“Things never changed since the time of the Gods, The flowing of water, the way of love.” Japanese Song. Lafcadio Hearn.
In a vast empire with a population of over three hundred millions, in area a continent, with some thirty-five main languages and of dialects none can say how many, with different religions and with cultures divided from each other by centuries of progress, anything like an adequate description of the middle-class woman would be a task beyond human power, and its perusal beyond the patience of the most enduring reader. Less difficult by far would it be to head a chapter “The middle classes of Europe,” and, within its limits, after running from Greece and Roumania to Spain and England, to scale the heights upon which, like an inspiration, the womanhood of France sits enthroned. But there are at least some essentials in which the womanhood of the Indian middle classes becomes congruous, differing therein from the women of other countries, Europe for instance, or America or China. Perhaps it may be tried by the selection of a few types, with the aid of contrast and analysis, in some way to express their essential atmosphere and habit.
Burmah must, one finds, go to the wall, not most certainly for any fault of its own but because it lies so far apart from the total of Indian life. For administration it is placed within the confines of the Indian Empire, but with the Indian peoples its people has no lot or part. To omit it seems almost a pity, so frankly independent are its women and so fascinating--free above the women of most nations and consonant to an unusual degree with ultimate human ideals. One sees such a little Burmese lady sometimes, but how rarely, in India, the wife perhaps of some English officer or of a high Burmese councillor, so a picture may stand as reminder of smiling daintiness, like some porcelain figurine glazed and tinted in the furnace of human freedom.
In India proper, of the middle classes, the most important, and perhaps the most enigmatic, figure is the Brahman’s. The class is certainly an aristocracy in one, the etymological, sense. For it is as being best that they hold power and the power that they hold is, even to this day, most undeniable. Aristocracy--“rule of the best”--of those rather who are admitted to be best--if this be indeed a meaning true to fact, then the Brahmans should be included in or alone comprise that rank. With many of them their very appearance, their gait and self-composure, support the role. With steady untroubled eye, straight nose and sensitive nostril, fair skin, “pride in their port” and self-restraint in every gesture, they move through the mass of common men, as if conscious of a higher mission. By the sacred thread across the shoulder they proclaim themselves twice-born, once from a mortal womb and once again at an auspicious hour in childhood by initiation to the sacred mysteries. Calm and indifferent, serene with a careful precision and habit of restraint, they incarnate in their manner something of absolute repose, as if untouched by the mundane ebb and flow. Withal they are not in any customary sense a nobility. Perhaps, it may be said, they have transcended even nobility. In any case the proudest noble must at times, and some must constantly, admit the ascendancy, spiritual though it be, of these born preceptors. The greatest ruler will eat food cooked by the poorest Brahman beggar; but no Brahman, desperate with the pangs of destitution, would accept even a glass of water from a monarch’s jug, the mere touch being a profanation to the nutriment of sanctity. In Southern India, where the Brahman, immigrant from Aryan races, was most successful in exploiting the indigenous population by the means of religious awe, the Nair nobility are abject in their recognition of this hierarchic superiority. In every word of speech the Nair throws himself, as a clod of mud, before the Brahman’s feet to be trampled and contemned. His house becomes, in speaking to a Brahman, his poor dunghill and the Brahman’s house his palace; his teeth are dirty in his speech, and the Brahman’s pearls; his sleep is a mere falling into snores, and the Brahman’s an honourable slumber.
But in ordinary speech, in Europe and no less in India, the concept of nobility or aristocracy in its worldly relations implies other qualities. A certain tinge of feudal tradition colours our thought; and a nobleman is always conceived primarily as a fighter and a leader of his own men in his own estate. Love of sport, a certain careless gaiety, an eupeptic cheerfulness and a happy enjoyment, face to face with a world in which nothing really matters, coupled with the readiness to do the duties of his station and to die for honour, these are qualities that make up the mental picture.
It is not to such a class that the Brahman belongs. To life and the pleasures of life, he stands as a pillar of negation. Not here and now one conceives him beckoning, but in a reality transcending all appearance in duty and existence. Privation is for him the highest rule and participation in the world is at most an inexorable concession to accidental forces. The Brahman’s life must, in semblance at least, be one of constant abstention, rigidly guarded. The show of enjoyment and the joy of healthy natural life must be repressed or at least veiled discreetly. Between him and mere sensual humanity he has dug a gulf, impassable.
Of Brahmans only a few are by ordination priests. The majority fill the professional classes, as administrators, clerks, astrologers, scholars, physicians, lawyers, and the like. Some are money-lenders and not a few are cultivators of the soil. There are even rare Brahman houses which, in spite of religious prohibition, have usurped the thrones of princes. But in all there exists not only a sense of solidarity as being sanctified, but also this ideal of abstention, leading in practice not unseldom to a grave and measured hypocrisy. As a whole they are the professional class of India, they and the rival caste, the Kayasthas or “scribes,” and maintain with admirable earnestness the tastes and pursuits of an intellectual, idealizing, and temperate order. Mental discipline, the suppression of the impulsive act, a habit of restriction so incessant as to become almost instinctive, these they have to a degree almost overwhelming.
Among Rajput women one finds certainly the highest development of the individual with the greatest charm and the fullest humanity, and it is they, almost alone, who have achieved the heroic. But to India as a whole the ordinary ideal of woman in her relation to social function is represented by the more reticent figure of the Brahman. She is woman as in his life the ordinary man would wish to find her, quiet, devoted, managing and pious.
