Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

The Suicide—Relations between Parents and Children in India

The day before we left Datiyā our cook had a violent dispute with his mother, a thing of almost daily occurrence; for though a very fat and handsome old lady, she was a very violent one. He was a quiet man, but, unable to bear any longer the abuse she was heaping upon him, he first took up a pitcher of water and flung it at her head.

It missed her, and he then snatched up a stick, and, for the first time in his life, struck her. He was her only son. She quietly took up all her things, and, walking off towards a temple, said she would leave him for ever; and he, having passed the Rubicon, declared that he was resolved no longer to submit to the parental tyranny which she had hitherto exercised over him.

My water carrier, however, prevailed upon her with much difficulty to return, and take up her quarters with him and his wife and five children in a small tent we had given them. Maddened at the thought of a blow from her son, the old lady about sunset swallowed a large quantity of opium; and before the circumstance was discovered, it was too late to apply a remedy. We were told of it about eight o'clock at night, and found her lying in her son's arms—tried every remedy at hand, but without success, and about midnight she died.

She loved her son, and he respected her; and yet not a day passed without their having some desperate quarrel, generally about the orphan daughter of her brother, who lived with them, and was to be married, as soon as the cook could save out of his pay enough money to defray the expenses of the ceremonies. The old woman was always reproaching him for not saving money fast enough.

This little cousin had now stolen some of the cook's tobacco for his young assistant; and the old lady thought it right to admonish her. The cook likewise thought it right to add his admonitions to those of his mother; but the old lady would have her niece abused by nobody but herself, and she flew into a violent passion at his presuming to interfere. This led to the son's outrage, and the mother's suicide.

The son is a mild, good-tempered young man, who bears an excellent character among his equals, and is a very good servant. Had he been less mild it had perhaps been better; for his mother would by degrees have given up that despotic sway over her child, which in infancy is necessary, in youth useful, but in manhood becomes intolerable.

'God defend us from the anger of the mild in spirit', said an excellent judge of human nature, Muhammad, the founder of this cook's religion;[1] and certainly the mildest tempers are those which become the most ungovernable when roused beyond a certain degree; and the proud spirit of the old woman could not brook the outrage which her son, so roused, had been guilty of.

From the time that she was discovered to have taken poison till she breathed her last she lay in the arms of the poor man, who besought her to live, that her only son might atone for his crime, and not be a parricide.

There is no part of the world, I believe, where parents are so much reverenced by their sons as they are in India, in all classes of society. This is sufficiently evinced in the desire that parents feel to have sons. The duty of daughters is from the day of their marriage transferred entirely to their husbands and their husbands' parents, on whom alone devolves the duty of protecting and supporting them through the wedded and the widowed state. The links that united them to their parents are broken.

All the reciprocity of rights and duties which have bound together the parent and child from infancy is considered to end with the consummation of her marriage; nor does the stain of any subsequent female backsliding ever affect the family of her parents; it can affect that only of her husband, who is held alone responsible for her conduct. If a widow inherits the property of her husband, on her death the property would go to her husband's brother, supposing neither had any children by their husbands, in preference to her own brother; but between the son and his parents this reciprocity of rights and duties follows them to the grave.[2]

One is delighted to see in sons this habitual reverence for the mother; but, as in the present case, it is too apt to occasion a domineering spirit, which produces much mischief even in private families, but still more in sovereign ones. A prince, when he attains the age of manhood, and ought to take upon himself the duties of the government, is often obliged to witness a great deal of oppression and misrule, from his inability to persuade his widowed mother to resign the power willingly into his hands. He often tamely submits to see his country ruined, and his family dishonoured, as at Jhānsī, before he can bring himself, by some act of desperate resolution, to wrest it from her grasp.[3]

In order to prevent his doing so, or to recover the reins he has thus obtained, the mother has often been known to poison her own son; and many a princess in India, like Isabella of England, has, I believe, destroyed her husband, to enjoy more freely the society of her paramour, and hold these reins during the minority of her son.[4]

In the exercise of dominion from behind the curtain (for it is those who live behind the curtain that seem most anxious to hold it), women select ministers who, to secure duration to their influence, become their paramours, or, at least, make the world believe that they are so, to serve their own selfish purposes.

The sons are tyrannized over through youth by their mothers, who endeavour to subdue their spirit to the yoke, which they wish to bind heavy upon their necks for life; and they remain through manhood timid, ignorant, and altogether unfitted for the conduct of public affairs, and for the government of men under a despotic rule, whose essential principle is a salutary fear of the prince in all his public officers. Every unlettered native of India is as sensible of this principle [as] Montesquieu was; and will tell us that, in countries like India, a chief, to govern well, must have a smack of the devil ('shaitān') in him; for, if he has not, his public servants will prey upon his innocent and industrious subjects.[5] In India there are no universities or public schools, in which young men might escape, as they do in Europe, from the enervating and stultifying influence of the zanāna.[6]

The state of mental imbecility to which a youth of naturally average powers of mind, born to territorial dominion, is in India often reduced by a haughty and ambitious mother, would be absolutely incredible to a man bred up in such schools. They are often utterly unable to act, think, or speak for themselves. If they happen, as they sometimes do, to get well informed in reading and conversation, they remain, Hamlet-like, nervous and diffident; and, however speculatively or ruminatively wise, quite unfit for action, or for performing their part in the great drama of life.

In my evening ramble on the bank of the river, which was flowing against the wind and rising into waves, my mind wandered back to the hours of infancy and boyhood when I sat with my brothers watching our little vessels as they scudded over the ponds and streams of my native land; and then of my poor brothers John and Louis, whose bones now he beneath the ocean.

As we advance in age the dearest scenes of early days must necessarily become more and more associated in our recollection with painful feelings; for they who enjoyed such scenes with us must by degrees pass away, and be remembered with sorrow even by those who are conscious of having fulfilled all their duties in life towards them—but with how much more by those who can never remember them without thinking of occasions of kindness and assistance neglected or disregarded. Many of them have perhaps left behind them widows and children struggling with adversity, and soliciting from us aid which we strive in vain to give.

During my visit to the Rājā, a person in the disguise of one of my sipāhīs[7] went to a shop and purchased for me five-and-twenty rupees' worth of fine Europe chintz, for which he paid in good rupees, which were forthwith assayed by a neighbouring goldsmith.

The sipāhī put these rupees into his own purse, and laid it down, saying that he should go and ascertain from me whether I wished to keep the whole of the chintz or not; and, if not, he should require back the same money—that I was to halt to-morrow, when he would return to the shop again.

Just as he was going away, however, he recollected that he wanted a turban for himself, and requested the shopkeeper to bring him one. They were sitting in the verandah, and the shopkeeper had to go into his shop to bring out the turban. When he came out with it, the sipāhī said it would not suit his purpose, and went off, leaving the purse where it lay, cautioning the shopkeeper against changing any of the rupees, as he should require his own identical money back if his master rejected any of the chintz. The shopkeeper waited till four o'clock in the afternoon of the next day without looking into the purse.

Hearing then that I had left Datiyā, and seeing no signs of the sipāhī, he opened the purse, and found that the rupees were all copper, with a thin coating of silver. The man had changed them while he went into the shop for a turban, and substituted a purse exactly the same in appearance. After ascertaining that the story was true, and that the ingenious thief was not one of my followers, I insisted upon the man's taking the money from me, in spite of a great deal of remonstrance on the part of the Rājā's agent, who had come on with us.