Ways of India
A FOREST is like a town in one respect: without streets, one can get nowhere; without forest lines, a forest is unmanageable. They are required, not only as a means of communication, but also as an essential part of the fire-fighting equipment. In this part of the world, experience has led to the adoption of two main types of line — the saufooti, or hundred-foot line, and the pundrahfooti, or fifteen-foot line. Urdu, that conglomerate of languages, receives accretions daily; and it is interesting to find that even the most primitive of the inhabitants have adopted quite a number of technical English words as part of their very limited vocabulary. The train for them is ‘late,’ or ‘time par’; it leaves when ’line clear’ has been given; it arrives when it has been ‘signaled’; and so on. Similarly, in their work in the forest, they have incorporated into their current speech a considerable number of technical English terms.
It is very pleasant riding through the forest along the fifteen-foot lines. Except for a brief period each day, they always afford grateful shade; on each side the sal trees tower up, to a height of fifty or sixty feet. Underfoot is turf — not very green perhaps, but green enough to be restful to the eye; all around lies the forest, pathless, impenetrable, choked with fallen trees, heavy undergrowth, and creeping lianes. The sal trees have shed their foliage now, and the ground is heaped with the broad, dark brown leaves, dry as tinder, crackling at a touch. Feet deep they lie, parched, brittle, hard. The grass areas were burned long ago, when the forest was still green enough from the rains to render that possible without undue danger; but there is no solution of the problem of the fallen leaves, which lie in hundreds of thousands of tons, clustering thick in the tangled undergrowth and ripe as tinder to the flame.
Every year, when the violent heat storms of May and June sweep across the forest, and the lightning darts and flickers in the heart of the orange-purple hurricane mass that rends and tears at the great trees, fires are started. Perched on high watchtowers scattered at strategic points throughout the area, the keen-sighted guardians of the forest are quick to notice the appearance of smoke at any point where their local knowledge tells them it is explicable only on the assumption that the forest has caught fire. Then an elaborate organization, carefully worked out beforehand, and perfected from year to year in the light of successes and failures, springs into being to fight the flames. The Tharus — wisest of all the inhabitants of the forest — cunningly counterfire; regiments of men, gathered from here and from there at breakneck speed, beat back the flames along the isolating lines; it is one long orgy of delirious activity, blazing heat, singed clothing, parched throats, and furious endeavor. The lust of combat grips the fighters, and they experience that wholly satisfying joy which comes from pushing the physical forces to their utmost limit.
It is April as I write, and the fire danger is still somewhat remote. One rides along slowly, care-free, breathing in the sweet heavy smell of the sal flowers — which resembles so much the troubling scent of tuberoses — and looking at the flowering tops high overhead which stand out, a mist of silvergray and delicate green, against the pale blue sky. As far as one can see, the line stretches on inexorably, straight as a Roman road, scrupulously clear of all encroachments or obstructions. Not a branch is allowed to push its wayward way across that sacred space; not an ant hill is permitted to desecrate its smooth splendor. Usually, no living thing is to be seen; but one’s attention is claimed from time to time by the path itself, where sand or dust patches conserve their ephemeral record of the life of the forest. A bear, leaving its unmistakable and semihuman track, passed there, traversing the line diagonally; he must have been going to the heavy grass bordering on the side of the lake three miles off, where wild figs abound. Here and there, leaving the line and returning to it, one sees the tracks of leopards — a male and female, doubtless hunting together. They are journeying, probably, and are making for the open country on the fringe of the forest. In the heart of it, no real hunting is in general possible: the game is too scattered; the fallen leaves make stalking (even for a leopard) almost impossible; there is usually neither food, nor water, nor thick shade.
Far away, I pick up a low mass, right in the centre of the line, that can just barely be seen to change outline from time to time. It is neither leopard, pig, bear, wild dog, nor deer of any kind; dismounted, a long steady look leaves me no wiser. We have sauntered long enough, so I get hold of Spartan and send him — he needs no urging — thundering along the turf, smooth as a billiard table, that stretches away till the two lines of trees meet in the far distance. I try to keep my eye on the suspicious mass, but it is very difficult; all I can sec is that, while I am still a long way off, it dissolves into three forms that slip into the forest. Pulling up after a bit so as not to overshoot the mark, I jog along slowly, eyes on the line. Soon I come to the body of a Russell’s viper, — rather a rare snake in these parts, — half-eaten. All round in the dust are the trident-like marks of peacocks’ feet.
