Life in an Indian Compound: A Morning Picture

IN the memory of one who has lived long in India, there cannot fail to be a vivid picture of the Indian compound in the early morning hours, with its strange noises and stranger activities, with its varied and peculiar characteristics of man, beast, and insect tribe, all rushing and jostling to make the most of the short time in which work may be done in this land of the tropical sun.

The dawn comes early. You hear it getting up about four o’clock in the morning, heralding its approach by a single discordant, scraping, penetrating note, a cross between that of a bagpipe and a worn-out violin, accompanied by strange thumpings and poundings. It is the music of the tom-tom in the distant bazaar, celebrating some one of the innumerable Hindu festivals. Then the nearby oil-mill, its clumsy wooden shaft turned by a pair of lean, half-starved bullocks, begins to revolve, screeching unmercifully in its orbit. Everything in the compound commences to stir, for the sun is no dallier in these regions, and who hopes to keep pace with him must not tarry. For, when that first faint purple light on the hillsides begins to lift, the impetuous bridegroom will come forth from his tabernacle, and the race will begin.

Nowhere else in the world, perhaps, is one so impressed as in India with the fitness and force of that familiar figure used by the Psalmist, in which the sun is portrayed as a “ bridegroom coming out of his chamber,” and rejoicing “ as a strong man to run a race; ” for while it might not have occurred to the uninspired imagination to conceive of him. anywhere, in the guise of a bridegroom, one is bound to be struck, in India, not only with the superb dash of his “ going forth,” and with the unlimited extent of his “ circuit,” but with the still more conspicuous fact that, when the race is once on, “ there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”

Five o’clock strikes. The tom-tom and the oil-mill have played their tune over and over, and you know it not only by heart, but by every nerve in your body. That gentle squeak in the punkah rope, too, is becoming monotonous. The punkah-wallah, stretched at ease on his back in the outside veranda, fitfully jerks the rope suspended between his useful, but now benumbed, toes, while his partner conjectures in low, but perfectly audible tones as to how much longer you are likely to slumber. The mosquitoes sing a song of rejoicing that the energies of the punkah are waning. The squirrels in the roof overhead discourse in piercing squeaks of the duty of early rising. The monkeys in the banyan without illustrate that lying in bed was not the vice of our ancestors. The eye-flies, swarming above you, proclaim that, in their opinion, your eyes should open to admit them. The sweeper in the adjacent bathroom clatters and bangs with her chatties. The waterman, filling your tub, implies that it is time for your bath.

Realizing the futility of further resistance, you rise, bathe, and dress quickly, and, appearing upon the veranda, greet the punkah-wallahs with courtesies not quite so benevolent as the Anglo-Saxon “Good-morning,” which has the effect of relieving you instantly of their presence, and leaves you at leisure, while waiting for your “ chota hazri,” to view the landscape o’er.

And if you scan the world over, you will find little better worth looking at in that half-light. On three sides, rising from two to six hundred feet above the broad, flat plain, are hills, shadowy, melting, mobile hills, lying tender and soft in the purple light of the Indian dawn. Dotting their jungle-clad sides are small white temples, suggesting, in the distance, and in the soft light, marble colonnades. Silhouetted against the sky, on the crest of the highest hill, is an ancient fort, a common feature in Indian landscapes, testifying that the scene now before you is a part of the stage upon which Chanda Sahib, Hyder Ali, Tippoo Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, and that great Englishman, Clive, once were actors.

The hills slope gently down past paddyfields of the greenest green ever seen, to a big Mofussil town that fills in the fourth side of the picture, and out from which runs a straight white line, passing close by the compound wall. It is the great highway on its route due south to Tuticorin, a smooth, hard, polished road such as Englishmen, the world over, know how to build, a road that makes bicycling a joyous, winged flight, and that will some day, doubtless, attract the touring car of the globe-trotter.

