IN Bombay you may see, at one time or another, most of the races on earth, and castes innumerable. When, long ago, I went to school there I learned to know the turbans of many provinces and castes, and the manner of sari and kirtle, bodice and veil, of women from Kashmir to Ceylon. I very soon learned that certain tall, handsome men who wore baggy trousers, yards wide, long white tunics, embroidered waistcoats, long-tailed turbans wound round padded, peaked caps, and very stout, magnificently squeaking, brass-inlaid slippers, were Pathans. Whenever we saw them on the roads or beaches my ayah would shake her head, dilate her eyes, and say in a low tone full of vehement ill will, ‘A bad caste, a wicked caste!’ Wickedness, alas, is strangely interesting. I would ask for items, and heard many a tale of usury, extortion, and violence. In India, for no occult reason, Pathans find moneylending an easy, fattening livelihood. Hindus, however timid or indigent, will borrow money; and what with incredible interest thrice compounded, incredible impudence, incredible credulity and foolhardiness, juggled accounts, false receipts or none at all, abject illiteracy— it was no marvel that all my ayah’s tales ended in irreparable disaster: ‘And so went all the fields of my maternal uncle’s father-in-law’; or ‘And so went all the jewels of my niece’s co-wife’s paternal aunt.’
And so it was that I looked at Pathans somewhat as I looked at the beautiful lazy tigers in the Victoria Gardens, but with profound disapprobation. I never spoke with one until many years after, when, at the age of twenty-one and after six long, long years in America, I went back to the darling land of my birth — went with my homing heart flying ahead of the ship and beating back impatiently for the helpless body imprisoned in ‘time and circumstance.’ For three years then I lived in Bombay with my father, and learned many interesting things — as, for instance, that all Pathans were not ravening tigers, that many ate their bread in the sweat of their brows; and that certain tall, freestriding men dressed altogether in dark blue, without peaked cap or waistcoat, and with trousers only a trifle bagged, were Pathan mechanics in railway workshops. Indeed the first Pathan with whom I ever had speech was one of these, and not for many years more had I occasion to converse with one of those picturesque swaggerers who so adorn our Indian roads.
Our mission house had a latticed side verandah, easy of access, where I kept a writing table, and there many sorts of people came and went, mostly, of course, people with a matlab, a dull axe of some sort to grind on my little whetstone. Many of them were brought to me by Raghu, our officious little gardener, who accounted it glory that there should be much coming and going, and consequent laudation of his Sahib. Delighted at the sight of needy visitors, he would first try to extract a small tip, and then trot them up to me, lingering inquisitively, if unnoticed, until they went.
One day he appeared at a swifter trot than usual, his eyes popping with fright, while on his heels strode a tall Pathan with a glint of amused contempt in his fine eyes. The Pathan made me a splendid salaam, but with no hint of servility, and stood at attention. I invited him in, and he, slipping off his brass-inlaid slippers, stood on the red cotton rug within the latticed door, a splendid figure of a man for all his plain dress: ‘tall as a palm,’ to quote Raghu later, with a clear olive skin, flashing black eyes, slightly aquiline nose, and a glossy black moustache and beard which did not conceal his mouth, delicately cut and full of feeling. What one noticed at once, and liked at once, was the charming straightforward glance of his eyes. They were as honest as a child’s. His hair curled in his neck, anti there were curled lovelocks before his ears.
I asked him to sit down, but he preferred to stand.
‘What will you?’ I said.
‘I have heard great praise of the Bibi’s father. Folk say that he hath a very gracious temper, and will leave his food to help a man. I desire a letter from his hand to the big Sahib of the relwai workshop.’
His deep voice was incredibly soft, and his faltering Hindustani sounded like baby talk. It was charming to hear so splendid a creature speak so gently.
‘My father is out of the city.’
‘So the Bibi’s Mali said, but I believed him not.’ He smiled.
