The Infinitude of Things
A MISSIONARY, perhaps more than most men, has his memory stored with unfinished stories. When I look into my ‘ chambers of imagery’ I find them filled with the faces and forms of unforgettable people, many of whom I never saw but once. A multitude of these I met on trains; but of many I cannot now recall any circumstance: only their faces, with perhaps some significant gesture or arresting garb, stay with me — suddenly revitalized by a secret association I am not able to trace. Or, sometimes, they appear before me when I am in prayer, faces consciously or unconsciously appealing, and I can but pray for them, though I have no other remembrance of them.
During my twenty-eight years in India, I usually traveled in the ‘women’s box,’ as we call it in Marathi - a compartment reserved for third-class Indian women passengers, which in the cruder days of my childhood used to be labeled ‘Females Only.’ The European Third was rarely as interesting as this Women’s Third, where one often met women one could have met in no other way. Either their own prejudices, or those of their family or neighbors, would have barred their doors to a foreigner, for in India fear of what ‘they’ will say hedges the ways of the women especially; but on a journey curiosity and tedium break down prejudice and timidity, at least for the time, and one meets with much friendliness. There are no prying neighbors’ eyes in a train, the usual restraints are suspended, ‘Madame Mother-in-law’ may not be along, ‘King-husband’ is in the ‘men’s box,’ and so to many women a journey becomes a holiday on which they feel an exhilarating freedom and gala excitement. Besides, the fact that they are in a train at all has already defiled them, if they are of high caste, so that they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and enjoy themselves as much as possible.
A journey I took nearly sixteen years ago is one of those I love to remember. I was on my way to spend May, my summer vacation, with one of the most unselfish women that ever lived. Her idolized mother, very old and tiny and frail, was expected to die, and her friends could not bear that Grace should be alone when this happened. She lived in Inampur, a little old-fashioned village ten miles off the railway, and was, I think, about one hundred miles from any other American or European; but, like myself, she was born in the Maharashtra (the Marathi-speaking country) and was at home anywhere in it. A friend, who keenly regretted the necessity, had already brought a coffin from a distant workshop and placed it in a storeroom, since in India burial or burning must follow death within twenty-four hours. To Grace it was all agony, but she hid it with a whitely serene face, and the tenderer solicitude for the sufferers who came to her little dispensary. Only once did she speak of the desolation that approached her: ‘Ah, no matter how long beforehand one may know, it can be no easier when it comes !’
Of the journey from my own province of Berar to Bombay, where I stayed a night, I remember little; but from Bombay to Inampur in the Southern Maratha Country, as it is named, the journey lives again whenever I recall it. I got into the train at six in the morning and found at one end of the Women’s Third a group of Brahmin widows on their way to Vithoba’s shrine at Pandharpur, which is the greatest Hindu shrine in all the Maratha country. They carried the little triangular saffron flags on slender poles which are borne on pilgrimage by Vithoba’s devotees. Each of them had little bundles of bedding and foodstuffs (flour, rice, pulse, spices, certain sweets, parched grains—anything ceremonially pure, which may therefore be taken on a train without defilement), and these they would carry on their heads or tied behind their waists when they got off the train. They were full of zeal and anticipation; and one of them, a thin, masterful little woman with square jaws, high cheek-bones, and fiery, fanatical eyes, led them in singing songs from Tukaram, Vithoba’s greatest lover. He was a poet-reformer of the seventeenth century who was bitterly persecuted, and by that same token is now accounted a great saint and is greatly beloved. He and his songs have permeated the whole Maharashtra.
Except for the leader, who was not yet forty, the widows were all old or middle-aged. Their bald heads were pathetically outlined by the scarf ends of their red or white cotton saris, — widows of the Maratha country may wear no other color, — their cheeks were sunken by old age and fastings, and they had the widow’s look of grieving sadness or bitterness, of hardness or neaviness, of questioning wistfulness or that heartbreaking patience to which one never gets quite used. While they sang, their faces lightened and their eyes brightened; but afterward the older ones dozed with the ‘easy sleep of old age,’ or sat telling their beads, while two, who seemed happier than the others and whose soft old cheeks were rounder, sang the cow song.
