The Smith Administration, by Rudyard Kipling

The Great Census

MOWGI was a mehter (a sweeper), but he was also a Punjabi, and consequently, had a head on his shoulders. Mowgi was my mehter — the property of Smith who governs a vast population of servants with unprecedented success. When he was my subject I did not appreciate him properly. I called him lazy and unclean; I protested against the multitude of his family. Mowgi asked for his dismissal — he was the only servant who ever voluntarily left the Shadow of my Protection — and I said: ‘O Mowgi, either you are an irreclaimable ruffian or a singularly self-reliant man. In either case you will come to great grief. Where do you intend to go?’ ‘God knows,’ said Mowgi cheerfully. ‘I shall leave my wife and all the children here, and go somewhere else. If you, Sahib, turn them out, they will die! For you are their only protector.’

So I was dowered with Mowgi’s wife — wives rather, for he had forgotten the new one from Rawalpindi; and Mowgi went out to the unknown, and never sent a single letter to his family. The wives would clamour in the verandah and accuse me of having taken the remittances, which they said Mowgi must have sent, to help out my own pay. When I supported them they were quite sure of the theft. For these reasons I was angry with the absent Mowgi.

Time passed, and I, the great Smith, went abroad on travels and left my Empire in Commission. The wives were the feudatory Native States, but the Commission could not make them recognise any feudal tie. They both married, saying that Mowgi was a bad man; but they never left my compound.

In the course of my wanderings I came to the great Native State of Ghorahpur, which, as every one knows, is on the borders of the Indian Desert. None the less, it requires almost as many printed forms for its proper administration as a real district. Among its other peculiarities, it was proud of its prisoners — kaidis they were called. In the old days Ghorahpur was wont to run its dacoits through the stomach or cut them with swords; but now it prides itself on keeping them in leg-irons and employing them on ‘remunerative labour,’ that is to say, in sitting in the sun by the side of a road and waiting until some road-metal comes and lays itself.

A gang of kaidis was hard at work in this fashion when I came by, and the warder was picking his teeth with the end of his bayonet. One of the fettered sinners came forward and salaamed deeply to me. It was Mowgi — fat, well fed, and with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Is the Presence in good health and are all in his house well?’ said Mowgi. ‘What in the world are you doing here?’ demanded the Presence. ‘By your honour’s favour I am in prison,’ said he, shaking one leg delicately to make the ankle-iron jingle on the leg-bar. ‘I have been in prison nearly a month.’

‘What for — dacoity?’

‘I have been a Sahib’s servant,’ said Mowgi, offended. ‘Do you think that I should ever become a low dacoit like these men here? I am in prison for making a numbering for the people.’

‘A what?’ Mowgi grinned, and told the tale of his misdeeds thus:—

‘When I left your service, Sahib, I went to Delhi, and from Delhi I came to the Sambhur Salt Lake over there!’ He pointed across the sand. ‘I was a Jemadar of mehters (a headman of sweepers) there, because these Marwarri people are without sense. Then they gave me leave because they said that I had stolen money. It was true, but I was also very glad to go away, for my legs were sore from the salt of the Sambhur Lake. I went away and hired a camel for twenty rupees a month. That was shameful talk, but these thieves of Marwarris would not let me have it for less.’

‘Where did you get the money from?’ I asked.

‘I have said that I had stolen it. I am a poor man. I could not get it by any other way.’

‘But what did you want with a camel?’

‘The Sahib shall hear. In the house of a certain Sahib at Sambhur was a big book which came from Bombay, and whenever the Sahib wanted anything to eat or good tobacco, he looked into the book and wrote a letter to Bombay, and in a week all the things came as he had ordered — soap and sugar and boots. I took that book; it was a fat one; and I shaved my moustache in the manner of Mahometans, and I got upon my camel and went away from that bad place of Sambhur.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘I cannot say. I went for four days over the sand till I was very far from Sambhur. Then I came to a village and said: “I am Wajib Ali, Bahadur, a servant of the Government, and many men are wanted to go and fight in Kabul. The order is written in this book. How many strong men have you?” They were afraid because of my big book, and because they were without sense. They gave me food, and all the headmen gave me rupees to spare the men in that village, and I went away from there with nineteen rupees. The name of that village was Kot. And as I had done at Kot, so I did at other villages — Waka, Tung, Malair, Palan, Myokal, and other places — always getting rupees that the names of the strong young men might not be written down. I went from Bikanir to Jeysulmir, till my book in which I always looked wisely so as to frighten the people, was back-broken, and I got one thousand seven hundred and eight rupees twelve annas and six pies.’

‘All from a camel and a Treacher’s Price List?’

‘I do not know the name of the book, but these people were very frightened of me. But I tried to take my takkus from a servant of this State, and he made a report, and they sent troopers, who caught me — me, and my little camel, and my big book. Therefore I was sent to prison.’

‘Mowgi,’ said I solemnly, ‘if this be true, you are a great man. When will you be out of prison?’

‘In one year. I got three months for taking the numbering of the people, and one year for pretending to be a Mahometan. But I may run away before. All these people are very stupid men.’

‘My arms, Mowgi,’ I said, ‘will be open to you when the term of your captivity is ended. You shall be my body-servant.’

‘The Presence is my father and my mother,’ said Mowgi. ‘I will come.’

‘The wives have married, Mowgi,’ I said.

‘No matter,’ said Mowgi. ‘I also have a wife at Sambhur and one here. When I return to the service of the Presence, which one shall I bring?’

‘Which one you please.’

‘The Presence is my protection and a son of the gods,’ said Mowgi. ‘Without doubt I will come as soon as I can escape.’

I am waiting now for the return of Mowgi. I will make him overseer of all my house.

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