The City of Evil Countenances

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 1 April 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks, 28/1 p. 17. Diary 28 March 1885.

Peshawar, now in Pakistan, lies at the southern end of the Khyber Pass, the ancient route from Afghanistan into India. ‘The City of Evil Countenances’ was written at the end of Kipling’s first sojourn in the city, as a personal response to the experiences more formally treated in the special reports that he was sending back to the CMG in Lahore, some 500 km to the eouth-east. In his diary for 28 March 1885 Kipling notes: ‘Wrote the City of Evil Countenances and saw that it was good’. [T.P.]


Peshawar, March 28

Rolling thunder among the Khyber hills all day long; the day itself wasted in spiteful attempts to rain, varied by a shower of hail which clears the crowded streets as a mitrailleuse would do. Evening seems to have brought down the rain in earnest. A steady drizzling downpour blanketing the Fort, and the crops beyond, filling the roads with glutinous mire and the heart of man with despair. A downpour that shows little signs of ceasing throughout the night, neither the charms of an annotated Greek testament with strictly secular remarks written in the margin; or an odd number of the Calcutta Review with every other page torn out; or even Eugene Sue’s fantastic Le Morne-au-Diable (which must surely have crept into the dak bungalow by mistake) can counteract the depressing effect of the evening. In the Amir’s camp — swept and garnished for his reception — the soorkee (brick paving) of the paths has been converted into red gruel, and is discolouring the newly laid sods, the fountain basin overflowed a couple of hours ago and is now adding its share to the general slop. From the supply godown (warehous) a puff of the evening breeze brings the scent of fruits and spices — or rotten pummeloes and curry powder, as romance or reality are uppermost in one’s mind — and the mute eloquence of over-ripe bananas, tells us that the days are long and the life of Bombay fruit short. The last mohurrir (native writer) has shaken the rain from his garments, and save for bottles of sherbet and certain gigantic Samovars, the godowns are deserted. The two Khans, fore-runners of the Ameer’s army of temporary occupation, have gone to bed like wise men; their horses protesting outside against the vileness of the weather. Nor does the police sentry on guard appreciate it one whit more; but luckier than the horses, he has consolations denied to brute beasts. As you watch him, standing shivering in the wet, the neck of his bayonet smokes furiously. Every now and then he takes the weapon between his teeth, and a few steps to leeward will tell you that native ingenuity has circumvented the Sirkar’s ordinances against smoking on duty: and the regulation foot of cold steel is for the nonce acting as a hookah. The lower end of the socket has been deftly closed with a stone, above this has been jammed a pledget of fresh barley stalks, and over all the tobacco The sentry applies his lips to the aperture by the locking ring. The cool stalks, in a manner, filter the smoke, and the hookah is in full blast. Should an inconvenient officer arrive on the scene, the smoker stands to attention; covering his improvised pipe with the palm of one horny hand, and detection, unless the officer be blessed with a specially keen nose, is almost impossible. A smoke under these circumstances would scarcely be appreciated by a European: but the sentry appears to enjoy his stolen whiffs immensely, and is quite ready to explain how it’s done.
Meantime, the City of Evil Countenances has become shrouded from sight by the incessant rain, and a journey to the Edwardes Gate means a mile-long struggle through soft oozy slime — to be undertaken only as a counter-irritant against the growing gloom of the evening. The road to the city is thronged with foot and horse passengers of all kinds; all utterly heedless of the downpour, and all, so it seems, shouting to a friend half a mile away. Strings of shaggy-haired camels, nearly as repulsive as their masters, jostle mule carts, ekkas and restive horses fretting under the punishment of their spiked bits. These ships of the desert can make but little headway through the ooze, blundering and swaying from side to side like rudderless galleons. Their long hair throws off the water as completely as a mackintosh, but the loads of bhoosa and green barley soak up as much as
they can to the discomfort of the dripping driver atop. A camel’s esprit de corps is an all-pervading essence which rain intensifies. His arrival is heralded on the wings of the wind, and his presence remembered long after he has passed away. Indeed, so powerful is the rank stench, that those who know least of him, maintain that it is the most offensive in the world. To this slander the unwashed camel driver gives the lie direct, and the Afghan no less. The healing rain that makes the onion to sprout and (six weeks later on) the white ant to suicide himself in the lamp flame, has no charms for these men, but rather acts on them as the sun on the rose. This evening the city road is witness to the fact.

