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Letter XIV[1]

Who amongst Europeans ever dreamed of a country where every step, and the least action of everyday life, especially of the family life, is controlled by religious rites and cannot be performed except according to a certain programme? In such a country all the important incidents of a man's life, such as conception, birth, passing from one period of life to another, marriage, parent status, old age and finally death, as well as all the physical and physiological functions of everyday routine, like morning ablutions, dressing, eating, et tout ce qui s'en suit,[2] from a man's first hour to his last sigh, everything must be performed according to a certain Brahminical ritual, on penalty of expulsion from a caste. The Brahmins may be compared to the musicians of an orchestra in which the different musical instruments are the numerous sects of their country. They are all of a different shape and of a different timbre; but still every one of them obeys the same conductor. However widely the sects may differ in the interpretation of their sacred books, however hostile they may be to each other, striving to put forward their particular deity, every one of them, obeying blindly the ancient custom, must follow like musicians the same directing wand, the laws of Manu. This is the point where they all meet and form a unanimous, single-minded community, a strongly inseparably united mass. And woe to the one who breaks the symphony by a single discordant note, willingly or by accident! The elders (inherited position in Hindus) and the caste or even sub-caste councils (which are numerous), whose members hold office for life, all of these hold members of their community in the "iron gloves". There is no appeal against their decisions, and this is why expulsion or – as in common expression – “excommunication” from the caste is one of the most dreadful calamity, entailing truly formidable consequences. The “excommunicated member” is worse off than a leper, the solidarity of the castes in this respect being something phenomenal. The only thing that can bear any comparison with it is the solidarity of the disciples of Loyola[3]. If (strictly following all the demands) members of two different castes, united by the sincerest feelings of respect and friendship, may not intermarry, may not dine together, are forbidden to accept a glass of water from each other, or to offer each other a hookah, it becomes clear how much more severe all these restrictions must be in the case of an “excommunicated one”. The poor wretch must literally die to everybody, to the members of his own family as to strangers. His own household, his father, wife, children, are all bound to turn their faces from him, under the penalty of being excommunicated in their turn. There is no hope for his sons and daughters of getting married, however innocent they may be of the punishing sin...

From the moment of “excommunication” the Hindu must totally disappear from the view of those who loved or knew him. His mother, wife or children must not feed him, must not let him even drink from the family well. No member of any existing caste dares to sell him his food or cook for him. He must either starve or buy eatables from outcasts and Europeans, and so incur the dangers of further pollution. When the Brahminical power was at its zenith, such acts as deceiving, robbing and even killing this wretch were encouraged, as he was beyond the pale of the laws. Now, at all events, he is free from the latter danger, but still, even now, if he happens to die before he is forgiven and received back into his caste, his body may not be burned, and no purifying rituals for him; he will be thrown into the water by the mangs, or left to rot under the bushes like a dead animal...

This is a passive force, and its passiveness only makes it more formidable. Western education and English influence can do nothing to change it. There exists only one course of action for the excommunicated; he must show signs of repentance and submit to all kinds of humiliations, and because of Brahmins' greed, often to the total loss of all his worldly possessions. Personally, I know several Brahmins, who, having brilliantly passed the university examinations in England, have had to submit to the most repulsive conditions of “purification” on their return home; namely: shave off half their moustaches and eyebrows, crawl in the dust round pagodas, cling during long hours to the tail of a sacred cow, and, finally, eat the excrements of this cow.[4] The voyage over the sea (kalapani, i.e. the “black water”) is considered the worst of all the sins and therefore required the most severe purification. A man who commits it is considered as polluting himself continually, from the first moment of his going on board the bellati (foreign) ship until the minute of coming back…

Only a few days ago a friend of ours, who is an L.L.D., had to undergo this “purgatory,” and it nearly cost him his reason. When we remonstrated with him, pointing out that in his case it was simply foolish to submit to all of this, as he being a “materialist” by conviction and not caring a straw for Brahmanism, he gave us the motives, which were impossible to deny:

“I have two daughters,” he explained, “one five, the other six years old. If I do not find a husband for the eldest of them in the course of the coming year, she will grow too old to get married, nobody will think of espousing her. If I allow myself to be excommunicated from the caste, both my girls will be dishonored and miserable for the rest of their lives. Then the old mother, who is so superstitious, as a result of such a family shame, will certainly commit suicide: she has more than once threatened me with suicide...”

