Narrow as the womb, deep as the Pit, and dark as the heart of a man.
— Sonthal Miner’s Proverb.
‘A weaver went out to reap but stayed to unravel the corn-stalks. Ha! Ha! Ha! Is there any sense in a weaver?’
Janki Meah glared at Kundoo, but, as Janki Meah was blind, Kundoo was not impressed. He had come to argue with Janki Meah, and, if chance favoured, to make love to the old man’s pretty young wife.
This was Kundoo’s grievance, and he spoke in the name of all the five men who, with Janki Meah, composed the gang in Number Seven gallery of Twenty–Two. Janki Meah had been blind for the thirty years during which he had served the Jimahari Collieries with pick and crowbar. All through those thirty years he had regularly, every morning before going down, drawn from the overseer his allowance of lamp-oil — just as if he had been an eyed miner. What Kundoo’s gang resented, as hundreds of gangs had resented before, was Janki Meah’s selfishness. He would not add the oil to the common stock of his gang, but would save and sell it.
‘I knew these workings before you were born,’ Janki Meah used to reply: ‘I don’t want the light to get my coal out by, and I am not going to help you. The oil is mine, and I intend to keep it.’
A strange man in many ways was Janki Meah, the white-haired, hot-tempered, sightless weaver who had turned pitman. All day long — except on Sundays and Mondays when he was usually drunk — he worked in the Twenty–Two shaft of the Jimahari Colliery as cleverly as a man with all the senses. At evening he went up in the great steam-hauled cage to the pit-bank, and there called for his pony — a rusty, coal-dusty beast, nearly as old as Janki Meah. The pony would come to his side, and Janki Meah would clamber on to its back and be taken at once to the plot of land which he, like the other miners, received from the Jimahari Company. The pony knew that place, and when, after six years, the Company changed all the allotments to prevent the miners from acquiring proprietary rights, Janki Meah represented, with tears in his eyes, that were his holding shifted, he would never be able to find his way to the new one. ‘My horse only knows that place,’ pleaded Janki Meah, and so he was allowed to keep his land.
On the strength of this concession and his accumulated oil-savings, Janki Meah took a second wife — a girl of the Jolaha main stock of the Meahs, and singularly beautiful. Janki Meah could not see her beauty; wherefore he took her on trust, and forbade her to go down the pit. He had not worked for thirty years in the dark without knowing that the pit was no place for pretty women. He loaded her with ornaments — not brass or pewter, but real silver ones — and she rewarded him by flirting outrageously with Kundoo of Number Seven gallery gang. Kundoo was really the gang-head, but Janki Meah insisted upon all the work being entered in his own name, and chose the men that he worked with. Custom — stronger even than the Jimahari Company — dictated that Janki, by right of his years, should manage these things, and should, also, work despite his blindness. In Indian mines where they cut into the solid coal with the pick and clear it out from floor to ceiling, he could come to no great harm. At Home, where they undercut the coal and bring it down in crashing avalanches from the roof, he would never have been allowed to set foot in a pit. He was not a popular man, because of his oil-savings; but all the gangs admitted that Janki knew all the khads, or workings, that had ever been sunk or worked since the Jimahari Company first started operations on the Tarachunda fields.
Pretty little Unda only knew that her old husband was a fool who could be managed. She took no interest in the collieries except in so far as they swallowed up Kundoo five days out of the seven, and covered him with coal-dust. Kundoo was a great workman, and did his best not to get drunk, because, when he had saved forty rupees, Unda was to steal everything that she could find in Janki’s house and run with Kundoo to a land where there were no mines, and every one kept three fat bullocks and a milch-buffalo. While this scheme ripened it was his custom to drop in upon Janki and worry him about the oil-savings. Unda sat in a corner and nodded approval. On the night when Kundoo had quoted that objectionable proverb about weavers, Janki grew angry.
‘Listen, you pig,’ said he, ‘blind I am, and old I am, but, before ever you were born, I was gray among the coal. Even in the days when the Twenty–Two khad was unsunk and there were not two thousand men here, I was known to have all knowledge of the pits. What khad is there that I do not know, from the bottom of the shaft to the end of the last drive? Is it the Baromba khad, the oldest, or the Twenty–Two where Tibu’s gallery runs up to Number Five?’
‘Hear the old fool talk!’ said Kundoo, nodding to Unda. ‘No gallery of Twenty–Two will cut into Five before the end of the Rains. We have a month’s solid coal before us. The Babuji says so.’
‘Babuji! Pigji! Dogji! What do these fat slugs from Calcutta know? He draws and draws and draws, and talks and talks and talks, and his maps are all wrong. I, Janki, know that this is so. When a man has been shut up in the dark for thirty years, God gives him knowledge. The old gallery that Tibu’s gang made is not six feet from Number Five.’
