left it to the cook to arrange their meal. And he gave them soup made of an infant poult, two side-dishes composed of two elder brothers, a fine fowl roasted, by way of joint, and the grandmother of the family furnished forth a curry. And one of the party watched the dinner being caught. With the soup there was little difficulty, for it succumbed to a most obvious fraud. The side-dishes fell victims to curiosity, for while they were craning their necks into the cook-room door, a hand came suddenly round the corner and closed upon them. The curry, poor old soul, was taken in her afternoon sleep. But the roast, the bird italicized above, showed sport, as well it might. For seven months it had daily evaded death, scorning alike the wiles of the cook and the artifices of his minions. Nothing would tempt it during the day within the enclosure in which so many of its family had lost their lives, and as it roosted high up in the walnut-tree behind the bungalow, night surprises were out of the question. Whenever travellers came in sight it would either fly on to the roof of the bungalow, and thence survey the preparations for dinner; or, slipping away quietly over the cliff, would enjoy healthful ease in some sequestered nook, whither was borne, tempered by distance and the comfortable sense of security, the last screech of the less wary. But its day had come. The fig-tree had drunk of the Neda. The travellers had been expected. An hour, therefore, before they came in sight preparations were made for the great capture; and, when on the appearance of the first horseman, the fowl turned as usual to escape, he found two boys on the roof of the bungalow, six more up the walnut-tree, and a cordon of men round the yard. There was nothing for it but to trust to its wings; so mounting on the wall he flew for his life. And his strong wings bore him bravely — up over the fowl-yard and the goat-house and the temple, over the upturned faces of the shouting men — up into the unbroken sky. Below him, far, far down he saw the silver thread of water that lay along the valley between the hills. But there was a worse enemy than man on the watch — a hungry eagle. And on a sudden our flier saw, between him and the red sunset, the king of birds in kingly flight towards him, and stopping himself in his course he came fluttering down — poor Icarus! — to the friendly covert of earth with outspread wings. But the eagle with closed pinions fell like a thunderbolt plumb from out the heavens, and striking him in mid-sky sent him twirling earthward; then, swooping down again, grasped him in his yellow talons before he touched the ground, and, rising with slow flight, winged his burdened way to the nearest resting-place — the roof of the staging-house. But his exploit had been watched, and hardly had his feet touched the welcome tiles before a shower of sticks and stones rained round him. One pebble struck him, and, rising hastily at the affront, his prey escaped his talons and, rolling over and over down the roof, fell into the arms of the exultant cook ! But the scream of the baffled eagle drowned the death-cry of the fowl.