Swami Vivekananda                           

Home | New | Contact
By topic | Maxims | Quotations | Tales and parables | Books by the Swami | Lectures | Prose | Poetry
Editor's Notes | Books | Swami on himself | Reminiscences | Photos 1 | Photos 2 | Photos 3 | Dates | World thinkers | Reports | Letters 1 | Letters 2 | Books & articles | Growth | People he influenced | Links
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Studies from an eastern home


Sister Niveditha - Frank Parlato Jr.

The land of the water-ways



Previous < <

THERE is no region, even in India, which was intended to compare, at once in extent and in fertility, with the wide-stretching delta-lands of East Bengal. Placed between the extreme mouth of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, from Calcutta on the west to Chittagong on the east, and Dacca and Mymensingh on the north, lies this vast triangle of country, measuring, as the crow flies, something like two hundred miles or more every way. And it is painted on the surface of planet Earth in nature's most vivid pigments of green and blue. Green for the fields and forests, the palms and the gardens and the grain; and blue, blue, blue everywhere else, for the sky above and for the waters beneath. To those who know Holland, or even Venice, this land is full of subtle suggestions and reminiscences of distant beauty. For it, too, is a country snatched from the waters, though not by the hand of man. It, too, lies passive and half-expectant under the unbroken dome of heaven, In it, too, the white sail may suddenly come into vision at any moment across

p. 160

the distant meadows. And it, too, bestows that irresistible calmness of benediction that comes to the infinitely small in the presence of the infinitely great.

There are of course differences. This is a tropical Holland. The wide green flats are broken, not by stiff avenues of poplars and rows of wintry pollard elms, but by long irregular fringes of jungle, groups of cocoanut and betel-nut palms, clusters of delicate bamboos, outstanding leaf-almonds here and there, with almost every branch of glossy verdure ending in a leaf like a scarlet flag, and lines of upright banana plants, hedging in the fruit and vegetable gardens of the homesteads. These last, too, are, as is natural, strangely different from the prim farmhouses of the Dutch with their red tiles. From the river-front we see a large thatched roof, whose wide curving eaves overhang a cottage built apparently of something like basket-work, but in fact of mats, woven out of bamboo-splinters. The rafters and posts of this simple structure are also of bamboo, and it may be that a single roof covers, not only the home, but also a small open barn, holding a couple of cows, while over the heads of these last is seen again a second storey with floor made of split bamboo, and filled with rice-straw, thus answering all the purposes of a hayloft. The floor of the cottage itself, in any case, is made

p. 161

of clean silver river-clay, packed solid and tight and smooth. And a very good test of the wealth of the family lies in the height of this modern plinth. Within, the dwelling has in all probability a ground-floor, lifted a foot or two above this of mud, and made, like that of the hayloft, of split-bamboo; and on this, with whatever they may be able to command of comfort in the way of cushions, wadded sheets, and cotton carpets, the household live. The one large room is often partitioned into two or three smaller. Always there is an open veranda outside which acts as the family reception-room. Almost always there is some corner, either in but or ben, which is built off from the rest, and used as the cooking room. And in every house there are wooden and bamboo platforms overhead, which can be used either as store-cupboards or extra sleeping rooms, according as the special occasion demands. The little farmhouse, however, has no doorway of inferior dignity. Even when the front entrance is towards the river bank, it is nevertheless almost certain that the open veranda will be found on the far side, facing, like a simple cloister, the interior of the little farmyard, on the two or three other sides of which are placed similar, but probably still less imposing, dwellings. Here, too, are the outbuildings and offices of the farm, the husking-shed, the cow-house, the dovecote, and

p. 162

the feeding-place for ducks, with close at hand the herb and fruit garden. And the whole of this little group of reed-built chambers is enclosed and connected with the next like it by the homestead grove of palms and jungle-growth. It has its own boat, too, made of long narrow planks of palm wood, in which seven or eight people can sit in single file, so long as one or two remain constantly busied, baling out the water with which it is as constantly filling. And finally, this cluster of houses does not constitute a village. It may take twenty or more of such, thrown like the links of a chain around and across the rice fields, to make a single village-community. Hence, in this wonderful country, it is sometimes possible, sitting in the low boat of the water-lanes, to say that the village includes more than the horizon.