All over the compound, from verandas and “ go-downs,” forms are seen rising from sleep, each one “ wrapping the drapery of his couch about him,” with no idea, in doing so, of conforming to any standards urged upon the attention of the race by Mr. Bryant, but for the simpler, if less poetic, reason that these draperies constitute his bedding by night and his nether garment by day. But do not make the mistake of thinking that, because the requirements of the Hindu’s costume are scanty, his toilet is, therefore, a perfunctory matter. Follow him to the well. The chances are that you will never drink water again, but you will obtain knowledge. On the brink of that great, yawning hole in the ground known as the compound well, whose sides are of stone and whose steps lead you down to the water’s edge, behold the “ males ” of the compound. Divested of the draperies already referred to, and in attitudes ranging all the way from the pose of the “ Disc Thrower ” to that of the most resolute “ squatter ” upon a Western claim, they are lined up in a row from the top of the steps to the bottom. In the hand of each is a chatty, and one and all are engaged in the offices of the morning bath. And their tub is the well. The brimming chatties are passed up and the empty ones down, legs are curried, feet are scoured, teeth are polished with charcoal and stick, throats are gargled, noses trumpeted, and, in short, the whole man receives such a washing and splashing, such a rubbing and scrubbing, such a molishing and polishing, as leaves nothing to be desired, except in connection with the well. This latter consideration, however, is one that does not disturb the Hindu, who, priding himself upon being, externally, the cleanest platter in the universe, devotes but little thought to the inside of the dish.

His ablutions and those of his colleagues concluded, he fills his chatty once more from the pure fountain below, lifts it high in the air, throws his head back, and with unerring aim, pours the crystal libation in one long, steady stream down his open throat, skillfully poised to receive and conduct it to his germ-proof interior. This done, his draperies are resumed, and he departs to his work.

Suddenly, as out of a catapult, the sun leaps up from behind the eastern hills, and day is at hand.

The “ females ” now begin to wend their way, chatties on hips, to the well, each one fully attired, for whatever their matutinal custom may be as regards bathing, their mission to the compound well is not for that purpose. They fill their chatties from the same purling stream in which their lords have just bathed, and bear them aloft on their perfectly poised heads to their " go-downs,” where this same immaculate fluid is used for cleaning the household vessels, for washing and boiling the rice, and for filling the earthen water-jars with the day’s supply of drinking water. It is not, however, deemed sufficiently cleansing for washing the floors, the universal agent employed in native houses for that purpose being a saturated solution of the excrement of the cow, the most indispensable antiseptic and germicidal substance known to the Hindu.

In an Indian compound one’s first visit in the morning is, usually, to the stables, or stalls, where the horses are kept. Open and accessible alike to air, rain, and robbers, they are protected by a thatched roof from the ravages of the sun. There is no door and no manger, but each stall has three sides and a top, and a horse within, if the sahib’s income allows him to afford one in each. The horses are of different nationalities, species, and values, in an ascending scale from the despised “ country-bred,” which may be bought for a couple of hundred rupees, and subjected to ail kinds of abuse by the syce without greatly impairing its value; the Pegu, which comes higher, and which, if handled too roughly, knows how to show the syce a trick or two, unexpectedly; the Australian pony, which, though a peg or two above the “ country-bred ” and the Pegu, shows a great aptitude for imitating their ways; the Australian cob, fat, sleepy, and lazy, which seems to think it has done its whole duty in costing a round sum to start with; up to the Waler, whose price may run up into the thousands, and the care of which is ever the first consideration with the sahib and the memsahib, after, perhaps, that of the children.

All these are alike subjected by the syce, whose discretion is far in excess of his valor, to the indignity, not of a halter, but of heel-ropes, by which they are firmly tied to their stalls in such a way as to make kicking out of the question. And the result is, not unnaturally, that a horse which has never thought of kicking before, develops, under this treatment, a conspicuous talent for it, and the syce may consider himself lucky if a taste for biting, as well, does not add itself to its accomplishments in due course. The syce is, by nature, cruel, and by practice becomes so habituated to the exercise of his inborn gifts, that to witness the morning rub-down of her horse is a part of “inspection” duty which the memsahib cheerfully omits. With the head of the animal firmly tied to the stall and its feet lashed securely, be begins operations with an iron hand which has never felt the touch of a velvet glove. He rubs and he scrubs with curry and comb, pokes the horse’s ribs, kicks its sides and tickles its belly to within an inch of its life, threatening it, the while, with such terrors as only a syce’s voice can foretell, until the poor beast, its eyes starting from their sockets, every tooth showing, and quivering in every limb, shows only too plainly what it would do if the ropes gave way. You have only to witness this scene between the horse and the syce to be left in no doubt as to which of the two is the brute.

