TALES OF BENGAL
S. B. Banerjea
Francis Henry Skrine.
I. The Pride of Kadampur II. The Rival Markets III. A Foul Conspiracy IV. The Biter Bitten V. All's Well That Ends Well VI. An Outrageous Swindle VII. The Virtue of Economy VIII. A Peacemaker IX. A Brahman's Curse X. A Roland for His Oliver XI. Ramda XII. A Rift in the Lute XIII. Debenbra Babu in Trouble XIV. True to His Salt XV. A Tame Rabbit XVI. Gobardhan's Triumph XVII. Patience is a Virtue
That "east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet," is an axiom with most Englishmen to whom the oriental character seems an insoluble enigma. This form of agnosticism is unworthy of a nation which is responsible for the happiness of 300,000,000 Asiatics. It is not justified by history, which teaches us that civilisation is the result of the mutual action of Europe and Asia; and that the advanced races of India are our own kinsfolk.
The scene of Mr. Banerjea's tales has been won from the sea by alluvial action. Its soil, enriched by yearly deposits of silt, yields abundantly without the aid of manure. A hothouse climate and regular rainfall made Bengal the predestined breeding-ground of mankind; the seat of an ancient and complex civilisation. But subsistence is too easily secured in those fertile plains. Malaria, due to the absence of subsoil drainage, is ubiquitous, and the standard of vitality extremely low. Bengal has always been at the mercy of invaders. The earliest inroad was prompted by economic necessity. About 2000 B.C. a congeries of races which are now styled "Aryan" were driven by the shrinkage of water from their pasture-grounds in Central Asia. They penetrated Europe in successive hordes, who were ancestors of our Celts, Hellenes, Slavs, Teutons and Scandinavians. Sanskrit was the Aryans' mother-tongue, and it forms the basis of nearly every European language. A later swarm turned the western flank of the Himalayas, and descended on Upper India. Their rigid discipline, resulting from vigorous group-selection, gave the invaders an easy victory over the negroid hunters and fishermen who peopled India. All races of Aryan descent exhibit the same characteristics. They split into endogamous castes, each of which pursues its own interests at the expense of other castes. From the dawn of history we find kings, nobles and priests riding roughshod over a mass of herdsmen, cultivators and artisans. These ruling castes are imbued with pride of colour. The Aryans' fair complexions differentiated them from the coal-black aborigines; varna in Sanskrit means "caste" and "colour". Their aesthetic instinct finds expression in a passionate love of poetry, and a tangible object in the tribal chiefs. Loyalty is a religion which is almost proof against its idol's selfishness and incompetence.
Caste is a symptom of arrested social development; and no community which tolerates it is free from the scourge of civil strife. Class war is the most salient fact in history. Warriors, termed Kshatriyas in Sanskrit, were the earliest caste. Under the law of specialisation defence fell to the lot of adventurous spirits, whose warlike prowess gave them unlimited prestige with the peaceful masses. They became the governing element, and were able to transmit their privileges by male filiation. But they had to reckon with the priests, descended from bards who attached themselves to the court of a Kshatriya prince and laid him under the spell of poetry. Lust of dominion is a manifestation of the Wish to Live; the priests used their tremendous power for selfish ends. They imitated the warriors in forming a caste, which claimed descent from Brahma, the Creator's head, while Kshatriyas represented his arms, and the productive classes his less noble members.
In the eleventh century B.C. the warrior clans rose in revolt against priestly arrogance: and Hindustan witnessed a conflict between the religious and secular arms. Brahminism had the terrors of hell fire on its side; feminine influence was its secret ally; the world is governed by brains, not muscles; and spiritual authority can defy the mailed fist. After a prolonged struggle the Kshatriyas were fain to acknowledge their inferiority.
When a hierocracy has been firmly established its evolution always follows similar lines. Ritual becomes increasingly elaborate: metaphysical dogma grows too subtle for a layman's comprehension. Commercialism spreads from the market to the sanctuary, whose guardians exploit the all-pervading fear of the unknown to serve their lust of luxury and rule.
Brahminism has never sought to win proselytes; the annals of ancient India record none of those atrocious persecutions which stained mediaeval Christianity. It competed with rival creeds by offering superior advantages: and the barbarous princes of India were kept under the priestly heel by an appeal to their animal instincts. A fungoid literature of abominations grew up in the Tantras, which are filthy dialogues between Siva, the destroying influence in nature, and his consorts. One of these, Kali by name, is the impersonation of slaughter. Her shrine, near Calcutta, is knee-deep in blood, and the Dhyan or formula for contemplating her glories, is a tissue of unspeakable obscenity. Most Hindus are Saktas, or worshippers of the female generative principle: happily for civilisation they are morally in advance of their creed. But it is a significant fact that Kali is the tutelary goddess of extremist politicians, whose minds are prepared for the acceptance of anarchism by the ever-present ideal of destruction.
It was Bengal's misfortune that its people received Brahminism in a corrupt and degenerate form. According to legend, King Adisur, who reigned there in the ninth century of our era, imported five priests from Kanauj to perform indispensable sacrifices. From this stock the majority of Bengali Brahmins claim descent. The immigrants were attended by five servants, who are the reputed ancestors of the Kayasth caste. In Sanskrit this word means "Standing on the Body," whence Kayasths claim to be Kshatriyas. But the tradition of a servile origin persisted, and they were forbidden to study the sacred writings. An inherited bent for literature has stood them in good stead: they became adepts in Persian, and English is almost their second mother-tongue to-day. Kayasths figure largely in Mr. Banerjea's tales: their history proves that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Economic necessity was the cause of the first invasion of India: the second was inspired by religion. The evolution of organised creeds is not from simple to complex, but vice versa. From the bed-rock of magic they rise through nature-worship and man-worship to monotheism. The god of a conquering tribe is imposed on subdued enemies, and becomes Lord of Heaven and Earth. Monotheism of this type took root among the Hebrews, from whom Mohammed borrowed the conception. His gospel was essentially militant and proselytising. Nothing can resist a blend of the aesthetic and combative instincts; within a century of the founder's death his successors had conquered Central Asia, and gained a permanent footing in Europe. In the tenth century a horde of Afghan Moslems penetrated Upper India.
The Kshatriya princes fought with dauntless courage, but unity of action was impossible; for the Brahmins fomented mutual jealousies and checked the growth of national spirit. They were subdued piecemeal; and in 1176 A.D. an Afghan Emperor governed Upper India from Delhi. The Aryan element in Bengal had lost its martial qualities; and offered no resistance to Afghan conquest, which was consummated in 1203. The invaders imposed their religion by fire and sword. The Mohammadans of Eastern Bengal, numbering 58 per cent., of the population, represent compulsory conversions effected between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Eight hundred years of close contact have abated religious hatred; and occasional outbursts are due to priestly instigation. Hindus borrowed the Zenana system from their conquerors, who imitated them in discouraging widow-remarriages. Caste digs a gulf between followers of the rival creeds, but Mr. Banerjea's tales prove that a good understanding is possible. It is now imperilled by the curse of political agitation.
In 1526 the Afghan dynasty was subverted by a Mongol chieftain lineally descended from Tamerlane. His grandson Akbar's reign (1560-1605) was India's golden age. Akbar the Great was a ruler of the best modern type, who gave his subjects all the essentials of civilisation. But he knew that material prosperity is only the means to an end. Man, said Ruskin, is an engine whose motive power is the soul; and its fuel is love. Akbar called all the best elements in society to his side and linked them in the bonds of sympathy.
Religion in its highest phase is coloured by mysticism which seeks emblems of the hidden source of harmony in every form of life. Anthropomorphic conceptions are laid aside; ritual is abandoned as savouring of magic; hierocracy as part of an obsolete caste system; metaphysical dogma because the Infinite cannot be weighed in the balances of human reason. The truce to fanaticism called by Akbar the Great encouraged a poet and reformer named Tulsi Dasa (1532-1623) to point a surer way to salvation. He adored Krishna, the preserving influence incarnate as Rama, and rehandled Valmiki's great epic, the Ramayana, in the faint rays of Christian light which penetrated India during that age of transition. Buddha had proclaimed the brotherhood of man; Tulsi Dasa deduced it from the fatherhood of God. The Preserver, having sojourned among men, can understand their infirmities, and is ever ready to save his sinful creatures who call upon him. The duty of leading others to the fold is imposed on believers, for we are all children of the same Father. Tulsi Dasa's Ramayana is better known in Bihar and the United Provinces than is the Bible in rural England. The people of Hindustan are not swayed by relentless fate, nor by the goddess of destruction. Their prayers are addressed to a God who loves his meanest adorer; they accept this world's buffetings with resignation: while Rama reigns all is well.
If the hereditary principle were sound, the Empire cemented together by Akbar's statecraft might have defied aggression. His successors were debauchees or fanatics. They neglected the army; a recrudescence of the nomad instinct sent them wandering over India with a locust-like horde of followers; Hindus were persecuted, and their temples were destroyed. So the military castes whose religion was threatened, rose in revolt; Viceroys threw off allegiance, and carved out kingdoms for themselves. Within a century of Akbar's death his Empire was a prey to anarchy.
India had hitherto enjoyed long spells of immunity from foreign interference. Her people, defended by the Himalayan wall and the ocean, were free to develop their own scheme of national life; and world-forces which pierce the thickest crust of custom, reached them in attenuated volume. Their isolation ended when the sea was no longer a barrier; and for maritime nations it is but an extension of their territory. A third invasion began in the sixteenth century, and has continued till our own day. The underlying motive was not economic necessity, nor religious enthusiasm, but sheer lust of gain.
