The Strange Mind of India

THE CLERK

BABU NANDA LAL GUPTA was employed in the Cash Department of the Calcutta firm with which I myself was at one time associated. I had noted him as a thoughtful-looking man, whose reflections on things in general it would probably be interesting to have; but, obeying the unwritten law that confines the intercourse of the sahib log in business firms and the Bengalee clerks strictly to business, and having little or no business to discuss with Nanda Babu, I hardly ever spoke to him.

After I had left the firm, I felt more at liberty to follow my own impulses; and having had a small volume of verse printed to give to my friends, I presented him with a copy. He was probably, of all those to whom the book was given, the one who read it most carefully. He was certainly the only one to write paraphrases of some of the poems, and present them to the author. They formed a document which confirmed the impression that Nanda Babu’s reflections would be interesting, or, at least, that they would bear a strongly marked individuality. The quotations from the Bhagavadgita, the references to Jivatma, Paramatman, and Avidya, in the notes to the paraphrases, — for they were provided with notes, — might owe much of their impressiveness for me to their being so charged with echoes of the unfamiliar East; but the choice of poems to paraphrase and comment on — with one or two exceptions, those of ‘saddest thought ’ — was an index to the man’s mind not involved in ambiguity.

Fate was shortly afterward to throw Nanda Babu and myself together once more. On returning from work one afternoon, I found him seated, tightly clutching his umbrella, on a stiff seat in the hall. On seeing me enter, he jumped to his feet, saying in a tone of strong excitement: ‘ I have left Messieurs Searle and Coy. I will never go back. ’

‘Oh!’ I said. ‘What has happened?’

‘The bara cashier’ (that is the chief Bengalee cashier) ‘asked me to-day to leave my work at the counter, and post up the cashbook. ’

‘Well, was there any harm in that?’

‘Yes, sir.’ He spoke excitedly. ‘It makes the third time he has done it. He means to give my post at the counter to his nephew. That would be committing an injustice. By leaving the firm, I prevent it.’

‘You don’t prevent the nephew getting your post, which is the important thing. You had better go straight back. ’

‘No, sir. Never!’

‘Then you mean to let the cashier’s nephew have your post, without making any attempt to prevent it?’

‘ I could n’t prevent it, sir, and it would be an act of injustice of which the bara cashier would be guilty. By giving up my post, I remove the temptation to which he is exposed. That is the right thing to do, according to our way of thinking.’

‘It’s a wretchedly illogical way of thinking, if you will excuse my saying so. Don’t you see that you don’t really give up your post? The bara cashier will have deprived you of it, whether he takes it away and gives you another, or you resign. And whatever post you hold, your salary will be the same. If you resign, you simply throw away a good post — or a good salary.’

‘I do not think so, sir. The necessity is that the bara cashier should not be exposed to the temptation of committing a sin. ’

There was silence between us for a time. I felt that I was getting beyond my depth. I was sitting on the stiff seat on which Nanda Babu had been seated. He stood in front of me. Presently I spoke again.

‘You mean me to understand that when the bara cashier this morning — was it in the forenoon?’

‘ Yes, sir.’

‘When he asked you to leave your work at the counter, you said nothing, but simply came away?’

‘Yes, sir. I got my umbrella, and came here.’

‘ Then you ’ve been here some hours ? ’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Why did you come to me?’

‘You will help me, sir.’

‘I see! That’s your idea!’

Again there was silence for a time, and again I broke it.

‘You said a moment ago that you couldn’t prevent the bara cashier’s nephew getting your post. I could easily prevent it. I should only have to go and speak to Mr. Searle. I ’ll do it.'

‘No, sir. It would get the bara cashier into trouble.’

‘ If it was wrongdoing, it would only be my wrongdoing, and it would lie very lightly on my conscience.’

‘No, sir. It would be mine, too. If I had not come and told you, you would know nothing. What I have told you, I have told you in confidence. You could n’t speak to Mr. Searle without betraying confidence.’

‘If that’s how you think of it all, I don’t see that my speaking to Mr. Searle would do much good. You positively forbid my speaking to him?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Very good, then — I won’t.’

I did not. I found him another post; but it took me some time, and during that time, I am afraid, Nanda Babu was often a hungry man.

THE PRIEST

BUDDHISM having left India for its homes in Burma, Ceylon, and the Far East, it became possible for men to forget the existence of even so holy a place to Buddhists as the temple at Bodh Gaya, which marks where Buddha, under the Bodhi tree, attained complete enlightenment. It was forgotten. What furthered that fate was the slow but sure burial of the temple under the ever-shifting silt of the Ganges and the Sone. The surface of the land, in those parts and in many others, rises, they say, a foot every century.

The existence of the temple, as I have said, was forgotten; and thus it became possible for the land on which it stood, or underneath which it then was, to pass by a grant from some Mogul ruler into the possession of a Hindu mahant (incumbent). He found it a profitable possession; for, peace and security once more restored to the land, the temple could be excavated, and, that done, it became a place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists. That brought offerings to the temple.

Trouble, however, was due to arise. There was a riot, in the course of which something was done that was grossly insulting to the Hindus. The incensed mahant retaliated by robing the image of Buddha in the temple, after the manner of Hindu images, and by putting a caste mark on its forehead. That was very grievous to Buddhist pilgrims.

