Letters of Marque


by Rudyard Kipling


COME away from the monstrous gloom of Chitor and escape northwards. The place is unclean and terrifying. Let us catch To-day by both hands and return to the Stationmaster who is also booking, parcels, and telegraph clerk, and who never seems to go to bed—and to the comfortably wadded bunks of the Rajputana-Malwa line.

While the train is running, be pleased to listen to the perfectly true story of the bhumia of Jhaswara, which is a story the sequel whereof has yet to be written. Once upon a time, a Rajput landholder, a bhumia, and a Mahometan jaghirdar, were next-door neighbours in Ajmir territory. They hated each other thoroughly for many reasons, all connected with land; and the jaghir-dar was the bigger man of the two. In those days, it was the law that the victims of robbery or dacoity should be reimbursed by the owner of the lands on which the affair had taken place. The ordinance is now swept away as impracticable. There was a highway robbery on the bhumia’s holding; and he vowed that it had been ‘put up’ by the Mahometan who, he said, was an Ahab. The reive-gelt payable nearly ruined the Rajput, and he, labouring under a galling grievance or a groundless suspicion, fired the crops, was detected and brought up before the English Judge who gave him four years’ imprisonment. To the sentence was appended a recommendation that, on release, the Rajput should be put on heavy securities for good behaviour. ‘Otherwise,’ wrote the Judge, who seems to have known the people he was dealing with, ‘he will certainly kill the jaghirdar.’ Four years passed, and the jaghirdar obtained wealth and consideration, and was made, let us say, a Khan Bahadur, and an Honorary Magistrate; but the bhumia remained in gaol and thought over the highway robbery. When the day of release came, a new Judge hunted up his predecessor’s finding and recommendation, and would have put the bhumia on security. ‘Sahib,’ said the bhumia, ‘I have no people. I have been in gaol. What am I now? And who will find security for me? If you will, send me back to gaol again. I can do nothing, and I have no friends.’ So they released him, and he went away into an outlying village and borrowed a sword from one house, and had it sharpened in another, for love. Two days later fell the birthday of the Khan Bahadur and the Honorary Magistrate, and his friends and servants and dependants made a little levee and did him honour after the native custom. The bhumia also attended the levee, but no one knew him, and he was stopped at the door of the courtyard by the servant. ‘Say that the bhumia of Jhaswara has come to pay his salaams,’ said he. They let him in, and in the heart of Ajmir City, in broad daylight, and before all the jaghirdar’s household, he smote off his enemy’s head so that it rolled upon the ground. Then he fled, and though they raised the countryside against him he was never caught, and went into Bikanir.

Five years later, word came to Ajmir that Chimbo Singh, the bhumia of Jhaswara, had taken service under the Thakur Sahib of Palitana. The case was an old one, and the chances of identification misty, but the suspected was caught and brought in, and one of the leading native barristers of the Bombay Bar was retained to defend him. He said nothing and continued to say nothing, and the case fell through. He is believed to be ‘wanted’ now for a fresh murder committed within the last few months, out Bikanir way.

And now that the train has reached Ajmir, the Crewe of Rajputana, whither shall a tramp turn his feet? The Englishman set his stick on end, and it fell with its point North-west as nearly as might be. This being translated, meant Jodhpur, which is the city of the Houyhnhnms. If you would enjoy Jodhpur thoroughly, quit at Ajmir the decent conventionalities of ‘station’ life, and make it your business to move among gentlemen—gentlemen in the Ordnance or the Commissariat, or, better still, gentlemen on the railway. At Ajmir, gentlemen will tell you what manner of place Jodhpur is, and their accounts, though flavoured with oaths, are amusing. In their eyes the desert that rings the city has no charms, and they discuss affairs of the State, as they understand them, in a manner that would curl the hair on a Political’s august head. Jodhpur has been, but things are rather better now, a much-favoured camping ground for the light-cavalry of the Road—the loafers with a certain amount of brain and great assurance. The explanation is simple. There are more than four hundred horses in His Highness’s city stables alone; and where the Houyhnhnm is, there also will be the Yahoo. This is sad but true.

Besides the Uhlans who come and go on Heaven knows what mysterious errands, there are bagmen travelling for the big English firms. Jodhpur is a good customer, and purchases all sorts of things, more or less useful, for the State or its friends. These are the gentlemen to know, if you would understand something of matters which are not written in reports.