It is interminable. Every stanza, two or three times repeated, praises some member of the cow’s thrice-sacred body: her horns, her brow, her eyes, her nostrils, her teeth and tongue, her dewlap, udder, teats, tail — literally every part of her, for in each dwells a god. They sang and sang in little thin high voices that were full of enjoyment in the words, in their own singing, and in this long-anticipated pilgrimage. Pilgrimages, however real the devotion and hunger that, may inspire them, and however real the hardship involved, especially before there were railways, are nevertheless desired holidays, and furnish that change which William James says is a vital need of our kind. A Marathi proverb says that pilgrims are of three sorts: naushi, haushi, and gaushi. Naushi are they who go to pay vows — the religious; haushi, they who go for pleasure — the frivolous and voluptuous; and gaushi may be construed to mean the profiteers who have wares to sell and tricks to play on trustful ignorance.
I was very much interested in the singing and the singers, but they were naturally shy of me. They had probably classed me as a ‘defiler’ — to become a Christian is to be defiled; besides that, I doubtless ate beef and other abominations. I was really persona non grata in that pure company; however, I could see that they were observing and listening while I talked with other women, and that their eyes grew kinder as they watched.
The other women, of whom there were plenty, were the usual mixture of all castes, and promptly put me through the usual catechism: Where did I live? Where was I going? Why was I going? They were going to weddings; to ‘look at’ girls, for boys in their families; to visit their mothers, perhaps for confinement; or to wheedle a loan out of some kinsman.
How many children had I? I felt a slight chill when I had to confess to none, for it was at once evident that I had a pitiably ‘cracked destiny’; besides, childless women may be inauspicious, and are very likely to have an evil eye.
Where was my master? Was he in the men’s box? When I said I had none my lucklessness was established, for what can be more misfortunate and inauspicious than a widow? One sad young thing of the Phul-mali (flowergardeners’) caste, who though she was not shaven, as Brahmin widows are, yet lacked the black bead necklace, the glass bangles, and scarlet kunku browmark of wifehood, touched her forehead sympathetically to show that none can evade the fate written there, and asked how long before my lord had died. Then the unimagined, the outrageous fact appeared that I had never married, and the chill increased perceptibly — I was evidently not even virtuous!
One wearies a little of that bleak tribunal, though it is rather good fun in the end to win them over all by one’s self. However, one sometimes has help; and a Maratha woman with keen humorous eyes and a kind sensitive mouth came gallantly to my rescue. ‘These people do not always marry,’ she said. ‘Their customs seem strange to us, but their unmarried women are very virtuous and given to good works.’
I had then to explain those customs. Shocking and dangerous they sounded to Indian ears — certainly not nice. Marriage a matter of choice, and delayed until the twenties! Men choosing their own wives, and women saying yes or no as they pleased — the hussies! One indignant pattern of virtue spat her disgust out the window, and several old women shook their heads; but one or two very young ones looked interested, and even tittered discreetly. The Maratha woman’s eyes twinkled at me, and she gave her brows a little lift and her head a little wag that spoke volumes of amused sympathy. I talked some more and got them laughing; then I took the offensive and got in a little preachment about child-marriage and our heartbreaking Indian mortality in babies and childmothers. There were sighs and nods from some, while others maintained stoutly that it was all a matter of fate and the will of the gods. There was no dodging one’s karma. If a child was fated to live you might throw it on stones and it would be unharmed; but if it had come only for a season, to pay or collect some old debt, nothing could keep it, once the account was even. The old ways were best. There had been a neighbor who had had his head turned by sudharlele (reformed) folk in Poona and had thought to save his daughter from the early widowhood betokened in her horoscope by keeping her unmarried until she was fifteen, but the wedding was scarcely over when the bridegroom sickened and died. Of what avail to contend with the gods?
But one sturdy good wife of the Lohar (blacksmith) caste grew restive at the reiteration of anything so obvious as the inevitability of fate. When the talk had been of infant mortality, she had offered a few infallible remedies: —
‘For sore mouth,’ said she, ‘find a black goat without one hair of other color on it, hold it fast, and swab the babe’s mouth with the goat’s tail. The swelling will go down in one night.