But it could be noted by someone, why should he not free himself from every bond to Brahmanism and caste? Why not join the other comrades in a position similar to his one? Having taken the family and all those close to him, why not come over as a whole colony to civilization side, join the Europeans? The question is very natural, and the answer to it is far from difficult. The same as the famous answer of a certain marshal to Napoleon who gave thirty-two reasons why it was impossible to attack a certain fortress, the first reason being given in the answer was the absence of gunpowder and so it excluded the necessity of discussing the remaining thirty-one. Similarly the first reason why a Hindu cannot be Europeanized is quite sufficient, and does not call for any additional ones. This reason is that by cutting the Gordian Knot in such a way a Hindu would not improve his position, but would have fallen right out of the frying pan and into the fire. If he had seven spans in his forehead, were he such an adept of science as to rival Tyndall, were he such a clever politician as to be equal to Disraeli and Bismarck, were he of the nobliest family, as soon as he actually had given up his caste and kinsmen, at the same moment he find himself in the position of Mahomet's coffin; metaphorically speaking, he would hang half-way between the earth and the sky!..

A wise saying: “Being lagged behind one’s own, one could not join somebody else,” seems to be purposely composed for this ill-fated nation. It is in vain to imagine that the exclusion of both the Mohammedan and Hindus[5] Indians from the civil service is only the result of an unjust, cowardly politics out of fear to attract their sworn enemies to governing the country. This state of things must be attributed entirely to the social ostracism, to the contempt felt by a “superior” for an “inferior” race (as Englishmen think), which plays a more important role than is generally believed, even in England. This undeserved contempt, expressed on any occasion to the natives (including Muslims here), expands every year between the two nations an abyss that they will not fill up for centuries. Here are two examples.

We visited a very influential person here, editor of the English newspaper,[6] and had occasion to become acquainted with a very remarkable Muslim, a young man of the highest native aristocracy, Sayid M***. The fact that the native was received in the house, visited by all local beau monde[7], can be explained by two reasons: firstly, Mr. S*** is not an ordinary Englishman, but a gentleman in every sense of the word; secondly, this curious incident, we believe, can be partly explained by the fact that Sayid M***, unlike others, wore European dress, was raised in England and is not only talented, but also managed to make even the English respect him. An ardent patriot, he left the bar, promising him a big name and an even bigger fortune, and moved into civil service, taking the position of a judge in a small district in the hopes, in his words, “to improve to some extent the political and social position of the natives.” It is the only, perhaps, example, among Indian Muslims: he makes no distinction between the Mughals and the Hindus, and equally ardently protects the interests of both races. His love for the Hindus even is almost deeper than his affection for co-religionists: Sayid’s mother was a Brahmini converted to Islam...

“All of us, the natives, are the children of the same unfortunate our mother, India,” he told us recently, in his usual Oriental and highly poetic style. “The sons of the same bitter fate, we should together share it, and not rub salt on the wounds by the strife between two fanatical religions.”

It was mentioned only due to the latest public battle in Benares between the Mughals and the Hindus during and on the occasion of religious festivals of the former.

Sayid M*** visited us every day and usually immediately struck up a conversation about the “ills” of India, as he called them, and for hours we were sometimes arguing – S*** defending the English, M*** proving oppressed state of the natives, the injustice to them on the part of Anglo-Indian society and the unbearable arrogance of the English in India. Once they have entered a dispute, more fiery than ordinary, about just published in Calcutta new civil service regulations. M*** asked why, for example, two officials, an Englishman and a native, of absolutely equal rank and occupying exactly the same positions (district judge, for example), the Englishman gets annual salary to 35, and sometimes with different stretches up to 60 percent more than the native of the same position? The former gets extra payment for summer moves, the so-called “camp” every year “support,” and the native gets nothing, but the salary? “And all this is from India money,” added he, “i.e. from the bloody sweat of the miserable milch cow of the English, cow that has been already so overmilked that one should only wonder how her udder still didn't pull off...”

