A Week in Lahore (1)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 7 May 1884


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1, p. 68

The articles that ran under this title, a series beginning with this item of 7 May and running irregularly until 2 June 1886, were apparently all written by Kipling, a total of thirty-six in all. The articles were notable in the CMG, since that paper austerely neglected most of the local news — the comings and goings, the amusements, the ceremonies, the casual triumphs, accidents, and disappointments of daily life as it unfolded among the English in Lahore. Kipling was assigned to the work rather than offering to do it, and his letters contain several complaints about the difficulty and tedium of the task. He signed them with the name of ‘Esau Mull’, or, simply, ‘E.M.’ A ‘Mull’, in Anglo-Indian slang, was a civil servant from the Madras Presidency, ‘mull’ being short for mulligatawny. What allusion Kipling had in mind, if any, I do not know.

Most of whatever interest these articles may have had originally has long since perished with the little community to which they were addressed. Yet there are moments of observation and remark that may still engage us, partly for what they tell us about the India in which Kipling lived, and partly for what they tell us about Kipling himself. I have accordingly chosen to reprint not complete articles in the ‘Week in Lahore’ series but such extracts as I have judged to carry this double interest.

It is more than possible that the last paragraph of this item was written by John Lockwood Kipling.[T.P.]

The Article

Lahore — when almost all who can have taken their leave to the Hills, and the ‘coppersmith’ is busy all day tolling the knell of departed cold-weather delights — has no history of its own. You shall find it tastefully scattered round the band stand (at least thirty strong) on Friday nights, or lolling, like Tennyson’s Godlets, who were so offensively remiss in their duties to man-kind, over iced drinks in the Lawrence Hall Gardens. Yet the whole symposium in archaic carriages or cane-bottomed lounging chairs will not, from a newswriter’s point of view, repay fifteen minutes’ study. Lahore has, in fact, aestivated and will not awake again till October, when the rains have abated off the surface of the earth, and the voice of the returning Hill birds is again heard in the land. For such at home as believe that the Englishman in India spends his highly-paid days in slaying cobras and ‘walking in the jungle’ (this last is always insisted upon, after the returned Prodigal has explained that snakes are far from common in a Punjab station) the mournful spectacle of a dozen hot men, slowly absorbing cold drinks under the shadow of a red-hot Stucco palace, would be both healthful and instructive.

This deep peace of ours is only broken by the arrival of strangers from other, and hotter, climes — Mooltan par example. The vivifying coolness of our station acts like a charm upon these visitants, and a shower is to them pleasure unalloyed. Some few weeks ago a Mooltan man and a thunderstorm burst upon the station together. As the first big drops fell on the roof of the club, the Stranger abandoned his billiard cue and hurried out, with upturned face, into the compound, where he stayed, rapturously smiling at the clouds, till thoroughly wet. ‘I haven’t seen rain for three years’, was the explanation tendered to a delighted bystander, and the moral of this story is that, in spite of the dead calm which broods over the station there are others worse off then we. [A paragraph on the Indian practice of adulterating wheat follows.]

A people whose tobacco is — well, what it is — cannot, in the very nature of things, be expected to set a high value on the purity of their wheat. It was once the writer’s misfortune to watch some cheap tobacco in process of manufacture for the chillum. The tobacconist was old and withered — it must have been from long sitting on a cranky board over an offensive drain. At the edge of the roadway, where the dust of traffic blew densest, and the pariah dog took refuge from the passing ekka, lay the tobacco in dusty sheaves on a coarse cloth; and the buyer, a young and sprightly coolie, whose only clothing appeared to be a brass tooth-pick slung round the neck, was allowed — but not without much altercation — to take his choice from it. This he intimated to the Ancient with an expressive gesture of the toes and forthwith the bundle was triturated, soaked, rolled, and thumped in an evil looking cloth of doubtful parentage, till it oozed out on the board abovementioned, a brown sticky mass. The water, by the way, was hastily caught up in a chatty from the running stream below, and it must have been to counteract its peculiar bouquet that the Ancient stirred in what he said was ‘attar of roses’, from a dirt-encrusted beer-bottle. A little lime mixed with more water, a careful handful of something that looked like dried tamarinds and smelt like all Cologne city made the ‘gruel thick and slab’, and a few deft pats and punches slid it into a large dried leaf, fit for immediate use. Then it was revealed to me, as the coolie went away with this terrible compost in the folds of his turban, that India could never be great nor prosperous, nor enlightened, till her teeming millions were taught to respect the gift of the American dryad and to smoke their weed pure and undefiled.

