His waistcloth is tightly girded about him, in his hand he carries a broad billhook as bright and keen as a razor, and from his caudal region depends a tail more strange than any borne by beast or reptile. It looks like a large brown pot, constructed in the middle. It is, in fact, a large gourd, or calabash, hanging by a hook from the climber's waistband. When he has reached the top of a tree, he gets among the branches and, sitting astride of one of them, proceeds to detach one of the black pots from the stout fruit stem on which it is fastened, and empty its contents into his tail. Then, taking his billhook, he carefully pares the raw end of the stem, refastens the black pot in its place and hurries down to make the ascent of another tree, and so on until his tail is full of a foaming white liquor spotted with drowned honey bees and filling the surrounding air with a rank odour of fermentation. This liquor is "toddy."
If I were a Darwin I would not leave that word until I had traced the agencies which wafted it over sea and land from the shores of Hindustan to the Scottish coast, where it first took root and, quickly adapting itself to a strange environment, developed into a new and vigorous species, spread like the thistle and became a national institution. At first it was only the Briton's way of mouthing a common native word, "tadi" (pronounced ta-dee), which meant palm juice; but it became current in its present shape as early as 1673, when the traveller Fryer wrote of "the natives singing and roaring all night long, being drunk with toddy, the wine of the cocoe." About a century later Burns sang,
The lads and lasses, blythely bent,
To mind baith saul and body,
Sit round the table, weel content,
And steer about the toddy.
Between these I can find no vestigia, but imagination easily fills the gap. I see a company of jovial Scots, met in Calcutta, or Surat, on St. Andrew's Day. European wines and beer are expensive, whisky not obtainable at all; but the skilful khansamah makes up a punch with toddy spirit, hot water, sugar and limes, and they are "well content." After many years I see the few of them who still survive foregathered again in the old country, and one proposes to have a good brew of toddy for auld lang syne. If real toddy spirit cannot be had, what of that? Whisky is found to take very kindly to hot water and sugar and limes, and the old folks at home and the neighbours and the minister himself pronounce a most favourable verdict on "toddy." In short, it has come to stay. But we must return to the liquor in the Bhundaree's gourd. It is the rich sap which should have gone to the forming of coconuts, which is intercepted by cutting off the point of the fruit stalk and tying on an earthen pot. If the pot is clean, the juice, when it is taken down in the morning, not fermented yet but just beginning to sparkle with minute bubbles, not too sweet and not so oily as the milk of the coconut, is nectar to a hot and thirsty soul. No summer drink have I drunk so innocently restorative after a hot and toilsome march on a broiling May morning. But the Bhundaree will not squander it so: he takes care not to clean his pots, and when he takes them down in the morning the liquor is already foaming like London stout. Not that he means to drink it himself, for you must know that, by the rules of his caste, he is a total abstainer, being a Bhundaree, whose function is to draw toddy, not to drink it. This is one of those profound institutes by which the wisdom of the ancients fenced the whole social system of this strange land.
But, while the Bhundaree must refuse all intoxicating drinks himself, it is his duty to exercise a large tolerance towards those who are not so hindered. He is, in fact, a partner in the business of Babajee, Licensed Vendor of Fresh Toddy, towards whose spacious, open-fronted shop, thatched with "jaolees," he now carries his gourds. There the contents will stand, in dirty vessels and a warm place, maturing their exhilarating qualities until the evening, when the Tam o' Shanters and Souter Johnnies of the village begin to assemble and squat in a ring in the open space in front. They may be Kolees, or fishermen, and Agrees, who make salt, and aboriginal Katkurrees from the jungle, with their bows and arrows, most bibulous of all, but among them all there will be no Bhundaree. Babajee sits apart, presiding and serving, beside a dirty table, on which are many bottles and dirty tumblers of patterns which were on our tables thirty years ago. The assembly begins solemnly, discussing social problems and bartering village gossip, for the Hindu is by nature staid. After a while, at the second bottle perhaps, cheerfulness will supervene, then mirth and garrulity, ending, as the night closes round, with wordy contention and a general brawl. But nothing serious will happen, for toddy, though decidedly heady, is at the worst a thin potation. A strong and very pure spirit is distilled from it, which has its devotees, but the rustic, as a rule, prefers quantity to quality. We are often told that the British Government taught the people of India to drink, but the scene that I have tried to describe is indigenous conviviality, much older than any European connection with the country.
Is it any wonder that the coconut has become an emblem of fertility and prosperity and all good luck? When a new house is building you will see a high pole over the doorway, bearing coconuts at the top, with an umbrella spread over them. Do not ask the owner the meaning of the sign, for he does not know. He does not think about such matters, but he feels about them and he knows that that is the right thing to do. Besides, he might ask you why you nail a horseshoe over your door. The difference between us and him is that we do such things in jest, no longer believing in them. They are the husks of a dead faith with us. But the Hindu's faith is very living still. So, when he breaks a coconut at the launching of a pattimar, he is a gainer in hope, if nothing else; while we squander our champagne and gain nothing. That nut follows him even to the grave, or burning ground, with mystic significances which I cannot explain. I have been told that, when a very holy man dies, who always clothed himself in ashes and never profaned his hands with work, his disciples sometimes break a coconut over his head. If the spirit can escape from the body through the sutures of the skull instead of by any of the other orifices, it is believed to find a more direct route to heaven, so the purpose of this ceremony may be to facilitate its exit that way. In that case the breaking of the nut is perhaps only an accident, due to its not being so hard as the holy man's skull.