THE SINGING OF THE EPIC
WE were at the Dak bungalow, half way up a steep mountain-side, two days out from Mussoorie, A thousand feet below us curled the Jumna, foaming through its narrow, deep ravine on its way to the broad plains. About us rose the great hills, shutting out from our sight the snow-covered peaks that we knew were against the northern horizon. We could trace our day’s march; the path wound like a thread over the hills, wound down to the river and up again to the bungalow.
A mile beyond lay the little village of Lakhwar. We had walked through it at sunset, following the villagers as they made their way home from the ricefields in the ravines. The houses were clustered together, built on high, unsteady foundations, with their thatched roofs pulled down over their eyes. In the centre of the village were the temple and the rest-house for pilgrims who might pause here in their search for the source of the holy river, or the pure, eternal heaven of the snows. The resthouse roof was built in several stories, like a pagoda; its gargoyles were rudely carved elephant and tiger heads. The temple was in the domed style of the plains, and did not show the Buddhistic-Tibetan lines of the rest-house; its doors were covered with heavy gold plates carved and inwrought with the mountain animals and trees. The village men were chatting over their hookahs in jovial, friendly groups around the court in front of the temple; while the women were drawing water from the well in one corner. One of them, in a short green skirt, and a soft chaddar that framed her face like a madonna’s, lifted her hand to her forehead and gave us a graceful salaam There was a tinkling of jewelry as she passed, and we caught the flash of gold necklaces beneath her chaddar. Her clear-cut, fair face was lifted proudly to balance the earthen " ghara ” on her head. We watched her slender, bare feet go lightly but surely from stone to stone, as she turned up a “ pag-dandi ” that led to a hut high above the village. We watched her winding up and up until the spirit of the hills was upon us and we had to follow the turning road and go on and up and deeper into the heart of the highlands.
All the sky overhead was the rich yellow gold of Hindustan; the clouds and the mountain-tops were warm anti shining with it, but the crevice-like glen was covered with a cool green shadow. The rice-fields studded the hillsides with their emerald colors. Sometimes a barefooted pahari, driving a flock of broadtailed sheep, would pass us with a wondering salaam. Why, indeed, should hatless sahibs, evidently not soldiers, be wandering near their village at sunset ? There was no sound but the beating flight of startled pheasants, and the rush of mountain brooks. The streams were so cold and sweet that we drank at every one, sometimes bending over the quieter pools, sometimes catching the water in our hands as it fell over the rocks, and drinking it Hindustani fashion.
The twilight was long in the glen, but suddenly the clouds faded to a cold, blue white, and a chill came into the air. We hurried back through the village, dark and mysterious then, with glimpses here and there into the houses where the handful of fire was mirrored in the brass and red-copper vessels of the evening meal.
That night, when black darkness seemed to cover the face of the earth, we drew our chairs to the edge of the terrace in front of the bungalow. We were watching the stars march across the sky, as they will when there are mountain peaks as landmarks to limit the heavens. All about us loomed their vast, gloomy shapes. There was no moon, so we could not see the camp of our coolies, which we knew was in a hollow below us. Suddenly a fire blazed up and showed them seated in a great circle around it. As the blaze grew higher and stronger they began to sing a strange, minor melody with a monotonous rhythm. As they sang, two lines of four men, with their arms entwined, and keeping step to the music, came out of the darkness into the yellow firelight. The chorus grew stronger, the dancers circled around and around the fire, keeping opposite each other, and taking their graceful dancing steps in unison. The light flickered on their bare brown legs, and their lithe arms and bending backs. The louder and the more accented grew the singing, the more abandon and rhythm were put into the nautch; then gradually the fire began to wane, the singers and the dancers grew tired, and just as the fire died and the music ceased, the dancers faded again into the darkness.
I caught my breath to ask the coolies to build up the fire and go on, when the Professor said sternly, “ They might not do anything if they knew we were watching. Keep still and listen.”
We listened breathlessly — the only sounds were the rushing of the Jumna, a thousand feet below us, and a dulled beating of a dholak in the village, a mile away.
Suddenly, out of the dark hollow where the nautch had been came a mellow voice, a rich baritone, singing. It was a searching melody, appealing in strange minor intervals, and thrilled with feeling in the tender lower notes. The verse ended with a break in the voice, half a yodel, half a sob. There was a pause of black silence — then from a bank high above the hollow came a clear, pure tenor in a dramatic recitative. The key corresponded with the baritone’s verse, but the melody was different, more major, and more martial in its swing. The verse ended with the same break in the voice — and after another moment’s pause, the baritone answered again. Verse after verse the voices replied to each other, now eager and swift with passion, now low and wailing in despair.
