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CHAPTER XLVIII: Starting for Allahabad - Lower Berths in Sleepers - Elderly Ladies have Preference of Berths - An American Lady Takes One Anyhow - How Smythe Lost his Berth - How He Got Even - The Suttee
Grief can take care of itself; but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.
- Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
We left Bombay for Allahabad by a night train. It is the custom of the country to avoid day travel when it can conveniently be done. But there is one trouble: while you can seemingly "secure" the two lower berths by making early application, there is no ticket as witness of it, and no other producible evidence in case your proprietorship shall chance to be challenged. The word "engaged" appears on the window, but it doesn't state who the compartment is engaged, for. If your Satan and your Barney arrive before somebody else's servants, and spread the bedding on the two sofas and then stand guard till you come, all will be well; but if they step aside on an errand, they may find the beds promoted to the two shelves, and somebody else's demons standing guard over their master's beds, which in the meantime have been spread upon your sofas.
You do not pay anything extra for your sleeping place; that is where the trouble lies. If you buy a fare-ticket and fail to use it, there is room thus made available for someone else; but if the place were secured to you it would remain vacant, and yet your ticket would secure you another place when you were presently ready to travel.
However, no explanation of such a system can make it seem quite rational to a person who has been used to a more rational system. If our people had the arranging of it, we should charge extra for securing the place, and then the road would suffer no loss if the purchaser did not occupy it.
The present system encourages good manners - and also discourages them. If a young girl has a lower berth and an elderly lady comes in, it is usual for the girl to offer her place to this late comer; and it is usual for the late comer to thank her courteously and take it. But the thing happens differently sometimes. When we were ready to leave Bombay my daughter's satchels were holding possession of her berth - a lower one. At the last moment, a middle-aged American lady swarmed into the compartment, followed by native porters laden with her baggage. She was growling and snarling and scolding, and trying to make herself phenomenally disagreeable; and succeeding. Without a word, she hoisted the satchels into the hanging shelf, and took possession of that lower berth.
On one of our trips Mr. Smythe and I got out at a station to walk up and down, and when we came back Smythe's bed was in the hanging shelf and an English cavalry officer was in bed on the sofa which he had lately been occupying. It was mean to be glad about it, but it is the way we are made; I could not have been gladder if it had been my enemy that had suffered this misfortune. We all like to see people in trouble, if it doesn't cost us anything. I was so happy over Mr. Smythe's chagrin that I couldn't go to sleep for thinking of it and enjoying it. I knew he supposed the officer had committed the robbery himself, whereas without a doubt the officer's servant had done it without his knowledge. Mr. Smythe kept this incident warm in his heart, and longed for a chance to get even with somebody for it. Sometime afterward the opportunity came, in Calcutta. We were leaving on a 24-hour journey to Darjeeling. Mr. Barclay, the general superintendent, has made special provision for our accommodation, Mr. Smythe said; so there was no need to hurry about getting to the train; consequently, we were a little late.
When we arrived, the usual immense turmoil and confusion of a great Indian station were in full blast. It was an immoderately long train, for all the natives of India were going by it somewhither, and the native officials were being pestered to frenzy by belated and anxious people. They didn't know where our car was, and couldn't remember having received any orders about it. It was a deep disappointment; moreover, it looked as if our half of our party would be left behind altogether. Then Satan came running and said he had found a compartment with one shelf and one sofa unoccupied, and had made our beds and had stowed our baggage. We rushed to the place, and just as the train was ready to pull out and the porters were slamming the doors to, all down the line, an officer of the Indian Civil Service, a good friend of ours, put his head in and said: -
"I have been hunting for you everywhere. What are you doing here? Don't you know - - "
The train started before he could finish. Mr. Smythe's opportunity was come. His bedding, on the shelf, at once changed places with the bedding - a stranger's - that was occupying the sofa that was opposite to mine. About ten o'clock we stopped somewhere, and a large Englishman of official military bearing stepped in. We pretended to be asleep. The lamps were covered, but there was light enough for us to note his look of surprise. He stood there, grand and fine, peering down at Smythe, and wondering in silence at the situation. After a bit be said: -
"Well!" And that was all.
But that was enough. It was easy to understand. It meant: "This is extraordinary. This is high-handed. I haven't had an experience like this before."
He sat down on his baggage, and for twenty minutes we watched him through our eyelashes, rocking and swaying there to the motion of the train. Then we came to a station, and he got up and went out, muttering: "I must find a lower berth, or wait over." His servant came presently and carried away his things.
Mr. Smythe's sore place was healed, his hunger for revenge was satisfied. But he couldn't sleep, and neither could I; for this was a venerable old. car, and nothing about it was taut. The closet door slammed all night, and defied every fastening we could invent. We got up very much jaded, at dawn, and stepped out at a way station; and, while we were taking a cup of coffee, that Englishman ranged up alongside, and somebody said to him:
"So you didn't stop off, after all?"
