First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 29 July 1885
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/2, pp. 42—4.
(From our own Correspondent)
Simla, July 25
[....] At this point, it has dawned upon my stricken conscience that I have, for months past, omitted all reference to a large and most interesting section of society. To this section, namely to the Simla Baby, big, middling and little, I would tender, if there were any chance of this catching their eyes — my humblest apologies. After all, are the ‘grown up’ so very important? Their main duty in life is to buy ponies’ panniers, bearers, dolls, ayahs and new garments for Little Knickerbocker or Miss Muffet. In many cases, if you will believe them, as all good children should believe their elders and betters, they only come up to Simla because Little Knickerbocker or his sister can’t stand the heat of the plains from May to latter October. Let it be granted then, that the raison d’etre of the ‘grown up’ is The Baby and his wants. Let us, therefore, dismiss the ‘grown up’ from our minds, and turn to consider the Simla Baby in all its aspects. In the beginning it wears yards-long garments of ‘braid and b’ue’. (Those two Scotch words may have a meaning of their own; but, until that meaning is found, will do excellently well to express the mysteries of Baby’s Garments.) It is very pink, very soft and sleeps placidly in the glare of the mid-day sun, as an aztec on the stony soil of his thriftless mother country. It pullulates — that is to say, it ululates along the public roads, at the bandstand, on secluded bye-paths, and rusticpugdundies, whither its ayah and some dusky Romeo have retired to discuss ‘anna’ and ‘paisa’ over its innocent little head. It courts sudden death under your horse’s feet, fast asleep in a perambulator. It babbles behind the curtains of a doolie (litter), and clambers, if not thrust back like a leech, over the bars, essaying to drop head first on to the kunkur. Even in its most awful paroxysms of howling — and hill air opens the infant lungs to their tiniest extent — it is always adorable and, as yet, spoilt no more than its unprotected condition demands. Then the process — temporary — of deterioration sets in: Baby passes from long clothes into short ones, and is fearfully and wonderfully spoilt. There are about three hundred good reasons for spoiling Baby. I append a few.
Firstly. — He goes home ’ere long, where the nemesis of a public school, wholly ignorant of ‘bearers’ and similar cattle, but desperately proficient in the use (illegitimate) of a towel and stump end yawns for him. Secondly. — His or Her Elder brother or sister went home last trooping season; and Baby misses them sorely. He must be comforted; and the Parental heart, while lavishing all its love on this last bird in of the nest, comforts itself also against the shadow of the great parting that destroys half the pleasure of our lives. Thirdly — the plains have made him ‘fractious’. He cut teeth there, was plagued, far more direly than the Patient Patriarch, with blains, blisters and prickly heat. He is naturally high-tempered and sensitive, and must be humoured. Fourthly. — But Baby and Baby’s Fortune are too sacred things to be touched on lightly here; and it may be that some tiny headstones in far away outstations tell, only too plainly, how Baby has come to be spoilt. Three-hundredthly and lastly. He is Baby, the Only Baby, and there never has been, is, or will be a Baby like unto him. While Peroo remains to carry him pick-a-back, or accompany him on his morning processions of state — ‘Hathee per howdah: ghorah per zeen' [‘Howdah on elephant: saddle on horse’] as Peroo himself sings: as long as Assunta can tell him strange folk-tales by the hour when he is wearied of exercise, let Baby royally, devoutly and persistently be ‘spoilt’. That nemesis of the brush back, the cricket net and the pitiless iron hard cricket ball, that takes a devilish pleasure in evading ‘fag’s’ fingers will be his only too soon. And for Miss Muffet, delight of morning callers; despair of affable saises (grooms) , coquettish beyond her half dozen years, and cunning as a changeling; are there not provided repressive Aunts; stern guardians who will insist on dragging the poor little innocent to Church twice weekly? (Miss Muffet’s blue eyes cannot distinguish A from B, and her natural theology is composite and vague.) Also ‘boarding schools for young ladies’ — all six thousand weary, weary miles away? Miss Muffet sits her twelve hand hack like the little Amazon she is; climbs khuds that would turn an English child pale with horror, and has never yet had occasion to repeat her smallest command twice. Before she returns to take by storm, for the second time, her well-beloved Simla, she will have learnt many things.
