Travel: India – Journey Resumed

The Sunday bazaar in Darjeeling is one of the sights of India. On that day the tea-pickers from the surrounding plantations are at liberty. Tea-gardens cover the hills in every direction. The pickers are mostly people of the hills, from the various tribes of Lepchas, Bhutias, and Ghoorkas. These are strong, vigorous races, distinguished from those of the plains by their robust figures and active motions. Having received their pay for the week, they come to purchase their supplies, and to invest a few coppers in whatever may please them. Supplies are brought in by Thibetans, Mongolians, and Indians from the plains. From every mountain path streams of people emerge, until by noon there is a surging mass of humanity numbering many thousands, filling the central portion of the town.

To one standing upon the hillside above the crowd, the sound of their voices comes up like the sound of many waters. As we mingle with the throng, we meet men and women from every nation,- white, black, brown, and yellow in color, and on that day there was at least one ” green ” man there, for I had never seen such a motley crowd of people, each one dressed in the style peculiar to his country. And these were outdone in point of strangeness by the curious trinkets and articles useful and otherwise, which they exposed for sale.

The climate of Darjeeling is salubrious, the temperature in summer not rising above eighty, nor descending below thirtyfive in winter. There are many desirable places of residence among the foot-hills of the mountains, where a semi-tropical climate may be enjoyed, where numerous ever-flowing streams of purest water from the snows above come tumbling down the mountain-sides, where trees, plants, fruits, and flowers of every variety grow in luxuriance. After spending a few days in this delightful place, I almost dreaded to return to the heat and bustle of the city. But time was pressing, and I had yet far to go.

As we glide along over the level plains toward Calcutta, let us take glimpses of the lowly Indian life which we see on every hand. India is emphatically an agricultural country. That this must be so is apparent when we consider the vast popula,tion which the land is called upon to support. Here in Bengal, taking the cities and country together, there are nearly five hundred people to the square mile, all of whom have to be supplied from this small area of soil, for the Indian is not an importer of food.

For economy of land, as well as for mutual protection, the houses of the farmers are gathered in villages. These are clustered as compactly together as possible, so that to form a house, three walls are all that will have to be built, and in some cases not so many. The material consists either of clear mud or of mud mixed with straw and dried in the sun. The walls are a foot in thickness, and without windows. The roof is thatched or covered with bamboo leaves. The houses are without floors, and almost without furniture. In the latter line, a woman could easily take on her back or under her arm the ordinary outfit of her home. For chairs and tables they have no use. In some cases a low, square frame lashed with strips of bamboo or leather serves for a bed at night and a sitting-place by day, but these are limited in number and are considered luxuries rather than necessities. The usual bed is a piece of matting upon a little bank of clay across one side of the one room of the house, or more likely upon the ground in front of the abode. There are thousands of such houses as these not only in the country villages, or ” bustis,” but in Calcutta., Bombay, and all the other cities. It is probably safe to say that three quarters of the people of India live in no better houses than those just described.

The land is generally cultivated in small parcels, each man’s lot being divided by boundaries which to a casual observer are invisible. Large fields of ghendri, sugar-cane, and rice, or ” paddy,” covering sometimes hundreds of acres, stretch away on the plains, and they seem almost alive with men and women who are carefully cultivating the growing crops. Much of the labor bestowed is spent in irrigation. For this purpose the water is elevated out of the ditches by various rude devices into small channels which overflow the soil. Perhaps the most common method is for two men or women to swing a basket between them, suspended by ropes. The operators stand about twelve feet apart, and dextrously keep the basket in motion, scooping it full of water, and emptying it upon the land after raising it two or three feet.

Cattle are numerous, but of the small and hump-shouldered variety peculiar to the country. In shows and zoological gardens they are styled the ” sacred cattle of India.” They are nothing more than the ordinary cattle, though the specimens are generally larger than the average. The cows have small udders, and yield only a quart or two at a milking. Through ages they have degenerated until they are almost worthless. Goats are plenty, but horses are scarce except in the cities, where a few are used for gharries and other carriages. But even in this vocation, they have a formidable rival in the agile little bullocks, which, hitched to their jaunty carts, will usually outstrip the horses. For burdens, oxen or donkeys are employed.

