The Smith Administration, by Rudyard Kipling

‘A District at Play’

FOUR or five years ago, when the Egerton Woollen Mills were young, and Dhariwal, on the Amritsar and Pathankot Line, was just beginning to grow, there was decreed an annual holiday for all the workers in the Mill. In time the little gathering increased from a purely private tamasha to a fair, and now all the Gurdaspur District goes a-merrymaking with the Mill-hands. Here the history begins.

On the evening of Friday, the 20th of August, an Outsider went down to Dhariwal to see that mela. He had understood that it was an affair which concerned the People only — that no one in authority had to keep order — that there were no police, and that everybody did what was right in their own eyes; none going wrong. This was refreshing and pastoral, even as Dhariwal, which is on the banks of the Canal, is refreshing and pastoral. The Egerton Mills own a baby railway — twenty-inch gauge — which joins on to the big line at Dhariwal station, so that the visitor steps from one carriage into another, and journeys in state.

Dusk was closing in as the locomotive — it wore a cloth round its loins and a string of beads round its neck — ran the tiny carriage into the Mill-yard, and the Outsider heard the low grumble of turbines, and caught a whiff of hot wool from a shed. (The Mills were running and would run till eleven o’clock that night, because, though holidays were necessary, orders were many and urgent.) Both smell and sound suggested the North country at once — bleak, paved streets of Skipton and Keighley; chimneys of Beverley and Burnley; grey stone houses within stone walls, and the moors looking down on all. It was perfectly natural, therefore, to find that the Englishmen who directed the departments of the establishment were from the North also; and delightful as it was natural to hear again the slow, staid Yorkshire tongue. Here the illusion stopped; for, in place of the merry rattle of the clogs as the Mill-hands left their work, there was only the soft patter of naked feet on bare ground, and for purple, smoke-girt moors, the far-off line of the Dalhousie Hills.

Presently, the electric light began its work, and a tour over the Mills was undertaken. The machinery, the thousands of spindles, and the roaring power-looms were familiar as the faces of old friends; but the workers were strange indeed. Small brown boys, naked except for a loin-cloth, ‘pieced’ the yarn from the spindles under the strong blaze of the electric light, and semi-nude men toiled at the carding-machine between the whirring belts. It was a shock and a realisation — for boys and men seemed to know their work in almost Yorkshire fashion.

But the amusement and not the labour of the Mill was what the Outsider had come to see — the amusement which required no policemen and no appearance of control from without.

Early on Saturday morning all Dhariwal gathered itself on the banks of the Canal — a magnificent stretch of water — to watch the swimming-race, a short half-mile downstream. Forty-three bronzes had arranged themselves in picturesque attitudes on the girders of the Railway bridge, and the crowd chaffed them according to their deserts. The race was won, from start to finish, by a tailor with a wonderful side-stroke and a cataract in one eye. The advantage counter-balanced the defect, for he steered his mid-stream course as straight as a fish, was never headed, and won, sorely pumped, in seven minutes and a few seconds. The crowd ran along the bank and yelled instructions to its favourites at the top of its voice. Up to this time not more than five hundred folk had put in an appearance, so it was impossible to judge of their behaviour in bulk.

After the swimming came the greased pole, an entertainment the pains whereof are reserved for light-limbed boys, and the prizes, in the shape of gay cloths and rupees, are appropriated by heavy fathers. The crowd had disposed itself in and about the shadow of the trees, where one might circulate comfortably and see the local notabilities.

They are decidedly Republicans in Dhariwal, being innocent of Darbaries, C.I.E.’s, fat old gentlemen in flowered brocade dressing-gowns, and cattle of that kind. Every one seemed much on a level, with the exception of some famous wrestlers, who stood aside with an air of conscious worth, and grinned cavernously when spoken to. They were the pick of the assembly, and were to prove their claims to greatness on the morrow. Until the Outsider realised how great an interest the Gurdaspur District took in wrestling, he was rather at a loss to understand why men walked round and round each other warily, as do dogs on the eve of a quarrel.

The greasy-pole competition finished, there was a general move in the direction of the main road, and couples were chosen from among the Millhands for a three-legged race. Here the Outsider joyfully anticipated difficulty in keeping the course clear without a line of policemen; for all crowds, unless duly marshalled, will edge forward to see what is going on.

