First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 29 June 1887
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.128-9
A public services commission had been travelling from administrative town to adminstrative town up and down India for some months past, hearing testimony on the subject of the employment and treatment of natives in the administration of India. Kipling’s paper tended to regard the business without sympathy, on the grounds that the jealousies, cliques, and intrigues of native servants — public or private — made any attempt at rational inquiry and just reform quite impossible. As Kipling wrote of the Commission, after it had been largely neglected by the officials in Calcutta:
this side-show which is performing up and down the country,
is a native side-show for the benefit of Anjuman-i-Sabahs, Associations, native newspapers, Subordinate Judges, Munsiffs and so on. The Great Indian Nation clamoured for and got it; and now the very metropolis of the Nation seems to have left it severely alone. The Civilian never had any connection with it from the beginning, because his hands were full of work, and unless he had a ‘fad’ to ventilate, or a mark to make, he did not trouble his head about the business. No man can help to govern a country and help to show how that country should be governed, at one and the same time. (CMG, 29 January 1887).
The situation that Kipling develops in this satiric reduction of the Commission suggested further possibilities to him. Between 15 July 1887 and 9 January 1888 he published six stories about a man named Smith and his administration of his own household which grew out of ‘The Private Services Commission’. One of these Smith stories, “The Serai Cabal”, reworks some of the material in ‘The Private Services Commission’; the whole series was collected in The Smith Administration.
It owed its origin to a fortuitous combination of accidental circumstances; and its birth-place was the back-verandah where the ferash trees (mean trees ?: ferash means a menial servant) shut out the road. The khansamah (steward) had insulted the bhisti’s mother (a bhisti is a water-carrier), and I was called upon to arbitrate.
I was all the Commission, for Absalom, my long haired Skye (Skye terrier), wouldn’t attend to his duties as Recorder. He sat in the mehter’s (sweeper’s) lap throughout; and I regret to record that the levity of his behaviour was only equalled by his shameless and glaring partiality. There were present, the khansamah, my bearer, and the cook, as representing the educated classes; the khansamah’s son, the bearer’s sons, the cook’s nephew, and the mussalchi (kitchen helper) who was an orphan. These stood for the sons of the educated classes who hoped for employment. They were full of ungratified ambition, and wore their turbans fantastically. Apart from these were, the bhisti and the bhisti’s bhai (friend), the mallee (gardener), and his mate, the ayah (nanny) and the ayah’s children — some hundreds — both saises (grooms), the coachman, and the two grass-cutters, besides a person who did grass cutters’ work when the regular ones were sick.
Last of all came the mehter and his broom. I was the State and I had the chair with the leg-rests. The khansamah filled my pipe, in order to show that he identified his interests with mine; and the bearer brought the matches for the same reason.
The charge against the khansamah was disposed of in a few minutes. The bhisti’s mamma had called him a black lizard without a back-bone, and he had retaliated by comparing her to a toad before the rains break. Both comparisons were absolutely accurate; so both parties were dismissed with a warning.
But the evening was pleasantly cool, and no one had much to do, or showed any desire to get off the grass. So I declared myself a Commission and announced my willingness to hear everybody’s grievances. No one spoke, for a long time; the witnesses began plucking the grass blade by blade, and smiling dubiously.
Then I said: — ‘What sort of nokri (job) is this your nokri and what is your opinion of the nokri?’ Then they all shouted: — ‘Hazur-ki-parwashti’ (thanks for the generosity of the powerful one !) or words to that effect, and I felt that the Commission was going to be a sham.
But the bhisti’s mother saved me. She drew the chudder (shawl) over her nose, and growled: — ‘The coachman is a liar, Protector of the Poor.’ I had often suspected this and had hinted as much to the coachman, but I did not see that it was evidence exactly. The coachman had said ‘choop’ (shut up!) to the bhisti’s mamma, but the bhisti said: — ‘That is truth. I water the horses, and he should give me two annas and nine pie a month but he only gives me two annas.’ Now I pay the bhisti seven rupees a month, and his duties are not heavy. He has no right to perquisites. But I felt that this was [not] evidence. The coachman got angry and abused the bhisti, but the horse sais — not the sais attached to the carriage — said to the bhisti ‘That is true. But who gives you the double handful of gram weekly from the sahib’s bin?’ Now the ayah had a tendresse for that sais, and she had quarrelled with the coachman on the same gram question. She screamed: — ‘And who gives the grass short weight, and takes five annas dustoorie on each shoeing, O base born and rat-hearted, inadequate one?’ That fetched the mehter, whose wife the ayah was, and he said nasty things about her, till she wept, vowing that he had never swept out the drawing-room to her own certain knowledge for three weeks.