The whole history is written plainly there. The snake — perhaps five to six feet long, and thick as two thumbs, rusty brown in color, with darker markings that are almost black — had been struck by the peacocks as it wriggled from the thick undergrowth on to the line; they had eaten it, then and there, beginning with the head. The fore end, down to roughly the middle of the body, had been devoured. The poison bags had apparently been eaten with the rest of it; anyhow, I could find no trace of them. Russell’s viper is one of the most deadly of snakes, but that had not discouraged the peacocks. They are fond of snake flesh, and adept at killing snakes.
At the little village which is our headquarters we protect the peacocks — an easy task, as the Hindus venerate them and the Muhammadans generally are averse from their destruction. We protect them mainly in order that they may keep down the snakes, which infest the dust-gray aloe hedges that form our only boundaries. On several occasions I have seen a peacock picking gluttonously at the body of a dead cobra, and I think one may fairly conclude that these birds merit one of their many Eastern names — ‘ eater of snakes.’ A snake is, indeed, a defenseless animal. I had a three-quartergrown kitten which specialized in the killing of cobras; and I have several times seen her trotting across the drawing-room carpet, while I was at tea, trailing over her shoulder four feet or so of very dead cobra. She always gripped them at the back of the neck, just behind the head. As the bungalow had no plinth, and the compound was full of snakes, she got plenty of practice.
On arrival at the forest bungalow where I intended to halt for some days, I found an agitated policeman and a much more agitated railway clerk, who could not be restrained from dashing off, simultaneously, into a highly sensational account of how the pleasant-looking young Tharu they had brought along with them had attempted to derail the morning train shortly before it arrived at the little forest station some miles away. They were so fresh from the incident, and so completely full of it, that it was impossible to prevent them from talking about it, hard, and together. The Tharu stood dignified and silent. I sent the policeman to a tree about a hundred yards off, and told him to stay there till I signed to him to advance; the railway clerk was then permitted to open the floodgates of his eloquence.
His story came to this: the accused, with several others who had been seen, but who had escaped, had placed a large tree across the railway track. The Tharu and his companions had then hidden in the jungle, close alongside, intending to rob the passengers when the train had been derailed by crashing into the obstacle. His companions had firearms; the accused had none when he was captured. His capture had been a task of the very greatest difficulty, and had demanded exceptional efforts on the part of the clerk and the policeman. Both had happened to be traveling, by chance, in the train the accused had attempted to derail. When the policeman’s turn came, his story was much the same.
I turned to the Tharu, a youth of about eighteen or so, and asked for his version of the affair. Here it is, practically verbatim.
‘I come from Trimala, in Nepal. It is fifty miles or so from here. It is just under the hills, where they spring up from the swamps to the high mountains where I have never been. I tend cattle; I have ten of my own, and I graze cattle for other people also. Never have I left Trimala till now. I used to sit at the great peepul tree in the evening, after the day’s work was done, and listen to the talk. We were all Tharus, and it was good talk. Lately, they spoke a lot about the “terain” of the English; some of our people had seen it. They said it was black — black as a water buffalo; it stood a little lower than an elephant, was long-bodied like a crocodile, and was fed on wood, or on black stuff that looked like shiny charcoal. The terain was stronger than the wild elephant, and more clever than a fighting elephant of the keddah. It ran fast, but could run only on shining bands of iron that the English laid down for it; smoke came out from a hole in the top of its head; and at night its great eyes glared like a forest fire seen from afar off. It rumbled, at times, like an elephant; and it drank water every time it stopped.
‘They — those who had seen the terain — said that there was no danger; but, though they were good men, I felt some doubt as to that. One of them told me that, when the terain came to anything that lay across the shining bands, it nosed it away with a thing in front that looked like a short trunk. It did this itself. There were always men with the terain; these were not Englishmen, but Indians. The Englishmen lived far off; the Indians went with the terain, fed it, and attended to it when it drank.