But the democracy of Dhariwal got into their places as they were told, and kept them, with such slight assistance as three or four self-constituted office-bearers gave. Only once, when the honour of two villages and the Mill was at stake in the Tug-of-War, were they unable to hold in, and the Englishmen had to push them back. But this was exceptional, and only evoked laughter, for in the front rank of all — yellow-trousered and blue-coated — was a real live policeman, who was shouldered about as impartially as the rest. More impartially, in fact; for to keep a policeman in order is a seldom-given joy, and should be made much of.

Then back to the Mill bungalow for breakfast, where there was a gathering of five or six Englishmen — Canal Officers and Engineers. Here follows a digression.

After long residence in places where folk discuss such intangible things as Lines, Policies, Schemes, Measures, and the like, in an abstract and bloodless sort of way, it was a revelation to listen to men who talk of Things and the People — crops and ploughs and water-supplies, and the best means of using all three for the benefit of a district. They spoke masterfully, these Englishmen, as owners of a country might speak, and it was not at first that one realised how every one of the concerns they touched upon with the air of proprietorship were matters which had not the faintest bearing on their pay or prospects, but concerned the better tillage or husbandry of the fields around. It was good to sit idly in the garden, by the guava-trees, and to hear these stories of work undertaken and carried out in the interests of, and, best of all, recognised by, Nubbi Buksh — the man whose mind moves so slowly and whose life is so bounded. They had no particular love for the land, and most assuredly no hope of gain from it. Yet they spoke as though their hopes of salvation were centred on driving into a Zemindar’s head the expediency of cutting his wheat a little earlier than his wont; or on proving to some authority or other that the Canal-rate in such and such a district was too high. Every one knows that India is a country filled with Englishmen, who live down in the plains and do things other than writing futile reports, but it is wholesome to meet them in the flesh.

To return, however, to the ‘Tug-of-War’ and the sad story of the ten men of Futteh Nangal. Now Futteh Nangal is a village of proud people, mostly sepoys, full in the stomach; and Kung is another village filled with Mill-hands of long standing, who have grown lusty on good pay. When the tug began, quoth the proud men of Futteh Nangal: ‘Let all the other teams compete. We will stand aside and pull the winners.’ This hauteur was not allowed, and in the end it happened that the men of Kung thoroughly defeated the sepoys of Futteh Nangal amid a scene of the wildest excitement, and secured for themselves the prize — an American plough — leaving the men of Futteh Nangal only a new and improved rice-husker.

Other sports followed, and the crowd grew denser and denser throughout the day, till evening, when every one assembled once more by the banks of the Canal to see the fireworks, which were impressive. Great boxes of rockets and shells, and wheels and Roman-candles, had come up from Calcutta, and the intelligent despatchers had packed the whole in straw, which absorbs damp. This didn’t spoil the shells and rockets — quite the contrary. It added a pleasing uncertainty to their flight and converted the shells into very fair imitations of the real article. The crowd dodged and ducked, and yelled and laughed and chaffed, at each illumination, and did their best to fall into the Canal. It was a jovial scuffle, and ended, when the last shell had burst gloriously on the water, in a general adjournment to the main street of Dhariwal village, where there was provided a magic-lantern.

At first sight it does not seem likely that a purely rustic audience would take any deep interest in magic-lanterns; but they did, and showed a most unexpected desire to know what the pictures meant. It was an out-of-door performance, the sheet being stretched on the side of a house, and the people sitting below in silence. Then the native doctor — who was popular with the Mill-hands — went up on to the roof and began a running commentary on the pictures as they appeared; and his imagination was as fluent as his Punjabi. The crowd grew irreverent and jested with him, until they recognised a portrait of one of the native overseers and a khitmutgar. Then they turned upon the two who had achieved fame thus strangely, and commented on their beauty. Lastly, there flashed upon the sheet a portrait of Her Majesty the Empress. The native doctor rose to the occasion, and, after enumerating a few of our Great Lady’s virtues, called upon the crowd to salaam and cheer; both of which they did noisily, and even more noisily, when they were introduced to the Prince of Wales. One might moralise to any extent on the effect produced by this little demonstration in an out-of-the-way corner of Her Majesty’s Empire.