Each horse has its syce, whose first duty it is in the morning to curry and molish his beast until its coat is like satin, in proof whereof he is required by the exacting memsahib not only to present the animal in shining condition, but also to produce the hair which has been curried and brushed away, it being well known to the initiated that for “ ways that are dark and tricks that are vain,” the heathen Hindu is no less “ peculiar ” than the “ heathen Chinee.” Accordingly, the syce is required to place the horse’s hair in a small heap on the ground where the memsahib, or, if the day be an unpropitious one, the sahib himself, can “ inspect ” it, compare its color with that of the horse, and, in the event of there being an east wind, or anything else wrong with the sahib, he may obtain relief by looking into the matter of the syce’s shortcomings. After this, the little piles are all carefully burned, with, perhaps, the exception of one or two remote and inconspicuous ones which lend themselves to easy removal while the sahib’s back is turned, and which may thus be rendered available for the next day’s inspection.

It is understood that each horse must be furnished with clean bed-straw and a large bundle of dried grass daily, which needs, also, to be watched and inspected, for the syce’s wife, the grasscutter, whose function it is to provide these accessories, is, although unknown to fame, a person endowed with an amount of creative genius sufficient to place her in the front rank of fiction authors, had the lines fallen to her in their place instead of her own. She can make one bundle of dried grass, by shaking it out, and turning it over, and doing it up again upside down, and inserting a few stones to preserve its weight, and by the judicious introduction of one or two really new elements, go further in the production of dramatic effects between herself and the memsahib than the average fiction writer could achieve with all the materials in the universe at his command.

The most burning question, however, in connection with the horse is its gram. This grain, a species of pulse, is endowed with the thrifty but not altogether peaceable virtue of increasing largely in bulk in the process of cooking: the syce says twofold, the sahib three, and the memsahib four. It has, moreover, the still more questionable endowment of being edible for syces as well as for horses, and when you take into consideration the fact that the syce does the cooking and measuring, the memsahib the inspecting, and the sahib the objecting, with the butler for referee, the complications arising need scarcely be pointed out. They are such as to leave the memsahib, usually, with no resource but the time-saving one of abusing the butler.

A striking feature of the morning routine of the compound is the method of extracting milk from the domestic cow. This animal, though of the feminine gender, is, as is well known, sacred in India, and the attitude of the Hindu towards her, in spite of her sex, is one of extreme tenderness and consideration. It is in sharp contrast, indeed, to the spirit of cruelty which he evinces towards the horse, the care of which he relegates to the lowest pariah in the community, while the cow, on the other hand, always has a caste man for her keeper. I see him approaching now, leading his sacred charge gingerly by a rope. He, though a high-caste Hindu, affects the “simple life” openly, bv wearing a turban, chiefly, for costume. She, though ever so sacred, makes no pretense to holiness in her conduct. As he moves forward she pulls back, straining every fibre of the by no means invincible cord. He is a tallish man, for a Hindu, erect in carriage, and, in spite of the limitations of his costume, not undignified in bearing. She is a handsome beast, tall, stately, raw-boned, impressive, apt to be white, sure to be humped, and imported, as a rule, from Nellore.

A glance shows you that you are about to be treated, for once, to that unwonted spectacle, in India, of a male subdued by a female. The man’s — and a caste man’s, at that — demeanor is humble. The cow’s is defiant. He cossets her, coaxes her, indicates tactfully which way he would have her go. She shakes her head, tosses it scornfully, indicates unmistakably that she will go where she pleases. He tries persuasion. Adjusting his lips, tongue, and teeth in a manner known only to Hindus, and by them employed only with cows, he evolves a series of seductive sounds designed to reduce her to reason, but which, as is not unheard-of with females in other walks of life, have the unfortunate effect of only enraging her the more. She makes a break for the bungalow, dragging the man after her by the rope, spies the memsahib “ inspecting,” is offended that she should wear skirts instead of a tying-cloth, and charges, head down, in her direction, with a resultant of screams and confusion that brings every servant in the compound to the rescue. Then they all (with the exception of the memsahib) surround the cow, and with pushings and pullings and a full chorus of the soothing sounds I have mentioned, and with, perhaps, a few gentle tail-twistings, bring her, at last, to the back veranda, where she is to be milked. Here again the caste man’s frame of mind is one of humble submission.

