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Strength of the Little Thin Thread

IBRAHIM FADLALLAH shrugged bis shoulders: "You do not understand, my friend. You cannot get it through your head that it is impossible to destroy caste and to create fraternity by Act of Parliament. Allah—you can't even do it in your own country."

"But modern progress—the telegraph—the democracy of the railway carriage—" interrupted the American.

"You can compel a Brahmin to sit in the same office and to ride in the same railway compartment with a man of low caste, but you can never force him to eat with him or to give him his daughter in marriage. You spoke of those who are educated abroad—and even they, my friend, when they return to Hind, drift back into caste and the ways of caste. For there is a little thread—oh, such a tiny, thin little thread—which binds them to their own land, their own kin, their own caste. And it seems that they have not the strength to break it—this little thread. Ah, yes! Let me tell you something which occurred last year—a true tale—and please do not forget the thread, the little thread—

"Now the whole thing was like a play in one of your theatres—it was staged, dear one, and well staged. The scene was the great hall in which meets the caste tribunal of a certain Brahmin clan. Imagine, if you please, a huge quadrangle, impressively bare but for a low dais at one end. covered with a few Bengali shawls and an antelope skin or two—ah!—and then the dramatic atmosphere. Not the atmosphere of death—oh, no!—much worse than death, much worse. For what is death compared to the loss of caste? And that afternoon they were going to try a man who had polluted his blood, who had sinned a great sin, a sin more heinous than the killing of cows—not a sin according to your code of laws—but then they were men of a different race, and their ins are not your sins—eh?—and mayhap their virtues may not be your virtues.

"On the dais sat his Holiness Srimal Muniswamappa Rama-Swami, and on either side of him stood anxious disciples who looked with awe at his thin, clean-shaven lips and fanned his holy old poll with silver-handled yak tails. Near him sat the pleader and a few Brahmin grandees, whom he was in the habit of consulting in cases of importance. At a respectful distance were the men of the clan: they filed in slowly, prostrating themselves in turn before the Swami and uttering the name of the presiding deity with trembling lips, while his Holiness smiled a contemplative smile, and while his fingers counted the beads on his rosary. The proceeding opened with a sermon pronounced by the Swami. First, he praised Ganesa, Sarasvati, and half a dozen other assorted deities, and then with a great abundance of detail and many long-winded quotations he set forth the duties of the twice-born. He told them that a Brahmin should not break up clods of earth nor tear up the grass under bis feet; that he should not look at the setting sun, the vising sun, the sun in eclipse, the image of the sun in a pool of water; that be should not point at the stars with fingers of irreverence; that he should not sleep with his head turned toward the north or west; that he should abstain from cutting his nails with his teeth, from using the same toothstick more than once, from eating off plates used by others, and from wearing sandals worn by strangers—and a thousand such foolish injunctions. The assembly was politely bored, but the Swami enjoyed himself hugely. For it gave him an opportunity to show his great learning and his wonderful memory, and then, like most holy men, he loved to lay stress on the outward emblems of his faith. lie illustrated his sermon by relating several horrid examples, chiefly that of a wicked barber who had shaved a Brahmin with a razor which had been polluted by the shadow of a low-caste falling on it. Finally, be commented on the advent of modernity and expounded with more lengthy and tiresome quotations how the devils of progress, skepticism, irreverence, and anarchy were making headway amongst the twice-born, how the young Brahmins were making their names a name of scorn in the present world and spoiling their chances for the future world.