‘Mayhap I can write the letter,’I said. ‘Have you knowledge of any work?’ From an inner pocket he drew forth a flat tin case and out of that a paper pasted on cheesecloth; with a proud smile he laid it before me. It was a printed certificate from the G. I. P. R., or perhaps the B. B. C. I. R. Ilyas Khan, son of Adam Khan, or perhaps it was Ibrahim or Yakub Khan, was a first-class workman — iron moulder, if I remember — with three years’ service and excellent behavior to his credit ; he had taken leave to visit his home.
‘With such a paper, what need have you of any letter?’ I asked, astonished. He smiled, and frowned, and straightened.
‘If my Sahib, whose name is on that paper, were in Bombay I should ask no letter. But my Sahib is in Wilayat, and the new Sahib knoweth me not. And the doorkeeper of the Sahib’s office is a Hindu, and demandeth a gift — two annas [four cents] he demandeth. The Bibi knoweth that this is Bombay and the sarkar alloweth not weapons and maketh a great matter of every killing, or smiting, even of idolaters. A Pathan must be as a poor sheep in this place. Rather would I spit on the face of an idolater than to put good silver in his hand. Wherefore I desire a letter. If I take a letter he must give it to the Sahib, and I shall get audience — and the Hindu pig will cat only his own teeth. May Allah curse all idolaters!’
‘How, then, got you audience with the first Sahib? Was his doorkeeper a good Musalman — who demanded four or eight annas in place of two?’
Ilyas Khan laughed. ‘Nay, he too was a Hindu. Nor would I give him aught. But I was new then and very bold. I will tell the Bibi what I did.’ He laughed again at the remembrance, and his white teeth flashed between his red lips. ‘I knew nothing then of the temper and manners of Sahibs; but I had need of work, and when the Hindu refused me entrance I waited beside the outer gate until the Sahib came out in his carriage, and then I ran and seized the horse’s bridle. The ape on the box began to chatter and call out. “O Sahib,” he saith, “behold this shaitan of a Pathan!” The Sahib looked forth in anger, but great was my kismet, for he was a Sahib that knew men. I made him a salaam, and when he had looked at me his anger went, and he called me to him.
‘“What would you?” he said. “I would speak with the Presence,” I said, “but the idolater at the door demandeth a gift, and the Presence may see that I am a Pathan!” The Sahib laughed. “Raito!” said he, as we should say, “Very good.” “Look, Pathan, I am in haste. Sit you there before me, and speak your desire as we go.”
‘So I got into the Sahib’s carriage and told him what I would: “I am new come from Afghanistan and I know naught; but I am young. I have strength, nimbleness, wit, and a mind to work. I will not be proud. I will learn diligently, for, look you, I must send back money to my house, else my babes and my old father die of hunger.” He wrote seven words on a piece of paper and told me to come again in the morning.’
‘And when you went, what did you?’
He chuckled. ‘The doorkeeper had seen me stop the Sahib’s horse; he had seen the Sahib take me into his carriage; but still the pig must ask to see the paper in my hand; so I cut his sharp nose with the stiff edge of the paper and went in like a Lard [Lord] Bahadur. A Brahmin clerk looked at the paper and took me to an old Sahib. The old Sahib looked at me and said, “Damgood, damgood,” and put me to work. He taught me all I know. He is as clever as a jinni, that Sahib. Also his temper is like a jinni’s, very hot and fiery. “ Dam ” is ever in his mouth, and he hateth a fool. By the grace of Allah, I am not a fool; wherefore I learned and came to good pay. Then after three years my heart yearned for my babes and the hills and the snows, and I went home and stayed twelve months, and now I have come back.’
‘What are your zai and your khail?’ I asked. Not for nothing had I read my Kipling in my homesick school days in America.
He was startled and pleased. ‘The Bibi knoweth of our khails and zais? The Bibi hath great learning.’ He told me the names of his tribe and clan, the clans with whom they were friendly and those with whom they were at feud, the name of his village and how many days’ march it was from the Khaiber Pass; but all this I have forgotten, and remember now only his own name, Ilyas Khan, which is none other than the name of Elijah the Tishbite.
‘And what is the temper of the Sahib who has come in the place of your Sahib?’ I asked.