Nowhere is the Brahman woman so true to the type presented in this ideal as in the Madras Presidency and in the Bombay Deccan. And never is she so true to herself as when she goes, sedately, to the temple. In her hand she carries the brass tray on which she has put her humble offerings of ochre powder and flowers with a wick burning beside them; and she goes looking neither to the right nor to the left. She rings the bell which summons the God’s attention to his worshipper and walks the prescribed ceremonial steps round the idol with a grave unquestioning dignity. And her whole life is one unceasing round of service, in which humility is elevated by an ever-present sense of Divine ordinance. To the lowly in heart she feels--almost one might say she knows, so strongly does she feel--belongs the kingdom of heaven. In service to find fulfilment, even happiness, that is her God-given mission. She grinds corn and cooks, carries water and washes the house, nurses her children, waits upon her family, as also she draws ornamental patterns with white and red chalks upon her door-step, all with a humble pride and joy in the singleness of her devotion. In poorer houses, in the houses of far the greater number of her class, she is at work all day from long before the first-dawning till at last at night she falls into the deep slumbers of exhaustion. There are few who keep servants, except for an occasional old woman who comes to help with the rougher tasks. And in addition to the household labour, she is forced, too early, to premature childbirth, and protracted nursing. For charm and coquetry, for all the arts by which woman gladdens life and creates a liberal society, she has, if she had the inclination, no spare time or energy. She ages early, spent by exhausting labour and the recurring burden of unregulated childbirth, unwarmed by joy, unlit by passion.
But the bare life of poverty and unending labour is illumined by a spiritual exaltation. With the performance of their service the million Saint Theresas of the Deccan are able to find within their hearts a satisfying happiness. Like nuns, by an austere self-repression, they avert their eyes from humanity and the human purposes of life; and when they are forced to see, they persuade themselves to despise. They live as it were in a spiritual cloister. But even in this world they are not altogether without reward, though it comes late in life. The love and devoted kindness of her sons, that is the one constant meed of service upon which the woman counts. And there are few things more impressive than an Indian son’s look when he turns to his mother or the tone in which, even years after her death, he speaks of his childhood at her side. And in old age when she in turn, with her husband, succeeds to the management of the large joint family household, she finds a peaceful joy in the ordering of their simple life and the caresses of her clustering grandchildren. At the end, when death lays her to sleep at last, she dies in the hope of an untroubled peace, as one who has accomplished a lengthy service not without pain and effort.
Such perhaps most truly are the women of India, as through a large continent the greatest number of its inhabitants would like to see them. Not for this world, they might say, is the labour; not for love and enjoyment and greater power and finer emotions and self-development and the glories of nature do they thirst. Of the fervours of youth and the vivid joys of mere active BEING, of the fine harmonies between soul and sense in expanding, self-perfecting human functions, of a humanity that should be self-sufficient, free in the face of the eternal universe and glad in the fight for mastery with obstructive matter, they have not even a conception. To an Indian Antigone no chorus would sing of human power and magnitude. Only the preacher would instruct in humility and abnegation.
Even the richest Brahman women of the South spend their leisure hours in a manner that accords with the common ideal. Relieved of the more exhausting house-work by the labour of the servants, they spend the afternoon hours when they are at rest in the reading of the Purans, those grosser Scriptures or, one might perhaps with truer comparison say, those Hagiologies in which priests have deformed the too subtle tenets of Hindu theosophy with the flesh of mythology. In the reciting of these legends, and in lengthy prayers and ritual performance the wealthy Brahman lady is content to find the entertainment of her leisure.
The same ideal of service and privation is to be found no less in Bengal, sweetened however and softened like the more languid air. There is something hard, even cruel perhaps, in the arid Deccan plain with its burning dry winds and its stony hill-sides, and its stern, thrifty, self-centred people. Its asceticism is harsh and rough, the sour ferment as it were of crude souls in fear of a fierce Deity, looking by abnegation to secure the grace that alone can give salvation. The spirit is that, almost, of a Hindu Calvinism, savagely abnegatory. A softer piety, as of some Italian nunnery among roses and olive trees over the blue sea, inspires the womanhood of Bengal. They have a devotion no less intense, their service and self-sacrifice is no smaller; but they are filled also with the pity that assuages and the love that makes things sweet. To be kind and tender in a world which, with all its evil and pain, is pervaded by a loving and merciful Providence, such is the spirit in which they render service. The large houses of Bengal, embowered in trees, have a claustral peace as well as labour. The lives of the women in them are coloured by the tender light of pity and affection. Often in the warm nights under the star-strewn sky, young girls creep to each other and whisper little gaieties.
