Bamdah PO

Via Simultala,




24 May 1931


Dear Alex


I enjoyed your letter written on March 21st with details of your Niagara visit etc.  But now as I take up my pen to reply, I find I’ve omitted to take a note of what I’ve already told you of life here, so I may give you some ‘old news’ over again inadvertently.


I had a “busman’s” holiday for a week, early this month.  That is to say, Dr Macphail (who leaves on furlough in a few days) suggested I take the opportunity of visiting our Kalua Mission in Bengal, while he was still here.  It would only be a change of oven, but never mind.


So off I set in the cool of the morning in the mission-car 14 miles to Simultala, driven by the chauffer, and accompanied by the mechanic (or postman, if you will).  There was a patient to see at Simultala and then by train to Calcutta, where I was first going to spend a weekend, and do some shopping.


Indian trains are as interesting as American ones, I’m sure.  There is 1st Class (for wealthy Europeans: such carriages are usually empty); 2nd Class (used mainly by Europeans, Anglo-Indians, and Indians of education and position); “Intermediate”, which constitutes the greater portion of the train and is very cheap and a great consideration when one must travel long distances; then 3rd Class, which is unspeakable; and finally any Indian can travel free by tipping the railway workers a few annas.  I chose to try “intermediate” and at first got a saloon carriage to myself, fan less, and with the customary book-arrangements in the roofs for soldiers rifles – as if a continuous reminder of the British raj.  Presently, however, a “marriage-party  entered.  They were a company of 14 Hindus, in Indian garb, 13 male and the bride a very pretty little girl age 12, though she looked nine.  I got on to the talk with them by taking a snapshot of the bride at a station, - a few of them talked a little English – and they told me rather proudly that “this was against the “Sarda Act”.










Now you know that for some obscure reason this act doesn’t act unless a complaint is lodged against the proposed marriage.  So I asked jokingly : “Well, what if someone complains?” to which they replied : “Oh! If there is a complaint, then she is 14 (the minimum marriageable age).  She had seven gold armlets on each arm, earrings, nose ring and anklets, and was obviously rather not awed by her new “state” though she seemed much more interested in looking out the window.  The fact that little Indian girls dress exactly the same as grown Indian women tends to make girl-brides like this look – not childish – but rather “pigmy women”.  Her husband was an unintelligent looking boor of about 23.  However ill she might be afterwards, they were certainly kind enough to her, treating her as a child, getting her coloured drinks at railway stations, fanning her by a hand-fan, making her comfy with a cushion, arranging her hair, and manicuring her nails!


And during this journey, these people of substance – and some of them of a little English education behaved in the most awful fashion, spitting, washing out their mouths and spitting it out on the carriage floor continually.


On arriving at the Scottish Church College, Calcutta, and relating the experience in disgust, they told me I “would get accustomed to it”.  Indeed the scenes at railway stations are a lot worse.  All the “third classes” seem to get out at every station, bathe themselves with pails of water on the platform or from the trough marked “for cattle and horses only”, or drink from packs of dirty grey “Ganges water” that is brought round in pails, rushing this way and that with their earthenware or brass jars.  Add to this huge white-garbed mobs of village people getting on to the train, in great frenzy and full of violent shoutings : vendors of nauseous messy India foods; beggars seeking alms; and coolies laden with strange loads.










Other characteristics of railway stations are: the presence of a few Indian police or soldiers travelling somewhere or other, usually very smart in khaki shorts and shirts and red turban and of good physique ; separate “Mohammedan’s Refreshment Room” and “Hindu Refreshment Rooms” ; and separate “Hindu Drinking Water Jar” and “Mussulman Drinking Water”.


All station officials who are not Indians are Anglo-Indians – varying from very dark ones to very white.  All the way from Sumultala to Calcutta and through 5 miles of the city of Calcutta to the Se-Ch College, I never saw a single European.