In 1498 Vasco da Gama discovered an all-sea route to India, thus opening the fabulous riches of Asia to hungry Europe. Portuguese, Dutch, French and English adventurers embarked in a struggle for Indian commerce, in which our ancestors were victorious because they obtained the command of the sea, and had the whole resources of the mother-country at their back.
Westerners are so imbued with the profit-making instinct that they mentally open, a ledger account in order to prove that India gains more than she loses by dependence on the people of these islands. It cannot be denied that the fabric of English administration is a noble monument of the civil skill and military prowess developed by our race. We have given the peninsula railways and canals, postal and telegraph systems, a code of laws which is far in advance of our own. Profound peace broods over the empire, famine and pestilence are fought with the weapons of science. It would be easy to pile up items on the debit side of our imaginary cash-book. Free trade has destroyed indigenous crafts wholesale, and quartered the castes who pursued them on an over-taxed soil. Incalculable is the waste of human life and inherited skill caused by the shifting of productive energy from India to Great Britain, Germany and America. It cannot be said that the oversea commerce, which amounted in 1907-8 to L241,000,000, is an unmixed benefit. The empire exports food and raw materials, robbing the soil of priceless constituents, and buys manufactured goods which ought to be produced at home. Foreign commerce is stimulated by the home charges, which average L18,000,000, and it received an indirect bounty by the closure of the mints in 1893. The textile industry of Lancashire was built upon a prohibition of Indian muslins: it now exports yarn and piece goods to the tune of L32,000,000, and this trade was unjustly favoured at the expense of local mills under the Customs Tariff of 1895. But there are forces in play for good or evil which cannot be appraised in money. From a material point of view our Government is the best and most honest in existence. If it fails to satisfy the psychical cravings of India there are shortcomings on both sides; and some of them are revealed by Mr. Banerjea's tales.
Caste.—As a Kulin, or pedigreed Brahmin, he is naturally prone to magnify the prestige of his order. It has been sapped by incidents of foreign rule and the spread of mysticism. Pandits find their stupendous lore of less account than the literary baggage of a university graduate. Brahmin pride is outraged by the advancement of men belonging to inferior castes. The priesthood's dream is to regain the ascendancy usurped by a race of Mlecchas (barbarians); and it keeps orthodox Hindus in a state of suppressed revolt. One centre of the insidious agitation is the fell goddess Kali's shrine near Calcutta; another is Puna, which has for centuries been a stronghold of the clannish Maratha Brahmans. Railways have given a mighty impetus to religion by facilitating access to places of pilgrimage; the post office keeps disaffected elements in touch; and English has become a lingua franca.
While Brahminism, if it dared, could proclaim a religious war, it has powerful enemies within the hierarchy. A desire for social recognition is universal. It was the Patricians' refusal to intermarry with Plebeians that caused the great constitutional struggles of Ancient Rome. Many of the lowest castes are rebelling against Brahmin arrogance. They have waxed rich by growing lucrative staples, and a strong minority are highly educated. Mystical sects have already thrown off the priestly yoke. But caste is by no means confined to races of Indian blood. What is the snobbery which degrades our English character but the Indo-German Sudra's reverence for his Brahmin? The Europeans constitute a caste which possesses some solidarity against "natives," and they have spontaneously adopted these anti-social distinctions. At the apex stand covenanted civilians; whose service is now practically a close preserve for white men. It is split into the Secretariat, who enjoy a superb climate plus Indian pay and furlough, and the "rank and file" doomed to swelter in the plains. Esprit de corps, which is the life-blood of caste, has vanished. Officers of the Educational Service, recruited from the same social strata, rank as "uncovenanted"; and a sense of humiliation reacts on their teaching.
The Land.—In 1765 Clive secured for the East India Company the right of levying land-tax in Bengal. It was then collected by zemindars, a few of whom were semi-independent nobles, and the rest mere farmers of revenue, who bid against one another at the periodical settlements. Tenant right apart, the conception of private property in the soil was inconceivable to the Indian mind. Every one knows that it was borrowed by English lawyers from the Roman codes, when commercialism destroyed the old feudal nexus. Lord Cornwallis's permanent Settlement of 1793 was a revolution as drastic in its degree as that which Prance was undergoing. Zemindars were presented with the land for which they had been mere rakers-in of revenue. It was parcelled out into "estates," which might be bought and sold like moveable property. A tax levied at customary rates became "rent" arrived at by a process of bargaining between the landlord and ignorant rustics. The Government demand was fixed for ever, but no attempt was made to safeguard the ryot's interests. Cornwallis and his henchmen fondly supposed that they were manufacturing magnates of the English type, who had made our agriculture a model for the world. They were grievously mistaken. Under the cast-iron law of sale most of the original zemindars lost their estates, which passed into the hands of parvenus saturated with commercialism. Bengal is not indebted to its zemindars for any of the new staples which have created so vast a volume of wealth. They are content to be annuitants on the land, and sub-infeudation has gone to incredible lengths. Most of them are absentees whose one thought is to secure a maximum of unearned increment from tillers of the soil. In 1765 the land revenue amounted to L3,400,000, of which L258,000 was allotted to zemindars. A century afterwards their net profits were estimated at L12,000,000, and they are now probably half as much again. The horrible oppression described by Mr. Banerjea is impossible in our era of law-courts, railways and newspapers. But it is always dangerous to bring the sense of brotherhood, on which civilisation depends, into conflict with crude animal instincts. In days of American slavery the planter's interest prompted him to treat his human cattle with consideration, yet Simon Legrees were not unknown. It is a fact that certain zemindars are in the habit of remeasuring their ryots' holdings periodically, and always finding more land than was set forth in the lease.
The Police.—A pale copy of Sir Robert Peel's famous system was introduced in 1861, when hosts of inspectors, sub-inspectors and head constables were let loose on Bengal. The new force was highly unpopular, and failed to attract the educated classes. Subaltern officers, therefore, used power for private ends, while the masses were so inured to oppression that they offered no resistance. There has been a marked improvement in the personnel of late years; and Mr. Banerjea's lurid pictures of corruption and petty tyranny apply to a past generation of policemen. The Lieutenant-Governor of Eastern Bengal does justice to a much-abused service in his Administrative Report for 1907-8. His Honour "believes the force to be a hard-working body of Government servants, the difficulties, trials, and even dangers of whose duties it is impossible for the public at large really to appreciate". He acknowledges that "India is passing through a period of transition. Old pre-possessions and unscientific methods must be cast aside, and the value of the confession must be held at a discount." Bengal policemen fail as egregiously as their British colleagues in coping with professional crime. Burglary is a positive scourge, and the habit of organising gang-robberies has spread to youths of the middle class.
Education.—Though Mr. Banerjea has no experience of the inner working of our Government offices, he speaks on education with an expert's authority. Lord Macaulay, who went to India in 1834 as legal member of Council, was responsible for the introduction of English as the vehicle of instruction. He had gained admission to the caste of Whigs, whose battle-cry was "Knowledge for the People," and his brilliant rhetoric overpowered the arguments of champions of oriental learning. Every one with a smattering of Sanskrit, Arabic or Persian, regrets the fact that those glorious languages have not been adequately cultivated in modern India. Bengali is a true daughter of the Sanskrit; it has Italian sweetness and German capacity for expressing abstract ideas. No degree of proficiency in an alien tongue can compensate for the neglect of the vernacular. Moreover, the curriculum introduced in the "thirties" was purely academic. It came to India directly from English universities, which had stuck fast in the ruts of the Renaissance. Undue weight was given to literary training, while science and technical skill were despised. Our colleges and schools do not attempt to build character on a foundation of useful habits and tastes that sweeten life; to ennoble ideals, or inspire self-knowledge, self-reliance, and self-control. Technical education is still in its infancy; and the aesthetic instinct which lies dormant in every Aryan's brain is unawakened. A race which invented the loom now invents nothing but grievances. In 1901 Bengal possessed 69,000 schools and colleges, attended by 1,700,000 pupils, yet only one adult male in 10 and one female in 144 can read and write! The Calcutta University is an examining body on the London model. It does not attempt to enforce discipline in a city which flaunts every vice known to great seaports and commercial centres, unmitigated by the social instinct. Nor is the training of covenanted civilians more satisfactory. In 1909 only 1 out of 50 selected candidates presented himself for examination in Sanskrit or Arabic! Men go out to India at twenty-four, knowing little of the ethnology, languages or history, of the races they are about to govern.
Agriculture.—Seventy-two per cent. of the Bengalis live by cultivating the soil. The vast majority are in the clutches of some local Shylock, who sweeps their produce into his garners, doling out inadequate supplies of food and seed grain. Our courts of law are used by these harpies as engines of oppression; toil as he may the ryot is never free from debt. The current rates of interest leave no profit from agriculture or trade. Twelve to 18 per cent. is charged for loans on ample landed security; and ordinary cultivators are mulcted in 40 to 60. A haunting fear of civil discord, and purblind conservatism in the commercial castes, are responsible for the dearth of capital. India imports bullion amounting to L25,000,000 a year, to the great detriment of European credit, and nine-tenths of it is hoarded in the shape of ornaments or invested in land, which is a badge of social rank. Yet the Aryan nature is peculiarly adapted to co-operation. If facilities for borrowing at remunerative rates existed in towns, agricultural banks on the Schulze-Delitzsch and Raiffeisen systems would soon overspread the land. Credit and co-operative groupings for the purchase of seed, fertilisers and implements, are the twin pillars of rural industry. Indian ryots are quite as receptive of new ideas as English farmers. They bought many thousands of little iron sugar mills, placed on the market a generation back by some English speculators, and will adopt any improvements of practical value if the price is brought within their slender means.