It is interesting, indeed, to observe how, under the spell of religious or other inherited custom, he who, with one-half the provocation, would mete out and apportion a round of chastisements to the females of his own bosom and godown, never thinks of resorting to such measures with his cow. He gives her time to collect herself and to forget the memsahib’s skirts, and approaches her in a spirit of the entire friendliness of which he assures her by the dulcet tones of his voice.

He has no milking-stool, but takes his seat easily on the calves of his legs, borne aloft on the tips of his toes, where he remains throughout the milking in an attitude possible to the Westerner only after long practice in the gymnasium. His pail, lightly upheld between his bent knees, is a tin cup holding, at most, a quart. The cow declines to part with a drop of her milk until her calf has been sent for. Now her offspring may be just born, half-grown, or dead, it matters not which, save that, in the event of the last contingency, she insists upon having it stuffed. If quite new, the calf is allowed a few moments’ indulgence at the maternal udder ; if half-grown, it is permitted a sniff at it; after which, in both cases, it is dragged away and tied to its mother’s fore leg, where she caresses it throughout the milking. If dead, the skin is stuffed with straw and anchored within her reach, where it appears to give quite as much satisfaction as when alive. These concessions accorded, she consents to impart her milk, — a thin, colorless fluid which, in the most liberal estimate, does not exceed a pint or two.

The milking concluded, the caste man, who knows that a pint of milk or even two will not go far in supplying an English menu, takes a look round, and if it appears that his horoscope for the day has arranged favorable conjunctions of the memsahib and the butler in other parts of the compound. he benevolently increases the quantity of milk from a chatty previously filled at the compound well and deftly concealed in the folds of his tying-cloth; for, although he is a caste man, himself, and. therefore, particular to drink water in which only those of his own caste have bathed, he knows that the sahib and the memsahib are not caste people, and, indeed, do not believe in it, wherefore they may, without jeopardy to their souls, drink water in which all the world has bathed.

And this brings us to the subject of the drinking-water supply, a question even more burning than that of the horse’s grain; for, given three hundred millions of devout Hindus, all sincerely convinced, not that “ cleanliness is next to godliness,” but that it is godliness, and given, also, the fact that, in India, ninety-nine rivers out of a hundred are dry, one can see what a tax there must be on the wells. You may build round your well, if you will, a wall of chunam; you may cover its top with a lid, locked and bolted; you may plaster it over with threats of what you will do to all trespassers, but you cannot get rid of the stubborn truth that water is scarce and bathing compulsory in India. You may set up in your back veranda, as every one does, tripods of bamboo wound round with straw, bearing chatties filled to the brim with charcoal and sand, through which your water is filtered, drop by drop; but you cannot filter your facts.

The best the memsahib can do is to choose a well distant enough for her never to see who bathes in it, and then to command the butler to see that the waterbearer gets to it first in the morning. This he will profess always to do; but, since the memsahib’s imagination is a wayward thing, and hard to control, and since the water-bearer is a being also addicted to bathing, she usually adds to her peace by first boiling the water and then filtering it; after which, to make sure, she boils it again, and then drinks soda water.

By the time these ceremonies have all been performed, the sun is well on his way towards the “ home stretch,” and the memsahib is well on hers towards distraction with the morning’s “ inspecting,” while the whole compound is in a whirl of industry to get the work done before the sun reaches the meridian and calls a halt for refreshments.

The “ malas ” are sweeping the walks with handfuls of brush, the water-bearers are deluging pots with avalanches of water. The cook is hurrying home from the bazaar with the day’s supplies, his wife in his rear meekly bearing his bundles. Bullocks are dizzily turning the crank at the well that hauls up the buffalo hide filled with water to flood the channels that lead to the gardens and tanks. Thedharzee hastens in to his seat in the front veranda to copy his mistress’s latest costume from London. Native barbers, squatting upon the ground, are shaving the heads of those who have leisure. Women are pounding paddy and grinding curry-stuffs between stones in the open doors of their go-downs. Others, sometimes three deep, are frankly employed in the open, each with the head of the other, in those entomological researches known as “ The Madras Hunt.”

