A Holy Man: Helping to Govern India

WE first saw Gopal Baba on an early April morning, while the grass and trees of Berhampore Square were still white with dew, sparkling in the yellow radiance of the dawn. Mem-Sahib and I were wending homeward toward our barrack bungalow, from a walk along the high embankment of the Bhagirathi, replenished now by the first melting of Himalayan snows. I have a fancy that, crowned with huge helmets of white sola pith, we looked like peripatetic mushrooms to the brown-skinned, pious Brahmans who, pressing the triple cord between their palms, stood waist-deep in the turbid water, praying their sins away in the sacred tide.

We had started before sunrise, walking down-stream past Ghora-bazaar and the dak-bungalow, under a widespreading silk-cotton tree now draped in bright green leaves, which we had admired in February, month of blossoms, splendidly decked with crimson flowers, like a blazing torch against the green. A little farther down the bund, we had a strange encounter that wonderfully expressed one of the hidden feelings of our hearts. From the boat which had arrived from Calcutta, and lay moored by the embankment, emerged a huge man, evidently no Bengali, nor of any Indian race we knew. Bronzed, with the face of an eagle, he wore a loose, exotic-looking jacket and very wide trousers, and his shaggy head was crowned with a red fez. He swung along, majestic, masterful, with lordly disdain in every feature, every movement.

‘I think he is a Turk,’ said MemSahib. ‘I like Turks, they are such splendid men!’—a generous concession from a Russian whose kin had fought against them under Khars.

The big, masterful man swung on to meet us with long strides, and, some dozen paces off, seeing that we were watching his oncoming with sympathetic eyes, he stopped short, threw up his hands with magnificent disdain, and in a voice with fine reverberating undertone exclaimed, —

‘My God! What a country!’

Then he paused a moment, and broke out again, —

‘My God! What people!’

Be this your epitaph, O Bengalis!

We learned that the big Turk had got stranded in Howrah, and was now making his way up country in search of Sunni coreligionists. We contributed to his wants, and bade him go bravely on, in the name of Allah, merciful and compassionate.

Homeward wending, then, from this encounter, we had turned from the bund toward the square, and were passing the garden of the Collector Sahib’s kuti, the only house in the square that rejoiced in an upper story. It was, I think, the general’s quarters in the old days before the Mutiny of 1857, when Berhampore was a military cantonment, with the square for a parade-ground. The generals of those days had made a garden, adorned with flowering shrubs and foliage-plants, where roses panted through the hot season and took heart again after the rains. There was a pyramid of scarlettrumpeted hibiscus that flamed in the forehead of the morning.

As we skirted the Collector’s garden, conscious of the growing heat, we saw Martha coming toward us, wheeling little Theo, the Collector Mem-Sahib’s dear baby, in her perambulator. Martha was not, as might be supposed, a nursemaid; Martha was a huge, blackbearded Mahometan, one of the Collector Sahib’s chaprassis, a dozen of whom, with red button-shaped turbans and big brass plaques of office on their breasts, stood about his throne to do his errands, — whom later I inherited, when the Collector Sahib went off on leave and left me in charge. I once asked the Collector Mem-Sahib why this big, black-whiskered Moslem, who could have led a charge of cavalry, should bear the gentle name of Martha. The lady replied, with her charming smile, —

‘Oh, don’t you see? Because he is careful and busied about many things!’

So Martha, having a big man’s love of children, had been deputed, as often before, to wheel little Theo forth to enjoy the morning air while the grass was still white with pearls and festoons of gossamer hung from the date-palms.

Theo was beginning to feel the oncoming hot season. She was pale, a pathetic, tiny angel of a child, who should have been running barefoot in English meadows among cuckoo-flowers, gathering the sweet life of spring and the color of the daisy-tips in her cheeks. Martha, in deep-voiced Hindustani, was trying to cheer and entertain her, and Theo courteously tried to be receptive and to show herself entertained, but her attention flagged, and the far-away eyes matched rather sadly the little pale cheeks.

