The Colonial Eye: Mark Twain in India – Going Beyond Oriental Tropes
“Benares is a religious Vesuvius. In its bowels, the theological forces have been heaving and tossing, rumbling, thundering and quaking, boiling and weltering and flaming and smoking for ages. But a little group of missionaries have taken post at its base, and they have hopes. There are the Baptist Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission. They have schools and the principal work seems to be among the children. And no doubt that part of the work prospers best, for grown people everywhere are always likely to cling to the religion they were brought up in.”
Mark Twain, who died 108 years ago, on April 21, 1910, is one of America’s most beloved authors. His popularity is due not only to the memorable characters he created and his witty insights into American rural life but to the manner in which he used humor and satire to comment incisively on serious topics. These include race relations, the Civil War, religion, imperialism and public education. His famous novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exposes and denounces slavery, even as it explores the joys, heartaches and challenges of American boyhood.
It is fortunate for Indians that it was Twain who travelled to India in 1897, at the height of the British Raj, and wrote about what he saw there. American visitors to India at the time were rare; those who went usually took their cues from British orientalists. One such American was Katherine Mayo, author of Mother India, infamous for its stereotypical portrayal of India. However, the perceptive Twain, who travelled to India three decades before her, went beyond the usual oriental tropes. Many of the topics that had consumed him back home, such as public education, religion, slavery and interracial relationships, were ones he noticed and commented on in India too, always with his characteristic mix of pathos and satire.
This is not to say Twain did not indulge in much of the usual fare that Western writers dished out. He usually referred to Indians as “natives”. His travelogue Following the Equator contains many hackneyed observations: “This is indeed India! The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence….” Or this: “(The street) was a delirious display of all colors and all shades of color, delicate, lovely, pale, soft, strong, stunning, vivid, brilliant, a sort of storm of sweet pea blossoms passing on the wings of a hurricane”. Had he stopped there, he would have gone down as just another Western orientalist. However, Mark Twain was a great writer precisely because he noticed and observed details that others glossed over.
“In front of one door, a Hindoo servant was squatting, waiting for his master to call him. He had polished the yellow shoes and placed them by the door, and now he had nothing to do but wait. It was freezing cold, but there he was, as motionless as a sculptured image, and as patient. It troubled me. I wanted to say to him, “don’t crouch there like that and freeze. Nobody requires it of you; Stir around and get warm! (…) “It was a curious and impressive exhibition of meekness and patience, or fortitude or indifference, I did not know which. But it worried me, and it was spoiling my morning.”
Twain had grown up in Missouri, a slave state at the time. His own father owned slaves, and thus much of his writing is about slavery. In India he saw parallels to that experience among Indians at the hands of the British. He writes poignantly about watching a European overseer give an Indian servant “a brisk cuff” on the jaw “without explaining what was wrong”. The “kneeling native’s smitten cheek” took him back 50 years to his own boyhood in a small town in the south. He writes: “It seemed such a shame to do that before us all. The native took it with meekness, saying nothing, and not showing in his face or manner any resentment. I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back… and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one’s desires to a slave.” The meekness and patience of Indian servants reminded him of a similar mix of “resignation” and “fortitude” he had seen in African American slaves, unable to escape their bondage. During his trip he remarked often on the “fawning” and “groveling” he saw Indians display toward Westerners, primarily the British. He had long been a strong critic of imperialism, and his journeys to India, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in 1896 only cemented his views.
“He (Manuel) was toward fifty years old, tall, slender, with a slight stoop — an artificial stoop, a deferential stoop, a stoop rigidified by long habit — with face of European mould; (…)
“He stood before me and inclined his head (and body) in the pathetic Indian way, touching his forehead with the finger-ends of his right hand, in salute. I said: ‘Manuel, you are evidently Indian, but you seem to have a Spanish name when you put it all together. How is that?’ ‘Father same name, not mother. He Christian — Portygee; live in Goa; I born Goa; mother not Portygee, mother native high-caste Brahmin — Coolin Brahmin, highest caste. No other so high caste. I high-caste Brahmin too. Christian too, same like father; high-caste Christian Brahmin, master – Salvation Army’.”
Twain held a dim view of organized religion. His relationship with Christianity, the faith into which he was born, was at best ambivalent. Mostly, however, he wrote unsparingly about it in books such as The War Prayer, The Damned Human Race, The Diary of Adam, The Diary of Eve, and The Diary of Satan. He quipped famously: “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be — a Christian” In The Damned Human Race he wrote: “(Man) is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.” His opinion of Christian missionaries was also well known. In 1901, soon after his trip to India and other parts of Asia, he wrote an essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness”, in the North American Review. “Persons sitting in darkness” was the term used by Christian missionaries when referring to the “heathen” and non-Christians they were seeking to convert. The essay is scathing in its opinion of missionaries and ranks as Twain’s most anti-imperialist tract.