In the riverside villages, again, the Chashas, or peasants, and the Majhis, boatmen or fisherfolk, dwell side by side. They are for the most part Mohammedans and only sometimes Hindus. But the two do not always live in separate villages. Nor is there any great difference between them in point of civilisation. A few hundreds of years ago all alike were Hindus, but to the low castes, Islam, with its message of democracy and brotherly love, offers a great emancipation. And in East Bengal these must have been swept into the fold, whole villages at a time. The descendants of

p. 163

such converts have the title "Sheikh" prefixed to their names, and here they are all Sheikhs. But even now they appear like Hindus. Their widows are loath to remarry. They wear the unbordered sari and cut the hair short, like the Hindu widow. They object to cow-killing, like the Hindus. Their children are trained, not in the knowledge of the Koran alone, but also in the stories of the old Indian epics. And finally, their homes are decorated with the same religious pictures and images as those of the Hindu. In other words, it is one race practising the forms of two different faiths, and even in India blood speaks louder than creed.

They are a proud and self-respecting folk, these people of the villages of East Bengal, decent and thrifty in all their ways, as conscious as ourselves of subtle differences of rank and education, and full of the spirit of independence and self-reliance. It is not easy here to buy the trifle to which one takes a fancy. Permission to do so may be asked with all possible formality and ceremony, but the answer is invariably the smiling surrender of the object, as a gift. I have a little boatman's lamp of black earthenware, which came to me in this way. It is one of the loveliest things I ever saw, and its value in the village-markets is, I am told, one farthing. But though I offered sixteen times that sum, its owner would not hear of purchase,

p. 164

insisting instead on presenting it to me. Of a similar significance was my first encounter with the Barisal fisher-folk. In this land of canals, it is customary to use for conveyance a very fine and commodious Indian form of house-boat. The empty rooms, made of dark polished teak-wood, are scrupulously clean, and we bring our own rugs and pillows, and sit or lie on the floor for the journey. Outside, under bamboo arches, covered with sliding hoods of reed mats, sit the boatmen. And a few fishing-nets, or a spindle with its thread, or a small clay stove at which cooking is going on, offer at once the only traces of furniture, and the only elements of picturesque disorder, to be seen. The crew consists of the men of a single family, from the grey-haired grandfather or grand-uncle to the youngest boy. The women have been left at home in the distant village, to tend the cows, and spin, and look after the gardens. There is something of the dignity of Homer's peasant-kings in such a scheme of life and work; and I was a little diffident with the first boatmen I had accosted, in making inquiries as to whether the prevailing famine and rise in prices had made themselves felt severely by them and theirs. Their first effort was to put me at my ease. Gravely and kindly they took up the question. Work, they said, had become scarce everywhere. No one who could possibly do without

p. 165

it would employ labour at such a time. Everyone naturally was cutting his expenses down. They themselves, for instance, had lain to, at the little quay where we found them, for ten days past, and this was the first day they had been employed. Inevitably, therefore, things were a little difficult. But they had managed. Oh yes! they had managed. And they had no doubt that in some way or other they would contrive to go on, With this abrupt reserve, this lowering of the visor, so to speak, the subject was dropped, and could be pursued no further. Yet it was not that the newcomer had been rebuked for impertinence, but rather that all alike we had realised the sudden pain of the attempt to lay bare our necessities to others.