‘Proud,’ he said, frowning, ‘very proud and angry. When the doorkeeper, who is a new pig, would not let me in, I watched for the Sahib as before. But I saw that he is not a wise Sahib. He knoweth not men. Wherefore I spake not with him; and, hearing of the Bibi’s father, I came hither.’
I dislike writing to unpleasant Sahibs, but I liked Ilyas Khan. I took up my pen and wrote circumspectly.
In the evening he returned to thank me. Some evenings later he came again with a friend, a man of his own khail, whom he therefore called brother. He was newly come. Would I give him also a letter? I did. The brother got work, and again the two came, to return thanks. In another week or two they were back with a third, another khail-brother. He also got a letter and a job. Then came a fourth and a fifth brother, and every month or oftener the five would make me a state call.
I can see them now: tall, handsome men, with charming grave manners and an extraordinary gentleness and sure grace of movement. They would drift into the verandah like shadows, make their salaams, and sit down on the old red rug. They interested me enormously, and I often wished their Hindustani were not so limited, or that I knew their Pashto, the deep-chested Persian patois spoken in southern and eastern Afghan villages. The new men, also, spoke Hindustani with the soft indistinctness of baby talk — very diverting it was to hear them — and so brokenly that they usually left it to Ilyas Khan to speak for them, but he never spoke freely before them. By right of seniority, too, he was spokesman: and I noticed that the youngest man, a kinsman of Ilyas Khan’s wife, maintained in Ilyas Khan’s presence a deferential modesty that in one of his stature was almost affecting. A wife’s kindred have always second place in her husband’s house.
I would remember Kipling’s tales of the Afghan frontier, and try to imagine these soft-footed, soft-voiced, keeneyed men at home. They spoke little of their homes. Longing for their high mountains and homely little villages tied their faltering tongues; besides, how could they make me understand that far-away life? I let them say what they would and forbear when they would. They modestly disclaimed much experience of killing. Certainly there were feuds: old feuds and new feuds; feuds in name only — ashes without fire — and hot, bitter feuds that brought whole tribes to war. A man must walk warily at all times — he might not so much as plough without his gun. Yea, sometimes, by the grace of Allah, a bullet went home. Nay, doubtless, killing a man was no light matter; it was a matter calling for thought, and that not of one angry man, but of the elders of the clan. Nevertheless every man must fulfill his kismet, whether he killed or was killed, and all things were by the will of Allah, to whom be glory forever.
But Pathans were not an evil folk. (They smiled with charming reassurance.) They had their bellies to fill, like other folk. Fields must be tilled, cloth woven, shoes and saddles sewn, houses built, pots made, and waistcoats embroidered. Pathans did not altogether pass their lives killing enemies, though Bombay folk feared them as they had been tigers. (They smiled with scorn, and yet were not displeased with their terrible reputation.)
‘Yea,’ I said gravely, ‘doubtless your tribe and clan are full of most virtuous men, and doubtless even some others are praiseworthy; but surely the men of such and such tribes and clans — are they not but vile dogs, worthy only to be shot?’
They laughed. ‘The Bibi hath taken us in the snare of our own words. Yea, of a truth, many Pathans are base knaves, faithless to salt, knowing not honor. In Jahannam they shall burn, even with idolaters.’
An occasional flash of their fine eyes helped me to picture these gentle fellows ruthlessly shooting down their tribal enemies. Was this gentleness of theirs the helpless docility of shorn Samson, the meekness of the hardworked bull, or the mildness of the tiger at rest? The sight of shrinking, grimacing Raghu always roused the tiger in Ilyas Khan, and I think that he could have shot him with as little compunction — with, indeed, as much righteous satisfaction — as he would have shot a pig. Idolaters and swine, what were they but one unclean, accursed breed? Not that he said anything of Raghu to me — he accounted himself to have some knowledge of manners; it was only the cold aversion in his eyes that made me thankful he would never meet our poor little clown across the frontier.
