New Brooms

by Rudyard Kipling

’’If seven maids with seven mops
    Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
    ‘’That they could sweep it clear?’’

[a short tale]

RAM BUKSH, Aryan, went to bed with his buffalo, five goats, three children and a wife, because the evening mists were chilly. His hut was builded on the mud scooped from a green and smelly tank, and there were microbes in the thin blood of Ram Buksh.

Ram Buksh went to bed on a charpoy stretched across the blue tepid drain, because the nights were hot; and there were more microbes in his blood. Then the rains came, and Ram Buksh paddled, mid-thigh deep, in water for a day or two with his buffaloes till he was aware of a crampsome feeling at the pit of his stomach. “Mother of my children,” said Ram Buksh, “this is death.” They gave him cardamoms and capsicums, and gingelly-oil and cloves, and they prayed for him. “It is enough,” said Ram Buksh, and he twisted himself into a knot and died, and they burned him slightly—for the wood was damp—and the rest of him floated down the river, and was caught in an undercurrent at the bank, and there stayed; and when Imam Din, the Jeweller, drank of the stream five days later, he drank Lethe, and passed away, crying in vain upon his gods.

His family did not report his death to the Municipality, for they desired to keep Imam Din with them. Therefore, they buried him under the flagging in the courtyard, secretly and by night. Twelve days later, Imam Din had made connection with the well of the house, and there was typhus among the women in the zenana, but no one knew anything about it—some died and some did not; and Ari Booj, the Faquir, added to the interest of the proceedings by joining the funeral procession and distributing gratis the more malignant forms of smallpox, from which he was just recovering. He had come all the way from Delhi, and had slept on no less than fifteen different charpoys; and that was how they got the smallpox into Bahadurgarh. But Eshmith Sahib’s Dhobi picked it up from An Booj when Imam Din’s wife was being buried—for he was a merry man, and sent home a beautiful sample among the Sunday shirts. So Eshmith Sahib died.

He was only a link in the chain which crawled from the highest to the lowest. The wonder was not that men died like sheep, but that they did not die like flies; for their lives and their surroundings, their deaths, were part of a huge conspiracy against cleanliness. And the people loved to have it so. They huddled together in frowsy clusters, while Death mowed his way through them till the scythe blunted against the unresisting flesh, and he had to get a new one. They died by fever, tens of thousands in a month; they died by cholera a thousand in a week; they died of smallpox, scores in the mohulla, and by dysentery by tens in a house; and when all other deaths failed they laid them down and died because their hands were too weak to hold on to life.

To and fro stamped the Englishman, who is everlastingly at war with the scheme of things. “You shall not die,” he said, and he decreed that there should be no more famines. He poured grain down their throats, and when all failed he went down into the strife and died with them, swearing, and toiling, and working till the last. He fought the famine and put it to flight. Then he wiped his forehead, and attacked the pestilence that walketh in the darkness. Death’s scythe swept to and fro, around and about him; but he only planted his feet more firmly in the way of it, and fought off Death with a dog-whip. “Live, you ruffian!” said the Englishman to Ram Buksh as he rode through the reeking village. “Jenab!” said Ram Buksh, “it is as it was in the days of our fathers!’’ “Then stand back while I alter it,” said the Englishman; and by force, and cunning, and a brutal disregard of vested interests, he strove to keep Ram Buksh aJive. “Clean your mohullas; pay for clean water; keep your streets swept; and see that your food is sound, or I’ll make your life a burden to you,” said the Englishman. Sometimes he died; but more often Ram Buksh went down, and the Englishman regarded each death as a personal insult.

“Softly, there!” said the Government of India. “You’re twisting his tail. You mustn’t do that. The spread of education forbids, and Ram Buksh is an intelligent voter. Let him work out his own salvation.”

“H’m!” said the Englishman with his head in a midden; “collectively you always were a fool. Here, Ram Buksh, the Sirkar says you are to do all these things for yourself.”

Jenab!” says Ram Buksh, and fell to breeding microbes with renewed vigour.

Curiously enough, it was in the centres of enlightenment that he prosecuted his experiments most energetically. The education had been spread, but so thinly that it could not disguise Ram Buksh’s natural instincts. He created an African village, and said it was the hub of the universe, and all the dirt of all the roads failed to convince him that he was not the most advanced person in the world. There was a pause, and Ram Buksh got himself fearfully entangled among Boards and Committees, but he valued them as a bowerbird values shells and red rags. “See!” said the Englishman to the Government of India, “he is blind on that side—blind by birth, training, instinct and associations. Five-sixths of him is poor stock raised off poor soil, and he’ll die on the least provocation. You’ve no right to let him kill himself.’’

“But he’s educated,” said the Government of India.

“I’ll concede everything,” said the Englishman. “He’s a statesman, author, poet, politician, artist, and all else that you wish him to be, but he isn’t a Sanitary Engineer. And while you’re training him he is dying. Goodness knows that my share in the Government is very limited nowadays, but I’m willing to do all the work while he gets all the credit if you’ll only let me have some authority over him in his mud-pie making,”

“But the liberty of the subject is sacred,” said the Government of India.

“I haven’t any,” said the Englishman. “He can trail through my compounds; start shrines in the public roads; poison my family; have me in court for nothing; ruin my character; spend my money, and call me an assassin when all is done. I don’t object. Let me look after his sanitation.”

“But the days of a paternal Government are over; we must depend on the people. Think of what they would say at home,” said the Government of India. “We have issued a resolution—indeed we have!”

The Englishman sat down and groaned. “I believe you’ll issue a resolution some day notifying your own abolition,” said he. “What are you going to do?’’

“Constitute more Boards,” said the Government of India. “Boards of Control and Supervision—Fund Boards—all sorts of Boards. Nothing like system. It will be at work in three years or so. We haven’t any money, but that’s a detail.”

The Englishman looked at the resolution and sniffed. “It doesn’t touch the weak point of the country.”

“What will touch the weak point of the country, then?” said the Government of India.

“I used to,” said the Englishman. “I was the District Officer, and I twisted their tails. You have taken away my power, and now——“

“Well,” said the Government of India, “you seem to think a good deal of yourself.”

“Never mind me,” said the Englishman. “I’m an effete relic of the past. But Ram Buksh will die, as he used to do.”

And now we all wait to see which is right.