And everywhere in the famine-villages I found the same thing. Here and there as we went about, we would come upon someone whose store of money or provisions was not yet wholly exhausted, someone who was still hoping that public charity would prove unnecessary to his little household. And wherever this happened the personal question would be skilfully evaded, and any discussion of the situation quietly refused. It is needless to say that the intense sensitiveness and delicacy of these Indian villagers played its own part in helping to deepen our understanding of the prevailing desolation. Every story told meant so much pride overcome.

p. 166

Like a great net made of cords of shining silver-blue, the water-ways--broad rivers, narrower canals or khals, and narrowest of all the little water-lanes--hold lovingly in their clasp this beautiful land, which throughout the historic period has been known as the Granary of Bengal. But the villages have a proverb, "With kings, with horned beasts, and with a river a man may never be friends." Much as the heart may go out in love, that is to say, there will surely come sooner or later, with such, a moment of treachery, when they will deal out death to him whom they have caressed. Alas, that this should have proved true of our lovely rivers of East Bengal.

Already the villages had been many months in the grip of famine. For the chief Indian harvest of the year is reaped in January, and in this year of 1906 it was terribly scant. The rains twelve months ago, at the time of sowing, were too little. Moreover, in some of the more ocean-exposed districts there were salt floods, and the crops were ruined. Within a month or two of this year's reaping, therefore, the long slow agony of starvation must have set in amongst the people. But it was borne in grim silence as long as possible, and only in the middle of June did the terrible word Famine make itself heard. And yet, as if the cup of their sorrows were not even now full, it became clear, on the breaking of the monsoon, that the

p. 167

rains this year were to be excessive; and finally, in the middle of August, the rivers, swollen by heavy rains and melting snows in the far north, suddenly broke their bounds, and the fair lands of Eastern Bengal became a world under water, the floods doubling the disaster created by the famine.


It was dawn on the 8th of September; one of those dawns of pearl and opal that come to us in the Indian autumn. The water-lilies lay open still, as they had lain all night long on the surface of the waters. Here we paddled up to a cluster, lying touching one another, as if with their heads on each other's shoulders, with golden hearts, and rose-tinged petals. And we counted them and found them seven. Seven lilies open in the dawn! The air was cool but not chill, and full of quiet and fragrance. And all around us in every direction--inwards from the edge of the river-current behind us, to the distant line of farmstead groves, and right and left, all the way from one dark jungle-border to another--stretched the smooth silver water, pierced by the upspringing spears of the young rice, which here and there was so scanty that each upright blade was companioned by its own reflection in the water-mirror underneath. A world full of the joy of the senses--

p. 168

not a gross or physical delight, but the silent in-flooding of sense-rapture on the spirit--for him whose body was fed and mind at rest.

A world of sense-joy. Was that how it looked to the women yonder, standing up to their waists in water, to receive us, as we paddled and punted towards their dwelling-place? Much sense-joy feel these others, think we, who have taken refuge with their children, from their fallen house, in the hayloft of a neighbour, and are living there, more like birds than human beings--who can tell us how many days? Nay, for these, and their like, there can be no joy of the senses, for the present is to them a horror, and who knows what agony may await them in the near future?

Or it was noon, and in a distant part of the country, not very far in fact from the city, we waded in water above the knees, or shot in the palm-boat across the rice-fields, finding our way from one farmhouse to another. And still, in spite of the sorrow all about us, one could now and then only catch one's breath, and feel how wondrous, to him who was born amongst them, must be the brimful beauty of these rice-lands. Grey clouds, grey mists, grey waters, and drizzling rain, we seemed to be alone in a world-vastness, alone, alone. Suddenly a great wind would catch the jungle-belt about us, and all the mangoes and palms respond, moaning and wailing. Then again

p. 169

it would pass, and silence come once more, upon the infinite monotony of our level world, with the first sense back, of a fulness of something that was neither life nor death, but on the mystic borderline between the two--perhaps including both.

Never have I felt so strongly the oneness of the people the world over as a few days ago, when I was allowed to begin my famine visits by calling at one farmhouse after another in the district on the opposite bank of the river to the town of Barisal. Some of these famine-stricken dwellings belonged to Chashas, or peasant-labourers--men, that is to say, who are employed as farm-hands, at a daily or monthly wage. And there were besides these the houses of the well-to-do tenant farmers, brought low like all the rest in this year of desolation by the very extremity of economic disaster.