After they had called once or twice, I went to the Bible Society and got them each the four Gospels in their own beloved Pashto. Fortunately they could all read, and they were very much pleased to get the holy Injil (Gospel) in their own tongue, for though, of course, they knew of it as a part of their sacred Qanun (canon), they had never seen it before. They received the little books with the true Mohammedan’s reverence for a holy book, handled them carefully, wrapped them in a clean cloth, and took them home. Irreverence is not a Mohammedan sin. I have seen, in the old days, illiterate Mohammedans pick out of the dust a scrap of paper, written or printed, and place it under a stone at the side of the road, lest it contain a holy word or a name of God and be trodden underfoot. But now, alas, many Mohammedan shopkeepers in the cities wrap their wares in printed paper, careless of its import. These also are they who no longer leave a customer at the muezzin’s call and, turning toward Mecca, tranquilly say their prayers, unconcerned whet her he wait or depart, since all things are ordained by Allah. ‘For the belly!’ says the new generation at each turning aside, and shrugs its shoulders, while the old generation rages, or sighs.
The Mohammedan version of the Gospel is rather different from that of the Bible, since it omits or alters such matters as are inconvenient to Islam; and someone may have told Ilyas Khan and his friends that the Injil I gave them was not the true Injil, but if so they were too polite to mention it.
Mohammedans love controversy and are often very difficult in argument. Every debate is in some sense a jihad (holy war), and they argue to win; and being a high-tempered people they may become unpleasant, not to say very unpleasant, not to say ferocious.
Whether Ilyas Khan and his friends held themselves too unlearned for controversy, or whether they held it ungracious to confute an avowed benefactress, or, perhaps, infra dig to dispute with a woman, I do not know; but I think that modesty rather than manners kept them from trying a bout with me. However it was, I was thankful. I wanted only that they should read the Gospels; that, at least while they read, they should see the form of the Son of God, whom they honored only as a Prophet, and hear His words of life; perhaps they too would fall at His feet, crying ‘My Lord and my God!’ There is strong magic in those little books, and one never knows whom they may enthrall. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth,’ and even strong Pathans have delighted to call themselves ‘bond servants of Jesus Christ.’
After a year Ilyas Khan came alone one evening to take leave of me. ‘I go to my country— for two months only. I have leave. When I return I would bring the Bibi a gift. What desireth the Bibi?’
For a moment I saw bright embroideries and felt greedy. ‘I desire nothing,’ I said.
‘But something I will bring,’ he said doggedly. ‘In all my country is nothing the Bibi desireth?’
‘Why bring anything?’
‘Because a Pathan may not forget favor.’ He drew himself up proudly. ‘The men of my khail are true to salt.’
‘Enough of this favor! A thousand thanks you have said for this favor. What was it, then? A very little letter. Cost it anything? Great labor was it? By the grace of God and the merit of your own certificate some marks of my pen got you work. Without your paper, what virtue were in my paper? Thank God, and say no more of it.’
‘Nay,’he said stoutly, ‘is it a little thing that by the Bibi’s hand I and my babes have been fed these twelve months? The grace of Allah, impoverisheth it Him? And shall we not thank Him, because that His favor costeth Him not labor? Verily I am beholden to the Bibi, and a gift I must bring. I would not bring a foolish gift; wherefore I ask, “What desireth the Bibi?”’
His logic was charming. I laughed. ‘Very good. Bring me then a gift. I will tell my desire. Bring me fruits or nuts of your country.’
His face fell. ‘Only that? There are many goodly things in my country.’
‘Doubtless,’ I said carelessly. ‘I have seen them in shops. They are questionless beautiful, but I desire not them. I delight to see strange fruits. Bring me something not seen in Bombay.’
He considered a moment, and then with a lighting of his whole face he said, ‘Ha! I will bring a pot of ghi!’
I quailed inwardly, for I had read of Tibetan butter. ‘Ghi? Surely there is much ghi in Bombay?’
‘There is ghi of a kind, yea; but hath it flavor or fragrance? It is like so much water. But the ghi of my country — Wah! It needeth but a small lump in a great pot of rice and the house is filled with the fragrance! Wah!’ He threw out his arms, and his eyes sparkled.
My heart sank. What must be that ghi beside which the rancid stuff sold in Bombay bazaars was tasteless! Most particularly I desired it not! But how not to grieve this delightful Ilyas Khan?