Meantime — there is no blinking the unpleasant truth — she is a reckless, short tempered, hot tongued, golden-haired minx — amenable to no law save that of hunger. Two days ago, she escaped with elfin laughter from her doolie (litter), and selecting the muddiest puddle, danced — actually danced — in it! Peroo protested feebly on the outskirts of the muddy tumult she was raising, (Assunta was chaffering for beetel round the corner, or it would never have happened). Why did he not pick Miss Muffet out of the mire? In reply to this, Peroo answered ‘Miss Sahib ke hookum hai?’ [Is it Miss Sahib’s order!’] To his submissive soul, this set the question at rest conclusively, and Miss Muffet, still hard at work on her delectable pas souille, asserted, radiant with delight, ‘Han, hamara hookum hai. Jao turn’ [‘Yes, that is my order. You go.’] The ‘turn’ (when he isn’t being treated in this way) is a gentleman in her Majesty’s Bengal Civil Service, of some twenty odd years’ standing, and a man of no small honour up here and down below. He went. He could not, for his garments’ sake, snatch away the wilful little woman; and at the end of ten minutes, Miss Muffet, spotted like a camel-leopard, condescended to return to her doolie. A dozen years hence, Miss Muffet will deny that she ever did anything of the kind I have just described. She will have been at a seminary where young ladies don’t dance in puddles as a rule.
Little Knickerbocker is several degrees worse than Miss Muffet: for, to childish wilfulness, he unites man’s supreme contempt for all things feminine. His delight is in the legs of a horse, and he perils his sinful little soul hourly on the chance of investigating them. A special providence watches over his studies in natural science. Though ponies may wince and put back their ears, they never kick him. Yet if any person of less consequence — say a Member of Council, or a General Officer — were to follow his example, things would be greatly otherwise. Little Knickerbocker is hale-fellow-well-met with some six score Jhampanies, and they in turn almost worship him. Not long ago it was my exceeding good fortune to come across little Knickerbocker in all his glory. His Mamma had left him in her ghari, while she stepped into a milliner’s shop. The visit was a protracted one, and several other ladies were shopping at the same time. That is to say, there were twenty jhampanies or so lounging in the roadway. Scarcely had Mrs Knickerbocker disappeared, than the rickshaw was taken with internal convulsions; and above the lap-cloth rim (he had dived below to investigate the structural peculiarities of rickshaws) emerged a tangled brown head, a disreputable sailor’s hat, and the upper half of Little Knickerbocker. Then he held his levee of jhampanies, and I would defy even a Higher Standard, double pressure extra proficient to have done better; the conversation passed beyond his bystander’s comprehension. It was flavoured with numberless jokes, for the coolies laughed like the children they are; and little Knickerbocker the loudest of all. It contained sound moral advice of some kind, for they sat on the ground and stared solemnly into his chubby little face. It enunciated grave truths of life and thought doubtless, for they shook their heads assentingly and said ‘Je ha?i’ ‘Such hail’ [‘Yes sir. It’s true!’] to the small philosopher. ‘What was it all about?’ At this question, the coolies straightway relapsed into stolid netschies, and retired to their respective charges. The spell was broken, and the levee dispersed; only Little Knickerbocker was equal to the occasion. He bent forward over lap-cloth with a grin — an unadulterated boy’s grin — ‘I was only talking to them about themselves.’ Spirit of every ruler and administrator that India has known, has it been reserved for the Simla baby to talk to the people of the land ‘about themselves’ as Little Knickerbocker did; and to him and him only will the coolies speak unrestrainedly ‘about themselves’? Here were twenty souls, who would have grovelled, cringed and lied with oriental fervour to any district officer who might address a word to them, chattering like daws ‘about themselves’ to seven year old Little Knickerbocker. Today my respected Diplomat might make shift to rule India with some success; or at least with that much babbled of, seldom seen, ‘touch with the people’ — a shadow we chase through durbars, madressas, drains, universities and hospitals and — miss after all. But he will be neither ruler nor administrator — not he, a dozen years hence — after much intermediate hammering and being hammered — he will admonish his syce with the bar end of a stirrup leather and ask his seniors: — ‘What on earth does the soor mean by all this infernal gibberish?’ He too, will indignantly deny that he ever talked to ‘those beastly jhampanie fellows’ ‘about themselves’. Is it only the children who know, and the men who are ignorant? Little Knickerbocker maintains that because ‘you ride a real horse. Mine’s only a baby one. And you can dance with mamma when I’m in bed. And you can eat anything without Assunta slappin’ you’ therefore you must know everything. He may be wrong; and the owner of the ‘real live horse’, the man without an ayah to slap him may feel something very like a pang of bitter envy as he watches the dispersion of Little Knickerbocker’s levee, and departs with the child’s courteous little explanation: — ‘I’m only talking to them about themselves’ ringing in his brain.