For we cannot say in India, as we might perhaps in Ireland, that the higher classes live on one food, and the lower on another. There is here no contrast, as of wheat and potatoes, so that one half of the village may experience the last pangs of hunger while the other flourishes on the abundance of its own crop. All over the Gangetic Plain and all over the Gangetic Delta (and it is convenient to speak of all the rivers of these parts, whatever their local names, as the Ganges) all classes alike live on rice.

p. 170

[paragraph continues] And when rice fails them all alike starve. The employer of labour can, of course, hold out longer than the labourer he employs, in the battle against want. He ought to have something in the way of money and jewels. He has house, tools, furniture, and cattle that can (though it is to no one's interest that they should) be sold. He has even, if the worst should come to the worst, a larger credit. And he uses it to the utmost. If a man be found without resources in a year of supremely scanty harvest, we may be sure that it will prove to be because he had already parted with home and land in the former years, when ill-fortune was only growing upon him.

One home there was that I visited that morning, in which I would fain hope to have made permanent friends. Its mistress was a young woman, some few years widowed, whose grown-up son was the breadwinner of the family. At the hour of our visit he was absent, seeking employment, and they would have nothing to cook that day unless he should return with rice. Not that this was stated or obtruded upon our notice. Rather we came to understand the fact when our visit was past. Meanwhile, we sat and chatted quietly in the closely-thatched veranda, and one noted a daughter of the household, a girl of twelve or fourteen, clad with the scantiness of the year's poverty, and sore of heart under the wound

p. 171

to her girlish pride. There was a grey-haired granddame too, who told us, not of the famine but of the deep abiding sorrow that all other pain was wont to renew in her--the memory of the deaths, long ago, of seven stalwart sons who had each grown to man's estate before, one by one, they left her, to wait alone for the word of Allah ere she might see them again in Paradise. A widowed neighbour crept in to talk and listen, carrying a girl-baby in an extreme of emaciation, whom she was trying to nurse back into life, its own mother being dead. But centre of all was the gentle mistress of the home. One could gather her past happiness from the story she told of the debts of the dead husband faithfully discharged, and by her sensitive shrinking from the thought of remarriage. Even as we sat talking her son came back from the city and handed to his mother a bag containing some four pounds of rice, earned by two days of labour, carrying bricks on the river in a boat. Work, he said, was absolutely at a standstill, and one gathered from his words the fear he did not utter, of the days when he must return empty-handed from such quests. What would then be the fate of these helpless ones of his kindred who were dependent on him for food?

The cheery old Hindu gentleman who accompanied me in my visits would not, however, allow

p. 172

any presentiment of coming evil. "Come, come, Lakshmi!" (Fortuna), he said soothingly to the mother, who, weakened by long fasting, was weeping quietly and silently. "We shall send you help--do not you fear! And better times will be with us shortly--There, there! Don't forget! The good days will come again." Like the captain of the ship in stormy weather, it was not to the women he would admit the anxiety that was weighing upon his own kind heart, with the thought of the awful month of October to November, when the money contributed by the country and the last rice held by the starving people would alike be exhausted and heaven alone could tell where he would have to look for help.

The weeping woman dried her eyes and silently strove for self-control. And then with the prayers and blessings of the aged Rizpah ringing in our ears, we rose to leave for the boats that awaited us. But down to the edge of the water-meadows came the women to see us off. And there with my last look backwards I saw them standing, their hands raised in the attitude of prayer. And I knew that they, in their want and anxiety, were giving to us, well-fed and well-clothed, the beautiful salutation of their people, "Peace be unto you!"

p. 173


How futile, when one has seen a famine, sound all discussions as to whether or not India in the past has known as great catastrophes! A fair mansion, standing on the side of a great river, suddenly falls in a year of flood, and what remains of it henceforth is only a ruin. The house fell the moment the waters reached a certain level. Yes; but it would not have fallen at such a touch, only that, during long years before, the underpinnings and foundations had been steadily snapped and undermined. The final calamity was only the last scene in a drama of disaster long proceeding in silence. And the house itself could never have been built under such conditions. That is the whole argument. The commonwealth was never built up under such conditions.

