Letters of Marque, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 16

The Comedy of Errors and the Exploitation of Boondi. The Castaway of the Dispensary and the Children of the Schools. A Consideration of the Shields of Rajasthan and Other Trifles

IT is high time that a new treaty were made with Maha Rao Raja Ram Singh, Bahadur, Raja of Boondi. He keeps the third article of the old one too faithfully, which says that he ‘shall not enter into negotiations with any one without the consent of the British Government.’ He does not negotiate at all. Arrived at Boondi Gate, the Englishman asked where he might lay his head for the night, and the Quarter Guard with one accord said: ‘The Sukh Mahal, which is beyond the city,’ and the tonga went thither through the length of the town till it arrived at a pavilion on a lake — a place of two turrets connected by an open colonnade. The ‘house’ was open to the winds of heaven and the pigeons of the Raj; but the latter had polluted more than the first could purify. A snowy-bearded chowkidar crawled out of a place of tombs, which he seemed to share with some monkeys, and threw himself into Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He was a great deal worse than Ram Baksh, for he said that all the Officer Sahibs of Deoli came to the Sukh Mahal for shikar and — never went away again, so pleased were they. The Sahib had brought the Honour of his Presence, and he was a very old man, and without a written permit could do nothing. Then he fell deeply asleep without warning; and there was a pause, of one hour only, which the Englishman spent in seeing the lake. It, like the jhils on the road, wound in and out among the hills, and, on the bund side, was bounded by a hill of black rock crowned with a chhatri of grey stone. Below the bund was a garden as fair as eye could wish, and the shores of the lake were dotted with little temples. Given a habitable house — a mere dak-bungalow — it would be a delightful spot to rest in. Warned by some bitter experiences in the past, the Englishman knew that he was in for the demi-semi-royal or embarrassing reception, when a man, being the unwelcome guest of a paternal State, is neither allowed to pay his way and make himself comfortable, nor is he willingly entertained. When he saw a one-eyed munshi (clerk), he felt certain that Ganesh had turned upon him at last. The munshi demanded and received the purwana, or written permit. Then he sat down and questioned the traveller exhaustively as to his character and profession. Having thoroughly satisfied himself that the visitor was in no way connected with the Government or the ‘Agenty Sahib Bahadur,’ he took no further thought of the matter and the day began to draw in upon a grassy bund, an openwork pavilion, and a disconsolate tonga.

At last the faithful servitor, who had helped to fight the Battle of the Mail Bags at Udaipur, broke his silence, and vowing that all these devil-people — not more than twelve — had only come to see the fun, suggested the breaking of the munshi’s head. And, indeed, that seemed the best way of breaking the ice; for the munshi had, in the politest possible language, put forward the suggestion that there was nothing particular to show that the Sahib who held the purwana had really any right to hold it. The chowkidar woke up and chanted a weird chant, accompanied by the Anglo-Saxon attitudes, a new set. He was an old man, and all the Sahib-log said so, and within the pavilion were tables and chairs and lamps and bath-tubs, and everything that the heart of man could desire. Even now an enormous staff of menials were arranging all these things for the comfort of the Sahib Bahadur and Protector of the Poor, who had brought the honour and glory of his Presence all the way from Deoli. What did tables and chairs and eggs and fowls and very bright lamps matter to the Raj? He was an old man and . . . ‘Who put the present Raja on the throne?’ ‘Lake Sahib,’ promptly answered the chowkidar. ‘I was there. That is the news of many old years.’ Now Tod says it was he himself who installed ‘Lalji the beloved’ in the year 1821. The Englishman began to lose faith in the chowkidar. The munshi said nothing but followed the Englishman with his one workable eye. A merry little breeze crisped the waters of the lake, and the fish began to frolic before going to bed.

‘Is nobody going to do or bring anything?’ said the Englishman faintly, wondering whether the local gaol would give him a bed if he killed the munshi. ‘I am an old man,’ said the chowkidar, ‘and because of their great respect and reverence for the Sahib in whose Presence I am only a bearer of orders and a servant awaiting them, men, many men, are bringing now tent-flies which I with my own hands will wrap, here and there, there and here, in and about the pillars of the place; and thus you, O Sahib, who have brought the honour of your Presence to the Boondi Rah over the road to Deoli, which is a kutcha road, will he provided with a very fine and large apartment over which I will watch while you go to kill the tigers in these hills.’

By this time two youths had twisted canvas round some of the pillars of the colonnade, making a sort of loose-box with a two-foot air-way all round the top. There was no door, but there were unlimited windows. Into this enclosure the chowkidar heaped furniture on which many generations of pigeons had evidently been carried off by cholera, until he was entreated to desist. ‘What,’ said he scornfully, ‘are tables and chairs to this Raj? If six be not enough, let the Presence give an order, and twelve shall be forthcoming. Everything shall be forthcoming.’ Here he filled a native lamp with kerosene oil and set it in a box upon a stick. Luckily, the oil which he poured so lavishly from a quart bottle was bad, or he would have been altogether consumed.