Christian missions, he shrewdly remarked, ought to be called the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust”. “Extending the Blessings of Civilization Trust” to non-Christians in Asia and Africa — “our brother who sits in darkness”- – had been “a good trade” and paid handsomely. He added: “there was more money in it, more territory, more sovereignty and other kinds of emolument than there is in any other game that is played.”
It’s not surprising then, that Mark Twain had a lot to say about the religiosity he witnessed in India. He travelled by train to Benares and Allahabad and marveled at the public celebration of faith. Benares was a veritable buffet of spiritual goods and services, an “army and navy store, theologically stocked”. The enthusiasm and faithfulness of pilgrims making their way on foot to the Kumbh Mela were unlike anything he had ever seen in the West, prompting him to describe the latter as “pale and cold” in comparison. However, as he took in, even admired, the sights and sounds of “the religious Vesuvius” that was Benares, he remained skeptical as regards religion. The “two million” Hindu gods left him bewildered. Of the Hindu Trinity — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — he commented in his inimitable way: “They have other names and plenty of them, and this makes confusion in one’s mind. The three have wives and the wives have several names, and this increases the confusion. There are children, the children have many names, and thus the confusion goes on and on”. Upon seeing pilgrims bathing and drinking the water of the Ganges in which flowed open sewers and corpses, he exclaimed that “the memory of that sight will always stay by me, but not by request”. Twain’s observation, expressed with his usual irreverence, on the prospect of a Hindu being reborn as an “ass” serves to sum up his views on religion in general: “The Hindoo has a childish and unreasoning aversion to being turned into an ass (in his next life). It is hard to tell why (…) The Hindoo changed into an ass wouldn’t lose anything, unless you count his religion. And he would gain much release from his slavery to 2 million gods and 20 million priests, fakirs and other sacred bacilli. He would also escape the Hindoo heaven. These are advantages which the Hindoo ought to consider!”
Twain frequently railed about public education in the United States, arguing that public schools churned out students who were merely fed facts rather than being taught the skills required for actual employment. He believed public education should be practical and teach the skills and trades that would make graduates employable. An advocate for apprenticeship, he said there was nothing training could not accomplish. He himself had received no formal schooling beyond the age of 12. In India, he found a similar situation. Thousands of young graduates from English medium British colleges that had equipped them for clerkships and other such office duties but none with the skills for mechanical trades or work in traditional occupations. Thousands of young men who could have been perfectly well-employed as tradesmen or craftsmen were instead reduced to imploring their British overseers for a limited number of clerical positions in government offices. His own search for a bearer during his travels in India elicited countless applications from over-qualified applicants. But in the over-educated Indians of that time, unlike American public school boys, Mark Twain noticed something else, namely “a curious mix of self-abasement and vanity”. Reading from a book titled Indo-Anglian Literature, Twain quoted several typical letters for employment:
“PETITION FOR EMPLOYMENT: As regards to my qualifications, I have the honour to inform you that I posses (sic) a good knowledge of the English, Persian and Hindee as may be proved from a sight of my testimonials received from the officers whom I have served. Should you be so good and kind as to do a little attention to the following proverb, I would, in return ever pray God for your prosperity”.
Or this: “Honored and Much Respected Sir. I hope your honor will condescend to hear the tale of this poor creature. I shall overflow with gratitude at this mark of your royal condescensions….”
And this: “Sir, I pray please to give me some action (work) for I am very poor boy. I have no one to help me even so father ….. I am very poor boy”.
Other Westerners might have gloated at the abject humility shown by Indians looking for work. Mark Twain was troubled by it. The servility disturbed him, as such similar manners of African Americans had back home. He concluded that this servility was the result of generations of oppression and not the essence of the character of Indians. He reproached his readers from laughing at the groveling that they saw. Clearly, had the Indians who’d written such letters been equipped with vocational knowledge, they might have had less reason to write so pathetically. He concluded that British colleges in India were doing precisely what public schools in America were – creating an oversupply of “unmarketable” graduates with useless “book knowledge” and distaste for working with their hands or at some trade. In the end, Mark Twain admitted honestly that India – as unique and marvelous as she was – was a country that was simply “hard to understand”.