‘ Wah! That is indeed ghi! ’ I wagged my head judicially. ‘Still, I have not lived always in Bombay; and here and there, here and there, I have eaten very excellent ghi, and ghi of great fragrance. I would eat something new. There are many fruit-bearing trees in your country, and there are no such pomegranates in all India as they bring from Afghanistan. Bring me new fruits or nuts.’
He was disappointed, but unsuspecting. ‘ Something new I will find without doubt. But if I brought other than a thing to eat?’
‘I shall be displeased,’ I said gravely. ‘I shall not receive it.’
‘As the Bibi willeth.’ He bowed.
‘So long you have walked without fear; will you remember to walk warily at home? Even Peshawar is not Bombay.’
He laughed a little. ‘A man verily forgetteth much here, but by the Bibi’s prayers and the grace of Allah I shall go and come in safety — unless my kismet be otherwise.’ On a sudden he was serious, inscrutable. Was it really homesickness that took him, I wondered. And yet that longed-for little son, the little girl, the baby boy — these might well pull a man with a face like Ilyas Khan’s. Perhaps, after all, he had never killed a man in his life — and perhaps, God knew, he had been summoned to settle an old — or new — score with a careful bullet.
‘Hurt no man, and God will return you in peace. Said not Isa [Jesus], — Holy is His name! — “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”; and “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword ”?’
He nodded, and then, touching his brow and breast in the beautiful Mohammedan way, he bowed low and departed. In two months he was back, head high, and radiant. Slipping off handsome new slippers sparkling with brass insets, he entered with a great salaam and laid a tin box on my table. I looked within and found a fat honeycomb still fast to a bit of branch.
‘No worthy gift, but a new thing and sweeter than sugar. A little creature of my country maketh it with cunning of the sweet of flowers.’ He had evidently never seen honey in India, and I made much ado of it. At least the delicate wild flavor was new, and almost as delightful as my memory of Ilyas Khan and his friends. I saw them only a few times after that, for I went soon to Berar, to work in a girls’ orphanage. However, they used to inquire after my welfare as long as my father was in Bombay, and I received many gracious messages of salutation and blessing.
Steel they were; and steel is not tempered without fire. Their fires were deep, burning in an ancient pit of hardship and suffering, banked by isolating mountains, fed by reckless fatalism and ruthless laws, fanned by fierce traditions and lifelong companionship with death. In their presence one felt this hot, hidden fire underlying their courtly gravity, their hampered speech, and their charming surface frankness, as one feels the depth of the sea underlying alike its slow swells and its light surface gayety.
Steel they were; but not all steel. And fire may do more than temper. Though imprisoned in an iron code, it may flame out in conflagration — in revolting atrocity.
I met several Pathans after that, including two Christians, but it was only five years ago, on a short journey to Poona, that at last I met a Pathan usurer, an engaging old ruffian, hawknosed and bearded, lounging at his ease in a crowded Third, and regally taking up the room of three ticket holders. He was really superb, with a rugged Semitic beauty, and lovelocks oiled and curled, for all his fifty years. Two foxes sat in his two eyes, and if he had ever known Pity he had long ago forgotten her. Biblically speaking, he had no bowels.
His dress advertised his prosperity: immense trousers that fell in splendid folds, a sheer muslin tunic of the finest, a new peaked cap, a blue, white, and gold turban, a gold-embroidered crimson velvet waistcoat, fat gold rings, and on his tunic embossed gold studs joined by many little chains. He exuded wellbeing. One knew to look at him that he fared on rich, savory pilaus and curries, kababs broiled with garlic and green ginger, cakes and sweets dripping ghi and syrups. In Paradise he expected to feast limitlessly, with ravishing houris to pleasure him endlessly, and he was overlooking no delight here — that he was able to know as delight.
He looked at me with the bland, appraising curiosity with which a surfeited cat might look over a mouse in a cage; and presently he began a harsh rumbling in his beard, which he evidently intended for singing.