Everything that one sees in East Bengal to-day is so much saved from happier times. Is it the pride and independence of fisher-folk and farmers? Is it the delicate hospitality of starving villagers? Both alike, if the present strain continue long enough, must assuredly give way to a sordid pauperism. They could never, under such disadvantages, have sprung into being. No, the ruin wrought by fire, or earthquake, or tidal wave, may happen in an hour. But famine

p. 174

implies a long train of preparatory circumstances, with which a bad season, or a series of bad seasons, suddenly coincides, to work visible devastation. That a certain combination of bad seasons must necessarily recur in every century or half-century will, I presume, appear a truism to the mathematician versed in the doctrines of chances, And that an agricultural civilisation of three thousand years' standing should be familiar with, and make provision for, the fact of such a recurrence, will appear equally a truism to the student of sociology.

It is in accordance with this fact that the people of East Bengal have been in the habit of keeping always stored in their houses some two or three years' provision of rice at a time. All over India the family that is rich enough buys its rice for the month or the year by the maund, even as in England we buy coal by the ton. 1 But the farmer was supposed never to encroach, for the purposes of the market, upon the store of grain that was to secure food to his household and dependents, not only during the current year, but also during two scanty harvests ahead, should the country be so unfortunate as to experience these. Now those

p. 175

who have followed the story I am telling will at once perceive the necessity of this. The convention was etiquette. It was more, it was morality--Dharmma, the national righteousness. But it was more even than these: it was plain common-sense. For we have seen that the farmer who cannot pay for labour even under the agricultural mischance of a bad harvest (strictly parallel to a season of commercial or manufacturing debits instead of credits), must necessarily fall from the position of an employer of labour into that of the employee or day-labourer himself. Instead of a farmer, he is now a Chasha or ploughman merely. Food may return into the district, through relief associations or along the railways, but this is not the same thing as its returning into his hands. He has lost his social status, and it will be long before he can possibly regain it. The security of the farmer as a capitalist depends, then, upon this one thing, and upon it alone, that he keep in possession a three-years supply of rice. In districts in the close neighbourhood of Calcutta, where the houses of the peasants are built of more permanent materials than further east, I know of nothing more pathetic to see than the long array of village granaries, many of them structures of an exquisite beauty, empty.

p. 176

The rise in the money value of food is sufficient to explain to us the impossibility for the East Bengal farmers, during recent years, of abiding by the injunction of their forefathers that they should keep rice in their granaries. They have lived in a world which regards it as more essential that they should keep money in their purse.

What have been the causes at work to transfer the peasant's ambition from rice to silver, from a well-filled granary to a well-filled till? For unless the ambition has been so transferred it is clear that the money value of grain could not have risen so rapidly. Only when a province has been denuded, and all its food has to be imported, could the crop of the country reach such values as those at present prevailing.

With regard to this question, it is perhaps sufficient to say that all over India a process is going on, in consequence of which the peasant has come to look upon money as wealth. And this process may be briefly indicated by the statement that rent and taxes have to be paid in coin. The foreign tax-gatherer, or the foreign minister of the Exchequer, knows nothing of rice as the ultimate standard of value. To them the precious metals occupy this place. And here is a fact which would tend of itself to impoverish the peasant, relatively to the other classes of the community,

p. 177

even if all the wealth of India remained within her own borders. The fact that it does not do so is too well known to need repetition at this point. My present object is merely to examine whether there be any local or little-known circumstances which may recently have contributed in some special measure to undermine the prosperity of East Bengal, and so have prepared the way for the calamity I have described.


