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Chapter 1: As they are

  “Oh hail! O bright great God, in the form of that brown-eyed 
    beautiful thing before me, that fills me with astonishment and 
    laughter and supreme delight.”

                               A Draught of the Blue. Professor Bain.

Others had written even before Vatsyana the Wise wrote his “Gospel of Love.” At that time the power of the Yávans and the Sákas was outstretched over the land. They were peoples that had come out of Persia and Bactria and obscure Scythia, many of them men with the blood of those Ionian soldiers who had marched with Alexander and settled with Eastern wives under Eastern skies. The teachings of Gautama, the Indian prince, they had made their own; and to the countries in which they ruled they had brought the peace of Buddha and the temperate fruitions of Greece. On all the great trade-routes were monasteries of Buddhist monks and large caravanserais for merchants and pilgrims. Even as far as the sands of Lopnor, far across the roof of the world, and to the Gobi desert, where the Chinese land begins, the tribes that gave rulers to India had set their posts and planted their colonies. On cunningly-sealed wedges of wood they sent their royal orders to the wardens of their frontiers and on palm-leaves from the Indian coasts they inscribed the lore that gave the illumination of God to settlements on the mountains and in the Central Asian deserts. In the shrines or stupas that they raised to Buddha, the wise teacher, they had dadoes and frescoes painted in tempera by some Titianus or Heliodorus from the Hellenized Levant, adventurers of a fine Grecian courage, who scattered their harmonious energies and their joy in life over the Indian world. Along the trade-routes marched merchants’ caravans, burdened with silks and rare spices, that found their way from China to the Black Sea or the precarious ports on the Arabian Coast.

“Women,” wrote the professors of love, in that time of peace and enjoyment, “can be divided into four classes. There is she who is a pure lotus, and she who is fair as a picture, she whom they call hag and witch, and she who can be likened only to the female of the elephant.” Of her who is as a lotus they wrote: “Her face is pleasant, like the full moon: her plump body is tender as the mustard flower: her skin is fine and soft as the golden lotus, fair and undarkened. Bright and beautiful are her eyes like those of the antelope, clear-cut and healthful. Her breast is firm and full and uplifted, and her neck shapely: her nose is straight and delightful. The scent of her body is like a lily newly burst. She walks delicately like a swan and her voice is low and musical as the note of the cuckoo, calling softly in the summer day. She is clothed in clean white garments and she delights in rich jewels and adornments. She is gracious and clever, pious and respectful, a lover of God, a listener to the virtuous and the wise.”

Of the manner of living of a virtuous woman it is further written by Vatsyana the Wise: “A virtuous woman that hath affection to her husband shall in all things act according to his wishes as if he were divine. She shall keep the house well-cleansed and arrange flowers of every kind in the different chambers and surround the house with a garden and make the floor smooth and polished, so that all things be meet and seemly. Above all she shall venerate the shrine of the Household Deities. To the parents of her husband she shall behave as is meet and proper, speaking to them in few words and softly, not laughing loud in their presence, but being always quiet and respectful without self-will and contradiction. She shall always consider in the kitchen what her husband likes and dislikes and shall seek to please him. Always she will sit down after him and rise before him: and when she hears his footsteps as he returns home, she will get up and meet him and do aught that he desires. If her husband do wrong, she shall not unduly reproach him, but show him a slight displeasure and rebuke him in words of fondness and affection. And when she goes to her husband when they are alone, she will wear bright coloured garments and many jewels and anklets and will perfume herself with sweet ointments and in her hair place flowers.”

Many generations have passed and other races--Hunas and Gujjars and Mongols--have invaded India. And asceticism has squeezed the people in its dry hand, and there has been war and bigotry and pestilence. Yet even now the teachings are not quite forgotten. Many a one there still is among the women of India, of whom it can with truth be said: “She is even as a golden lotus.”

Now, again, the sovereigns of India rule over many regions and send their royal messages to the uttermost ends of the earth. Again the great trade-routes pass through India and the merchandise of East and of West meet in the harbours of Bombay and Calcutta. Castes and peoples feel their way to a common nationality and a fresher spirit, and before their eyes breaks the morning light of a new Renaissance. And in the women of new India the old texts revive to a more vigorous flesh and spirit.

