The City of Dreadful Night

by Rudyard Kipling


The City of Dreadful Night

And since they cannot spend or use aright
The little time here given them in trust,
But lavish it in weary undelight
Of foolish toil, and trouble, strife and lust—
They naturally clamour to inherit
The Everlasting Future—that their merit
May have full scope. . . . As surely is most just.

The City of Dreadful Night.


THE DIFFICULTY is to prevent this account from growing steadily unwholesome. But one cannot rake through a big city without encountering muck.

The Police kept their word. In five short minutes, as they had prophesied, their charge was lost as he had never been lost before. ‘Where are we now?’ ‘Somewhere off the Chitpore Road, but you wouldn’t understand if you were told. Follow now, and step pretty much where we step—there’s a good deal of filth hereabouts.’

The thick, greasy night shuts in everything. We have gone beyond the ancestral houses of the Ghoses and the Boses, beyond the lamps, the smells, and the crowd of Chitpore Road, and have come to a great wilderness of packed houses—just such mysterious, conspiring tenements as Dickens would have loved. There is no breeze here, and the air is perceptibly warmer. If Calcutta keeps such luxuries as Commissioners of Sewers and Paving, they die before they reach this place. The air is heavy with a faint, sour stench—the essence of long-neglected abominations—and it cannot escape from among the tall, three-storied houses. ‘This, my dear Sir, is a perfectly respectable quarter as quarters go. That house at the head of the alley, with the elaborate stucco-work round the top of the door, was built long ago by a celebrated midwife. Great people used to live here once. Now it’s the—, Aha! Look out for that carriage.’ A big mail-phaeton crashes out of the darkness and, recklessly driven, disappears. The wonder is how it ever got into this maze of narrow streets, where nobody seems to be moving, and where the dull throbbing of the city’s life only comes faintly and by snatches. ‘Now it’s the what?’ ‘The St. John’s Wood of Calcutta—for the rich Babus. That “fitton” belonged to one of them.’ ‘Well, it’s not much of a place to look at!’ ‘Don’t judge by appearances. About here live the women who have beggared kings. We aren’t going to let you down into unadulterated vice all at once. You must see it first with the gilding on—and mind that rotten board.’

Stand at the bottom of a lift-shaft and look upwards. Then you will get both the size and the design of the tiny courtyard round which one of these big dark houses is built. The central square may be perhaps ten feet every way, but the balconies that run inside it overhang, and seem to cut away half the available space. To reach the square a man must go round many corners, down a covered-in way, and up and down two or three baffling and confused steps. ‘Now you will understand,’ say the Police kindly, as their charge blunders, shin-first, into a well-dark winding staircase, ‘that these are not the sort of places to visit alone.’ ‘Who wants to? Of all the disgusting, inaccessible dens —Holy Cupid, what’s this?’

A glare of light on the stair-head, a clink of innumerable bangles, a rustle of much fine gauze, and the Dainty Iniquity stands revealed, blazing—literally blazing—with jewellery from head to foot. Take one of the fairest miniatures that the Delhi painters draw, and multiply it by ten; throw in one of Angelica Kaufmann’s best portraits, and add anything that you can think of from Beckford to Lalla Rookh, and you will still fall short of the merits of that perfect face! For an instant, even the grim, professional gravity of the Police is relaxed in the presence of the Dainty Iniquity with the gems, who so prettily invites every one to be seated, and proffers such refreshments as she conceives the palates of the barbarians would prefer. Her maids are only one degree less gorgeous than she. Half a lakh, or fifty thousand pounds’ worth—it is easier to credit the latter statement than the former—are disposed upon her little body. Each hand carries five jewelled rings which are connected by golden chains to a great jewelled boss of gold in the centre of the back of the hand. Ear-rings weighted with emeralds and pearls, diamond nose-rings, and how many other hundred articles make up the list of adornments. English furniture of a gorgeous and gimcrack kind, unlimited chandeliers, and a collection of atrocious Continental prints are scattered about the house, and on every landing squats or loafs a Bengali who can talk English with unholy fluency. The recurrence suggests—only suggests, mind—a grim possibility of the affectation of excessive virtue by day, tempered with the sort of unwholesome enjoyment after dusk—this loafing and lobbying and chattering and smoking, and unless the bottles lie, tippling, among the foul-tongued handmaidens of the Dainty Iniquity. How many men follow this double, deleterious sort of life? The Police are discreetly dumb.

