Studies from an eastern home
Life in the Hindu quarter
WHEN I first discovered that my work would mean living in the Hindu quarter of Calcutta, the usual protests were forthcoming on all sides. One would have supposed that the chances of immediate death from cholera or typhoid were to chances of safety as fifty to one. I have not seen this alarm justified, however. I have been here now for some months without finding any reason for a day's illness.
My home is, in my eyes, charming. With its two courtyards, its limited second story, and its quaintly-terraced roofs, built at five different levels, it is a rambling specimen of the true old Hindu style of building. In the whole place there is not an inch of glass; the lower casements are protected by iron, and the upper by
wooden bars, and so, while the sunlight outside my little study is softened by mats made of dark green splints, my bedroom is always open to the stars. Here some large family has lived in days gone by, and here maybe at least one generation has died off, and then, when the last of the older members was gone, those remaining would break up into smaller groups, again to become the nuclei of fresh communities. Crowded with memories the old house seems, of such lives as are passing continually beneath my windows, in the lane and the villages without--ignorant and unsophisticated doubtless, but full of human tenderness and simple worship.
The lane is quite clean and so charmingly irregular. First on one side and then on the other it gives a twist, and wherever there is a space between the larger houses little villages have grown up. Here is one, a cluster of mud huts, with their rich brown walls and their red-tiled roofs, nestling at the foot of a cluster of cocoanut palms. High up against the blue these wave their plumes, and below their long shadows lie across a tiny tank and the roof of the cowhouse and protect a few green things under the wall, To another village the pump-like hydrant is the entrance, almost always surrounded by its veiled women, carrying their beautiful waterpots of brass or earthenware. Everywhere the happy laughter
of children in the sunlight, everywhere the flutter of newly-washed drapery hung out to dry, every here and there a cow or two.
Here, at my writing-table, surrounded by the books and pictures and the simple refinements of modern life, I look out on a world of many centuries ago. Nay, it is with me here within my doors. I can never forget the day when my old waiting-woman came to consult me about the purchase of a cooking-stove--to cost six farthings. Armed with this mighty sum she purchased three small iron bars, a large thin tile, and a little heap of Ganges mud, out of which she proceeded to construct a modest hearthplace of her own. On top of this she used, for cooking, a round earthen pot with a groove in the neck, and some days later she very diffidently requested another six farthings to buy something like a pair of tongs with which to clasp this when hot. It was a slight and curious-looking utensil, and I suppose no man could say how long her ancestors have regarded its exact fellows as harmless luxuries of housekeeping. The whole thing was eloquent of poverty, bravely met and decently borne through many generations. Still more significant was it, however, to hear her crying gently when she found her earthen pot, not unnaturally, cracked over the fire. Its value was just one farthing! This old woman is over seventy, and I, less than half her age,
call her "Jhee" or "daughter." Even tiny children of higher rank call her, however, by this name, according to the beautiful custom of Hindu households, where to the women-servants the master and mistress are "father" and "mother," and the daughters "jewel sisters." Nothing is commoner than for these old attendants to attach themselves to a family as grandmother, claiming the privilege of scolding their employers and spoiling those employers' children to the end of their days. In such cases the social inferiority of this member of the family group would not be easily perceived by a stranger. The mistress prepares her servant's food and gives it with her own hand (a curious inversion of our notions), and when the servant dies, in the fulness of time, she is mourned by these kindred of her adoption as one of their own blood.
The number of services that Jhee could not perform made my early days interesting. On my second afternoon, when I turned to her for hot water for my tea-tray, I was amused to see her suddenly disappear. It was only for a moment, and she came back dripping, having found it necessary to take a bath before touching what I was about to eat. Exaggerations of this sort gradually disappeared of their own accord, and now, strange to say, she condescends to wash my cups and saucers, though when another mem-sahib
visits me I find I must do this for my friend myself. These Indian superstitions about food, would surely repay elaborate study. But why has the notion of purification always been overladen with so many inconveniences and restrictions in Asiatic countries, while in old Greece it was apparently passed over with such lightness and grace?
My house has a courtyard. Why do we English carry the domestic architecture that is appropriate to the British Isles into this Eastern land of sun and shine? Would it not be wise to take up the style of the country? The Hindu certainly contrives to keep himself cooler than we do, and the great marble courts that we see in rich men's houses, with plants grouped against their steps and pillars, must be as beautiful as anything in Athens or Pompeii. Mine is no floor of pure white marble, yet it was long before I discovered the secret of the pleasure that I took in opening my front door on my return in the evening. Then I found that it was the meeting again with the sky and stars within. A great well of coolness and shadow in the daytime, and a temple of eternity at night, a playground of merry breezes, and an open sundial--who would not love a house with a courtyard?