So much we saw as we approached: Martha with deep concern in his dark, honest face; Theo rather limp, but winsome as ever. Then Gopal Baba came suddenly upon the scene. I think he had been in the Collector Sahib’s garden, and came forth by a wicket-gate in the wall. One could see that he was a Brahman, fine-featured, cinnamonskinned, wearing a white loin-cloth, and with a scarf of white muslin across his shoulders; barefoot and bare-headed, with long hair and a short, curly beard just touched with gray. He was wonderfully lithe, his step swift and springy, his whole bearing full of forceful grace. He walked beside Theo in her baby-carriage, smiling, with wonderfully gentle, luminous eyes, looked into her peaked little face, and laid his brown hand on her little white hand, which rested rather wearily on the wicker rim of the perambulator.

The first thing that struck me was that Martha did not show the least wish to interfere. As a Mahometan, he was suspicious of all Hindus; as an orderly, he had an official’s high disdain for all lay folk; as a trusted minion of the Collector Sahib and, even more, of the Collector Mem-Sahib who, indeed, had conferred on him the honored name of the maiden of Bethany, he should have been, and on all occasions was, very alert to guard little Theo from alien approach, be it of man or woman, elephant or sunstroke. Yet he did not check Gopal Baba, or bid him begone for a Hindu vagabond, which, had he done it, would not have surprised me in the least. Indeed, I saw him smiling down at Gopal Baba, and he stopped the baby-carriage, so that the gray barbarian might, if so minded, talk at his ease with the Christian child.

It seemed, however, that Gopal Baba was not so minded. He had laid his brown hand on Theo’s white little fingers, and he kept it there, bending down over her, smiling with bright serenity; with joy, not pity, in his eyes. Little Theo, when he first touched her hand, looked up, with a quick, questioning, intuitive, baby glance; and, as her eyes met his, she too began to smile, her little face growing more animated and a tinge of color coming into her cheeks. She looked like her old self of the cold season, and one could see answering reassurance and satisfaction kindling in Martha’s eyes.

Gopal Baba, as I have said, had not spoken to the little girl, nor did he now; yet one could see that a very good understanding was established between them, and a sweet serenity filled the dear little baby face. She drew a long breath, sighed happily like a little child awaking from sleep, and then laughed a happy, gentle little laugh, as she looked up at Gopal Baba. With her other hand she began to pat that dark hand of his, which still lay on hers, and in her touch and in her eyes there were caresses.

The whole thing lasted but a moment, and then Gopal Baba raised his serene eyes from the child to the chaprassi; then, straightening himself up, he turned and walked away, with rapid, noiseless steps, like a gentle, benevolent panther.

When I was in cutcherry later in the day, in the huge barrack across the square, I had occasion to see the big and big-hearted Collector Sahib, and I told him of this early morning happening.

‘ Oh, yes! ’ he said, with that pleasant laugh of his, which remains one of my best memories of India, ‘that was Gopal Baba: quite a crony of Theo’s, you know!’

‘Who is Gopal Baba?’ I asked.

‘Oh, a kind of crazy saint!’ said the Collector Sahib, smiling. ‘ I don’t quite know where he comes from. I suppose he has always been here; part of the station, you know. You ought to have seen him at work in my garden a week ago. You know the big peepal, the great rubber tree that overhangs the square? Some of the branches had grown too far over the house, and I was afraid of the damp in the rains, especially for Theo. I was talking to Martha about these branches, saying they ought to be cut, when Gopal Baba came up to us, debonair as always. He never seems to want anything. Gopal Baba listened, and heard Martha reply that it would be dangerous work; it would not be easy to get any one to undertake it.

‘Gopal Baba smiled and went away; half an hour later he came to the house with a hashua, went quickly up to the roof without saying a word to any one, swung himself into the tree and began to lop off the overhanging branches. The way he skipped from one to another was the most fearless thing I ever saw; he was absolutely birdlike.’

Mem-Sahib and I were forth on another early morning walk, a few days later, this time up the river, and were looking down from the high bund at a quaint little weather-stained temple with twisted pillars, under a manystemmed, shaggy banyan tree, when we descried Gopal Baba sitting on a stone bench before the temple, still as a statue, in happy contemplation. He looked up and smiled. It was, I think, his home.