The revolution which began a decade ago in America has not spread to Bengal, where the average yield of grain per acre is only 10 bushels as compared with 30 in Europe. Yet it has been calculated that another bushel would defray the whole cost of Government! Bengalis obey the injunction "increase and multiply" without regard for consequences. Their habitat has a population of 552 per square mile, and in some districts the ratio exceeds 900. Clearly there is a pressing need of scientific agriculture, to replace or supplement the rule-of-thumb methods in which the ryot is a past master.
The Bengali Character.—Mr. Banerjea has lifted a corner of the veil that guards the Indian's home from prying eyes. He shows that Bengalis are men of like passions with us. The picture is perhaps overcharged with shade. Sycophants, hustlers and cheats abound in every community; happily for the future of civilisation there is also a leaven of true nobility: "The flesh striveth against the spirit," nor does it always gain mastery. Having mixed with all classes for twenty eventful years, and speaking the vernacular fluently, I am perhaps entitled to hold an opinion on this much-vexed question. The most salient feature in the Indian nature is its boundless charity. There are no poor laws, and the struggle for life is very severe; yet the aged and infirm, the widow and the orphan have their allotted share in the earnings of every household. It is a symptom of approaching famine that beggars are perforce refused their daily dole. Cruelty to children is quite unknown. Parents will deny themselves food in order to defray a son's schooling-fees or marry a daughter with suitable provision. Bengalis are remarkably clannish: they will toil and plot to advance the interests of anyone remotely connected with them by ties of blood.
Their faults are the outcome of superstition, slavery to custom, and an unhealthy climate. Among them is a lack of moral courage, a tendency to lean on stronger natures, and to flatter a superior by feigning to agree with him. The standard of truth and honesty is that of all races which have been ground under heel for ages: deceit is the weapon of weaklings and slaves. Perjury has become a fine art, because our legal system fosters the chicane which is innate in quick-witted peoples. The same man who lies unblushingly in an English court, will tell the truth to an assembly of caste-fellows, or to the Panohayat (a committee of five which arbitrates in private disputes). Let British Pharisees study the working of their own Divorce and County Courts: they will not find much evidence of superior virtue! As for honesty, the essence of commercialism is "taking advantage of other people's needs," and no legal code has yet succeeded in drawing a line between fair and unfair trade. In India and Japan merchants are an inferior class; and loss of self-respect reacts unfavourably on the moral sense. Ingratitude is a vice attributed to Bengalis by people who have done little or nothing to elicit the corresponding virtue. As a matter of fact their memory is extremely retentive of favours. They will overlook any shortcomings in a ruler who has the divine gift of sympathy, and serve him with devotion. Macaulay has branded them with cowardice. If the charge were true, it was surely illogical and unmanly to reproach a community numbering 50,000,000 for inherited defects. Difference of environment and social customs will account for the superior virility of Europeans as compared with their distant kinsmen whose lot is cast in the sweltering tropics. But no one who has observed Bengali schoolboys standing up bare-legged to fast bowling will question their bravery. In fact, the instinct of combativeness is universal, and among protected communities it finds vent in litigation.
Englishmen who seek to do their duty by India have potential allies in the educated classes, who have grafted Western learning on a civilisation much more ancient than their own. Bengal has given many illustrious sons to the empire. Among the dead I may mention Pandits Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Kissari Mohan Ganguli, whose vast learning was eclipsed by their zeal for social service; Dr. Sambhu Chandra Mukharji, whose biography I wrote in 1895; and Mr. Umesh Chandra Banarji, a lawyer who held his own with the flower of our English bar. A Bengali Brahmin is still with us who directs one of the greatest contracting firms in the empire. How much brighter would India's outlook be if this highly-gifted race were linked in bonds of sympathy with our own!
The women of the Gangetic delta deserve a better fate than is assigned to them by Hindu and Mohammadan custom. They are kept in leading-strings from the cradle to the grave; their intellect is rarely cultivated, their affections suffer atrophy from constant repression. Yet Mr. Banerjea draws more than one picture of wifely devotion, and the instinctive good sense which is one of the secrets of feminine influence. Women seldom fail to rise to the occasion when opportunity is vouchsafed them. The late Maharani Surnomoyi of Cossimbazar managed her enormous estates with acumen; and her charities were as lavish as Lady Burdett-Coutts's. Toru Dutt, who died in girlhood, wrote French and English verses full of haunting sweetness. It is a little premature for extremists to prate of autonomy while their women are prisoners or drudges.
Superstition.—Modes of thought surviving from past ages of intellectual growth are the chief obstacles in the path of progress. Mr. Banerjea's tales contain many references to magic—a pseudo-science which clings to the world's religions and social polity. It is doubtful whether the most civilised of us has quite shaken off the notion that mysterious virtues may be transmitted without the impetus of will-power. Latin races are haunted by dread of the Evil Eye; advertisements of palmists, astrologers and crystal-gazers fill columns of our newspapers. Rational education alone enables us to trace the sequence of cause and effect which is visible in every form of energy. Until this truth is generally recognised no community can eradicate the vices of superstition.
The "unrest" of which we hear so much finds no echo in Mr. Banerjea's pages. It is, indeed, confined to a minute percentage of the population, even including the callow schoolboys who have been tempted to waste precious years on politics. The masses are too ignorant and too absorbed by the struggle for existence to care one jot for reforms. They may, however, be stirred to blind fury by appealing to their prejudices. Therein lies a real danger. Divergence of religious ideals, to which I have already alluded, accounts for the tranquillity that prevails throughout Bihar as compared with the spirit of revolution in Bengal proper. The microbe of anarchy finds an excellent culture-ground in minds which grovel before the goddess Kali. But the unrest cannot be isolated from other manifestations of cosmic energy, which flash from mind to mind and keep the world in turmoil. Every force of nature tends to be periodic. The heart's systole and diastole; alternations of day and night, of season and tide, are reflected in the history of our race. Progress is secured by the swing of a giant pendulum from East to West, the end of each beat ushering in drastic changes in religion, economics and social polity. It is probable that one of these cataclysmic epochs opened with the victories wrested from Russia by Japan. The democratic upheaval which began five hundred years ago is assuming Protean forces; and amongst them is the malady aptly styled "constitutionalitis" by Dr. Dillon. The situation in India demands prescience and statecraft. Though world-forces cannot be withstood, they are susceptible of control by enlightened will-power. Will peace be restored by the gift of constitutional government at a crisis when the august Mother of Parliaments is herself a prey to faction? It is worthy of note that the self-same spirit has always been rife in Bengal, where every village has its Dals—local Montagues and Capulets, whose bickerings are a fertile source of litigation.
Mr. Banerjea's tales were written for his own countrymen, and needed extensive revision in order to render them intelligible to Western readers. I have preserved the author's spirit and phraseology; and venture to hope that this little book will shed some light on the problem of Indian administration.
Francis H. Skrine.
The Pride of Kadampur.
Kadampur is a country village which is destitute of natural or artificial attractions and quite unknown to fame. Its census population is barely 1,500, four-fifths of whom are low-caste Hindus, engaged in cultivation and river-fishing; the rest Mohammadans, who follow the same avocations but dwell in a Para (quarter) of their own. The Bhadralok, or Upper Crust, consists of two Brahman and ten Kayastha (writer-caste) families. Among the latter group Kumodini Kanta Basu's took an unquestioned lead. He had amassed a modest competence as sub-contractor in the Commissariat during the second Afghan War, and retired to enjoy it in his ancestral village. His first care was to rebuild the family residence, a congenial task which occupied five years and made a large hole in his savings. It slowly grew into a masonry structure divided into two distinct Mahals (wings)—the first inhabited by men-folk; the second sacred to the ladies and their attendants. Behind it stood the kitchen; and the Pujardalan (family temple) occupied a conspicuous place in front, facing south. The usual range of brick cattle-sheds and servants' quarters made up quite an imposing group of buildings.
Villagers classed amongst the gentry are wont to gather daily at some Chandimandap (a rustic temple dedicated to the goddess Durga, attached to most better-class houses). Kumodini Babu's was a favourite rendezvous, and much time was killed there in conversation, card-playing, and chess. Among the group assembled, one crisp afternoon in February, was an old gentleman, called Shamsundar Ghosh, and known to hosts of friends as "Sham Babu". He was head clerk in a Calcutta merchant's office, drawing Rs. 60 a month (L48 a year at par), which sufficed for the support of his wife and a son and daughter, respectively named Susil and Shaibalini. After a vain attempt to make two ends meet in expensive Calcutta, he had settled down at the outskirts of Kadampur, which has a railway station within half an hour's run of the Metropolis. Sham Babu's position and character were generally respected by neighbours, who flocked to his house for Calcutta gossip.
On this particular occasion talk ran on Kadampur requirements, and somebody opined that another tank for bathing and drinking purposes ought to be excavated at once; he did not say by whom.
"True," observed Sham Babu, "but a market is still more necessary. We have to trudge four miles for our vegetables and fish, which are obtainable in a more or less stale condition only twice a week. If one were started here, it would be a great boon to ten villages at least." Kumodini Babu assented, without further remark, and the subject dropped.