‘I felt I must see these things for myself, and find out what the truth was about this matter. So I left Trimala yesterday, at dawn, and came here. I came alone. I was told how to come. I had only to go south through the forest for twelve hours, cross a big river, and keep south and east till I came to the shining bands. I brought my axe with me, of course. I have no other weapon. I came to the shining bands last evening, while it was yet light — the west was red when I arrived. I ate the unleavened cakes I brought, with me, and decided to sleep in a tree for the night; I did not like sleeping on the ground near where the terain might pass. This morning, when the clouds were beginning to turn yellow, I got down from my tree, and cut a strong sapling — as heavy as I could deal with. This I freed from branches, and then levered it slowly along till I got it right across the shining bands. They were in the middle of a great road in the forest, which ran straight as an arrow northeast and southwest. In all that great road no living thing was to be seen.
‘I was frightened of what the terain might do, so I climbed one of the tallest trees that stood on the edge of the great road, and hid myself in the branches. No one could see me — that I am quite sure of. I watched for the coming of the terain. When the sun had risen about five hours, it came. I heard it panting and snorting far off; it came quickly along the shining bands; but no smoke went out from its head. When it came near my sapling lying across the iron bands, it saw it, and stopped; then it crept slowly forward, and stood with its front feet touching the tree. Men got down from the terain and began to pull the tree away. I was annoyed. I had walked fifty miles, had slept in a tree all night, and had cut down a heavy sapling, in order that I might see the terain nose it away with its trunk. It was nothing to me to see men do that. So, being annoyed, I came down from my tree and walked across the great road to the group of men who were hauling at the sapling.
I said, “Why do you do that? I want to see the terain move that tree away.” They looked unkindly at me, and asked me who I was. I told them. They asked me if I had put the sapling there. I said I had. Then these two men, encouraged by the others, laid hold of me, and said I must come and see the sahib about it all. So I came, and am here. What have I to do now?’
‘Who is the headman at Trimala?’ I asked.
‘Who was the headman before Masani?'
I had shot my first tiger at Trimala, three years before; and I remembered Kasumbi the headman.
‘These men say — you heard them — that they found you hiding in the jungle; you had armed companions with you; they chased you, and finally caught you, after very great difficulty. Is that true?’
‘There is the jungle, fifty paces off; let us see if it is true! The jungle is my home; it is not their home. If I hide in the jungle, I am not discovered by people such as these. If I flee in the jungle, people such as these cannot catch me. Besides,’ — and his eyes twinkled,— ‘these men have stomachs in front which do not help them to run fast.’ It was true; and the railway clerk and the policeman looked uncomfortable.
I turned to them. ‘You heard. If I turn the Tharu loose now, will you engage to catch him in the jungle?’ There was no reply.
‘Will you run against him to that ant hill over there, a hundred yards down the forest line, and back — level going?’ Again there was no reply.
‘Is his story true?’ Again there was no answer.
I sent them off to the camp bunnia to get some food; and told the Tharu that he must not leave the place till I had seen him again. They went off quite amicably, all three of them. In the evening I took the Tharu out on an elephant with me, and wandered round the fringes of the forest, looking for leopards on the prowl. He talked freely, about all sorts of things; and I was soon convinced that his story as to the alleged train wrecking was true. I made him take me to the scene of the occurrence, show me the tree he had slept in, the sapling he had cut down, and the tree from which he had watched the morning train arrive. Indubitably, if he had wanted to escape, no one there could have caught him; if he had wanted to remain hidden, no one there would have discovered him. He was merely a jolly, happy, ignorant, curious child; he had no idea that his action might cause damage or suffering, and was aghast when I told him what the consequences might have been.
