Idle hours make light verse, or at least they did for the British in India: the soldier in his barracks, the planter on his verandah, the government servant in his bungalow. If it has often been stated that the reading of light verse relieved the boredom of a routine life and a sense of isolation, then clearly the writing of it fulfilled much the same purpose: an antidote to the fact and feeling of tedium and loneliness.
For a subaltern in the British Army proper, as opposed to the East India Company’s three Presidency forces, the very prospect itself of being sent to India was to be dreaded. The expatriate’s daily routine – between the obligatory morning and evening rides – left many hours outside one’s official duties requiring an antidote to boredom. They might be filled with carousing and gambling, or less riotous sports and pastimes, or more sober rounds of social calls, but the constrictions of expatriate society were keenly felt.
Subaltern Squibs and Sentimental Rhymes is the first anthology to be devoted exclusively to light verse composed by British authors in undivided India, plus a few items illustrating parallel experiences in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Written overwhelmingly by the junior ranks of the military and civil service, these works constitute a “running commentary” on the Raj from below.
Senior officials, enjoying the comforts and rewards of their privileged positions, would have felt no need for such a literary ‘safety-valve’ for their emotions. Since criticism of authority could seriously cripple if not completely destroy career prospects, light verse was due to the vulnerability of its authors inevitably for the most part published anonymously or pseudonymously. Such verse was mostly published almost as soon as composed, its topicality being its greatest (and sometimes its only) virtue.”
A few representative poems:
On Indian people, their culture and cities
‘Momos’: The Golden Age
Long long ago, when all the world was gay
And pterodactyls sang from every tree,
The Aryans invented, so they say
Petrol and steam and electricity.
It was the golden age which poets sing
And saints of Congress howl – an age of gold
To which these saints so naturally cling
As did, I’ll bet, those mythic saints of old.
It now appears that distant holy age
Must have been something rather like our own,
For Aryan motor cars were quite the rage
While cave men still made cart wheels out of stone.
Our telephones were then familiar sights
And whippet tanks were used in tribal wars;
While gas shells put the wind up troglodytes
And aeroplanes dropped bombs on dinosaurs.
It seems that then, as now, the “movies” swarmed
With shaggy crowds athirst for fire and blood,
And Aryan journalists, I am informed,
Broad-casted news about the recent Flood.
Primeval forests knew the scooter’s horn
And any other thing you choose to guess,
Historians, you see, were not yet born,
(Although no doubt they had their gutter press).
This latest theory has some points, it’s true,
But in these modern days of sordid strife,
I think myself with more ingenuous view
Those Aryans must have spoilt their simple life.
Anon: Oriental Eclogues No 4
Sad I’ve been, oh Chuckerbutty,
Sadder than you’ll think, perhaps,
Since the hour you young Bengallees
Took to wearing boots and straps.
Really, Pundit Ramdutt Misser,
Grieved I am to make you sad,
But the wearing boots and trowsers,
Sure is not so shocking bad!
All our ancient rules forsaking,
Such new fangled ways you’ve got!
E’en societies debating!!
Where you talk no end of rot!!!
‘Tis a thing, oh Ramdutt Misser,
Past my comprehension quite,
Why for talking rot you Brahmins
Should assume exclusive right.
There are even deeper horrors,
Sin so black I name with grief,
I have even heard it whispered,
That you know the taste, of beef!!
’Tis not nasty, Ramdutt Misser,
Nay, I’ll full confession make,
That there’s something very juicy,
Wondrous toothsome in a steak.
When I called the other evening,
How it grieved my soul to see,
Lovely Mrs Chuckerbutty
Sitting down with you at tea!!!
Grieved am I, oh Ramdutt Misser,
Acts of ours should give you pain,
To prevent the repetition –
Why – you need not call again.
Anon: Mythological Botany
Madras, it would appear, the place is
Where the pagoda-tree still lingers,
For there a counsel in Crown cases
For fee “fifteen pagodas” fingers.
Gold fruits like the Hesperides
Don’t flourish on Bengal’s poor soil:
When they do grow, as those, so these,
Nought wins, but Herculean toil.
No matter. Let’s contented be,
And drink, in brandies mixed with sodas,
To those who, luckier than we,
Dwell by the tree that yields pagodas.
Charles John Bernhard Hough Dressner, alias “Ram Bux”: The “National” Show
Since first I came to India’s coral strand,
What changes now have overspread the land.
Ind’s dusky “patriots” even run a show –
A gentle hint for Britishers to go.
‘Tis called a “congress” – There the babu screams
About his “rights” – of liberty he dreams.
His “Indian nation”, “struggling to be free”,
And “patriots” by dozens there you’ll see.
His “Indian nation”, nearly all Hindu
Of mildest aspect, glare at me and you.
The babus and Maratha brahmans meet
To talk sedition, and our swells to greet.
They telegraph their loyalty to the Queen,
And on her “trusted servants” vent their spleen.
They say they’re fitter far to rule the land
Than we – a brigand, cow-destroying band,
Who’ve come to suck Ind’s vital forces dry,
And let her plundered, famished children die.
Their Empress Queen is thanked in gushing tone
For all the endless blessings they have known.
The babu’s honest heart doth burn with shame,
Her servants’ endless vices to proclaim.
“It must be done – our gracious Queen must know
Her servants’ vices, and her children’s woe –
How shameless tyrants squander Bharat’s wealth –
Destroy her morals – undermine her health –
Seduce her daughters – organise her sin,
For British greed and lust to revel in!”
