A Popular Picnic

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 30 March 1886


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, pp. 11-12

The Chiraghan festival, or festival of lamps, is held in honour of the Muslim Saint ’Abd al-Qadir Jilani. The Shalimar gardens, six miles east of Lahore, were laid out in 1641 by Shah Jehan. [T.P.]

The Article

The mistri (carpenter) beguiled me. He is a flaneur (idler, one who strolls about) and a man about town when he isn’t making office-boxes and charpoys (beds) . He said the Chiragan Mela would be an extremely fine tamasha (spectacle), that he and all his friends were going. Ekkas (two-wheeled carriages) were at a premium among the aristocracy of the City, and the ticca-gharris (hired carriages) were bespoken. He made an appointment with me somewhere on the Shalimar road, but I think he must have forgotten it, for I saw him later on talking to a lady with purple-shot silk pyjamas, and very black hair, and a natural diffidence prevented me from accosting him. But after all the chaprassi (messanger) did just as well. He accepted a lift to the Mela on the roof of my ticca, and the khitmatgar (house-servant) climbed up too, till I was afraid that the roof would cave in. My friend the chaprassi is a man about town too, like the mistri, and he showed me all that there was to be seen. For the first half hour the view was disappointing. Somebody had published a statement in the newspaper to the effect that the Municipality had spent two hundred rupees on watering on the road. By the time that you had got opposite the new rifle-range on the other side of the railway line, you began to cough, and to realise what a wanton liar the man who made that statement was. The dust was inches deep; and one unbroken line of ekkas, bullock-carts, hackeries, ticca-gharries, dog-carts, and ‘fittons’ (phaetons) on the left hand side of the road, and another unbroken line on the right hand side of the road was ploughing it up the whole way from the railway-crossing to Shalimar and back again. When a breeze came you could see two ekka lengths ahead. When it dropped you could hear the driver yelling and the ekkas bumping into you like small boats round a big ship.

No ekka held less than five persons — none at least of those I saw, and there was one long-necked cart with five and thirty people in it. Sixteen of them were children, but even then they had to pack close. When the dust allowed a clear view, you could see lanes of people closing in on Shalimar, through the green crops near Begumpora village and from the Mian Mir side too. Most of them were singing as they went along, and when they reached the main road, they chaffed the drivers of the ekkas and got in their way. One ekka lost a wheel and sat down like a hen in the middle of the traffic, while the fares rolled about in the dust and were nearly trodden on. This was considered a very superior joke. No one offered to help, but every one laughed a good deal — except the pony and he kicked till the driver beat good deal except the pony, and he hit him over the head with a bamboo. Then he went off to graze; and the last I could see of the business was the driver trying to collect passage-money from the spilt fares and nursing the loose wheel under one arm.

The real crush began about five hundred yards before you came to the gates of the gardens. My friend the chaprassi said that there were fewer people at the Mela than last year; but that a lakh at least (100,000) must be present. He speaks the truth generally, but I don’t think he understands figures. A Police Inspector Sahib, who has seen nearly as many me las as there are inches in his waist-belt, said that he reckoned the gathering at between thirteen and fourteen thousand. Putting the two estimates together, and deducting the proper percentages, we get between twenty and twenty five thousand. This is quite high enough, if you add a thousand or so for children too small to count, and only big enough to fall over. It was the children’s day out on Sunday. Perhaps there were twenty mothers of families. This is a very liberal estimate. The rest were children and men. I suppose it is not considered wholesome to let the womenfolk of the country enjoy themselves. It might overexcite them or lead to a revolution. A man mob isn’t pretty to look at when you think of these things, and remember how for nearly every man enjoying himsell over the kabab stalls or the sweetmeat booths there’s a woman at home out of it, and getting the place in order against his return. My friend the chaprassi had put a thin book-muslin wrapper over his office kit, and was really very well turned out all over; but he was very much shocked at the notion that his wife might possibly care to join in the fun. He said that tamashas like the Chiragan Fair were not for women, and then went away to stuff himself with thin cakes fried in ghi (butter) and three kababs and a bottle of muddy lemonade. The whole picnic cost him one anna and a half, but he explained that I couldn’t have got as much for four annas. I believed him implicitly, and I know that I wouldn’t have eaten the messes for a thousand rupees. Kababs are made in a horrible way; so are the cakes fried in ghi, and so is the lemonade. To show there is no deception — nothing but good honest dirt — they are all three manufactured in public, and they command a ready sale.

