Saturday, May 21, 2016

From ‘The Indian Ferment. A Traveller's tale’ by H G Alexander

(From his travels in 1927-28)

…cultivators are all in the hands of the money-lenders. They can only work for seven or eight months in the year. It is suggested that the real purpose of Mr.Gandhi’s spinning wheel isto give the ryots something to occupy themselves with when otherwise they would be idle. Also it might keep them out of debt. But apparently it is almost an accepted custom to be in debt.

The attitude towards cattle seems to be rather like “the sanctity of human life” in the West. You may twist the tails of the cattle; you may beat them and prod them and neglect them, and starve them; but if you are guilty of the death of a cow, you have committed the greatest crime. I have seen a greater number of poor, diseased, starved cattle …since I reached India than I have ever seen before ……

When I was in Bulgaria one of the Bulgarians I met said that the way to tell where the west ends and the east begins is by observing whether men wear their shirts inside or outside their trousers….the Bulgarians wear the shirt inside, the Rumanians outside…..

The vast army of worthless sadhus …..who live by terrorizing the people by threats of Divine wrath into giving them food and money, seems to be one of the major curses of India.

…second-generation young Christians…..They are outcaste from Hinduism, belonging to the Christian community in some cases from necessity rather than conviction.

…the Principal…persuaded me to come and speak to his students…on “Whither the World is Tending” – the stupendous kind of question that Indians love to discuss…

I think the average sadhu repels me more than any other Indian type. He seems to make the idea of religion disgusting. Most of them have a cruel, disdainful expression, quite unlike the friendly countenance of the ordinary Hindu.

The most amazing feature of Delhi is not its endless ruined monuments of forgotten empires, but its myriads of vultures and kites…..Other Indian cities boast many kites and some vultures; but Delhi easily outdoes all the other cities I have visited…

…..Tagore’s young men at Santiniketan, seem to have learnt what was good from Western ways of thought without losing those fine qualities of intuition which are characteristic of Hindus…. My impression is that caste is breaking down very rapidly indeed among the younger educated Hindus; and when the older generation (over fifty) are dead, it will largely disappear in all the centres of culture….

We generally had rather silent meals (that is, of course, the old Hindu custom, but Tagore does not stick to it as a principle)…..When he does speak he expects his audience to attend, and to pay the respect due to an oracle; and he could give a poet’s justification for this….. Our (British) rule, he said, is in many ways better than that of other Western peoples in the East – American, Dutch, or French. We allow so much personal freedom……It is largely the inspiration of England that has stirred in India the passion to be free….

….C. F. Andrews…. His attitude is practically this, as I understand it. Let each religion be true to itself, respecting the others, and ready to learn from the others. A Christian living in that spirit is welcome anywhere among enlightened Indians.

The taxi-drivers in Calcutta are nearly all Sikhs and nearly all opium-eaters. They are furious drivers, but personally I found them safe.

The …..people of Orissa are, indeed, a sorrowful people. They are very poor…Many have to migrate to other places on labour contracts…..

….Indian students I certainly think many of them want to use force. I do not think they are restrained by cowardice, but rather by ancient Hindu tradition, perhaps also by reluctant consent to Mr.Gandhi’s principle of non-violence; and it may be, by older men who have learned wisdom and caution through experience.
…one impression that has been made upon me in India generally, but especially in Calcutta. It is the refinement of feature that is characteristic of a great proportion of Indians. Over and over again I have seen men wearing nothing but a loin-cloth doing heavy manual work, whose faces suggested intellectual distinction and spiritual refinement. When you meet people casually in the street it is quite impossible to judge of their education and social standing from their general appearance……my father-in-law…he told me that , according to Sir Francis Younghusband, you can travel from the Himalayas to the Cape Comorin and never meet a vulgar person. I think there is much in that saying. The struggle for existence in India is terribly severe, and no doubt it leads to much cunning and brutality; but the lust for wealth as such would seem to be rare…..

Assam was never conquered by the Moguls. Until the British conquest of Burma, whose king had recently conquered Assam, the Assamese had been for a long time outside India. Nevertheless, their religion is largely Hindu. I saw no traces of Buddhism in the Assam valley. The people mostly look more Indian than Mongolian, but many have strongly Mongolian features with Hindu colour. The hill tribes, south as well as north, are thoroughly Mongolian in appearance…..Why, it may be asked, if the country is so productive, do not the Assamese people increase and multiply and flourish exceedingly? Are they inherently lazy? …answer is contained in the one word “opium”. Take India as a whole, and the opium problem is a minor concern….Take the Assam valley alone and it is one of the gravest problems in the country….the Assamese people have been under its influence for about a century. ….In 1921…Gandhi visited Assam, and appealed to people to abstain…..Consumption dropped by nearly one-half in the year. The Government claim some part in this decrease….I do not think there is the least doubt that the real job was done by Gandhi and the other workers whom he inspired.