“ It is their great epic — the Mahabharata,” said the Professor. “ They have sung the struggle between the Lunar and Solar dynasties and some of the philosophic dialogues about God and the soul.”
Just at that moment came a glorious burst of passionate poetry from the baritone, that seemed to express the mysterious inspiration of the stars, the mountains, the deep khads and the far streams that had been haunting us. The Professor quoted solemnly from the Bhagavad Gita 1 — Arjuna’s adoration — as the voice sang:—
In forms of infinite diversity.
I see thee like a mass of purest light,
Flashing thy lustre everywhere around.
I see thee crowned with splendor, like the sun,
Pervading earth and sky immeasurable,
Boundless, without beginning, middle, end,
Preserver of imperishable law,
The everlasting man : the triple world
Is awe-struck at this vision of thy form,
Stupendous, indescribable in glory.
The voice broke, and there was no answer from the tenor. A low murmur from the coolies as they lay down to sleep was the only sound.
How and where did they learn such poetry?” I asked of the Professor the next morning, as we watched our luggage being rolled up and strapped to the coolies’ backs.
“ Ask Durga,” he answered; “he sang the baritone.”
“ Can you read. Durga? ” I inquired of the tall coolie who was shouldering my “ boj.”
“ No, Miss Sahib,” he replied without embarrassment.
“ Then how did you learn the long verses of the Mahabharata that you sang last night ? ” I went on.
“ It is plain, Miss Sahib,” he said. “ When one is a boy, until one is a man, the pandit-people sing it in the villages. We all know it — not all can sing — but we all know the sacred words. If one could read, one would read many things and forget them — but when one remembers merely, the sacred words are written on his heart.”
DURGA, THE HILL-MAN
As I came out to the veranda the coolies who were sitting on their heels around my rickshaw jumped to their places. One of the front pair was tall and awkward, and too large for his bluejean uniform. His scarlet turban was on one side of his head, and his sash was trailing at one end instead of being neatly wound into a “kamar-band.”
“Who is the new coolie?” I asked of my bearer, as he arranged the cushions of the rickshaw. “ A hill-man, Miss Sahib,” he replied. “ Gunga has gone off as a bearer to some foolish people, and this Durga has come from his hill-village but yesterday. I engaged him for his strong legs. Does it seem good to the Miss Sahib ? ”
It seemed very good to the Miss Sahib, and even better when the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were clear and honest, besides being handsome and well set. His nose and chin reminded me of a Greek portrait head; a slight mustache brought out the curve of his thin lips, and his skin was a smooth bronze.
“ Nam kya hai ? ” I asked him,
“ Durga,” he answered, very simply, and without the usual protestations that I was his mother and father 舒 the protector of the poor, and that it was by my kindness his name was Durga. The other men showed a slight scorn of his manners. He saw it and made me a slow salaam. He was slightly awkward about handling the rickshaw, but his “strong legs ” did more than their share of the pulling, and we flew back from the bazaar more swiftly than ever before. Durga could hardly be restrained to a safe pace. He cantered and pranced and laughed aloud until he showed his even, white teeth when the rickshaw reached an open down grade. “ We are not running a race, we are out to eat the air! ” shouted the bearer from behind. But the joy of living, and of “ eating ” the crisp, pine-laden air, seemed to have awakened all his animal spirits, and the game of pulling the rubber-tired easyrunning “ gari ” over the smooth roads seemed what his strength was meant to do, and he could not do it solemnly as though it were a labor.
Fortunately the game did not seem to lose its novelty, for he always was eager for it, and he would always prance like a child playing horse when he took hold of the tongue. His hill manners, however, improved continually. He soon took from the bearer the duty of bringing and arranging the cushions, he waited at the shop doors to carry my purchases to the “ gari,” and when I tarried long at the tea-house, and the other eoolies disappeared for a friendly smoke of their hookah, he would always sit on his heels where he could watch the “gari ” and the door where I would appear.
I valued him, indeed, as a friend, after he had gone with me back into his native lulls, where I discovered his rich baritone voice, and the poetry “ written on his heart.”
I wn s boasting of him one day when the colonel’s wife and her small boy were taking tea with me. I had just refilled her cup when the bearer said to me that Durga was without, in great trouble. I found him crouching on the veranda in the rough, village clothes he had worn when he came; great trouble was in his eyes, but he did not whine as Hindustani men do when they try to rouse pity.
“It is the sickness, Miss Sahib — that and the small-pox goddess have come to my village — I heard in the bazaar from men who had brought in fruit. My father has gone with the goddess, and there is none to help my house [they speak so of their wives] if the goddess small-pox comes for my little sons. I must go — Miss Sahib.”