Thereafter, in the multitudinous occupations of the Civil Station,— criminal trials, treasury work, land surveying, assessments, ryots and crops, amusements and festivities, — Gopal Baba faded wholly from my memory. It was well into the greater rains before we saw him again.

The Collector’s Mem-Sahiband little Theo had been spirited away to Darjiling, to lift up their hearts toward the miraculous snows of Kinchinjunga, to breathe in new life and strength from the vivid mountain air.

Mem-Sahib and I remained in the plains, presently, on the departure of the Collector Sahib, to be left in charge of the District of Murshidabad with its million and a quarter of Bengali souls. The rains had come up like thunder, and had continued, once more like thunder, with smothering mists, multitudinous lightnings, reverberant boomings, and white sluicings of water that flushed the earth like an inundation. The Bhagirathi River daily rose in a brown, seething flood, upborne by the embankment until it was a dozen feet above the level of the square. The flat cement roof of our bungalow had been seamed and cracked, like a wrinkled face, by the blazing sun of the hot season, and, when the thunderclouds of the greater rains burst in cataracts over our devoted heads, there was nothing to keep the water from coming through the ceilings of our rooms. Accordingly it came. Once, in an hour of detached thirst for knowledge, I counted eleven separate streams descending upon our carpets, while the two Poonaswamis and their helpers rushed wildly about with pans and tubs to catch the drip; and did, indeed, catch a good deal of it, while the thunder boomed overhead. But the rooms were perpetually damp, full of the sour smell of rotting bamboo matting; and mildew broke out on all sides, over everything. The ants, more provident than ourselves, had made their way up the walls, carrying bag and baggage up well-defined little roads, and were now comparatively dry amid the big beams of the ceiling.

The water, soaking through the sandy soil from the high-embanked Bhagirathi, threatened to well up through the floor. We had laid our troubles before the big Collector Sahib, and he had arranged for our transfer to the dry upper story of a huge empty barrack at the corner of the square, which once housed a regiment, before the Mutiny, and we were waiting for a comparatively dry day to transport our possessions. Meanwhile, MemSahib was sick and sorrow-laden. We were both suffering from blood-poisoning, the sequel of rubbed mosquitobites, and Mem-Sahib was quite lamed by swollen ankles, in spite of the Doctor Sahib’s ministrations and zinc ointment.

The days were exasperating; the nights were oppressive; and a point of wretchedness was added by a winged sprite which Anglo-India fitly calls the ‘brain-fever bird.’ It pipes up, for the most part, in the smothering nights of the rains, a sort of demon nightingale, and its cry is a melancholy ‘ Oh-oh-oh!’ descending by intervals of a fifth. It stops for a minute, until one has had time almost to forget it and sink into uneasy slumber, and then it repeats its lugubrious and heart-rending wail, ‘Oh-oh-oh!’ which goes through one’s brain like a rusty fret-saw.

Taking it all together, we were pretty miserable, nervous, over-wrought, and wretched, in spite of the kindly sympathy of good Gilber Sahib.

One afternoon, in the midst of these detestable circumstances, — a hot, steamy, muggy afternoon it was, when a breath of cold air would have been paradise, — I was sitting under the punkah in a cane armchair in our big central room, and Mem-Sahib, utterly worn-out and dejected, sick and sore, was lying down in her bedroom. I was jaded and dispirited, out of conceit with life, ready to blaspheme Mother India and all the works of Brahma, composing to myself comminations against the Bengali brother, almost lamenting that Clive had not been well licked at Plassey and the whole AngloIndian adventure knocked on the head. I had no wish even to read, and was gazing straight before me at the ants on the wall, in heart despondent, and in body tormented by the ceaseless stinging of prickly heat, my ankles sore and swollen with mosquito-bites.

I was half-conscious of a kind of stir among the servants who had been sitting on the front veranda looking out at the rain and, half-turning, I saw the elder Poonaswami, he of the red-andgold turbans and pleading smile, hurrying toward me.

‘A sadhu has come, a holy man!’ he said, and backed away again to the veranda.

