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Title: Stories of the East
Author: Woolf, Leonard
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Many people did not like Jessop. He had rather a brutal manner
sometimes of telling brutal things--the truth, he called it. "They
don't like it," he once said to me in a rare moment of confidence.
"But why the devil shouldn't they? They pretend these sorts of things,
battle, murder, and sudden death, are so real--more real than white
kid gloves and omnibuses and rose leaves--and yet when you give them
the real thing, they curl up like school girls. It does them good, you
know, does them a world of good."

They didn't like it and they didn't altogether like him. He was a
sturdy thick set man, very strong, a dark reserved man with black
eyebrows which met over his nose. He had knocked about the world a
good deal. He appealed to me in many ways; I liked to meet him. He had
fished things up out of life, curious grim things, things which may
have disgusted but which certainly fascinated as well.

The last time I saw him we were both staying with Alderton, the
novelist. Mrs Alderton was away--recruiting after annual childbirth,
I think. The other guests were Pemberton, who was recruiting after his
annual book of verses, and Smith, Hanson Smith, the critic.

It was a piping hot June day, and we strolled out after dinner in the
cool moonlight down the great fields which lead to the river. It was
very cool, very beautiful, very romantic lying there on the grass above
the river bank, watching the great trees in the moonlight and the silver
water slipping along so musically to the sea. We grew silent and
sentimental--at least I know I did.

Two figures came slowly along the bank, a young man with his arm round
a girl's waist. They passed just under where we were lying without
seeing us. We heard the murmur of his words and in the shadow of the
trees they stopped and we heard the sound of their kisses.

I heard Pemberton mutter:

A boy and girl if the good fates please
Making love say,
The happier they.
Come up out or the light of the moon
And let them pass as they will, too soon
With the bean flowers boon
And the blackbird's tune
And May and June.

It loosed our tongues and we began to speak--all of us except
Jessop--as men seldom speak together, of love. We were sentimental,
romantic. We told stories of our first loves. We looked back with
regret, with yearning to our youth and to love. We were passionate
in our belief in it, love, the great passion, the real thing which had
just passed us by so closely in the moonlight.

We talked like that for an hour or so, I suppose, and Jessop never
opened his lips. Whenever I looked at him, he was watching the river
gliding by and he was growing. At last there was a pause; we were all
silent for a minute or two and then Jessop began to speak:

"You talk as if you believed all that: it's queer damned queer. A
boy kissing a girl in the moonlight and you call it love and poetry
and romance. But you know as well as I do it isn't. It's just a
flicker of the body, it will be cold, dead, this time next year."

He had stopped but nobody spoke and then he continued slowly, almost
sadly: "We're old men and middle-aged men, aren't we? We've all done
that. We remember how we kissed like that in the moonlight or no light
at all. It was pleasant; Lord, I'm not denying that--but some of us
are married and some of us aren't. We're middle-aged--well, think of
your wives, think of--" he stopped again. I looked round. The others
were moving uneasily. It was this kind of thing that people didn't
like in Jessop. He spoke again.

"It's you novelists who're responsible, you know. You've made a world
in which every one is always falling in love--but it's not this world.
Here it's the flicker of the body.

"I don't say there isn't such a thing. There is. I've seen it, but
it's rare, as rare as--as--a perfect horse, an Arab once said to me.
The real thing, it's too queer to be anything but the rarest; it's
the queerest thing in the world. Think of it for a moment, chucking out
of your mind all this business of kisses and moonlight and marriages.
A miserable tailless ape buzzed round through space on this half cold
cinder of an earth, a timid bewildered ignorant savage little beast
always fighting for bare existence. And suddenly it runs up against
another miserable naked tailless ape and immediately everything that
it has ever known dies out of its little puddle of a mind, itself, its
beastly body, its puny wandering desires, the wretched fight for
existence, the whole world. And instead there comes a flame of passion
for something in that other naked ape, not for her body or her mind or
her soul, but for something beautiful mysterious everlasting--yes
that's it the everlasting passion in her which has flamed up in him.
He goes buzzing on through space, but he isn't tired or bewildered or
ignorant any more; he can see his way now even among the stars.

"And that's love, the love which you novelists scatter about so
freely. What does it mean? I don't understand it; it's queer beyond
anything I've ever struck. It isn't animal--that's the point--or
vegetable or mineral. Not one man in ten thousand feels it and not
one woman in twenty thousand. How can they? It's a feeling, a passion
immense, steady, enduring. But not one person in twenty thousand ever
feels anything at all for more than a second, and then it's only a
feeble ripple on the smooth surface of their unconsciousness.

"O yes, we've all been in love. We can all remember the kisses we
gave and the kisses given to us in the moonlight. But that's the body.
The body's damnably exacting. It wants to kiss and to be kissed at
certain times and seasons. It isn't particular however; give it
moonlight and young lips and it's soon satisfied. It's only when we
don't pay for it that we call it romance and love, and the most we
would ever pay is a £5 note.

"But it's not love, not the other, the real, the mysterious thing.
That too exists, I've seen it, I tell you, but it's rare, Lord, it's
rare. I'm middle-aged. I've seen men, thousands of them, all over
the world, known them too, made it my business to know them, it interests
me, a hobby like collecting stamps. And I've only known two cases
of real love.

"And neither of them had anything to do with kisses and moonlight.
Why should they? When it comes, it comes in strange ways and places,
like most real things perversely and unreasonably. I suppose
scientifically it's all right--it's what the mathematician calls the
law of chances.

"I'll tell you about one of them."

There was a man--you may have read his books, so I wont give you
his name--though he's dead now--I'll call him Reynolds. He was at
Rugby with me and also at Corpus. He was a thin feeble looking chap,
very nervous, with a pale face and long pale hands. He was bullied a
good deal at school; he was what they call a smug. I knew him rather
well; there seemed to me to be something in him somewhere, some power
of feeling under the nervousness and shyness. I can't say it ever came
out, but he interested me.

I went East and he stayed at home and wrote novels. I read them; very
romantic they were too, the usual ideas of men and women and love.
But they were clever in many ways, especially psychologically, as it
was called. He was a success, he made money.

I used to get letters from him about once in three months, so when
he came travelling to the East, it was arranged that he would stay a
week with me. I was in Colombo at that time, right in the passenger
route. I found him one day on the deck of a P and O just the same as
I'd last seen him in Oxford, except for the large sun helmet on his
head and the blue glasses on his nose. And when I got him back to the
bungalow and began to talk with him on the broad verandah, I found
that he was still just the same inside too. The years hadn't touched
him anywhere, he hadn't in the ordinary sense lived at all. He had
stood aside--do you see what I mean?--from shyness, nervousness,
the remembrance and fear of being bullied, and watched other people
living. He knew a good deal about how other people think, the little
tricks and mannerisms of life and novels, but he didn't know how they
felt; I expect he had never felt anything himself, except fear and
shyness: he hadn't really ever known a man, and he had certainly
never known a woman.

Well, he wanted to see life, to understand it, to feel it. He had
travelled 7000 miles to do so. He was very keen to begin, he wanted
to see life all round, up and down, inside and out; he told me so as
we looked out on the palm trees and the glimpse of the red road beyond
and the unending stream of brown men and women upon it.

I began to show him life in the East. I took him to the clubs; the
club where they play tennis and gossip, the club where they play Bridge
and gossip, the club where they just sit in long chairs and gossip. I
introduced him to scores of men who asked him to have a drink, and to
scores of women who asked him whether he liked Colombo. He didn't get
on with them at all, he said 'No thank you' to the men and 'Yes, very
much' to the women. He was shy and felt uncomfortable, out of his
element with these fat flanelled merchants, fussy civil servants, and
their whining wives and daughters.

In the evening we sat on my verandah and talked. We talked about life
and his novels and romance and love even. I liked him, you know; he
interested me, there was something in him which had never come out.
But he had got hold of life at the wrong end somehow, he couldn't deal
with it or the people in it at all. He had the novelist's view, of
life and--with all respect to you, Alderton--it doesn't work.