One of them was the Tashi Lama from Tibet. He was accompanied in his pilgrimage by a political officer on the staff of the Foreign Office in India — an army captain. He confided to this Englishman his desire that steps should be taken to end the scandal.

The captain’s idea was to form a society, which should stand out as the champion of the Buddhist rights. A distinguished Sanskritist—a Mahamahopadhyaya, and something of a Tibetan scholar, too — was appointed secretary, and at his solicitation I accepted the treasurership. As the society did not then, or ever, possess a single cent, my duties were light. Indeed, they began and ended with attendance at one meeting. At that meeting, held appropriately at the Indian Museum in Calcutta, the captain outlined a pact which he proposed that the society, speaking for Buddhists, should make with the mahant. I forget the terms of it, and remember only that I thought they would be as grievous to Buddhists as the fact of the berobed and bedaubed image. I spoke in that sense, with such persistence that, at last, the captain assented to an adjournment of the meeting. The society never met again.

A little while afterward, as I was seated at home, writing, the Mahamahopadhyaya walked in, followed by a Buddhist priest from Chittagong. The latter had desired to see me; and so the Mahamahopadhyaya had ventured to bring him. I supposed that he wished to speak to me about the pact, but apparently not. He sat in silence, gazing at me. I could not speak any language that he understood, so I could not speak to him; but, to break the silence, I mentioned to the Mahamahopadhyaya that I was soon to visit Bodh Gaya. I was then informed that I should be furnished with a letter to the custodian of the Buddhist resthouse there. We then sat in silence for a little, until the Mahamahopadhyaya beckoned to me to rise, saying that the priest wished to pronounce a blessing. We all three rose; and for a few moments the room was full of the sound of sonorous Sanskrit.

He had come for that. The thought of it has been strangely sweet to me.

THE SCHOOLBOY

IT happened when I was principal of a famous madrasah (Mohammedan college). The calendar is sprinkled with vacations for the scholars of such institutions. There must be one for Ramazan, one for the Muharram, one in the Hot Weather, one at Christmas, and so on; so that, once, when my scholars petitioned for a fortnight’s holiday on a very poor pretext, I felt bound to refuse it. On the day on which, had I granted the petition, the madrasah would have been closed, word was brought to me that the scholars were all on strike. I was writing a letter, but I stopped and went to see. The compound seemed full, but I should say that it held only about half the students — from three to four hundred. The other half was in the surrounding streets.

The faces of the head maulavi and the other teachers peered out of the windows of the upper story. I wish I could convey the impression that they gave of tearful, utter helplessness.

I sent word to the head maulavi and the other teachers that they were all to be seated in their chairs, on their little raised platforms, just as if their classes had assembled, and were quietly at work. I did not quite know what good that would do; but I went on the instinct that not one of the seven or eight hundred individuals with whom I was about to deal would have thought of sending that word, had he found himself in my place. It would deepen the impression that I was an unfathomable mystery. That, I knew, was what every sahib strikes them as being. So, if I must work a spell on them, it would be better done, I thought, unwatched by tearful eyes.

I had once arrived at the gates of a Calcutta college when a strike was on. There was a great crowd, in the midst of which stood the principal, a Bengalee. His hair and his eyes were wild, his arms uplifted, and in tones of supplication he pleaded with his erring scholars. They seemed to take it very lightly.

There were two gates from the madrasah compound to the street. I entered by one, locked it, and put the key in my pocket — in the sight of many witnesses, of course. There would be for them, I hoped, something symbolic in the locked gates. Once locked, how were they to know that they would ever open again?

I took my stand midway between the other gate and the madrasah steps; and, taking out my watch and holding it up as high as I could, I explained to those within hearing that I gave them five minutes in which to go, either to their classrooms, or out into the street. I did n’t care which they did, I told them. If they chose to go out, I said, I meant to go out with the last, and to lock the gate behind me.

The crowd round me grew bigger, of course. I was n’t quite sure how, if they did not go to their classrooms, and refused to leave the compound, I was to get them all out of it single-handed; but time would soon show. Meanwhile, for something to do, I counted the minutes aloud as they passed. ‘Four minutes more! ’ — ‘Three minutes more!’ — ‘Two minutes more!’ —‘ One minute more! ’ — ‘ Half a minute more! ’

When there was only a quarter of a minute left, there was a sudden cry raised for two minutes more, in order that those in the street might be told, and have time to come into the compound. I granted that, and the counting began again. ‘Two minutes more! ’ — ‘ One minute more! ’ — ‘ Half a minute more! ’

They seemed to find the counting very impressive. And here I should say that they were n’t all boys. Some of them were almost full-grown men, and some were quite that. Not a few of the faces round me were bearded. A man may go to a madrasah when he is sixty or seventy, and have a teacher, or a ‘spiritual guide,’ young enough to be his son.

At the sound of ‘Half a minute more!’ all faces turned to the madrasah steps. My first thought was that, whichever way the crowd moved, I must move with it, I was so pressed against by bodies on all sides. I had even, for a fraction of a second, the fear of being crushed to death. My second thought — or feeling rather, and a very queer sensation it was — was that the crowd was swaying. Then we all moved on together—in the direction of the classrooms. I moved until I came to a projection by which I could anchor myself. From there I watched them stream up the steps.

When I got back to my study, I took out my watch and found that the strike, from beginning to end, had lasted about twenty minutes. ‘It was you that stopped it! ’ I said to my watch, as I put it back in my pocket; ‘for I did nothing. I merely held you up.’