In general, among the middle classes of Bengal, women practise a seclusion that is, however, not too rigid. It is a seclusion like that of classic Athens, not savagely jealous as it still is in many Rajput houses. But with the renaissance that in the last fifty years has so greatly altered life in this great province, many have learnt to discard orthodoxy and with it the traditional restrictions. At Benares, especially, many a Bengali lady can be seen walking openly to the temples and the sacred river. Always she bears a perfect courtesy and a rounded balanced dignity. Of the newer school, too many perhaps have aspirations gleaned from the lighter English novels which they eagerly read--dreams for whose passage the ivory gates of Hinduism were never meant to open. But deep in the hearts of all--far deeper than such fashions--are the images of Sita and Sakuntala. Some play tennis and ride, some there are who return from English schools and the smarter section of London society with the gossip of Ranelagh or the bridge club and a wider taste for amusement. But there are none who discard the tenderness and soft devotion of their native womanhood. Nowhere in India have there been so many marriages between English and Indian; nowhere have they been more successful. The number of women really educated, appreciative of art and literature, a few even themselves poets and writers, is out of all comparison large; and the artistic rebirth in Bengal must to some extent have been shaped by the influence of women’s grace on the social world. Without departing from the prescribed fields of service and abnegation, they take their part in every important movement--sometimes perhaps unwisely! But at times they have brought untold benefit by their acts. So a few years ago did the brave girl who by the sacrifice of her own life slew a great social evil--the purchase of men at the price of ruinous dowries. It must at least be conceded that the women of Bengal, descendant from mixed races but long since truly Indian, have clothed the sacerdotal ideal in vestment of soft and womanly grace. But there are other parts of India where even the Brahman woman has diverged from this ideal, or--should one not rather say?--has transfused into it the feelings and robust sensuality of a more vigorous nature. Where the late conquerors from the North have settled, where rich plains bear wheat and millet, and fields are hedged with the milk-bush and the cactus, where the great trees make the country seem like an English park, and the air bites cold in the winter mornings when a skin of ice crackles on road-side pools, where in the hot months the sun hangs like a disc of brass over the panting earth, there the pulse beats stronger and a larger nature sways the will. Women there have their claims as well as duties; and from life they demand, besides the right to serve, a broader power also and a rich fulfilment. They wish for love and to be loved, and even in their service they aspire to govern. For their womanhood they claim at least some freedom. The texts are still the same; but they are commented by a bolder temperament. The distinction holds good perhaps for all the women of real Hindustan--for the lusty graceful women of Allahabad, for instance, and the upper Ganges Valley.
But nowhere can this fine and active type be better studied than in the Nágar caste of Káthiawád and Gujarát. The Nágar community came to India with the last Scythian hordes; and almost at once, at the great fire baptism of Ajmer, attained the rank of Brahmans. To this day, so high do they hold themselves above all others, they hardly trouble to use the title Brahman, but call themselves merely Nágar, with a proud simplicity, as who would say, “I am the Prince.” For centuries they have held the appointments of the State and been famous as administrators. They are to be found in every rank and in every department of the public services, clever, courteous, receptive, and self-confident. Their pride has become a byword among other castes; and their success has made them the mark of envy and dislike. But there can be no question of the ability with which they have held their position, nor of the keen, progressive intellect that guides their interests and activities. They have an eager humanity, and a keen understanding of worldly good and evil, and are above the hypocritical renunciations and pessimistic sanctity of a priestly class. Literature they hold in honour; and the creative instinct, which leads many of them to administration as the career in which man expresses his active will through the minds and morals of mankind, forces others of their community to self-expression in thought and language. If renunciation there be, it is here, not for a mere negation, in itself fruitless; but to the end of a greater realization in the material given by humanity. In this dynamic will, the women have a proportional share. Ambitious and intellectual, they partake in the interests of their families and encourage or advise their husbands and their children. For the achievement of purpose they are ready for every sacrifice; but the consciousness of larger interests ennobles the sacrifice as it humanizes the purpose. They too serve, as every Hindu woman seeks to serve, and the Nágar wife, like her sisters, will cook and wash and stand aside before her man and wait upon his meals. But her devotion is shaped by a less trammelled intellect, and she claims in return an immediate recompense of love and attention.
Very beautiful are the Nágar women, and their beauty is the theme of countless songs and ballads. Fair with a rich golden vivid fairness, like the colour of ripe wheat, with dark eyes in whose depth glows a spark of passion and round which humour and laughter play, with full petulant lips, figures finely rounded and firmly plump like the quail, with, graceful movement and slender limb, the whole lit up by intelligence and comprehension and a touch of conscious charm, the Nágar woman presents a picture that remains unforgotten. Even laborious study seems to have no power to rob her of her looks, and the girl-graduate is fresh and graceful, as if she had never bent over Euclid or deductive logic. One meets them so at times in Ahmedabad or Baroda, in the houses of the highest officials, clever, well-read, well-bred, with perfect manners and astounding beauty, like some memory of the Italian Renaissance, taking no small part in the establishment of an urbane and liberal society, and like the donne of Boccacio they return to their homes to serve and cherish their husbands. And of love they can repeat the whole gamut. Indeed, the keynotes of this society, with all its undertones of Hindu abnegation--as in Florence, too, one imagines an undercurrent, not too discordant, from Savonarola’s denunciations--are not unlike Italy in the great age. Women have similar duties with a touch of the same implied seclusion; they have the same intrigues and stolen pleasures, the same essentially natural poise in life; they are now even beginning a similar application to learning and poetry. And of love too they have no lesser lore and experience than those ladies who, finely natural and fittingly acquiescent in their sex, gladdened and made illustrious the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara.