Looking up, I saw Gopal Baba standing near me, smiling as before, with happy, luminous eyes. One of the most singular things concerning him was the way one’s servants and chaprassis and the whole host of official jackals deferred to him, falling back to let him pass, though always ready enough to browbeat and bully and bluster at humble and unprotected suppliants. But Gopal Baba could come and go like the sunshine, like the wind of the Spirit. The servants stood aside and gave him the free run of the house.

Gopal Baba met my look of inquiry with his winning smile, and, before I had time to rise, seated himself on my sofa without a word on my part or on his. Had he been a government official, or a pundit or zemindar, I should of course have risen and begged him to take a seat, and he, equally of course, would first have declined with a flourish of ceremonious hesitation, and then, on my pressing him, would have accepted. But Gopal Baba made all this very unnecessary; he waited for no invitation, and one felt that, with his high simplicity, none was needed. He came like the sunshine, welcome, not formally greeted.

Yet there was little in the outer person of Gopal Baba to impose on Poonaswami of the gold-and-red turban, save those luminous, wonderful eyes. Gopal Baba was barefoot and bare-headed, wearing, as always, but a white loincloth and a white scarf across his shoulders. I noticed that his hands were well-formed and sensitive, his bearing lithe and elastic; and presently I found myself dwelling on those happy, benignant eyes of his, that lit his fine face and spoke of abounding inner joy.

His eyes were the eyes of a happy, happy child, brimming over with gentle gayety. There was in him nothing solemn, or portentous, not a shade of self-importance or self-consciousness, as who should say, ‘I am Sir Oracle!’ The singular thing was that he said nothing at all; with the lips, at least, for the shimmering sunshine in his eyes said all things. He sat there on my sofa, in the dim room, for the sky outside was heavy with pouring stormclouds, a quiet, very serene figure, with hands decorously folded, with the gentle stillness and poise of the best Oriental manners. He sat, indeed, with the supreme unconsciousness of an angel, watching me with his gentle smile. Then, after a few minutes, during which no word was spoken, he rose, bade me farewell with his eyes, and was gone before I could rise, with that velvety, elastic step of his.

Realizing that my strange visitor was gone, I came at the same time to a realization of the strangeness of his coming, and of the wonderful atmosphere of serenity he had brought with him and, happily for me, had left behind him when he departed.

For I found a singular happiness in my heart. I looked out at the sluicing torrents of rain, the reeking mists, the water in plashing pools upon the grass, and through it all I felt the benignant light, the hidden sunshine, the sky overhead, full of divinity, incomparably blue. The endless worries and pains that beset us seemed small things in the face of that large serenity; discords that made the music finer. Gopal Baba had found within his heart what the skylark finds when he pours forth his joyful melody through the upper air; what the roses know, when they breathe forth their perfume; what little children feel, when they smile happyeyed at the angels.

I went to read to Mem-Sahib and cheer her up. That afternoon, an hour or two later, we were privileged to receive the visit of a youthful Babu, Kali Prasanna Chatterji by name, who held a position in the Court of Wards, and who came highly recommended as a Bengali gentleman and a philosopher. He entered with something of the air of a peacock, acridly escorted and announced by Poonaswami of the redand-gold turban, who seemed not to approve of him. Kali Babu’s beautiful name deserves to be translated. The first word denotes the god of the Iron Age, and also the one-spot on the dice. The second part means that he is altogether at peace. The third, the surname of one of the four lofty families of Kulin Brahmans, means that his emblem is the sacred umbrella. So, as far as names went, Kali Babu was a very wonderful person indeed. Yet Poonaswami plainly disapproved of him.

Kali Babu saw on a little side table draped with black-and-gold Madrasi cloth, a yellow-backed copy of Tartarin de Tarascon. He asked, with something of an air, what it might be. I told him, naming Alphonse Daudet.

‘Oh! So you read French novels?’ sniffed Kali Babu, as who should say, ‘Do you make a practice of burglary?’

I admitted that I did. But I saw that I was fallen in the eyes of Kali Babu, fallen, fallen from my high estate. I had lost caste, and was but an outlander and a barbarian.

I accepted it quietly, however, for the charm of my earlier visitor was still upon me. Therefore I said, —

‘Kali Babu, perhaps you may have heard of Gopal Baba? Tell me something of him.’

