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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » A Passage to India » CHAPTER IX
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 Aziz fell ill as he foretold—slightly ill. Three days later he lay abed in his bungalow, pretending to be very ill. It was a touch of fever, which he would have neglected if there was anything important at the hospital. Now and then he groaned and thought he should die, but did not think so for long, and a very little diverted him. It was Sunday, always an equivocal day in the East, and an excuse for slacking. He could hear church bells as he drowsed, both from the civil station and from the missionaries out beyond the slaughter house—different bells and rung with different intent, for one set was calling firmly to Anglo-India, and the other feebly to mankind. He did not object to the first set; the other he ignored, knowing their inefficiency. Old Mr. Graysford and young Mr. Sorley made converts during a famine, because they distributed food; but when times improved they were naturally left alone again, and though surprised and aggrieved each time this happened, they never learnt wisdom. “No Englishman understands us except Mr. Fielding,” he thought; “but how shall I see him again? If he entered this room the disgrace of it would kill me.” He called to Hassan to clear up, but Hassan, who was testing his wages by ringing them on the step of the verandah, found it possible not to hear him; heard and didn’t hear, just as Aziz had called and hadn’t called. “That’s India all over . . . how like us . . . there we are . . .” He dozed again, and his thoughts wandered over the varied surface of life.
Gradually they steadied upon a certain spot—the Bottomless Pit according to missionaries, but he had never regarded it as more than a dimple. Yes, he did want to spend an evening with some girls, singing and all that, the vague jollity that would culminate in voluptuousness. Yes, that was what he did want. How could it be managed? If Major Callendar had been an Indian, he would have remembered what young men are, and granted two or three days’ leave to Calcutta without asking questions. But the Major assumed either that his subordinates were made of ice, or that they repaired to the Chandrapore bazaars—disgusting ideas both. It was only Mr. Fielding who——
The servant came running.
“Look at those flies, brother;” and he pointed to the horrible mass that hung from the ceiling. The nucleus was a wire which had been inserted as a homage to electricity. Electricity had paid no attention, and a colony of eye-flies had come instead and blackened the coils with their bodies.
“Huzoor, those are flies.”
“Good, good, they are, excellent, but why have I called you?”
“To drive them elsewhere,” said Hassan, after painful thought.
“Driven elsewhere, they always return.”
“You must make some arrangement against flies; that is why you are my servant,” said Aziz gently.
Hassan would call the little boy to borrow the step-ladder from Mahmoud Ali’s house; he would order the cook to light the Primus stove and heat water; he would personally ascend the steps with a bucket in his arms, and dip the end of the coil into it.
“Good, very good. Now what have you to do?”
“Kill flies.”
“Good. Do it.”
Hassan withdrew, the plan almost lodged in his head, and began to look for the little boy. Not finding him, his steps grew slower, and he stole back to his post on the verandah, but did not go on testing his rupees, in case his master heard them clink. On twittered the Sunday bells; the East had returned to the East via the suburbs of England, and had become ridiculous during the detour.
Aziz continued to think about beautiful women.
His mind here was hard and direct, though not brutal. He had learnt all he needed concerning his own constitution many years ago, thanks to the social order into which he had been born, and when he came to study medicine he was repelled by the pedantry and fuss with which Europe tabulates the facts of sex. Science seemed to discuss everything from the wrong end. It didn’t interpret his experiences when he found them in a German manual, because by being there they ceased to be his experiences. What he had been told by his father or mother or had picked up from servants—it was information of that sort that he found useful, and handed on as occasion offered to others.
But he must not bring any disgrace on his children by some silly escapade. Imagine if it got about that he was not respectable! His professional position too must be considered, whatever Major Callendar thought. Aziz upheld the proprieties, though he did not invest them with any moral halo, and it was here that he chiefly differed from an Englishman. His conventions were social. There is no harm in deceiving society as long as she does not find you out, because it is only when she finds you out that you have harmed her; she is not like a friend or God, who are injured by the mere existence of unfaithfulness. Quite clear about this, he meditated what type of lie he should tell to get away to Calcutta, and had thought of a man there who could be trusted to send him a wire and a letter that he could show to Major Callendar, when the noise of wheels was heard in his compound. Someone had called to enquire. The thought of sympathy increased his fever, and with a sincere groan he wrapped himself in his quilt.