I, of course, sent him back to his village, with a warning to others; and I was entirely confident that that warning would be heeded. It was. During the five years I remained in the district, no similar case occurred. But the railway administration — which took its little tin-pot line very seriously indeed — was inexpressibly scandalized. Grave protests, couched in ponderous language, rained upon me from various exalted and perturbed personages; the heinousness of the ‘offense’ was insisted on in a crashing crescendo of official letters; and there were dark hints that it would be necessary to have ‘recourse to higher authority’ if I persisted in my wholly untenable views. Happily, my position was more than strong — it was impregnable. I had recorded a formal decision, as magistrate; the thing had been done according to the rules; ‘bell, book, and candle’ had been duly employed. The decision could be upset only in accordance with these same rules. The omniscient Macaulay had of course foreseen cases of the kind, — the only thing he forgot to provide against in the Indian Penal Code was cannibalism, so far as I remember, — and it was clear that the High Court, the only authority which could intervene, would certainly refuse to do so. So the storm died away in distant grumblings and mutterings; the longdistance bombardment by letter ceased; and my jungly Tharu, safe anyhow in Nepal, remained unmolested.
The Tharus are an engaging people, of Mongolian origin. In several important respects they are unique. Fever — even black-water fever of the most deadly type — seems to pass them by. They do not know how to steal or lie. They live far from the world, by the world unknown; their home is the jungle. They brew a potent spirit with which to rejoice their hearts; they cover the forest with their delicately built contrivances for the capture of fish; they know the jungles like the back of their hand. I have seen them dig nonchalantly in the dry mud, and extract large, living fishes. Once I complained, banteringly, to a couple of wizened old men, the two seniors of the village, that I had been working in the vicinity for four days without seeing any sign of a tiger; the elder, puckering up his kindly, wrinkled old face and regarding me steadily with almond eyes that peered out of a mass of humorous crinkles, explained: —
‘That is bad. I forgot all about it. That tiger had been worrying my cattle, and I thoughtlessly imposed “a prohibition.” I laid a spell on him, preventing him from coming here. Of course you did not find any signs of tiger!’
‘Well,’ I suggested, ‘a dead tiger is better than a spellbound one, is n’t it? Suppose you lift the spell?'
‘Certainly,’ he said. ‘I’ll see to that at once, on my return home. It was stupid of me not to remember.’
‘And what can I count on when the spell is removed? Two? Four?’ He grinned amiably, and shook his head. ‘A tiger is a tiger. God knows. He is an animal often without shame. But I think — I think — that you might get one, or even one and a half, if you beat the narkul jungle by the Mahadeo pool to-morrow.’
Next day I did beat the jungle where the tall narkul grass waved its brown feathery tops over a sea of dark green; and we put up four tigers — a male, a female, and two full-grown cubs. If we only got two of them, that was not the fault of anyone but ourselves. The tona had worked.
Once, when shooting in Nepal, I camped not far — perhaps a mile or two — from a Tharu village. It was appallingly hot weather; the shade temperature ran about 115 degrees, and sometimes went considerably higher; and in the sun it was impossible to handle a rifle without a heavy leather guard. Our camp was pitched on the banks of a dried-up river bed; huge mango and lime trees marked, unmistakably, a village site long abandoned. Returning late one evening, after ten hours in the burning sun, I had taken my bath inside the kanats — the sidepieces of a tent, the whole of the top being open to the sky — and, clad simply but chastely in a bath towel, I was busy shaving at a small table right out in the open when I heard women’s voices just behind me. A bevy of Tharu women had descended on our camp. They came up to me, entirely unembarrassed, and were as frankly friendly, and as perseveringly curious, as a tame mongoose. One of them rubbed the back of an appreciative forefinger against the bare skin of my arm. ‘How white! How soft! Here, Mithi, feel his skin.’ Mithi — who had a jolly little Japanese-looking baby sitting astride her left hip — did feel my skin all right, and found it ‘very good.’
‘Why is your skin like that — all red in the face, and all white elsewhere? And how do you keep it so soft and cool? ’
It did n’t feel particularly soft to me, and it most indubitably had not felt cool for some months.
‘ What are you doing — rubbing your face with that thing?’
‘How can you shave without a knife?’
‘There is a knife — tucked away inside there.’ I was using the ‘known the world over’ instrument.
‘I can’t see any knife. Is the razor made of silver?’