Night had fallen long before this magnificence was ended. The superfluous furniture — chairs for the most part — was shovelled out into the darkness, and by the light of a flamboyant lamplet — a merry wind forbade candles — the Englishman went to bed, and was lulled to sleep by the rush of the water escaping from the overflow trap and the splash of the water-turtle as he missed the evasive fish. It was a curious sight. Cats and dogs rioted about the enclosure, and a wind from the lake bellied the canvas. The brushwood of the hills around snapped and cracked as beasts went through it, and creatures — not jackals — made dolorous noises. On the lake it seemed that hundreds of water-birds were keeping a hotel, and that there were arrivals and departures throughout the night. The Raj insisted upon providing a guard of two sepoys, very pleasant men, on four rupees a month. These said that tigers sometimes wandered about on the hills above the lake, but were most generally to be found five miles away. And the Englishman promptly dreamed that a one-eyed tiger came into his tent without a purwana. But it was only a wild cat after all; and it fled before the shoes of civilisation.

The Sukh Mahal was completely separated from the city, and might have been a country-house. It should be mentioned that Boondi is jammed into a V-shaped gorge — the valley at the main entrance being something less than five hundred yards across. As it splays out, the thickly packed houses follow its lines, and, seen from above, seem like cattle herded together preparatory to a stampede through the gate. Owing to the set of the hills, very little of the city is visible except from the Palace. It was in search of this latter that the Englishman went abroad and became so interested in the streets that he forgot all about it for a time. Jeypore is a show-city and is decently drained; Udaipur is blessed with a State Engineer and a printed form of Government; for Jodhpur the dry sand, the burning sun, and an energetic doctor have done a good deal, but Boondi has none of these things. The crampedness of the locality aggravates the evil, and it can only be in the rains which channel and furrow the rocky hillsides that Boondi is at all swept out. The Nal Sagar, a lovely little stretch of water, takes up the head of the valley called Banda Gorge, and must, in the nature of things, receive a good deal of unholy drainage. But setting aside this weakness, it is a fascinating place — this jumbled city of straight streets and cool gardens, where gigantic mangoes and peepuls intertwine over gurgling watercourses, and the cuckoo comes at mid-day. It boasts no foolish Municipality to decree when a house is dangerous and uninhabitable. The newer shops are built into, on to, over, and under, time-blackened ruins of an older day, and the little children skip about tottering arcades and grass-grown walls, while their parents chatter below in the crowded bazaar. In the back slums, the same stones seem to be used over and over again for house-building. Wheeled conveyances are scarce in Boondi city — there is scant room for carts, and the streets are paved with knobsome stones, unpleasant to walk over. From time to time an inroad of Bunjaras’ pack-bullocks sweeps the main streets clear of life, or one of the Raja’s elephants — he has twelve of them — blocks the way. But, for the most part, the foot-passengers have all the city for their own.

They do not hurry themselves. They sit in the sun and think, or put on all the arms in the family, and, hung with ironmongery, parade before their admiring friends. Others, lean, dark men, with bound jaws and only a tulwar for weapon, dive in and out of the dark alleys, on errands of State. It is a beautifully lazy city, doing everything in the real, true, original native way, and it is kept in very good order by the Durbar. There either is or is not an order for everything. There is no order to sell fishing-hooks, or to supply an Englishman with milk, or to change for him currency notes. He must only deal with the Durbar for whatever he requires; and wherever he goes he must be accompanied by at least two armed men. They will tell him nothing, for they know or affect to know nothing of the city. They will do nothing except shout at the little innocents who joyfully run after the stranger and demand pice, but there they are, and there they will stay till he leaves the city, accompanying him to the gate, and waiting there a little to see that he is fairly off and away. Englishmen are not encouraged in Boondi. The intending traveller would do well to take a full suit of Political uniform with the sunflowers, and the little black sword to sit down upon. The local god is the ‘Agenty Sahib,’ and he is an incarnation without a name — at least among the lower classes. The educated, when speaking of him, always use the courtly ‘Bahadur’ affix; and yet it is a mean thing to gird at a State which, after all, is not bound to do anything for intrusive Englishmen without any visible means of livelihood. The King of this fair city should declare the blockade absolute, and refuse to be troubled with any one except ‘Colon-nel Baltah, Agenty Sahib Bahadur’ and the Politicals. If ever a railway is run through Kotah, as men on the Bombay side declare it must be, the cloistered glory of Boondi will depart, for Kotah is only twenty miles easterly of the city and the road is moderately good. In that day the Globe-trotter will pry about the place, and the Charitable Dispensary — a gem among dispensaries — will be public property.