I suppose the devil came into me that evening. Reynolds had talked so
much about seeing life that at last I thought: "By Jove, I'll show
him a side of life _he_'s never seen before at any rate." I called
the servant and told him to fetch two rickshaws.

We bowled along the dusty roads past the lake and into the native
quarter. All the smells of the East rose up and hung heavy upon the
damp hot air in the narrow streets. I watched Reynolds' face in the
moonlight, the scared look which always showed upon it: I very nearly
repented and turned back. Even now I'm not sure whether I'm sorry
that I didn't. At any rate I didn't, and at last we drew up in front
of a low mean looking house standing back a little from the road.

There was one of those queer native wooden doors made in two halves;
the top half was open and through it one saw an empty whitewashed room
lighted by a lamp fixed in the wall. We went in and I shut the door top
and bottom behind us. At the other end were two steps leading up to
another room. Suddenly there came the sound of bare feet running and
giggles of laughter, and ten or twelve girls, some naked and some half
clothed in bright red or bright orange cloths, rushed down the steps
upon us. We were surrounded, embraced, caught up in their arms and
carried into the next room. We lay upon sofas with them. There
was nothing but sofas and an old piano in the room.

They knew me well in the place,--you can imagine what it was--I
often went there. Apart from anything else, it interested me. The
girls were all Tamils and Sinhalese. It always reminded me somehow
of the Arabian Nights; that room when you came into it so bare and
empty, and then the sudden rush of laughter, the pale yellow naked
women, the brilliant colours of the cloths, the the white teeth, all
appearing so suddenly in the doorway up there at the end of the room.
And the girls themselves interested me; I used to sit and talk to
them for hours in their own language; they didn't as a rule understand
English. They used to tell me all about themselves, queer pathetic
stories often. They came from villages almost always, little native
villages hidden far away among rice fields and coconut trees, and they
had drifted somehow into this hovel in the warren of filth and smells
which we and our civilization had attracted about us.

Poor Reynolds, he was very uncomfortable at first. He didn't know
what to do in the least or where to look. He stammered out yes and
no to the few broken English sentences which the girls repeated like
parrots to him. They soon got tired of kissing him and came over to me
to tell me their little troubles and ask me for advice--all of them
that is, except one.

She was called Celestinahami and was astonishingly beautiful. Her
skin was the palest of pale gold with a glow in it, very rare in the
fair native women. The delicate innocent beauty of a child was in her
face; and her eyes, Lord, her eyes immense, deep, dark and melancholy
which looked as if they knew and understood and felt everything in
the world. She never wore anything coloured, just a white cloth wrapped
round her waist with one end thrown over the left shoulder. She carried
about her an air of slowness and depth and mystery of silence and of

She lay full length on the sofa with her chin on, her hands, looking
up into Reynolds' face and smiling at him. The white cloth had slipped
down and her breasts were bare. She was a Sinhalese, a cultivator's
daughter, from a little village up in the hills: her place was in the
green rice fields weeding, or in the little compound under the palm
trees pounding rice, but she lay on the dirty sofa and asked Reynolds
in her soft broken English whether he would have a drink.

It began in him with pity. 'I saw the pity of it, Jessop,' he said
to me afterwards, 'the pity of it.' He lost his shyness, he began to
talk to her in his gentle cultivated voice; she didn't understand a
word, but she looked up at him with her great innocent eyes and smiled
at him. He even stroked her hand and her arm. She smiled at him still,
and said her few soft clipped English sentences. He looked into her eyes
that understood nothing but seemed to understand everything, and then it
came out at last; the power to feel, the power that so few have, the
flame, the passion, love, the real thing.

It was the real thing, I tell you; I ought to know; he stayed on in
my bungalow day after day, and night after night he went down to that
hovel among the filth and smells. It wasn't the body, it wasn't kisses
and moonlight. He wanted her of course, he wanted her body and soul;
but he wanted something else: the same passion, the same fine strong
thing that he felt moving in himself. She was everything to him that was
beautiful and great and pure, she was what she looked, what he read in
the depths of her eyes. And she might have been--why not? She might
have been all that and more, there's no reason why such a thing
shouldn't happen, shouldn't have happened even. One can believe that
still. But the chances are all against it. She was a prostitute in a
Colombo brothel, a simple soft little golden-skinned animal with
nothing in the depths of the eyes at all. It was the law of chances at
work as usual, you know.

It was tragic and it was at the same time wonderfully ridiculous. At
times he saw things as they were, the bare truth, the hopelessness of
it. And then he was so ignorant of life, fumbling about so curiously
with all the little things in it. It was too much for him; he tried to
shoot himself with a revolver which he had bought at the Army and
Navy Stores before he sailed; but he couldn't because he had forgotten
how to put in the cartridges.

Yes, I burst in on him sitting at a table in his room fumbling with
the thing. It was one of those rotten old-fashioned things with a
piece of steel that snaps down over the chamber to prevent the
cartridges falling out. He hadn't discovered how to snap it back in
order to get the cartridges in. The man who sold him that revolver,
instead of an automatic pistol, as he ought to have done, saved his

And then I talked to him seriously. I quoted his own novel to him.
It was absurdly romantic, unreal, his novel, but it preached as so
many of them do, that you should face facts first and then live your
life out to the uttermost. I quoted it to him. Then I told him baldly
brutally what the girl was--not a bit what he thouget her, what his
passion went out to--a nice simple soft little animal like the bitch
at my feet that starved herself if I left her for a day. 'It's the
truth,' I said to him, 'as true as that you're really in love, in
love with something that doesn't exist behind those great eyes. It's
dangerous, damned dangerous because it's real--and that's why it's
rare. But it's no good shooting yourself with that thing. You've
got to get on board the next P and O, that's what you've got to do.
And if you wont do that, why practise what you preach and live your
life out, and take the risks.'

He asked me what I meant.

"The risks?" I said. "I can see what they are, and if you do take
them, you're taking the worst odds ever offered a man. But there they
are. Take the girl and see what you can make of life with her.
You can buy her out of that place for fifteen rupees."

I was wrong, I suppose. I ought to have put him in irons and shipped
him off next day. But I don't know, really I don't know.

He took the risks any way. We bought her out, it cost twenty rupees.
I got them a little house down the coast on the sea shore, a little
house surrounded by palm trees. The sea droned away sleepily right
under the verandah. It was to be an idyl of the East; he was to live
there for ever with her and write novels on the verandah.

And, by God, he was happy--at first. I used to go down there and
stay with them pretty often. He taught her English and she taught
him Sinhalese. He started to write a novel about the East: it would
have been a good novel I think, full of strength and happiness and
sun and reality--if it had been finished. But it never was. He
began to see the truth, the damned hard unpleasant truths that I had
told him that night in the Colombo bungalow. And the cruelty of it
was that he still had that rare power to feel, that he still felt. It
was the real thing, you see, and the real thing is---didn't I
say--immense, steady, enduring. It is; I believe that still. He was in
love, but he knew now what she was like. He couldn't speak to her and
she couldn't speak to him, she couldn't understand him. He was a
civilized cultivated intelligent nervous little man and she--she was
an animal, dumb and stupid and beautiful.

I watched it happening, I had foretold it, but I cursed myself for
not having stopped it, scores of times. He loved her but she tortured
him. People would say, I suppose, that she got on his nerves. It's a
good enough description. But the cruellest thing of all was that she
had grown to love him, love him like an animal; as a bitch loves her
master. Jessop stopped. We waited for him to go on but he didn't. The
leaves rustled gently in the breeze; the river murmured softly below
us; up in the woods I heard a nightingale singing. "Well, and then?"
Alderton asked at last in a rather peevish voice.