It came up again on the following Sunday, when Kumodini Babu said to his friend:—
"I have been thinking about your idea of a market in this village, and should like, if possible, to establish one myself. How much would it cost me? As an old commissariat contractor, I am well up in the price of grain, fodder and ghi (clarified butter used in cooking), but I really know very little about other things."
The confession elicited a general laugh, and Sham Babu replied, "It will be a matter of Rs. 200".
"Two hundred rupees! Surely that is far too much for a range of huts."
"True enough. Your own bamboo clumps, straw-stacks and stores of cordage would provide raw material; and as for labour, all you have to do is to order some of your ryots (tenants) who are behindhand with their rent to work for you gratis."
"That would be contrary to my principles. How are these poor people to live while engaged in begar (forced labour) on my behalf? They must be paid."
"Very well, then, let us set apart Rs. 20 to meet the cost of market buildings. But, for the first few weeks, you will have to buy up the unsold stock of perishable goods brought by Farias (hucksters); you must patronise the shopkeepers who open stalls for selling grain, cloth, confectionery, tobacco and trinkets. Once these people find that they are making fair profits they will gladly pay you rent for space allotted, besides tolls on the usual scale. At least Rs. 180 must be set apart for these preliminary expenses."
Kumodini Babu never did anything in haste. A fortnight elapsed ere he announced to the neighbours gathered in his Chandimandap that he intended starting a bi-weekly market on a vacant plot measuring one Bigha (one-third of an acre), known as the Kamarbari (Anglice, "Abode of Blacksmiths"). On an auspicious day towards the end of April, he inaugurated the new enterprise with some ceremony. His own ryots were enjoined to attend; shopkeepers, hucksters, and fishermen who had hitherto gone much further afield, came in considerable numbers; and business was amazingly brisk. Zemindars (landed proprietors) generally have to wait for months and spend money like water before they gain a pice (a bronze coin worth a farthing) from a new market. Kumodini Babu, however, began to reap where he had sown in less than a fortnight. Not an inch of space in the Karmarbari remained unoccupied; his Hat-Gomastha, or bailiff, levied rent and tolls for vendors, at whose request the market was proclaimed a tri-weekly one. His fame as a man of energy and public spirit spread over ten villages, whose people felt that he was one who would give them good counsel in times of difficulty.
There is some truth in the notion that fortune's gifts seldom come singly. Kumodini Babu's success in a business venture was immediately followed by one in his domestic affairs. It fell out in this wise. Sham Babu's daughter, Shaibalini, was still unmarried, though nearly thirteen and beautiful enough to be the pride of Kadampur. Money was, indeed, the only qualification she lacked, and Sham Babu's comparative poverty kept eligible suitors at a distance. For three years he had sought far and wide for a son-in-law and was beginning to fear that he might, after all, be unable to fulfil the chief duty of a Hindu parent. One evening his wife unexpectedly entered the parlour where he was resting after a heavy day at office.
"Why has the moon risen so early?" he asked.
"Because the moon can't do otherwise," she answered, with a faint smile. "But, joking apart, I want to consult you about Saili. Our neighbour Kanto Babu's wife called on me just before you returned from Calcutta, and, after beating about the bush, suggested Kumodini Babu's younger son, Nalini, as a suitable match for her."
Sham Babu's face wore a worried look.
"Surely that would be flying too high for such as us," he rejoined. "The Basus are comparatively rich, and very proud of their family which settled here during the Mughal days (i.e., before British rule, which in Bengal date from 1765). Young Nalini is reading for his B.A. examination and wants to be a pleader (advocate). Kumodini Babu would hardly allow his son to marry the daughter of a poor clerk."
"Still, there is no harm in trying," remarked the wife. "If you don't feel equal to approaching him, there's Kanto Babu who would do so. It was his wife who broached the subject to me, which makes me think that they have been discussing it together."
"An excellent idea," exclaimed Sham Babu. "I'll go to him at once." And taking his stick, he set out for Kanto Babu's house, which was barely fifty yards off. In half an hour he returned to gladden his wife with the news that their neighbour had consented to act as a go-between.
Kanto Babu was as good as his word. That very evening he called on Kumodini Babu, whom he found reading the Mahabharata (an epic poem). After dwelling now on this matter, now on that, he asked casually:—
"Have you never thought of getting Nalini married? He is over twenty, I believe."
"My wife has been urging me to look out for a wife for him, but in my opinion he is too young for such responsibilities. Better wait till he has passed the B.A. examination."
"Your wife's idea is sounder than yours, if I may be permitted to say so. Just think of the awful temptations to which unmarried students are exposed in that sink of profligacy, Calcutta! How many promising lads have succumbed to them, wrecking their own lives and causing bitter grief to their parents!"
Kumodini Babu started. "You surprise me! I had no idea that Calcutta was as bad as you paint it. We must certainly get Nalini married at once. I wonder whether you know of a likely match for him. I don't care about money, but—"
"That I do," interrupted Kanto Babu, "There's Sham Babu's daughter, Shaibalini. What a pretty creature she is; modest, loving and kind-hearted! You won't find her equal in this elaqa (lit. jurisdiction). If you approve, I will gladly be your spokesman with her family."
Kumodini Babu mused awhile before answering. "I know Shaibalini well by reputation, and she is all you describe her. Sham Babu, too, comes of excellent lineage, though he is not a Zemindar, and depends on service. I should not object to marrying Nalini with his daughter. But wait a bit: what gotra (clan) does he belong to?"
"I believe he is a Dakhin Rarhi," answered Kanto Babu.
"But I am an Uttar Rarhi," remarked Kumodini Babu. "Is not that a fatal objection?"
For the benefit of non-Hindu readers I may explain that Kayasthas are split into clans—probably a survival of the tribal organisation which preceded the family almost everywhere. According to tradition, a King of Bengal named Adisur imported five Brahmans, and as many Kayastha servants from Kanauj in Upper India. From the latter are descended the Ghosh, Basu, Mitra, Guha, and Datta families. The first four are generally recognised as Kulin (Angl., "aristocratic") Kayasthas, while the Dattas and seven other families are known as Sindhu Maulik—"coming of a good stock". Adisur and his companions found 700 Brahmans and the same number of Kayasthas already established in Bengal. These are the supposed ancestors of a large number of Kayastha families still termed Saptasati, "the Seven Hundred". The ancient Greeks reckoned their neighbours beyond the Hellenic pale as "barbarians". So Brahmans and Kayasthas of Central Bengal styled their congeners north of the Ganges Rarh, or "uncivilised". The epithet survives in Uttar (north) and Dakhin (south) Rarhi, but has lost its offensive meaning. Barendra is another phrase for the inhabitants of a tract north of the Ganges, which answers to the modern districts of Rajshahi, Pabna, and Bogra.
Kanto Babu was evidently perplexed; but after reflecting for a short time he asked, "Now why should such a trifling matter cause any trouble whatever? The time has long since passed away when arbitrary difference of clan was considered a bar to marriage among Kayasthas."
"You are quite right," was Kumodini Babu's reply, "and personally I am above these old-fashioned prejudices. My daughter-in-law may be Dakhin Rarhi, Banga-ja, or Barendri for all I care, provided she be comely, well-mannered and come of good stock. But will Sham Babu be equally tolerant?"
"That I can't say until I have consulted him," answered Kanto Babu. "One thing more I must know. What is your idea of Dena Paona (a word answering to our 'settlements')?"
"Ram, Ram!" exclaimed Kumodini Babu. "Am I the man to sell my son for filthy lucre? I hear that Calcutta folks occasionally do so, but I am quite opposed to the custom. Should Sham Babu agree to this match, I will make no stipulations whatever as to a money payment. He is in very moderate circumstances, and may give whatever he chooses. Please see him at once and let me have his decision."
Kanto Babu promised to do so and withdrew, inwardly chuckling over his diplomacy.
Sham Babu called on him the same evening to learn its issue. He was delighted to find that Kumodini Babu was not averse to the match, but his face fell on hearing of the difference of clan. Observing his agitation, Kanto Babu observed gently, "I don't see why a matter, which is not even mentioned in our Shastras (holy books), should cause one moment's hesitation. Pluck up your courage, man, and all will go well."
"Perhaps so," murmured Sham Babu. "But I do stand in awe of the Samaj" (a caste-assembly which pronounces excommunication for breaches of custom).
"That's all nonsense! Look at our friend Kunjalal Babu who has just married his son to a Barendri girl. Is he an outcast? Certainly not. It is true that the ultra-orthodox kicked a bit at first; but they all came round, and joined in the ceremony with zest. I can quote scores of similar instances to prove that this prejudice against marrying into a different clan is quite out of date."
Sham Babu had nothing to urge in opposition to these weighty arguments. He promised to let Kanto Babu have a definite reply on the morrow and kept his word. Having endured a curtain lecture from his wife, who proved to him that an alliance with the Basu family offered advantages far outweighing the slight risk there was of excommunication, he authorised Kanto Babu to assure Kumodini Babu that the proposed match had his hearty approval. Once preliminaries were satisfactorily settled, all other arrangements proceeded apace. The Paka Dekha is a solemn visit paid by males of the future bridegroom's family to that of his betrothed, during which they are feasted and decide all details regarding the marriage ceremonies. It passed off without a hitch, and the purohit (family priest) fixed Sravan 17th as an auspicious day for consummating the union. Thenceforward preparations were made for celebrating it in a manner worthy of the esteem in which both families were held.