‘Without doubt God gives the blind knowledge,’ said Kundoo, with a look at Unda. ‘Let it be as you say. I, for my part, do not know where lies the gallery of Tibu’s gang, but I am not a withered monkey who needs oil to grease his joints with.’
Kundoo swung out of the hut laughing, and Unda giggled. Janki turned his sightless eyes towards his wife and swore. ‘I have land, and I have sold a great deal of lamp-oil,’ mused Janki; ‘but I was a fool to marry this child.’
A week later the Rains set in with a vengeance, and the gangs paddled about in coal-slush at the pit-banks. Then the big mine-pumps were made ready, and the Manager of the Colliery ploughed through the wet towards the Tarachunda River swelling between its soppy banks. ‘Lord send that this beastly beck doesn’t misbehave,’ said the Manager piously, and he went to take counsel with his Assistant about the pumps.
But the Tarachunda misbehaved very much indeed. After a fall of three inches of rain in an hour it was obliged to do something. It topped its bank and joined the flood-water that was hemmed between two low hills just where the embankment of the Colliery main line crossed. When a large part of a rain-fed river, and a few acres of flood-water, make a dead set for a nine-foot culvert, the culvert may spout its finest, but the water cannot all get out. The Manager pranced upon one leg with excitement, and his language was improper.
He had reason to swear, because he knew that one inch of water on land meant a pressure of one hundred tons to the acre; and here were about five feet of water forming, behind the railway embankment, over the shallower workings of Twenty–Two. You must understand that, in a coal-mine, the coal nearest the surface is worked first from the central shaft. That is to say, the miners may clear out the stuff to within ten, twenty, or thirty feet of the surface, and, when all is worked out, leave only a skin of earth upheld by some few pillars of coal. In a deep mine where they know that they have any amount of material at hand, men prefer to get all their mineral out at one shaft, rather than make a number of little holes to tap the comparatively unimportant surface-coal.
And the Manager watched the flood.
The culvert spouted a nine-foot gush; but the water still formed, and word was sent to clear the men out of Twenty–Two. The cages came up crammed and crammed again with the men nearest the pit-eye, as they call the place where you can see daylight from the bottom of the main shaft. All away and away up the long black galleries the flare-lamps were winking and dancing like so many fireflies, and the men and the women waited for the clanking, rattling, thundering cages to come down and fly up again. But the out-workings were very far off, and word could not be passed quickly, though the heads of the gangs and the Assistant shouted and swore and tramped and stumbled. The Manager kept one eye on the great troubled pool behind the embankment, and prayed that the culvert would give way and let the water through in time. With the other eye he watched the cages come up and saw the headmen counting the roll of the gangs. With all his heart and soul he swore at the winder who controlled the iron drum that wound up the wire rope on which hung the cages.
In a little time there was a down-draw in the water behind the embankment — a sucking whirlpool, all yellow and yeasty. The water had smashed through the skin of the earth and was pouring into the old shallow workings of Twenty–Two.
Deep down below, a rush of black water caught the last gang waiting for the cage, and as they clambered in, the whirl was about their waists. The cage reached the pit-bank, and the Manager called the roll. The gangs were all safe except Gang Janki, Gang Mogul, and Gang Rahim, eighteen men, with perhaps ten basket-women who loaded the coal into the little iron carriages that ran on the tramways of the main galleries. These gangs were in the out-workings, three-quarters of a mile away, on the extreme fringe of the mine. Once more the cage went down, but with only two Englishmen in it, and dropped into a swirling, roaring current that had almost touched the roof of some of the lower side-galleries. One of the wooden balks with which they had propped the old workings shot past on the current, just missing the cage.
‘If we don’t want our ribs knocked out, we’d better go,’ said the Manager. ‘We can’t even save the Company’s props.’
The cage drew out of the water with a splash, and a few minutes later, it was officially reported that there were at least ten feet of water in the pit’s eye. Now ten feet of water there meant that all other places in the mine were flooded except such galleries as were more than ten feet above the level of the bottom of the shaft. The deep workings would be full, the main galleries would be full, but in the high workings reached by inclines from the main roads, there would be a certain amount of air cut off, so to speak, by the water and squeezed up by it. The little science-primers explain how water behaves when you pour it down test-tubes. The flooding of Twenty–Two was an illustration on a large scale.
‘By the Holy Grove, what has happened to the air!’ It was a Sonthal gangman of Gang Mogul in Number Nine gallery, and he was driving a six-foot way through the coal. Then there was a rush from the other galleries, and Gang Janki and Gang Rahim stumbled up with their basket-women.
‘Water has come in the mine,’ they said, ‘and there is no way of getting out.’
‘I went down,’ said Janki —‘down the slope of my gallery, and I felt the water.’