"And then? Damn that nightingale!" said Jessop. I wish I hadn't
begun this story. It happened so long ago: I thought I had forgotten
to feel it, to feel that I was responsible for what happened then.
There's another sort of love; it isn't the body and it isn't the flame;
it's the love of dogs and women, at any rate of those slow, big-eyed
women of the East. It's the love of a slave, the patient, consuming
love for a master, for his kicks and his caresses, for his kisses and
his blows. That was the sort of love which grew up slowly in Celestinahami
for Reynolds. But it wasn't what he wanted, it was that, I expect, more
than anything which got on his nerves.

She used to follow him about the bungalow like a dog. He wanted to
talk to her about his novel and she only understood how to pound and cook
rice. It exasperated him, made him unkind, cruel. And when he looked into
her patient, mysterious eyes he saw behind them what he had fallen in
love with, what he knew didn't exist. It began to drive him mad.

And she--she of course couldn't even understand what was the matter.
She saw that he was unhappy, she thought she had done something
wrong. She reasoned like a child that it was because she wasn't like the
white ladies whom she used to see in Colombo. So she went and bought
stays and white cotton stockings and shoes, and she squeezed herself
into them. But the stays and the shoes and stockings didn't do her any

It couldn't go on like that. At last I induced Reynolds to go away.
He was to continue his travels but he was coming back--he said so
over and over again to me and to Celestinahami. Meanwhile she was
well provided for; a deed was executed: the house and the coconut
trees and the little compound by the sea were to be hers--a generous
settlement, a donatio inter vivos, as the lawyers call it--void,
eh?--or voidable?--because for an immoral consideration. Lord! I'm
nearly forgetting my law, but I believe the law holds that only
future consideration of that sort can be immoral. How wise, how just,
isn't it? The past cannot be immoral; it's done with, wiped out--but
the future? Yes, it's only the future that counts.

So Reynolds wiped out his past and Celestinahami by the help of a
dirty Burgher lawyer and a deed of gift and a ticket issued by
Thomas Cook and Son for a berth in a P and O bound for Aden.
I went on board to see him off and I shook his hand and told him
encouragingly that everything would be all right.

I never saw Reynolds again but I saw Celestinahami once. It was at
the inquest two days after the Moldavia sailed for Aden. She was
lying on a dirty wooden board on trestles in the dingy mud-plastered
room behind the court. Yes, I identified her: Celestinahami--I never
knew her other name. She lay there in her stays and pink skirt and white
stockings and white shoes. They had found her floating in the sea
that lapped the foot of the convent garden below the little
bungalow--bobbing up and down in her stays and pink skirt and white
stockings and shoes.


Jessop stopped. No one spoke for a minute or two. Then Hanson Smith
stretched himself, yawned, and got up.

"Battle, murder, and sentimentality," he said. "You're as bad as the
rest of them, Jessop. I'd like to hear your other case--but it's too
late, I'm off to bed."


I had finished my hundred up--or rather he had--with the Colonel and
we strolled into the smoking room for a smoke and a drink rotund the
fire before turning in. There were three other men already round the
fire and they widened their circle to take us in. I didn't know them,
hadn't spoken to them or indeed to anyone except the Colonel in the
large gaudy uncomfortably comfortable hotel. I was run down, out of
sorts generally, and--like a fool, I thought now--had taken a week
off to eat, or rather to read the menus of interminable table d'hôte
dinners, to play golf and to walk on the "front" at Torquay.

I had only arrived the day before, but the Colonel (retired) a
jolly tubby little man--with white moustaches like two S's lying
side by side on the top of his stupid red lips and his kind choleric
eyes bulging out on a life which he was quite content never for a
moment to understand--made it a point, my dear Sir, to know every
new arrival within one hour after he arrived.

We got our drinks and as, rather forgetting that I was in England,
I murmured the Eastern formula, I noticed vaguely one of the other
three glance at me over his shoulder for a moment. The Colonel stuck
out his fat little legs in front of him, turning up his neatly shoed
toes before the blaze. Two of the others were talking, talking as men
so often do in the comfortable chairs of smoking rooms between ten
and eleven at night, earnestly, seriously, of what they call affairs,
or politics, or questions. I listened to their fat, full-fed, assured
voices in that heavy room which smelt of solidity, safety, horsehair
furniture, tobacco smoke, and the faint civilized aroma of whisky and
soda. It came as a shock to me in that atmosphere that they were
discussing India and the East: it does you know every now and again.
Sentimental? Well, I expect one is sentimental about it, having lived
there. It doesn't seem to go with solidity and horsehair furniture:
the fifteen years come back to one in one moment all in a heap.
How one hated it and how one loved it!

I suppose they had started on the Durbar and the King's visit. They
had got on to Indian unrest, to our position in India, its duties,
responsibilities, to the problem of East and West. They hadn't been
there of course, they hadn't even seen the brothel and café chantant
at Port Said suddenly open out into that pink and blue desert that
leads you through Africa and Asia into the heart of the East. But they
knew all about it, they had solved, with their fat voices and in their
fat heads, riddles, older than the Sphinx, of peoples remote and
ancient and mysterious whom they had never seen and could never
understand. One was, I imagine, a stockjobber, plump and comfortable
with a greasy forehead and a high colour in his cheeks, smooth shiny
brown hair and a carefully grown small moustache: a good dealer in the
market; sharp and confident, with a loud voice and shifty eyes. The
other was a clergyman: need I say more? Except that he was more of a
clergyman even than most clergymen, I mean that he wore tight
things--leggings don't they call them? or breeches?--round his calves.
I never know what it means: whether they are bishops or rural deans or
archdeacons or archimandrites. In any case I mistrust them even more
than the black trousers: they seem to close the last door for anything
human to get in through the black clothes. The dog collar closes up the
armour above, and below, as long as they _were_ trousers, at any rate
some whiff of humanity might have eddied up the legs of them and touched
bare flesh. But the gaiters button them up finally, irremediably, for

I expect he was an archdeacon: he was saying:

"You can't impose Western civilization upon an Eastern people--I
believe I'm right in saying that there are over two hundred millions
in our Indian Empire--without a little disturbance. I'm a Liberal
you know, I've been a Liberal my whole life--family tradition--though
I grieve to say I could _not_ follow Mr. Gladstone on the Home Rule
question. It seems to me a good sign, this movement, an awakening
among the people. But don't misunderstand me, my dear Sir, I am not
making any excuses for the methods of the extremists. Apart from my
calling--I have a natural horror of violence. Nothing can condone
violence, the taking of human life, it's savagery, terrible, terrible."

"They don't put it down with a strong enough hand," the stock-jobber
was saying almost fiercely. "There's too much Liberalism in the East,
too much namby-pambyism. It's all right here, of course, but it's not
suited to the East. They want a strong hand. After all they owe us
something: we aren't going to take all the kicks and leave them all
the halfpence. Rule 'em, I say, rule 'em, if you're going to rule
'em. Look after 'em, of course: give 'em schools, if they want
education--Schools, hospitals, roads, and railways. Stamp out the
plague, fever, famine. But let 'em know you are top dog. That's the
way to run an eastern country: I'm a white man, you're black; I'll
treat you well, give you courts and justice; but I'm the superior
race, I'm master here."

The man who had looked round at me when I said "Here's luck!" was
fidgeting about in his chair uneasily. I examined him more carefully.
There was no mistaking the cause of his irritation. It was written on
his face, the small close-cut white moustache, the smooth firm cheeks
with the deep red-and-brown glow on them, the innumerable wrinkles round
the eyes, and above all the eyes themselves, that had grown slow and
steady and unastonished, watching that inexplicable, meaningless march
of life under blazing suns. He had seen it, he knew. "Ah," I thought,
"he is beginning to feel his liver. If he would only begin to speak.
We might have some fun."