Ind’s teeming millions send these “patriots” true
To show their Empress all a “nation”’s due,
To claim their “rights” as “British subjects free”,
To claim what’s been usurped by you and me,
To claim a “nation’s right” of peace and war,
To claim a share in regulating law,
To claim the payer’s right the purse to hold,
To stem the stream of outward-flowing gold,
To stop repayment of their debts, and be
A model bankrupt nationality.
In fact they clearly want to boss the show,
And “beefy beery Britishers” may go.
We’ve brought the country to a fitting state
For babu scribes to rule and legislate;
So Ind expect our duty we shall do,
And hand her o’er to brahman and babu!
Anon: A Famine Nursery Rhyme
Who made the famine?
I, said George Campbell,
With much fuss and scramble,
I made the famine.
Who made it worse?
I, said The Friend,
With crammers no end,
I made it worse.
Who kept it going?
I, said Sir Dick,
For I knew the trick,
I kept it going.
Who bought the rice?
I, said Mr. Ashley,
I made the cash fly,
I bought the rice.
Who put it down?
I, said Lord N.,
With a stroke of my pen,
I put it down.
Who saw it die?
I, said “The Pi”,
With but half an eye,
I saw it die.
On death, sickness, medicine, and health
George William MacArthur Reynolds: Cholera Broke Out at Hyderabad and Other Places in India
Physicians have declared that cholera,
In half a dozen hours would swallow a
Town entire: –
No prayers nor physic will assuage
The malady’s vindictive rage,
Which spreads like fire.
One surgeon recommends French brandy,
Or even gin, if it should prove more handy;
Another says a bath; a third will pour
Hot coffee down your throat till it is sore;
But should they save you, all agree
That you should pay the doctor’s fee.
In England there are many ancient dames,
Respectable in character and names,
Who prudently mix up
A little brandy in their breakfast cup,
That they may thus beat hollow a
First appearance of the cholera.
And then, before they go to bed at night,
They take a good stiff glass of gin-and-water:
Should the disease appear, they are all right,
And will not be included in the slaughter.
Our bishops too (with grace divine)
Adopt precautions very fine,
By laying in a stock of wine;
And what these holy fathers do
Is an example both for me and you:
We therefore certainly may follow a
Measure so prudent to defeat the cholera.
Churchwardens too, and overseers,
Whose feet are watered by the tears
Of grateful paupers in workhouses,
Indulge in frequent and in deep carouses,
At the parishioners’ expense,
The cholera to banish hence,
And thus assuage their anxious fears
That the dear paupers, whom they cherish
As their own children, should ultimately perish.
But the cholera made havoc sad
In the fair city of Hyderabad,
And, as it passed, left its hideous traces
In various places.
Then, gentle reader, always swallow a
Glass of brandy to banish the cholera!
On experiences with local insects
Anon: Sentimental Sonnets to a Distressed Cockroach
Poor persecuted insect! Denizen
Of hole and corner, through the live-long day
Modest, thou seek’st retirement, and away
Abidest from the haunts of busy men,
Nor till the night-fall from thy lonely den
Thou venturest timid forth, a scanty meal
To glean from useless rind – stale crust – or peel –
Or drink from savoury oil-glass, and again
Retire thee at the approach of dawn, to dwell
Darkling, in solitary nook, thy cell
Some fragrant drain – old chest – or wash-hand-stand –
Yet all avails not; persecution rife
Pursues thee; and against thy brittle life
Raised is each slippered foot! Uplift each deadly hand!
And yet thou art not armed, like angry bee,
Or fierce intrusive wasp, or musical
Mosquito; and no sting to wound withal
Hast thou, to furnish fear with coward’s plea
To palliate murder; e’en the tiny flea
That ‘mid the fur disports (in populous swarms)
Of pet Grimalkin, is most fierce in arms
Compared – thou injured, harmless thing! – with thee!
Thou dost not, as the odorous bug – dispense
Perfumes, that overpower the delicate sense
Of damsel, and avenge th’incautious crush:
Then why this universal loathing? Why
With one accord resolved, that thou must die,
Do young and old to trample on thee rush?
They say thou’rt hideous to behold! If true
That were at best, a very lame apology
For giving thee a place in martyrology,
And one, that nine in ten of us might rue –
Being ill favoured! But thy shape, thy hue –
To eyes unprejudiced seem lovely. That
Symmetrically oval – this, as my hat –
Black; yet disclosing to fond artists’ view
Tints of burnt-umber edged with burnt-sienna
Fading to Roman ochre! Then thy antennae
Silken and taper, wandering to and fro –
Trembling! Thy mail-clad wings so gossamery!
Thy legs – would they were not so thin and hairy! –
For, as to beauty, I confess they’re but so-so!!
Soft is thy footstep as Camilla’s! Light
She skimmed the unbending corn; nor skimmed it brisker
Than thou, fair lady’s curl or dandy’s whisker;
As sallying, when bright lamps announce the night
Thou plyest thy busy wing with whirring flight
In brief gyrations, and exhausted drop
On face of warbling nymph, or sudden pop
‘Mid circling throngs, giving and taking fright,
Changing to shrilly scream the gentle song!! –
Alas! thy days are numbered! Round thee throng
Indignant beaux; soon shalt thou rue the rash
Intrusion! See! They urge the hot pursuit!
And now beneath the stamp of ponderous boot
Crushed is thy fragile form, with frightful squash!!!
Excerpted with permission from Graham Shaw’s Introduction to Subaltern Squibs and Sentimental Rhymes: the Raj Reflected in Light Verse, edited by Graham Shaw, Jadavpur University Press.