"No. The guard found a place for me that had been, engaged and not occupied. I had a whole saloon car all to myself - oh, quite palatial! I never had such luck in my life."
That was our car, you see. We moved into it, straight off, the family and all. But I asked the English gentleman to remain, and he did. A pleasant man, an infantry colonel; and doesn't know, yet, that Smythe robbed him of his berth, but thinks it was done by Smythe's servant without Smythe's knowledge. He was assisted in gathering this impression.
The Indian trains are manned by natives exclusively. The Indian stations except very large and important ones - are manned entirely by natives, and so are the posts and telegraphs. The rank and file of the police are natives. All these people are pleasant and accommodating. One day I left an express train to lounge about in that perennially ravishing show, the ebb and flow and whirl of gaudy natives, that is always surging up and down the spacious platform of a great Indian station; and I lost myself in the ecstasy of it, and when I turned, the train was moving swiftly away. I was going to sit down and wait for another train, as I would have done at home; I had no thought of any other course. But a native official, who had a green flag in his hand, saw me, and said politely:
"Don't you belong in the train, sir?"
"Yes." I said.
He waved his flag, and the train came back! And he put me aboard with as much ceremony as if I had been the General Superintendent. They are kindly people, the natives. The face and the bearing that indicate a surly spirit and a bad heart seemed to me to be so rare among Indians - so nearly non-existent, in fact - that I sometimes wondered if Thuggee wasn't a dream, and not a reality. The bad hearts are there, but I believe that they are in a small, poor minority. One thing is sure: They are much the most interesting people in the world - and the nearest to being incomprehensible. At any rate, the hardest to account for. Their character and their history, their customs and their religion, confront you with riddles at every turn-riddles which are a trifle more perplexing after they are explained than they were before. You can get the facts of a custom - like caste, and Suttee, and Thuggee, and so on - and with the facts a theory which tries to explain, but never quite does it to your satisfaction. You can never quite understand how so strange a thing could have been born, nor why.
For instance - the Suttee. This is the explanation of it:
A woman who throws away her life when her husband dies is instantly joined to him again, and is forever afterward happy with him in heaven; her family will build a little monument to her, or a temple, and will hold her in honor, and, indeed, worship her memory always; they will themselves be held in honor by the public; the woman's self-sacrifice has conferred a noble and lasting distinction upon her posterity. And, besides, see what she has escaped: If she had elected to live, she would be a disgraced person; she could not remarry; her family would despise her and disown her; she would be a friendless outcast, and miserable all her days.
Very well, you say, but the explanation is not complete yet. How did people come to drift into such a strange custom? What was the origin of the idea? "Well, nobody knows; it was probably a revelation sent down by the gods." One more thing: Why was such a cruel death chosen - why wouldn't a gentle one have answered? "Nobody knows; maybe that was a revelation, too."
No - you can never understand it. It all seems impossible. You resolve to believe that a widow never burnt herself willingly, but went to her death because she was afraid to defy public opinion. But you are not able to keep that position. History drives you from it. Major Sleeman has a convincing case in one of his books. In his government on the Nerbudda he made a brave attempt on the 28th of March, 1828, to put down Suttee on his own hook and without warrant from the Supreme Government of India. He could not foresee that the Government would put it down itself eight months later. The only backing he had was a bold nature and a compassionate heart. He issued his proclamation abolishing the Suttee in his district. On the morning of Tuesday - note the day of the week - the 24th of the following November, Ummed Singh Upadhya, head of the most respectable and most extensive Brahmin family in the district, died, and presently came a deputation of his sons and grandsons to beg that his old widow might be allowed to burn herself upon his pyre. Sleeman threatened to enforce his order, and punish severely any man who assisted; and he placed a police guard to see that no one did so. From the early morning the old widow of sixty-five had been sitting on the bank of the sacred river by her dead, waiting through the long hours for the permission; and at last the refusal came instead. In one little sentence Sleeman gives you a pathetic picture of this lonely old gray figure: all day and all night "she remained sitting by the edge of the water without eating or drinking." The next morning the body of the husband was burned to ashes in a pit eight feet square and three or four feet deep, in the view of several thousand spectators. Then the widow waded out to a bare rock in the river, and everybody went away but her sons and other relations. All day she sat there on her rock in the blazing sun without food or drink, and with no clothing but a sheet over her shoulders.
The relatives remained with her and all tried to persuade her to desist from her purpose, for they deeply loved her. She steadily refused. Then a part of the family went to Sleeman's house, ten miles away, and tried again to get him to let her burn herself. He refused, hoping to save her yet.