The other architectural beauty of my home is its roof. Up there one pictures oneself in Syria. Away in all directions stretch similar housetops,
broken by the green of trees and gardens, and diversified by colonnades, and balustrades, and steep stone staircases. The rich crowded beauty of Lahore is not here on the great flats of Bengal. The impression is rather of breadth and solitude, roofs and palm tufts, and the vast dome above. Here, at dawn or sunset or in the moonlight, one can feel alone with the whole universe. Down below, with the smoke rising from little fires of cooking as the evening meal is cooked within each court, how different from the cosy rural scene one would see in England! But then how different, too, above! And this although in both it is that glimpse of fire that makes the glow of homecoming. For we must not forget the radiant purity of this upper air and the large luminousness of moon and stars.
To the Hindu woman, cooped up for the most part in her zenana, how much it means to possess such a roof. Here is her whole outlook on life--life in the abstract, life on the impersonal scale. Here is the neighbourhood of other women, for the roof of one zenana is often accessible to another; here are coolness and merry talk in the long hours of summer nights, when all the girls of the family steal away to sleep where it is also possible to breathe; and here also is that glimpse of the Ganges that is the lightener of toil and bringer of refreshment as of worship. Beautiful
[paragraph continues] Ganges! How she is loved of her children, and how quaintly delicate is that salutation to the river when, ere stepping into her and so soiling her with their feet, they stoop and place a little of the water on their heads.
"But hark, hark! the dogs do bark! The beggars are coming to town." A very practical question to the Indian house-mother is that of beggars. In a perfect troop they come down the lane, though fortunately not every day: numbers of well-dressed, good-humoured-looking men and women, clad in white for the most part, with large rosaries, tramping along, staff in one hand and begging-bowl in the other. Such complete social recognition do they receive that the city is actually mapped out in wards for their peregrinations, according to the day of the week. It is the solitary mendicant, however, who interests me most. Theoretically, in the great majority of cases, he is a barefooted friar, so to speak, wearing the yellow robes that Buddha wore and appealing for alms in the strength of the Sacred Name. Perhaps he was already within the doors when one heard it first, and there he stands repeating the sonorous Haribol! or the Sita Ram! which constitutes a prayer. This Indian feeling about the Name of God is very striking. To repeat it is the whole of supplication, and they argue that, if putting the hand into a fire burns, whether we
feel it or not, shall not the cry to the Almighty do good whether we know it or not? But maybe our friend remains still to sing a song, and this is worth marking, for a whole literary form of great sweetness and power is devoted to the service of these beggars; and not many years ago all that now remains of the exquisite ballad-songs of Ram Prasad, the Robert Burns of Bengal, had to be collected from just such sources as this. The author is always supposed to include his own name in the last couplet, and it will be seen at once how useful this quaint canon would prove to the collector of the works of a particular song-maker. Very little, a tiny pinch of rice or a few fruits or the smallest of coin, will content our friend, but more could hardly be given when the claims are so many. There is no stigma in the mind of the giver, however, attaching to the man who had to say, "Mother, give me food." The dictum that the "starving man has a natural right to his neighbour's bread" would rouse no responsive thrill in India, where something very like it is taken as a fundamental social axiom.
Full of unlooked-for interests is the life here--amongst "new men, strange faces, other minds." A few inches off my table as I write are the constant flutter of wings and the sounds of the voices of birds; yet a little further the waving of trees--the neem, and the bo-tree, and the palms
and underneath and all about a life throbbing with newness yet aglow with the secrets of the past. I look at my Whitman and Wordsworth and the exquisite beauty of the "Beata Beatrix," and I long to be able to pass from the one psychic atmosphere to the other at will, a transition without which the mere accident of physical presence is worth little. Yet as I utter the wish it is already to some small extent answered, and I have perceived a larger existence than I had conceived before--a certain immense life of Humanity, in which time and distance are alike merged, and where the Eastern and the Western Aryan have become one in their noblest manifestations, as Walt Whitman saw it;--
Of value is thy freight, 'tis not the Present only,
The Past is also stored in thee;
Thou boldest not the venture of thyself alone, not of the Western Continent alone,
Earth's résumé entire floats on thy keel, O ship, is steadied by thy spars,
With thee time voyages in trust, the antecedent nations sink or swim with thee,
With all their ancient struggles, martyrs, heroes, epics, wars, thou bear’st the other continents,
Theirs, theirs as much as thine, the destination port triumphant.
Steer then with good strong hand and wary eye, O helmsman! Thou carriest great companions,
Venerable, priestly Asia sails this day with thee,
And royal Feudal Europe sails with thee."
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.