Jugglers in the drive in front of the bungalow strive to catch the eye of the memsahib by performing their tricks. With no better appliances than a few shallow baskets, a dirty cloth or two, a network of cords, and a few fangless cobras, they contrive, under the inspiration of the ear-splitting strains from a gourd pipe, to turn the cobras into doves, the doves into rupees, to swallow the rupees and recover them from their ears, to eat fire and eject it from nostrils and eyes, to devour swords without visible damage to their internal economy, to create mango trees out of nothing and cause them to blossom and fruit before the memsahib’s unconvinced eyes, to burn live coals on a woman’s bare head (the memsahib observes that their most murderous tricks are always done on a woman), to make balls jump up and down in the air unassisted, which they appear to do joyfully; and, if the memsahib betrays the slightest symptom of interest, to arrest her horrified attention by doing the “ basket trick.” In this they tie up a woman in a basket and run the basket through and through with swords, and when the blood gushes out and the woman’s screams are about to produce the police, the top is lifted from the empty basket and the woman is laughing at the indignant memsahib from behind the hedge yonder.

Nor should we forget the hawker who appears about breakfast time upon the veranda. If a Madras hawker, he will have in his bundle the crude but not unwelcome items of needles and thread, pins, hooks and eyes, stockings and handkerchiefs, hairpins and shoestrings, muslins and long cloths of which the memsahib often has need. If a Bombay hawker, he will fill every square inch of the veranda with brass from Benares, silver from Cutch and Madras, alabaster from Agra, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, turquoise, and jade, curtains and rugs from Cashmere, jewelry and precious stones from Ceylon, and embroideries from the Middle Ages, all of which he offers to the memsahib at exorbitant prices, growing more moderate as her indifference increases, until, at last, he begs her to take any or all of them at her own price rather than bring him ill luck for a whole season by refusing to buy of him on this, his first call a t her bungalow.

The road that runs by the compound wall is, by this time, a scene of motley confusion. Upon it in an unending stream are to be seen the springless, twowheeled jutka of the Madrassee, who, seated in the open front of his vehicle, tightly embraces with his bare legs the flanks of his madly galloping “ countrybred ” steed; the heavy, lumbering oxcart, laden with bags of rice, drawn by the slow and stately bullocks, whose speed is encouraged but hardly accelerated by their drivers’ vehement tail-twisting; the long line of bamboo-covered or thatched-roofed “bandies,” or carts, heavily weighted with rice, ragi, cholam, gram, cocoa nuts, wheat, and what not, on their journey to the bazaar; the droves of densely packed, slowly moving, deeply meditating, miraculously ugly female buffaloes on the way to their dry and arid pasture; the faster moving, more comely looking, but most vicious-tempered domestic cow pursuing the same route as her less prepossessing but more amiable sister; the smart native official in his English-looking “ trap,” clothed in a little brief authority, and in European dress, above which his never discarded turban adds the last touch to a curiously incongruous picture; the English official in his shining white helmet, dashing by in his high, well-appointed dog-cart, his syce standing up behind and shouting as only a syce can to everything in heaven and earth to make way for his master’s big, Australian Waler; the marriage company laden with fruits, sweetmeats, and flowers, and joyful with tom-toms, accompanying the bridal party home; the funeral procession on its way to the burning ghât, laden, also, with fruits, sweetmeats, and flowers for the soul’s long journey, wending its way with weirdest noise of drum-beat and cymbal, conventional wailing and woe, the stiff, stark body covered with garlands and borne aloft on the shoulders of men, the dead face lifted, fixed and unflinching, to meet the blazing eye of the sun; and the neverceasing tramp and soft, dull thud in the dust of the bare human feet of the coolie seeking work and the pilgrim seeking rest. All are hurrying forward to reach some shade or shelter before the sun marks high noon and calls the race off for the day.