Stand of an evening on the Queen’s Road in Bombay, looking over the wide curve of Back Bay, where the lights of the city fade away into the distances of the sea and on the right the hill throws its contour against the darkening sky. They pass here, brightly-clad, quietly smiling, modestly distant, the women of India at their newest and most modern, yet in essentials formed by the ancient rule. They are discarding perhaps the habits of dark ages of misrule and superstition, but they cling none the less to the spirit of old India--to those principles hallowed at its best and freshest age. In their cars the wives and children of rich merchants glide through the crowd. On the back seat, in the shadow of the cabriolet top, a glimpse of gold-brocade can be caught or the tone of a fair brown skin. Here a Bhatia lady passes, come originally from the hot plains of the Cutch Peninsula, the wife of a millionaire cotton-spinner or a financial agent. Or there, in gracefully-draped mantle[1] and Paris-made shoes and stockings, a Saraswat Brahman lady or a Pathare Prabhu, with that lustrous pallor that is brought by the warm breezes from the sea, goes on her way to her club to play tennis or drink afternoon tea. Seated in open carriages or strolling along the pavement to taste the freshness of the sea-breeze, are hundreds of Parsi girls, in dresses of every hue, with the heavy velvet borders that they affect, gossiping, nodding to their friends, laughing and chattering. Poorer women dart across the street, pulling children after them through the busy traffic, and carrying their youngest on their hip astride. A sweeper woman brushes fallen leaves into the gutter. Through all the noise of motors and of the trains that dash along the disfiguring railway, the sound of a bell clanged at the temple door by a worshipper may be heard and, at sunset, the call to prayer from the minaret of a mosque. Behind a high wall, half-way down the fashionable drive, a red light rises against the darkness from the flames which consume the city’s dead.

Chiefly the notes that strike are of nature and sex. These women are so thoroughly women, beyond and above all else. Except perhaps among the Parsis, where English customs have been sometimes too closely copied, there is no trace of the beings, women in age, but stunted and warped and with the ignorance of children, that, seen in other countries, create an uneasiness as at the touch of something unnatural and perverse. Here are the clear brows and smiling faces of those who know, to whom sex is a necessary part of life, and motherhood a pride and duty. They dress and adorn themselves, because they are women, with a husband to please and to govern. Their sex is frank and admitted: as women they know their place in the world and as women they seek a retiring modesty. Their very aloofness, their seclusion, gives them half their charm: and they know it. Not for them, for instance, the dismal methods of American schools, where mixed classes and a common play-ground rub away all the attraction of the sexes and make their growing pupils dully kin like brother and sister. In India women are so much valued and attain half their power because they are only occasionally seen and seldom met. It is the rarest flowers that are sought at the peril of life itself. It is for the women who live veiled and separated that men crave, captives of passion at a first quick-taken glance. A wife who is not the familiar companion of every walk or game, who is never seen through the long business hours--with what delight the husband, unjaded by the constant sight of women in street or office, seeks her at last in the inner apartments where she waits with smiles and flowers!

How natural they are--true, that is, to the natural instincts and purposes of women, not without womanly artifice--is most apparent from a contrast. Their shyness, even their self-consciousness with men, is of a woman’s nature. Their love of jewelry, their little tricks of manner, why, the very way they stand are, after all, the natural derivatives of womanhood. Of motherhood they have no shame: they celebrate marriage and childbirth frankly with a fine candour. Their garments drape them in soft flowing lines falling in downward folds over the rounded contours of the body--draperies full of grace and restful. In Europe women still adhere to a deformity brought in by German barbarism in the dark ages. With curious appliances, they distort and misshape the middle of their bodies from quite early childhood till--the negation of all beauty--in place of a natural human figure appear two disjunct parts joined, as it were, mechanically by a tightened horizontal band. From their passive acceptance of routine, women will bear traditional deformity, in spite of illness and the constant weariness of nervous disorders. What is difficult to understand is that--with all their wish to please--they can endure its patent ugliness. Pleasing is the contrast of the Indian mantle, gracefully draped over head and shoulders and falling in vertical folds to the feet, and of the gaily-stitched and neat little fitting bodice of the Hindu lady. Her head with its smooth hair, decked with simple gold ornaments or fresh flowers, half covered by the silken veil, is well poised and beautiful.

She poses on it no twisted straws, dyed in metallic colours, no fantastic covering, hung with pieces of dead bird.

The step of the Indian woman walking is a thing of joy. It has in it nothing of the mincing awkward shuffle or of the disgracious manly stride. But at her best see her walking in the country villages, where her frame is trained to a graceful poise by the constant carriage of water-pots balanced on her head as she steps unshod down the dusty lanes or the sloping banks of the river.