"H'm, h'm," said the archdeacon. "Of course there's something in what
you say. Slow and sure. Things may be going too fast, and, as I say,
I'm entirely for putting down violence and illegality with a strong
hand. And after all, my dear Sir, when you say we're the superior race
you imply a duty. Even in secular matters we must spread the light. I
believe--devoutly--I am not ashamed to say so--that we are. We're
reaching the people there, it's the cause of the unrest, we set them
an example. They desire to follow. Surely, surely we should help to
guide their feet. I don't speak without a certain knowledge. I take a
great interest, I may even say that I play my small part, in the
work of one of our great missionary societies. I see our young men,
many of them risen from the people, educated often, and highly educated
(I venture to think), in Board Schools. I see them go out full of high
ideals to live among those poor people. And I see them when they come
back and tell me their tales honestly, unostentatiously. It is always
the same, a message of hope and comfort. We are getting at the people,
by example, by our lives, by our conduct. They respect us."

I heard a sort of groan, and then, quite loud, these strange words:

"Kasimutal Rameswaramvaraiyil terintavan."

"I beg your pardon," said the Archdeacon, turning to the interrupter.

"I beg yours. Tamil, Tamil proverb. Came into my mind. Spoke without
thinking. Beg yours."

"Not at all. Very interesting. You've lived in India? Would you mind
my asking you for a translation?"

"It means 'he knows everything between Benares and Rameswaram.' Last
time I heard it, an old Tamil, seventy or eighty years old, perhaps--he
looked a hundred--used it of one of your young men. The young man, by
the bye, had been a year and a half in India. D'you understand?"

"Well, I'm not sure I do: I've heard, of course, of Benares, but
Rameswaram, I don't seem to remember the name."

I laughed; I could not help it; the little Anglo-Indian looked so
fierce. "Ah!" he said, "you don't recollect the name. Well, it's
pretty famous out there. Great temple--Hindu--right at the southern
tip of India. Benares, you know, is up north. The old Tamil meant that
your friend knew everything in India after a year and a half: he
didn't, you know, after seventy, after seven thousand years. Perhaps
you also don't recollect that the Tamils are Dravidians? They've been
there since the beginning of time, before we came, or the Dutch or
Portuguese or the Muhammadans, or our cousins, the other Aryans.
Uncivilized, black? Perhaps, but, if they're black, after all it's
_their_ suns, through thousands of years, that have blackened them.
They ought to know, if anyone does: but they don't, they don't pretend
to. But you two gentlemen, you seem to know everything between
Kasimutal--that's Benares--and Rameswaram, without having seen the
sun at all."

"My dear sir," began the Archdeacon pompously, but the jobber
interrupted him. He had had a number of whiskies and sodas, and was
quite heated. "It's very easy to sneer: it doesn't mean because you've
lived a few years in a place..."

"I? Thirty. But they--seven thousand at least."

"I say, it doesn't mean because you've lived thirty years in a place
that you know all about it. Ramisram, or whatever the damned place is
called, I've never heard of it and don't want to. You do, that's part of
your job, I expect. But I read the papers, I've read books too, mind you,
about India. I know what's going on. One knows enough--enough--data:
East and West and the difference: I can form an opinion--I've a right
to it even if I've never heard of Ramis what d'you call it. You've lived
there and you can't see the wood for the trees. We see it because we're
out of it--see it at a distance."

"Perhaps," said the Archdeacon "there's a little misunderstanding. The
discussion--if I may say so--is getting a little heated--unnecessarily,
I think. We hold our views. This gentleman has lived in the country. He
holds others. I'm sure it would be most interesting to hear them. But I
confess I didn't quite gather them from what he said."

The little man was silent: he sat back, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Then he smiled:

"I won't give you views," he said. "But if you like I'll give you what
you call details, things seen, facts. Then you can give me _your_
views on 'em."

They murmured approval.

"Let's see, it's fifteen, seventeen years ago. I had a district then
about as big as England. There may have been twenty Europeans in it,
counting the missionaries, and twenty million Tamils and Telegus. I
expect nineteen millions of the Tamils and Telegus never saw a white
man from one year's end to the other, or if they did, they caught a
glimpse of me under a sun helmet riding through their village on a
fleabitten grey Indian mare. Well, Providence had so designed it that
there was a stretch of coast in that district which was a barren
wilderness of sand and scrubby thorn jungle--and nothing else--for
three hundred miles; no towns, no villages, no water, just sand and
trees for three hundred miles. O, and sun, I forgot that, blazing
sun. And in the water off the shore at one place there were oysters,
millions of them lying and breeding at the bottom, four or five fathoms
down. And in the oysters, or some of them, were pearls."

Well, we rule India and the sea, so the sea belongs to us, and the
oysters are in the sea and the pearls are in the oysters. Therefore
of course the pearls belong to us. But they lie in five fathoms. How
to get 'em up, that's the question. You'd think being progressive
we'd dredge for them or send down divers in diving dresses. But we
don't, not in India. They've been fishing up the oysters and the pearls
there ever since the beginning of time, naked brown men diving feet
first out of long wooden boats into the blue sea and sweeping the
oysters off the bottom of the sea into baskets slung to their sides.
They were doing it centuries and centuries before we came, when--as
someone said--our ancestors were herding swine on the plains of Norway.
The Arabs of the Persian Gulf came down in dhows and fished up pearls
which found their way to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They still
come, and the Tamils and Moormen of the district come, and they fish
'em up in the same way, diving out of long wooden boats shaped and
rigged as in Solomon's time, as they were centuries before him and the
Queen of Sheba. No difference, you see, except that we--Government
I mean--take two-thirds of all the oysters fished up: the other third
we give to the diver, Arab or Tamil or Moorman, for his trouble
in fishing 'em up.

We used to have a Pearl Fishery about once in three years. It lasted
six weeks or two months just between the two monsoons, the only time
the sea is calm there. And I had, of course, to go and superintend it,
to take Government's share of oysters, to sell them, to keep order, to
keep out K. D.'s--that means Known Depredators--and smallpox and
cholera. We had what we called a camp, in the wilderness, remember, on
the hot sand down there by the sea: it sprang up in a night, a town, a
big town of thirty or forty thousand people, a little India, Asia
almost, even a bit of Africa. They came from all districts: Tamils,
Telegus, fat Chetties, Parsees, Bombay merchants, Sinhalese from
Ceylon, the Arabs and their negroes, Somalis probably, who used to be
their slaves. It was an immense gamble; everyone bought oysters for
the chance of the prizes in them: it would have taken fifty white men
to superintend that camp properly; they gave me one, a little boy of
twenty-four fresh-cheeked from England, just joined the service.
He had views, he had been educated in a Board School, won prizes,
scholarships, passed the Civil Service 'Exam'. Yes, he had views;
he used to explain them to me when he first arrived. He got some new
ones I think before he got out of that camp. You'd say he only saw
details, things happen, facts, data. Well, he did that too. He saw
men die--he hadn't seen that in his Board School--die of plague or
cholera, like flies, all over the place, under the trees, in the
boats, outside the little door of his own little hut. And he saw
flies, too, millions, billions of them all day long buzzing, crawling
over everything, his hands, his little fresh face, his food. And he
smelt the smell of millions of decaying oysters all day long and all
night long for six weeks. He was sick four or five times a day for
six weeks; the smell did that. Insanitary? Yes, very. Why is it allowed?
The pearls, you see, the pearls; you must get them out of the oysters
as you must get the oysters out of the sea. And the pearls are very
often small and embedded in the oyster's body. So you put all the
oysters, millions of them, in dug-out canoes in the sun to rot. They
rot very well in that sun, and the flies come and lay eggs in them,
and maggots come out of the eggs and more flies come out of the
maggots; and between them all, the maggots and the sun, the oysters'
bodies disappear, leaving the pearls and a little sand at the bottom
of the canoe. Unscientific? Yes, perhaps; but after all it's our
camp, our fishery--just as it was in Solomon's time? At any rate, you
see, it's the East. But whatever it is, and whatever the reason, the
result involves flies, millions of them and a smell, a stench--Lord!
I can smell it now.

There was one other white man there. He was a planter, so he said,
and he had come to "deal in," pearls. He dropped in on us out of a
native boat at sunset on the second day. He had a red face and a red
nose, he was unhealthily fat for the East: the whites of his eyes
were rather blue and rather red; they were also watery. I noticed
that his hand shook, and that he first refused and then took a whisky
and soda--a bad sign in the East. He wore very dirty white clothes
and a vest instead of a shirt; he apparently had no baggage of any
sort. But he was a white man, and so he ate with us that night and a
good many nights afterwards.