‘For a stake in the belly (severe colic) remove the evil eye: make passes over the child with a packet of peppers, both red and black, a bhilava (blistering nut), a hair of the head, and dust from three roads. Burn the packet. This has more virtue than peppers alone, or to make passes with only a besom or an old shoe. A barren woman put her eye on my boy last month when I got him a new gold-embroidered cap for the wedding of my younger dir’s (husband’s brother’s) elder son. “What a handsome cap!” she said, and the poor child screamed with colic that night. But I made up a good packet, and in three days the strumpet had sore eyes (ophthalmia). May the eyes of all evil-eyed ones break!’ And the good soul had stowed a huge wad of consoling betel leaf, areca nut, and tobacco into her cheek.
After that her interest waned; she burned for knowledge; so presently came more questions: Why did I wear a hat? What did I do? How much pay did I get? Why did I sit with ‘black people’ — they w’ere all of pleasant shades of brown, and beautiful olive — when I belonged to the ‘king-people’? Were white women real women in every particular? Even so and so?
’These be very deep questions,’ said the Maratha woman then very gravely, and some looked abashed; but the smith-wife was bashless: ‘Nay, I wish to know. Folk say thus and thus — is it true or false?’ It happened to be false, and she was disappointed.
Then I steered the talk into pleasanter channels. It veered to religion: Why did we defile people? And presently I was telling again the ineffable story of the Perfect Life to rapt listeners. One never knows how wonderful the story is until one tells it to someone who has never heard it. A question, a gesture of amazement, a shake of the head, a sigh, from one and another, marked the progress of the story from ancient prophecy, Annunciation, holy Nativity and angel-songs, through more than thirty years of unimaginable exile, to the Cross. ‘Hai, hai!’ said they then, ‘hai, hai!’ And in the Maratha woman’s eyes were tears. Then the light of Easter Morning shone down the centuries, and some faces were very wistful when I repeated the last great promise, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’
He had not left us orphaned, and He would come again. He had said it. He was not a private, tutelar god, nor any foreign god. He was for them as much as for me. God loved the world. He loved them. He wanted them themselves, not offerings of goats, nor cocks, nor coconuts; not prostrations, nor circumambulations, nor penances and tortures; but their very hearts and all their love.
It was good talk, they said. It was true talk. It was very sweet and heartening talk. There were there all the four soils of the parable: hearts as insensitive as the trodden path, shallow hearts, and hearts still wedded to their cares; but I knew that some would cherish the story, and that in them it would live; that in the darkness of their manifold fears a Light had shined. The story is still the Gospel.
‘And tell me,’ said the sturdy one of the deep question, ‘why you put no coconut oil on your hair. It looks very untidy!’ We were nearing Poona, where I must change trains, so I opened my Gospel box, in which were Gospels in eight languages. Could any of them read, I asked. The Maratha woman could. Had anyone a son or grandson or other kinsman who could read? There were several. The Brahmin women’s eyes had brightened at the sight of books. Only the leader could read. She had ‘learned two books,’ — studied the first and second readers, — but all the rest had reading boys and girls in their families and took my books eagerly.
Of course I observed the courtesies in not handing them the books but dropping them into their hands. If they and I had touched a book simultaneously, it would have been a conductor of defilement from me to them. To be sure the train had already defiled them; still there was no need to make matters worse than they already were. As it was they would have to bathe and wash their clothes before they could eat, while the more fastidious might further disinfect themselves with a sprinkle of cow’s stale in order to feel perfectly pure again.
However, I had a very pleasant talk with them before the train pulled into Poona, and when I left them they said, ‘Let acquaintance remain if we meet again.’ Several women put their heads out the windows to say good-bye again, and the Maratha woman put out a slender hand and made a litt le benedictory gesture that is very sweet.
‘ Will you know me if we meet again? ‘ she asked.
‘I could not forget,’ I said.
‘Who knows if we meet,’ she said and touched her forehead in wistful submission to fate.
‘Would that, we might!’ I said, ‘but whether we meet or not, God bless you always.’
‘Go in safety,’ she called, as I turned away to follow my coolie and holdall.