Thus driven into a corner, S***, a brilliant writer and a speaker, familiar with the political direction of the Cabinet of Calcutta as with his own pocket, failed to find words to answer and said a paradoxical nonsense: “Don't forget,” he mumbled, “that we are exiles in this country; that you, the Hindus, according to your own mind, need us, and that it would be unfair to force us to serve your country without a good reward. You, the natives, are obliged to pay us: our needs, finally, are more than yours...”

M*** was so surprised that he even lost heart.

“Exiles?..” he exclaimed finally. “Are you exiles? Who asked you to come here from overseas to save us? Don’t you...”

But he did not finish up!.. Under the crossfire of our giggles in this comic escapade, S*** laughed over himself... He apparently tried to hush up this sensitive political conversation. But M*** did not let up; apparently his heart swelled with hurt and anger, and he in a few minutes again started to attack.

“Here,” he said, “we are old friends, and you accept me as an equal. But it's not because my grandparents were for many centuries, the first dignitaries of the Mogul Empire, or that we are descended from the daughter of Mohammed... But just because in England I became more or less like a gentleman, I'm wearing a black tailcoat and, on occasion, even fawn gloves. Otherwise, and in a native costume, although it's more beautiful than your black bags, you would be ashamed to accept me, especially to invite to your table."

And to an ardent protest of the owners, he added:

“Don't argue, S.; and most importantly, don’t answer for the others, because I'll prove you are wrong and that there are some persons among you in the eyes of which even my black tailcoat does not save me. Yesterday, for example, lady K*** did not accept my visit. It would be OK. But do you know what she ordered the secretary of her husband to say to me? The phrase is significant, already spread all over the city describing in several touches our political and social situation. She ordered to convey me her “surprise...” I should have known that Lord K***, her highborn husband and my boss, three days ago, left town, and that “wife” of the dignitary nor in England nor in India has the habit to take visits “concerning service.” In other words, it never occurred to her that a native can dare to pay the English family a visit on a par with other mortals, except on official duties.”

“Lady K*** thus showed only her natural stupidity,” broke out mistress S***, “Nobody but her would have the like impudence.”

“No,” – replied, apparently calm Muslim. “Quite often your ladies, and even their husbands, my own colleagues, showed me such unreasonable impudence.” And he named a few names. “And if I am, in my exclusive for the native position, exposed to such attitude, then what would other natives, of less favoured by fate and the government, expect?”

He was sitting there, bending over his cup, and speaking quietly, apparently, maintaining full composure. Just a spoon, with which he mechanically tapped on the saucer, was shaking slightly in his hand, and his black eyes were bloodshot and glowed...

“For England that brought me up,” he continued in the same tone, “for the government, to which I swore allegiance, and which I serve, I am ready to give my life for the sake of my beloved India. We, as a people, are unable now to govern the country without the help of others, I know that, although the country was ruled, whether bad or well, for centuries, and was richer and happier. But I realize now, over the last century, we have degenerated, and that we need the aid of England. But if I swore allegiance to the government, it didn't do anything like in respect to society and individuals... and I hate them!.. Remember my words: if England ever again has to fight against the rebellion, only English society would deserve to be blamed; and it will happen due to the contemptuous arrogance of your officials sent here, which drives the natives mad. We all are told over and over again about the tyranny and despotism in Russia, we are frightened by the brutality of its government. Do you know what at least our Muslims, descendants of the sultans, serdars, heroes, and the greatest statesmen of the past centuries answer to this? They say the following: Yes, maybe, administrators in Russia are cruel and its government can not be compared with the “kindly” government of her Majesty the Empress of India. But when we read and hear from all sides that in Russia such-and-such general is a Muslim, and another – an Armenian, and despite this, he is a Commander in Chief of the whole army, but here the last English soldier rather desert than would obey and accept as a head the native, be the latter, a Prince of the blood. Comparing our bitter fate with the fate and the hopes of every loyal Russian gentile and foreigner, the question unwittingly stirs in our soul: Why do we alone deserve such humiliation? Why are we alone ill-treated? And, in quiet desperation, aware of the hopelessness of our situation, can we sometimes not envy the situation of our Muslim brother in the so-called by you despotic Russia!..

