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Indian History Sourcebook:
Sir Monier Monier-Williams:
Camp Life in India, 1850

MY only room was, of course, a tent. It had four doors and no windows, and a fifth door leading into a kind of lean-to, or small annex, fitted up with a large bath. Happily no one need trouble himself with a portable bath in India, because this indispensable convenience is found everywhere. The tent had a lining of blue and yellow chintz, and for a carpet a stout blue and white cotton cloth laid on flax straw. All the doors had two coverings, or rather flaps, one of the same material as the tent, the other a kind of wire screen, called a chick, to let in air, and keep out as far as possible inquisitive intruders---not men and women, but huge bees, wasps, grasshoppers, squirrels, snakes, and all manner of winged and creeping things innumerable. For furniture there were two or three chairs, a dressing-table, and a good iron bedstead with hard mattresses, woolen pillows, and mosquito curtains, well tucked in all round. Let the reader, then, imagine me comfortably ensconced, after my month's voyages and travels, within my four canvas walls, and looking forward with pleasant anticipations to an undisturbed sleep in a veritable bed---my first since leaving England.

I go through every needful purificatory rite in my strange lavatory, and emerge refreshed from my tent door to peep at the scene outside and take my bearings. I find that we are in a large field or common, on one side of the Mehmoodabad station. The camp consists of about a dozen tents, all under large spreading trees, with which the whole park-like country round is beautifully wooded. Most of the trees are new to me---the mango, the banyan, the pipal, the tamarind, the nim, and the

Japanese acacia with its lovely yellow flowers. No tent is ever pitched under a tamarind. It is supposed, I believe, to exhale too much carbonic acid during the nighttime. The mango and nim are the tent-pitcher's favorite trees. Under one mango there is a large pavilion-like erection for the collector and his wife. Then there is another double tent, which serves as a dining-room and drawing-room, of ample dimensions, fitted up with carpets, tables, bookcases, easy-chairs, sewing-machine, and harmonium: two or three others for visitors like myself; another for the baby and its ayahs; another for the Portuguese butler; and of course a capacious tent, with annexes, which together serve for the collector's kutchery, magisterial court, and other offices.

On one side under the dense foliage of a banyan is a circular canvas erection without any roof. This is the kitchen, where excellent dinners are cooked by means of two bricks and a hole in the ground. A little removed from the tents is the stable, an open space quite unprotected, except by foliage, where four Arab horses and two ponies are tethered by their heels, each attended by its man. Near them stand carriages, carts, and a curious vehicle called a tonga, usually drawn by two ponies. It has two seats back to back, suspended on two wheels and is covered by an awning. Not far off an all but nude Bhisti, dark as a Negro, is seen plying his occupation. He supplies the camp with water, by means of two waterskins slung over the back of a bullock. Ranging about the field in promiscuous places are other bullocks, buffaloes, goats, sheep, geese, ducks, and fowls. The bullocks are for the carts, the buffaloes and goats for producing milk and butter. The other creatures come in usefully as raw material, out of which the excellent dinners before alluded to are supplied. A sheep in these country places only costs, I am told, about four rupees, or eight shillings. It is, however, a melancholy reflection that infliction of death is essential to the maintenance of an Englishman's life. For life is everywhere exuberant around me, and every living thing seems to enjoy itself, as if it were certain of being unmolested. Natives never willingly destroy life. They cannot enter into an Englishman's desire for venting his high spirits on a fine day by killing game of some.kind. "Live and let live" is their rule of conduct towards the inferior creation.

I walk about admiring every living creature, especially the birds---the hoopoo with its lovely crest hopping about near me, the doves very like those at home, the bright parrots, the jays, the woodpeckers. Then little gray and brown streaked squirrels are playing all around me. They jump about with wonderful agility, peer in at the tent doors, and try to secure little bits of cotton for their nests. The sounds are not always melodious. I hear a screeching note above my head. It comes from a kind of gray and red toucan seated trustfully on a branch, and quite undisturbed by my presence. Then another discordant cry, and a rush---a number of natives are driving away a troop of big, gray, mischievous monkeys, some with little baby-monkeys clinging to them. They soon repel the invaders, but only by shouting in rather harsh vernacular, "The monkey-people, the monkey-people!" To shoot a monkey would be nothing short of sacrilege. I venture to follow the retreating intruders, but am arrested by hedges of prickly pear. Then I fall into ecstasies over the creepers, many of them of gigantic size, which twine themselves everywhere, covering hedges, bushes, and bees with their brilliant red, orange, and white flowers.