“Aziz, my dear fellow, we are greatly concerned,” said Hamidullah’s voice. One, two, three, four bumps, as people sat down upon his bed.
“When a doctor falls ill it is a serious matter,” said the voice of Mr. Syed Mohammed, the assistant engineer.
“When an engineer falls ill, it is equally important,” said the voice of Mr. Haq, a police inspector.
“Oh yes, we are all jolly important, our salaries prove it.”
“Dr. Aziz took tea with our Principal last Thursday afternoon,” piped Rafi, the engineer’s nephew. “Professor Godbole, who also attended, has sickened too, which seems rather a curious thing, sir, does it not?”
Flames of suspicion leapt up in the breast of each man.
“Humbug!” exclaimed Hamidullah, in authoritative tones, quenching them.
“Humbug, most certainly,” echoed the others, ashamed of themselves. The wicked schoolboy, having failed to start a scandal, lost confidence and stood up with his back to the wall.
“Is Professor Godbole ill?” enquired Aziz, penetrated by the news. “I am sincerely sorry.” Intelligent and compassionate, his face peeped out of the bright crimson folds of the quilt. “How do you do, Mr. Syed Mohammed, Mr. Haq? How very kind of you to enquire after my health! How do you do, Hamidullah? But you bring me bad news. What is wrong with him, the excellent fellow?”
“Why don’t you answer, Rafi? You’re the great authority,” said his uncle.
“Yes, Rafi’s the great man,” said Hamidullah, rubbing it in. “Rafi is the Sherlock Holmes of Chandrapore. Speak up, Rafi.”
Less than the dust, the schoolboy murmured the word “Diarrhœa,” but took courage as soon as it had been uttered, for it improved his position. Flames of suspicion shot up again in the breasts of his elders, though in a different direction. Could what was called diarrhœa really be an early case of cholera?
“If this is so, this is a very serious thing: this is scarcely the end of March. Why have I not been informed?” cried Aziz.
“Dr. Panna Lal attends him, sir.”
“Oh yes, both Hindus; there we have it; they hang together like flies and keep everything dark. Rafi, come here. Sit down. Tell me all the details. Is there vomiting also?”
“Oh yes indeed, sir, and the serious pains.”
“That settles it. In twenty-four hours he will be dead.”
Everybody looked and felt shocked, but Professor Godbole had diminished his appeal by linking himself with a co-religionist. He moved them less than when he had appeared as a suffering individual. Before long they began to condemn him as a source of infection. “All illness proceeds from Hindus,” Mr. Haq said. Mr. Syed Mohammed had visited religious fairs, at Allahabad and at Ujjain, and described them with biting scorn. At Allahabad there was flowing water, which carried impurities away, but at Ujjain the little river Sipra was banked up, and thousands of bathers deposited their germs in the pool. He spoke with disgust of the hot sun, the cow-dung and marigold flowers, and the encampment of saddhus, some of whom strode stark naked through the streets. Asked what was the name of the chief idol at Ujjain, he replied that he did not know, he had disdained to enquire, he really could not waste his time over such trivialities. His outburst took some time, and in his excitement he fell into Punjabi (he came from that side) and was unintelligible.
Aziz liked to hear his religion praised. It soothed the surface of his mind, and allowed beautiful images to form beneath. When the engineer’s noisy tirade was finished, he said, “That is exactly my own view.” He held up his hand, palm outward, his eyes began to glow, his heart to fill with tenderness. Issuing still farther from his quilt, he recited a poem by Ghalib. It had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs. They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers. The squalid bedroom grew quiet; the silly intrigues, the gossip, the shallow discontent were stilled, while words accepted as immortal filled the indifferent air. Not as a call to battle, but as a calm assurance came the feeling that India was one; Moslem; always had been; an assurance that lasted until they looked out of the door. Whatever Ghalib had felt, he had anyhow lived in India, and this consolidated it for them: he had gone with his own tulips and roses, but tulips and roses do not go. And the sister kingdoms of the north—Arabia, Persia, Ferghana, Turkestan—stretched out their hands as he sang, sadly, because all beauty is sad, and greeted ridiculous Chandrapore, where every street and house was divided against itself, and told her that she was a continent and a unity.