In the second week he had his first attack of D. T. We pulled him
through, Robson and I, in the intervals of watching over the oysters.
When he hadn't got D. T., he talked: he was a great talker, he also
had views. I used to sit in the evenings--they were rare--when the
fleet of boats had got in early and the oysters had been divided, in
front of my hut and listen to him and Robson settling India and Asia,
Africa too probably. We sat there in our long chairs on the sand
looking out over the purple sea, towards a sunset like blood shot
with gold. Nothing moved or stirred except the flies which were going
to sleep in a mustard tree close by; they hung in buzzing dusters,
billions of them on the smooth leaves and little twigs; literally it
was black with them. It looked as if the whole tree had suddenly
broken out all over into some disease of living black currants. Even
the sea seemed to move with an effort in the hot, still air; only now
and again a little wave would lift itself up very slowly, very wearily,
poise itself for a moment, and then fall with a weary little thud
on the sand.

I used to watch them, I say, in the hot still air and the smell of
dead oysters--it pushed up against your face like something
solid--talking, talking in their long chairs, while the sweat stood
out in little drops on their foreheads and trickled from time to time
down their noses. There wasn't, I suppose, anything wrong with Robson,
he was all right at bottom, but he annoyed me, irritated me in that
smell. He was too cocksure altogether, of himself, of his School Board
education, of life, of his 'views'. He was going to run India on
new lines, laid down in some damned Manual of Political Science out
of which they learn life in Board Schools and extension lectures. He
would run his own life, I daresay, on the same lines, laid down in
some other text book or primer. He hadn't seen anything, but he knew
exactly what it was all like. There was nothing curious, astonishing,
unexpected, in life, he was ready for any emergency. And we were all
wrong, all on the wrong tack in dealing with natives! He annoyed
me a little, you know, when the thermometer stood at 99, at 6 P.M., but
what annoyed me still more was that they--the natives!--were all
wrong too. They too had to be taught how to live--and die, too, I

But his views were interesting, very interesting--especially in the
long chairs there under the immense Indian sky, with the camp at our
hands--just as it had been in the time of Moses and Abraham--and
behind us the jungle for miles, and behind that India, three hundred
millions of them listening to the piping voice of a Board School boy,
are the inferior race, these three hundred millions--mark race,
though there are more races in India than people in Peckham--and we,
of course, are superior. They've stopped somehow on the bottom rung
of the ladder of which we've very nearly, if not quite, reached the
top. They've stopped there hundreds, thousands of years; but it won't
take any time to lead 'em up by the hand to our rung. It's to be done
like this: by showing them that they're our brothers, inferior
brothers; by reason, arguing them out of their superstitions, false
beliefs; by education, by science, by example, yes, even he did
not forget example, and White, sitting by his side with his red nose
and watery eyes, nodded approval. And all this must be done
scientifically, logically, systematically: if it were, a Commissioner
could revolutionize a province in five years, turn it into a Japanese
India, with all the riots as well as all the vakils and students
running up the ladder of European civilization to become, I suppose,
glorified Board School angels at the top. "But you've none of you got
any clear plans out here," he piped, "you never work on any system;
you've got no point of view. The result is"--here, I think, he
was inspired, by the dead oysters, perhaps--"instead or getting hold
of the East, it's the East which gets hold of you."

And White agreed with him, solemnly, at any rate when he was sane
and sober. And I couldn't complain of his inexperience. He was rather
reticent at first, but afterwards we heard much--too much--of his
experiences--one does, when a man gets D. T. He said he was a
gentleman, and I believe it was true; he had been to a public school,
Cheltenham or Repton. He hadn't, I gathered, succeeded as a gentleman
at home, so they sent him to travel in the East. He liked it, it suited
him. So he became a planter in Assam. That was fifteen years ago, but
he didn't like Assam: the luck was against him--it always was--and he
began to roll; and when a man starts rolling in India, well--He had
been a clerk in merchants' offices; he had Served in a draper's shop
in Calcutta; but the luck was always against him. Then he tramped up
and down India, through Ceylon, Burma; he had got at one time or another
to the Malay States, and, when he was very bad one day, he talked of
cultivating camphor in Java. He had been a sailor on a coasting tramp;
he had sold horses (which didn't belong to him) in the Deccan somewhere;
he had tramped day after day begging his way for months in native
bazaars; he had lived for six months with, and on, a Tamil woman in
some little village down in the south. Now he was 'dealing in' pearls.
"India's got hold of me," he'd say, "India's got hold of me and the

He had views too, very much like Robson's, with additions. 'The
strong hand' came in, and 'rule'. We ought to govern India more; we
didn't now. Why, he had been in hundreds of places where he was the
first Englishman that the people had ever seen. (Lord! think of that!)
He talked a great deal about the hidden wealth of India and
exploitation. He knew places where there was gold--workable too--only
one wanted a little capital--coal probably and iron--and then there
was this new stuff, radium. But we weren't go-ahead, progressive, the
Government always put difficulties in his way. They made 'the native'
their stalking-horse against European enterprise. He would work for
the good of the native, he'd treat him firmly but kindly--especially,
I thought, the native women, for his teeth were sharp and pointed and
there were spaces between each, and there was something about his chin
and jaw--_you_ know the type, I expect.

As the fishing went on we had less time to talk. We had to work. The
divers go out in the fleet of three hundred or four hundred boats
every night and dive until midday. Then they sail back from the pearl
banks and bring all their oysters into an immense Government enclosure
where the Government share is taken. If the wind is favourable, all
the boats get back by 6 P.M. and the work is over at 7. But if the wind
starts blowing off shore, the fleet gets scattered and boats drop in
one by one all night long. Robson and I had to be in the enclosure as
long as there was a boat out, ready to see that, as soon as it did get
in, the oysters were brought to the enclosure and Government got its

Well, the wind never did blow favourably that year. I sat in that
enclosure sometimes for forty-eight hours on end. Robson found
managing it rather difficult, so he didn't like to be left there
alone. If you get two thousand Arabs, Tamils, Negroes, and Moormen,
each with a bag or two of oysters, into an enclosure a hundred and
fifty yards by a hundred and fifty yards, and you only have thirty
timid native 'subordinates' and twelve native policemen to control
them--well, somehow or other he found a difficulty in applying his
system of reasoning to them. The first time he tried it, we very
nearly had a riot; it arose from a dispute between some Arabs and
Tamils over the ownership of three oysters which fell out of a bag.
The Arabs didn't understand Tamil and the Tamils didn't understand
Arabic, and, when I got down there, fetched by a frightened constable,
there were sixty of seventy men fighting with great poles--they
had pulled up the fence of the enclosure for weapons--and on the
outskirts was Robson running round like a districted hen with a white
face and tears in his blue eyes. When we got the combatants separated,
they had only killed one Tamil and broken nine or ten heads. Robson
was very upset by that dead Tamil, he broke down utterly for a minute
or two, I'm afraid.

Then White got his second attack. He was very bad: he wanted to kill
himself, but what was worse than that, before killing himself, he
wanted to kill other people. I hadn't been to bed for two nights and
I knew I should have to sit up another night in that enclosure as the
wind was all wrong again. I had given White a bed in my hut: it wasn't
good to let him wander in the bazaar. Robson came down with a white
face to tell me he had 'gone mad up there again'. I had to knock him
down with the butt end of a rifle; he was a big man and I hadn't slept
for forty bight hours, and then there were the flies and the smell of
those dead oysters.