‘There has been no water in the cutting in our time,’ clamoured the women. ‘Why cannot we go away?’
‘Be silent!’ said Janki. ‘Long ago, when my father was here, water came to Ten — no, Eleven — cutting, and there was great trouble. Let us get away to where the air is better.’
The three gangs and the basket-women left Number Nine gallery and went further up Number Sixteen. At one turn of the road they could see the pitchy black water lapping on the coal. It had touched the roof of a gallery that they knew well — a gallery where they used to smoke their huqas and manage their flirtations. Seeing this, they called aloud upon their Gods, and the Meahs, who are thrice bastered Muhammadans, strove to recollect the name of the Prophet. They came to a great open square whence nearly all the coal had been extracted. It was the end of the out-workings, and the end of the mine.
Far away down the gallery a small pumping-engine, used for keeping dry a deep working and fed with steam from above, was throbbing faithfully. They heard it cease.
‘They have cut off the steam,’ said Kundoo hopefully. ‘They have given the order to use all the steam for the pit-bank pumps. They will clear out the water.’
‘If the water has reached the smoking-gallery,’ said Janki, ‘all the Company’s pumps can do nothing for three days.’
‘It is very hot,’ moaned Jasoda, the Meah basket-woman. ‘There is a very bad air here because of the lamps.’
‘Put them out,’ said Janki; ‘why do you want lamps?’ The lamps were put out and the company sat still in the utter dark. Somebody rose quietly and began walking over the coals. It was Janki, who was touching the walls with his hands. ‘Where is the ledge?’ he murmured to himself.
‘Sit, sit!’ said Kundoo. ‘If we die, we die. The air is very bad.’
But Janki still stumbled and crept and tapped with his pick upon the walls. The women rose to their feet.
‘Stay all where you are. Without the lamps you cannot see, and I— I am always seeing,’ said Janki. Then he paused, and called out: ‘Oh, you who have been in the cutting more than ten years, what is the name of this open place? I am an old man and I have forgotten.’
‘Bullia’s Room,’ answered the Sonthal who had complained of the vileness of the air.
‘Again,’ said Janki.
‘Then I have found it,’ said Janki. ‘The name only had slipped my memory. Tibu’s gang’s gallery is here.’
‘A lie,’ said Kundoo. ‘There have been no galleries in this place since my day.’
‘Three paces was the depth of the ledge,’ muttered Janki without heeding —‘and — oh, my poor bones! — I have found it! It is here, up this ledge. Come all you, one by one, to the place of my voice, and I will count you.’
There was a rush in the dark, and Janki felt the first man’s face hit his knees as the Sonthal scrambled up the ledge.
‘Who?’ cried Janki.
‘I, Sunua Manji.’
‘Sit you down,’ said Janki. ‘Who next?’
One by one the women and the men crawled up the ledge which ran along one side of ‘Bullia’s Room.’ Degraded Muhammadan, pig-eating Musahr and wild Sonthal, Janki ran his hand over them all.
‘Now follow after,’ said he, ‘catching hold of my heel, and the women catching the men’s clothes.’ He did not ask whether the men had brought their picks with them. A miner, black or white, does not drop his pick. One by one, Janki leading, they crept into the old gallery — a six-foot way with a scant four feet from hill to roof.
‘The air is better here,’ said Jasoda. They could hear her heart beating in thick, sick bumps.
‘Slowly, slowly,’ said Janki. ‘I am an old man, and I forget many things. This is Tibu’s gallery, but where are the four bricks where they used to put their huqa fire on when the Sahibs never saw? Slowly, slowly, O you people behind.’
They heard his hands disturbing the small coal on the floor of the gallery and then a dull sound. ‘This is one unbaked brick, and this is another and another. Kundoo is a young man — let him come forward. Put a knee upon this brick and strike here. When Tibu’s gang were at dinner on the last day before the good coal ended, they heard the men of Five on the other side, and Five worked their gallery two Sundays later — or it may have been one. Strike there, Kundoo, but give me room to go back.’
Kundoo, doubting, drove the pick, but the first soft crush of the coal was a call to him. He was fighting for his life and for Unda — pretty little Unda with rings on all her toes — for Unda and the forty rupees. The women sang the Song of the Pick — the terrible, slow, swinging melody with the muttered chorus that repeats the sliding of the loosened coal, and, to each cadence, Kundoo smote in the black dark. When he could do no more, Sunua Manji took the pick, and struck for his life and his wife, and his village beyond the blue hills over the Tarachunda River. An hour the men worked, and then the women cleared away the coal.
‘It is farther than I thought,’ said Janki. ‘The air is very bad; but strike, Kundoo, strike hard.’