‘I am a poor man, and far from home. How could it be made of silver? ’
They giggled appreciatively, for the ‘poor man, and far from home’ phrase is a kind of standard formula used by Indians whenever half a chance offers.
‘But it looks like silver,’ I was informed, doubt ingly.
‘Lots of things look like what they are not. A crocodile looks like a log, a python like a hanging branch. Why should this not look like silver?’
That went home. ‘True,’ they chimed in chorus; and the affair of the silver razor was docketed, and classified, and done with forevermore.
Then my magnifying mirror was discovered, as they bent closer in their talk. They squealed with delight. They had all to look, in turn; then their babies had to be made to look into the magic glass; they chattered like excited magpies. Every article on my camp table was picked up, and its use demanded. One does not go tiger shooting in Nepal with much in the way of a batterie de toilette, but they found everything new and vastly exciting — my curved nail scissors, the little machine for sharpening razor blades, a pair of hairbrushes in a leather case, the shaving soap in its nickel cover, — that was ‘not silver’ either, — and a tube of tooth paste. And all the time there was someone behind me who pensively rubbed a grubby paw against my skin, and murmured that it was white and soft — and ‘so cool.’
It was all rather delightful; they had the vivid curiosity of a child, and they had the child’s endless capacity for asking difficult questions. They felt their presence was not unwelcome, and they made themselves thoroughly at home. When I had had enough of them, I told them so. I arose in my semi-naked majesty; and, remembering the ‘puggy paws,’ I decreed: ‘I go again to bathe before I eat. Run away, all you women people and you baby people.’
Off they went, without a word, chattering and laughing, swinging easily through the open forest, each woman leaning over to the right to balance the weight of the baby on her left hip.
This bungalow stands on the edge of a great clearing in the forest. In front, for three miles or so, there is a huge plain, covered with coarse grass, and treeless. Here and there, where the level sinks, large pools of water lie open to the sun; you can see the lotus lilies resting on the surface, framed by the dark, green-veined, upturned leaves that look so cool in the scorching heat; and the air is heavy with the scent that the ‘yellow jewel’ distills. All round, ringing the view in every direction, are the sal trees now in full flower, their tops misty with a profusion of green and silver-gray blossom; behind these, the pioneers, the forest stands, rank on endless rank, for hundreds of square miles. It is all very beautiful, peaceful, and attractive; yet I dislike this bungalow, and this portion of the forest. Nothing has ever gone quite right with me here; in work, as in play, in official matters as in private affairs, it has been associated with misfortune, thwarted hopes, and unexplained disaster.
One experience — the most gruesome of all — is burned into my memory. Early in June, after a forced march of fifty miles on an elephant, a military friend of mine and I arrived at this bungalow about three in the afternoon of a blazing day. Our servants were many miles behind; we had nothing with us but small suitcases; we were leaving that evening by train for headquarters, where some urgent work required my immediate presence. The bungalow was opened for us by the resident caretaker. We had been up long before dawn; had been joggled across country on the back of a particularly tiring elephant for something over eleven hours, exposed all that time to the fierce heat of a June sun; had had practically no food and very little drink; and had certainly a sleepless night before us. We had but one thought — sleep. The verandah was impossible — the sun flamed full into it. I tried to move my bed, singlehanded, from the rather small and stuffy bedroom to the larger dining room adjoining, but found that impossible. The door was too narrow.
So, giving up all thought of improving matters, I threw my suitcase under the bed, and lay down, dressed as I was, in the stifling room, to snatch a few hours’ sleep before we had to set off again to catch the evening train. The door into the dining room I left open; the window — a very exiguous affair of perhaps four square feet — I fastened back so that no stray gust of wind could shut it. I remember lying on the wide string bed, looking drowsily at the squared roof beams above, and wondering what fool had painted them that distressingly red-hot color. The room was about eight feet by twelve, and the ceiling was perhaps ten feet high. Apart from the string bed, a rough toilet table with a lookingglass, and two heavy teakwood folding chairs, there was no furniture. The floor was of cement, with one tattered durrie, or thin cotton rug. The second door in the room — shut when I entered it, and unopened by me — led directly into the adjoining bathroom. I dropped asleep, still rather querulous about the purple-brown color of the roof beams and the infernal stuffiness of the room, the long outside wall of which caught the full force of the western sun.