The Englishman was hunting for the statue of a horse, a great horse hight Hunja, who was a steed of Irak, and a King’s gift to Rao Omeda, one time monarch of Boondi. He found it in the city square as Tod had said; and it was an unlovely statue, careen after the dropsical fashion of later Hindu art. No one seemed to know anything about it. A little further on, one cried from a byway in rusty English: ‘Come and see my Dispensary.’ There are only three men in Boondi who speak English. One is the head, and the other the assistant, teacher of the English side of Boondi Free School. The third was, some twenty years ago, a pupil of the Lahore Medical College when that institution was young; and he only remembered a word here and there. He was head of the Charitable Dispensary; and insisted upon, then and there, organising a small levee and pulling out all his books. Escape was hopeless: nothing less than a formal inspection and introduction to all the native physicians would serve. There were sixteen beds in and about the courtyard, and between twenty and thirty outpatients stood in attendance. Making allowances for untouched Orientalism, the Dispensary is a good one, and must relieve a certain amount of human misery. There is no other in all Boondi. The operation-book, kept in English, showed the principal complaints of the country. They were ‘Asthama,’ ‘Numonia,’ ‘Skindiseas,’ ‘Dabalaty,’ and ‘Loin-bite.’ This last item occurred again and again — three and four cases per week — and it was not until the Doctor said ‘Sher se mara’ that the Englishman read it aright. It was ‘lion-bite,’ or tiger, if you insist upon zoological accuracy. There was one incorrigible idiot, a handsome young man, naked as the day, who sat in the sunshine, shivering and pressing his hands to his head. ‘I have given him blisters and setons — have tried native and English treatment for two years, but it is no use. He is always as you see him, and now he stays here by the favour of the Durbar, which is a very good and pitiful Durbar’ said the Doctor. There were many such pensioners of the Durbar — men afflicted with chronic ’asthama’ who stayed ‘by favour,’ and were kindly treated. They were resting in the sunshine, their hands on their knees, sure that their daily dole of grain and tobacco and opium would be forthcoming. ‘All folk, even little children, eat opium here,’ said the Doctor, and the diet-book proved it. After laborious investigation of everything, down to the last indent to Bombay for European medicines, the Englishman was suffered to depart. ‘Sir, I thank . . .,’ began the Native Doctor, but the rest of the sentence stuck. Sixteen years in Boondi does not increase knowledge of English; and he went back to his patients, gravely conning over the name of the Principal of the Lahore Medical Schoola College now — who had taught him all he knew, and to whom he intended to write. There was something pathetic in the man’s catching at news from the outside world of men he had known as Assistant and House Surgeons who are now Rai Bahadurs, and his parade of the few shreds of English that still clung to him. May he treat ‘loin-bites’ and ‘catrack’ successfully for many years. In the happy, indolent fashion that must have merits which we cannot understand, he is doing a good work, and the Durbar allows his Dispensary as much as it wants.

Close to the Dispensary stood the Free School, and thither an importunate munshi steered the Englishman, who, by this time, was beginning to persuade himself that he really was an accredited agent of Government, sent to report on the progress of Boondi. From a peepul-shaded courtyard came a clamour of young voices. Thirty or forty little ones, from five to eight years old, were sitting in an open verandah learning accounts and Hindustani, said the teacher. No need to ask from what castes they came, for it was written on their faces that they were Mahajans, Oswals, Aggerwals, and in one or two cases, it seemed, Sharawaks of Guzerat. They were learning the business of their lives, and, in time, would take their fathers’ places, and show in how many ways money might be manipulated. Here the profession-type came out with startling distinctness. Through the chubbiness of almost babyhood, or the delicate suppleness of maturer years, in mouth and eyes and hands, it betrayed itself. The Rahtor, who comes of a fighting stock, is a fine animal, and well bred; the Hara, who seems to be more compactly built, is also a fine animal; but for a race that show blood in every line of their frame, from the arch of the instep to the modelling of the head, the financial — trading is too coarse a word — the financial class of Rajputana appears to be the most remarkable. Later in life he may become clouded with fat jowl and paunch; but in his youth, his quick-eyed, nimble youth, the young Marwarri, to give him his business title, is really a thing of beauty. His manners are courtly. The bare ground and a few slates sufficed for the children who were merely learning the ropes that drag States; but the English class, of boys from ten to twelve, was supplied with real benches and forms and a table with a cloth top. The assistant teacher, for the head was on leave, was a self-taught man of Boondi, young and delicate-looking, who preferred reading to speaking English. His youngsters were supplied with ‘The Third English Reading Book,’ and were painfully thumbing their way through a doggerel poem about an ‘old man with hoary hair.’ One boy, bolder than the rest, slung an English sentence at the visitor, and collapsed. It was his little stock-in-trade, and the rest regarded him enviously. The Durbar supports the school, which is entirely free and open; a just distinction being maintained between the various castes. The old race-prejudice against payment for knowledge came out in reply to a question. ‘You must not sell teaching,’ said the teacher; and the class murmured applaudingly, ‘You must not sell teaching.’