In the back veranda maties and syces, gardeners and punkah-wallahs, are tumbling over one another in the exercise of their various functions and in obedience to the butler’s orders, preparatory to serving breakfast, the concluding feature of the morning’s activities. And, although it is by no means so stately a function as dinner, it is reposeful after the morning scramble. The punkah waves tranquilly over the gracefully decorated table. The butler and maties, clad in spotless muslins and bright turbans, their bare feet stepping softly, voices hushed and speaking in whispers, are soothing to tired nerves. The cook, too, is a chef of no mean ability, though it is best not to inquire too closely into his methods. The chicks have been lowered in the veranda to shut out the sun and the hawkers, and an atmosphere of quiet and peace begins to prevail.

The memsahib, worn out with the heat and the morning’s “inspecting,” takes her seat wearily at the head of the table. Her conversation is domestic, and is unhindered by the presence of the butler and maties. The sahib, fresh from his tub, after a run with his hounds followed by several hours of hard “ inspecting ” in his own department, listens while she recounts her morning’s experiences. She speaks of the episode of the cow, records her doubts as to the integrity of the milk, reveals her suspicions about the gram, and the little heaps of horsehair in the stalls, describes the tantrums she had with the grass-cutter over the bundles of grass for the horses, mentions her quarrel with the cook over his bazaar account, condemns the carelessness of the chokra in breaking the last tumbler but one, states her conviction that the kerosene oil has been extracted from the lamps by other means than combustion, and tells of her horror at finding that, after all the boiling and filtering, the drinking water was alive that morning with mosquito larvæ, and quite capable of walking alone if so disposed, — all in plain English and regardless of the fact that the butler’s command of that language was the chief accomplishment mentioned in the “ character ” for which she engaged him. She makes fervent allusion, also, to those “ vile brutes,” the jugglers, and to those “ nasty creatures,” the hawkers, to all of which the butler, while listening attentively, appears outwardly unobservant.

The sahib, too, has had a morning of it. Being an Englishman, he has been trained to “ cross-country ” riding in England, which pastime he has imported with himself into India with as few modifications as possible. But unfortunately neither the horses nor the country in India have been properly trained to such sports. Instead of the neat hedges, trim fences, five-barred gates, and open fields of his native isles, this impossible substitute for a country consists chiefly of jungles, paddy-fields, tank bunds, and prickly pear. The horses, far from taking their bunkers easily and in good form, seem to be hopelessly fixed in the habit of coming down on their noses. And, worst of all, in lieu of the willing and well-tamed fox of the home land, he is compelled to make shift with that unaccountable creature, the jackal, which, unaccustomed to playing the game, and being, moreover, well posted on the “ lay of the land,” has that morning led him and his hounds a chase involving a trail through dense jungles, a trip through paddy-fields kneedeep in water and mud, a run round a tank bund copiously bordered with venomous cacti, and a final dash to cover in a thicket of prickly pear, — a very irregular and objectionable finish from the point of view of hounds and sahib alike. The sahib recounts all this to the memsahib, commenting freely upon the character of the country, the nature of jackals, and the general disposition of horses and syces in India. He makes frequent use in his discourse of the word “infernal,” which in no wise disturbs the serenity of the butler, who is used to it, and who understands that the word represents a condition of things introduced into the country by the English, and for which he is, therefore, not responsible. It appears, also, from the sahib’s remarks that the “ brute ” creation must have multiplied considerably since the days when Noah went into the ark. He applies the word impartially to his horse, to his syce, to the jackal, to the prickly pear, and to the country in general, which has the effect of arousing a high though suppressed degree of interest in the minds of the butler and maties, whose ancestors were all advanced evolutionists.

It happens, therefore, as a fitting though painful finale to the scenes of the morning that the butler, becoming absorbed in the conversation, forgets how low hangs the punkah, and failing to evade it on its return swing, suddenly finds himself bareheaded, a situation far more embarrassing to a Hindu than to be caught coatless would be to a European. He also has the unspeakable pain of beholding his turban acting as a centre piece for the table, and as an all too capacious cover to the butter dish.

Exit the butler, his serenity greatly impaired, to the back veranda; the memsahib, after a time, in despair, to her apartments; and the sahib, gloomily, to his office, where his “ tappal ” awaits him. It is best not to inquire too particuarly into what awaits his clerks.