‘Yes, yes, go carefully,’ shrilled the smith-wife, as she leaned out to spit red betel juice on the platform; ‘don’t fall under the train!’ And then I heard her say to the station at large: ‘Fancy, no husband, no oil on her head, and not afraid of anything — a strange people truly!’
How dear they all were! And I never saw one of them again. It was now noon, so I ate my lunch in the waitingroom and was presently traveling south once more. In this train the women’s compartment was very crowded. It was labeled, ‘To seat 28 passengers’; but, as often happens, we numbered, with babies, well over thirty. Every woman had at least one bundle tied in a cloth, and as big sometimes as two feet in diameter. Then there were tiny tin trunks, painted in blinking pinks and greens, or gone shabby; and brass drin king-vessels, and what-what, as we say in Marathi. The racks above and the floors below were crowded with things and there was barely sittingroom. There was a little tart talk and huffiness before everyone got settled, but for the most part it was a goodnatured company. More than half of them were returning from the festival at Pandharpur, and though tired, and without the zest and excitement of anticipation, they had much to tell.
Some had gone there to fulfill vows made during illness in their families or some other adversity. Some had gone to make vows, or to perform penances, or to pay priests for the doing of meritorious rites, or to make offerings in the hope of receiving some special boon in return. One heavy-eyed little thing who had no children had probably been asking for a son, though she could not talk about it. A delicate, tired young mother with a still more delicate baby had been making vows for his life. ‘Are you a doctor?’ she asked me anxiously. ‘My children do not live. Always some evil eye falls on them. I have lost five — three boys!’ She held up three delicate fingers while the tears filled her eyes. ‘We have named this one Shenpadya (fallen cowdung — to avert any jealous god’s malevolence), and I am always taking the evil eye from him, but he is fading. What more shall I do?’
The baby was burned up with opium, as the soft flabby flesh on his thin little arms and legs and the glazed dullness of His lovely great eyes showed all too plainly. But he was well protected against evil eyes by irregular smudges of lampblack on his pale soft cheeks, and various charms and strings tied round his neck and wrists and ankles. Of course I urged her to break off his opium gradually, and advised her as best I could. And, since her anxiety was poisoning both her and the child, I told her to trust God and be unafraid.
Other women had made other vows: some had pledged offerings of money, gifts for the temple, a distribution of sweets; some to pay for a feast for Brahmins, or to refrain from eating some choice dish or fruit. Some told their vows, some hid them in their hearts. ‘I offered figs,’ said one woman, ‘for five years. ‘ She was of the Kunbi (farmer) caste, fat, prosperous, good-natured, and noisy — anything but an ascetic type; so I greatly admired her devotion, for I am fond of figs.
Most of the women were of the middle castes, but near me sat a Konkanasth Brahmin widow of perhaps thirty, who kept her own counsel as her keen eyes watched and studied her neighbors. One could see she was entertained, but her thin, clever, hard little mouth showed scant sympathy for the frailties and sorrows of mankind. The Konkanasths are as hardheaded as they are able, altogether an extraordinary and fascinating race, excelling — so they themselves claim, and not a few agree — all the peoples of India.
As soon as the train started I went through another catechism and was called by one group and another to bequest ioned afresh. With each I stayed a while and to each I gave my little books. Our number was constantly changing, for stops were frequent and at each place some got out and new ones got in.
At one station a man with a basket on his head passed down the platform calling ‘Anjir! Anjir! (Figs! Figs!)’ The Kunbi goodwife got up excitedly and pushed her way to the nearest window on the platform side, saying, ‘Let me see the figs! There are none in my country ‘— meaning her district. I looked round to see if anyone remembered her complacent vow to refrain from figs for five years, but only the Brahmin widow had noted it. Her eyes twinkled at me and mine at her, and we could see that the good soul was sore put to it to resist buying and sampling some figs on the spot; but the vow held and she was the more pleased with herself.
‘I offered figs but yesterday, and today I see them!' she said. ‘Surely Vithoba has tried my virtue, but I have not lost!’
