Letters of Marque



by Rudyard Kipling


IN the morning the tonga rattled past Deoli Cemetery into the open, where the Deoli Irregulars were drilling. They marked the beginning of civilisation and white shirts; and so they seemed altogether detestable. Yet another day’s jolting, enlivened by the philosophy of Ram Baksh, and then came Nasirabad. The last pair of ponies suggested serious thought. They had covered eighteen miles at an average speed of eight miles an hour, and were well-conditioned little rats. ‘A Colonel Sahib gave me this one for a present,’ said Ram Baksh, flicking the near one. ‘It was his child’s pony. The child was five years old. When he went away, the Colonel Sahib said “Ram Baksh, you are a good man. Never have I seen such a good man. This horse is yours.” Ram Baksh was getting a horse’s work out of a child’s pony. Surely we in India work the land much as the Colonel Sahib worked his son’s mount; making it do child’s work when so much more can be screwed out of it. A native and a native State deals otherwise with horse and holding. Perhaps our extreme scrupulousness in handling may be statecraft, but, after even a short sojourn in places which are dealt with not so tenderly, it seems absurd. There are States where things are done, and done without protest, that would make the hair of the educated native stand on end with horror. These things are of course not expedient to write; because their publication would give a great deal of unnecessary pain and heart-searching to estimable native administrators who have the hope of a Star before their eyes, and would not better matters in the least.

Note this fact though. With the exception of such journals as, occupying a central position in British territory, levy blackmail from the neighbouring States, there are no independent papers in Rajputana. A King may start a weekly, to encourage a taste for Sanskrit and high Hindi, or a Prince may create a Court Chronicle; but that is all. A ‘free press’ is not allowed, and this the native journalist knows. With good management he can, keeping under the shadow of our flag, raise two hundred rupees from a big man here, and five hundred from a rich man there, but he does not establish himself across the Border. To one who has reason to hold a stubborn disbelief in even the elementary morality of the native press, this bashfulness and lack of enterprise is amusing. But to return to the native States’ administrations. There is nothing exactly wrong in the methods of government that are overlaid with English terms and forms. They are vigorous, in certain points; and where they are not vigorous, there is a cheery happy-go-luckiness about the arrangement that must be seen to be understood. The shift and play of a man’s fortune across the Border is as sudden as anything in the days of Haroun-al-Raschid of blessed memory, and there are stories, to be got for the unearthing, as wild and as improbable as those in the Thousand and One Nights. Most impressive of all is the way in which the country is ‘used,’ and its elasticity under pressure. In the good old days the Durbar raised everything it could from the people, and the King spent as much as ever he could on his personal pleasures. Now the institution of the Political agent has stopped the grabbing, for which, by the way, some of the monarchs are not in the least grateful—and smoothed the outward face of things. But there is still a difference between our ways and the ways of the other places. A year spent among native States ought to send a man back to the Decencies and the Law Courts and the Rights of the Subject with a supreme contempt for those who rave about the oppressions of our brutal bureaucracy. One month nearly taught an average Englishman that it was the proper thing to smite anybody of mean aspect and obstructive tendencies on the mouth with a shoe. Hear what an intelligent loafer said. His words are at least as valuable as these babblings. He was, as usual, wonderfully drunk, and the gift of speech came upon him. The conversation—he was a great politician, this loafer—had turned on the poverty of India. ‘Poor?’ said he. ‘Of course it’s poor. Oh, yes, d—d poor. And I’m poor, an’ you’re poor, altogether. Do you expect people will give you money without you ask ’em? No, I tell you, Sir, there’s enough money in India to pave Hell with if you could only get at it. I’ve kep’ servants in my day. Did they ever leave me without a hundred or a hundred and fifty rupees put by—and never touched? You mark that. Does any black man who had been in Guv’ment service go away without hundreds an’ hundreds put by, and never touched? You mark that. Money? The place stinks o’ money just kept out o’ sight. Do you ever know a native that didn’t say Garib admi (I’m a poor man)? They’ve been sayin’ Garib admi so long that the Guv’ment learns to believe ’em, and now they’re all bein’ treated as though they was paupers. I’m a pauper, an’ you’re a pauper—we ’aven’t got anything hid in the ground—an’ so’s every white man in this forsaken country. But the Injian he’s a rich man. How do I know? Because I’ve tramped on foot, or warrant pretty well from one end of the place to the other, an’ I know what I’m talkin’ about, and this ’ere Guv’ment goes peckin’ an’ fiddlin’ over its tuppenny-ha’penny little taxes as if it was afraid. Which it is. You see how they do things in ——. It’s six sowars here, and ten sowars there, and—“pay up, you brutes, or we’ll pull your ears over your head.” And when they’ve taken all they can get, the headman, he says: “This is a dashed poor yield. I’ll come again.” Of course the people digs up something out of the ground, and they pay. I know the way it’s done, and that’s the way to do it. You can’t go to an Injian an’ say: “Look here. Can you pay me five rupees?” He says: “Garib admi,” of course, an’ would say it if he was as rich as a banker. But if you send half a dozen swords at him and shift the thatch off of his roof, he’ll pay. Guv’ment can’t do that. I don’t suppose it could. There is no reason why it shouldn’t. But it might do something like it, to show that it wasn’t going to have no nonsense. Why, I’d undertake to raise a hundred million—what am I talking of?—a hundred and fifty million pounds from this country per annum, and it wouldn’t be strained then. One hundred and fifty millions you could raise as easy as paint, if you just made these ’ere Injians understand that they had to pay an’ make no bones about it. It’s enough to make a man sick to go in over yonder to —— and see what they do; and then come back an’ see what we do. Perfectly sickenin’ it is. Borrer money? Why the country could pay herself an’ everything she wants, if she was only made to do it. It’s this bloomin’ Garib admi swindle that’s been going on all these years, that has made fools o’ the Guv’ment.’