The Englishman took a train from Ajmir to Marwar junction, which is on the road to Mount Abu, westward from Ajmir, and at five in the morning, under pale moonlight, was uncarted at the beginning of the Jodhpur State Railway—one of the quaintest little lines that ever ran a locomotive. It is the Maharaja’s very own, and pays about ten per cent; but its quaintness does not lie in these things. It is worked with rude economy, and started life by singularly and completely falsifying the Government estimates for its construction. An intelligent bureau asserted that it could not be laid down for less than—but the error shall be glossed over. It was laid down for a little more than seventeen thousand rupees a mile, with the help of second-hand rails and sleepers; and it is currently asserted that the Stationmasters are flagmen, pointsmen, ticket-collectors, and everything else, except platforms, and lamp-rooms. As only two trains are run in the twenty-four hours, this economy of staff does not matter. The State line, with the comparatively new branch to the Pachpadra salt-pits, pays handsomely, and is exactly suited to the needs of its users. True, there is a certain haziness as to the hour of starting, but this allows laggards more time, and fills the packed carriages to overflowing.

From Marwar Junction to Jodhpur, the train leaves the Aravalis and goes northwards into the region of death that lies beyond the Luni River. Sand, ak bushes, and sand-hills, varied with occasional patches of unthrifty cultivation, make up the scenery. Rain has been very scarce in Marwar this year, and the country, consequently, shows at its worst, for almost every square mile of a kingdom nearly as large as Scotland is dependent on the sky for its crops. In a good season, a large village can pay from seven to nine thousand rupees revenue without blenching. In a bad one, ‘all the King’s horses and all the King’s men’ may think them selves lucky if they raise fifteen rupees from the same place. The fluctuation is startling.

From a countryside, which to the uninitiated seems about as valuable as a stretch of West African beach, the State gets a revenue of nearly forty lakhs; and men who know the country vow that it has not been one tithe exploited, and that there is more to be made from salt, marble, and—curious thing in this wilderness—good forest conservancy, than an open-handed Durbar dreams of. An amiable weakness for unthinkingly giving away villages when ready cash failed, has somewhat hampered the revenue in past years; but now—and for this the Maharaja deserves great credit—Jodhpur has a large and genuine surplus and a very compact little scheme of railway extension. Before turning to a consideration of the City of Jodhpur, hear a true story in connection with the Hyderabad-Pachpadra project which those interested in the scheme may lay to heart.

His State line, his ‘ownest own,’ as has been said, very much delighted the Maharaja who, in one or two points, is not unlike Sir Theodore Hope of sainted memory. Pleased with the toy, he said effusively, in words which may or may not have reached the ears of the Hyderabad-Pachpadra people: ‘This is a good business. If the Government will give me independent jurisdiction, I’ll make and open the line straight away from Pachpadra to the end of my dominions, i.e. all but to Hyderabad.’

Then ‘up and spake an elder knight, sat at the King’s right knee,’ who knew something about the railway map of India and the Controlling Power of strategical lines: ‘Maharaja Sahib—here is the Indus Valley State line and here is the Bombay-Baroda line. Where would you be?’ ‘By Jove,’ quoth the Maharaja, though he swore by quite another god: ‘I see!’ and thus he abandoned the idea of a Hyderabad line, and turned his attention to an extension to Nagore, with a branch to the Makrana marble quarries which are close to the Sambhar salt lake near Jeypore. And, in the fulness of time, that extension will be made and perhaps extended to Bahawalpur.

The Englishman came to Jodhpur at mid-day, in a hot, fierce sunshine that struck back from the sands and the ledges of red rock, as though it were May instead of December. The line scorned such a thing as a regular ordained terminus. The single track gradually melted away into the sands. Close to the station was a grim stone dak-bungalow, and in the verandah stood a brisk, bag-and-flask-begirdled individual, cracking his joints with excess of irritation.