All that day she scorched in her sheet on the rock, and all that night she kept her vigil there in the bitter cold. Thursday morning, in the sight of her relatives, she went through a ceremonial which said more to them than any words could have done; she put on the dhaja (a coarse red turban) and broke her bracelets in pieces. By these acts she became a dead person in the eye of the law, and excluded from her caste forever. By the iron rule of ancient custom, if she should now choose to live she could never return to her family. Sleeman was in deep trouble. If she starved herself to death her family would be disgraced; and, moreover, starving would be a more lingering misery than the death by fire. He went back in the evening thoroughly worried. The old woman remained on her rock, and there in the morning he found her with her dhaja still on her head. "She talked very collectedly, telling me that she had determined to mix her ashes with those of her departed husband, and should patiently wait my permission to do so, assured that God would enable her to sustain life till that was given, though she dared not eat or drink. Looking at the sun, then rising before her over a long and beautiful reach of the river, she said calmly, 'My soul has been for five days with my husband's near that sun; nothing but my earthly frame is left; and this, I know, you will in time suffer to be mixed with his ashes in yonder pit, because it is not in your nature or usage wantonly to prolong the miseries of a poor old woman.'"
He assured her that it was his desire and duty to save her, and to urge her to live, and to keep her family from the disgrace of being thought her murderers. But she said she was not afraid of their being thought so; that they had all, like good children, done everything in their power to induce her to live, and to abide with them; and if I should consent I know they would love and honor me, but my duties to them have now ended. I commit them all to your care, and I go to attend my husband, Ummed Singh Upadhya, with whose ashes on the funeral pile mine have been already three times mixed."
She believed that she and he had been upon the earth three several times as wife and husband, and that she had burned herself to death three times upon his pyre. That is why she said that strange thing. Since she had broken her bracelets and put on the red turban she regarded herself as a corpse; otherwise she would not have allowed herself to do her husband the irreverence of pronouncing his name. "This was the first time in her long life that she had ever uttered her husband's name, for in India no woman, high or low, ever pronounces the name of her husband."
Major Sleeman still tried to shake her purpose. He promised to build her a fine house among the temples of her ancestors upon the bank of the river and make handsome provision for her out of rent-free lands if she would consent to live; and if she wouldn't he would allow no stone or brick to ever mark the place where she died. But she only smiled and said, "My pulse has long ceased to beat, my spirit has departed; I shall suffer nothing in the burning; and if you wish proof, order some fire and you shall see this arm consumed without giving me any pain."
Sleeman was now satisfied that he could not alter her purpose. He sent for all the chief members of the family and said he would suffer her to burn herself if they would enter into a written engagement to abandon the suttee in their family thenceforth. They agreed; the papers were drawn out and signed, and at noon, Saturday, word was sent to the poor old woman. She seemed greatly pleased. The ceremonies of bathing were gone through with, and by three o'clock she was ready and the fire was briskly burning in the pit. She had now gone without food or drink during more than four days and a half. She came ashore from her rock, first wetting her sheet in the waters of the sacred river, for without that safeguard any shadow which might fall upon her would convey impurity to her; then she walked to the pit, leaning upon one of her sons and a nephew - the distance was a hundred and fifty yards.
"I had sentries placed all around, and no other person was allowed to approach within five paces. She came on with a calm and cheerful countenance, stopped once, and casting her eyes upwards, said, 'Why have they kept me five days from thee, my husband?' On coming to the sentries her supporters stopped and remained standing; she moved on, and walked once around the pit, paused a moment, and while muttering a prayer, threw some flowers into the fire. She then walked up deliberately and steadily to the brink, stepped into the centre of the flame, sat down, and leaning back in the midst as if reposing upon a couch, was consumed without uttering a shriek or betraying one sign of agony."
It is fine and beautiful. It compels one's reverence and respect - no, has it freely, and without compulsion. We see how the custom, once started, could continue, for the soul of it is that stupendous power, Faith; faith brought to the pitch of effectiveness by the cumulative force of example and long use and custom; but we cannot understand how the first widows came to take to it. That is a perplexing detail.
Sleeman says that it was usual to play music at the suttee, but that the white man's notion that this was to drown the screams of the martyr is not correct; that it had a quite different purpose. It was believed that the martyr died prophecying; that the prophecies sometimes foretold disaster, and it was considered a kindness to those upon whom it was to fall to drown the voice and keep them in ignorance of the misfortune that was to come.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XLIX: Pyjamas - Day Scene in India - Clothed in a Turban and a Pocket Handkerchief - Land Parceled Out - Established Village Servants - Witches in Families - Hereditary Midwifery - Destruction of Girl Babies - Wedding Display - Tiger-Persuader - Hailstorm Discourages - The Tyranny of the Sweeper - Elephant Driver - Water Carrier - Curious Rivers - Arrival at Allahabad - English Quarter - Lecture Hall Like a Snowstorm - Private Carriages - A Milliner - Early Morning - The Squatting Servant - A Religious Fair