Famine is social paralysis. A civilisation that has taken thousands of years to build up may be shattered by a single season of it. For complete destitution of all classes together, in a given area, is apt to knock out the links and rivets of the social system. At the present moment, for instance, the farmers have neither money nor food to give in exchange for labour. And without labour the rice of next year cannot be saved, even to the extent that might still have been possible. Under such circumstances, it is clear that food given to the farmer and his peasants is not the same thing as food given the farmer for his peasants. For in the latter case the food not only nourishes: it also leads to the putting in of labour, necessary to the next harvest. In the East there may be a greater readiness to return to the condition of equilibrium when the shock is over than in younger lands better known to ourselves. There may be: I do

p. 178

not know that there is, for I have not yet had the chance of seeing. But the difference can only at best be one of degree. Famine involves social disorganisation as one of its secondary but most far-reaching effects.

For famine is many things besides hunger. True, it is hunger so keen that one man whom I know, spending some days in a district as yet unrelieved, could not sleep at night for the wail of the famine-stricken in his ears. Hunger so keen, ah God! so keen! But it is more than this, as we have already seen. It is the extreme of poverty, bringing among other things nakedness, darkness at nightfall, ignorance, and unrepair in its train. It is poverty breeding poverty. Under its pressure the milk-cows are sold to the butcher, sometimes for eight annas or a shilling, because their owners can no longer maintain them, and by the new master are killed immediately for their hides, at the value of which he bought them. When it comes, the seed of the next year is eaten as food; the savings of lifetimes are scattered to the winds. Economic relationships that seemed inherent in the social organism are broken to pieces.

But over and above even these things, famine is more. It is the very sickle of death, selecting its victims according to a certain invisible but predetermined order, and what that order is, it may be worth our while to inquire.

p. 179

A few years ago there was a picture on exhibition in London, called, if I am not mistaken, "The Stairway of Life." At the top of wide-spreading steps stood youth and maiden hand-in-hand, and then, diverging with each step downwards, towards the river of death at the bottom, one saw the same pair, over and over again, at the different stages of life. This picture has been constantly in my mind as I have gone about the famine villages. Only the river of death that I see with the mind's eye is in flood, and at each step of the stairway stand the different grades of health and society, ranked according to the likelihood of their being swept off by the rising waters.

On the lowest stand the beggars, for every Indian community has its quota of these. There is here no poor-rate, and the hopelessly indigent and helplessly feeble must needs be supported by the informal charity of the village. Lonely old women they are for the most part, sunned and wrinkled under all weathers, and they stand at the steamer-ghâts, or in the bazaars, staff and begging-bowl in hand, not the least picturesque of all the picturesque elements that go to make up the Indian crowd.

Naturally, these are the first inhabitants of the villages to feel the sharp pinch of adversity, the first to throw themselves upon a wider-reaching charity. Indeed the Bengali word for famine,

p. 180

durbhikkha, the "hard begging," gives us a wonderful picture of the disaster from their point of view. It paints the beggars going forth in all directions, and wandering far ere they find scant food. Economic pauperism is a condition that only under very exceptional circumstances tends to bring out the highest and finest elements in human character, and these Indian beggars of the villages are neither better nor worse than their kind in other countries. Pithy and smart of repartee they sometimes are, and one cannot but be entertained when the grave assurance is given that the speaker dined yesterday on "horse's eggs" (a Bengali colloquialism for no food), in the very face of the person, it may be, who provided her with rice. It is undoubtedly true also that the beggar is spiritually twin-brother to the millionaire. For the minds of both these are concentrated upon the acquisition of wealth, in a degree impossible to any intermediate rank.

But the one lesson of my pilgrimage amidst the starving has been the immensity of the gulf that divides the humblest of citizens from these civic paupers. It takes a long series of scanty harvests to turn the poorest Indian householder into a beggar. Unless this is understood, we fail of the whole moral.