The first entertainment was a peep-show in a tent labelled ‘House wonderful. Performances’. There were six holes in a board and the smells of six kerosine lamps. You looked through the holes, and if you strained your eyes you could see six things like labels on biscuit-boxes. The gentleman in charge of the show was very polite, and told me a good deal that I did not know before of a place called ‘Lan’nin’, and ‘Yopra’. I knew what ‘Lan’nin’ was, because I had lived there once and it’s the capital of England. ‘Yopra’ I took for a Hindu god at first. The peep-show didn’t help a bit, and it was only just at the end that I found out it was a house in Paris where people play music. We call it the Opera House, but the peep-show man said it was a person. He said that all the kala admis (black men) were deeply interested in his show, and that English sahibs paid four and five rupees for a peep. I did not pay five rupees, but I gave him a perfectly new stock of ‘patter’ if he cares to use it, and a lot of novel information about ‘Lun’nin’ and ‘Yopra’. He said that my words were true and I said he spoke the truth as honestly as I did. Which was true. My friend the chaprassi wanted to introduce me to a friend of his own after we had left the peep-show, so we wandered under the trees of the Shalimar Gardens, and nearly stamped on a baby. The ground was brown with babes — from fat little things just able to walk and quite naked, to miniature Mussalmans of eight, with enormous red and gold turbans and blue leather shoes. They were very nice babies, but they had a curious habit of settling down to sleep in the very spot where you were going to put your foot next. They never gave any warning, and their fathers left it to you to tread on them or not as you pleased. Everywhere under the trees were spread little carpets, and to each carpet there were eight or ten men, a hookah and a fringe of babies. The hookahs had new chillams (burners) mostly; the men were in new clothes, the babies in every case were as well dressed as their fathers could afford. Some were in blue and gold; lilac and blue, saffron and vermilion, with gold and black velvet caps; one was red and gold from head to heel; another a delicate mustard colour, and scores of them were in pink and green. One baby, — the one I nearly stamped on, — had a pair of cretonne drawers. The pattern was intended for a curtain. It would have looked striking anywhere. On a baby it was amazing. He was very proud of those drawers. That was the reason I nearly stepped on him. You see, he would keep rolling over on his head every minute to show ’em off. He finished up by rolling into the middle of a carpet, upsetting the hookah, and breaking up the assembly in a Sodom and Gomorrah rain of red-hot tobacco. (Sodom and Gomorrah were the ‘cities of the plain’ near the Dead Sea in ancient times; they were consumed by fire and brimstone as a divine judgement on their wickedness) No-one seemed to mind, and as it wasn’t my carpet that was burnt into a sieve, I didn’t feel called upon to interfere. One of the most striking things at a native mcla is the way children are petted and spoilt. Perhaps they get the affection that isn’t lavished on their mothers, besides their proper share. At any rate a native never seems to slap or scold a baby. He’ll make one ill with sweetmeats or give it a mud doll to chew; but I’ve never seen him call one to order in English fashion.