"Then he whispered a word to the pleader, who called up the case of Chaganti Samashiva Rao, a young Brahmin accused of having sullied his caste by marrying an infidel. There was a commotion at the door, and then Rao appeared, struggling furiously in the arms of half a dozen muscular youngsters. The pleader explained that Rao had studied in Boston and that he had brought home with him a girl, a native of the land of the foreigners and a Christian, whom he had married according to the laws of the Americans. He had thus polluted himself, his father, his mother, his cow, and his caste. Here the pleader was silent for a few moments to let the atrocity of the crime soak into all hearts, and then he asked the assembly for a verdict. And the assembly shouted like one man: 'Let him lose caste. Drive him out. Drive him out.' But Rao rose and declared he was going to make a speech. He said he would tell the old fossils, including his Holiness Srimat Muniswamappa Rama-Swami, what he thought of them. There were roars of: 'Throw him out!' 'Stop his unclean mouth!'—and angry hands were raised. Hut his Holiness smiled a thin, mocking smile and bade the assembly he quiet and listen to what the defendant would have to say for himself. Rao acknowledged this permission with a sarcastic bow of gratitude, pulled out his cuffs—he wore English clothes—and proceeded to shock the grave assembly greatly by declaring that he did not give a 'whoop in Hades'—such was the expression he used, he being a perfect English scholar—for all the Brahmins, all the Swamis, and all the caste tribunals in the length and breadth of Hindustan, he had been brought into court by force, he indignantly complained, and he absolutely denied the power and the right of the assembly to punish him. For he had lived several years in America, had become an American citizen, and had voluntarily thrown away his caste as he would a pair of worn-out sandals. His Holiness interrupted him, saying that he would now pass sentence on him. But Rao exclaimed: 'Sentence—the devil—you've neither the right nor the might to sentence me.' The Swami, never heeding the interruption, continued with a calm and even voice: 'I sentence you to the living death of the outcast until such time as you expiate your crime, acknowledge your errors, and regain your caste status, which you forfeit to-day, through the regular methods as laid down in the holy books. Your friends and relatives will assemble on the first unlucky day of next week, and will offer, as if to your manes, a libation in a pot of water which a slave girl shall dash against the walls of your house, and all who take part in this ceremony shall be regarded as impure for three days. Your friends and relatives shall not be permitted to accept your hospitality, nor shall you be allowed to share theirs. Your touch shall be pollution unspeakable. Your children shall be outcasts and shall not marry anybody but Mangs and Mahars. Your own father and mother shall be forbidden your house under the risk of losing caste. Neither your barber, your tailor, your cook, nor your washerwoman shall work for you. Nobody shall assist you in any way, not even at the funeral of a member of your household. You shall be debarred access to the temples—'

HERE Rao, who had mocked and laughed during all this sentence, cried: 'Save your breath, oh holy one, for indeed all this tommyrot can never affect me. As to hospitality, I don't care to invite those old fossils of Brahmins into my house, nor could I ever bring myself to set foot in theirs and listen to their tiresome dissertations about the Veda and the Upanishads; besides, I've plenty of European friends. As to my children being outcasts, know, revered uncle, that I have none, and that if ever I should have any they will be Americans like myself and marry like myself. As to my father and mother being forbidden my house—well, they're both dead. As to my being debarred access to your temples—by the great God Shiva—I never go there anyway—'

"His Holiness waited until Rao had finished, and then he said, with the same inscrutable smile playing about the corners of his thin lips: 'I furthermore sentence you to have torn from your body the sacred thread of your caste, though'—here he smiled again—'I hardly believe that you, who have voluntarily given up your caste and who mock at everything connected with it, can by any chance still have the thread about your person.'

"Here Rao made a wild dash in the direction of the door, but he was stopped by many willing hands. There was a short and furious struggle, his clothes were torn—and, my friend, it appeared that he, the scoffer, the atheist, the expatriate, who had renounced India, who had thrown much filth at caste, who had become an American, a free-thinker, and a scoffer at superstitions—still wore next his heart the thin thread, the holy thread of his caste—the holiest, the most intimate, the most exclusive, the most secret, the most important emblem of the caste which be affected to despise—"

Ibrahim was silent, and the American asked: "Well—what happened?"

THE Egyptian lit a cigarette and continued:

"Oh, the usual thing. Rao did penance, he feasted the priests, he went through the regular process of ceremonious purification—"

"But what about the girl?"

"His wife? Oh—he sent her back to her own country—" Ibrahim gave a dry little laugh. "Yes, my friend, you assuredly understand India. You can reform the world with your progress, your modernity, your splendid democracy—you wonderful Anglo-Saxons. Only it appears that there is a little thread—Allah, what a tiny little thread!—which brings to naught all your wonderful civilization, your liberty, your democracy. Ah, such a tiny little thread, my friend—"

Adventurer and author of early 20th-century exotic fiction.