You see the bhisti had quarrelled with the coachman, who was hated by one of the saises who again was beloved by the ayah, who backed his accusation against the coachman, she being the wedded wife of the mehter who naturally did not approve of her weakness for a chumar (low caste leather -woker). That is clear enough isn’t it?
From this point onward things began to get complicated. There is an enormous amount of subordinate administration about a serai (compound), if you really go into it. When the mehter was accused of neglect of his official duties, the evil spirit prompted the leader of the educated classes, the khansamah, who, up to this point, had been ostentatiously impartial, to wag his head slowly and tell me that the mehter was, without doubt, a careless servant. Now the ayah allowed no one but herself to abuse her husband. She came to the mehter’s rescue and the two lifted up their voices and accused the khansamah of brandy and sugar stealing from the almirah, and called upon the mussalchi to confirm their statements. Now the mussalchi was an orphan, owing nothing to any man, and he made answer that he was so busy doing all the khansamah’s work that he had no time to watch his superior’s thefts.
Here the cook, who wanted his own nephew to be the mussalchi, called the Orphan a black-mouthed gambler, a waster of time and pice in the Sudder Bazar, a thief and a vagabond. The Orphan was fighting for his own hand with none to help him. He answered sweetly that, whatever his vices might be he did not go shares in the rupees which the bearer stole from the Sahib’s pockets of a morning. He stole from the kala admi (black men) when any theft was necessary. I admired the Orphan’s freedom from fear. It provoked a high-pitched catalogue of his crimes at the mouths of the cook’s nephew and the bearer’s two sons. The bearer retired about this point. He tendered no evidence, but said that my kamra (room) wanted saf-haro-ing (cleaning). His sons were his delegates.
My mallee is a man of few words. He had no special views or grievances. He only knew that the Sahib had given strict orders that neither the cook’s nephew nor the khansamah’s son nor the bearer’s sons should be allowed to live in the serai. He was a childless widower himself, and, besides, those young devils stole his onions. He did not recognize their right to speak at all. He was a poor man and raised onions —
‘And stole vegetables from Esmit Sahib for the Sahib’s dinner table’ said the khansamah. ‘All these Arains are one’. The mallee grunted, but the mallee’s mate, who is evidently a man of culture and extensive reading, murmured abstractedly a proverb, which gives the chemical formulae of khitmatgars and khansamahs. Everyone tittered; the ayah loudest of all. Which was a pity, for there is another proverb giving the formulae of an ayah’s composition, and this the cook’s nephew made use of. The ayah wept copiously. Heaven was her witness she had served the memsahib for three years without an increase of pay, and the cook’s nephew should never have been allowed in the serai.
Then the uneducated classes shouted that this was incontrovertible fact, and the serai was full beyond proper limits. The khansamah’s son and the bearer’s son put their hands upon my boots and asserted I was unique among Sahibs. The Orphan had no partialities. He knew that the serai was full because the saises, all of them, took in their bhai-bund (family and friends), all of them; and there was a lady in a pink saree, about whom the less said the better. He was not surprised to learn that the serai was full. The Orphan gets kicked by the other servants and sleeps, like a dog, curled up in the dust of the garden. He is an Ishmael among mussalchies and therefore a firebrand; though his light be hidden under the degchies (cooking pots). The khansamah professed virtuous indignation. The lady in question was the maternal aunt of one of the punkah coolies (a punkah is a big fan to circulate the air). He regretted that all the coolies had gone away to get a drink or water just then but. . . .
I don’t quite understand the dialect of the villages. A pigeon-breasted old man in a blue cloth broke into the circle of the witnesses, saying that by my favour he was permitted to pull my honoured punkah. I understood him to observe that the crops had failed in his parts, but even in the wildest accesses of frivolity, his co-villages never recognized the existence of ladies in pink sarees, and, further, the khansamah, though a Mohammedan, was a thief; which is a money-lender. Also, that that same well-scoop of abomination financed every pie of money that passed through his evil hands. The old man was a poor man and his crops had failed but he was still virtuous, and the khansamah was not.