It sounds unreal, perhaps a nightmare, all this told here to you
behind blinds and windows in this--"he sniffed--" in this smell
of--of--horsehair furniture and paint and varnish. The curious
thing is it didn't seem a nightmare out there. It was too real. Things
happened, anything might happen, without shocking or astonishing. One
just did one's work, hour after hour, keeping things going in that
sun which stung one's bare hands, took the skin off even my face,
among the flies add the smell. It wasn't a nightmare, it was just a
few thousand Arabs and Indians fishing tip oysters from the bottom
of the sea. It wasn't even new, one felt; it was old, old as the
Bible, old as Adam, so the Arabs said. One hadn't much time to think,
but one felt it and watched it, watched the things happen quietly,
unastonished, as men do in the East. One does one's work,--forty
eight hoursat a stretch doesn't leave one much time or inclination
for thinking,--waiting for things to happen. If you can prevent people
from killing one another or robbing one another, or burning down the
camp, or getting cholera or plague or small-pox, and if one can
manage to get one night's sleep in three, one is fairly satisfied;
one doesn't much worry about having to knock a mad gentleman from
Repton on the head with the butt end of a rifle between-whiles.

I expect that's just what Robson would call 'not getting hold of
India but letting India get hold of you.' Well, I said I wouldn't
give you views and I won't: I'm giving you facts: what I want, you
know, too is to give you the feeling of facts out there. After all
that is data for your views, isn't it? Things here _feel_ so
different; you seem so far from life, with windows and blinds and
curtains always in between, and then nothing ever happens, you never
wait for things to happen, never watch things happening here. You
are always doing things somehow--Lord knows what they are--according
I suppose to systems, views, opinions. But out there you live so near
to life, every morning you smell damp earth if you splash too much
in your tin bath. And things happen slowly, inexorably by fate, and
you--you don't do things, you watch with the three hundred millions.
You feel it there in everything, even in the sunrise and sunset, every
day, the immensity, inexorableness, mystery of things happening. You
feel the whole earth waking up or going to sleep in a great arch of
sky; you feel small, not very powerful. But who ever felt the sun set
or rise in London or Torquay either? It doesn't: you just turn on or
turn off the electric light.

White was very bad that night. When he recovered from being knocked
down by the rifle, I had to tie him down to the bed. And then Robson
broke down--nerves, you know. I had to go back to the enclosure and I
wanted him to stay and look after White in the hut--it wasn't safe
to leave him alone even tied down with cord to the camp bed. But
this was apparently another emergency to which the manual system did
not apply. He couldn't face it alone in the hut with that man tied to
the bed. White was certainly not a pretty sight writhing about there,
and his face--have you ever seen a man in the last stages of D.T.? I
beg pour pardon, I suppose you haven't. It isn't nice, and White was
also seeing things, not nice either: not snakes you know as people do
in novels when they get D.T., but things which had happened to him,
and things which he had done--they weren't nice either--and curious
ordinary things distorted in a most unpleasant way. He was very much
troubled by snipe: hundreds of them kept on rising out of the
bed from beside him with that shrill 'cheep! cheep!' of theirs: he
felt their soft little feathered bodies against his bare skin as they
fluttered up from under him somewhere and flew out of the window.
It threw him into paroxysms of fear, agonies: it made one, I admit,
feel chilly round the heart to hear him pray one to stop it.

And Robson was also not a nice sight. I hate seeing a sane man break
down with fear, mere abject fear. He just sat down at last on a
cane-bottomed chair and cried like a baby. Well, that did him some
good, but he wasn't fit to be left alone with White. I had to take
White down to the enclosure, and I tied him to a post with coir rope
near the table at which I sat there. There was nothing else to do. And
Robson came too and sat there at my side through the night watching
White, terrified but fascinated.

Can you picture that enclosure to yourself down on the sandy shore
with its great fence of rough poles cut in the jungle, lighted by a
few flares, torches dipped in cocoanut oil: and the white man tied to
a pole raving, writhing in the flickering light which just showed too
Robson's white scared little free? And in the intervals of taking
over oysters and settling disputes between Arabs and Somalis and
Tamils and Moormen, I sat at the table writing a report (which had to
go by runner next morning) on a proposal to introduce the teaching
of French in 'English schools' in towns. That wasn't a very good
report. White gave us the whole history of his life between ten P.M.
and four A.M. in the morning. He didn't leave much to the imagination;
a parson would have said that in that hour the memory of his sins came
upon him--O, I beg your pardon. But really I think they did. I thought
I had lived long enough out there to have heard without a shock anything
that men can do and do do--especially white men who have 'gone under'.
But I hadn't: I couldn't stomach the story of White's life told by
himself. It wasn't only that he had robbed and swindled himself through
India Up and down for fifteen years. That was bad enough, for there
wasn't a station where he hadn't swindled and bamboozled his fellow
white men. But it was what he had done when he got away 'among the
natives'--to men, and women too, away from 'civilization', in the
jungle villages and high up in the mountains. God! the cold, civilized,
corrupted cruelty of it. I told you, I think, that his teeth were
pointed and spaced out in his mouth.

And his remorse was the most horrible thing, tied to that post
there, writhing under the flickering light of the flare: the remorse
of fear--fear of punishment, of what was coming, of death, of the
horrors, real horrors and the phantom horrors of madness.

Often during the night there was nothing to be heard in the enclosure
but his screams, curses, hoarse whispers of fear. We seemed alone
there in the vast stillness of the sky: only now and then a little
splash from the sea down on the shore. And then would come a confused
murmur from the sea and a little later perhaps the wailing voice of
one man calling to another from boat to boat across the water "Abdulla!
Abdulla!" And I would go out on to the shore. There were boats, ten,
fifteen, twenty, perhaps, coming in from the banks, sad, mysterious,
in the moonlight, gliding in with the little splashing of the great
round oars. Except for the slow moving of the oars one would have
thought they were full of the dead, there was not a movement on board,
until the boats touched the sand. Then the dark shadows, which lay
like dead men about the boats, would leap into life--there would
rise a sudden din of hoarse voices, shouting, calling, quarrelling.
The boats swarmed with shadows running about, gesticulating, staggering
under sacks of oysters, dropping one after the other over the boats'
sides into the sea. The sea was full of them and soon the shore too,
Arabs, negroes, Tamils, bowed under the weight of the sacks. They came
up dripping from the sea. They burst with a roar into the enclosure:
they flung down their sacks of oysters with a crash. The place was
full of swaying struggling forms: of men calling to one another in
their different tongues: of the smell of the sea.

And above everything one could hear the screams and prayers of the
madman writhing at the post. They gathered about him, stared at him.
The light of the flares fell on their dark faces, shining and dripping
from the sea. They looked calm, impassive, stern. It shone too on the
circle of eyes: one saw the whites of them all round him: they seemed
to be judging him, weighing him: calm patient eyes of men who watched
unastonished the procession of things. The Tamils' squat black figures
nearly naked watched him silently, almost carelessly. The Arabs in
their long dirty nightshirts, blackbearded, discussed him earnestly
together with their guttural voices. Only an enormous negro, towering
up to six feet six at least above the crowd, dressed in sacks and an
enormous ulster, with ten copper coffee pots slung over his back and
a pipe made of a whole cocoanut with an iron tube stuck in it in his
hand, stood smiling mysteriously.

And White thought they weren't real, that they were devils of Hell
sent to plague and torture him. He cursed them, whispered at them,
howled with fear. I had to explain to them that the Sahib was not well,
that the sun had touched him, that they must move away. They understood.
They salaamed quietly, and moved away slowly, dignified.

I don't know how many times this didn't happen during the night. But
towards morning White began to grow very weak. He moaned perpetually.
Then he began to be troubled by the flesh. As dawn showed grey in the
east, he was suddenly shaken by convulsions horrible to see. He
screamed for someone to bring him a woman, and, as he screamed, his
head fell back: he was dead. I cut the cords quickly in a terror of
haste, and covered the horror of the face. Robson was sitting in a
heap in his chair: he was sobbing, his face in his hands.