A rupee makes you as rich as Croesus at Shalimar. You can buy up the better part of a toy seller’s stock in trade with it, and for the rest of the afternoon small boys come up with their share of the loot to say ‘Talaam Tahib’ and run away shouting. If you care to beat down the man in charge to ‘a reduction on taking a quantity’ you can acquire nearly as much merit as a Buddhist priest by filling up a merry-go-round with small sinners, and making the man turn it till he can’t turn any more. Of course a large portion of the brown innocents grow up into khitmatgars, who tell lies and steal money, or ghariwans (drivers) who try to cheat, or members of Municipal Committees and cattle of that kind, but they are delightful while they are young, and their manners ought to make an English baby blush for his rude little self. The men, as I have said, seemed to come for the purpose of amusing the children. Their own share of the pleasure wasn’t much. They wandered about, most of them, and shouted for lost friends in the crowd, but they never let go of the babies — except to let them bathe. The shallow tanks of the Shalimar gardens were full of brown babies of all kinds. They danced on the brink squealing till their fathers gave them leave to strip. Then they squealed shrilly all the time they shredded off their little wraps, and flopped into the water, as naked as original innocence, and squealed all the time they flopped. A baby of six with a shaved and scraped head can stay in the water for one hour and twenty minutes under a hot sun that forces an Englishman to wear a large pith hat. He doesn’t duck his head more than once, and it reflects the sun like a mirror. Twenty thousand Englishmen couldn’t spend four hours at the Crystal Palace without five hundred getting beastly drunk. A native crowd gives no trouble in that way or any other, except when the two creeds happen to get mixed, and some one starts a religious argument with a lathi (iron-bound stick). The Chiragan Mela was purely a Mahommedan affair, and all the police who were out of eyeshot of any authority fraternized with the crowd. They slipped off their waistbelts, borrowed a hookah, held a baby by one hand and with the other, staked pice on the roulette-tables and tried to come to ‘attention’ when they saw an Englishman. Roulette-tables are demoralizing. My friend the chaprassi staked several pice and lost. So did some of the babies, and they went away and cried. The gambling instinct shows itself early in life. Never give an infant gambler pice. He doesn’t spend it on sweets or merry go rounds. He goes on staking, poor innocent, and cries again.

My friend the chaprassi said that the Nats, who walk on slack ropes and balance themselves on bamboos, were the best part of the show. He was quite right. Their performances were very wonderful, and their tackle so insecure, that you expected a fall every minute from the rope to the stones below. On an average they collected two annas per performance, and they performed five times in three hours, but they never hurt themselves, which was what the crowds seemed to want.

This was about all that there was to be seen. The performing monkeys didn’t draw, and went away early in the day with their red petticoats trailing mournfully in the dust. An exhibition of arts and manufactures was being held in the Dak Bungalow, but the crowd was more interesting. They didn’t seem to have anything to amuse themselves with, and yet they were all laughing; they seemed to be very poor for the most part, and yet all the stalls and booths were besieged; and last of all they didn’t seem to know how to misbehave themselves. Even the boys in the tank who splashed the passers-by, did it in a halfhearted sort of way as if they were only pretending to be mischievous.

My friend the chaprassi did the honours of the fair in the finest fashion. The Khitmatgar had a carpet of his own, a hookah, several friends and lots of babies, and looked so dignified, that I was afraid of his cutting me in public, so I fetched a compass to avoid him. Of course there were plenty of raises (respectable people) and zemindars (landowners) and upper class natives, but you can find these at Durbars any day in the week, and there’s a certain respectable sameness about them. Nearly everybody’s Khitmatgar and bearer was there, but they had their foot on their native heather, and were gentlemen at large with clean clothes and money to spend. They were very courteous, but you felt the fact all the same, and it seemed to be rubbed into you that the people who make up our nauker-log (household servants) have the manners and instincts of gentlemen away from their service and on their own ground. Humiliating thing to confess of course; but I fancy it’s true. My friend the chaprassi will be ‘O-chaprassi-iher ao’ (here, messanger !) in another twelve hours, and my bondslave for rupees six per mensem as it is right and proper and just. But I saw another side of his character on the day when he piloted me through the packed tumult of the Chiragan fair of 1886. And it’s very curious.