Nota Bene.—When one is on the Road it is above all things necessary to ‘pass the time o’ day’ to fellow-wanderers. Failure to comply with this law implies that the offender is ‘too good for his company’; and this, on the Road, is the unpardonable sin. The Englishman ‘passed the time o’ day’ in due and ample form. ‘Ha! ha!’ said the gentleman with the bag. ‘Isn’t this a sweet place? There ain’t no ticca-gharries, and there ain’t nothing to eat, if you haven’t brought your vittles, an’ they charge you three eight for a bottle of whisky. Oh! it’s a sweet place.’ Here he skipped about the verandah and puffed. Then turning upon the Englishman, he said fiercely: ‘What have you come here for?’ Now this was rude, because the ordinary form of salutation on the Road is usually, ‘And what are you for?’ meaning ‘what house do you represent?’ The Englishman answered dolefully that he was travelling for pleasure, which simple explanation offended the little man with the courier-bag. He snapped his joints more excruciatingly than ever: ‘For pleasure? My God! For pleasure? Come here an’ wait five weeks for your money, an’, mark what I’m tellin’ you now, you don’t get it then! But per’aps your ideas of pleasure is different from most people’s. For pleasure! Yah!’ He skipped across the sands toward the station, for he was going back with the down train, and vanished in a whirlwind of luggage and the fluttering of female skirts: in Jodhpur the women are baggage-coolies. A level, drawling voice spoke from an inner room: ‘’E’s a bit upset. That’s what ’e is! I remember when I was at Gworlior’—the rest of the story was lost, and the Englishman set to work to discover the nakedness of the dak-bungalow. For reasons which do not concern the public, it is made as bitterly uncomfortable as possible. The food is infamous, and the charges seem to be wilfully pitched about eighty per cent above the tariff, so that some portion of the bill, at least, may be paid without bloodshed, or the unseemly defilement of walls with the contents of drinking glasses. This is short-sighted policy, and it would, perhaps, be better to lower the prices and hide the tariff, and put a guard about the house to prevent jackal-molested donkeys from stampeding into the verandahs. But these be details. Jodhpur dak-bungalow is a merry, merry place, and any writer in search of new ground to locate a madly improbable story in, could not do better than study it diligently. In front lies sand, riddled with innumerable ant-holes, and beyond the sand the red sandstone wall of the city, and the Mahometan burying-ground that fringes it. Fragments of sandstone set on end mark the resting-places of the Faithful, who are of no great account here. Above everything, a mark for miles around, towers the dun-red pile of the Fort which is also a Palace. This is set upon sandstone rock whose sharper features have been worn smooth by the wash of the windblown sand. It is as monstrous as anything in Dore’s illustrations of the Contes Drolatiques and, wherever it wanders, the eye comes back at last to its fantastic bulk. There is no greenery on the rock, nothing but fierce sunlight or black shadow. A line of red hills forms the background of the city, and this is as bare as the picked bones of camels that lie bleaching on the sand below.

Wherever the eye falls, it sees a camel or a string of camels—lean, racer-built sowarri camels, or heavy, black, shag-haired trading ships bent on their way to the Railway Station. Through the night the air is alive with the bubbling and howling of the brutes, who assuredly must suffer from nightmare. In the morning the chorus round the station is deafening.

Knowing what these camels meant, but trusting nevertheless that the road would not be very bad, the Englishman went into the city, left a well-kunkered road, turned through a sand-worn, red sandstone gate, and sank ankle-deep in fine reddish white sand. This was the main thoroughfare of the city. Two tame lynxes shared it with a donkey; and the rest of the population seemed to have gone to bed. In the hot weather, between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon all Jodhpur stays at home for fear of death by sunstroke, and it is possible that the habit extends far into what is officially called the ‘cold weather’; or, perhaps, being brought up among sands, men do not care to tramp them for pleasure. The city internally is a walled and secret place; each courtyard being hidden from view by a red sandstone wall except in a few streets where the shops are poor and mean.

In an old house now used for the storing of tents, Akbar’s mother lay two months, before the Guardian of Mankind’ was born, drawing breath for her flight to Umarkot across the desert. Seeing this place, the Englishman thought of many things not worth the putting down on paper, and went on till the sand grew deeper and deeper, and a great camel, heavily laden with stone, came round a corner and nearly stepped on him. As the evening fell, the city woke up, and the goats and the camels and the kine came in by hundreds, and men said that wild pig, which are strictly preserved by the Princes for their own sport, were in the habit of wandering about the roads. Now if they do this in the capital, what damage must they not do to the crops in the district? Men said that they did a very great deal of damage, and it was hard to keep their noses out of anything they took a fancy to. On the evening of the Englishman’s visit, the Maharaja went out, as is his laudable custom, alone and unattended, to a road actually in the city along which one specially big pig was in the habit of passing. His Highness got his game with a single shot behind the shoulder, and in a few days it will be pickled and sent to the Maharana of Udaipur, as a love-gift. There is great friendship between Jodhpur and Udaipur, and the idea of one King going abroad to shoot game for another has something very pretty and quaint in it.

