Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Father Gregory's Notion of the Impediments to Conversion in India—Inability of Europeans to speak Eastern Languages.

Father Gregory, the Roman Catholic priest, dined with us one evening, and Major Godby took occasion to ask him at table, 'What progress our religion was making among the people?'


'Progress!' said he; 'why, what progress can we ever hope to make among a people who, the moment we begin to talk to them about the miracles performed by Christ, begin to tell us of those infinitely more wonderful performed by Krishna, who lifted a mountain upon his little finger, as an umbrella, to defend his shepherdesses at Govardhan from a shower of rain.[1]


'The Hindoos never doubt any part of the miracles and prophecies of our scripture—they believe every word of them; and the only thing that surprises them is that they should be so much less wonderful than those of their own scriptures, in which also they implicitly believe. Men who believe that the histories of the wars and amours of Rām and Krishna, two of the incarnations of Vishnu, were written some fifty thousand years before these wars and amours actually took place upon the earth, would of course easily believe in the fulfilment of any prophecy that might be related to them out of any other book;[2] and, as to miracles, there is absolutely nothing too extraordinary for their belief.


'If a Christian of respectability were to tell a Hindoo that, to satisfy some scruples of the Corinthians, St. Paul had brought the sun and moon down upon the earth, and made them rebound off again into their places, like tennis balls, without the slightest injury to any of the three planets [sic], I do not think he would feel the slightest doubt of the truth of it; but he would immediately be put in mind of something still more extraordinary that Krishna did to amuse the milkmaids, or to satisfy some sceptics of his day, and relate it with all the naïveté imaginable.


I saw at Agra Mirzā Kām Baksh, the eldest son of Sulaimān Shikoh, the eldest son of the brother of the present Emperor. He had spent a season with us at Jubbulpore, while prosecuting his claim to an estate against the Rājā of Rīwā. The Emperor, Shāh Ālam, in his flight before our troops from Bengal (1762), struck off the high road to Delhi at Mirzapore, and came down to Rīwā, where he found an asylum during the season of the rains with the Rīwā Rājā, who assigned for his residence the village of Makanpur.[3]


His wife, the Empress, was here delivered of a son, the present Emperor, of Hindustān, Akbar Shāh;[4] and the Rājā assigned to him and his heirs for ever the fee simple of this village. As the members of this family increased in geometrical ratio, under the new system, which gave them plenty to eat with nothing to do, the Emperor had of late been obliged to hunt round for little additions to his income; and in his search he found that Makanpur gave name to a 'pargana', or little district, of which it was the capital, and that a good deal of merchandize passed through this district, and paid heavy dues to the Rājā.


Nothing, he thought, would be lost by trying to get the whole district instead of the village; and for this purpose he sent down Kām Baksh, the ablest man of the whole family, to urge and prosecute his claim; but the Rājā was a close, shrewd man, and not to be done out of his revenue, and Kām Baksh was obliged to return minus some thousand rupees, which he had spent in attempting to keep up appearances.


The best of us Europeans feel our deficiencies in conversation with Muhammadans of high rank and education, when we are called upon to talk upon subjects beyond the everyday occurrences of life.


A Muhammadan gentleman of education is tolerably acquainted with astronomy, as it was taught by Ptolemy; with the logic and ethics of Aristotle and Plato; with the works of Hippocrates and Galen, through those of Avicenna, or, as they call him, Abū- Alīsīna;[5] and he is very capable of talking upon all subjects of philosophy, literature, science, and the arts, and very much inclined to do so; and of understanding the nature of the improvements that have been made in them in modern times. But, however capable we may feel of discussing these subjects, or explaining these improvements in our own language, we all feel ourselves very much at a loss when we attempt to do it in theirs.


Perhaps few Europeans have mixed and conversed more freely with all classes than I have; and yet I feel myself sadly deficient when I enter, as I often do, into discussions with Muhammadan gentlemen of education upon the subject of the character of the governments and institutions of different countries—their effects upon the character and condition of the people; the arts and the sciences; the faculties and operations of the human mind; and the thousand other things which are subjects of everyday conversation among educated and thinking; men in our country.


I feel that they could understand me quite well if I could find words for my ideas; but these I cannot find, though their languages abound in them, nor have I ever met the European gentleman who could. East Indians can;[6] but they commonly want the ideas as much as we want the language. The chief cause of this deficiency is the want of sufficient intercourse with men in whose presence we should be ashamed to appear ignorant—this is the great secret, and all should know and acknowledge it.


We are not ashamed to convey our orders to our native servants in a barbarous language. Military officers seldom speak to their 'sipāhīs' (sepoys) and native officers, about anything but arms, accoutrements, and drill; or to other natives about anything but the sports of the field; and, as long as they are understood, they care not one straw in what language they express themselves.