The agricultural implements are of the most primitive kind. They are the wooden point and prong for a plow, and the same threshing instruments and harrow that are seen in old Bible pictures. Oxen tread out the corn, and women grind at the mill just as they did in those countries four thousand years ago. In the cities are large mills where scores of women are employed in grinding meal for the market, and it is really surprising to witness the proficiency of such rude means in the hands of the simple natives. The meal may be had of any degree of fineness desired, and it is ground as even and true as our modern mills can do it. About sixty pounds’ weight of fine meal is a day’s work for two women.

Some have had the impression that India is a land of wealth,- that pearls and riches may almost be picked up. On the contrary, it is a land of poverty and destitution. It is stated, upon good authority, that there are fifty million people in that country who never have had their hunger satisfied. There appears to be, sad to say, no reason to doubt the statement. The ordinary wages of the working man is about ten cents a day. It is more frequently less, than more, than that. Women working at the mill, or carrying hod or stone on buildings, or doing navvy work on railways get three to five cents a day. And upon these pittances families must be supported. There are many, of course, who cannot obtain work even at those prices. From such an income, it will be seen that there is no chance to procure anything more than the bare necessities of existence. This does not leave much to lay out upon clothing or furniture. The household utensils usually consist of a metal platter, from which the family eat in common, and a few brazen jars or earthen water-pots.

In a country where rice is raised in great quantities, and where there are much cheaper varieties than the white rice which we purchase, many cannot afford to eat even the cheapest qualities. In such cases millet meal, or the meal of what is called ghendri, a seed that grows like broom-corn and is very prolific, is taken as a material for bread. Sometimes the seed is eaten raw or roasted, but generally it is ground into meal, and either boiled, or made into thin cakes with water, and baked. This, with a few cheap vegetables, forms the sole subsistence of a great many families. In other cases rice is ob tained and dried fish occasionally. The man eats first, and if there is anything left, the women and children have it.

Forks and knives are unknown. The food is taken with the fingers. Rice is generally eaten with a vegetable curry, or dressing, rendered pungent by various condiments. The two are thoroughly mixed with the fingers, then rolled into little balls by the thumb and two fingers of the right hand, and deftly tossed into the mouth, for the hand must not touch the lips.

Hotel life in India is not unpleasant in some respects. There are, upon all the routes of popular travel, hostelries kept as nearly after the English style as circumstances will permit. A few years ago dependence was mainly upon what are called ” dak bungalows.” Bungalow is the term for house, and is now applied to the residences of Europeans. ” Dak ” (pronounced dawk) means a stage of a journey, that is, a day’s travel. These places were built by the government, and left in charge of a servant, who let rooms to travelers at a nominal sum. As the traveler furnished his own bed, and generally his own food, he needed only shelter. But if he needed food, it was furnished at a small additional sum by the men in charge.

These bungalows are still maintained in some cities, and form very quiet and desirable places to stop. But at the hotels there is a large force of servants employed, and the wants of the guest are carefully attended to. The servants are men, and as they wear no shoes, they glide noiselessly in and about the rooms. They become particularly attentive about the time the guest is to leave, when one finds himself the recipient of many honors in the way of polite salaams. The easiest way out of the difficulty is to go to the clerk, hand him a couple of rupees with instructions to divide it up, and so let him settle the matter. Otherwise the servants do not hesitate to besiege the carriage as you drive away, insisting upon being “remembered.”

These servants are kind, docile, and obliging, and for one I acknowledge that I felt a strong sympathy for them, and a desire to see them benefited. It is very customary to see no tices in the rooms and corridors to the effect that ” guests are requested not to strike the servants.” But this does not prevent their getting many kicks and cuffs from white men who have far more temper than sense of right, or any other kind of sense. The poor servants take these things meekly, and still try to do their best.