….I have often noticed that if an Indian starts off with an erroneous idea in his head it takes some patience and tact to eradicate it.

…. “inevitable long-windedness of all Indian speeches”

The Indian attitude towards birds is excellent. They leave them alone; and the birds respond by being more confiding than in any European country. But Indians seem to have no inquisitiveness about birds; they do not trouble to distinguish one from another, or study their habits…..

It is curious that our national game, cricket, hardly spreads beyond the English countries. Even Americans seem to find no merit in it. So it is the more remarkable that young India – especially in the towns – seems to play cricket with as much zest as young England…..there must be more in common between British and Indians than is usually supposed. I suggest that the practical British have deep down in their nature a strain of quiet contemplation which a few of them have developed into Quakerism, while the majority prefer to sit in silence round a cricket ground, or to stand bareheaded in the field waiting for the ball that never comes, or the turn to bat which passes so quickly. We are shy about our innate mysticism, so we work it out in cricket; the Indians are less shy, so they have not needed to evolve cricket for themselves; but their mystical nature finds it attractive now that we have introduced it to them.

India is immense and unfathomable; Assam, by contrast, compact and straightforward….

….the great snowy range of Kinchinjunga…..the first glow of the rising sun. It was a great sight, finer, said my father-in-law, than the dawn on Monte Rosa from the plains of Lombardy.

Our guide seems to be a real Christian and a real Indian. Too many Indian Christians I have met seem to be neither.

….I think the personal relationship of the Dutch to the Javanese is better than that of the British to the Indians. ….partly due to the fact that the Dutch live a more homelike life…..The position of the Eurasians is much better than in British India. An English business man told me that no white man in Java would speak disparagingly of half-castes……More remarkable is the fact that Dutch and Javanese “Tommies” serve together in the Army and fraternize without discord. If you suggested such a possibility to a British officer in the Indian Army he would certainly have a fit!

The people of Jave are nearly all nominally Muslims ….I saw neither the regular devotions nor the orderly democratic feeling, nor any of the harsher Muslim characteristics. I suspect that the people are still closer to the Hindus in life and thought than to the full-blooded Muslims of North India and the Middle East. Their culture is, of course, notoriously Hindu in origin; the batik work, the puppet-shows and drame, are derived from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

All the people I saw in Java looked better fed and more prosperous than India’s underfed millions. Generally speaking, they have much better houses.
Compared with the Indians, I think the Javanese are an unsophisticated, gay, happy-go-lucky people…I can well believe that they spend all their money as soon as they get it. …One day I saw a big youth in the street suddenly catch hold of his little brother’s foot and kiss his leg, apparently out of sheer elder-brotherly emotion. I think they live very much in the present. Perhaps all unsophisticated people do.

…..for four hundred years or so Malaya has been colonized by the Chinese; and today they form two-thirds of the population of Singapore and the backbone of all the towns in the country….thousands of Tamil labourers from South India come and work on the rubber estates and in the tin mines. As you travel through the country by train or motor-car you see Chinese everywhere and Indians nearly everywhere, and you begin to wonder where on earth the Malays can be. The explanation is that most Malays live by the rivers, and they do not take much part in the development of the country……A further complication arises from the fact that a good number of the present inhabitants of Malaya are recent immigrants from Sumatra or Java.
The Malays seem to live a placid, unambitious life….A good many of them have shown capacity as mechanics, motor-drivers, sea captains, and in various crafts; but a Malayan merchant, or a Malayan rubber-planter or tin-miner, is almost or quite unknown. …Some people think the Malays are a dying race – that they will gradually disappear under the pressure of their neighbours, especially the Chinese.

The [Malayan] jungle contains an immense variety of trees. Over twelve hundred species are known, which is a larger number than all the species found in India. Many of the forest trees grow straight for 50 or 100 feet before they have any branches. …The rapidity of growth is equally remarkable. Some of the bamboos grow six inches in one day…..To atone for the absence of flowers the Malayan jungle is very rich in butterflies. I have been seeing gorgeous butterflies everywhere since I reached India, but the butterflies of the Malayan jungle surpass all the others, alike in size, variety, and brilliance of colouring.

