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VIII. A Kasumba Den

Wander down one of the greatest arteries of the city and you will perhaps notice on the east side of the street a double-storied house bearing all the appearance of prolonged neglect and decay. Enter the low door and take a sharp turn to the right and you will find yourself at length on an ill- smelling landing with a creaking ladder-like staircase in one corner, enveloped from top to bottom in darkness so profound that one can almost conjure up visions of sudden death from the assassin's dagger. After a moment's hesitation you commence to grope your way upwards: the staircase sways and creaks beneath your feet; the air is heavy with strange odours; something,--probably a cat--scuttles past you and nearly upsets your balance; and putting out your hand to steady yourself your fingers touch something clammy and corpselike which turns out to be a Ghati labourer, naked save for a loin-cloth, asleep in the narrow niche between the walls of the ground-floor and the first storey. One wonders what he pays for this precarious accommodation, in which a sudden movement during sleep may mean a sheer drop down the dark staircase. But fortunately he sleeps motionless, like one physically tired out, perchance after dragging bales about the dock sheds since early morn or wandering all day round the city with heavy loads upon his head.

At length on the second storey a half-open door casts an arrow of light upon your path. You hail it with joy after the Cimmerian gloom of the lower floors; and, pushing the door further ajar, you find yourself in a square low room lit by two windows which command a view of the street below. It is carpeted with cheap date-leaf mats and a faded polychrome "dhurri"; dirty white cushions are propped against the wall below the windows; a few square desk-like boxes lie in front of the cushions; and in a semi-recumbent attitude around the room are some 20 or 30 men--Bombay and Gujarat Mahomedans, men from Hindustan and one or two Daudi Bohras, the regular customers of the "Kasumba" saloon. There is one woman in the room--a member of the frail sisterhood, now turned faithful, nursing an elderly and peevish Lothario with a cup of sago-milk gruel, which opium-eaters consider such a delicacy: while the other customers sit in groups talking with the preternatural solemnity born of their favourite drug, and now and again passing a remark to the cheery-looking landlord with the white skull-cap and henna-tinged beard.

Each occupant of the room has been provided with a tiny glass of weak opium-water from the large China jar on the landlord's desk, paying a pice per glass for the beverage. Some drink one glass, some two, some three or more; but as a rule the "kasumba" drinker confines himself to two glasses, being ashamed to own even to a brother "Tiryaki" the real quantity of the drug consumed by him: while a few, strengthened by prolonged habit, pay somewhat more than the ordinary price for a thicker and stronger dilution. When the glasses are empty the company calls for desert; for the opium-drinker must always have his "kharbhanjan" or bitter taste remover; and the landlord straightway produces sweets, fruit, parched grain, or sago-gruel known as "khir" according to the taste of his customers. Hardly has dessert ended when an elderly Mahomedan in shabby garb falls out of the group and clearing his throat to attract attention commences to recite a flowery prelude in verse. He is the "Dastan-Shah," own brother (professionally) of the "Sammar" or story-teller of Arabia and the "Shayir" of Persia and Cairo: and his stories, which he delivers in a quaint sing-song fashion, richly interspersed with quotations from the poets of Persia, are usually culled from the immortal "Thousand and one Nights" or are concerned with the exploits and adventures of one of the great heroes of Islam. Amir-Hamza for example is a favourite subject of the imaginative eastern story-teller. Amir-Hamza according to Professor Dryasdust died before the Prophet, but according to the Troubadours of Islam was the hero of a thousand stirring deeds by flood and field and by the might of his right hand converted to the Faith the Davs and the Peris of Mount Kaf (the Caucasus). You will hear, if you care to, of his resourceful and trusty squire Umar Ayyar, owner of the magic "zambil" or satchel which could contain everything, and master of a rude wit, similar to that of Sancho Panza, which serves as an agreeable contrast to the somewhat ponderous chivalry of the knight-errant of Islam.

Thus the Dastan-Shah whiles away time until about 8 p.m. when the club breaks up and the faded Aspasia helps her fractious Pericles down the rotten staircase and out into the night. Ere the company departs each member subscribes a pice for the story-teller, who in this way earns about forty pice a day, no inconsiderable income in truth for the mere retail of second-hand fables: and then with a word of peace to the landlord the men troop slowly forth to their homes. As we pass down the rotten staircase, lit this time for our benefit with a moribund cocoanut oil lamp, we mark the Maratha labourer still sleeping heavily in his niche, dreaming perhaps amid the heavy odours of the house of the fresh wind-swept uplands of his Deccan home.