Even more beautiful than the women in the Nágar caste are their charming and delightful children. With the round oval of their faces, the fair bloom of their skins, the growing intelligence that dances in their eyes, they at once captivate all who look. In general up to the age of eight or ten they remain naked (though an unfortunate new fashion, imitated from customs made necessary by the cold grey skies of England, tends to hamper their free beauty in ugly and unwholesome clothes), and the light movement of frail gold-browned limbs in the Indian air is sheer refreshment to the eye. Devotion, then, the Nágar woman certainly stands for, devotion and the due and harmonious fulfilment of the duties of her station. A woman she is always, fully and truly womanly. But she is far above the mere privative of empty abnegation. Beauty she knows and values, and she is not ignorant or afraid of the power that kindly beauty can exercise in the affairs of men. Learning she can recognize and honour; literature she assists; even of art, she is not, like her sisters, much afraid. In Gujarát from of old the dainty custom has remained by which on certain festivals, the feast of lamps for instance, ladies of the highest classes meet in the open streets of the residential quarters and chant choral songs while they move round in a circle, beating time with their hands and bending gracefully up and down. They sing of spring and flowers and the sports of girl-friends in palace-gardens. But in the large industrial cities which in the last generation have risen upon the older towns with their restricted social circles, the publicity of the streets has become inconvenient. The Nágar ladies in Ahmedabad, for instance, have taken a leading part in transferring the old songs to larger concert halls in clubs and similar places, and at the same time raising the standard and artistic value of the performance. Those who have ever heard such a concert must be grateful for a movement full at the same time of beauty and colour and sweet sound along with modesty and perfect taste. For a higher social life, with heightened enjoyments and a rational freedom, for self-development and wider interests, yet well within the limits that nature prescribes for woman, distinct from the far other limits set to man by his divergent functions, for a life that has in it something of Greece as well as the main ideals of Hinduism, the Nágar woman, for all the illiberal asceticism of the Brahman tradition, may emphatically stand.
In the mercantile classes the same ideals persist, deflected however by the incidents of their livelihood and to an even greater extent by a profound difference in spiritual aspect. Of the Hindu trading classes by far the most important and the most ubiquitous are the merchants of Márwár, of Gujarát, and of Cutch. All follow one of two sects, the Vaishnava or the Jain--the latter in essence a different religion, originally indeed a protest against Hinduism but now little more than a sect, another ripple, so to say, on the waters of national faith. Both at any rate are protests against Brahman orthodoxy and the gnostic philosophies of essential Hinduism. Numerically and in its effects, by far the more important is Vaishnavism. In the form in which it has been adopted by the trading classes, it is the belief that by love alone can God be realized. It centres upon Krishna, that tender and sportive figure, in whom the God Vishnu again came to earthly life, and in whom are enshrined the memories of a once-living hero. On Him mythology and popular song have lavished their softest endearments and their most entrancing images. In His name have been composed the voluptuous love-poems of many generations; and the dalliances of Krishna with the milk-maids and His beloved Rádha are the constant theme to which Indian passion turns for lyrical expression. They are the familiar accompaniment in childhood as in age of the merchant’s women-folk. In Vaishnavism such as this the devotee throws himself, as a suppliant, on God’s grace and love alone. He acknowledges indeed his innate incapacity to apprehend the Godhead, but he aspires at least to feel something of His Glory in those ecstasies of self-abandonment which can be likened on this earth only to the passionate love of man and woman. In their prayers too they associate with the God that consort Lakshmi or Rukhmini, who gives wealth and prosperity--the benign divinity who with her lord preserves and maintains all living things and in loving-kindness intercedes for all who seek by love and submission to realize the Divine in the universe, be their sins manifold as the sands upon the shore.
In every land, of course, the pursuit of wealth as such must be opposed to higher spiritual activities and loftier aspirations. For the merchant the end must be the acquisition of riches for its own sake. All other purposes are either means or incidents. He must treat men and women as means and not as ends in themselves. He can have for humanity none of that respect which is felt by him who, as equal among equals, seeks as his end human perfection, or even by him who, again one of many equals, works, as he thinks, by pain and self-denial for the greater glory of God. Where acquisition is the supreme good, all else must be subordinate. And the methods of acquisition are really two-fold, either by careful saving and the starving of desire to accumulate useless metal tokens which are the equivalents of untasted pleasures, or by wilder speculation quickly to capture the wealth which, exchanged, can buy luxury and material gratification. Side by side, in the same class of men, the two methods can be seen. Extravagant abstention and extravagant lavishness, a fulfilment that is material or an abstention that is no less material, these in all countries are the marks of the merchant class. But they can be mitigated in their effect, as they were in the Italian Renaissance by the almost superstitious devotion of all ranks to the newly-exhumed classic ideal. In India this mitigation is given by the creed of Krishna and of love. Materialized though it has to be when refracted through the mind of man the acquisitive, it is still an influence, nicely attuned to the receiver, for something finer and ennobling. What there is of good, charity and spiritual significance in the merchant’s life (and it is after all much) is mainly drawn from a faith which, even when interpreted in a too material sense, could hardly be replaced for its worshippers by any other credo. In modern Europe the aristocratic ideal has for the richer merchant something of the same significance and mitigating value. But for those outside the circle in which this ideal can be operative there is no other thought to raise and enlarge the spirit.
