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An essay by Morley Roberts

A Pondicherry Boy

Title:     A Pondicherry Boy
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

When I first went out to the Australian colonies in 1876 in the _Hydrabad_, a big sailing ship registered as belonging to Bombay, I had a very curious time of it, take it altogether. It was my first real experience of the outside world, and the hundred and two days the _Hydrabad_ took from Liverpool to Melbourne made a very valuable piece of schooling for a greenhorn. I was a steerage passenger, and the steerage of a sailing vessel twenty-five years ago was something to see and smell. Perhaps it is no better now, but then it was certainly very bad. The food was poor, the quarters dirty, the accommodation far too limited to swing even the traditional cat in, and my companions were for the most part Irishmen of the lowest and poorest peasant class. In these days I was quite fresh from home and was rather particular in my tastes. Some of that has been knocked out of me since. A great deal of it was knocked out of me in that passage.

Yet it was, take it altogether, an astonishingly fertile trip for a young and green lad who was not yet nineteen. The _Hydrabad_ usually made a kind of triangular voyage. She took emigrants and a general cargo to Melbourne, loaded horses there for Australia, and came back to England once more with anything going in the shape of cargo to be picked up in the Hooghly. She carried a Calashee crew, that is, a crew of mixed Orientals, and among them were native Hindoos, Klings, Malays, Sidi-boys. In those days I had not been in the United States and had not yet imbibed any great contempt for coloured people. They were on the whole infinitely more interesting than the Irish. I knew nothing of the world, nothing of the Orient, and here was an Oriental microcosm. The old serang, or bo'sun, was a gnarled and knotted and withered Malay, who took rather a fancy to me. Sometimes I sat in his berth and smoked a pipe with him. At other times I deciphered the wooden tallies for the sails in the sail-locker, for though he talked something which he believed to be English, he could not read a word, even in the Persi-Arabic character. The cooks, or _bandaddies_, were also friends of mine, and more than once they supplemented the intolerably meagre steerage fare by giving me something good to eat. I soon knew every man in the crew, and could call each by his name. Sometimes I went on the lookout with one of them, and one particular Malay was very keen on teaching me his language. So far as I remember the languages talked by the crew included Malay, Hindustani, Tamil and, oddly enough, French. That language was of course spoken by someone who came from Pondicherry, that small piece of country which, with Chandernagor, represents the French-Indian Empire of Du Plessis's time. I had learnt a little Hindustani and Malay, and could understand all the usual names of the sails and gear before I discovered that there was someone on board whose native tongue was French, or who, at anyrate, could talk it fluently enough. We were far to the south of the Line before I found this out. For, of course, among his fellows the boy from Pondicherry spoke Hindustani mixed with Malay and perhaps with Tamil. I well remember how I made the discovery. It was odd enough to me, but far stranger, far more wonderful, far more full of mystery to my little, excitable and very dark-skinned friend. I daresay, if he lives, that to this hour he remembers the English boy who so surprised him.

The weather was intensely hot and I had climbed for a little air into one of the boats lying in the skids. The shadow of the main-topsail screened me from the sun; there was just enough wind to keep the canvas doing its work in silence. It was Sunday and the whole ship was curiously quiet. But as I lay in my little shelter I was presently disturbed by Pondicherry (that was what he was called by everyone), who came where I was to fetch away a plate full of some occult mystery which he had secreted there. He nodded to me brightly, and then for the first time it occurred to me that if he came from his nameplace he might know a little French. I knew remarkably little myself; I could read it with difficulty. My colloquial French was then, as now, intensely and intolerably English. I said, "_Bon jour_, Pondicherry!"

The result was astounding. He turned to me with an awe-stricken look, as he dropped his tin plate with its precious burden, and holding out both hands as though to embrace a fellow countryman, he exclaimed in French,--

"What--what, do _you_ come from Pondicherry?"

For a moment or two I did not follow his meaning. I did not see what French meant to him; I could not tell that it represented his little fatherland. I had imagined he knew it was a foreign tongue. But it was not foreign to him.

"No," I said, "I am an Englishman."

He sat down on a thwart and stared at me as if I was some strange miracle. His next words let me into the heart of his mystery.

"It is _not_ possible. You _speak_ Pondicherry!"

He did not even know that he was speaking French, the language of a great Western nation. He could not know that I was doing my feeble best to speak the language of a great literature; the language of Voltaire, of Victor Hugo, of diplomacy. No, he and I were speaking Pondicherry, the language of a derelict corner of mighty Hindustan. Now he eyed me with suspicion.

