The Amritsar Fair (2)




by Rudyard Kipling
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First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 23 October 1884

Background
Not in the Sussex Scrapbooks but continuing the preceding article




(From our own Correspondent)

Amritsar, Oct 20

The illumination of the Durbar Sahib, and, incidentally, of the greater part of the city, began at six o’clock on Saturday even¬ing. This showed, in a most favourable light, the amenableness of an Indian crowd to authority. As befitted their position, the police authorities were reticent about the nature and extent of their duties, so that it is impossible to estimate the amount of organization and forethought which they had expended on the arrangements of the evening. The result, however, was that, from the Municipal offices to the Clock-Tower, a carriage might be driven at full trot without a single hindrance. The white-robed crowd ranged themselves, like cheery ghosts, into orderly lines at a signal from the baton of authority — the blue and yellow policemen, stationed every ten yards or so, along the route. Even that evil-mouthed pest of all India, the pariah-dog, had been scared from his couch in mid-street; and the Englishman who had come to scoff at disorder and confusion remained, if not to pray, to pass thankfully on his unobstructed way with a feeling of personal gratitude to that much abused body, the Indian Police.

The raised platform behind the Clock- Tower had been set aside for Europeans and the leading natives of the city. Here, too, came young Bengal, in long frock-coat and patent leather boots, to hold indignant speech with the police authorities, who would not admit him to the reserved seats. By dusk these were filled, and then, as the old nursery story goes, ‘the fairy waved her wand, and the rats were turned to coach-horses, the frogs to powdered footmen, and the great yellow pumpkin to a beautiful golden coach’. In other words, the light of a million tiny chirags changed the squalid streets and uncouth crowds into strange and wonderful things. The great sunk square in which the Durbar Sahib stands, broke out into a hundred lines of fire; and Temple itself blazing, like a live coal, in the centre of them all. Then house after house followed suit; and it could be seen that each ‘gemmed roof’ wras crowded with an assembly of brown goblins who, to-morrow, would revert to their everyday duties of buying and selling on the ground floors of these palaces — gem roofed no longer. A red light gave the signal for the fire-works, which were not good. It may be that the illuminated square spoilt their effect, for the rockets seemed pale and [in] effective; the Roman candles burnt dimly, as well as bluely, and the Catherine wheels were as so many bad fusees in comparison. The sea of many coloured turbans below was well pleased, however, and cried wah! wah! at each shower of golden sparks or flight of fire-balloons. The noise and smoke lasted for about half an hour, and, at their conclusion, the spectators departed. But the fairy city that had been so suddenly created did not disappear till some hours later. Little by little, the lines of fiery tracery became blurred and broken, the wonderful temple on the waters rotted away, and, amid a fearful stench of burnt wicks and bad oil, Amritsar was herself again.

On Sunday morning the horse lines were quieter. After all, it is impossible to squeal at your neighbour for more than twelve hours at a stretch; and even kicking, when you can hurt nobody, must lose its charm. The cattle fair too was less densely attended, and country cousins were more disposed to wander about the city, sight seeing, than to chaffer for bullocks. The great annual influx of visitors has, up till now, been allowed to come and go without the smallest effort being made towards its entertainment and, indirectly, its education in matters connected with its own pursuits. This year, thanks to Mr Nicholl, the Municipal secretary, a beginning has been made, in the shape of what, for convenience sake, may be called agricultural exhibit rooms. A large house close to the fair has been lent for the occasion, and here are gathered together samples of wheat from various districts; specimens of improved ploughs, sickles, pruning knives and the like, from a Calcutta firm; carpets and cottons, and a hundred and one other articles which might appeal to the country cousin’s soul.

How far the venture has been successful, may be judged from the fact, that over two thousand visitors pass through it daily. Some of their remarks on the articles exhibited were worth listening to. ‘That a plough,’ said one zemindar, pointing to a double-handed iron one from Calcutta. ‘I could break that with my foot!’ The light pole and tapering handles, compared with the robust tree which he and his fathers drove through the fields, moved him to a good deal of scornful merriment and it was only when a friend invited his attention to the size of share and the beauties of the clevis, that he would look at the plough seriously. Others were more appreciative and fully alive to the merits of the belaite goods exposed for their inspection. They whetted the pruning knives on their palms, critically balanced the sickles and as critically tested the edges of the American axes. When it had been made perfectly clear to them that it was possible to buy exactly similar articles for the same price, they gave their orders; and a large number of implements were disposed of. A quantity of the largest size of brass garden syringes were at first regarded with suspicion. ‘Surely the well and irrigation channel were the only legitimate means of watering the land; why, then purchase these strange inventions?’ Presently, one brilliant genius murmured that they would be the very things for the next holi, and the idea took at once. The richer men (for garden squirts with India rubber piping are not cheap) have ordered several, and the next holi should be worth witnessing. The British manufacturer will be glad to learn that he has succeeded in adding additional eclat to one of the maddest and most riotous festivals of the East. A model by the Principal of the Lahore School of Art [Kipling’s father] of men ploughing, moved the country cousins to child-like wonder and awe. A sturdy jat stood with outstretched forefinger and drooping jaw to stare at his very self, in clay, pressing down the rebellious share. In a corner of the field too, was his wife with her child on her hip. By all the gods in his Pantheon, this was too wonderful! Could the little men be alive? The question was answered with a roar of laughter, as someone pointed out where a chip in a bullock’s ear showed the earth below. Native women attended in large numbers on Sunday, and stayed for long. The reason was not far to seek. Two large mirrors at the opposite side of the room, formed the attraction; and Eve from Taran-Taran or Jandiala must needs see, at least a dozen times, how Adam’s fairing — a new chalder and gay brass nose-ring — becomes her.