I must not omit to mention that dotted about the field are mounted and unmounted sepoys, with here and there a belted government servant (called a patti-wala, or patta-wala, because distinguished by a belt)---all within call---all ready to answer instantaneously to the sahib's summons, and eager to execute his behests. As to the big collector sahib himself, in the eyes of the people of his district he is every inch a king. He speaks like one, acts like one, and really has the power of one. He says to one man, "Come," and he cometh, and to another "Go," and he goeth. His title of collector gives a very inadequate idea of his real duties and authority; unless it be taken to mean that in him all the administrative functions of the district are collected and comprehended. He not only collects the revenue, but has high judicial powers, and the whole welfare of a small territory is committed to him. He superintends police, civil engineering, road-making, rural economy, municipal government, sanitation, education, every conceivable matter.

But if every collector is a small king, every Englishman in India is regarded as a petty prince. Obsequious natives watch his movements, and hang upon his words. I try to stroll about, but as I circle leisurely round the compound, attendant satellites hover about my path. I am evidently expected to develop wants of some kind or other in the course of my ramble. I ransack my store of correct Hindustani just imported from Europe for the most polite way of requesting to be left alone; but I feel as helpless as a child, and as shy as a new boy at school. Disconcerted and humiliated, I long for a little temporary obscurity, and hastily hide my head within the walls of my tent. But my tenacious followers are not to be shaken off so easily. I am conscious of being vigilantly watched through my barrier of canvas. By way of experiment I utter the magical formula, "Qui hai?" and a dusky form seems to rise out of the ground as if by magic. There he stands in an attitude of abject reverence and attention, waiting for me to issue my commands either in the best Gujarat or purest Hindustani. But I do not rise to the occasion. I am not sure whether to be exhilarated by the opportunity of bringing my knowledge of Indian languages into play, or depressed by an uncomfortable consciousness of blank inability to deliver myself of any well-turned and highly idiomatic sentence expressive of a simple desire to know the dinner-hour. Just at this juncture I hear a commanding voice call out in the distance "Khana lao." This is the collector's brief and business-like order for dinner. I repair with relief to the drawing-room and dining-room. The collector and his wife, beaming with hospitality, make me sit down at a well-appointed dinner-table. I have a French menu placed before me. I eat a dinner cooked with Parisian skill, I drink wine fit for an emperor, and am waited on by a stately butler and half a dozen stately waiters in imposing costumes, who move about with noiseless tread behind my chair, and anticipate every eccentricity of my appetite. I am evidently on enchanted ground, and can only think of Aladdin in the "Arabian Nights."

Dinner over, we sit out in the open air. The moon is shining with a luster unknown in Northern latitudes. We recline on lounging-chairs round a blazing wood fire, not sorry to wrap ourselves up in our warm plaids. I retire early to my tent and compose myself for the luxurious slumber I had anticipated. But I am too excited to sleep immediately. With difficulty I gain the borderland between consciousness and unconsciousness. What is that sound, half snort, half snuffle, close to my head?

I start, and sit up. Can it be the Brahmani bull I saw just before dinner roaming about at large in full enjoyment of a kind of sacred independence? Cautiously and guardedly I open my mosquito curtains, intending to seize the nearest weapon of defense. Clink, clink! Clank, clank! Thank goodness, that must be the guard parading close to my tent; and sure enough there are sounds of a rush, and a chase, and a genuine bull's bellow, which gradually diminish and fade away in the distance.

Again I compose myself, but as night advances begin to be aware that a number of other strange sounds are intensifying, outside and inside my tent---croaks, squeaks, grunts, chirps, hums, buzzes, whizzes, whistles, rustles, flutters, scuffles, scampers, and nibbles. Harmless sounds proceeding from harmless creatures! I reason with myself. A toad is attracted by the water in my bathroom, a rat has scented out my traveling-biscuits, mosquitoes and moths are tryint to work their way through my curtains, a vampire bat is hanging from the roof of my tent, crickets and grasshoppers are making themselves at home on my floor. "Quite usual, of course," I say to myself, "in these hot climates, and quite to be expected!" Ah, but that hissing sound! Do not cobras hiss? The hissing subsides, and is succeeded by a melancholy moan. Is that the hooting of an owl? No! the moan has changed to a prolonged yell, increasing in an alarming manner. Yell is taken up by yell, howl by howl. Awful sounds come from all directions. Surely a number of peasants are being murdered in the adjoining fields. I am bound to get up and rush to the rescue. No, no, I remember. I saw a few jackals slinking about the camp in the evening.