It is not difficult to see how all these influences must react upon the woman’s life. The effects are further complicated by the fact that child-marriages are still the rule, and that only too often, in a trading class, the young bride is sold by her parents for large sums to an aged bridegroom. Among the larger number of the class, probably, acquisition is sought by rigid economy. The young wife finds herself stinted, therefore, of every comfort and even of the dresses and ornaments that by nature every woman desires. The husband holds the purse and makes almost all purchases himself. A few rupees only can reach the wife, and for these she has to account. Even if her husband is young, long hours in the shop, constant poring over account books, and little exercise only too soon make him obese and feeble. The only real interests are house-work, in which she has no final voice, and frequent, often ill-natured, gossip. On the other hand, she has this of advantage that her menfolk, weighing the world as they do by its material fruits, ascribe to women the first place in their pleasures. She is, therefore, in spite of all, able sometimes to attain a real power that is discordant with her ostensible position. The passion is for the sex in general, not for the individual woman; for a mere satisfaction of sense, not for a spiritual individualized love of the fitting mate. But a shrewd woman can play upon the passion and make it serve her own purposes. And when the trader’s wife does manage to attain such influence, she uses it unsparingly for her own satisfaction. Many a comedy of manners is played, unseen, on the dark stage of the merchant’s house. There are not a few husbands who, whether from love of gain or from sheer terror of their wives, shut their eyes complaisantly to divagations damaging to their honour. The practice common to many money-lenders of keeping burly Mussulman, often Afghan, servants in their households, is anything except an incentive to female virtue.
Among the merchants who follow the Jain religion, however, these conditions apply with less force. Their life is simpler and the imagination is unheated by the constant thought of loving ecstasy. The Jain sadhvis, a class of nuns recruited both from the unmarried and the widowed, bear a character that is far above reproach. With shaven heads and in yellow garments, a little square of cloth usually tied upon their lips to save them from inhaling the smallest insect, they wander through the country, begging and singing hymns, nowhere to remain above four days, leading a life of austerity for the glory of the spirit. They are irreproachable like Sisters of Mercy, and like Sisters of Mercy they can move safely among the roughest crowds, protected by the respect of all. Something of their simple and humble piety has penetrated to all ranks among the Jains; and the ladies of the Jain millionaires of Ahmedabad, owners of large cotton factories and masters of men and money, live their simple lives in the midst of riches with purity and quiet modesty.
Amongst the richest of the merchant class are the Bhatias, who gain rather by daring speculation than by niggardly effort. On the race-course, as in the exchange and cotton market, they are conspicuous figures, with a certain pleasing bonhomie and easy good-fellowship. The Bhatia women play a part in the social life of modern India that is hardly less conspicuous. Orthodox in the extreme, they are strict followers not of the ascetic but of the more human sect. They are able, therefore, to be strict in observance and orthodox in belief without abdicating the rights and enjoyments of humanity. They attend diligently to religious services and in the early hours of the morning the ways that lead to the Krishna temple are thronged with their carriages. To the High-priests, in whom they see the divinity incarnate, they give an adoration that is almost boundless. But, with all this, they claim from life the fulfilment of their humanity and their womanhood. Moreover, they demand something of excitement and palpitant emotion. A few there are who, like their menfolk, gamble, and there is none who will deny herself the excitement of jewelry and fine clothes, diaphanous fabrics half disclosing the limbs they cover. The worst offshoot of their orthodoxy is the practice of infant marriage; and there are few sections of the community in which young girls are so often married to old men, the parents profiting by the bride-price. As the remarriage of widows is forbidden, it follows necessarily that in the Bhatia caste there is a number, quite excessive, of young widows, in the first bloom of fresh maturity, often left with great fortunes. Fortunately for society, these widows, so numerous are they and the conditions of their marriage so manifestly unfair, have been able collectively to repudiate the hardships that enmesh the orthodox Brahman who has lost her husband. Among the Bhatias, there are few shaven heads! Neat and well dressed, with pleasing face and figure, perhaps too consciously demure, they strike an attractive note in the complex harmonies of modern India. The system by which they are married is hardly elevating and is opposed not only to the ideals but also to the commandments of the sacred texts; but a commercial class cannot get away from its own limitations. It is at least a great deal gained that it should be alleviated by a sensible appreciation of life and joy and by a degree of freedom which, though not of the highest and inmost kind, is more humanizing and liberal than the negatives of material self-denial. Self-control, control, that is, of and by the inner self in harmony with ultimate nature, is no doubt the concomitant of the highest liberty; but any liberty, even any licence, is better than the denial of the actual living self.
In the rich province of Gujarát, the home of so large a proportion of the merchants of India, there is a festival which embodies in its observance much of the inner feeling of the Indian woman. During the rains, for one waxing moon, the days are sacred to that Goddess, who represents the all-pervading energy of nature, the spouse of Shiva, the Great God, the ultimate Destroyer. During these days the maidens of middle-class Gujarát worship the Goddess with an eye fixed upon the attainment of the perfect husband. The little girls go in groups and bathe and pray, and they make the vow that is the Vow of Life. They may be as young as six or seven or eight, but year after year they renew the vow till they are married. Throughout the day they have to sit in a darkened room, reflecting upon the Goddess and upon the supreme boon of a good husband, but at times resting their minds by nursery tales or songs or innocent games with cards and dice. Then every morning they bathe again in the pond or river, where rival groups of girls make jokes upon each other and laugh and play. The many songs are the most touching part of the whole festival. And these songs represent a marriage of free choice, in which the girl chooses a husband from her suitors. How different from the present practice! Year after year, till they are married, they sing these songs. And who shall say how far this dream of choice may remain to mould their actions, even after the forced marriage that awaits them? The need of marriage at least, its supreme value to a woman’s life, that is always before their eyes from early childhood; and marriage is bound up with religion, with the personal gifts of the divine and happy wife of the Greatest God. But in the very songs, sanctioned by the goddess, the cry is always for the chosen mate, the giver of love and happiness. Little wonder if at times the grown girl, now become conscious, learns to know the difference between the husband selected under social conventions by her parents for his worldly circumstance and the man who, unsuitable perhaps in wealth or temperament, is yet nature-chosen to be the mate of her desires and the beloved of her heart. For the parents’ choice is not always wise, and among sinful mankind there are not a few who will sacrifice a daughter’s welfare to their own profit.