Kumodini Babu issued invitations to all his relatives. Chief amongst these was a younger brother, Ghaneshyam Basu by name, who practised as a pleader (advocate) at Ghoria, where he had built a house after disposing of his interest in the family estate to Kumodini Babu. This important person was asked to supervise the ceremonies, inasmuch as Kumodini Babu's increasing age and infirmities rendered him unfit to do so efficiently, while his eldest son, yclept Jadu Babu, had barely reached man's estate. The letter of invitation referred incidentally to the difference of clan as a matter of no importance. Kumodini Babu's disappointment may be conceived when he got an answer from his younger brother, expressing strong disapproval of the match and ending with a threat to sever all connection with the family if it were persisted in! The recipient at first thought of running up to Ghoria, in view of softening Ghaneshyam Babu's heart by a personal appeal, but the anger caused by his want of brotherly feeling prevailed. Kumodini Babu and his wife agreed that matters had gone too far to admit of the marriage being broken off. If Ghaneshyam did not choose to take part in it, so much the worse for him!
Soon after dusk on Sravan 17th, Nalini entered his palanquin, arrayed in a beautiful costume of Benares silk. The wedding procession set out forthwith, amid a mighty blowing of conch-shells and beating of drums. At 8 P.M. it reached the bride's abode, where her family, with Sham Babu at the head, were ready to receive them. An hour later Nalini was conducted to the inner apartments, where the marriage ceremony began. It lasted until nearly eleven o'clock, when the young couple were taken to the Basarghar, or nuptial apartment. During these rites the men-folk were perhaps more pleasantly engaged in doing ample justice to a repast provided for them in the outer rooms. Then they chewed betels in blissful rumination, before separating with emphatic acknowledgments of the hospitality they had enjoyed.
On the following afternoon both bridegroom and bride were taken in palanquins to Kumodini Babu's house, where she instantaneously won every heart by her grace and beauty. Two days later the Bau-Bhat ceremony was held. This is a feast in the course of which the bride (bau) distributes cooked rice (bhat) with her own hands to bidden guests, in token of her reception into her husband's family and clan. Kumodini Babu had requisitioned an immense supply of dainties from local goalas (dairymen) and moiras (confectioners) with a view to eclipsing all previous festivals of the kind.
Early in the morning of the Bau-Bhat day a palanquin was carried into Kumodini Babu's courtyard; and who should emerge from it but Ghaneshyam Babu! He ran up to his brother, who was sitting with some neighbours in the parlour, and, clasping his feet, implored forgiveness. Kumodini Babu's heart leaped for joy. Tenderly did he embrace the penitent, who admitted that his peace of mind had fled from the moment he penned that cruel letter. He now saw the absurdity of his prejudices, and begged Kumodini Babu to forget his unbrotherly conduct. It is needless to add that the prayer was cordially granted and that Ghaneshyam Babu received a blessing from his elder brother. Thanks to his supervision the Bau-Bhat feast passed off at night without the slightest contretemps. Ten years later people still dwelt on the magnificent hospitality they had received, and held Kumodini Babu up as a model to fathers-in-law. In order that all classes might rejoice with him, he remitted a year's rent to every ryot, besides lavishing considerable sums on Brahmans and poor folk. The more enlightened section of Kayasthas were unanimous in pronouncing him to be a true Hindu, on whose descendants the gods on high would pour down their choicest blessings. There were others, however, whose malignity found material to work on in his disregard of caste prejudices.
The Rival Markets.
The immediate success of Kumodini Babu's market caused infinite annoyance to Ramani Babu, who owned one long established in the neighbourhood. Hucksters and country-folk found the tolls levied there so much lighter, that the attendance at Ramani's fell off grievously. It is well known that when a new market is started, proprietors already in the field endeavour to break it up with the aid of paid lathials (clubmen). If, as often happens, the daring speculator be a man of substance, he employs similar means in his defence. Free fights occur on market-days, ending in many a broken head—sometimes in slaughter. The battle is directed by Gomasthas (bailiffs) on either side, with the full knowledge of their masters, who keep discreetly aloof from the fray.
Ramani Babu did not foresee that his property would be injured by the new venture, and allowed it to be firmly established without striking a single blow. Finding a lamentable decrease in his receipts, he ordered the bailiff to "go ahead," and took an early train for Calcutta in order to set up an alibi in case of legal proceedings. A day or two later his bailiff, attended by six or seven men armed with iron-shod bamboo staves, assembled at the outskirts of Kumodini Babu's market, on a spot where four roads met.
Ere long a cart was descried approaching from eastwards, whose driver bawled snatches of song and puffed his hookah between whiles. When it reached the crossing, the bailiff shouted:—
"Stop! whither so early, friend?"
"To market," the man replied carelessly.
"The new one, started by Kumodini Babu."
"What have you got in those baskets of yours?"
"Oh, sweet potatoes, brinjals (egg-plants), and a lot of other vegetables."
"Why don't you attend Ramani Babu's market?"
"Because it does not pay me to go there."
"So you used to take your vegetables to Ramani Babu's market?"
"Yes; but there are hardly any customers left. Now please let me go; the sun is high up."
"So you won't obey me!"
"No!" roared the carter, prodding his oxen viciously.
"Stop a minute, I tell you! Whose ryot (tenant) are you?"
"What, you are his ryot and yet are acting against his interests? If he hears of your perfidy he will certainly turn you out of his estate!"
"Why should he?" asked the fellow, now thoroughly frightened. "I am a very poor man, and Ramani Babu is my father and mother. He cannot object to my selling a few vegetables wherever I please."
"But he does object," rejoined the bailiff sternly. "What's your name and residence?"
"Sadhu Sheikh, of Simulgachi."
"Now, do you know who I am?"
"No-o," replied Sadhu, hesitatingly.
"I am Ramani Babu's new bailiff, sent with these men to see that his market is well attended."
Sadhu's tone completely changed. "Salam, Babu," he whined. "I did not know who you were. Please let me pass or I shall be too late."
"Not so fast, friend," shouted the bailiff. "Once for all, are you going to obey me or not?"
Sadhu prodded his bullocks into a lumbering canter; but the bailiff gave a signal to his clubmen, who ran after him, dragged him out of the cart, and thrashed him soundly. Then two of them escorted him, with his wares, to their master's market, which was being held about three miles away. The bailiff waited at the crossing for new arrivals. They were not long in coming. A fishwoman, heavily laden, passed by. He hailed her, and on learning whither she was bound, ordered his men to drag her to their master's market, which they did, despite the volume of abuse which she hurled at their heads. In this manner some half a dozen deserters were captured and escorted to the old market.
The story of his tyranny spread like wildfire through neighbouring villages, with many amplifications, of course. Kumodini Babu heard that his rival had arrested a hundred frequenters of his market and was about to destroy the shelters he had erected for salesmen. This information filled him with anxiety and, after consulting friends, he lodged a complaint at the police station. In the remote interior of Bengal policemen are all-powerful. They usurp authority to which they are not entitled by law, and use it for private ends. All classes go in perpetual fear of them; for, by a stroke of the pen, they can ruin reputations and defeat justice. No one has recourse to their dreaded agency who can avoid doing so or has the means of gratifying their greed. By giving a handsome douceur to the Sub-Inspector, Kumodini Babu obtained a promise of support, which he was simple enough to rely upon.
Meantime Ramani Babu's market bailiff was not idle. Knowing that he had acted illegally, he resolved to "square" the executive. So, one evening, he persuaded his master to accompany him to the police station, provided with a bundle of ten-rupee currency notes. After discussing commonplaces with the Sub-Inspector, they adjourned to an inner room, where they induced him to take their side—for very weighty reasons.
Matters now began to look ugly for Kumodini Babu. Every vendor who approached his market was intercepted. He implored the help of the Sub-Inspector, who, however, observed a strict neutrality, hinting that the complainant was at liberty to defend himself with the aid of clubmen. But Kumodini Babu was a man of peace, and finding the policeman something less than lukewarm, he resigned himself to the inevitable.
His evil star continued to prevail, for, soon after these untoward events, it brought him into collision with the police. In consequence of an understanding with Ramani Babu, the Sub-Inspector took to buying provisions from the few shopkeepers who still attended Kumodini Babu's market and referring them to him for payment. His constables, too, helped themselves freely to rice and vegetables without even asking the price, and had their shoes blacked gratis by Kumodini Babu's muchis (leather-dressers). His bailiff put up with their vagaries, until the shopkeepers came in a body to say that unless they were stopped, the market would be entirely deserted. The luckless Zemindar was staggered by the tale of oppression. He paid for every article extorted by the police, but strictly forbade the vendors to give any further credit. The Sub-Inspector was deeply incensed in finding this source of illicit profit cut off, and his vengeance was perpetrated under the pretence of law.
