A Week in Lahore (4)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 11 February 1885


Diary. 10 February 1885

A kind of follow-up of the story on the Lahore municipal elections on 21 May 1884. Kipling’s brief experience of writing for the local paper in Bideford during his school days evidently gave him some knowledge of municipal proceedings; ‘gas and sewerage’, as he wrote at the time, were among his subjects (to Mrs Perry, 28 May 1882: MS, Huntington), and the conclusion of this article recalls what he saw then.

The Article

One hears and sees so much about the Lahore Municipality — I will not suggest that Municipal affairs appeal to other senses as well — that I determined to find out for myself how our patres conscripti transact their business. — Here is a brief record of the last meeting: —

Imprimis their forum. A bleak many-windowed room with a depressed and smoky fire hidden behind a table. A few benches and chairs were ranged round the Vice President’s seat and table of office; the whole presenting in the cold morning air, a ghastly resemblance to a public-school form-room. This resemblance was heightened by the display of three maps (of Lahore city) and a T-square artistically disposed on one of the walls. Six lamps, one clock, one almanack, one glass of water, and an inkstand occupied a place of honour on the mantelpiece above the depressed fire; and a representative of a native paper (who by the way took notes in English) kept the fire warm. About eight o’clock; then the members began to drop in by twos and threes and discussed local news sotto voce, to wile away the time.
When about a dozen native members and four or five Europeans had been collected the Secretary suggested that ‘we had better proceed to business’. The Vice President apparently had no objection; and at a quarter past eight or thereabouts, business began. Every one sat down and salaamed to every one else two or three times over. When a late member entered he also had to salaam all round and decide whom he would sit next to. The sight of our worthy city fathers nodding and beckoning from bench to bench and chair to chair after the fashion of Sunday School Children was impressive and took time withal. At the end of the ceremony, the Secretary briefly introduced the first question on the list. This concerned the appointment of an European Sanitary Inspector to Lahore city, and was stated in the vernacular. When the Secretary stopped talking, the members broke off as it were into knots; some discussing the matter among themselves, others addressing the Secretary, and, in general, all talking at once. Any detailed report wras of course impossible. The Secretary answered objections as fast as they came up; and argued with a Mohammedan member in a Cashmere dressing-gown, in a lively and fluent vernacular studded with strange exotic terms such as ‘budget ke estimate’, ‘Sanitary Sub-Committee munzar’, ‘salary establishment March kivaste’ and the like. At the end of ten minutes or so of this work, a European member remarked cheerfully — ‘Then we’ll appoint MacEwen at once’. A private and confidential confab all down the line, broken only by the deep bass voice of a Sikh gentleman who seemed to be addressing the world at large on the merits or demerits of MacEwen Sahib. A private and confidential confab all down the line. Fresh arguments advanced suddenly by the gentleman in the dressing-gown squashed by the Secretary; and after some further discussion the European Sanitary Inspector was appointed. Time, 25 minutes.

The second question for consideration is the contract for the Municipal printing work. It seems doubtful whether a contract can be given to a member of the Municipal Committee. One of them is quite ready to undertake the job — a matter of perhaps Rs 2,000 per annum. A European member suggests that the ‘work should go to the best man’. Fresh epidemic of arguments down the line. Business temporarily suspended, until a late member who makes his appearance at this point is salaamed into a seat and has salaamed all round in turn. Conversation between two European members and the Honorary Secretary as to contracts. This lapse into the English tongue cut short by three men, including the member in the dressing-gown, all speaking at once. Vice President throws in a word occasionally and the other members plunge headlong into the argument; declaiming like a Greek semi-chorus. Member who expects the contract smiles engagingly, until a rival appears on the scene, videlicet a gentleman in black continuations, and a poshteen. Stranger has no connection with the Municipality, but has strolled in casually to explain to Municipality that he will undertake work 5 per cent cheaper. Attention of the meeting devoted to the daring interloper, who smiles even more engagingly than the other contractor. European member proposes that Subcommittee should be appointed to consider question of contract. Private and confidential discussion springs up between the gentleman in the dressing-gown and two friends. Every one speaks at once. Member of Municipality who hopes for the contract leans forward with his hands on the table and orates. Conversation taken out of his hands and drifts up to Vice’s table, where the voice of a European member is heard protesting that ‘what we want is economy’. Another European member proposes that the contract should be given to the lowest tenders for one year. Hands go up for and against amid great excitement. Votes are equal and Vice President has to give the casting vote. Voice of the European member encouragingly: — ‘Now then Rai Sahib!’ Rai Sahib gives vote in favour of the motion, Member in the dressing-gown jumps to his feet and says something. European member declares that the motion is carried. Rai Sahib nods affirmatively; and the gentleman in black continuations who has just made the lowest tender retires to side-table and is effusively congratulated by the representative of the native newspaper. Time 20 minutes.

General distribution of plans on tracing paper proclaims that business has advanced one stage, and the Lahore Tramways Bill is up for signature. Partial occultation of members behind the papers and subdued conversation all round. All that is necessary is to sign the agreement between the grantees and the Municipality. The bill itself will be introduced into the Legislative Council at Calcutta on the 16th of this month. The Secretary (to drop into the past tense once more) disappeared behind a stiff fence of crackling documents, accompanied by the Vice. When he next emerged the agreement had been signed; the member in the dressing-gown was deep in conversation with a friend and it was after nine o’clock. There were thirteen matters for consideration that morning of which three had been discussed. According to Cocker the other ten would take three hours and twenty minutes to settle. As a matter of fact they did not take that time; but at nine o’clock the meeting had warmed up and was settled down into its stride, and at this point the visitor left it.

The above, as far as an Englishman not conversant with the vernacular could judge, is a fairly accurate account of one hour’s work at a Municipal meeting. In the space of sixty minutes they had decided three important questions of private and public interest — and these without undue heat or recrimination. An English vestry, where men wage war to the knife over an additional sewage-cart or a scavenger’s badge could not have done more.