At that moment I was told I was wanted on the shore. I went quickly.
The sea looked cold and grey under the faint light from the East. A
cold little wind just ruffled the surface of the water. A solitary
boat stood out black against the sky, just throbbing slowly up and
down on the water close in shore. They had a dead Arab on board, he
had died suddenly while diving, they wanted my permission to bring
the body ashore. Four men waded out to the boat: the corpse was lifted
out and placed upon their shoulders. They waded back slowly: the feet
of the dead man stuck out, toes pointing up, very stark, over the
shoulders of the men in front. The body was laid on the sand. The
bearded face of the dead man looked very calm, very dignified in the
faint light. An Arab, his brother, sat down upon the sand near his
head. He covered himself with sackcloth. I heard him weeping. It
was very silent, very cold and still on the shore in the early dawn.

A tall figure stepped forward, it was the Arab sheik, the leader of
the boat. He laid his hand on the head of the weeping man and spoke
to him calmly, eloquently, compassionately. I didn't understand Arabic,
but I could understand what he was saying. The dead man had lived, had
worked, had died. He had died working, without suffering, as men should
desire to die. He had left a son behind him. The speech went on calmly,
eloquently, I heard continually the word Khallas--all is over,
finished. I watched the figures outlined against the grey sky--the
long lean outline of the corpse with the toes sticking up so straight
and stark, the crouching huddled figure of the weeping man and the
tall upright sheik standing by his side. They were motionless, sombre,
mysterious, part of the grey sea, of the grey sky.

Suddenly the dawn broke red in the sky. The sheik stopped, motioned
silently to the four men. They lifted the dead man on to their
shoulders. They moved away down the shore by the side of the sea
which began to stir under the cold wind. By their side walked the
sheik, his hand laid gently on the brother's arm. I watched them
move away, silent, dignified. And over the shoulders of the men I
saw the feet of the dead man with the toes sticking up straight
and stark.

Then I moved away too, to make arrangements for White's burial:
it had to be done at once.

* * * *

There was silence in the smoking-room. I looked round. The Colonel
had fallen asleep with his mouth open. The jobber tried to look
bored, the Archdeacon was, apparently, rather put out.

"Its too late, I think," said the Archdeacon, "to--Dear me, dear
me, past one o'clock". He got up. "Don't you think you've chosen
rather exceptional circumstances, out of the ordinary case?"

The Commissioner was looking into the few red coals that were all
that was left of the fire.

"There's another Tamil proverb," he said: "When the cat puts his
head into a pot, he thinks all is darkness."


Yalpanam is a very large town in the north of Ceylon; but nobody who
suddenly found himself in it would believe this. Only in two or three
streets is there any bustle or stir of people. It is like a gigantic
village that for centuries has slept and grown, and sleeps and grows,
under a forest of cocoanut trees and the fierce sun. All the streets
are the same, dazzling dusty roads between high fences made of the
dried leaves of the cocoanut palms. Behind the fences, and completely
hidden by them, are the compounds; and in the compounds still more
hidden under the palms and orange and lime trees are the huts and
houses of the Tamils who live there.

The north of the town lies, as it has lain for centuries, sleeping
by the side of the blue lagoon, and there is a hut standing now in a
compound by the the side of the lagoon, where it has stood for
centuries. In this hut there lived a man called Chellaya who was by
caste a Brahman, and in the compound next to Chellaya's lived another
Brahman, called Chittampalam; and in all the other 50 or 60 compounds
around them lived other Brahmans. They belonged to the highest of all
castes in Yalpanam: and they could not eat food with or touch or
marry into any other caste, nor could they carry earth on their heads
or work at any trade, without being defiled or losing caste. Therefore
all the Brahmans live together in this quarter of the town, so that
they may not be defiled but may marry off their sons and daughters to
daughters and sons of other Brahmans. Chellaya and Chittampalam and
all the Brahmans knew that they and their fathers and their fathers'
fathers had lived in the same way by the side of the blue lagoon under
the palm trees for many thousands of years. They did no work, for
there was no need to work. The dhobi or washer caste man, who washed
the clothes of Brahmans and of no other caste, washed their white
cloths and in return was given rice and allowed to be present at
weddings and funerals. And there was the barber caste man who shaved
the Brahmans and no other caste. And half a mile from their compounds
were their Brahman rice fields in which Chellaya and each of the other
Brahmans had shares; some shares had descended to them from their
fathers and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers and so on from
the first Brahmans, and other shares had been brought to them as dowry
with their wives. These fields were sown twice a year, and the work
of cultivation was done by Mukkuwa caste men. This is a custom, that
Mukkuwa caste men cultivate the rice fields of Brahmans, and it had
been a custom for many thousands of years.

Chellaya was forty five and Chittampalam was forty two, and they had
lived, as all Brahmans lived, in the houses in which they had been
born. There can be no doubt that quite suddenly one of the gods, or
rather devils, laid a spell upon these two compounds. And this is how
it happened.

Chellaya had married, when he was 14, a plump Brahman girl of 12 who
had borne him three sons and two daughters. He had married off both
his daughters without giving very large dowries and his sons had all
married girls who had brought them large dowries. No man ought to have
been happier, though his wife was too talkative and had a sharp tongue.
And for 45 years Chellaya lived happily the life which all good Brahmans
should live. Every morning he ate his rice cakes and took his bath at
the well in his compound and went to the temple of Siva. There he
talked until midday to his wife's brother and his daughter's husband's
father about Nallatampi, their neighbour, who was on bad terms with
them, about the price of rice, and about a piece of land which he had
been thinking of buying for the last five years. After the midday
meal of rice and curry, cooked by his wife, he dozed through the
afternoon; and then, when the sun began to lose its power, he went
down to the shore of the blue lagoon and sat there until nightfall.

This was Chellaya's passion, to sit by the side of the still, shining,
blue waters and look over them at the far-off islands which flickered
and quivered in the mirage of heat. The wind, dying down at evening,
just murmured in the palms behind him. The heat lay like something
tangible and soothing upon the earth. And Chellaya waited eagerly for
the hour when the fishermen come out with their cast-nets and wade
out into the shallow water after the fish. How eagerly he waited all
day for that moment: even in the temple when talking about Nallatampi,
whom he hated, the vision of those unruffled waters would continually
rise up before him, and of the lean men lifting their feet so gently,
first one and then the other, in order not to make a splash or a
ripple, and bending forward with the nets in their hands ready to
cast. And then the joy of the capture, the great leaping twisting
silver fish in the net at last. He began to hate his compound and his
fat wife and the interminable talk in the temple, and those long dreary
evenings when he stood under his umbrella at the side of his rice
field and watched the Mukkuwas ploughing or sowing or reaping.

As Chellaya grew older he became more and more convinced that the
only pleasure in life was to be a fisher and to catch fish. This
troubled him not a little, for the Fisher caste is a low caste and
no Brahman had ever caught a fish. It would be utter pollution and
losing of caste to him. One day however when he went down to sit
in his accustomed place by the side of the lagoon, he found a
fisherman sitting on the sand there mending his net.

"Fisher," said Chellaya, "could one who has never had a net in
his hand and was no longer young learn how to cast it?"

Chellaya was a small round fat man, but he had spoken with great
dignity. The fisher knew at once that he was a Brahman and salaamed,
touching the ground with his forehead.

"Lord," he said, "the boy learns to cast the net when he is still at
his mother's breast."

"O foolish dog of a fisher," said Chellaya pretending to be very
angry, "can you not understand? Suppose one who was not a fisher
and was well on in years wished to fish--for a vow or even for
play--could such a one learn to cast the net?"

The old fisherman screwed up his wrinkled face and looked up at
Chellaya doubtfully.

"Lord," he said, "I cannot tell. For how could such a thing be? To
the fisher his net, as the saying is. Such things are learnt when
one is young, as one learns to walk."

Chellaya looked out over the old man's head to the lagoon. Another
fisherman was stealing along in the water ready for the cast. Ah,
swish out flew the net. No, nothing--yes, O joy, a gleam of silver
in the meshes. Chellaya made up his mind suddenly.

"Now, look here, fellow,--tell me this; could you teach me to cast
a net?"

The old man covered his mouth with his hand, for it is not seemly
that a fisher should smile in the presence of a Brahman.