One evening, while Kumodini Babu was conning the Mahabharata (an ancient epic) in his parlour, the Sub-Inspector came in, armed with a search warrant issued by the Deputy Magistrate of Ghoria, which he showed the astonished master of the house. A charge of receiving stolen property brought against him was indeed a bolt from the blue; but when Kumodini Babu regained his scattered wits, he told the Sub-Inspector scornfully that he might search every hole and corner of his house. For half an hour the police were occupied in turning his furniture and boxes topsy-turvy; and at last the Sub-Inspector went alone into a lumber-room, while his head constable kept Kumodini's attention fixed on the contents of an almeira (ward-robe) which he was searching. Shouting, "I have found the property!" he emerged from the room with a box containing various articles of gold and silver, which he said were hidden under some straw. On comparing them with a list in his possession he declared that they exactly tallied with property reported as part of the spoils of a burglary in the neighbouring village. In vain Kumodini Babu protested his entire innocence and asked whether he, a respectable Zemindar, was likely to be a receiver of stolen goods. He was handcuffed and taken to the police station on foot, while the Sub-Inspector followed in a palanquin. Kumodini Babu's women-folk filled the house with their lamentations; and his eldest son, Jadu Nath, was the first to recover from the prostration caused by sudden misfortune. He had a pony saddled and galloped to the railway station, whence he telegraphed to his uncle, Ghaneshyam Babu, the pleader, "Father arrested: charge receiving stolen goods". Ghaneshyam arrived by the next train, and after hearing the facts returned to Ghoria, where he applied to the Deputy Magistrate for bail. There was a strong disinclination to grant it, owing to the gravity of the charge; but finally an order was issued, releasing the prisoner on personal recognisance of Rs. 10,000 and two sureties of Rs. 5,000. The necessary security was immediately forthcoming, and Kumodini Babu found himself temporarily a free man, after enduring nearly forty-eight hours of unspeakable misery in the station lock-up.
In due course his case came on for hearing before the Deputy Magistrate. Ghaneshyam Babu secured the services of a fighting member of the Calcutta bar and was indefatigable in his efforts to unearth the nefarious plot against his brother. Proceedings lasted for four days in a court packed with spectators. The Sub-Inspector and his accomplices told their story speciously enough. A burglary had really been committed and the jewellery found in Kumodini Babu's outhouse was proved to have been part of the stolen goods. The issue was—who placed them there? On this point the Sub-Inspector's evidence was not by any means satisfactory. He finally broke down under rigorous cross-examination, and was forced to admit that it was quite possible that some one acting on his behalf had hidden the property in Kumodini Babu's lumber-room. The battle of the markets was related in all its dramatic details. Shopkeepers and ryots alike, seeing that justice was likely to prevail, came forward to depose to acts of tyranny by Ramani Babu's servants and their allies, the police. Evidence of the prisoner's high character was forthcoming, while his age and dignified bearing spoke strongly in his favour. The Magistrate saw that he had been the victim of an abominable conspiracy and released him amid the suppressed plaudits of the audience. His reasons for discharge contained severe strictures on the local police, and even suggested their prosecution. Thus, after weeks of agonising suspense and an expenditure on legal fees running into thousands of rupees, Kumodini Babu was declared innocent. He took the humiliation so much to heart, that he meditated retiring to that refuge for storm-tossed souls, Benares. But Ghaneshyam Babu strongly dissuaded him from abandoning the struggle, at least until he had turned the tables on his enemies. So Kumodini Babu moved the District Magistrate to issue process against Ramani Babu and the Sub-Inspector. He met with a refusal, however, probably because the higher authorities thought fit to hush up a glaring scandal which might "get into the papers," and discredit the administration. Ramani Babu, therefore, was not molested, but his accomplice was departmentally censured, and transferred to an unhealthy district. Kumodini Babu also thought of discontinuing the market which had been the fount and origin of his misfortunes. Here again his brother objected that such a course would be taken to indicate weakness and encourage further attacks. His advice was followed. The new market throve amazingly, while Ramani Babu's was quite deserted.
A Foul Conspiracy.
On a certain morning in February Ramani Babu sprung a mine on his tenants by circulating a notice among them to the effect that they would have to pay up every pice of rent on or before the 10th prox. Some hastened to discharge their liabilities, while others ran about asking for loans or sat with downcast eyes, unable to decide what course to take. The English reader is perhaps unaware that every Bengal landowner is required to pay revenue to Government four times a year, vis., on the 28th January, March, June and September. Any one failing to do so before sunset on these dates becomes a defaulter, and his estate is put up to auction in order to satisfy the demand, however small it may be. Property worth many thousands of rupees has often been sold for arrears of eight annas (a shilling) or even less. The near approach of these kist (rent) days is of course a period of great anxiety to landlords; some of whom are forced to borrow the necessary amount on the security of their wives' ornaments.
On March 28th, 18—, Ramani Babu had to pay about Rs. 10,000 as land revenue; but his ryots' crops had failed, owing to want of rain, and by the end of February he had been able to realise only Rs. 1,000, the greater portion by threats of force. The Indian peasant's lot is not a happy one. He depends solely on the produce of the soil, which yields little or nothing if the annual rains should fail, or there be an excess of moisture. Millions of cultivators never know what it is to have a good, solid meal. In order to meet the landlord's demands they have recourse to a Mahajan (moneylender) whose exactions leave them a slender margin for subsistence. But religion and ages of slavery render them submissive creatures. They murmur only when very hard pressed.
Sadhu Sheikh, of Simulgachi, lived by raising vegetables for sale in Kumodini Babu's market, until he was forbidden to do so by Ramani Babu's clubmen. Failing this resource, he abandoned the little trade; and thus got deeper into the books of his moneylender. At this crisis he received a written notice ordering him to attend Ramani Babu's kucheri (office) on 17th March without fail. A visit to the local moneylender was fruitless and only led to a hint that old scores must be cleared off. So Sadhu returned home crestfallen and determined to abide by his fate. On obeying the summons, he found Ramani Babu, sitting in his office to receive rent, which was brought him by a crowd of dejected-looking ryots. A great hubbub was going on; one Bemani insisting that he had paid up to date while Ramani Babu's gomastha (bailiff) stoutly denied the assertion and called n the objector to produce his receipt. This was not forthcoming for the simple reason that Ramani had mislaid it. He asked the bailiff to show him the ledger account, and after spelling through the items laboriously be found that not a pice stood to his credit, although he had paid nearly sixty rupees since the last hist (rent) day. There are few who understand the value of the dakhilas (rent receipts) which landlords are compelled by law to give them. The little slips of paper are lost or destroyed, with the result that many ryots have had to pay twice over. Bemani vainly invoked Allah to witness that he had discharged his dues; the bailiff ordered him to pay within twenty-four hours on pain of severe punishment. Goaded to fury by this palpable injustice the poor man declined to do anything of the kind. At this stage Ramani Babu intervened:—
"You son of a pig, are you going to obey my orders or not?"
"No, I have paid once, and I won't pay again," yelled Bemani, thoroughly roused.
Ramani Babu beckoned to a stalwart doorkeeper from the Upper Provinces, who was standing near.
"Sarbeshwar, give this rascal a taste of your Shamchand (cane)!"
He was zealously obeyed and poor Bemani was thrashed until he lay writhing in agony on the ground. After taking his punishment he rose, and looking defiantly at Ramani Babu said:—
"You have treated me cruelly; but you will find that there is a God who watches all our actions. He will certainly deal out retribution to you!" He then turned to go.
"I see you are not yet cured," exclaimed Ramani Babu. "Let him have another dose of Shamchand."
"Yes, go on!" roared Bemani, "beat me as much as you please; you'll have reason to repent sooner or later!" With this remark he stood erect, looking fearlessly at his tormentors. Sarbeshwar administered another welting, which drew blood at every stroke but was borne without sound or movement. When the doorkeeper stopped for want of breath, Bemani cast a look of scorn at Ramani Babu and strode out of the house in silence, full of rage.
Presently another disturbance was heard. One of the ryots had paid his rent in full but declined to add the usual commission exacted by the bailiffs, who fell on him in a body and pummelled him severely.
Sadhu witnessed these horrors from a corner of the room and inwardly besought Allah to save him from the clutches of those demons. But Srikrishna, who was the bailiff of his circle, happened to see him and asked whether he had brought his rent. Sadhu got up, salamed humbly, and replied, "Babuji, you know my present circumstances well". "Answer yes or no," thundered Srikrishna, "I have no time to listen to your excuses."
"Your servant is a very poor man," continued Sadhu, shaking from head to foot.
"Who is this person?" inquired Ramani Babu.
"This is Sadhu Sheikh, of Simulgachi," was the bailiff's reply, "the very same rascal who gave evidence against your honour in that faujdari (criminal) case."
"Is that so?" roared Ramani Babu. "And the son of a pig owes me rent?"
"Now, please, do not abuse me, Babuji," protested Sadhu, "only listen to my tale for one minute!"
"What, you dare to bandy words with me, haramzudu (bastard)?" shouted Ramani Babu, rising from his seat. "Doorkeeper, let him have fifty cuts, laid on hard!"
Swish, swish, swish, sounded the nimble cane, and made a grey pattern on Sadhu's naked flesh. His screams and prayers for mercy were mocked by the obsequious crowd, and at length he fell senseless on the floor.
"Look, he is shamming," observed Ramani Babu; "drag him outside and souse him with water until he comes to." The command was obeyed, and when Sadhu was able to sit up he was brought back to the dreaded presence. Again his arrears of rent were demanded, and once more he feebly protested that he could not discharge them. Thereon Ramani Babu ordered him to be hung up. Forthwith, a dozen eager hands were laid on him, a rope was passed under his armpits, and the free end thrown over a rafter of the office. By this means he was hauled from the ground and swung suspended, a butt of sarcasm and abuse for Ramani Babu's myrmidons. After enduring this humiliation for an hour or so, he was let down and a final demand made on him for the arrears of rent. On his again asserting inability Ramani Babu ordered his hut to be levelled with the ground and pulse to be sown on its site, as a punishment for his disobedience. He was then allowed to leave the scene of his misery.