Never have I heard such singing. Indian music I know and love, and Afghan music is doubtless musical, but this had neither tune nor time. It was not croaking, it was not barking, it was — sui generis, so preposterous that at first I could have laughed; but soon the rough vibration of the heavy aimless voice became racking, and my Hindu fellow passengers also grew restless. Something had to be done: I asked him politely what he sang.
‘I sing of the compassion of Allah, the Compassionate Compassioner,’ he said, with a benevolence that seemed to me even more killing than his singing. ‘Where live you?’ When I said, ‘Berar,’ his fox eyes lighted as at a marrowbone. ‘Ha! Well I know Berar! it is a good country. Akola, Amraoti, Murtizapur, Malkapur — all good towns, and well I know them!’ He laid a loving hand on his paunch.
The gesture brought to life all my knowledge of his kind, and I recklessly gave battle. ‘Aye, I doubt not,’ I said tartly, ‘having in all those towns good fields and gardens filched from our poor Kunbis [farmers]. It is verily a good country for tigers; we have many. In the hills they are striped, and on the plains they are of another stripe — them we call Pathans.’
It was a very bad pun really, in our indulgent Berar Hindustani, but he let out a roar of laughter, while the rest made wry faces to conceal their satisfaction. He was used to fawning entreaties, tears, helpless rage, abuse, bitter vituperation even —behind his back; but not often was he withstood to the face.
‘Yea, by the grace of Allah, I have thriven; but land I sell forthwith, for I am ever going about.’
‘Aye, ’t were more profitable to win it back for naught than to pay taxes and to serve it day and night.’
He smiled and wagged his head in perfect and affable assent — I was being only obvious. Then with an air of great reasonableness he leaned forward. ‘Hearken, Bibi. Allah hath made both tigers and deer; likewise He hath made men, some wise, some fools. The fools perish by their folly, and by that folly are the wise profited. Shall we then quarrel with Allah?’
‘Nay, Allah forbid! But I would quarrel with you, and mayhap on a time Allah Himself will quarrel with you. Nay, you verily now quarrel with Him, in that you quarrel with the poor and He is their defender. Look you, it is not the wise man who robbeth the poor. And, if Allah is well pleased with all things, for what then is Jahannam? Not only for Kafirs like me, and idolaters like these, but for some also who account themselves good Musalmans and greatly wise!’
I ended with a swelling gesture and flicked one hand in his direction. His face had clouded, but the gesture diverted him and he laughed again. Then he reasoned with me persuasively: ‘Hearken, Bibi. Verily it is not well to deceive the faithful, but these fools are naught save idolaters, fuel for Jahannam. How shall Allah fend for them whom He will Himself destroy?’
What to say! ‘Hearken, Pathan. Allah’s judgment of other men concerneth not you; and Allah, said all the Prophets, is a God of Truth and may not be mocked. One Court there is where the Judge needeth not witness, and heedeth not gainsaying; and when deceivers may enter Paradise, then also may you grow a “mulberry tree from a pumpkin seed,” as the saying is.’
He stared at me a moment, but refused to be serious. ‘Bibi, your words appear sound, but you have not the true learning. You follow Isa, — on Whom be peace! — but without understanding. The Truth is only in Islam.’
‘And which of all the prophets said other than I have said? Said they not ever that a man may reap only as he soweth? And Isa — Holy is His name! — said many times that words and works may not be divorced: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Is it not open?’
‘Nay, nay,’ he said stubbornly, ‘your InJil is not the true Injil!’
‘Say what you will,’ I said, stubborn also. ‘Shut your eyes and say the sun shineth not, — “Fat shutteth the eye,” as the saying is, — but I will still say that Allah loveth not such works as yours. Think not that you can deceive Him as you deceive poor Kunbis.’
He looked at me drolly, as if I were sour fruit that had set his teeth on edge. ‘Only a fool thinketh to deceive Allah,’ he said piously. ‘What so great evil do I? I lend my good rupees that I gather with long labor to wretches who would steal my eyes, an they could. And what is my profit? One little anna [two cents] on one big rupee [thirty-two cents]. Have I only in all the world not a belly? Or doth the world feed me only for naught?’