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry. The minds of the others were inferior and rough. Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization. The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty. He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness. The poem had done no “good” to anyone, but it was a passing reminder, a breath from the divine lips of beauty, a nightingale between two worlds of dust. Less explicit than the call to Krishna, it voiced our loneliness nevertheless, our isolation, our need for the Friend who never comes yet is not entirely disproved. Aziz it left thinking about women again, but in a different way: less definite, more intense. Sometimes poetry had this effect on him, sometimes it only increased his local desires, and he never knew beforehand which effect would ensue: he could discover no rule for this or for anything else in life.
Hamidullah had called in on his way to a worrying committee of notables, nationalist in tendency, where Hindus, Moslems, two Sikhs, two Parsis, a Jain, and a Native Christian tried to like one another more than came natural to them. As long as someone abused the English, all went well, but nothing constructive had been achieved, and if the English were to leave India, the committee would vanish also. He was glad that Aziz, whom he loved and whose family was connected with his own, took no interest in politics, which ruin the character and career, yet nothing can be achieved without them. He thought of Cambridge—sadly, as of another poem that had ended. How happy he had been there, twenty years ago! Politics had not mattered in Mr. and Mrs. Bannister’s rectory. There, games, work, and pleasant society had interwoven, and appeared to be sufficient substructure for a national life. Here all was wire-pulling and fear. Messrs. Syed Mohammed and Haq—he couldn’t even trust them, although they had come in his carriage, and the schoolboy was a scorpion. Bending down, he said, “Aziz, Aziz, my dear boy, we must be going, we are already late. Get well quickly, for I do not know what our little circle would do without you.”
“I shall not forget those affectionate words,” replied Aziz.
“Add mine to them,” said the engineer.
“Thank you, Mr. Syed Mohammed, I will.”
“And mine,” “And, sir, accept mine,” cried the others, stirred each according to his capacity towards goodwill. Little ineffectual unquenchable flames! The company continued to sit on the bed and to chew sugarcane, which Hassan had run for into the bazaar, and Aziz drank a cup of spiced milk. Presently there was the sound of another carriage. Dr. Panna Lal had arrived, driven by horrid Mr. Ram Chand. The atmosphere of a sick-room was at once re-established, and the invalid retired under his quilt.
“Gentlemen, you will excuse, I have come to enquire by Major Callendar’s orders,” said the Hindu, nervous of the den of fanatics into which his curiosity had called him.
“Here he lies,” said Hamidullah, indicating the prostrate form.
“Dr. Aziz, Dr, Aziz, I come to enquire.”
Aziz presented an expressionless face to the thermometer.
“Your hand also, please.” He took it, gazed at the flies on the ceiling, and finally announced “Some temperature.”
“I think not much,” said Ram Chand, desirous of fomenting trouble.
“Some; he should remain in bed,” repeated Dr. Panna Lal, and shook the thermometer down, so that its altitude remained for ever unknown. He loathed his young colleague since the disasters with Dapple, and he would have liked to do him a bad turn and report to Major Callendar that he was shamming. But he might want a day in bed himself soon,—besides, though Major Callendar always believed the worst of natives, he never believed them when they carried tales about one another. Sympathy seemed the safer course. “How is stomach?” he enquired, “how head?” And catching sight of the empty cup, he recommended a milk diet.
“This is a great relief to us, it is very good of you to call, Doctor Sahib,” Said Hamidullah, buttering him up a bit.
“It is only my duty.”
“We know how busy you are.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“And how much illness there is in the city.”
The doctor suspected a trap in this remark; if he admitted that there was or was not illness, either statement might be used against him. “There is always illness,” he replied, “and I am always busy—it is a doctor’s nature.”