I started to prove that Little Knickerbocker was a ruffian and a pest, and my pen has betrayed me. He is a hardened, graceless scamp, saved daily from sudden death, and ungratefully pummelling the hand that jerks him from under horses’ bellies and hurrying wheels. He is ever so much worse than Miss Muffet in his own impish way, and there must be hundreds of him in Simla.
And this brings me back to my starting point — a ‘variety entertainment’ at the Gaiety Theatre a few hours ago. In addition to the usual songs and recitations, a Magic Lantern display was provided for the entertainment of the children who made up the greater part of a somewhat limited audience. It had been showery all day, and my last remark must not be taken to imply a slur on the entertainment which was good enough of its kind, and a wild dream of delight from the child’s point of view. To this point of view it is best to adhere. My cicerone was Little Knickerbocker (he is in sailor’s trowsers really, but he doesn’t read any papers save illustrated ones) and next to him sat a friend aged about seven. Between the two of them, these Travelled Tots had ‘done’ the greater portion of the Continent, having seen men and cities from London to Venice. To these gentlemen then it was safe to confide oneself. Travel had not developed in them a spurious taste for music. The overture began; and travelled Tot number one unburdened himself as follows: ‘I wish they would finish with this rubbish, and go on to something nice. Where’s the magic lantern?’ Entertainments are impossible without overtures, but T.T. didn’t know, if or he did, didn’t care. He bore with the recitation benignly; tolerated some other items of the performance, and was betrayed into merriment by a banjo song and a corneygrain ditty with a hipping refrain. Comparatively speaking, he hybernated till the room was darkened and the magic lantern began. Then he smote his friend joyously in the ribs, and the two, in a high clear treble, commenced the divine labour of criticism, which only children understand aright. There were fifty one slides altogether — some comic, some representing places of interest in Europe. Both kinds were accepted and criticised impartially. Slide No. 3 showed the Tower of London. Travelled Tot number one had been there, and felt that it was his own. He enlightened travelled Tot number two to this effect; adding, in a voice that could be heard from footlights to ticket table, ‘and I know every room in it too’. Number two was occultated for the moment, but bided his time till the Lake of Como turned up. He had been there, (the whole room was in possession of his secret) and he scored one. The Monument and the Houses of Parliament were claimed by Tot number one, calmly, clearly, and dispassionately; as also was Westminster Abbey. The Rigi, the glacier de Bossons, and the cascade of Terni fell to number two, whose divigations on the continent had been extensive. Paris he knew, and a Rhine view he identified as a walking place in his wanderings. St. Peters, I think, was number one’s property, and the Thames below London Bridge. T’ve walked across it you know, and it takes a quarter of an hour to cross.’ Then came for number two the crowning triumph of the evening. A view of Milan Cathedral slid on to the sheet. He studied it critically for an instant, and then announced, in an irresistibly comic drawl, ‘Why, that isn’t one bit like Milan Cathedral’. Number one collapsed. He could identify old friends, but he was not prepared to disparage them. Neither child laid claim to the Falls of Niagara or Constantinople, but they took a lively interest in both. They gazed long and lovingly on some kaleidescope horror that twisted and untwisted like a vision in the early stage of brain-fever. This was ‘nice’ and ‘ought to be done again’. Finally, they expressed themselves thoroughly satisfied with the entertainment and departed, comparing notes, in the same rickshaw. Modern scepticism had already poisoned their young minds; and, instead of being thankful for men with moveable legs and arms, they wanted to know ‘how it was done’. Both passed over, as unworthy of notice, the really delightful descriptive music that was played as each picture appeared. It was too dark to see who the performer was; but (to drop the children’s spectacles for a moment) it is only fair to say, that his or her delicacy of touch was only equalled by his or her knowledge of fifty-one separate tunes. This, like number one’s criticism on the overture, is genuine though clumsy, and delivered, as his, in ignorance of the pianist. Before finishing, (Is it necessary to apologize for filling a letter with the ways and words of the Simla baby? The Plains one is dear enough to us all) let me introduce another absolutely veracious story of travelled Tot number two. It serves as an awful warning not to handle babes too lightly in conversation. Travelled Tot number two was younger then. He was dining at a table d’hote in Bombay. Anxious to set the child at his ease, a fellow traveller said kindly, ‘Well, my little man, I suppose this is the first time you have dined at a table d’hote.’ To him the blasé Ulysses above his cup: — ‘No. Frequently in Paris! ’