Then he became egotistical, this ragged ruffian who conceived that he knew the road to illimitable wealth, and told the story of his life, interspersed with anecdotes that would blister the paper they were written on. But through all his ravings, he stuck to his hundred-and-fifty-million theory, and though the listener dissented from him and the brutal cruelty with which his views were stated, an unscientific impression remained not to be shaken off. Across the Border one feels that the country is being used, exploited, ‘made to sit up,’ so to speak. In our territories the feeling is equally strong of wealth ‘just round the corner,’ as the loafer said, of a people wrapped up in cottonwool and ungetatable. Will any man, who really knows something of a little piece of India and has not the fear of running counter to custom before his eyes, explain how this impression is produced, and why it is an erroneous one?

Nasirabad marked the end of the Englishman’s holiday, and there was sorrow in his heart. ‘Come back again,’ said Ram Baksh cheerfully, ‘and bring a gun with you. Then I’ll take you to Gungra, and I’ll drive you myself. ’Drive you just as well as I’ve driven these four days past.’ An amicable open-minded soul was Ram Baksh. May his tongas never grow less!

.     .     .     .     .

‘This ’ere Burma fever is a bad thing to have. It’s pulled me down awful; an’ now I am going to Peshawar. Are you the Stationmaster?’ It was Thomas—white-cheeked, sunken-eyed, drawn-mouthed Thomas—travelling from Nasirabad to Peshawar on pass; and with him was a Corporal new to his stripes and doing station-duty. Every Thomas is interesting, except when he is too drunk to speak. This Thomas was an enthusiast. He had volunteered, from a Home-going regiment shattered by Burma fever, into a regiment at Peshawar, had broken down at Nasirabad on his way up with his draft, and was now journeying into the unknown to pick up another medal. ‘There’s sure to be something on the Frontier,’ said this gaunt, haggard boy—he was little more, though he reckoned four years’ service and considered himself somebody. ‘When there’s anything going, Peshawar’s the place to be in, they tell me; but I hear we shall have to march down to Calcutta in no time.’ The Corporal was a little man and showed his friend off with great pride: ‘Ah, you should have come to us,’ said he; ‘we’re the regiment, we are.’ ‘Well, I went with the rest of our men,’ said Thomas. ‘There’s three hundred of us volunteered to stay on, and we all went for the same regiment. Not but what I’m saying yours is a good regiment,’ he added with grave courtesy. This loosed the Corporal’s tongue, and he descanted on the virtues of the regiment and the merits of the officers. It has been written that Thomas is devoid of esprit de corps, because of the jerkiness of the arrangements under which he now serves. If this be true, he manages to conceal his feelings very well; for he speaks most fluently in praise of his own regiment; and, for all his youth, has a keen appreciation of the merits of his officers. Go to him when his heart is opened, and hear him running through the roll of the subalterns, by a grading totally unknown in the Army List, and you will pickup something worth the hearing. Thomas, with the Burma fever on him, tried to cut in, from time to time, with stories of his officers and what they had done ‘when we was marchin’ all up and down Burma,’ but the little Corporal went on gaily.