“He has not a minute, he is due double sharp at Government College now,” said Ram Chand.
“You attend Professor Godbole there perhaps?”
The doctor looked professional and was silent.
“We hope his diarrhœa is ceasing.”
“He progresses, but not from diarrhœa.”
“We are in some anxiety over him—he and Dr. Aziz are great friends. If you could tell us the name of his complaint we should be grateful to you.”
After a cautious pause he said, “Hæmorrhoids.”
“And so much, my dear Rafi, for your cholera,” hooted Aziz, unable to restrain himself.
“Cholera, cholera, what next, what now?” cried the doctor, greatly fussed. “Who spreads such untrue reports about my patients?”
Hamidullah pointed to the culprit.
“I hear cholera, I hear bubonic plague, I hear every species of lie. Where will it end, I ask myself sometimes. This city is full of misstatements, and the originators of them ought to be discovered and punished authoritatively.”
“Rafi, do you hear that? Now why do you stuff us up with all this humbug?”
The schoolboy murmured that another boy had told him, also that the bad English grammar the Government obliged them to use often gave the wrong meaning for words, and so led scholars into mistakes.
“That is no reason you should bring a charge against a doctor,” said Ram Chand.
“Exactly, exactly,” agreed Hamidullah, anxious to avoid an unpleasantness. Quarrels spread so quickly and so far, and Messrs. Syed Mohammed and Haq looked cross, and ready to fly out. “You must apologize properly, Rafi, I can see your uncle wishes it,” he said. “You have not yet said that you are sorry for the trouble you have caused this gentleman by your carelessness.”
“It is only a boy,” said Dr. Panna Lal, appeased.
“Even boys must learn,” said Ram Chand.
“Your own son failing to pass the lowest standard, I think,” said Syed Mohammed suddenly.
“Oh, indeed? Oh yes, perhaps. He has not the advantage of a relative in the Prosperity Printing Press.”
“Nor you the advantage of conducting their cases in the Courts any longer.”
Their voices rose. They attacked one another with obscure allusions and had a silly quarrel. Hamidullah and the doctor tried to make peace between them. In the midst of the din someone said, “I say! Is he ill or isn’t he ill?” Mr. Fielding had entered unobserved. All rose to their feet, and Hassan, to do an Englishman honour, struck with a sugar-cane at the coil of flies.
Aziz said, “Sit down,” coldly. What a room! What a meeting! Squalor and ugly talk, the floor strewn with fragments of cane and nuts, and spotted with ink, the pictures crooked upon the dirty walls, no punkah! He hadn’t meant to live like this or among these third-rate people. And in his confusion he thought only of the insignificant Rafi, whom he had laughed at, and allowed to be teased. The boy must be sent away happy, or hospitality would have failed, along the whole line.
“It is good of Mr. Fielding to condescend to visit our friend,” said the police inspector. “We are touched by this great kindness.”
“Don’t talk to him like that, he doesn’t want it, and he doesn’t want three chairs; he’s not three Englishmen,” he flashed. “Rafi, come here. Sit down again. I’m delighted you could come with Mr. Hamidullah, my dear boy; it will help me to recover, seeing you.”
“Forgive my mistakes,” said Rafi, to consolidate himself.
“Well, are you ill, Aziz, or aren’t you?” Fielding repeated.
“No doubt Major Callendar has told you that I am shamming.”
“Well, are you?” The company laughed, friendly and pleased. “An Englishman at his best,” they thought; “so genial.”
“Enquire from Dr. Panna Lal.”
“You’re sure I don’t tire you by stopping?”
“Why, no! There are six people present in my small room already. Please remain seated, if you will excuse the informality.” He turned away and continued to address Rafi, who was terrified at the arrival of his Principal, remembered that he had tried to spread slander about him, and yearned to get away.
“He is ill and he is not ill,” said Hamidullah, offering a cigarette. “And I suppose that most of us are in that same case.”
Fielding agreed; he and the pleasant sensitive barrister got on well. They were fairly intimate and beginning to trust each other.