Then the rest of the witnesses made common cause against the khansamah not because of his lack of virtue, but because he did not pay away fairly the money entrusted to him. You must know all my household accounts pass through the Khansamah’s hand and he seems to grow fat on the process.
I heard nine different anecdotes of the perfidy of the Khansamah, and a great deal of mixed bad language. This seemed to prove the mistake of administering the bulk of the population through the educated classes; but I remembered that my subjects had desired me to do this thing.
Then I rose up out of my long chair and said: —
‘I am an Englishman and incorruptible; caring neither for the frowns of the khansamah nor the flatteries of the cook, nor the favour of the ayah. I will administer you personally, paying to each into his own hands his just dues and no more, and visiting with a bamboo all who would prey upon their fellows, or encroach upon their neighbour’s string and grass fence, or illegally fill the serai with their bhai-bund. I will extendedly employ myself
among you and your belongings and will see to your well-fare, and when your wives and children are sick I will doctor them.’
My subjects said: — ‘Hazur ki parwashti’ in tones of very subdued delight and whispered to one another. They did not put garlands round my neck as I had expected. On the contrary, they scowled at me. Even the promise to look after the well-fare of their women-kind was not appreciated.
Then still sitting on the grass and whispering they told stories — interminable stories — of two anna oppression, and one anna wrong, and infinitely tiny intrigue. There was the bhisti’s clique, which included the malli and his mate who fought against the coachman, but also against the ayah and her following, who further hated the coachman and liked the other sais before mentioned, who, occasionally and to serve his ends against the chowkidar (watchman), was a friend of the coachman. But the chowkidar’s faction, which included the punkah coolies, was in the hands of the cook, as was the mehter’s following, — which must by no means be confounded with that of the ayah, — by reason of the broken meats they received from the cook’s hands, and to which they had no rights. The cook was a friend of the bhisti for obvious reasons, and this brought the cook, mehter, chowkidar, and bhisti and mallee against the coachman and the khansamah, and, semi-occasionally, the other sais.
This statement, simple as it seems, was further complicated by some indirect relations between the bearer’s son and the ayah’s eldest daughter, and a gambling debt to the goalla. Behind all, was the lady in the pink saree, who had turned the khansamah’s mind from the paths of legitimate dustoorie to theft.
These things, and may others I learned while the witnesses were sitting whispering among themselves, and from what I heard I evolved a plan of Government.
Selecting the Orphan whose voice is of a peculiar and rasping timbre, I bade him retire into the belly of the serai and there scream as though the bearer were beating him. When his yells were softened by distance to a merely melodious wail, I walked to where he stood, and with the tennis-court brush, drew a white line across the serai.
Then I spoke: —
‘Oh people! On the side of this line which is furthest from my house you may scream and fight and bully and intrigue as
you will, for at this distance your voices cannot reach me. But if I hear noises — unseemly noises — which break my rest, I shall know that you have crossed the line and evil will follow. The khansamah through whose hands my money passes has cheated the punkah coolies, who are rustic folk unable to protect themselves. These therefore I shall myself pay. The khansamah has also cheated you as you cheat one another, and all collectively rob me. Therefore I shall not now dismiss the khansamah, nor shall I dismiss you. Once a week because the weather is warm, I shall sprinkle phenyle-ke-diwai (disinfectant) in and about the serai and shall severely punish all uncleanliness; because this is a danger to me. I shall accept no complaints. The horses must be fat, the harness must be clean, and for these things the khansamah is responsible.’
All this happened eight weeks ago and, since that day, great peace has fallen on my serai.
Next month I dismiss my khansamah, and his successor only holds office for a year. For six months of that time the servants will cheat him and, for the other six, he will defraud them. The phenyle sanitation arrangement was temporarily checked by a subsidized Sunnyasi (holy man) who said that it was unclean. I however have more funds at my disposal than a syndicate of chumars and the phenyle is now accepted as a rare and precious balsam. I am only afraid of some one drinking it.
Beyond painting the white line in the serai from time to time, and docking without reason given, certain rupees from the khansamah’s account, my domestic administration costs me neither time nor trouble. Curiously enough, my people are happy. I think this must be because they are allowed free scope to develop their national characteristics, and never know, when I descend into the serai, whether 1 shall give four annas to a sais’s baby, or order the demolition of the chupper (thatched) hut wherein the bearer strives to imprison an aged lowcaste female, declared by him to be a pardah-nishin (woman in secliusion). They understand an administration which they can’t understand, you see.