The second example. It is the family of a well-known and very academic doctorate in medicine in Bombay, a native of Goa, the Portuguese by name. For over three generations they have been Christians Catholics, but the great-grandparents of both the husband and wife were full-blooded Brahmins of high origin. Both husband and wife were raised abroad and received an excellent education. The husband is a knight of several honourable orders, member of numerous learned societies and is in good standing in the Asian Royal Society. The wife – a young twenty-year-old woman, perfectly educated, has a great voice. Neither the one nor the other is accepted in the society. At their musical evenings on Tuesdays, there are but a few journalists of the European bohemia, and no shopkeeper, an Englishman; and not a single English lady. “For goodness' sake” yell the liberal ladies and girls, who spent their youth, perhaps, in some back shop in Oxford Street, “for goodness' sake! Who has anything to do with those negroes?...”

Our Russian readers will find strange, monstrously incredible the following remarkable fact: the main obstacle between this ex-Brahmin family and the conceited Anglo-Indian society is their conversion to Christianity, although violent as all such conversions of the last two centuries in Portuguese Goa, where they were baptized through the prison and the Inquisition with its refined tortures. Not because they are Catholics, but simply for the reason that they were once Hindus and that they as the despised mulatto of America, have, according to the expressive terminology of the local highly-educated society, “the blood of Ham”; because they are descendants of “lower” race (half-castes) and along with the “Eurasians” (that is, Euro-Asians, a name formed from the merging of Europe and Asia) are despised both by the natives and the European Christians. If they were pure Hindu idolaters, Parsis or the sons of the Mohammedan prophet, then twice a year they would still have the chance to be invited to one of those buffoon balls in the “government house” when this house, like a barrel with herring, is packed with many thousands of natives who are on par with wall decorations are placed in a circle in several rows and then forgotten.

For the sake of the clearest understanding of the natives of India, we have here discussed the question, perhaps, more than it should be done; nevertheless ill-fated Hindus prefer temporary humiliations and the physical and moral sufferings of the “purification,” to the prospect of general contempt until death.

Great number of such questions we discussed during the two hours, which we had to wait before a dinner with the Brahmins. Dining with foreigners and people belonging to different castes is, as it seemed at first glance, a dangerous and almost impossible deviation from Manu's sacred precepts. But such a case was easily explained this time. First, the stout patel, our host, was the head of his caste, and so was beyond the dread of excommunication; secondly, he had already taken all the prescribed and advisable precautions against being polluted by our presence. And thirdly, he was a liberal in his soul and a friend of Gulab-Lal-Sing, he promised him to show to our Society in practice how much sophism and subtle tricks were invented by cunning Brahmins, so that, preserving the appearance of a dead letter law, at the same time in emergency cases they deftly slip out its iron hand. Besides, our good-natured, well-favored fat host evidently desired to obtain a diploma from our Society. He heard that Colonel O***, the main “tax collector” of his district, belonged to the “American society”, and therefore it could be he tried to cringe before us.

These, at any rate, were the explanations of our babu when we expressed our astonishment; so it was our concern to make the most of our chance, and to thank Providence for this rare opportunity. The one, who once was allowed not only to share, but even to be present at dinner of a Brahmin, that one becomes, as it were, sacred in his eyes. Not only the host himself, but even all the members of his caste look at such a lucky man as to belonging at least de jure[8] to their caste. But how rare, almost impossible, are such cases!..



  1. Moscow News, № 55, 25.02.1880, p. 3; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 126-136.
  2. And everything that follows it (Fr.). – Ed.
  3. The Jesuits. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was a Catholic priest and theologian, who founded the religious order of the Society of Jesus (The Jesuits). – Ed.
  4. This is called panchagavya, literally, the five products of the cow: mixture of milk, butter, curds, urine and excrements...
  5. Europeans very often fall into the error of confusing the Indian Muslims with the Hindus. The former are even offended by this name, and call themselves the Indian Moguls. Those are the Semites, and the Hindus of the Aryan tribe differ in everything from them.
  6. Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840-1921) was the editor of The Pioneer, the leading English daily newspaper in India. – Ed.
  7. Higher society (Fr.). – Ed.
  8. By law (Lat.). – Ed.