“The whole world looks to be dying, still it doesn’t die, so we must assume the existence of a beneficent Providence.”
“Oh, that is true, how true!” said the policeman, thinking religion had been praised.
“Does Mr. Fielding think it’s true?.”
“Think which true? The world isn’t dying. I’m certain of that!”
“No, no—the existence of Providence.”
“Well, I don’t believe in Providence.”
“But how then can you believe in God?” asked Syed Mohammed.
“I don’t believe in God.”
A tiny movement as of “I told you so!” passed round the company, and Aziz looked up for an instant, scandalized. “Is it correct that most are atheists in England now?” Hamidullah enquired.
“The educated thoughtful people? I should say so, though they don’t like the name. The truth is that the West doesn’t bother much over belief and disbelief in these days. Fifty years ago, or even when you and I were young, much more fuss was made.”
“And does not morality also decline?”
“It depends what you call—yes, yes, I suppose morality does decline.”
“Excuse the question, but if this is the case, how is England justified in holding India?”
There they were! Politics again. “It’s a question I can’t get my mind on to,” he replied. “I’m out here personally because I needed a job. I cannot tell you why England is here or whether she ought to be here. It’s beyond me.”
“Well-qualified Indians also need jobs in the educational.”
“I guess they do; I got in first,” said Fielding, smiling.
“Then excuse me again—is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available? Of course I mean nothing personally. Personally we are delighted you should be here, and we benefit greatly by this frank talk.”
There is only one answer to a conversation of this type: “England holds India for her good.” Yet Fielding was disinclined to give it. The zeal for honesty had eaten him up. He said, “I’m delighted to be here too—that’s my answer, there’s my only excuse. I can’t tell you anything about fairness. It mayn’t have been fair I should have been born. I take up some other fellow’s air, don’t I, whenever I breathe? Still, I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad I’m out here. However big a badmash one is—if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”
The Indians were bewildered. The line of thought was not alien to them, but the words were too definite and bleak. Unless a sentence paid a few compliments to Justice and Morality in passing, its grammar wounded their ears and paralysed their minds. What they said and what they felt were (except in the case of affection) seldom the same. They had numerous mental conventions and when these were flouted they found it very difficult to function. Hamidullah bore up best. “And those Englishmen who are not delighted to be in India—have they no excuse?” he asked.
“None. Chuck ’em out.”
“It may be difficult to separate them from the rest,” he laughed.
“Worse than difficult, wrong,” said Mr. Ram Chand. “No Indian gentleman approves chucking out as a proper thing. Here we differ from those other nations. We are so spiritual.”
“Oh that is true, how true!” said the police inspector.
“Is it true, Mr. Haq? I don’t consider us spiritual. We can’t co-ordinate, we can’t co-ordinate, it only comes to that. We can’t keep engagements, we can’t catch trains. What more than this is the so-called spirituality of India? You and I ought to be at the Committee of Notables, we’re not; our friend Dr. Lal ought to be with his patients, he isn’t. So we go on, and so we shall continue to go, I think, until the end of time.”
“It is not the end of time, it is scarcely ten-thirty, ha, ha!” cried Dr. Panna Lal, who was again in confident mood. “Gentlemen, if I may be allowed to say a few words, what an interesting talk, also thankfulness and gratitude to Mr. Fielding in the first place teaches our sons and gives them all the great benefits of his experience and judgment——”
“Dr. Lal!”
“Dr. Aziz?”
“You sit on my leg.”
“I beg pardon, but some might say your leg kicks.”
“Come along, we tire the invalid in either case,” said Fielding, and they filed out—four Mohammedans, two Hindus and the Englishman. They stood on the verandah while their conveyances were summoned out of various patches of shade.
“Aziz has a high opinion of you, he only did not speak because of his illness.”
“I quite understand,” said Fielding, who was rather disappointed with his call. The Club comment, “making himself cheap as usual,” passed through his mind. He couldn’t even get his horse brought up. He had liked Aziz so much at their first meeting, and had hoped for developments.


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