For the fifth time Kundoo took up the pick as the Sonthal crawled back. The song had scarcely recommenced when it was broken by a yell from Kundoo that echoed down the gallery: ‘Par hua! Par hua! We are through, we are through!’ The imprisoned air in the mine shot through the opening, and the women at the far end of the gallery heard the water rush through the pillars of ‘Bullia’s Room’ and roar against the ledge. Having fulfilled the law under which it worked, it rose no farther. The women screamed and pressed forward. ‘The water has come — we shall be killed! Let us go.’
Kundoo crawled through the gap and found himself in a propped gallery by the simple process of hitting his head against a beam.
‘Do I know the pits or do I not?’ chuckled Janki. ‘This is the Number Five; go you out slowly, giving me your names. Ho! Rahim, count your gang! Now let us go forward, each catching hold of the other as before.’
They formed a line in the darkness and Janki led them — for a pit-man in a strange pit is only one degree less liable to err than an ordinary mortal underground for the first time. At last they saw a flare-lamp, and Gangs Janki, Mogul, and Rahim of Twenty–Two stumbled dazed into the glare of the draught-furnace at the bottom of Five: Janki feeling his way and the rest behind.
‘Water has come into Twenty–Two. God knows where are the others. I have brought these men from Tibu’s gallery in our cutting; making connection through the north side of the gallery. Take us to the cage,’ said Janki Meah.
At the pit-bank of Twenty–Two, some thousand people clamoured and wept and shouted. One hundred men — one thousand men — had been drowned in the cutting. They would all go to their homes tomorrow. Where were their men? Little Unda, her cloth drenched with the rain, stood at the pit-mouth calling down the shaft for Kundoo. They had swung the cages clear of the mouth, and her only answer was the murmur of the flood in the pit’s eye two hundred and sixty feet below.
‘Look after that woman! She’ll chuck herself down the shaft in a minute,’ shouted the Manager.
But he need not have troubled; Unda was afraid of Death. She wanted Kundoo. The Assistant was watching the flood and seeing how far he could wade into it. There was a lull in the water, and the whirlpool had slackened. The mine was full, and the people at the pit-bank howled.
‘My faith, we shall be lucky if we have five hundred hands on the place tomorrow!’ said the Manager.
‘There’s some chance yet of running a temporary dam across that water. Shove in anything — tubs and bullock-carts if you haven’t enough bricks. Make them work now if they never worked before. Hi! you gangers, make them work.’
Little by little the crowd was broken into detachments, and pushed towards the water with promises of overtime. The dam-making began, and when it was fairly under way, the Manager thought that the hour had come for the pumps. There was no fresh inrush into the mine. The tall, red, iron-clamped pump-beam rose and fell, and the pumps snored and guttered and shrieked as the first water poured out of the pipe.
‘We must run her all to-night,’ said the Manager wearily, ‘but there’s no hope for the poor devils down below. Look here, Gur Sahai, if you are proud of your engines, show me what they can do now.’
Gur Sahai grinned and nodded, with his right hand upon the lever and an oil-can in his left. He could do no more than he was doing, but he could keep that up till the dawn. Were the Company’s pumps to be beaten by the vagaries of that troublesome Tarachunda River? Never, never! And the pumps sobbed and panted: ‘Never, never!’ The Manager sat in the shelter of the pit-bank roofing, trying to dry himself by the pump-boiler fire, and, in the dreary dusk, he saw the crowds on the dam scatter and fly.
‘That’s the end,’ he groaned.’ ’Twill take us six weeks to persuade ’em that we haven’t tried to drown their mates on purpose. Oh, for a decent, rational Geordie!’
But the flight had no panic in it. Men had run over from Five with astounding news, and the foremen could not hold their gangs together. Presently, surrounded by a clamorous crew, Gangs Rahim, Mogul, and Janki, and ten basket-women, walked up to report themselves, and pretty little Unda stole away to Janki’s hut to prepare his evening meal.
‘Alone I found the way,’ explained Janki Meah, ‘and now will the Company give me pension?’
The simple pit-folk shouted and leaped and went back to the dam, reassured in their old belief that, whatever happened, so great was the power of the Company whose salt they ate, none of them could be killed. But Gur Sahai only bared his white teeth and kept his hand upon the lever and proved his pumps to the uttermost.
‘I say,’ said the Assistant to the Manager, a week later, ‘do you recollect Germinal?’
‘Yes. ‘Queer thing. I thought of it in the cage when that balk went by. Why?’
‘Oh, this business seems to be Germinal upside down. Janki was in my veranda all this morning, telling me that Kundoo had eloped with his wife — Unda or Anda, I think her name was.’
‘Hillo! And those were the cattle that you risked your life to clear out of Twenty–Two!’
‘No — I was thinking of the Company’s props, not the Company’s men.’
‘Sounds better to say so now; but I don’t believe you, old fellow.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56