Of the Mussulman middle classes, the most conspicuous are the Bohras and the Khojas. Both belong to different branches of the Shiah sect, that sect which is to Islam what the Catholic Church is to Christianity. Both also are the descendants of Hindu communities which were converted in fairly recent times to the faith of salvation. Among the Khojas, especially, many Hindu customs have survived, and their law of succession in particular is not the law of the Qor’an but the survival of Hindu tribal custom. At this moment, perhaps, theirs is the most interesting of these communities, both because by their practical talents they have obtained a place of political leading among Indian Mussulmans and because they are--with the exception of a small reforming branch--the religious followers of H.H. the Agha Khan, a prince so nobly known by his loyal efforts in the War.
The Khojas, “honourable gentlemen” as the name means, come in the main from Gujarát and Bombay. But they are scattered now through all the bigger trade centres of India--Calcutta, Nagpur, Sind and the Punjáb. They have not, however, confined their enterprise to the Indian Empire, but have made settlements in the East wherever the British flag gives its subjects protection. They have crossed the mountain passes to Hanza and Dardistan; they have sailed to Zanzibar and the Persian Gulf; they have penetrated into Arabia; they maintain business connections with Singapore, China and Japan, and even with England, America and Australia. Many of the great commercial interests of India are in their hands, and in business they bear an excellent reputation for integrity and punctuality. Their representatives have an important place in the Legislative Councils of Bombay and of the Government of India. In social life, they are something of epicures, and their clubs are not only hospitable but are well-managed and furnished. The best of food and the best of wine will always be found at any entertainment given by these generous and liberal merchants. They enjoy literature and still more music and dancing; and they are among the most tasteful supporters of those arts. Many among them have now forsaken commerce for the liberal professions.
The Khoja woman is hidden in seclusion behind the purdah. The few that are to be seen are as a rule somewhat below the middle height and are of a graceful, but not altogether healthy, slightness. They are well educated and are good housekeepers, known for their neatness and management. As Mussulmans they are of course married under a system of free contract, but unfortunately for them Hindu tradition has been too strong, and they suffer in practice from many of the disabilities of their Hindu sisters. Remarriage after widowhood is in practice almost unknown; and divorce is so discountenanced that its relief is seldom sought. On the other hand, the ascetic idea is at least absent, and a wife expects and a husband is prepared to give constant attention and all possible comfort. They have a force of character which merits this attention; and their features, with arched head and broad forehead, strong chin, and large lustrous eyes, are the index of their character.
Of other trading classes of Mussulmans, the Memans, also converts from Hindu castes in Sind, Káthiawád and Cutch, deserve notice, if only for their charity and piety. All Memans, women as well as men, hope to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca and habitually visit the Chisti Shrine at Ajmer. And for their large secret charities the women, no less than the men, have a well-deserved reputation.
Among the large body of middle-class Mussulmans of the usual Sunni sects, those who claim to be descended from foreign invaders and who are at least not directly traceable to any special wholesale conversion, the position of women is on the whole satisfactory and agreeable. Every family has its poor relations and dependants so that, even when she is childless, the mistress of the house is seldom lonely. The morning she spends at her toilet and in seeing to the day’s marketings and looking to the kitchen. At meals all the family, men and women alike, meet and eat together. Sometimes, even, a much-favoured friend of the husband’s, a trusted and intimate friend, may be introduced to the inner, unveiled circle. After the midday meal, a rest; then sewing and talking; then games of backgammon and chess make the afternoon pass. The evening dinner then needs looking to, and after dinner it is common to hear or read tales and romances or religious books. Children may also take up much of the woman’s time; and among Mussulmans as a rule the wife may count upon a loving, almost a passionate, husband, except in the unhappy cases where differences of temperament produce a real antipathy. In that case she can always try to force a divorce from his hands, though the practice varies with the social circle. That the pressure of Indian influences has forced upon them child-marriage, followed only too often by premature consummation; that the intentions of the Prophet in regard to divorce and widowhood have often been neglected; and that the rule of veiling has been interpreted with a superstitious irrationalism, quite opposed to the teachings of the law, are disabilities under which the Mussulman woman of the middle classes still has in part to suffer. But she is at least oppressed by no tradition of renunciation or asceticism, and she has, in favour of her fulfilment and just cherishing, text after text in the sacred Book. The recent tendency to a purer Islamic practice, hand in hand with the growth of rationalism, offer her hope of early liberation from extraneous bonds and of development as a free human agent. The women of Islam have as guide rules of law, sanctioned by revelation, which if practised are more rational and more insistent on justice and human freedom than any other precepts ever codified into statutes. It is to be hoped that the recent advance and rationalistic movement in Islamic countries will secure the happiness that should follow intelligent practice of a humane code. The devastation caused by Mongol invasions and ravages and the subtle perversions induced by an alien atmosphere have to be repaired and eradicated; but there is no intrinsic reason why the social system of Islam should not again reach and surpass the high level it commanded in the days of Al Ma’mun.