Next morning, being Sunday and cool, was given up to wrestling. By this time the whole of the Gurdaspur District was represented, and the crowd was some five thousand strong. Eventually, after much shouting one hundred and seventy men from all the villages, near and far, were set down to wrestle, if time allowed. And in truth the first prize — a plough, for the man who showed most form’— was worth wrestling for. Armed with a notebook and a pencil, the Manager, by virtue of considerable experience in the craft, picked out the men who were to contend together; and these, fearing defeat, did in almost every instance explain how their antagonist was too much for them. The people sat down in companies upon the grass, village by village, flanking a huge square marked on the ground. Other restraint there was none. Within the square was the roped ring for the wrestlers, and close to the ring a tent for the dozen or so of Englishmen present. Be it noted that anybody might come into this tent who did not interfere with a view of the wrestling. There were no lean brown men, clasping their noses with their hands and following in the wake of the Manager Sahib. Still less were there the fat men in gorgeous raiment before noted — the men who shake hands ‘Europe fashion’ and demand the favour of your interest for their uncle’s son’s wife’s cousin.

It was a sternly democratic community, bent on enjoying itself, and, unlike all. other democracies, knowing how to secure what it wanted.

The wrestlers were called out by name, stripped, and set to amid applauding shouts from their respective villages and trainers. There were many men of mark engaged — huge men who stripped magnificently; light, lean men, who wriggled like eels, and got the mastery by force of cunning; men deep in the breast as bulls, lean in the flank as greyhounds, and lithe as otters; men who wrestled with amicable grins; men who lost their tempers and smote each other with the clenched hand on the face, and so were turned out of the ring amid a storm of derision from all four points of the compass; men as handsome as statues of the Greek gods, and foul-visaged men whose noses were very properly rubbed in the dirt.

As he watched, the Outsider was filled with a great contempt and pity for all artists at Home, because he felt sure that they had never seen the human form aright. One wrestler caught another by the waist, and lifting him breast high, attempted to throw him bodily, the other stiffening himself like a bar as he was heaved up. The coup failed, and for half a minute the two stayed motionless as stone, till the lighter weight wrenched himself out of the other’s arms, and the two came down — flashing through a dozen perfect poses as they fell — till they subsided once more into ignoble scuffle in the dust. The story of that day’s strife would be a long one were it written at length — how one man did brutally twist the knee of another (which is allowed by wrestling law, though generally considered mean) for a good ten minutes, and how the twistee groaned, but held out, and eventually threw the twister, and stalked round the square to receive the congratulations of his friends; how the winner in each bout danced joyfully over to the tent to have his name recorded (there were between three and four hundred rupees given in prizes in the wrestling matches alone); how the Mill-hands applauded their men; and how Siddum, Risada, Kalair, Narote, Sohul, Maha, and Doolanagar, villages of repute, yelled in reply; how the Sujhanpur men took many prizes for the honour of the Sugar mills there; how the event of the day was a tussle between a boy — a mere child — and a young man; how the youngster nearly defeated his opponent amid riotous yells, but broke down finally through sheer exhaustion; how his trainer ran forward to give him a pill of dark and mysterious composition, but was ordered away under the rules of the game. Lastly, how a haughty and most wonderfully ugly weaver of the Mill was thrown by an outsider, and how the Manager chuckled, saying that a defeat at wrestling would keep the weaver quiet and humble for some time, which was desirable. All these things would demand much space to describe and must go unrecorded.

They wrestled — couple by couple — for six good hours by the clock, and a Kashmiri weaver (why are Kashmiris so objectionable all the Province over?) later on in the afternoon, was moved to make himself a nuisance to his neighbours. Then the four self-appointed office-bearers moved in his direction; but the crowd had already dealt with him, and the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland was never so suppressed as that weaver. Which proves that a democracy can keep order among themselves when they like.

The Outsider departed, leaving the wrestlers still at work, and the last he heard as he dived through that most affable, grinning assembly, was the shout of one of the Mill-hands, who had thrown his man and ran to the tent to get his name entered. Freely translated, the words were exactly what Gareth, the Scullion-Knight, said to King Arthur:—

Yea, mighty through thy meats and drinks am I,
And I can topple over a hundred such.

Then back to the Schemes and Lines and Policies and Projects filled with admiration for the Englishmen who live in patriarchal fashion among the People, respecting and respected, knowing their ways and their wants; believing (soundest of all beliefs) that ‘too much progress is bad,’ and compassing with their heads and hands real, concrete, and undeniable Things. As distinguished from the speech which dies and the paper-work which perishes.

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