The next class to be reached by the rising

p. 181

waters consists of the single women, respectable widows, and girls of their blood as yet unmarried, who have no one to work for them, and must make their own living by husking the rice of the farmers, and preparing it for the city-markets. These are the gleaners of Asiatic village-life: for they follow after the reapers at time of harvest, and by gathering the grain that falls in their wake, provide themselves with food for some one or two months out of every twelve. Theirs is thus the unbought store. Indeed, it is difficult to see how money ever passes through their hands, for the labour they give at rich farmhouses is paid in kind rather than in coin, and probably a piece of cloth from the farmer's wife on the great festivals meets their need of clothing for the year.

On the next level that the flood reaches are the homes of the peasants, the farm-labourers. And last of the village group, but central, and first probably to have seen afar off the rising of the waters, are the larger farmers and small squires or zemindars.

Besides these, however, who depend directly for the year's food upon the year's harvest, each in his degree, there are whole classes of others who are indirectly but vitally affected. In the villages themselves there are the fishermen and boatmen. Although actively engaged in the supply of another

p. 182

kind of food, these are as much concerned as their neighbours in the question of the sufficiency of the year's crop of rice. Indeed, in many cases they themselves rent and farm a patch of land.

Scattered up and down the districts, again, and in the small market-towns of the countryside there is the sprinkling of intellectuals. There are the Brahmins, or village priests; the schoolmasters; the people who have been employed on railway staffs, small stationmasters and others; clerks in village firms and shops, letter-writers, doctors, and the like. To these people the directly agricultural classes are as the very steps on which they stand, and their support being withdrawn, the flood of hunger must needs swallow them all up, the more hopelessly and inevitably since there are for them no intermediate phases of social degradation to be passed through. The peasant may perhaps, by a slow refinement of suffering, be transformed first into a landless labourer. Then, on his death or desertion, his women-folk may become gleaners, instead of proud mistresses of the farmstead. And finally, one or all of the little household may conceivably be brutalised into begging. But for a gentleman--and the village schoolmaster or doctor or small squire is perhaps more conscious of his pride of gentlehood than any proud belted earl in all the West!--for a gentleman, when starvation comes, there is nothing for it

p. 183

but to hide his head and die. Thus, over the wide stretches of green country, the river of death has risen to the height of its flood-tide, and all the prosperity and joy of the little commonwealth are gone. The hive is robbed of its honey, those spoils of hope and cheer that were gathered in the sunshine and prosperity of the good years. And how shall the spiritless bees set to work again to replace them?


A few sociologists, notably Professor Patrick Geddes and his school, have pointed out the necessity for studying the social significance of various agricultural and industrial products. Thus, if these men are correct, the change by a community from the manufacture of wool to that of silk for example, is not by any means so simple as would appear to the careless eye. Each different material imposes its different conditions of labour, and has in a thousand ways its own characteristic necessities. Each article produced or manufactured, therefore, will be found, according to these thinkers, if we study closely enough, to entail certain human adaptations peculiar to itself. And this we may refer to as its social value.

To most of us, however, this point of view has

p. 184

not yet come in sight. We do not dream that there is any other standard of benefit to the worker or the consumer than the financial. And for this reason I hope to make extremely clear the story I am about to tell of Eastern Bengal.

Thirty years ago, in every cottage garden in Eastern Bengal, was found a patch more or less large as the case might be, containing a tall dark herb, botanically intermediate between a mallow and a flax, and known to us as jute.

The plant was grown by the peasants mainly for the sake of its fibre. This was very valuable in a country where rough string and bamboo are the chief building materials. There was also the supply of lamp-wicks to be thought of for the year. The leaves of the plant, moreover, when dried, were medicinal. And finally, in the case of the Hindu at home at any rate, it could not be dispensed with, since it was required in certain of the year's religious festivals. Only last year I remember, on the night of our beautiful Eastern Feast of Lamps as I went out through the lanes of our neighbourhood, being suddenly startled by a quaint little gathering of unknown objects lying on the roadway in the middle of an awkward twist in a narrow street. A light, not yet out, and a little smouldering straw, showed that I had come upon some altar of worship, and I turned to my companion for an explanation. The lad who was

p. 185

with me smiled easily and said: "Oh this is the A-lakkhi puja. It is written that on this night in 'some bad place,' with jute sticks and these few things, we should worship the Power that shines through the Unluck." Strange predestination surely: through these several centuries has Hinduism been worshipping the Unluck under the symbol of jute sticks!