“Certainly you must,” I said. “ But wait until I give you medicines and cures for them.”
The colonel’s wife hurried home for her plague specific, while I arranged a basket of medicines and told Durga how to use them. He took the basket from us with a salaam and a look of great gratitude. Then he strode off toward his village — a two days’ march into the mountains.
A month passed, and although I inquired daily I heard no news of Durga. The week that the rains broke, however, he appeared again on the veranda. I hardly knew him. His face was drawn, Ins fine eyes were sunken, his bare arms and legs were pitifully thin, and he was shivering with the chill of the soaking rain. “ Go to the house, Durga,” I said. “ Get warm, and take something to eat, and then come to tell me your story.”
“ No, Miss Sahib,” he answered, “ I will tell you now, for the story is short. Great trouble has come to me. My father and ray brother had died when I reached the village, and my wife was crazy with grief, for the goddess was on the two boys. The eldest died — the youngest grew better, but, Miss Sahib, he is blind.” The man’s voice broke and he hid his face for a moment. Then he looked up and went on calmly. “ I took him to the Padri-doctor [the missionary] where the lepers live, and he told me that in a hospital in a big city the doctors might cut his eyes and make him see again. But it would take many months and many rupees and I am a poor man. It cannot be — this is his fate.”
I promised Durga that I would try to get him work in the big city when the summer was over, and that he must begin to save his wages. I knew it would be a long and sad struggle to save the child’s eyes, and I doubted whether the feeble little life could wait for the operation.
Durga donned again his livery of blue and scarlet and went back to his work “ on ” the rickshaw. He pulled his share and more, but the joy of it had gone out of him. He no longer laughed as he ran, or whispered merry things to the other men to make them shout. The prancing colt was gone from my “ gari.” At night I heard the usual music from the servants’ quarters, but Durga’s rhythmic mountain songs had ceased. He seemed happy only when he was doing extra work and earning a few more pennies.
One day I had sent him to the hotel in Mussoorie, to take a note to the colonel’s wife. I was impatient for the answer, but attributed his delay to a beating shower that had broken over the mountain tops. The rain stopped, and when he did not come after an hour of full sunshine, I sent the bearer to the bazaar to find the delinquent Durga and reprimand him sharply. I was standing on the veranda after giving the bearer his message, when a throng of coolies appeared at the top of the hill and wound down the narrow path towards the house. They were carrying Durga on a stretcher, and a young mission-doctor was walking beside it. He began to speak, but at a whispered request from a coolie, said to me, “Your coolie is hurt, and this man saw the accident, so he will explain it.”
So the coolie began in the vernacular — “ The Miss Sahib knows the steep bill in the bazaar, just beyond the drug-store, and the steep precipice at the edge of the curve — protected only by a slender fence ? ” I knew the dangerous place. He went on in confusing baste. It seemed that the colonel’s mem-sahib was in a shop and had lefDher small son in her rickshaw at the top of the hill. The child had been restless, and had urged a little Hindustani boy near by to pick up the tongue of his “ gari ” and give him a ride. As the boy lifted the tongue, the rickshaw started irresistibly down the hill. Both the children screamed for help, but the few people on the mall seemed dazed with terror. The Hindustani boy tried to keep it in the road, but he was powerless, and with gathered speed and force, the rickshaw dashed toward the precipice. Suddenly Durga, who had just appeared from a foot-path leading into the mall at that point, hurled himself against the flying thing, swerved it away from the death and destruction of the precipice, and sent it reeling forward on the road.
The colonel’s child and the Hindustani boy fell in a heap together, and were picked up and sobbed over by the multitude. For a moment nobody thought of Durga. It was the colonel himself wdio stooped over the prostrate figure and sent for the doctor. When Durga opened his eyes and looked the colonel full in the face, the colonel could not find the words to speak. “ I know the worth of a child’s life,” said the coolie simply. Then the colonel found words and told Durga that he too knew the value of a son’s life and of his sight, and that Durga’s son should have all the help and care that money could give him at once — a home in the city, an operation, and later an education; and after that a place in the service of the Sirkar, — that mysterious but honorable master, the government. Then I knew why the old fight had come back into Durga’s drawn face.
The doctor directed the coolies to move the stretcher to Durga’s house, and said to me in English that he feared the man would not five. Durga must have caught the meaning in his voice, for he looked up and said weakly, “ My salaams to the Miss Sahib. Tell her that if I five to be her servant, it is well, and if I die in my boy’s stead, it is well also, for my son is saved.”
- Sir Monier Williams’s translation.↩