Kali Prasanna Chatterji, Esquire, sniffed at the name of Gopal Baba, as he had at Daudet’s masterpiece, and thus unburdened his high soul: —

‘Oh, yes! I know him; indeed, very well. In fact, he used to teach us once; he was our guru, as we say. You know, I think, what that signifies? I will tell you. A guru is a spiritual preceptor, who stands to you in loco parentis.' I felt like adding, ‘E pluribus unum; Erin go bragh!’ but held my peace. ‘But,’ continued Kali Prasanna Chatterji, Esquire, ‘he has long ceased to hold that exalted position, except nominally. Of course we still show him respect, outwardly at least. But he does not teach us any more. We found him not intellectual enough; not metaphysical; he never rose to the heights of dialectics. So we had to let him drop. And besides,’ went on our young sage, evidently casting about in his mind for something disagreeable to say, ‘ I have been told that he smokes opium.’

‘Oh!’ I replied, and we let the matter drop, turning, at the instance of Kali Babu, to a discussion of the limitations of the Western mind. He would not be tempted into philosophy. I have a lurking fear that he found me unintellectual.

In due time, Kali Prasanna Chatterji, Esquire, took ceremonious leave, and strutted forth, saying in his heart, ‘O Vishnu, I thank thee I am not as other men; thou hast made me a Brahman, a little higher than the angels! ’

Mem-Sahib, as I have said, is of the Russian persuasion. Yet she had, even in those days, some command of our Western tongue.

‘What a young ass!’ she said, while Kali Babu’s fine back was still silhouetted against the sky, in the door of the veranda.

Such, then, was the second coming of Gopal Baba. It was only after he had gone, that I learned of the third.

It befell that, on the Mahometan festival of the Mohurram, Mem-Sahib, Gilber Sahib, and I, with others of the rainy-season exiles, were invited by His Highness the Nawab to watch the religious procession at Murshidabad. The whole land was flooded, as the result of the ill-judged enthusiasm of a young tiller of the soil, who had cut a little track across the embankment to get water for his brinjal patch. It was ever such a little track, yet within a few hours two million dark Bengalis were standing up to their waists in muddy water. Then the flood was checked at its source, and presently abated.

After the procession, I went on foot through recently inundated ground, to see some Moslem games. The sun, and, I suppose, the poisoning of my blood by mosquito-bites, laid me low, two days later, with a violent and prolonged attack of jungle fever. It begins with a deadly languor and weariness, which drives one to lie down; this passes into a miserable, icy chill which shivers through one’s body and bones, and even heaps of blankets are helpless to combat it. And there is, withal, a weariness of mind and spirit that turns the whole world gray, leaving one without faith, hope, or grace, wisdom or understanding.

Then comes a change of miseries. One’s heart, which has threatened to come altogether to a standstill, gradually quickens its beats, and is presently pounding away like those trip-hammers which Don Quixote and Sancho heard in the darkness of the forest. This pounding keeps up, in hot, dry misery, till one feels as though the heart would come bodily through one’s ribs, and burst at the next stroke. Yet there are lulls of happy quietness, when one is filled with divine peace.

At last the furnace-heat in one’s blood is tempered by profuse perspiration which leaves one a half-dead rag, faint and breathless, seeking only the unconsciousness of sleep. And this recurrent purgatory goes on for days together. One is never secure. It always lies in wait, hiding in one’s veins, ready to break forth again.

During that first fever spell, in August and the beginning of September, I was completely bowled over for a week or ten days. At the end of it, when I began to pull together again, Mem-Sahib beguiled my convalescence by reading me Russian fairy tales. In the midst of one of them, about a wonderful golden bird, she suddenly broke off and said, —

‘Oh, do you know that Gopal Baba was here a good many times while you were ill? He used to come in and sit on the sofa without saying anything. At first the servants thought he ought to be sent away. But he was so sweetly insistent that I told them to let him be.’

Looking backward across the years, I have a fancy that there was a hidden bond between his comings and those lulls of happy quietness, full of divine peace, that cooled the furnace of my fevered days; those serene hours that were like fair green islands in my dark, tempestuous sea. At least I know that there was in India one man who loved the Father with his whole heart, and found in that love immeasurable joy.