It was a very troubled sleep. I was forever striving against an ever-menacing destiny; fate, in indescribably horrible but wholly vague forms, edged closer and closer to me; ‘crocodiles covered me with their cancerous kisses’; I was fast bound, while nameless tortures prepared themselves against me. I could remember little afterward but a deep impression of formless horror; it was not least in the mental agony of that uneasy sleep that everything was vague, nebulous, hidden, full of uncertain terrors and undefined but ever-nearing dangers. Eventually I struggled through the welter of fear and horror back again to semiconsciousness, to find that but a continuation of the dreadful dream.
The light from the window on my right — the strong golden light of the setting sun — struck on a palpitating mass of formless gray, and lost all its strength in so striking. Little motes vibrated uncertainly in an all-enveloping cloud of dull smoke color; there was no air with which to fill my lungs; my face, my eyes, my hands, prickled all over with the sense that millions of tiny hands were laid upon them. When I moved, there came a far-off, minute, but clear sound, like the rending of thin silk; and I felt the tiny hands strain and grasp and tear loose from their hold. Depression and despair weighed on me like a physical load; the tainted air smelt of decay and death. I was awake — partially aw ake at least — and almost sick with anger and dread. I could not understand it all; the solid basis of my world had changed; I remember the passion of resentment I felt at my inability to understand what it all meant. I wanted to do something — what had I to do? I did not know what had happened — what had happened? I must do something, at once. What was it I must do?
Probably that period of half-waking did not last long. Almost as soon as my eyes really opened, I grasped the incredible, the horrible, fact that the room in which I had been sleeping was tight packed, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, with spiders. I leaped from the bed, and tore my way out — the mass giving way before me with that thin, faint, rending sound like fine silk tearing. When I reached the dining room I hastily undressed; apart from a few spiders caught in the folds of my clothes, and dead or dying, all had disappeared. I turned back to the bedroom I had quitted. The frame of the doorway was filled, from side to side, from top to bottom, with spiders — the kind of spider with six or eight long hairlike legs, supporting a tiny brown-black body of the size and general shape of a grape pip. This wall of spiders filled the door frame, and pulsated slowly, in even regular beats, like some great beast breathing tranquilly. Long, rhythmic, even weaves descended slowly, regularly, from the top of the wall to the bottom. There seemed no tendency for the mass to fall toward the floor; there was certainly no tendency for it to spill into the dining room. It remained there like a curtain, moving in slow waves, barring the entrance to the bedroom, smoke-gray, menacing, and horrible.
I recollected my friend, who was sleeping in the room corresponding to mine, but on the east side of the bungalow. I went in. His room was sweet and clean; he was lying on his back, with his fists tight shut, sleeping like a tired child. Not a spider was to be seen in the dining room, or in his room, or on the verandah. But I could leave no one sleeping in that house while the sinister thing across the room continued to beat slowly. We stood together for some minutes watching it, he with more of scientific detachment in his attitude than I could attain to. In the bedroom I had left, spiders filled every chink, every nook and cranny, that we could see. They seemed to be, relatively, motionless; there were no signs of movement inside the mass, though each spider at times quivered or vibrated rapidly; at times that motion ceased. But the steady pulsating movement continued all the time; the front remained like a wall, neither crumbling nor sagging; and from its mass there emanated a hateful odor of corruption.
When our servants came, perhaps two hours later, they soaked rags in kerosene oil, and with these fastened to sticks, and with red-hot brands from the camp fire, they burned their way into the room. That was perhaps as horrible as anything — the writhing mass, the nauseating smell, the quivering heaps of scorched and dying creatures that cumbered the floor. In a very short time the room was clear, but I could not bring myself to enter it again. I took a chair, and sat under the deep velvet-black skies, with the clean night air on my face, the stars glowing softly above, the forest looming dark all round, and the fires gleaming fitfully far away, on the high slopes of the Nepal hills.