In a review of the middle classes of India, it would be impossible to omit the rich and influential sect of Parsis. Descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Persia, expelled after the Mussulman conquest, followers of Zoroaster and worshippers of fire, they reached the west coast of India after many perils, to be finally protected by a Hindu Rána or prince. Small in numbers, for many centuries they lived in the main by agriculture, though there were a few among them who achieved a name in arms. With the coming of the British they changed their pursuits and their social habits. Commerce had heretofore been strictly protected by the exclusive guilds of the Hindu merchants. Its doors were now thrown open. Moreover, the British official required body-servants, if possible of good class. The Hindu was precluded from accepting such an occupation by caste rules of purity and caste prohibitions. The Zoroastrian religion left the Parsi free from such scruples. Many members of the community, by commerce direct and by the assistance that gratitude was ready to bestow, were soon able to insinuate themselves into positions which they maintained by their adaptability and their commercial integrity. In shipbuilding they excelled, and both in this and in the kindred trade of ship-broking they accumulated many fortunes. The liquor trade was their monopoly; and, aided by the privilege of exclusive distilling and a monopoly of sale, it was remunerative to an undreamt degree. By the end of the eighteenth century, an old traveller notes, practically the whole of Malabar Hill, the most fashionable and only really enjoyable portion of Bombay had already passed into the ownership of rich Parsis. Throughout the nineteenth century their wealth and their importance grew.
One of the most striking qualities of the Parsi community is its aptitude for imitation. With the advent of British rule, this facility stood them in good stead. It was not long before English education became general and almost universal among them, while by their prompt acquisition of the minor conventions of manners, they easily opened the doors of European society. In consequence it was not long before they attained a position of social importance, based upon solid grounds of wealth and education. The Parsi woman was not left behind in the advance of her caste. Many women studied diligently and even passed the examinations of the University. In general they demanded a liberty such as they read of in English novels, and fancied they could see among their English friends. They refused to marry except at their own choice. For the dull details of household management they expressed contempt and considered their duties done when they looked to the furnishing and decoration of their houses. In dress, the Parsi woman has contrived no less to modify her own costume, originally a slightly altered form of the Hindu woman’s, in imitation of European fashion. She still retains the mantle or sari, but it is hemmed with a border imported from London or Paris. An outer lace shirt is draped like a blouse under the mantle. The trousers, which she has to wear under her skirt by customary prescription, are so curtailed as to be invisible, and the feet are thrust into silk stockings and Louis Quinze shoes. Her jewelry is of European pattern, usually second-rate, and she despises the beautiful antique designs of the Indian goldsmith as “old-fashioned.”
The Parsi woman has in the past been greeted by an amount of praise from European writers which, though intelligible, is yet almost extravagant. It was natural to be pleased at so conscious an imitation, especially in a generation when most Europeans had no doubt of the superiority of their own civilization and were prone to judge the merits of other races, like missionaries, by their aptitude for assimilating its products. They could, after all, always clinch the argument by pointing irrefutably to the triumphs of the Albert Memorial and the Crystal Palace. In a country where few women of the better classes appear in public and beauty is seldom displayed, the spectacle of many gaily-dressed ladies, with graceful drapery, promenading along an Indian street with the freedom of a popular sea-side resort at home, gave almost as much pleasure and pride to the gratified Englishman as it did to the girls’ own parents. It has required closer inspection and broader judgment of East and West to notice the cracks that stretch, no doubt inevitably, across the charming picture. New liberties, imitation not always too wisely conceived, above all sudden commercial prosperity--these have had their advantages. But they also have their countervailing losses.
At the bottom of such disadvantages as appear is no doubt the broad fact that the community as a whole consists of business men. There are of course individuals who have adopted the learned professions and are solicitors, doctors, barristers, and judges. But even they live in a society and probably in a family circle which is wholly commercial; and even their successes are estimated by the money they bring in. In many ways Parsi society is like the Jewish society that is to be found in the larger cities of Europe. But the Jews as a community are devoted to the arts and have a ripe sense of emotional and spiritual values. They respect learning and artistic expression. Even those--the greater number--among them who are engaged in business frankly enough recognize their inferiority to thinkers and artists. Again the Jews have always had a tradition of aristocracy among themselves, and in recent years have sought every opportunity of mingling with the nobilities of the countries to which they belong. The best among them have, therefore, raised themselves by art and letters and by an aristocratic code far above the narrow vices of a commercial middle class, and it is only the lower strata who continue to display the typical defects of “business life.” But the Parsis have unfortunately so far missed these mitigations. They have not, and, within the memory of history, they have never had, the tradition of an aristocracy. They are separated from the indigenous nobility, not only by religion, but by interest and custom, and the difference has been deepened by their partiality for an Anglicized mode of life. Though a few among them have done good work, they have no real liking for learning and art. Hence there is hardly a community in the world, except perhaps in the United States of America, which bases its standards so largely upon wealth. Men are esteemed mainly by what they have managed to acquire; precedence is allowed according to size of income; the business man takes rank over the professional; and a memorandum of their richest men is inscribed on each Parsi’s heart, as on tablets of brass.
These are defects which are not unnatural when a small and isolated community finds itself confined to commerce and is from its history devoid of higher interests. They are defects which do not alter the fact that not a few among the Parsis, especially those who have for generations reposed upon inherited wealth and have taken to the learned professions, are charming men and women and true and worthy friends. Among those who have such a position--who do not aspire to dazzle fashion in the wealthiest circles and do not require to increase their incomes by further trading--the women are attractive by their education and their rational freedom. They preserve a place of dignity and reserve, while quietly taking from life the benefits it offers to a liberal mind. They may even rise above the touchy vanity which is all too common.