‘One anna every month on every rupee—in one year with a little skill a rupee is become two rupees. If you forget to give a receipt, or the simpleton cannot read, it may be three rupees, or five, or ten! If he be hard pressed, the rate is not one anna, but two or even four annas every month on every rupee!’
He pretended great astonishment. ‘Repentance, repentance!’ He smote his cheeks penitentially. ‘ What shaitan of a money-lender doeth these things?'
‘He sitteth in this train and calleth himself hard names! And he hath many kinsmen. I will tell you a true tale. A Hindu villager new come to Bombay borrowed a rupee of a Pathan neighbor. When, in two or three months, he went to repay it, the Pathan took the rupee and asked a rupee for interest. When the Hindu asked the reckoning the Pathan would have beat him, but he fled. Thereafter every month the Pathan waylaid him and took what he could. In three years he took above fifty rupees, nor gave a shred of paper in return. When the matter came to my ears he was asking five rupees a month — and the Hindu getting but fifteen! I sent that poor honest Pathan word that, asked he but another farthing, I would enter suit, and the fellow became dumb at once!’
During this recital the Pathan’s face was a comedy in which played admiration, envy, pretended disapproval, and, at last, resentment that I had spoiled so good a game.
‘Never heard I such a tale! I am but a poor sheep beside that Pathan — tauba, tauba!' Again he smote his cheeks, very ambiguously, it seemed to me.
‘Deer ask no dealings with tigers, and why Hindus fear not to borrow money of Pathans I know not.’
‘And is a Pathan, then, any worse than a Hindu money-lender—a Marwari for choice? For marvels of accounting, a Marwari is the father of ten Pathans! Many a Pathan cannot read. I tell you, Bibi, Hindus would borrow of demons, — false religion stealeth a people’s wits, — and did an honest man not use his hands, and, yea, sometimes his stick also, he would never get his money again!'
He looked about him with a show of righteous wrath and met sullen looks and inscrutable indifference. So also the poor tiger, working hard to fill his gnawing belly, may harangue the tricky deer he devours, because they lead him a chase and sometimes even escape him. But before I could fit an arrow to my bow we came to a little station near Poona where was an encampment of Wadars, who had been there for months, road making. One could see their tiny huts, marvels of resourcefulness, beside the track near the station. Whenever a camp moved they would break up these huts into their component sticks and scraps and carry them to their next camp on the unhappy donkeys who carried the stone for the roads.
The train had not stopped before I heard, as I expected, the curious cries and vocalisms of the Wadar children. Hastily getting out all the coppers in my purse, I went to the window, to find a dozen little children busily thumping their ribs, and tapping or pinching their throats to produce all manner of indescribable noises, quite the oddest human noises I have ever heard. At sight of me, a ‘Sahiba’ and presumably made of money, they redoubled their efforts. They were either quite or almost naked, burned very dark by the sun, and over their ribs on their right sides the skin was black and dry from their constant drumming.
Many passengers laughed at the antics of the children, some threw out coppers, and some amused themselves by frightening the desperately busy little buffoons. A threatening word or gesture would send them running like hares, but with the persistence of hungry puppies and kittens they would be back at once, warily keeping out of range of teasing hands while they kept up their pitiful entertainment. They were opportunists simply. Several groups of them were scattered up and down the short train, and for every copper there would be a swift, snatching scramble. Losers wasted no time in tears, but pinched, thumped, squawked, and hiccoughed the louder. As these were the littlest, I called them to me and put my coppers safely into their eager hands.
When my purpose became manifest the Pathan was all horrified protest: ‘Bibi, Bibi, cast not away money to those black crows! Alms to the faithful are not amiss, but to these — Ya Allah! ’
‘And should they not have farthings for sweets? You and I had a many sweets when we were children.’
‘Crows need not sweets, and these are so fat and well-liking, it is a scandal! Cease, I pray you!’ The great creature wrung his hands and entreated me as though I were squandering a king’s ransom. I thought that I had never seen anything so droll as his distress. The coppers were gone all too soon.
‘Bibi,’he said, almost tearfully serious, ‘you have cast away good money. Those are ba-ad people!’
‘ Bad!’ I said, really surprised. ‘ How bad?’