On reaching home he found Bemani seated in the porch, in expectation of his arrival. His fellow-victim said that he had lodged an information against Ramani Babu and his servants at the police station and intended going to Ghoria, next day, to complain to the Deputy Magistrate. Would Sadhu help him by giving evidence? he asked. "That I will," was the reply, "but I must first consult Jadunath Babu, who, I am sure, will help me." After Bemani's departure Sadhu went to his protector and told the story of his sufferings in full. Jadunath Babu bade him be of good cheer; for he would do all in his power to bring Ramani Babu to justice. Sadhu was comforted by this promise. He returned home and soon forgot all his sorrows in sleep.
About midnight he was aroused by voices in his yard, and, sallying forth, discovered a gang of clubmen employed by Ramani Babu, in the act of tearing the roof from his hut. Remonstrance was met by jeering and threats of violence; so the luckless man stood helplessly under a neighbouring tamarind tree, while his house was reduced to a heap of bamboos and thatch. The material was taken away in carts, the site dug up, and pulse sown thereon. Thus not a trace of Sadhu's home was left. He passed the remaining hours of the night under the tree; and early next morning he called on Jadu Babu, to whom he unfolded the story of this latest outrage. His patron boiled over with indignation. He sent Sadhu to the police station, in order to lay an information against his persecutors, promising to give him a house and land to compensate his losses. In less than a fortnight, the injured man was installed in a new hut and in possession of enough land to support him comfortably. Then he settled down, with heartfelt prayers for Jadu Babu's long life and prosperity. He even sent for his wife and a young sister-in-law, who had been staying with her brother near Calcutta.
Meantime Bemani had taken out a summons for causing grievous hurt against Ramani Babu and his servants. When the case came on for hearing before a Deputy Magistrate at Ghoria, all the accused pleaded "not guilty." They could not deny the fact that he had been beaten within an inch of his life, but alleged provocation on his part, inasmuch as he had fomented a rebellion among the ryots. Jadu Babu was not idle. He provided the complainant with first-rate legal advice and paid all the expenses of adducing witnesses. Emboldened by his support, at least a dozen of Ramani Babu's ryots who were present while he was being thrashed, came forward to give evidence of the brutal treatment he had received and to deny the counter charge brought by the defendants. Thus the case ended in the conviction of Ramani Babu and three of his servants, who were sentenced to fines aggregating Rs. 200. Then the charges preferred by Sadhu were taken up by the Deputy Magistrate. As they were of a far graver character, the barrister brought from Calcutta by Ramani Babu obtained a week's adjournment in order to procure rebutting evidence.
At this time the Muharram festival was in full swing. Sadhu was too busy in getting up his case to take part in it; but he sent his wife to some relatives at Ghoria, while his young sister-in-law, who was suffering from fever, remained at home. He was aroused one night by loud screams coming from the hut occupied by this girl. On running out to see what was the matter, he fell into the arms of a stranger who was crossing his yard in a desperate hurry. A struggle ensued, but the intruder managed to escape, not before Sadhu had recognised him as a ryot of Ramani Babu, named Karim. On asking his sister-in-law what had happened, the poor girl told him with many sobs that a man had broken into the hut, and awakened her by seizing her throat, but had been scared away by her screams. As soon as day dawned, Sadhu ran to the house of Karim's uncle, in the hope of finding him there. The uncle, however, declared that Karim had been absent since the previous evening, and on learning the grave charge preferred by Sadhu, he begged with folded hands that the scandal might be stifled, at any cost, for the sake of both families. Sadhu would promise nothing, but for obvious reasons he laid no information against Karim.
Two days later he was engaged on his evening meal, when a Sub-Inspector appeared. After asking whether his name was Sadhu, the policeman slipped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists and turned a deaf ear to his bewildered request for information as to the charge preferred against him. Thus he was ignominiously taken to the station lock-up, followed by a crowd, whom he begged to inform Jadu Babu of his trouble. The latter was speedily fetched by a compassionate neighbour, and, after conversing with the police officer, he told Sadhu that he was actually charged with murder! Karim's uncle had informed the police that, his nephew having disappeared since the day of the alleged trespass, he suspected Sadhu of foul play. An inquiry followed which led to Sadhu's transfer to the district jail.
Jadu Babu was certain that his enemy had instigated the charge, and knew that he was quite capable of suppressing Karim in order to get Sadhu into trouble. He was advised by friends whom he consulted not to poke his nose into so ugly an affair: but his sense of justice prevailed. He went to Ghaneshyam Babu, whom he told the whole story related by Sadhu. On learning that Ramani Babu was implicated, the pleader saw an opportunity of wreaking vengeance on the persecutor of his brother. Gladly did he undertake the prisoner's defence.
In due course the charge preferred by Sadhu against Ramani Babu was heard by a Deputy Magistrate. With Ghaneshyam Babu's aid, the complainant proved it up to the hilt, and all concerned were heavily fined. Soon afterwards Sadhu himself appeared before the Deputy Magistrate to answer a charge of murder. The circumstantial evidence against him was so strong that he was committed to the Sessions Court. When brought up for trial there, he astounded his backers by pleading guilty and offering to point out the spot where he had buried Karim's corpse. The case was forthwith adjourned for a local inquiry; and the European District Superintendent of Police took Sadhu to the place indicated, where he had the soil turned up in all directions without result. Sadhu admitted that he was mistaken and piloted the police to another spot, where they again failed to discover any trace of the missing man. On these facts being reported to the judge, he fixed the morrow for final hearing.
At 11 A.M. he took his seat on the bench in a Court packed with eager spectators, and was reading a charge to the jury, strongly adverse to the prisoner, when an uproar was heard outside. Proceedings were suspended while the judge sent an usher to ascertain the cause; but ere he returned, half a dozen men burst into the courtroom crying Dohai! (justice!). Jadu Babu, who was one of the intruders, signalled the others to be silent, and thus addressed the judge with folded hands:—
"Your Honour, the dead has come to life! Here is Karim, who was supposed to have been murdered!"
There was a tremendous sensation in Court. When it subsided the judge thrust aside his papers and asked for evidence as to Karim's identity, which was soon forthcoming on oath. Then he ordered him to be sworn, and recorded the following deposition:—
"Incarnation of Justice! I will make a full confession, whatever may happen to me. I was sent for about a month ago by my landlord Ramani Babu, who ordered me to insult some woman of Sadhu's household, in order that he might be excommunicated. In fear of my life I consented to do so, and that very night I broke into the hut where Sadhu's sister-in-law lay asleep. Her cries attracted Sadhu, who grappled with me in his yard. However, I managed to escape, and on reporting my failure to Ramani Babu, he sent me in charge of a Barkamduz (guard) to Paliti, which is ten coss (20 miles) away. There I was confined in a Kacheri (office building) until yesterday, when I got away after nightfall. I had to pass through Ghoria Bazar, on my way home this morning, and there I ran up against Jadu Babu, who stopped and questioned me closely about my movements. There was nothing for me but to make a clean breast of everything. He took me to a babu's house where he was staying, and thence brought me to your honour's presence."
Karim's confession took every one by surprise, and it was corroborated by Jadu Babu in the witness-box. The judge then asked Sadhu why he pleaded guilty.
"Incarnation of Justice," was the reply, "it was the Daroga Babu (Sub-Inspector of Police) who frightened me into making a confession. He told me again and again that he had quite enough evidence to hang me, and advised me to escape death by admitting the charge of murdering Karim. While I was shut up alone in jail, I had no one to consult or rely on. Through fear, my wits entirely left me and I resolved to obtain mercy by making a false confession."
These circumstances, strange as they may appear to the Western reader, were no novelty to the Sessions Judge. In charging the jury, he commented severely on the conduct of the station police and directed them to return a verdict of not guilty, which they promptly did.
Ghaneshyam Babu did not let the matter drop. He moved the District Magistrate to prosecute Ramani Babu and his bailiff, Srikrishna, for conspiring to charge an innocent man with murder. Both were brought to trial and, despite the advocacy of a Calcutta barrister, they each received a sentence of six months' rigorous imprisonment. Justice, lame-footed as she is, at length overtook a pair of notorious evil-doers.
The Biter Bitten.
Babu Chandra Mohan Bai, or Chandra Babu, as he was usually called, was a rich banker with many obsequious customers. He was a short choleric man, very fond of his hookah, without which he was rarely seen in public. He had no family, except a wife who served him uncomplainingly, and never received a letter or was known to write one except in the course of business. His birthplace, nay his caste, were mysteries. But wealth conceals every defect, and no one troubled to inquire into Chandra Babu's antecedents. This much was known—that he had come to Kadampur fifteen years before my tale opens with a brass drinking-pot and blanket, and obtained a humbly-paid office as a clerk under a local Zemindar. In this capacity he made such good use of the means it offered of extorting money that he was able to set up as a moneylender at Simulgachi, close to Kadampur. When people learnt that a new Shylock was at their service, they flocked to him in times of stress. His usual rate of interest being only 5 per cent, per mensem, he cut into the business of other moneylenders, and in four or five years had no serious competitor within a radius of four miles from Kadampur itself. Once master of the situation he drew in his horns, lending money only to people who could give ample security in land, government papers, or jewellery. He also started a tejarati business (loans of rice, for seed and maintenance during the "slack" months, repaid in kind, with heavy interest, after the harvest). Although few Khataks (customers) were able to extricate their property from his clutches or clear off their debit balances, Chandra Babu continued to be in great request. He was heard to boast that every family in or near Kadampur, except the Basus, were on his books. The rapid growth of his dealings compelled him to engage a gomastha (manager) in the person of Santi Priya Das, who had been a village schoolmaster notorious for cruelty. The duties of his new office were entirely to Santi Priya's liking, and he performed them to Chandra Babu's unqualified approval.