It must, however, be admitted that Parsi womanhood has suffered harm from the excessive imitation of English habits--or what are taken to be such. From the nature of the case, because of their own inclinations and environment, the English life they have sought to imitate has inevitably been that of the middle classes. And the effect has been heightened by the enormous consumption of English novels among Parsi women. Owing partly to national character and partly to the demoralizing secret censorship which broods over the publishing world, nearly all English novels have to be “pretty-pretty” falsehoods, distorted away from the facts of life and the truths of nature. The consequence has been to produce a dangerous mental confusion in which spirituality and idealism are suppressed and replaced by a fruitless sentimentality. Reality on the other hand is known and presented only in the shape of hard cash. The harm done by such popular writings is not so apparent in England, where they are part of the normal tissue wastage of the nation. In a foreign and not immune constitution, they produce rapid inflammation. One finds therefore among Parsi women, as one does among the women of the United States, a mentality in which impracticable and silly sentimentalism is mixed up inextricably with a thirst for the solid advantages of wealth. They sigh for courtships of the kind depicted in their favourite “literature,” with scores of “dears” and “darlings” scribbled over scented letters, with moon-calf glances and clammy squeezings of hands; they and the heroes of their fancy get photographed together like any German braut and brautigam; they enter marriage with a blind eye turned to the hard realities of human nature, to discipline for instance and duty, but with the expectation of finding a husband on his knees to pamper every wish and petulance. Yet at the same time, the Parsi, like the American, girl will not let herself slide into these sentimentalities till she is assured of her admirer’s income and position. Both restraints--that which keeps her from love till she knows how money stands, and that which keeps her during her courtship within the bounds of technical chastity--come easy enough as she is, with a few honourable exceptions, free from passion. She would never give herself to the wild love of Romeo and Juliet or the abandoned ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde. Hermann and Dorothea, or a drawing-room ballad, would appeal more readily to her sympathies. That in England there is also another type of womanhood, truer and greater, she does not know--how could she? That there are girls of a fine candour and simplicity who are taught in childhood to obey and to have quiet, effacing manners, who respect a father whom they see controlling a large estate, honoured in Parliament, perhaps governing a great dependency, who are bred in a society of equals in which true and natural superiorities alone, whether of age or seniority, of success in the hunting-field or in the council, are admitted and publicly recognized, that such girls bring to their husbands with their love, respect, and the heritage of discipline, that as wives, while expecting to find fulfilment and the realization of their hopes, they are ready to subserve the higher and enduring interests of a family, of such facts and such nobilities of life--worthy indeed of imitation if such there must be--there can be little knowledge. Vital facts are not always plain upon the surface, and in England no class is so quiet and unobtrusive as the one which really counts.
The prevalence of a money standard in their lives has introduced among the Parsis the great evil of excessive dowries. Generally speaking, it may almost be said, no Parsi young man will marry a bride unless her parents come down with a large settlement, and scandalous stories are sometimes told of the means employed to extort larger sums from the father. The girl whose family is poor--be she as beautiful as Shirin and virtuous as an angel--stands in every danger of being left a spinster. Day by day the probabilities against marriage grow heavier, and the number of unmarried Parsi women of mature age goes on increasing. Alone of all the peoples of India among them the reproachful name of “old maid” can be used. The numbers of unmarried women are already so great that this has become a serious danger to the community, as for that matter it is among the upper middle classes of Great Britain. “Old maid-ism” must have its consequences: hysteria and other illness is on the increase; and the suffragette may soon become as actual a terror and a retribution to the Parsis as she has been in England. If this should ever happen, then climate and the surrounding environment are likely to make the pathology of the situation even more critical in India.
The marriage law which governs the Parsis is very much the same as that which exists in England. Marriages are strictly monogamous, and divorce can be given only by the decree of a public Court of Law on grounds nearly the same as those admitted in the English Courts. In practice early marriage has ceased to exist, and indeed marriages, as in England, are as a rule contracted at far too late an age. The same causes which lead so often to women remaining unmarried, have also raised the average of age.
Parsi life presents, therefore, the picture of a society in which woman have many seeming and some actual advantages, but in which, on the other hand, they are more and more rapidly plunging into unforeseen but very real evils. They have great liberty, a liberty greater, or at least less restrained, than is enjoyed by the women of the better classes in England or in France. They can have education and the pleasures of a liberal mind. In accepting a husband they are ostensibly allowed full freedom of choice, though in practice they are of course limited by the usual considerations, by the importance attached to wealth, and, especially, by the great difficulty of securing any husband at all. They have the advantage of being trained to mix without shyness in all societies. But, even apart from a certain self-assertiveness which at times distresses their best admirers, they have to suffer from the growing probability of a life-long spinsterhood. Only too many will have to face the final misfortune of a wasted and infructuous life.
The community is distinguished by its loyalty and its generosity; and Parsi women, as well as men, play their part in that lavish distribution of charity for which their race has become famous. It could be hoped that, without foregoing what they have gained in education and position, they should also preserve fresh the emotional values of sweet and disciplined womanhood and be able to secure those timely and assured conjugal relations which must be its fulfilment and best reward.