‘Of a surety they are bad. From beggars they will become thieves, and all their lives they will go about taking people’s money and never working.’
I was delighted. ‘Then they cannot be bad! For, look you, they will thus become like many excellent Pathans who all their lives go about taking people’s money and never working.’
But he was deadly serious, at last. ‘Nay, but the black peoples must work; for that did Allah make them.’ It had a familiar sound.
‘A prophet verily! I also will prophesy. Allah made all men to work, but if the black carry two burdens the white may go light — bless Allah! Wherefore let them break stone all day in the hot sun to make roads for you and me. Let their children likewise break stone and drive donkeys, and the little ones beat their tender sides black and shriveled to make us sport. But if their bones do not pierce their skin it is a scandal. That they should have sweets to eat is matter for lamentation. Black folk are but beasts. They work with so great ease, being made to that end, that but for the wonder-working of Allah they would not bo old and withered when white folk are still young. And when they can no longer work, O Allah, do Thou speed them to Jahannam, lest they cumber the earth! Let him that hath ears hearken unto my prophesying! ’
He made a despairing gesture. ‘Hearken, Bibi. Allah hath not made all alike. He hath made horses, and He hath made asses. And asses were ever an ill breed. Though you trapped an ass in gold and scarlet housings, he would be no less an ass. Or will you indeed say that an ass and a horse are all one?’ He spoke with triumph.
‘Nay,’ I laughed. ‘If you speak of beasts I will say that an ass is an ass, and a horse a horse. And if you speak of men I will say that a horse is no less a horse for that he is not of Arab [Arabia] or Balkh. And, however you speak, I will say that Allah loveth asses, for “His tender mercies are over all his works,” as Daud — on whom be peace! — saith in the Zabur [Psalms]. Indeed, asses have their virtues, as horses have theirs, and the world would lack a thing if asses were not.’
For answer he let out a gusty roar, and indeed the whole compartment laughed. ‘Asses also have virtues — Ya Allah! Bibi, in what Qanun found you this learning?’ He laughed again.
‘It is in the Qanun of him that hath eyes. Even Akbar acknowledged asses as his subjects. Heard you never how he gave judgment for an ass against his master, for that the poor beast was ill fed?’
‘Nay, what tale is this?'
Whereupon I told the tale of the grazing donkey who rang by chance the bell of Akbar’s hall of audience, of how the emperor had him haled in, since none might ring that bell and depart unheard, and, finding him overlean and dejected, sent his laughing courtiers to find his petitioner’s master, whom he then fined and commanded to present the beast monthly for his approval. I cannot certify that the emperor was verily Akbar, for the story is an old favorite, told in several forms of several kings, both Hindu and Mohammedan. However, it served my purpose, and the Pathan listened like a child. As I ended, the train pulled into Poona station, where everyone got out, bag and much baggage. In the crowd on the platform the big Pathan, with bulky bundles under arm and over shoulder, suddenly confronted me with an outthrust hand.
‘Shek-hand karo, Bibi!’ Should I? He was such a ‘ba-ad’ man! Then, seeing the rough friendliness of his smile, and remembering a certain severe parable about a mote and a beam, I held out my hand. He touched it awkwardly.
‘Keep me in remembrance, Bibi. My name is Ismail Khan. By the grace of Allah I may meet you again in Berar. There was no sugar on your tongue to-day, Bibi, save for idolaters. In my country they say that even a great spear wound may heal quickly, but not the wound of a tongue.’ Very droll he looked, and we both laughed.
‘Then give up usury, I pray you, and rob no more our poor Kunbis.’
‘Aye, aye! Look you, Bibi, the day you give up almsgiving, and cast no more good coin to idolaters’ brats, that very day I will cease to eat what Allah layeth in my mouth! Let Allah be witness! ’
I let him keep the last word, and he went away chuckling. At home I looked up Ishmael: ‘He will be a wild man, his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him.’ But the name means ‘he whom God heareth,’ and I was pleased. ‘The Lord is loving unto every man: and his mercy is over all his works.’
‘Praise be to God, the Lord of all creatures, the Compassionate Compassioner.’