The population of Boondi seems more obviously mixed than that of the other States. There are four or five thousand Mahometans within its walls, and a sprinkling of aborigines of various varieties, besides the human raffle that the Bunjaras bring in their train, with Pathans and sleek Delhi men. The new heraldry of the State is curious — something after this sort. Or, a demi-god, sable, issuant of flames, holding in right hand a sword and in the left a bow — all proper. In chief, a dagger of the second, sheathed vert, fessewise over seven arrows in sheaf of the second. This latter blazon Boondi holds in commemoration of the defeat of an Imperial Prince who rebelled against the Delhi Throne in the days of Jehangir, when Boondi, for value received, took service under the Mahometan. It might also be, but here there is no certainty, the memorial of Rao Rutton’s victory over Prince Khoorm, when the latter strove to raise all Rajputana against Jehangir his father; or of a second victory over a riotous lordling who harried Mewar a little later. For this exploit, the annals say, Jehangir gave Rao Rutton honorary flags and kettle-drums which may have been melted down by the science of the Heralds’ College into the blazon aforesaid. All the heraldry of Rajputana is curious, and, to such as hold that there is any worth in the ‘Royal Science,’ interesting. Udaipur’s shield is, naturally gules, a sun in splendour, as befits the ‘Children of the Sun and Fire,’ and one of the most ancient houses in India. Her crest is the straight Rajput sword, the Khanda, for an account of the worship of which very powerful divinity read Tod. The supporters are a Bhil and a Rajput, attired for the forlorn hope; commemorating not only the defences of Chitor, but also the connection of the great Bappa Rawul with the Bhils, who even now play the principal part in the Crown-Marking of a Rana of Udaipur. Here, again, Tod explains the matter at length. Banswara claims alliance with Udaipur, and carries a sun, with a label of difference of some kind. Jeypore has the five-coloured flag of Amber with a sun, because the House claim descent from Rama, and her crest is a kuchnar tree, which is the bearing of Dasaratha, father of Rama. The white horse, which faces the tiger as supporter, may or may not be the memorial of the great aswamedha yuga, or horse sacrifice, that Jey Singh, who built Jeypore, did — not carry out.

Jodhpur has the five-coloured flag, with a falcon, in which shape Durga, the patron Goddess of the State, has been sometimes good enough to appear. She has perched in the form of a wagtail on the howdah of the Chief of Jeysulmir, whose shield is blazoned with ‘forts in a desert land,’ and a naked left arm holding a broken spear, because, the legend goes, Jeysulmir was once galled by a horse with a magic spear. They tell the story to-day, but it is a long one. The supporters of the shield — this is canting heraldry with a vengeance! — are antelopes of the desert spangled with gold coin, because the State was long the refuge of the wealthy bankers of India.

Bikanir, a younger house of Jodhpur, carries three white hawks on the five-coloured flag. The patron Goddess of Bikanir once turned the thorny jungle round the city to fruit trees, and the crest therefore is a green tree — strange emblem for a desert principality. The motto, however, is a good one. When the greater part of the Rajput States were vassals of Akbar, and he sent them abroad to do his will, certain Princes objected to crossing the Indus, and asked Bikanir to head the mutiny because his State was the least accessible. He consented, on condition that they would all for one day greet him thus: ‘Jey Jangal dar Badshah!’ History shows what became of the objectors, and Bikanir’s motto: ‘Hail to the King of the Waste!’ proves that the tale must be true. But from Boondi to Bikanir is a long digression, bred by idleness on the bund of the Burra. It would have been sinful not to let down a line into those crowded waters, and the Guards, who were Mahometans, said that if the Sahib did riot eat fish, they did. And the Sahib fished luxuriously, catching two- and three-pounders, of a perch-like build, whenever he chose to cast. He was wearied of schools and dispensaries, and the futility of heraldry accorded well with sloth — that is to say Boondi.

It should be noted, none the less, that in this part of the world the soberest mind will believe anything — believe in the ghosts by the Gau Mukh, and the dead Thakurs who get out of their tombs and ride round the Burra Talao at Boondl — will credit every legend and lie that rises as naturally as the red flush of sunset, to gild the dead glories of Rajasthan.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38