Once more I try to compose myself, disgusted with my silly sensitiveness. Shriek, shriek, and a thundering roar! The midnight luggage-train is passing with a screaming whistle fifty yards from my head. At last I drop off exhausted into a troubled slumber. I dream of bulls, snakes, tigers, and railway collisions. A sound of many voices mingles with my perturbed visions. Crowds of natives are collecting for the six o'clock train two hours before sunrise. They talk, chatter, jabber, shout, and laugh to beguile the tedium of waiting. At five minutes to six the station bell rings violently, and my servant appears with my chota haziri, or little breakfast. I start up, dress quickly, remembering that I am expected to drink a cup of hot tea, and go out like a veteran Anglo-Indian, to "eat the air," before the sun is well up.

I conform to the spirit of the trite precept, Si Romae fuerris, Romano vivito more; but the collector and his wife are out before me, and are seen mounting their horses and starting off to scour the country in every direction for an hour or so. I find the morning breeze bites keenly, and am glad to walk briskly up and down the camp. I amuse myself by watching the gradual gathering of natives around the Butchery---two or three policemen with a prisoner; a cheerful-looking man in a red turban and white garments carrying a paper or petition of some kind; several emaciated, half-naked villagers bowed down to the dust with the weight of their poverty and grievances; a decrepit old man attended by a decrepit old woman; underlings who come to deliver reports or receive instructions; other persons who come to be advised, encouraged, scolded, or praised, and others who appear to have nothing to do, and to do it very successfully. Every one has an air of quiet resignation, and nearly all squat on the ground, awaiting the collector sahib's return with imperturbable patience. All these cases are disposed of by the collector in person after our eight o'clock breakfast.

At eleven the post comes in; that is, a running messenger, nearly naked, brings in a pile of letters on his head from the neighboring town. The collector is immersed in a sea of papers until our next meal. Meanwhile a visitor from a neighboring station makes his appearance riding on a camel, and is received in the drawing-room by the collector's wife. Then a deputation of Brahmans is seen approaching. They have come to greet me on my arrival; some of them are Pandits. A mat is spread for them in a vacant tent. They enter without shoes, make respectful salaams, and squat round me in a semicircle. I thoughtlessly shake hands with the chief Pandit, a dignified, venerable old gentleman, forgetful that the touch of a Mleccha (English barbarian) will entail upon him laborious purificatory ceremonies on his return to his own house. We then exchange compliments in Sanskrit, and I ask them many questions, and propound difficulties for discussion. Their fluency in talking Sanskrit surprises me, and certainly surpasses mine. We English scholars treat Sanskrit as a dead language, but here in India I am expected to speak it as if it were my mother-tongue. Once or twice I find myself floundering disastrously, but the polite Pandits help me out of my difficulties. Two hours pass away like lightning, the only drawback to general harmony being that all the Pandits try to speak at once. I find that no one thinks of terminating the visit. Native visitors never venture to depart till the sahib says plainly, "You may go." I begin to think of the most polite Sanskrit formula for breaking up my conclave, when I am saved from all awkwardness by a call to tiffin.

In the afternoon the sun acquires canicular power, the thermometer rises to eighty-two, and the temperature is about as trying as that of the hottest day of an English summer. Under the combined influence of tiffin, heat, exhilaration, humiliation, and general excitement, I am compelled to doze away an hour or two, till it is time to walk with the collector to a neighboring baoli, or old underground well, now unused and falling into ruins, but well worth a visit. It is more like a small subterranean tank than a well, and the descent to it is by a long flight of stone steps, surrounded by cool stone chambers built of solid masonry, and supported by handsome pillars. In Eastern countries, benevolent men who have become rich and wish to benefit their fellow-creatures before they die, construct wells and tanks, much as we build hospitals in Europe. I return with the collector to his camp as the sun sets. So much for my first day's experiences.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 224-233.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Indian History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.

© Paul Halsall November1998
halsall@fordham.edu