Night fell and the Englishman became aware that the conservancy of Jodhpur might be vastly improved. Strong stenches, say the doctors, are of no importance; but there came upon every breath of heated air—and in Jodhpur City the air is warm in mid-winter—the faint, sweet, sickly reek that one has always been taught to consider specially deadly. A few months ago there was an impressive outbreak of cholera in Jodhpur, and the Residency Doctor, who really hoped that the people would be brought to see sense, did his best to bring forward a general cleansing-scheme. But the city fathers would have none of it. Their fathers had been trying to poison themselves in well-defined ways for an indefinite number of years; and they were not going to have any of the Sahib’s ‘sweeper-nonsense.’

To clinch everything, one travelled member of the community rose in his place and said: ‘Why, I’ve been to Simla. Yes, to Simla! And even I don’t want it!’

When the black dusk had shut down, the Englishman climbed up a little hill and saw the stars come out and shine over the desert. Very far away, some camel-drivers had lighted a fire and were singing as they sat by the side of their beasts. Sound travels as far over sand as over water, and their voices came in to the city wall and beat against it in multiplied echoes.

Then he returned to the House of Strange Stories—the Dak-bungalow—and passed the time o’ day with a light-hearted bagman—a Cockney, in whose heart there was no thought of India, though he had travelled for years throughout the length and breadth of the Empire and over New Burma as well. There was a fort in Jodhpur, but you see that was not in his line of business exactly, and there were stables, but ‘you may take my word for it, them who has much to do with horses is a bad lot. You get hold of the Maharaja’s coachman and he’ll drive you all round the shop. I’m only waiting here collecting money.’ Jodhpur dak-bungalow seems to be full of men ‘waiting here.’ They lie in long chairs in the verandah and tell each other interminable stories, or stare citywards and express their opinion of some dilatory debtor. They are all waiting for something; and they vary the monotony of a life they make wilfully dull beyond words, by waging war with the dak-bungalow khansama. Then they return to their long chairs or their couches, and sleep. Some of them, in old days, used to wait as long as six weeks—six weeks in May, when the sixty miles from Marwar Junction to Jodhpur was covered in three days by slow-pacing bullock carts! Some of them are bagmen, able to describe the demerits of every dak-bungalow from the Peshin to Pagan, and southward to Hyderabad—men of substance who have ‘The Trades’ at their back. It is a terrible thing to be in ‘The Trades,’ that great Doomsday Book of Calcutta, in whose pages are written the names of doubtful clients. Let lighthearted purchasers take note.

And the others, who wait and swear and spit and exchange anecdotes—what are they? Bummers, land-sharks, skirmishers for their bread. It would be cruel in a fellow-tramp to call them loafers. Their lien upon the State may have its origin in horses, or anything else; for the State buys anything vendible, from Abdul Rahman’s most promising importations to a patent, self-acting corkscrew. They are a mixed crew, but amusing and full of strange stories of adventure by land and sea. And their ends are as curiously brutal as their lives. A wanderer was once swept into the great, still backwater that divides the loaferdom of Upper India—that is to say, Calcutta and Bombay—from the north-going current of Madras, where Nym and Pistol are highly finished articles with certificates of education. This backwater is a dangerous place to break down in, as the men on the Road know well. ‘You can run Rajputana in a pair o’ sack breeches an’ an old hat, but go to Central Injia with money,’ says the wisdom of the Road. So the waif died in the bazaar, and the Barrack-master Sahib gave orders for his burial. It might have been the bazaar sergeant, or it might have been an hireling who was charged with the disposal of the body. At any rate, it was an Irishman who said to the Barrack-master Sahib: ‘Fwhat about that loafer?’ ‘Well, what’s the matter?’ ‘I’m considtherin whether I’m to mash in his thick head, or to break his long legs. He won’t fit the store-coffin anyways.’

Here the story ends. It may be an old one; but it struck the Englishman as being rather unsympathetic in its nature; and he has preserved it for this reason. Were the Englishman a mere Secretary of State instead of an enviable and unshackled vagabond, he would re-model that Philanthropic Institution of Teaching Young Subalterns how to Spell—variously called the Intelligence and the Political Department—and giving each boy the pair of sack breeches and old hat above prescribed, would send him out for a twelvemonth on the Road. Not that he might learn to swear Australian oaths (which are superior to any ones in the market) or to drink bazaar-drinks (which are very bad indeed), but in order that he might gain an insight into the tertiary politics of States—things less imposing than succession-cases and less wearisome than boundary disputes, but very well worth knowing.

A small volume might be written of the ways and the tales of Indian loafers of the more brilliant order—such Chevaliers of the Order of Industry as would throw their glasses in your face did you call them loafers. They are a genial, blasphemous, blustering crew, and preëminent even in a land of liars.