The plant was open to the objection which applies also in the case of Irish flax, namely, that the long sterns had to be cut down, placed in water, and practically rotted, in order to get at the fibre, and this must always have made it an aversion to the Hindu. Still its economic value and the requirements of the faith were both imperative, and the quantity grown by each cottager was only such as he and his family would consume in the year.

About some twenty to twenty-five years ago, however--owing to what chain of events I do not know, for I have not traced out the history of jute as a commercial product--it seems to have been discovered by the outside world, and its value as a fibre must have been rapidly recognised. It has the advantage, as we all now know, of being easily woven into any one of a number of attractive looking materials, some of which resemble silk and others flannel. It has the further advantage, from the modern shopkeeper's point of

p. 186

view, that it will not wear long, and therefore necessitates that rapid succession of garments which change of fashion is in itself only another device for bringing about. And it is further said that Bengal is the only country in the world in which it can be produced. Here then was the tragedy incipient. Twenty years ago, it is said, the cultivation of jute made its appearance on something of a commercial scale in these East Bengal districts. At first, however, it spread slowly. But some seven or eight years ago 1 it made a sudden advance, and to-day the culture of the plant is going forward by leaps and bounds. As one goes down the river from Khulna to Barisal, one sees on all hands the fields of jute alternating with the fields of rice, and this particular line of country is not as yet one of the worst infected. As one watches the boats being loaded it is always with jute, and even about Calcutta, hour after hour, day after day, the carts come pouring in along the open country roads, laden with their bales of jute. In this way the Granary of Bengal has been and is being transformed into one vast jute plantation. The temptation to the peasant was, what it always is everywhere, recklessness as to the future in the face of a large financial reward, for jute at present brings him a good price. In the

p. 187

same way, as we all know, the peasants of Norway have denuded their beautiful mountains in many cases of their forests, careless always of the interests of the future, in face of that crushing need of the present which is the curse of the modern and especially of the poorer world. And in East Bengal the discovery of jute coincided with that other process by which the Commonwealth based upon Rice was being transformed inevitably into the Commonwealth based upon Money.

Such was the temptation, but in fact the bribe was a delusive one. For jute requires, for its successful culture, practically the same fields which are most favourable to rice. Thus the two crops cannot well be grown in rotation, since the soil will not afterwards produce such good rice, if, indeed, any. Besides, as we know, though the peasant cannot, the high prices will no longer be available when the growth is once universally established.

This then is what has made the present situation so hopeless. It is not only that there is no rice in the village. But far off, in lands from which the village might have drawn a supply, or at least from which some place accessible to it might have done so, there is no rice either. For these last few years, with increasing speed, all alike have been abandoning the old ideal of the conserving of rice in favour of the

p. 188

new wealth-producer of the hour. Till to-day, even when relief was to be brought, there was nowhere from which to bring it but distant Rangoon.

Thus the mysterious prescience of ancient faiths is justified. When the Roman Empire was but young, it may be, the simple peasants of the Gangetic Delta already worshipped the Power in the Unluck under the strangely-chosen symbol of the jute-herb, and to-day an Arctic winter of starvation has spread its mantle over them, largely through the agency of this old-time acquaintance. But what are we to say, we others, who by our greed and luxury have written so many chapters in the Martyrdom of Man, as indigo, opium, india-rubber, and now jute?


174:1 A maund is about 80 lbs., i.e. about ¾ cwt. It represents, as food, about 160 days for one person.

186:1 This was written in 1906.

Next > >














- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.

About the author | Site Map | Contact | © Frank Parlato