So long as the country remains prosperous the various communities – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and European – seem to live contentedly side by side…..though each community lives mainly to itself, and the Europeans suffer from the usual “superiority complex” of the white man. I fancy that the Chinese also regard all the other races, or at least the Europeans, with silent contempt…..The whole country is bent on getting rich quickly, and the Chinese certainly lead in the race. Nearly all the big houses of Penang and Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have Chinese names advertised on their gates, and the tawdriness of the display is not pleasing….They have “made the country”, and they are still making it, and they intend the fact to be known.

Practically all Malays are Muhammedans; and there are clauses in the treaties with the Sultans which may be interpreted as precluding Christian missions among Malays – or at least as precluding any Government support of mission institutions. Nearly all the mission work is among Chinese and Tamils.

…. That disgusting “superiority complex”, which is the hallmark of almost every Englishman outside his native land – the quality which our Continental neighbours less politely describe as “hypocrisy”.

I see in nearly all I meet, especially those one meets casually on trains and boats, a loss of refinement, of true gentleness, of that consideration and courtesy and self-restraint on which we English pride ourselves, The Englishman in the Tropics often ceases to be a gentleman.
The problem is not mainly political, British administration is very generally respected, in the eyes of many business men in the East the administrators are too generous to the “natives”. An American missionary in the school at Ipoh said that, after seeing the administration of the Dutch in Java and the Americans in the Philippines, he had the greatest respect for the British. Chinese and Indians have spoken to me of their respect for many of our administrators.

…..I met some more of the typical young English business men…The recognized opening for a conversation with a stranger about India is to abuse all Indians as incompetent, untrustworthy, deceitful, and so on. You laugh and remain silent ….it is no use trying to refute them for of course they know and you do not.

….Muhammedans in East Bengal….They are, as generally in India, ignorant and backward; and there are far more crimes of violence among them than among the Hindus

Mr.Gandhi enjoyed himself by stretching out his hand as if to catch one or two small infants who were running about near him; and when he did catch them they crowed with joy. I found it hard to feel that I was looking on one of the great souls who have shaken the world, he has not the “presence” of Tagore. Perhaps he could show it, but he prefers to keep his great soul veiled behind his marvelous humility. So what you see is a man full of simple human emotions: very quick to understand, with a genius for giving and inspiring trust. ….His eyes have, indeed, a beautiful expression, and when he comes to the point of something he is saying he looks at you with a quick glance that is very direct……. His face has the look of one who has undergone much spiritual conflict; but in his expression there is the peace that comes to those who have overcome.

I never spoke to Mrs. Gandhi, though she does speak a little English. I believe she several times told people in the kitchen to offer me more milk or what not; and she “took notice” when I was saying good-bye. She is a motherly woman, who is, I should think, a very good hausfrau; and she looks as if she shared pretty fully the burdens that have fallen upon her husband’s back. Yet I never saw them even exchange a glance. All the same, I am sure they know what is in one another’s mind.

…..hand-spinning ….Its moral value is, I think, absolutely proved. There appears to be less drinking in the villages that have taken it up. And it is bringing professional men into intimate association with the villagers, helping to form a union of hearts….

Part of a letter written to me by Mr. Gandhi ….. “….if a man has true religion in him it must show itself in the smallest details of life. ….The slightest irregularity in sanitary, social and political life is a sign of spiritual poverty. It is a sign of inattention, neglect of duty….”

…my impression of the ashram [Sabarmati]. One cannot but be aware of the contrast between this place and Santiniketan. The Satyagrahashram (the Soul-force Community) relies on a severe daily discipline, strict asceticism, and the regular performance of menial tasks; Gandhi is a strict Puritan. Tagore is a Poet. He relies on aesthetic expression, on releasing the soul of man, on silent meditation. Yet I think their goal is the same ….Tagore seems to doubt the efficacy of the way of renunciation, while Gandhi doubts the efficacy of the way of free growth. But it may well be that each method is needed for various types of men …..The Servants of India are following yet another road – in some respects closely parallel to Mr. Gandhi’s – to the same goal.

India is an unhappy land – unhappy and at the same time fascinating. She has a freedom of the soul – a freedom from the tyranny of convention – that seems to me to lie deeper than our political freedom, deeper even than our “freedom of thought” in the West.

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