Nor is Adam one whit better. He takes no pains to conceal his satisfaction at the curl of moustaches and the sit of his turban, and shamelessly jostles Eve away from the wonderful glass. One old crone (could it have been the first time she had ever seen her own face thus?) lingered for at least ten minutes arranging an exceedingly filthy head cloth with every appearance of delight. The little comedy had to be watched in the glass, from the other side of the room, and, as soon as she was at liberty to study anything beyond her own beauty, she was aware of the reflection of a European in front of her. Back shot the veil at once, and the old lady moved ruefully away. These, however, were only the lighter humours of the show which was, seriously, a great success from an agricultural point of view. The venture is to be repeated on a larger scale next year, and should give the best results. There is already some talk of holding a similar exhibition at Jullunder before long. What would best satisfy the needs of the Province would be, to establish a permanent show of this kind in every large town — an expansion of the original idea which would not be very expensive. The entire cost of the Amritsar show came to something under fifty rupees. In this instance, various firms from Calcutta, Cawnpore and elsewhere, sent specimens of their manufactures, on the chance of their finding favour with the natives. It is as well to remember that the floweriest advertisements of agricultural implements fail in great measure to reach the classes for which they were intended. Let Ram-Singh, whenever he buys cattle or ekka ponies, have easy access to a few samples, and, even though it may somewhat damage them, let him be allowed to handle freely these samples. If he likes them, he will adopt them: and if he doesn’t no one will be much the worse.

At dusk the show was closed and the country cousins went to bed. IIow the city can accommodate the crowds in it just now is a mystery. The inhabitants, however, complain of the poorness of the fair, and the consequent scanty attendance thereat. The outlying tehsils, say they, are a good deal troubled with fever, and the cattle disease has prevented a good many entries. If fever-struck tehsils and diseased herds are represented by tonight’s crowd of men and bullocks, then Amritsar, at her best, must be a three days’ block.

At four o’clock on Monday evening the prizes for horses and cattle were distributed, by the Deputy Commissioner, at the cattle fair. All the Europeans in the station, with a very few exceptions, had assembled there, under the shade of a large shamiana, the prize animals passing at the end of a lane of native officials, like pictures in the slide of a magic lantern. First a brown horse, seen for a minute or two through the dust, and then, as his hind legs disappeared, the head of a black horse would appear and so on. Four hundred and fifty rupees were given in prizes for the horses, and something like two thousand rupees for the cattle. The prizes for horses were for district-bred beasts only — brood mares in foal to Government stallions, ditto with foal at foot; mares in foal to country-bred stallions, ditto with foal at foot; geldings out of Governments, and c-b stallions, and mules. About a hundred brood mares were branded. These, for the most part, were aged and unlovely ladies. The cattle prizes were open to all. Amritsar secured first prize for bulls for improving the breed of draught cattle; for male buffaloes, and for district bred mules. The prizes for cows for improving the breed of milch cattle, for female buffaloes (so the entries ran) and for draught oxen, fell to Ferozepore. Ludhiana was represented by her loading camels, a loud-voiced brute of singularly unpleasing appearance. Kupurthalla won the prize for yearling calves; and Sialkote for bulls for improving the breed of draught cattle. Some of these latter were magnificent animals, and could only be adequately described by a Yorkshire dalesman. At the conclusion of the prize giving, the Government stallions and the stud donkeys were led by. Of the stallions two, called respectively the Amritsar Arab and the Taran-Taran Trotter, were the best. The latter fills the eye as much as his name does the mouth, and is altogether an animal to approach with fear, and to praise with fervour.

The stud donkeys were not sweet to look on, for it is only when the ass is patient and much enduring, as the story books assure us he is, that we regard him with favour. The four black-coated, shaggy-haired ruffians in question, were neither patient nor did they admit of any trifling with. To an ignorant observer they appeared ugly, not to say coarse and unrefined. The initiated, however, seemed delighted. After the prize-giving followed mule and camel racing, and various other sports. The camels either would not or could not race, and came home in couples, gurgling fearfully. The mule race was exciting.

An obstacle race through tubs was provided for the benefit of the rising generation, and the special delectation of the Clerk of the Course. This gentleman was besieged by clamorous youngsters, calling Heaven and Earth to witness that the prizes were unjustly awarded — a thing by no means impossible, seeing that one brown urchin is marvellously like another, and that nine-tenths of the runners avoided the obstacles altogether. The tent-pegging which succeeded was the most noteworthy feature of the evening, and attracted about a dozen competitors. The pegs had been constructed of new palm wood, and though more than once struck fairly in the centre, were too hard to yield.

At dusk the sports terminated, and, with them, the interest of the fair as far as Europeans are concerned. Our country cousins will not disperse for some time and it seems that Tuesday and Wednesday will be the busiest days of all. This is difficult to believe. Except on the very outskirts of the maidan, where knots of villagers are squabbling over broken-kneed ekka ponies, the horse lines are almost deserted. Two or three of the big dealers have ‘folded their tents like the Arabs and silently stolen away’. The remount officers have made their purchases and are gone, and the crows are quartering the pickets in search of a dinner. A veil of dust has hidden the Jullunder road, so that it is impossible to say what is going on in that direction. Only from time to time, like the sobs of the Mock-turtle, can be heard the lowing of thirty thousand hungry cattle; and in every nook and corner, where a man can stow himself, the country cousins are settling down to sleep.