They made a curious contrast—these two types. The lathy, town-bred Thomas with hock-bottle shoulders, a little education, and a keen desire to get more medals and stripes; and the little, deep-chested, bull-necked Corporal brimming over with vitality and devoid of any ideas beyond the ‘regiment.’ And the end of both lives, in all likelihood, would be a nameless grave in some cantonment burying-ground with, if the case were specially interesting and the Regimental Doctor had a turn for the pen, an obituary notice in the Indian Medical Journal. It was an unpleasant thought.

From the Army to the Navy is a perfectly natural transition, but one hardly to be expected in the heart of India. Dawn showed the railway carriage full of riotous boys, for the Agra and Mount Abu schools had broken up for holidays. Surely it was natural enough to ask a child—not a boy, but a child—whether he was going home for the holidays; and surely it was a crushing, a petrifying thing to hear in a clear treble tinged with icy scorn: ‘No. I’m on leave. I’m a midshipman.’ Two ‘officers of Her Majesty’s Navy’—mids of a man-o’-war at Bombay—were going up-country on ten days’ leave. They had not travelled much more than twice round the world; but they should have printed the fact on a label. They chattered like daws, and their talk was as a whiff of fresh air from the open sea, while the train ran eastward under the Aravalis. At that hour their lives were bound up in and made glorious by the hope of riding a horse when they reached their journey’s end. Much had they seen cities and men, and the artless way in which they interlarded their conversation with allusions to ‘one of those shore-going chaps, you see,’ was delicious. They had no cares, no fears, no servants, and an unlimited stock of wonder and admiration for everything they saw, from the ‘cute little well-scoops’ to a herd of deer grazing on the horizon. It was not until they had opened their young hearts with infantile abandon that the listener could guess from the incidental argot where these pocket-Ulysseses had travelled. South African, Norwegian, and Arabian words were used to help out the slang of shipboard, and a copious vocabulary of shipboard terms, complicated with modern Greek. As freefrom self-consciousness as children, as ignorant as beings from another planet of the AngloIndian life into which they were going to dip for a few days, shrewd and observant as befits men of the world who have authority, and neat-handed and resourceful as—blue-jackets, they were a delightful study, and accepted freely and frankly the elaborate apologies tendered to them for the unfortunate mistake about the ‘holidays.’ The roads divided and they went their way; and there was a shadow after they had gone, for the Globe-trotter said to his wife, ‘What I like about Jeypore’—accent on the first syllable, if you please—‘is its characteristic easternness.’ And the Globe-trotter’s wife said ‘Yes. It is purely Oriental.’

This was Jeypore with the gas-jets and the water-pipes as was shown at the beginning of these trivial letters; and the Globe-trotter and his wife had not been to Amber. Joyful thought! They had not seen the soft splendours of Udaipur, the nightmare of Chitor, the grim power of Jodhpur, and the virgin beauties of Boondi—fairest of all places that the Englishman had set eyes on. The Globe-trotter was great in the matter of hotels and food, but he had not lain under the shadow of a tonga in soft warm sand, eating cold pork with a pocket-knife, and thanking Providence who put sweet-water streams where wayfarers wanted them. He had not drunk out the brilliant cold-weather night in the company of the King of Loafers, a grimy scallawag with a six-days beard and an unholy knowledge of native States. He had attended service in cantonment churches; but he had not known what it was to witness the simple, solemn ceremonial in the dining-room of a far-away Residency, when all the English folk within a hundred-mile circuit bowed their heads before the God of the Christians. He had blundered about temples of strange deities with a guide at his elbow; but he had not known what it was to attempt conversation with a temple dancing-girl (not such an one as Edwin Arnold invented), and to be rewarded for a misturned compliment with a deftly heaved bunch of marigold buds in his respectable bosom. Yet he had undoubtedly lost much, and the measure of his loss was proven in his estimate of the Orientalism of Jeypore.

But what had he who sat in judgment upon him gained? One perfect month of loaferdom, to be remembered above all others, and the night of the visit to Chitor, to be remembered even when the month is forgotten. Also the sad knowledge that of all the fair things seen, the inept pen gives but a feeble and blurred picture.

Let those who have read to the end, pardon a hundred blemishes.