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In Calcutta I was to find the College and our other institutions all but deserted ; everybody’s “wife was away “to the hills”, and many of the husbands too.  At Kalua later, I was to find preparation for a wholesale exodus, also.  The experience of  the hill -station however, I am not to have till next year (Prof Cawson of the College was once a teacher in Fordyce Academy)


One rarely sees Europeans on foot in Calcutta and only occasionally in a bus or tram.  They all go in private cars of taxis (open-touring-car style), and distances are so great and taxis so cheap, that I found myself travelling in them quite a lot.  I did shopping with Mrs Urquhart, the Principal’s wife, in their car, in the Chowrughie - the Princes Street of Calcutta, and on Sunday enjoyed a service in English in St Andrew’s Church of Scotland (after our barbarous Santali ones in Bamdah) relaxing in an armchair, amid green palm plants, and beneath thirty huge, silently revolving propeller fans.


I also visited a Calcutta Picture House with Prof Mowat of the College (Hon Engl Edinburgh – before your time – comes from Caithness).  It advertises : “special air-cooling apparatus : coolest spot in Calcutta” and it was anxious to feel the “chill” when one entered.  The audience was very unlike that at home too.  It was entirely European, but only half full – and only two women, so far as I could see.


After the show was over (a good British Picture, we walked out into the warmth, hatless,            and made off in private car or taxi.


What a sahib and miss – sahib deserted place this is in the hot weather!



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Kalna lies north of Calcutta a few hours by train, and I had a pleasant few days with Dr Ian Sanderson – his wife being “at the hills”.  Kalna is an Indian town of about 6 to 8,000 inhabitants.  To imagine such a town picture any tumbledown street at home, with windows boarded up and plaster and bricks falling, and you have very good sample.  Keeping fabric in repair never seems to occur to the Indians.  In fact he sometimes leaves part of his house permanently unfurnished, so that the gods will see it and say “oh! This must be a poor man, we’ll be good to him!”  All this has given an air of desertion but when one came to the bazaar, it is a different picture.  A narrow, muddy irregular, street, with the open stall-like “shops” on either side – consisting in many cases of a “shop window” only, with the proprietor sitting cross-legged in the centre of his areas.  The traffic consists of the eternal bullock card; a few motor buses; and taxis; and the street is thronged with men, women and children beggars; a few sheep, cattle, goats, dogs; and possibly an occasional monkey from an overhanging palm.  At the side of the street run the usual open (gutter) drains, and also possibly there are a number of people being shaved or infants being fed at the breast.


I found missionary life at Kalna very different from here.  It dates back to Duff’s time and there are a staff of four missionaries.  George Maclaren being the clerical one, then Dr A whom I have mentioned, and two women, one educational and one a nurse.  Hospital made me most curious.  Bamdah is a hovel compared with it.  The late Dr Macphail has been very conservative in his views here and I must say that Bamdah is disappointing as a hospital, but fortunately eye-work requires little nursing, and work is mainly that here: - over 3,000 cataract operations a year!


Kalma Hospital is undoubtedly one of those above the average, to which the S    Report must have referred when it mentioned the lead given by “some excellent mission-hospitals.  A few days later I visited a Government Hospital at Chinsurah, Bangal, and to my astonishment I found it rather dirty and far behind Kalna.


I had quite a hilarious time at Kalna, dinner in the evening being in each of the three mission-houses in rotation in my honour, with bridge, ping-pong, badminton etc.  In contrast to these advantages of hospital and company however, living costs more (servants and so on) and the climate is damp and unhealthy during these heats, as compared with the healthy dry heat of Bilhar in which Bamdah is.



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Your letter with cuttings etc. arrived here on the 25th inst, which shows I am behind with this but many thanks.  I’m sure the idea of your becoming a glorified ‘caretaker’ willh ave amused Dad immensely, but then of course America is a democratic country.  I mean to show your pictures of sky-scrapers to the Boys School and Girl’s School here : though I doubt if they will believe that people stay in these “houses”, since the mission-bungalow is the finest and biggest “house” they have ever seen!


I take up my Kalna story again.  I was present at my first Indian tea-party there.  We hear about colour bar at home, and lack of social contact between Indian and European in India, but I think the fact of the matter is that their ‘colour bar’ is against the European here (though he does not suffer indignity thereby!): for the orthodox Indian household (which are still the vast majority) will not eat with Europeans, and so there can be little social contact.  And then when we come to the minority (chiefly in the cities) who are willing to entertain – well, Europeans have occasionally died as a result of infected food and unboiled water!  Or the European may soon lose his enthusiasm for their entertaining eg – Principal and Mrs Longuhart were asked to a well-to-do Hindu wedding reception when I was in Calcutta, and even after twenty years or so in India, I found them quite perturbed.  They took a hefty dinner before going – in case hunger should tempt them to eat lunch.  When they went they found hundreds of people, mostly shouting: they never met their host, and their hostess didn’t know who they were, while the food, they said was “hen’s mate”!  And these were not mere       nobodies!


