December 10, 2009

Oscar Browning's memoirs

Oscar Browning wrote his "Impressions of Indian Travel" in 1903: the book was published by Hodder and Stoughton, London, and provided rare glimpses of India's colonial past. We are fortunate, for Browning took the trouble to devote an entire chapter to rail travel, choosing for his model, a journey from Bombay to Calcutta by the Mail via Jubbulpore. Here's an extract:
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WE REACHED BOMBAY AT SUNSET and whilst making the long round which the entrance to the harbour necessitates, had opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the scene. Bombay is, as its name seems to imply, one of the great bays of the world. It is compared to the bay of Naples, but there is no fuschia, no Capri, and no Vesuvius. We lay in the roads all night, and spent four hours next morning before we were moored by the side of the quay. I can say little about Bombay, as I left it the same evening, but I hope to see more of it on my return. I can report that the offices of Messrs. Cook are very large and airy, and that the clerks are extremely courteous; but why they should, without question, send you to Calcutta round by Jubbulpore, when the route by Nagpore is many hours shorter and ten rupees cheaper, is as yet to me an unsolved mystery. I can also say that the town of Bombay is redolent of Italy, and that the view from the balcony of Watson's Hotel into the square below is delightfully suggestive of that country, except that the trees, the birds, and the inhabitants are all different. I can certify that Government House is a fairy edifice, with a lovely garden, and an exquisite view of the bay from the drawing-room windows.
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Even a few hours cannot be spent at Bombay without a visit to the Towers of Silence, the grim burying-place of Parsees, where the tombs are living animals, and the vultures sit on the infected palm-trees, waiting patiently for their victims; or to the native town, where every step is a picture of character and colour, and where the mind is taken back through Pompeii to ancient Greece, and to the Arabian Nights.
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It is forty-six hours' journey from Bombay to Calcutta, and these have to be spent in an Indian train, which for the benefit of destined travellers I may as well describe. The first-class carriages are roomy and lofty, the floor-space being, to speak accurately, twelve feet by ten. Each compartment contains four berths, and, as you are informed by an inscription, six seats, but you generally can have one to yourself, as I did. A convenient washing-room is attached, in which, if you like you can go to the length of having a bath. The native servant whom you have hired at Bombay purchases your bedding, for the journey a mattress composed of two soft coverlets, sheets, blankets, and a pillow. A very little reflection will show you how much better it is that you should buy these conveniences new, than that you should use those which have already served for others.
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The carriages are not sufficiently well lighted to allow you to read with comfort, and, if they were, the jolting would render it impossible, as the track is not a model of perfection, and the dust is very trying. The best thing you can do is to sleep all night and to doze all day, gazing out from time to time at the strange sights which present themselves, as you move. You will then discover that a jungle is not a tangled forest, but any odd piece of waste ground; that tigers may abound in districts which seem little calculated to give them shelter; that natives always walk in single file, and that they are continually washing themselves, even in the dirtiest water.
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The refreshment arrangements are admirable. Soda water is offered to you just as you are conceiving the wish for it; tea comes to you punctually at 6 a.m., and as often as you may desire it during the rest of the day. No sooner have you passed your hand over your stubbly beard than a barber appears to shave you in the carriage. You get a ‘little breakfast’ of eggs and bacon, with bananas and oranges, at eight, a delightful tiffin in the heat of noon, and a good dinner at sunset.
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Indeed, your wishes are no sooner conceived than they are satisfied as if by magic, ‘without rest and without haste,’ as the German poet sings. In this manner day succeeds night and night day, till you reach your destination, dizzy, but unfatigued. During the journey you have been rarely excited, but never dull. Perhaps the passage of the Jumna at Allahabad would have been the nearest approach to the first sensation, if it had not taken place at one o'clock in the morning; you also infer that Jubbulpore is a fine city, although you may never have heard of it before. Benares you do not behold, as you are fast asleep in the darkness.
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You have fellow-travellers who travel with you for a space: an active engineer from the Deccan, with a clear-cut face, anxious to know whether his chance companion is a relation of Robert Browning; a vigorous overseer from the coalfields dealing every day successfully with strange emergencies; a brawny Scotchman, strong as a giant and simple as a child, rushing off for his one-day holiday to the Calcutta races; he has made a pot on the Viceroy's Cup, and is now about to try his luck in the Metropolitan. The British in India work hard, and their relaxation is sport.
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But the third evening has arrived, the day has hurried into night. My bearer has packed up my bed and bedding, the brawny Scotchman has collected his belongings, and has said ‘good-bye’ to the spruce Baboo advocate in the next compartment, who is making a huge income by the litigious disposition of his countrymen. It is obvious that we are passing through suburbs; the train stops, and here is my oldest Eton pupil to welcome me on the platform, and the scarlet liveries of the Viceroy are gleaming among the dusky crowd.