On a certain morning in late August, Chandra Babu sat in his office to receive applications for money or grain. One of his customers named Karim Sheikh came in and squatted close to the door, after salaming profoundly. On seeing him Chandra Babu at once remembered that his bond had run out on 15th July, and that he owed nearly Rs. 100, principal and interest. He therefore addressed the newcomer in accents of wrath. "What do you want here, you son of a pig?"
"Babuji," pleaded Karim, "my stars are unlucky. You know how wretched the rice harvest has been."
"Yes, we know all that," replied Santi, who sat near his master. "It's the old story, when people who can pay won't pay. Have you brought the money, eh?"
Karim was obliged to confess he had not.
"Then why have you come here?" roared Chandra Babu. "To show your face, I suppose. We see hundreds of better-looking fellows than you daily. You have got to pay up at once, you badmash (rascal)."
Karim's wrath was stirred by this expression. He replied, "Now, Babu, don't be abusive; I won't stand it".
"What, do you want to teach me manners, Maulvie Saheb (doctor learned in Mohammadan law)?" asked Chandra Babu sarcastically.
An exchange of compliments followed which were not altogether to Shylock's advantage, and at length he roared, "Get out of this office, you rascal, and look out for squalls! I'll sell you up!" Karim left in high dudgeon, inviting Chandra Babu to do his worst, and the latter forthwith concocted a scheme of vengeance with his manager.
Next day Santi obtained a summons against Karim from the Munsiff (civil judge of first instance) of Ghoria and, by bribing the court process-server, induced him to make a false return of service. In due course the suit came on for hearing, and as the defendant was of course absent, it was decreed against him ex parte. Execution being also granted, Santi accompanied the court bailiff to Karim's house, where they seized all his movable property and carried it off to the Court, leaving him in bewilderment and tears. He was unable to tear himself away from his gutted home but sat for hours under a tree hard by, pondering on his ill-fortune. Not until the sun had set and village cattle began to file in from pasture, did he cast one lingering look on the scene of his childhood and walk away with a sigh, whither no one cared to inquire.
A week later, however, Karim strode into Chandra Babu's office attended by two friends, and counted out ten ten-rupee notes, which he handed to the moneylender, with a peremptory request to release his chattels at once. Chandra Babu was greatly surprised by the turn matters had taken, but he was not the man to let property slip from his clutches. So he asked Santi whether the debtor did not owe a bill of costs. The manager referred to his books and declared that Rs. 33 8. 0. were still due. Karim planked down the money without further ado and asked for a receipt, which Santi reluctantly gave him. Then he again demanded the immediate release of his property. On receiving an evasive answer, he remarked that Chandra Babu would hear from him shortly and left the office.
About a month later, Chandra Babu was aroused from sleep in the dead of night by shouts coming from his inner courtyard. He jumped up and popped his head out of the window, but withdrew it hastily on seeing twenty or thirty men running about his premises, with lighted torches, and shouting—"Loot! loot!" Paralysed by fear, he crawled under the bed and lay in breathless expectation of further developments. Presently the door was forced open, and a crowd poured into the room. Chandra Babu's hiding place was soon discovered by the dacoits (gang robbers), who dragged him out by the legs and demanded his keys on pain of instant death. Seeing a rusty talwar (sword) flourished within an inch of his throat, the unhappy man at once produced them, whereon the dacoits opened his safe and took out several bags of rupees. Then at a signal from their sardar (leader), they bound Chandra Babu hand and foot and squatted round him in a circle. The sardar thus addressed him:—
"Babuji, do you know us?"
"How can I know you?" groaned their victim. "Your faces are blackened and concealed by your turbans. Gentlemen, I implore you to spare my life! I never injured any of you."
"Indeed!" replied the sardar sarcastically; "you have been the ruin of us all. Look you, Chandra Babu, we are all Khataks (customers) of yours whom you have fleeced by levying exorbitant interest on loans and falsifying our accounts. It's no use going to law for our rights; you are hand in glove with the civil court amla (clerks) and peons (menials) and can get them to do whatever you wish. So we have determined to take the law into our own hands. We have made up our accounts and find that you have extorted from us Rs. 5,000, over and above advances of rice and cash with reasonable interest. Now we're going to help ourselves to that sum, besides damages at four annas in the rupee (twenty-five per cent.). This makes just Rs. 6,250 you owe us."
Thereon the dacoits counted out cash to that amount and no more, which was placed in bags containing Rs. 1,000 each, ready for removal. Chandra Babu heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that he had got off rather cheaply, but his troubles were not at an end. The sardar came close to him and asked:—
"Look at me carefully: do you know me?"
"No baba, but you are my son. Pray, spare my life! See, I am half dead already and ruined as well!"
"I am Karim Sheikh," said the sardar impressively.
"So you are," replied Chandra Babu, after recovering from his intense surprise; "but why have you turned dacoit?"
"It was owing to your oppression, which drove me from my house, and deprived me of the means of livelihood. All my companions here have been beggared by you, and scores of other families too. The whole of Kadampur and Simulgachi are clamouring for your blood, and Allah has appointed me to be the minister of his vengeance. Time was when I had to cringe to you, just as you are doing to me, but never did I receive mercy from you. Now the tables are turned. I might kill you, and who would dare to inform the police folk?" (Here Karim made a vicious prod with his talwar, which passed within half an inch of the terror-stricken victim's throat.) "I might put you out of caste by slaying one of your cows and forcing you to eat its flesh. You deserve all this and more—but we will be merciful. Swear by your goddesses Kali and Durga that you will never in future demand more than four annas in the rupee yearly for loans of money or rice. Swear that you will never again bribe the amla or peons of the Courts; swear that you will never again falsify the accounts of your Khataks."
Chandra Babu took the oaths demanded with an appearance of unction and then implored his captors to release him.
"Wait a minute," was Karim's reply, "we must collect our belongings."
So saying he ordered the dacoits to extinguish their torches and follow him with the bags of money. He led them to a ravine on the river bank, about a coss (two miles) distant, where the spoil was equitably divided according to a list of names and amounts due in Karim's possession. Then after arranging for alibis in case of criminal proceedings, the band dispersed, well satisfied with their night's work.
Chandra Babu's neighbours made no sign until the dacoits were well out of hearing, when they flocked in to unloose his bonds and offer hypocritical condolences. The village Chaukidar (watchman) was sent off to the police station, and next day arrived the Sub-Inspector with a posse of constables to investigate the dacoity. After recording the complainant's statement, they endeavoured to secure additional evidence, but Chandra Babu was so cordially disliked, and the dacoits' vengeance so dreaded, that not a soul came forward to corroborate his story. Karim was arrested, with half a dozen accomplices named by Chandra Babu. They had no difficulty in proving that they were attending a wedding ceremony five miles away on the night of the alleged dacoity. So the case was reported to headquarters as false; and Chandra Babu escaped prosecution for deceiving the police, by giving a heavy bribe to the Sub-Inspector.
His evil star continued in the ascendant. About a week afterwards, he discovered a heavy deficit in his cash book, kept by Santi Priya, which that rascal failed to explain, and next day the trusty manager did not attend office. Indeed he has never been heard of since. This new calamity was Chandra Babu's "last straw". He hastened to realise outstanding debts and left the village, bag and baggage, to the intense relief of its inhabitants, who celebrated his exit by offering puja or namaz (Mohammadan prayers) according to the religion they severally professed.
All's Well That End's Well.
Every good Hindu feels bound to get his daughter or sister, as the case may be, married before she attains puberty. Rich people find little difficulty in securing suitable matches for their girls; but Babu Jadunath Basu, widely known as "Jadu Babu," was not blessed with a large share of this world's goods; and his sister Basumati was close on her teens. The marriage-broker had certainly suggested more than one aspirant for her hand, but they were not to Jadu Babu's liking. As years rolled by, his anxiety deepened into despair. A match was at length offered which was passably good, although it did not answer Jadu Babu's expectations. He learnt from private inquiry that the boy proposed bore a good character, never mixed with doubtful associates, and had no constitutional defect. Hindu parents are very careful to ascertain the health of a suitor, and should they suspect any inherited disease, such as consumption, they reject him remorselessly. It must not be supposed that such lads are always doomed to celibacy, for their unsoundness may be hidden or counterbalanced by a substantial money payment.
Jadu Babu found out that the boy had matriculated at Calcutta and was attending the second year class at a Metropolitan College; more important still, his father, Amarendra Babu, had money invested in Government paper, besides a substantial brick house—qualifications which augured well for his sister's wedded happiness. The next step was to invite his own father, Kumodini Babu, to come from Benares and help him to clinch matters. The old man pleaded that he had done with the world and all its vanities; so Jadu Babu had to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City, where he induced Kumodini Babu to return home with him. Three days later the pair went to Calcutta with two friends, in order to make the suitor's acquaintance. They were welcomed by Amarendra Babu, who at once sent for his son. The boy came in with eyes fixed on the ground and shyly took a seat near Kumodini Babu. He underwent a severe scrutiny, and at last the old man broke silence by asking the lad his name. Being informed that it was Samarendra Nath, he inquired the names of his father and grandfather, which were promptly given.