‘Now don’t go talking about “domiciliary visits” just because this one happens to be a pretty woman. We’ve got to know these creatures. They make the rich man and the poor spend their money; and when a man can’t get money for ’em honestly, he comes under our notice. Now do you see? If there was any “domiciliary visit” about it, the whole houseful would be hidden past our finding as soon as we turned up in the courtyard. We’re friends—to a certain extent.’ And, indeed, it seemed no difficult thing to be friends to any extent with the Dainty Iniquity who was so surpassingly different from all that experience taught of the beauty of the East. Here was the face from which a man could write Lalla Rookhs by the dozen, and believe every word that he wrote. Hers was the beauty that Byron sang of when he wrote . . .

‘Remember, if you come here alone, the chances are that you’ll be clubbed, or stuck, or, anyhow, mobbed. You’ll understand that this part of the world is shut to Europeans—absolutely. Mind the steps, and follow on.’ The vision dies out in the smells and gross darkness of the night, in evil, time-rotten brickwork, and another wilderness of shut-up houses.

Follows, after another plunge into a passage of a courtyard, and up a staircase, the apparition of a Fat Vice, in whom is no sort of romance, nor beauty, but unlimited coarse humour. She too is studded with jewels, and her house is even finer than the house of the other, and more infested with the extraordinary men who speak such good English and are so deferential to the Police. The Fat Vice has been a great leader of fashion in her day, and stripped a zemindar Raja to his last acre—insomuch that he ended in the House of Correction for a theft committed for her sake. Native opinion has it that she is a ‘monstrous well-preserved woman.’ On this point, as on some others, the races will agree to differ.

The scene changes suddenly as a slide in a magic-lantern. Dainty Iniquity and Fat Vice slide away on a roll of streets and alleys, each more squalid than its predecessor. We are ‘somewhere at the back of the Machua Bazar,’ well in the heart of the city. There are no houses here—nothing but acres and acres, it seems, of foul wattle-and-dab huts, any one of which would be a disgrace to a frontier village. The whole arrangement is a neatly contrived germ and fire trap, reflecting great credit upon the Calcutta Municipality.

‘What happens when these pig-sties catch fire?’ ‘They’re built up again,’ say the Police, as though this were the natural order of things. ‘Land is immensely valuable here.’ All the more reason, then, to turn several Haussmanns loose into the city, with instructions to make barracks for the population that cannot find room in the huts and sleeps in the open ways, cherishing dogs and worse, much worse, in its unwashen bosom. ‘Here is a licensed coffee-shop. This is where your servants go for amusement and to see nautches.’ There is a huge thatch shed, ingeniously ornamented with insecure kerosene lamps, and crammed with drivers, cooks, small store-keepers and the like. Never a sign of a European. Why? ‘Because if an Englishman messed about here, he’d get into trouble. Men don’t come here unless they’re drunk or have lost their way.’ The hack-drivers—they have the privilege of voting, have they not?—look peaceful enough as they squat on tables or crowd by the doors to watch the nautch that is going forward. Five pitiful draggle-tails are huddled together on a bench under one of the lamps, while the sixth is squirming and shrieking before the impassive crowd. She sings of love as understood by the Oriental—the love that dries the heart and consumes the liver. In this place, the words that would look so well on paper have an evil and ghastly significance. The men stare or sup tumblers and cups of a filthy decoction, and the kunchenee howls with renewed vigour in the presence of the Police. Where the Dainty Iniquity was hung with gold and gems, she is trapped with pewter and glass and where there was heavy embroidery on the Fat Vice’s dress, defaced, stamped tinsel faithfully reduplicates the pattern on the tawdry robes of the kunchenee.

Two or three men with uneasy consciences have quietly slipped out of the coffee-shop into the mazes of the huts. The Police laugh, and those nearest in the crowd laugh applausively, as in duty bound. Thus do the rabbits grin uneasily when the ferret lands at the bottom of the burrow and begins to clear the warren.

