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All the sick were sudras, Hindoos of the lowest caste. All the rest, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisiyas, would rather die at home, uncared for, than endure the promiscuous mixture of caste at the hospital, and contact with their inferiors. Even the sudras are but few. There is an all-pervading dread of a hospital, fostered by Indian bone-setters and sorcerers, stronger even than the fear of the pestilence; the people hide themselves to die, like[Pg 33] wounded animals, and their relations will not speak of an illness for fear of seeing anybody belonging to them taken to the hospital.

They were all flying from the plague, which was spreading, and emptying the bazaars and workshops. The Exchange being closed, trade was at a standstill, and the poor creatures who were spared by the pestilence were in danger of dying of hunger.

On the great banyan trees in the garden, and on every palm, torpid vultures sit in the sun, awaiting the meal that will come with the next funeral procession. [Pg 292]

Between the cliff-walls of the defile, in a sort of bay, stands Ali Musjid, a little white mosque where travellers tarry to pray.

One of these towers, smaller than the others, and standing apart at the end of the garden, is used for those who have committed suicide. The bearers of the dead dwell in a large yellow house roofed with zinc. There they live, apart from the world, never going down to Bombay but to fetch a corpse and bring it up to the vultures, nor daring to mingle with the living till after nine days of purification.

A Catholic church flanking the Jesuit college persistently sent up to us the shrill tinkle of a little bell, rattling out its quick, harsh strokes like a factory bell for workmen.

A different scene indeed next day, with none of the magnificence of yesterday, was the temple of magical lights. There was a dense crowd of shouting and begging pilgrims. Along the pyramidal roofs, as at Srirangam, there were rows of painted gods, but in softer and more harmonious hues. Over the tank for ablutions was a balcony decorated in fresco, representing in very artless imagery the marriage of Siva and Parvati. The couple are seen holding hands under a tree; he a martial figure, very upright, she looking silly, her lips pursed, an ingnue. In another place Siva sits with his[Pg 120] wife on his knees, she has still the same school-girl expression. Finally, on the ceiling, is their apotheosis: they are enthroned with all the gods of Ramayana around them, and she looks just the same. The red and green, subdued by the reflected light from the water, were almost endurable.

Very late in the evening came the sound of darboukhas once more. A throng of people, lighted up by a red glow, came along, escorting a car drawn by oxen. At each of the four corners were children carrying torches, and in the middle of the car a tall pole was fixed. On this, little Hindoo boys were performing the most extraordinary acrobatic tricks, climbing it with the very tips of their toes and fingers, sliding down again head foremost, and stopping within an inch of the floor. Their bronze skins, in contrast to the white loin-cloth that cut them across the middle, and their fine muscular limbs, made them look like antique figures. The performance went on to the noise of drums and singing, and was in honour of the seventieth birthday of a Mohammedan witch who dwelt in the village. The car presently moved off, and, after two or three[Pg 49] stoppages, reached the old woman's door. The toothless hag, her face carved into black furrows, under a towzle of white hair emerging from a ragged kerchief, with a stupid stare lighted up by a gleam of wickedness when she fixed an eye, sat on the ground in her hovel surrounded by an unspeakable heap of rags and leavings. The crowd squeezed in and gathered round her; but she sat perfectly unmoved, and the little acrobats, performing in front of her door, did not win a glance from her. And then, the noise and glare annoying her probably, she turned with her face to the wall and remained so. She never quitted her lair; all she needed was brought to her by the villagers, who dreaded the spells she could cast. Her reputation for wisdom and magic had spread far and wide. The Nizam's cousin, and prime minister of the dominion, never fails to pay her a visit when passing through Nandgaun, and other even greater personages, spoken of only with bated breath, have been known to consult her.