The conversation of the civil servants with their native officers takes sometimes a wider range; but they have the same philosophical indifference as to the language in which they attempt to convey their ideas; and I have heard some of our highest diplomatic characters talking,[7] without the slightest feeling of shame or embarrassment, to native princes on the most ordinary subjects of everyday interest in a language which no human being but themselves could understand. We shall remain the same till some change of system inspire us with stronger motives to please and conciliate the educated classes of the native community.


They may be reconciled, but they can never be charmed out of their prejudices or the errors of their preconceived opinions by such language as the European gentlemen are now in the habit of speaking to them.[8] We must learn their language better, or we must teach them our own, before we can venture to introduce among them those free institutions which would oblige us to meet them on equal terms at the bar, on the bench, and in the senate.[9]


Perhaps two of the best secular works that were ever written upon the facilities and operations of the human mind, and the duties of men in their relations with each other, are those of Imām-ud-dīn Ghazzālī, and Nasīr-ud-dīn of Tūs.[10] Their idol was Plato, but their works are of a more practical character than his, and less dry than those of Aristotle.


I may here mention the following, among many instances that occur to me, of the amusing mistakes into which Europeans are liable to fall in their conversation with natives.


Mr. J. W———n, of the Bengal Civil Service, commonly known by the name of Beau W———n,[11] was the Honourable Company's opium agent at Patna, when I arrived at Dinapore to join my regiment in 1810.[12] He had a splendid house, and lived in excellent style; and was never so happy as when he had a dozen young men from the Dinapore cantonments living with him. He complained that year, as I was told, that he had not been able to save more than one hundred thousand rupees that season out of his salary and commission upon the opium, purchased by the Government from the cultivators.[13]


The members of the civil service, in the other branches of public service, were all anxious to have it believed by their countrymen that they were well acquainted with their duties, and able and willing to perform them; but the Honourable Company's commercial agents were, on the contrary, generally anxious to make their countrymen believe that they neither knew nor cared anything about their duties, because they were ashamed of them. They were sinecure posts for the drones of the service, or for those who had great interest and no capacity.[14]


Had any young man made it appear that he really thought W———n knew or cared anything about his duties, he would certainly never have been invited to his house again; and if any one knew, certainly no one seemed to know that he had any other duty than that of entertaining his guests.


No one ever spoke the native language so badly, because no man had ever so little intercourse with the natives; and it was, I have been told, to his ignorance of the native languages that his bosom friend, Mr. P———st, owed his life on one occasion. W. sat by the sick-bed of his friend with unwearied attention, for some days and nights, after the doctors had declared his case entirely hopeless.


He proposed at last to try change of air, and take him on the river Ganges. The doctors, thinking that he might as well die in his boat on the river as in his house at Calcutta, consented to his taking him on board. They got up as far as Hooghly, when P. said that he felt better and thought he could eat something. What should it be?


A little roasted kid perhaps. The very thing that he was longing for! W. went out upon the deck to give orders for the kid, that his friend might not be disturbed by the gruff voice of the old 'khānsāmā' (butler). P. heard the conversation, however.


'Khānsāmā', said the Beau W., 'you know that my friend Mr. P. is very ill?'


'Yes, sir.'


'And that he has not eaten anything for a month?'


'A long time for a man to fast, sir.'


'Yes, Khānsāmā, and his stomach is now become very delicate, and could not stand anything strong.'


'Certainly not, sir.'


'Well, Khānsāmā, then he has taken a fancy to a roasted mare' ('mādiyān'), meaning a 'halwān', or kid.'[15]


'A roasted mare, sir?'


'Yes, Khānsāmā, a roasted mare, which you must have nicely prepared.'


'What, the whole, sir?'


'Not the whole at one time; but have the whole ready as there is no knowing what part he may like best.'


The old butter had heard of the Tartars eating their horses when in robust health, but the idea of a sick man, not able to move in his bed without assistance, taking a fancy to a roasted mare, quite staggered him.


'But, sir, I may not be able to get such a thing as a mare at a moment's notice; and if I get her she will be very dear.'


'Never mind, Khānsāmā, get you the mare, cost what she will; if she costs a thousand rupees my friend shall have her. He has taken a fancy to the mare, and the mare he shall have, if she costs a thousand rupees.'


The butter made his salaam, said he would do his best, and took his leave, requesting that the boats might be kept at the bank of the river till he came back.


W. went into his sick friend, who, with great difficulty, managed to keep his countenance while he complained of the liberties old servants were in the habit of taking with their masters. 'They think themselves privileged', said W., 'to conjure up difficulties in the way of everything that one wants to have done.'


'Yes', said P———st, 'we like to have old and faithful servants about us, particularly when we are sick; but they are apt to take liberties, which new ones will not.'