Mr. Keene's Lecture: An Indian Village
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
This article is a report of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society published in The Norwood News on 11 march 1893.
On Wednesday evening the members of the Upper Norwood Literary Society met to hear a lecture from the Vice-President, Mr. H. G. Keene, M.A., on "An Indian Village." Dr. Conan Doyle presided, and warmly commended the lecturer as one who had for many years been a judge in India, and was well stored with facts relating to his subject.
Mr. KEENE, after a brief apology for the remoteness of his subject, proceeded as follows: The country of which I am going to speak is called by the natives Hindustan, but this is not applied to the whole peninsula, but only the country lying between the Himalayas and the Nerbudda. A traveller going from Bombay or Calcutta into the interior would be struck with the sameness of the scenery, the greater part being an alluvial plain. The term "village" has two meanings in India — (1) like the French commune, which may or may not contain inhabitants; (2) in the English sense. If you come upon a village in the spring you will be struck with the extreme verdure that prevails towards the centre, you will see the foliage of the man-goes, and will observe in the neighbourhood wells and crops and everything indicative of sluggish plenty. There are no hedges, but the lands are marked out by low banks, on the top of which run watercourses. The water is mainly derived from wells dug by the ancestors of the villagers, but the supply has been supplemented by canals, which have been opened by the Government. The next thing that will strike you is a dismantled fort with a pond adjacent. The pond represents the hole out of which the earth was dug; the forts were dismantled at the time of the mutiny, but are still used as residences. The fort is the residence of the local squire. The enclosure is surrounded by cattle sheds and stabling. On one side is a nim tree (melia azidarachta), in high repute for its curative properties. In the hall the squire sits on the floor; his day is mostly divided between reading, smoking his hookah, being shampooed by the village hurdler, and listening to stories. The next place of interest is the bumble guildhall of the village, where the villagers meet to discuss news or to witness a dance in the evening; here too, three or four tines in the year, the Government officials are welcomed. Then there is a cabin which serves as the office of the local banker. He squats in the front door with a clerk by his side with scales and account books. He is generally a portly man of middle age, wearing spectacles, apparently to make his aspect formidable, if he looks over them. In front a brawny Brahmin keeps guard — he serves the double purpose of guardian and general servant. The rate of interest is enormously high, having been fixed in a time of disorder, and perpetuated to a time of peace. When the banker's exactions become too much to bear he is assassinated. There is a chapel is the village with a truncated conical steeple. It is adorned with grotesque sculpture and painting. The priest's pontifical dress consists of a yard of string. Part of his duty is to keep the black wooden idol decked with marigolds. In some villages there is a considerable minority of Mohammedans, who regard all idol manifestations as anathema. In some villages you will find a reservoir of water with a small Mohammedan shrine adjoining, looking towards the west. At times religions disputes run rather high, and the British have to keep the peace as best they can. The women of the village have been divided by a narrator into giggling hussies, shrill trollops, and filthy hags. But they ate not altogether to blame. Girls are often betrothed at five years of age, and they are not allowed to remarry. And now for a few stories illustrative of the ways of the people. A good deal comes out in cross-examination by native lawyers that enables a judge to become well acquainted with the inner life of the people. Here is a tragedy. In the carpenters' quarter lived a poor, honest workman who trade doors and cartwheels. Very primitive is the style of work of these village artisans. His daughter, a particularly fine girl, was betrothed at the age of six to a young man who died at the age of 12. She, however, showed no vocation for celibacy. She got in the habit of returning home late. The neighbours murmured, and the father's suspicions were aroused. She said she had to fetch water from the well. He sunk a well in his own court-yard. Then she wanted to see her friends; he forbade her; quarrels became frequent. One day the carpenter called at the local police-office with the simple message "Blood!" The head constable accompanied him to his house, and there was the poor girl with her throat cut. While examining the premises, the officer heard a splash, and found the father had thrown himself down the well. Here is a song composed by a girl who was asked to join in a cotillon — the girls dance among themselves. She was told off to be the partner of a rich well dressed woman, and was ashamed of her humble garb. (Song read by the lecturer.) In 1876 I had the honour of accompanying H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, and the girls came down and sang this song. Another story I have called wholesale murder by a retail trader. A young man set up a store in a village, much to the disgust of the local resident chandler, who took steps to put down the competition. He struck up a friendship with a half-witted brother of the intruder. One day he gave him half-a-pound of sweetmeats, which he divided among the women of the family. No less than 11 persons died who partook of the dainties, which were poisoned. The head of the household happened to be away, and so escaped; the offender was traced and brought to justice. A very common crime is the murder of boys in the jungle for the sake of their ornaments. Sons are greatly honoured in Indian families, as there are certain ceremonies which the son alone can carry out on the occasion of the father's death. A case came under my notice in which young man had enticed a chill into a lonely place, stolen his ornaments, and thrown him down a well, in which, however, there were but a few feet of water, while the child's fall was broken by an obstacle. The child's cry so touched the heart of the malefactor that he stripped and let himself down to the child, whom he rescued. He, however, kept the ornaments, and was brought to trial, and, being found guilty, was sentenced to 14 years hard labour. Now for a comedy. In the Mussulman quarter of a village lived a respected family of the tailor guild. The wife, who was a sensible woman, had a weak-minded sister, whose husband was absent on military service, staying with her. To the sister there came an idle young dandy paying his addresses. The mistress of the house sought to discourage him by a false report of the jemadar's approaching return. He prepared to go, but, as the evening meal was being got ready, he came in as if to say good-bye. He stooped over the fire as if to light his pipe, and the lid of the pot was heard to clink. At night the head of the house and all the family, who had partaken, were ridiculously intoxicated — the men hilarious, the women maudlin. The good lady not knowing what to make of their conduct sent to the police-officer, who took them all away in a cart, each singing a different tune. The local surgeon recognised them as suffering from a dose of the datura tatula, which had been administered by the disappointed lover; however, it was decided he had not intended poison, but merely a joke, and he came off favourably. We must remember, in dealing with the Indians, that they are not desirous of liberty; rather do they want to be governed.
A vote of thanks was proposed by Mr. THOMPSON, who added his experience of nuisance of the native dogs in the Indian villages, and seconded by Mr. BROOMHEAD, who asked whether the Government were doing anything to improve education, the position of women, and the rate of interest.
The lecturer replied that they were trying, but the conservative habits of the people made the task exceedingly difficult.
The committee have decided to postpone Dr. Andrew Wilson's lecture. The secretary, Mr. Buchanan, will give a popular lecture on "Evolution," next Monday, at 8 o'clock, in the Lecture Hall, Jasmine-grove, Anerley.