So I set out with the Kalna missionaries in their Victorian horsecab (with a footman perched up behind to shout at people who crossed our path) in some trepidation.  But we really had the most delightful time, and with the danger of being called biased, I think I must claim that it was because most of the company was Xians.










Our host was a Xian of the Syrian Church of South India, practising as a doctor in Kalna where he married our charming hostess – a Bengalis convert of the Kalna mission.  He is in European clothes, as are most of the male members of their party of about 12.  One brother is a doctor in charge of a mission-hospital in South India and is on holiday; another a doctor somewhere else in Bengal: yet a simple family.  We mounted a stone stair in the bare courtyard, and were received by our hostess and introduced all round in proper style : clasping our hands in front of our faces Indian fashion and shaking hands too.  Tea was laid out most tastefully on a white-cloth table on the roof, and this simple Bengali hostess (she would be about 23) took the lead of the table, serving us from cups on a little side table.  She was most attentive: “Is your chaê (tea) finished Dr Taylor?” – Pass the makkhan  (butler) to so-and-so please” and so on.


Remember that an Indian women does not sit at table even with her husband, and that even amongst converts, their subjection dies hard.  This was in fact the first occasion on which she had entertained Europeans, and she did it graciously and with ease.  A district magistrate next me was a Hindu obviously: “Are they chicken Sandwiches?  No, I prefer not to take them please” and after tea a finger-bowl was brought him, with which he made a show off washing out his mouth by moistening his lips with the water.  His wife had refused to join the company and was ‘hiding’ in the house somewhere. 


These Xian doctors were thoroughly good fellows and up-to-date, but found it most exasperating the way patients in imputed  base motives etc to them: the “medical profession” is not synonymous with “honour” and a high standard of morality as it is on the whole in the west.  One of them was so keen on his work that he had a stethoscope with the rubber-tubing as long as a vacuum sweeper – yards and yards! – so that he could sit in the courtyard of a house, with the other end of the stethoscope on the purdah women’s chest somewhere is a room which he was not allowed to enter! 









After tea, we divided into little groups to talk and I had a charming conversation with the young wife of one of the doctors  a Xian convert from Malabar who had married into the Syrian Xian family.  She was a most beautiful woman, so fair in skin as to be practically olive-complexioned, and her head being uncovered by her sari of pink silk, the sari was more like a western evening gown.  Her first remark when I approached her was interesting.  It had a touch of defiance : “In Malabar, you know, we women are FREE!”  Whereupon she began even to introduce topics, in beautiful English, although she was only educated up to the equivalent of our basic exam.


I afterwards visited a Mission at Calinsurah, nearby, dating back to Duff, and visited the oldest Church in Bengal :  a relic of Portuguese settlers.  Also a Dutch Church, and on my way to Kalna, I also passed through ‘French Territory’!




8th June 1931


This letter has been tossed aside and I must now get it finished and off without starting off on another tack now.


I am now alone, and with the exception of one or two bouts of loneliness I am enjoying work all right.  I have stood the heat fairly well.  We have a dry heat here: one doesn’t become sticky and wet as in Bengal (for instance) unless we get an east wind.  The only indication of perspiration is the craving for water to drink.  By 9.00am it is usually 100º and from 11am to 4pm it is 110º.  In the afternoon, I lie on my back with only a pair of shorts on and read or snooze à font (what an existence!).  These temps are in the shade of the verandah ; outside it reaches 140º (perhaps more; that’s the top of my thermometer!)


I enclose a snap of the child-bride.  I carefully “draped” her to show the ornaments.  It has occurred to me that it might appeal to the sentimental American public as an example of the breaking of the “April Fool Sarda Act” (see Miss Mayo), “occurring everywhere”, by trying it on some newspaper, with a suitable caption!  Try it, if you can fix on a likely paper.  It was taken at Burdwan Station, EIR in May this year.


Yours ever