We seem to be all agreed to praise our Railway management and nobody will deny that, if a Briton wished to swagger — and at times this duty is incumbent upon him — he might challenge the world to match our achievements in this line. But there are spots on the sun, and I humbly venture to submit that the native subordinate staff does not, as a rule, know its business. Why should a booking office clerk take six minutes and a half by a Shrewsbury clock, to get two first-class tickets and a third, to Amballa? Why should he tell passengers to go to distant parts of the station for tickets to Dinanaggar on the new Pathankot line, and why, oh why, does he make mistakes with your change? I am perfectly aware that you cannot buy an extensive range of accomplishments for fifteen rupees a month, but, surely, in an important station like Lahore, some pains might be taken to teach Nubbi Baksh his business. At the Punjab College, they teach Milton and Chaucer — and if report be true, squabble over these worthies at times — and other branches of learning may be studied at the High Schools, but nobody seems to give any instruction in Railway work. There are a number of decorative persons, mostly of the Eurasian persuasion, in Lahore Railway Station, whose business seems to be to emerge from the recesses of the Station building a few minutes before the arrival of a train, and to exist beautifully until its departure. Their duties consist, so far as one may see, in wearing caps with silver monograms, in brandishing lanterns — this is not often undertaken — and in discussing the affairs and festivities of the Punjab Rifle Volunteers. Nubbi Baksh does all the work with which passengers are concerned and he might be taught to do it a great deal better. He is docile enough, and, if closely looked after, willing. On occasion, too, he is affable, but affability is not a virtue included in the fifteen-rupee-per-mensem contract, and Nubbi Baksh wisely sticks to the letter of the bond.

If I were a native third-class passenger, by the way, I should most certainly appear daily before Mr Parker or Mr Clarke, on charges of assaulting those decorative young persons with the lettered caps and lanterns. Native passengers are stupid, troublesome — anything you like — but they ought to be treated more like human beings than they are. The official swells at the head of affairs say that they are willing to deal promptly and severely with any cases that may be brought to their notice, but you can’t cure the unnecessary rudeness and truculence of manner which I am sorry to say, has grown into a confirmed habit with many of the European and Eurasian subordinates on our Railways, by an official wigging. I give the following brilliant idea for what it is worth: — Let some of the Heads of Departments disguise themselves in the garb of the country, and, as cultivators or craftsmen, take their chance among the dingy crowds that are hustled, pushed, and driven, like bullocks into their pens whenever a train arrives. Surely, there is enough dramatic talent in the S.P. and D. Railway to work out this priceless notion, with a view to reporting on it afterwards [….]

It is a question for philosophers to settle whether the clouds of fine cinder dust blown up into the higher atmosphere by the Javanese volcano have moderated the sun’s heat, as well as enriched his evening splendour with a crimson afterglow. This notion is seriously entertained by scientific observers in America, and, up in the Punjab, we are quite willing to believe that some influence has been at work to keep our air fresh and cool. But the tyrannous sun is not to be denied and, at last, the hot weather seems to be setting in. The untidy siris tree that scatters pods all the year round is now flinging abroad her scented plumes of flowers and unfolding her late leaves. The shisham is in full foliage with a wealth of that clear bright green which seems to defy the scorching heat. The mulberry’s shabby fruit, and the mean, dry figs of the pipal have attracted immense flights of a pretty black and white starlings known to some as the ‘mulberry bird’, and every native who could get a gun of any sort has been out after them. In the Gurdaspur district, where mulberries are plentiful flocks of these starlings seem to stretch for half a mile across the sky, and they are netted in some numbers. In the great division of nature into things good to eat and things not good to eat, they stand in class No. 1; but they are not so tasty as snipe, nor so succulent as quail. The pairing time of most birds is about over. Our summer visitors have come and are taking toll of the insects. Bronze green bee- eaters, who will presently set up housekeeping in holes in dry banks, like sand martins and others, are hard at work thinning our winged plagues. The small Indian honeybee, not much larger than a house fly, is still rummaging the fading flowers and building her comb in the fork of a ferash tree, until the Department of Revenue and Agriculture shall issue instructions for taming and ‘exploiting’ her. The beautiful brown and yellow hornet blunders down your unstopped chimneys, and the pale yellow wasp, nimble on the wing but feeble afoot, has begun its summer course of crime. The brilliant ichneumon-fly, one of the most indefatigable workers of the insect tribe, is now fetching head loads of finely tempered mud, at the rate of one every two minutes, and building neat little grottoes, which she fills with fat-bodied spiders, preserved by some antiseptic
secret of her own, till the time when her infant successor shall be ready to eat his way through their soft bodies to the shell of his domicile, and so into the free air.
The burly black and yellow carpenter bee, who has the gift of drilling holes in timber as round and smooth as if done by steel augers at the Railway workshops, is driving his tunnels into all the dead wood he can find and storing them with the dry, waxy goorlike (molasses-like) honey it is his speciality to manufacture. The many kingdoms of the ant world are in lively motion, and their highways are alive with a harvest time of grass seed. Some of them, like two-legged cultivators, are threshing, and their chaff may be seen in large quantities. The omnivorous hoopoe is down on them, since she is feeding her little hoopoes in their evil-smelling nest. This pretty bird in her domestic interior is careless and dirty. All nature, in short, seems to be alive and busy, while we must resign ourselves to make as good weather of it as we can with the help of the punkah, and, later, the thermantidote.

Esau Mull