In the villages, indeed, it is round the well that woman’s life circles. Where the dry plains stretch away westward from Ahmedabad over land cast back by the sea, the walls of mud-built villages stand square against the blank horizon, where they were raised against the raids of Kathi or of Koli freebooters. Here in the hot spring months from March to July, before the grey rains turn the land to a sticky swamp, the sun from dawn to its setting beats savagely; on the sand. In these little townships, high-walled, with iron-studded gates, the women have to seek the well early. An hour before the day, before even the false dawn throws its silver flicker over the sky, they come from every quarter to the one great well which supplies the place. Oh! the early morning chatter which wakes one from his sleep! Ropes and buckets splash upon the water and pot rings against brass pot. They come in scores, of every caste and age, merchants’ wives and pretty noblesse, cultivators and labourers, old women, widows and mothers, and little naked children--how frail and tender their lines!--hardly able to stagger homewards under the load. With hurried prattle they talk of the night and the coming day, of the prices of the bazaar and the scandal of a wanton neighbour or the coming visit of a priest. The day dawns and the full white orb of the sun, white living heat like molten metal, rises suddenly into the level sky. The women finish drawing water as best they can and turn home. They walk straight, those women, two copper pots balancing easily on the head, another large pitcher lightly held against the hip, easily moving as they talk and smile. No wonder if a young man, idly, may sometimes stroll towards the well. For some there are who looking on these women of Káthiawád passing, with golden skins and full oval faces, must say to themselves, as said Solomon, “How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights: this thy stature is like to a palm-tree and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.”

Next to the well, it is at the temple that the life of a woman centres. For her every thought and act is moulded from childhood to the day of death by the present reality of religion. Her childhood is an adoration, marriage a sacrament, wifehood an oblation: in motherhood she finds at once sacrifice and worship: while life and death alike are a quest and a resignation. Life, as to herself she interprets it, is not so much action as a response to divine ordinance, receptive and submissive. She awaits love and may yield to joy: but she expects them as a handmaiden, humbly, without striving and without insistence. And the daily ritual in which her life of service finds its symbol is the scattering of flowers upon the images of God, the singing of His praises, and the circumambulation of His sacred shrine. At the temple she makes her humble vows, for a husband’s kindness or the supreme gift of childbirth. And there, from the fulness of her heart, she pours out thanksgiving for the blessings of her state. And if at the end perhaps she die childless and a widow, it is not singular if she leave her wealth to the further endowment of the temple and the greater glory of God Rama and his Sita, the divine pair of her worship.

The heroism of Indian womanhood has found its loftiest expression in the Rajput nobility, with the great Queens who have fought and been slain in battle or self-immolated on the funeral pyre: its piety is a transfiguration in the Brahman and the merchant class: and woman’s love with its transcendent ecstasy burns like a glowing ember on the hearth of every soul. But for devotion to labour, uninspired by any ideal other than its mere fulfilment, one turns to the menial castes that, from century to century, have lived closest to their own soil. Thus on the stony uplands of the Deccan, the women of the untouchable Mahars--descended probably from some once ruling race, long tragically overthrown--labour without respite in the hard fields at their husbands’ sides. But, furthermore, they bear and suckle children, cook the family food and do the work of their poor household. Ceaseless labour it is, done without bitterness, in a humble resignation. A rough life, yet not without redemption! Their hardships are recognized and their pleasures shared: they stand side by side with their menfolk, comrades by their service. They hold themselves upright, not without the pride of service, and to the eye that comprehends, they have even a rough attraction, like a picture by Millet, in their sturdy strength, earthy and fruitful.

The book of Indian womanhood has many pages, and each page is different, one from the other. Living in a wide continent, the speech of one group of women is not as the speech of another. And in faith they are not one, nor in blood nor habit. But though the leaves of the book are of various type, yet they are all of one shape, bound in one cloth and colour. For to all of them, above all else, is contentment with their own womanhood, faith in religion and the natural hope of love. An unremitting devotion and an unfailing tenderness, that is the Indian woman’s service in the world; and it is her loving service that has given its best to the land. India has had great preachers and great thinkers, it has had and has brave soldiers. But more than the men, more even than their best and bravest, it is the women who have deserved well of the country. What they have won is the respect with which all men behave to stranger women. It is a rule of Indian manners that they should pass unnoticed and unremarked, even in the household of a friend, and, except perhaps among the lowest ruffians, there is none who would offend the modesty of a woman even by a gesture or an unseemly recognition. They can pass in the midst of crowds, as nurses pass in the most evil back-streets, without molestation or insult. For the women of India have raised an ideal, lofty and selfless, for all to behold: and they have come near its attainment. And with all its self-sacrifice and abnegation, with all its unremitting service, the ideal is not inhuman nor is it alien to the nature of womankind. It allows for weaknesses, it is kind to faults, and it aspires frankly to the joys of a fulfilment deserved by service. Not without reason did the writers of old India liken the perfect woman of their land to a lotus, in that she “is tender as a flower.”

[1] The sari has throughout this book been rendered by the English word “mantle,” though as an equivalent it is misleading. For a description of the sari as it is, see Chapter VIII.