She did not belong to the southern fig-country, but being a practical soul was killing two birds with the one stone of pilgrimage: she was seeking her son a bride in a village where she had a mancousin with a daughter reported to be very fair and apt at housework. In her caste, as in several, a brother’s daughter — a sister’s daughter or a niece by marriage will not do — is considered a very desirable daughterin-law; and as a cousin, especially a maternal aunt’s son, ranks as a brother, this should be a good match, provided the horoscopes were in harmony, and omens were auspicious, as they should be, with a pilgrimage to hallow them. If all went well she would be able to claim the girl as of right, since a sister has the first choice of her brother’s daughter for her own son if the children’s ages are suitable.
Toward evening a party of five or six comely young Kunbi women got in with babies and bundles, and a very frail keen-eyed old lady who was mother, grandmother, or mother-in-law to all of them. They helped her in and seated her on the door, as the jarring of the train made it difficult for her to sit on the narrow wooden benches. She ordered the disposition of the babies and bundles with great good sense and in a clear voice used to command. The party had come from Pandharpur the day before and had broken their journey at the old lady’s brother’s village.
When she saw me she called me to come to her, but as I was talking with women at the other end of the compartment I replied that I would come presently. She waited a few minutes and called again. Again I pleaded delay, but soon came a third call that brooked none. It was impatient, but neither peremptory nor hectoring: she was simply used to obedience. I laughed and went to her.
‘What is in those little books?’ she asked.
‘The life of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to earth to bring men to God.’
‘Sit here beside me and read the book,’ she said. I sat on the floor beside her.
‘Ah yes, tell it to mother,’ said her daughters. ‘Her mind is all on religion and she remembers all she hears. We are taken up with our children and our houses and the cares of this world. We should forget by to-morrow, but mother will remember and tell us again and again. Why do you not oil your hair? ‘
But the old lady permitted only a few questions and then bade me read. ‘I want knowledge,’ she said. ‘ Begin at the beginning.’ I read chapter after chapter of Saint Luke’s lovely, lovely Gospel, while she nodded understandingly, made some delighted comment, or asked a question. Sometimes, when I would be explaining, she would run away with a clue and say delightedly, ‘I know, I know,’ and finish the explanation herself. Finally, after midnight, she said she must soon alight. And she must have the book. She had a little grandson at home who would read it to her.
‘Thou’it soon forget an old woman like me,’ she said, ‘but I will remember thee while I live; and the story—I have it here!’ She pressed her heart. ‘But thou’lt forget me.’
‘Nay, never,’ I protested. ‘I will always remember.’
‘Truly?’ she asked, searching me.
‘Truly and truly,’ I said. ‘And I will do more than remember: I will pray God to bless you with great blessings.’
‘Nay,’ she said, ‘pray for these, and my sons, and my little grandson at home. What need to pray for an old woman whose life is done?’
‘ But I like the old woman! ‘ I laughed.
‘ I will pray for her and for them too.’
The train began to slow. She raised herself, frail and indomitable, and I stood beside her. She put her old hand on my shoulder — a capable, shapely, sensitive old hand that had done much work —and looked me in the eyes.
’Lek majhi! (My daughter!)’ she said with great love. And with great joy I put my hand on her thin shoulder and said, ‘Mai majhi! (My mother!)’ And then I think we both winked very hard and laughed a little. Then she took my face in her hands, and drawing them away she cracked her knuckles on her temples, thus taking all my ills on herself. The train stopped.
‘I will never see thee again,’ she cried, as they lifted her down.
‘Who knows?’ I said, but without hope, for she lived far from the railway.
And then, that I might contradict her, she said from the platform, ‘Thou’lt forget!’
‘Nay, I will not,’ I said stoutly. ‘Does one forget one’s mother?’ The train moved.
‘Go in safety, and live in happiness, my maina! (a pet bird, a common endearment for a daughter),’ she called, and blessed me with her hand.
‘I will remember thee always, mother, always!’ I called, waving my hand into the darkness, as the train gathered speed. And I always have remembered.
Most of the women left in the compartment were asleep. Indians have an enviable faculty for sleeping under difficulties. I had sat on hard wood for over eighteen hours, — I carried a cushion about with me for two days afterward, — and I was hoarse from talking and reading above the noise of the train, and mortal tired. But I did not know how to sleep bolt upright, — it is still my ambition to learn, — so I talked with the little Brahmin widow, who was also awake and very friendly. At two o’clock my own station came and I found awaiting me a man with a hackney pony-tonga sent by Grace the evening before. But to start at once would mean getting her up at a senseless hour, so I told the man to go back to sleep and to call me at four. He would sleep in his tonga just below the platform, and I knew he had an alarm clock in his head, though he will die without knowledge of Coué.
