INDIANS may find the coming of the rains a time to celebrate. But monsoon fury is something that used to fill Europeans with dread during their stay in this country.
It used to take five years of exposure to the severe summer and the subsequent humid rainy season for a European to get acclimatised to India. The ones who were lucky to survive the monsoon and return to England, would claim the title of a nabob—one who made it big during his foreign exploits and became rich.
It was for diseases like cholera, malaria or jungle fever, apoplexy, typhoid (called buamghatee in the Simla of Raj days) that India has been referred to as the ‘white man’s grave’. Little wonder that the average life expectancy of white males and females in India during the colonial rule was 30 and 25 years, respectively.
The ratio of those who set sail on the 1500-mile sea voyage to India and those who landed back safely after shaking the proverbial pagoda tree was 5:1. And a nabob, once back in England, would declare that he would rather be content with less money in England and be neck deep in the waters of the Thames than live in the country of snake charmers.
And for Kolkata, the white man had coined a Biblical sobriquet, Golkotha, meaning there were many gates to enter the city of Calcutta but none to come out of it. Unlike the French, the Portuguese and the Italians, the British did not compromise on their apparel and continued to wear their accoutrements with all the frills despite the hot summer and the humid monsoon. Their only escape was to the hill stations. But to reach these, they had to travel through the hot and humid plains. The wife of a Viceroy even died of cholera on one such journey to Calcutta.
Karnal in Haryana and Ferozepore in Punjab were the cantonments where, besides many other places, the English population had been completely wiped out because of cholera and malaria. This led the Englishmen to believe in certain local superstitions and repose faith in native prescriptions, like the quicksilver treatment of the entrails.
With so many Europeans dying to the inhospitable climate, particularly the hot and humid monsoon, superstitions came to be attached to certain birds and animals. Among them was the crow.
During the monsoon of 1906, cholera claimed the life of a number of soldiers in an English battalion. When the burial party arrived at the graveyard, a crow perched itself on a tombstone nearby. The moment the coffin was lowered into the grave, it started cawing and kept doing so till the funeral party remained in the cemetery. It was believed that if no dead body was brought to the cemetery on a certain day, two arrived the following day. The superstition regarding the crow spread so fast that the soldiers started believing that the ‘ominous’ bird’s visitations had something to do with the deaths in their battalion. With 13 soldiers dying in succession and the crow never failing to show up at each funeral, the superstition about this number being unlucky only got reinforced.
An animal which was also the subject of many superstitious beliefs was the cow. In 1670, when John Best was going for a hunt with 17 other Englishmen to Onore in Karwar district, the bulldog accompanying them killed a cow attached to a temple. To such an extent were the religious sensibilities of the Hindus offended that the 18 Englishmen had to pay with their life.