It is therefore a very grave charge that Mr. Keir Hardie brings against the British Administration when he says, a century after these words were written, that the standard of living among the Hindu peasantry has deteriorated. Happily there does not appear to have been a close relation between facts and Mr. Keir Hardie's conclusions during his Indian tour, so we may continue to put our confidence in the many hopeful indications that exist of a distinct improvement in the ideal of life which has so long prevailed among our poor Indian fellow-subjects. The rise in the wages of both skilled and unskilled labour during even the last thirty years, especially in and near important towns, has been most remarkable.
It is more to the point to know what the labourer is able to do and actually does with his wages, and here the returns of trade and the reports of the railway companies, post office and savings bank have striking evidence to offer. They are published annually, and anyone, even Mr. Keir Hardie, may consult them who likes his facts in statistical form. For those who live in India there are abundant evidences with more colour in them. Some thirty years ago, or more, there was a steamship company in Bombay owning two small steamers which carried passengers across the harbour. By degrees it extended its operations and increased its fleet until it had a daily service of fast steamers, with accommodation for nearly a thousand third-class passengers, which went down the coast as far as Goa, calling at every petty port on the way. The head of the firm retired some years ago, having made his pile. Seldom has a more profitable enterprise been started in Bombay. And whence did the profits come? From the pockets of Hindu peasants. The Mahrattas of the Ratnagiri District supply most of the "labour" required in Bombay, and for these the company spread its nets. And by their incessant coming and going it amassed its wealth.
Heads of mercantile firms and Government offices, and all who have to deal with the Mahratta "puttiwala," viewed its success without surprise. Though always grumbling at his wages, he never appears to be without the means and the will to travel. A marriage, a religious ceremony in his family, or the death of some relative, requires his immediate presence in his village, and he asks for leave. If he cannot get it otherwise, he offers to forfeit his pay for the period. If it is still refused, he resigns his situation and goes. This does not indicate pinching poverty; there must be some margin between such men and starvation. And a saunter through their villages will amply confirm such a surmise.
It is no uncommon thing in these coast villages to see that foreign luxury, a chair, perhaps even an easy-chair, in the verandah of a common Bhundaree (toddy-drawer). The rapidly growing use of chairs, glass tumblers, enamelled ironware, soda-water and lemonade, patent medicines, and even cheap watches, declares plainly that the young Hindu of the present day does not live as his fathers did. Men go better dressed, and their children are clothed at an earlier age. The advertisements in vernacular languages that one meets with, circulated and posted up in all sorts of places, tell the same tale convincingly; for the advertiser knows his business, and will not angle where no fish rise.
Nor are large towns like Bombay the only places where the Hindu peasant widens his horizon and acquires new tastes. In the Fiji Islands there are about 22,000 natives of India who went out as indentured coolies with the option of returning at the end of five years at their own expense, or after ten years at that of Government. When these men come home, they bring with them new tastes and new ideas, as well as the habit of saving money and thousands of rupees saved during their short exile. In Mauritius and South Africa the Hindu working man is learning the same lessons. When he gets back to the sleepy life of his native village, he is not likely to settle down contentedly at the level from which he started.
On every hand, in short, forces are at work stirring discontent in the breasts of the younger generation with the existence which was the heritage of their fathers. These forces operate from the outside, and the mass is large and very inert: it would be rash to say that in the heart of it there are not still millions who regard a monotonous struggle for a bare existence as their portion from Providence. But when a man who has travelled in India for half a cold season tells us that the standard of living in India has deteriorated, we are tempted to quote from Sir Ali Baba: "What is it that these travelling people put on paper? Let me put it in the form of a conundrum. Q. What is it that the travelling M.P. treasures up and the Anglo-Indian hastens to throw away? A. Erroneous hazy, distorted impressions." "One of the most serious duties attending a residence in India is the correcting of those misapprehensions which your travelling M.P. sacrifices his bath to hustle upon paper."