"The lord is laughing at me," he said respectfully.

"I am not laughing, fellow. I have made a vow to Muniyappa that if he
would take away the curse which he laid upon my son's child I would
cast a net nightly in the lagoon. Now my son's child is well.
Therefore if you will take me tomorrow night to a spot where no one
will see us and bring me a net and teach me to cast it, I will give
you five measures of rice. And if you speak a word of this to anyone,
I will call down upon your head and your child's head ten thousand
curses of Muniyappa."

It is dangerous to risk being cursed by a Brahman, so the fisherman
agreed and next evening took Chellaya to a bay in the lagoon and
showed him how to cast the net. For an hour Chellaya waded about in
the shallow water experiencing a dreadful pleasure. Every moment he
glanced over his shoulder to the land to make sure that nobody was
in sight; every moment came the pang that he was the first Brahman to
pollute his caste by fishing; and every moment came the keen joy of
hope that this time the net would swish out and fall in a gentle
circle upon a silver fish.

Chellaya caught nothing that night, but he had gone too far to turn
back. He gave the fisherman two rupees for the net, and hid it under
a rock, and every night he went away to the solitary creek, made a
little pile of his white Brahman clothes on the sand, and stepped into
the shallow water with his net. There he fished until the sun sank. And
sometimes now he caught fish which very reluctantly he had to throw
back into the water, for he was afraid to carry them back to his wife.

Very soon a strange rumour began to spread in the town that the Brahman
Chellaya had polluted his caste by fishing. At first people would not
believe it; such a thing could not happen, for it had never happened
before. But at last so many people told the story,--and one man had
seen Chellaya carrying a net and another had seen him wading in the
lagoon--that everyone began to believe it, the lower castes with great
pleasure and the Brahmans with great shame and anger.

Hardly had people begun to believe this rumour than an almost stranger
thing began to be talked of. The Brahman Chittampalam, who was
Chellaya's neighbour, had polluted his caste, it was said, by
carrying earth on his head. And this rumour also was true and it
happened in this way.

Chittampalam was a taciturn man and a miser. If his thin scraggy
wife used three chillies, where she might have done with two for the
curry, he beat her soundly. About the time that Chellaya began to fish
in secret, the water in Chittampalam's well began to grow brackish.
It became necessary to dig a new well in the compound, but to dig a
well means paying a lower caste man to do the work; for the earth that
is taken out has to be carried away on thehead, and it is pollution for
a Brahman to carry earth on his head. So Chittampalam sat in his
compound thinking for many days how to avoid paying a man to dig a new
well: and meanwhile the taste of the water from the old well became
more and more unpleasant. At last it became impossible even for
Chittampalam's wife to drink the water; there was only one way out of
it; a new well must be dug and he could not bring himself to pay for
the digging: he must dig the well himself. So every night for a week
Chittampalam went down to the darkest corner of his compound and dug a
well and carried earth on his head and thereby polluted his caste.

The other Brahmans were enraged with Chellaya and Chittampalam and,
after abusing them and calling them pariahs, they cast them out for
ever from the Brahman caste and refused to eat or drink with them or
to talk to them; and they took an oath that their children's children
should never marry with the grandsons and granddaughters of Chellaya
and Chittampalam. But if people of other castes talked to them of the
matter, they denied all knowledge of it and swore that no Brahman had
ever caught fish or carried earth on his head. Chittampalam was not
much concerned at the anger of the Brahmans, for he had saved the hire
of a well-digger and he had never taken pleasure in the conversation
of other Brahmans and, besides, he shortly after died.

Chellaya, being a small fat man and of a more pleasant and therefore
more sensitive nature, felt his sin and the disapproval of his friends
deeply. For some days he gave up his fishing, but they were weary days
to him and he gained nothing, for the Brahmans still refused to talk
to him. All day long in the temple and in his compound he sat and
thought of his evenings when he waded in the blue waters of the lagoon,
and of the little islands resting like plumes of smoke or feathers
upon the sky, and of the line of pink flamingoes like thin posts at
regular intervals set to mark a channel, and of the silver gleam of
darting fish. In the evening, when he knew the fishermen were taking
out their nets, his longing became intolerable: he dared not go down
to the lagoon for he knew that his desire would master him. So for
five nights he sat in his compound, and, as the saying is, his fat went
off in desire. On the sixth night he could stand it no longer; once
more he polluted his caste by catching fish.

After this Chellaya no longer tried to struggle against himself but
continued to fish until at the age of fifty he died. Then, as time
went on, the people who had known Chellaya and Chittampalam died too,
and the story of how each had polluted his caste began to be forgotten.
Only it was known in Yalpanam that no Brahman could marry into those
two families, because there was something wrong with their caste. Some
said that Chellaya had carried earth on his head and that Chittampalam
had caught fish; in any case the descendants of Chellaya and
Chittampalam had to go to distant villages to find Brahman wives and
husbands for their sons and daughters.

Chellaya's hut and Chittampalam's hut still stand where they stood
under the cocoanut trees by the side of the lagoon, and in one lives
Chellaya, the great-great-great-grandson of Chellaya who caught
fish, and in the other Chittampalam, the great-great-great-grandson
of Chittampalam who carried earth on his head. Chittampalam has a
very beautiful daughter and Chellaya has one son unmarried. Now this
son saw Chittampalam's daughter by accident through the fence of the
compound, and he went to his father and said:

"They say that our neighbour's daughter will have a big dowry; should
we not make a proposal of marriage?"

The father had often thought of marrying his son to Chittampalam's
daughter, not because he had seen her through the compound fence but
because he had reason to believe that her dowry would be large. But he
had never mentioned it to his wife or to his son, because he knew that
it was said that an ancestor of Chittampalam had once dug a well and
carried earth on his head. Now however that his son himself suggested
the marriage, he approved of the idea, and, as the custom is, told his
wife to go to Chittampalam's house and look at the girl. So his wife
went formally to Chittampalam's house for the visit preparatory to an
offer of marriage, and she came back and reported that the girl was
beautiful and fit for even her son to marry.

Chittampalam had himself often thought of proposing to Chellaya that
Chellaya's son should marry his daughter, but he had been ashamed to
do this because he knew that Chellaya's ancestor had caught fish and
thereby polluted his caste. Otherwise the match was desirable, for he
would be saved from all the trouble of finding a husband for her in
some distant village. However, if Chellaya himself proposed it, he
made up his mind not to put any difficulties in the way. The next time
that the two met, Chellaya made the proposal and Chittampalam accepted
it and then they went back to Chellaya's compound to discuss the
question of dowry. As is usual in such cases the father of the girl
wants the dowry to be small and the father of the boy wants it to be
large, and all sorts of reasons are given on both sides why it should
be small or large, and the argument begins to grow warm. The argument
became so warm that at last Chittampalam lost his temper and said:

"One thousand rupees! Is that what you want? Why, a fisher should
take the girl with no dowry at all!"

"Fisher!" shouted Chellaya. "Who would marry into the pariah caste,
that defiles itself by digging wells and carrying earth on its head?
You had better give two thousand rupees to a pariah to take your
daughter out of your house."

"Fisher! Low caste dog!" shouted Chittampalam.

"Pariah!" screamed Chellaya.

Chittampalam rushed from the compound and for many days the two
Brahmans refused to talk a word to one another. At last Chellaya's
son, who had again seen the daughter of Chittampalam through the
fence of the compound, talked to his father and then to Chittampalam,
and the quarrel was healed and they began to discuss again the question
of dowry. But the old words rankled and they were still sore, and as
soon as the discussion began to grow warm it ended once more by their
calling each other "Fisher" and "Pariah." The same thing has happened
now several times, and Chittampalam is beginning to think of going to
distant villages to find a husband for his daughter. Chellaya's son is
very unhappy; he goes down every evening and sits by the waters of the
blue lagoon on the very spot where his great-great-great-grandfather
Chellaya used to sit and watch the fishermen cast their nets.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Stories of the East" ***

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