It was a night to remember. On the open platform was piled an orderly hillock of gunnysacks filled with fragrant turmeric roots. I opened and spread my holdall on the ground beside it, and lay down with sighing contentment. Above me was the deep, deep Indian sky full of great shining stars and constellations moving to unthinkable music, and peopled by wondrous beings of wind and light and flame. The air was so clear that one saw measureless reaches behind, and behind vast world and vaster world. The stars were myriad. They were the ‘many mansions’ of the ‘Father’s house’ of which all this inconceivable, splendent immensity was only a charming chamber. The universe itself was not infinite, but only a lovely making of the Father’s. And this ineffable ‘Father of eternity’ was ‘our Father’ and our very ‘Home.’ I sighed for love and delight, for delight and love.
Before me was a three-peaked hill yearning to the stars, and behind me a great pipal whose shining leaves glinted in the starlight and rustled deliciously, like running water. And beyond the pipal, far away in the west behind the misty Ghats, I knew that the sea lay vast and darkling under these same stars, lay slowly heaving, and singing sonorously as the night wind blew across it and over the western mountains to our hot plains. There was healing in the wind’s cool breath, and I lay still in utterest rest and peace.
I remembered again all the women I had seen that day, and I loved them all. I loved everyone in the world, and most of all I loved God who had made the world all fair, and loved it too, though it was so sad and spoiled; who is so dearly knowable, so gloriously beyond knowing. And so I fell asleep, and dreamed happy dreams until the driver’s voice awoke me at four.
‘Bai Sahib,’ he said, ‘if we leave now, we shall reach Inampur at the Ramprahar.’ The first watch of the day, sacred and propitious, is named for Ram. It is very unlucky to lie or cheat during those three hours.
I shall never forget that drive. The countless host of heaven on high shone and sang and wheeled in great glory; and as the drowsy pony jogged along, little birds, awakened by our coming, twittered sleepily in the gracious nimbs and young banyans that lined the road. Sometimes spreading mangotrees interlaced their branches overhead, and for a while we drove along a dark tunnel sweet with clustered mango flowers and budding fruit. And sometimes ‘watered gardens’ beside the road chilled the starlit, night and filled it with fragrances. Attar-sweet roses, chaste slender ‘rose-rods’ (tuberoses), jasmine of many lovely kinds, luxuriant oleanders, holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), beloved of Govind, the sacred waxen champak (Michelia champaca), and the starry, coral-stemmed parijataka (Erythrina fulgens), sweeter than honey and incense—all these were in the gardens, to be gathered morning by morning and sold to the flower-sellers, who would make them into garlands for the neck and wrist and hair, into turban-balls, and bashings to veil the faces of brides and bridegrooms; and, most important of all, into wreaths for the gods, and little leaf-wrapped packets of loose stemless flowers which must be offered unscented by human nostrils.
As we went the driver told me all manner of village news, pleasant homely things, and at last of an exorcist who was charming and snaring all sorts of small demons who had haunted wells and wastes and lodged in people’s flesh and troubled women with child. He sealed them in bottles and buried them deep in the earth with charms and adjurations. His fees were small and many people had employed him.
And while he talked came the sunrise and hushed us with its splendor. A fan of light that paled the stars flared up behind the three-peaked hill, and suddenly, swiftly, surely, great Prabhakar, glorious, exultant, shot up and claimed his world again.
‘The king has risen,’ said the driver then, and with clasped hands made the sun a namaskar.
Very soon we were in old Inampur, wide-awake and gathered about its wells, busy with its morning businesses of noisy mouth-washings and gurglings, of splashing cold baths, of drawing the day’s water and filling shining brass and cool clay waterpots. In a few minutes Grace and I were kissing each other and trying to forget the shadow that lay upon the house.
And whenever I smell turmeric it all comes back to me, all of it — things unfinished, and infinite, and very dear.