Under the shadow of the Edwardes Gate, the crowd thickens, and the continuous tide of humanity is broken up into eddies, bays and cross-currents. The waning light is darkened here by the houses, and though it is barely six o’clock they have begun to light the shop chirags. Then you shall see a scene worthy almost of a place in the Inferno, for the city is unlovely even beneath bright sunshine, and when set off with heavy slime under foot, dark skies and rolling thunder overhead, and driving scotch mist, everywhere repulsive to every sense.

Under the shop lights in front of the sweetmeat and ghee (clarified butter) seller’s booths, the press and din of words is thickest. Faces of dogs, swine, weazles and goats, all the more hideous for being set on human bodies, and lighted with human intelligence, gather in front of the ring of lamplight / where they may be studied for half an hour at a stretch. Pathans, Afrecdees, Logas, Kohistanis, Turkomans, and a hundred other varieties of the turbulent Afghan race, are gathered in the vast human menagerie between the Gate and the Ghor Khutri. As an Englishman passes, they will turn to scowl upon him, and in many cases to spit fluently on the ground after he has passed. One burly big-paunched ruffian, with a shaven head and a neck creased and dimpled with rolls of fat, is specially zealous in this religious rite — contenting himself with no perfunctory performance, but with a whole-souled expectoration, that must be as refreshing to his comrades, as it is disgusting to the European, sir. As an unconscious compensation to the outraged Kafir, he poses himself magnificently on — degrading instance of civilization — a culvert, turning a very bull’s head and throat to the light. Dirty poshteen melts into the background of driving rain; neck, shoulders, and fiery red beard standing out in starting relief. But he is only one of twenty thousand. The main road teems with magnificent scoundrels and handsome ruffians; all giving the onlooker the impression of wild beasts held back from murder and violence, and chafing against the restraint. The impression may be wrong; and the Peshawari, the most innocent creature on earth, in spite of History’s verdict against him; but not unless thin lips, scowling brows, deep set vulpine eyes and lineaments stamped with every brute passion known to man, go for nothing. Women of course are invisible in the streets, but here and there instead, some nameless and shameless boy in girl’s clothes with long braided hair and jewellery — the centre of a crowd of admirers. As night draws on, the throng of ignoble heads becomes denser and the reek of unwashed humanity steaming under the rain, ranker and more insupportable. A free fight takes place in a side gully and terminates, after a little turban pulling and hair snatching, in a gale of guttural abuse and the presence of a policeman, not as an arbitrator in the fight, but merely a dignified spectator of the rixe. What might have happened in other and happier lands across the border it is impossible to say. Here the wild beasts seem to obey their keepers to admiration; and after all they are well looked after; the Sirkar’s benevolence permitting none to die by sword, bullet or epidemic disease, if it can possibly be avoided.

The ever circulating night patrols, and the ubiquitous policeman — (policemen are really ubiquitous in Peshawar) — bear witness to Government forethought in the first particular; the magnificent drain and water main which run through the main streets of the city, are equally eloquent as regards the second. A lakh and a few odd thousands of rupees have been spent — much to the Secretary of State’s disgust on economical grounds — in order that the city of evil countemmces might, if it willed, wash and be clean; or at least refrain from drawing cholera from the roadside and typhus from the standing pool. Reservoired, watered, drained and policed in the face of all opposition, and for the benefit of a proverbially thankless race, Peshawur as it now stands, is a city that could only have grown up under English care and English rule. Holy Russia would have tamed the wild beasts as effectually perhaps. They would have died largely under the process. France would have alternated barracks with cafes; lyceums of public instruction, and descents into the street of armed marauders. But it is easy to wax cheaply patriotic on this theme, as easy as it is to draw entirely erroneous conclusions from an evening stroll through one of the most wonderful cities on earth. The rancorous expectoration of our red-bearded friend — still on the culvert — as he performs his devoirs for the fourth time in the track of the ongoing kafir (infidel) may mean anything you please. A wanderer from the hills takes this opportunity of expressing his contempt for a whole nation — not even the long suffering missionary could credit him with influenza: or again neither security to life and goods, law, order, discipline, or the best blood of England wasted on their care, reconcile the Calibans of the city of evil countenances to the white stranger within their gates.
And tomorrow we do honour to the ruler of Afghanistan and its dependencies at Jumrood.