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XX. The Tilak Riots: A Reminiscence

(Written August. 1908)

Affairs in the City may now be regarded as having resumed their normal course, and the chance of further disorder seems for the present to have been obviated. One of the most curious features of the disturbances was the difference of feeling exhibited by the two classes of mill-operatives, namely the Ghatis and the Malwanis. Of the whole mill-population one would have assumed that the Kunbis from the Deccan, where Tilak is stated to have so great a following, would have shown a greater disposition to riot in consequence of his arrest and conviction than the men from Ratnagiri. And yet so far as I could judge the Ghatis were far less interested in the trial and were much less disposed to express their resentment than the latter class, which comprises one or two extremely hot-headed and uncompromising individuals. The Ghatis of Sewri indeed at the very height of the riots, informed an Englishman with whom they are familiar, that they would sooner die for him than do him any harm, and their words carried home the conviction that they felt no personal sorrow at Tilak's well-deserved fate and that they would be ready in an emergency, as they have often been in past history, to stand staunchly by the side of any individual whom they know and who has been kind to them. The attitude of the Ratnagiri hands must in my opinion have been engendered by continuous and careful tuition; and this was particularly the case in the Currey Road and Delisle Road areas where agents, belonging to their own native district, had been suborned by the seditionary party to stir up trouble.

No less remarkable was the quaint juxtaposition during the height of the riots of seething disorder and the quiet prosecution of their daily avocations by the bulk of the people. An officer of one of the regiments quartered on the City during the trial in the High Court gave expression to this fact in the following words:--"Warfare I understand; but this sort of business beats me altogether. At the top of the street there is a native 'tamasha' with people singing and beating tom-toms; half-way down the street there are stone-throwing and firing, and at the bottom of the street there are people, Europeans and Natives, shopping!" He was struck, as I was, by the incongruity of the whole business. At Jacob's Circle there was a great display of military and magisterial strength. Tommy Atkins had taken up a strong position at the corner of Clerk Road; sentries paced up and down by day and night; machine guns gaped upon the fountain erected to the memory of Le Grand Jacob. At intervals a squadron of cavalry dashed into the open, halted for a space, and then as suddenly disappeared; and they were followed by motor cars and carriages containing Commissioners, Deputy Commissioners, Police Subordinates, Special Magistrates and miscellaneous European sightseers. All the pomp and circumstance of Law and Order were represented there, and there could scarcely have been a greater display of armed force, more secret consultations, more wild dashes hither and thither, more troubled parleying, if the entire City north of Jacob's Circle had been in flames. And yet behind it and around it the daily life of the people moved forward in its accustomed channel, The Bhandari's liquor-shop at the corner had its full complement of patrons, and the Bhandari himself might be seen pulling out handfuls of thirst-producing parched grain for those of his customers who desired a relish with their liquor; members of that degraded class which follows one of the immemorial vices of the East wandered round the Marwaris' shops, begging and clapping their hands in the manner peculiar to them; and across the diameter of the Circle strayed a group of Barots--those strange semi-gipsy looking men from Kathiawar who act as priests and magicians to the Bhangi population. Seeing the military and police they halted for a moment and gave one time to have, a word with them:--"Whither go ye?" we asked, and they replied that they were bound to the big Bhangi settlement that lies not far from the Circle.

One of them carried a "bina," a second an ordinary school-slate covered with crude cabalistic signs and a third a rude book, something like a Vani's "chopda," filled with Marathi characters, which doubtless plays a part in the fortune-telling and spirit-scaring that form the stock-in-trade of these wandering hierophants. Hardly had they disappeared than four Sadhus hove in sight. One of them, who was smeared with ashes from head to foot, the lobes of whose ears had been pierced and dragged down till they nearly touched his shoulders, and who wore an enormous rosary of Rudraksha berries, acted as the spokesman of the party and stated that they were on their way to Nasik. They had come from Benares, he said, and had spent a week in the shady compound of the Mahalaksmi temple, where all the Bairagis, Gosavis and Fakirs of the Indian continent from time to time congregate. "Do you walk to Nasik or go by rail" we asked. "By rail" replied the silver-man. "But surely the true Sadhu should walk, taking no heed of horse-vehicle or fire-carriage," whereat the little fat ascetic with the gourd smiled pleasantly and made some remark to the effect that all methods of conveyance are permitted to the truly devout.

So they passed down Ripon Road towards the heart of the City. Followed a couple of Muhammadan Kasais driving a small flock of sheep, dyed pink and blue in patches, which they urged forward in approved Native fashion by driving the fingers into the base of the hindmost animal's spine; and after them wandered a Syed in a faded green silk robe and cap, carrying the inevitable peacock feather brush, which plays so large a part in exorcism and divination. Later in the day a Hindu lady-doctor hurried past on her way home, and four youths of the student-class, who had left their legal studies in the Fort to see what was toward in the northern portion of the Island. A Municipal sweeper lurched across the open and proceeded to spend twenty minutes in brushing the grating of a drain, leaving the accumulated filth of the adjoining gutter to fester and pollute the surroundings; and two elderly cooly-women, each carrying a phenomenal head-load of dung- cakes, becoming suddenly aware of the presence of troops and thereby struck with terror, collided violently with one another and shot the entire contents of their baskets on to the road. This caused some amusement to the passers-by, particularly to a Pathan who had just taken a very complete bath under one of the taps of the memorial fountain, but the trouble was soon mended by a small boy who, bribed by the offer of one dung cake, helped the old ladies to repack their burdens and replace them on their heads. Next came a swarthy gentleman from Palanpur, who said he was a hawker of glass sugar-bowls, and produced one bowl without a top as proof of his profession. He struck me as being uncommonly and perhaps designedly vacant in speech and appearance, and seemed to have no stock of glassware whatever. I am still wondering whether that topless bowl was really his own or whether he may not have filched it from some convenient dispense-khana.

Meanwhile the Irani at the corner where the trams halt did a roaring trade. He must have boiled his tea-leaves four and five times over in order to supply the constant demands for "adha kop chha-a," preferred by casual visitors who had come up out of the City to see what was going on. Memons, Bohras, Khojas, Jews, Eurasians and Europeans all patronized his shop during the days of tumult, and the amount of soda-water, "pick-me-up" and raspberryade which was consumed was phenomenal. It was as good as a play to watch the constant stream of people who came out to have a look at the soldiers and to hear their remarks on the situation. "I have heard," one of them would begin,--and then followed a string of the wildest bazaar- rumours, interspersed with many a "tobah" (fie) "iman-se" (honestly or truly) or "mag kai" (what happened next), which apparently produced such a hunger and thirst that the Irani, thanking his stars for the outbreak of disorder, had to ransack all his cases for comestibles, aerated waters and tea. They sat in deep attention when Motor Car No. O swung out of De Lisle Road and halted near the fountain; they watched with animation the Punjab cavalry trot homewards to their lines after a scurry in Kalachauki; and they burst into merriment when a refractory mule deposited one of the Northampton Regiment plump in the muddiest portion of the Circle. They had a thoroughly interesting week, these sight-seers; but not half so interesting as he did, who watched them and chatted with them and spent hours interrogating the human flotsam and jetsam of this City of a myriad castes.