The Smith Administration

by Rudyard Kipling


The Vengeance of Lal Beg

THIS IS the true story of the terrible disgrace that came to Jullundri mehter, through Jamuna, his wife. Those who say that a mehter has no caste, speak in ignorance. Those who say that there is a caste in the Empire so mean and so abject that there are no castes below it, speak in greater ignorance. The arain says that the chamar has no caste; the chamar knows that the mehter has none; and the mehter swears by Lal Beg, his god, that the od, whose god is Bhagirat, is without caste. Below the od lies the kaparia-bawaria, in spite of all that the low-caste Brahmins say or do. A Teji mehter or a Sundoo mehter is as much above a kaparia-bawaria as an Englishman is above a mehter. Lal Beg is the mehter-god, and his image is the Glorified Broom made of peacocks’ feathers, red cloth, scraps of tinsel, and the cast-off finery of English toilette tables.

Jamuna was a Malka-sansi of Gujrat, an eater of lizards and dogs, one ‘married under the basket,’ a worshipper of Malang Shah. When her first husband was cast into the Lahore Central Gaol for lifting a pony on the banks of the Ravee, Jamuna cut herself adrift from her section of the tribe and let it pass on to Delhi. She believed that the Government would keep her man for two or three days only; but it kept him for two years,—long enough for a sansi to forget everything in this world except the customs of her tribe. Those are never forgotten.

As she waited for the return of her man, she scraped acquaintance with a mehtranee ayah in the employ of a Eurasian, and assisted her in the grosser portions of her work. She also earned money,—sufficient to buy her a cloth and food. ‘The sansi,’ as one of their proverbs says, ‘will thrive in a desert.’ ‘What are you?’ said the mehtranee to Jamuna. ‘A Boorat mehtranee,’ said Jamuna, for the sansi, as one of their proverbs says, are quick-witted as snakes. ‘A Boorat mehtranee from the south,’ said Jamuna; and her statement was not questioned, for she wore good clothes, and her black hair was combed and neatly parted.

Clinging to the skirts of the Eurasian’s ayah, Jamuna climbed to service under an Englishman—a railway employé’s wife. Jamuna had ambitions. It was pleasant to be a mehtranee of good standing. It will be better still, thought Jamuna, to turn Mussulman and be married to a real table-servant, openly, by the mullah. Such things had been; and Jamuna was fair.

But Jullundri, mehter, was a man to win the heart of woman, and he stole away Jamuna’s in the dusk, when she took the English babies for their walks.

‘You have brought me a stranger-wife. Why did you not marry among your own clan?’ said his grey-haired mother to Jullundri. ‘A strangerwife is a curse and a fire.’ Jullundri laughed; for he was a jemadar of mehters, drawing seven rupees a month, and Jamuna loved him.

‘A curse and a fire and a shame,’ muttered the old woman, and she slunk into her hut and cursed Jamuna.

But Lal Beg, the very powerful God of the mehters, was not deceived, and he put a stumblingblock in the path of Jamuna that brought her to open shame. ‘A sansi is as quick-witted as a snake’; but the snake longs for the cactus hedge, and a sansi for the desolate freedom of the wild ass. Jamuna knew the chant of Lai Beg, the prayer to the Glorified Broom, and had sung it many times in rear of the staggering, tottering pole as it was borne down the Mall. Lal Beg was insulted.

His great festival in the month of Har brought him revenge on Jamuna and Jullundri. Husband and wife followed the Glorified Broom, through the station and beyond, to the desolate grey flats by the river, near the Forest Reserve and the Bridge-of-Boats. Two hundred mehters shouted and sang till their voices failed them, and they halted in the sand, still warm with the day’s sun. On a spit near the burning ghât, a band of sansis had encamped, and one of their number had brought in a ragged bag full of lizards caught on the Meean Meer road. The gang were singing over their captures, singing that quaint song of the ‘Passing of the Sansis,’ which fires the blood of all true thieves.

Over the sand the notes struck clearly on Jamuna’s ear as the Lal Beg procession re-formed and moved Citywards. But louder than the cry of worshippers of Lal Beg rose the song of Jamuna, the sober Boorat mehtranee, and mother of Jullundri’s children. Shrill as the noise of the nightwind among rocks went back to the sansi camp the answer of the ‘Passing of the Sansis,’ and the mehters drew back in horror. But Jamuna heard only the call from the ragged huts by the river, and the call of the song—

‘The horses, the horses, the fat horses, and the sticks, the little sticks of the tents. Aho! Aho!
Feet that leave no mark on the sand, and fingers that leave no trace on the door. Aho! Aho!
By the name of Malang Shah; in darkness, by the reed and the rope. . . . ‘

So far Jamuna sang, but the head man of the procession of Lal Beg struck her heavily across the mouth, saying, ‘By this I know that thou art a sansi.’