The chandoo-shops shut up at six, so you’ll have to see opium-smoking before dark some day. No, you won’t, though.’ The detective makes for a half-opened door of a hut whence floats the fragrance of the Black Smoke. Those of the inhabitants who are able promptly clear out—they have no love for the Police—and there remain only four men lying down and one standing up. This latter has a pet mongoose coiled round his neck. He speaks English fluently. Yes, he has no fear. It was a private smoking party and—‘No business to-night—show how you, smoke opium.’ ‘Aha! You want to see. Very good, I show. Hiya! you’—he kicks a man on the floor—‘show how opium-smoke.’ The kickee grunts lazily and turns on his elbow. The mongoose, always keeping to the man’s neck, erects every hair of its body like an angry cat, and chatters in its owner’s ear. The lamp for the opium-pipe is the only one in the room, and lights a scene as wild as anything in the witches’ revel the mongoose acting as the familiar spirit. A voice from the ground says, in tones of infinite weariness: ‘You take afim, so’—a long, long pause, and another kick from the man possessed of the devil—the mongoose. ‘You take afim?’ He takes a pellet of the black, treackly stuff on the end of a knitting-needle. ‘And light afim.’ He plunges the pellet into the night-light, where it swells and fumes greasily. ‘And then you put it in your pipe.’ The smoking pellet is jammed into the tiny bowl of the thick, bamboo-stemmed pipe, and all speech ceases, except the, unearthly chitter of the mongoose. The man on the ground is sucking at his pipe, and when the smoking pellet has ceased to smoke will be halfway to Nibban. ‘Now you go,’ says the man with the mongoose. ‘I am going smoke.’ The hut door closes upon a red-lit view of huddled legs and bodies, and the man with the mongoose sinking, sinking on to his knees, his head bowed forward, and the little hairy devil chattering on the nape of his neck.

After this the fetid night air seems almost cool, for the hut is as hot as a furnace. ‘Now for Colootollah. Come through the huts. There is no decoration about this vice.’

The huts now gave place to houses very tall and spacious and very dark. But for the narrowness of the streets we might have stumbled upon Chowringhi in the dark. An hour and a half has passed, and up to this time we have not crossed our trail once. ‘You might knock about the city for a night and never cross the same line. Recollect Calcutta isn’t one of your poky upcountry cities of a lakh and a half of people.’ ‘How long does it take to’ know it then?’ About a lifetime, and even then some of the streets puzzle you.’ ‘How much has the head of a ward to know?’ ‘Every house in his ward if he can, who owns it, what sort of character the inhabitants are, who are their friends, who go out and in, who loaf about the place at night, and so on and so on.’ ‘And he knows all this by night as well as by day?’ ‘Of course. Why shouldn’t he?’ ‘No reason in the world. Only it’s pitchy black just now, and I’d like to see where this alley is going to end.’ ‘Round the corner beyond that dead wall. There’s a lamp there. Then you’ll be able to see.’ A shadow flits out of a gully and disappears. ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Sergeant of Police just to see where we’re going in case of accidents.’ Another shadow staggers into the darkness. ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Soldier from the Fort or a sailor from the ships. I couldn’t quite see.’ The Police open a shut door in a high wall, and stumble unceremoniously among a gang of women cooking their food. The floor is of beaten earth, the steps that lead into the upper stories are unspeakably, grimy, and, the heat is the heat of April. The women rise hastily, and the light of the bull’s eye—for the Police have now lighted a lantern in regular London fashion—shows six bleared faces—one a half-native half-Chinese one, and the others Bengali. ‘There are no men here!’ they cry. ‘The house is empty.’ Then they grin and jabber and chew pan and spit, and hurry up the steps into the darkness. A range of three big rooms has been knocked into one here, and there is some sort of arrangement of mats. But an average country-bred is more sumptuously accommodated in an Englishman’s stable. A horse would snort at the accommodation.

‘Nice sort of place, isn’t it?’ say the Police genially. ‘This is where the sailors get robbed and drunk.’ ‘They must be blind drunk before they come.’ ‘Na—na! Na sailor men ee—yah!’ chorus the women, catching at the one word they understand. ‘Arl gone!’ The Police take no notice, but tramp down the big room with the mat loose-boxes. A woman is shivering in one of these. ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Fever. Seek. Vary, vary seek.’ She huddles herself into a heap on the charpoy and groans.

A tiny, pitch-black closet opens out of the long room, and into this the Police plunge. ‘Hullo! What’s here?’ Down flashes the lantern, and a white hand with black nails comes out of the gloom. Somebody is asleep or drunk in the cot. The ring of lantern-light travels slowly up and down the body. ‘A sailor from the ships. He’ll be robbed before the morning most likely.’ The man is sleeping like a little child, both arms thrown over his head, and he is not unhandsome.’ He is shoeless, and there are huge holes in his stockings: He is a pure-blooded white, and carries the flush of innocent sleep on his cheeks.

The light is turned off, and the Police depart; while the woman in the loose-box shivers, and moans that she is ‘seek; vary, vary seek.’