"When were you there?" he demanded in a whisper.

If I was not Pondicherry born I must at least have lived there in order to have learnt the language.

"Pondy, I was never there," I answered.

He evidently did not believe me. I had some mysterious reason for concealing that I was either Pondicherry born or that I had resided there.

"Then you didn't know it?"


"And you have not been in Villianur?"


"Or Bahur?"

I shook my head. He shook his and stared at me suspiciously. Perhaps I had committed some crime there.

"Then how did you learn it?"

"I learnt it in England."

That I was undoubtedly speaking the unhappy truth would have been obvious to any Frenchman. But to Pondicherry what I said was so obviously a gross and almost foolish piece of fiction that he shook his head disdainfully. And yet why should I lie? He spoke so rapidly that I could not follow him.

"If you speak so fast I cannot understand," I said.

"Ah, then," he replied hopefully, "it is a long time since you were there. Perhaps you were very young then?"

I once more insisted that I had never been at Pondicherry, or even in any part of India. All I said convinced him the more that I was not speaking the truth.

"You speak Hindustani with the _bandaddy_."

It is true I had learnt a dozen phrases and had once or twice used them. To say I had learnt them in the ship was useless.

"Oh, no, you have been in India. Why will you not tell me the truth, sahib? I am the only one from Pondicherry but you."

He spoke mournfully. I was denying my own fatherland, denying help and comradeship to my own countryman! It was, thought Pondicherry, cruel, unkind, unpatriotic. He gathered up the mess he had spilt and descended sorrowfully to the main deck to discuss me with his friends among the crew. As I heard afterwards from the wrinkled old serang, there were many arguments started in the fo'castle as to my place of origin. It was said, by those who took sides against Pondicherry, that even if I knew "Pondicherry" (and for that they only had his word), I also undoubtedly knew English. And when did any of the white rulers of Pondicherry know that tongue? Some of the Lascars who had been on the Madras coast in country boats swore that no one spoke English there. On the whole, as I came from England and knew English it was more likely that I was what I said than that I came from Pondicherry. But even so all agreed it was a mystery that I could speak it. The serang came to me quietly.

"Say, Robat, you tell me. You come Pondicherry?"

"No, serang," said "Robat."

"But you speak Pondicherry the boy say, Robat?"

"Yes, I speak it, serang. Many English people speak it a little. Very easy for English people learn a little, just the same as we learn _jeldy jow, toom sooar_."

And as the serang was well acquainted with the capabilities of English officers with regard to abusive language, he went away convinced that "Pondicherry" and "Hindustani" insults were perhaps taught in English schools after all.

In spite of my refusing to take Pondicherry into my confidence he remained on friendly, if suspicious, terms with me. When I said a word or two of French to him he beamed all over, and turned to the others as much as to say, "Didn't I tell you he came from my country?" For nothing that I and the serang or his friends said convinced him, or even shook his opinion. He used to sneak up to me occasionally as he worked about the decks and spring a question on me about someone at Pondicherry. Of course I had heard of no one there. But my ignorance was wholly put on; he was sure of that. Often and often I caught his eyes on me, and I knew his mind was pondering theories to account for my conduct. It was all very well for me or anyone else to say that Pondicherry was talked elsewhere than in his own home. He had travelled, he had been in Australia, in England, in many parts of the East, and he had never, never met anyone but himself and myself who knew it! I think he would have given me a month's pay if I would have only owned up to having been at Pondicherry. He certainly offered me an ample plateful of curried shark, a part of one we had caught days before, if I would be frank about the matter; but even my desire to obtain possession of that smell and drop it overboard did not tempt me to a white lie. I persisted in remaining an Englishman through the whole passage of one hundred and two days. And then at last, after good times and bad, after calms on the Line and no small hurricane south of stormy Cape Leuuwin, we came up with Cape Otway and entered the Heads. Pondicherry's time for solving the mystery grew short. In another few hours the passengers would go ashore and be never seen again. For my own part, though the passage had been one of pure discomfort, I was almost sorry to leave the old ship. I had to quit a number of friends, black and white, and had to face a new and perhaps unfriendly world. Though the _Hydrabad_ half-starved me I was at anyrate sure of water and biscuit. And many of the poor Lascars had been chums to me. As I made preparations to leave the vessel and stood on deck waiting, I saw Pondicherry sneaking about in the background. I said farewell to his old serang, and the Malay quartermasters, who were all fine men, and to some of the meaner outcast Klings, and then Pondicherry darted up to me. I knew quite well what was in his mind. It was in his very eyes. I was now going, and should be seen no more. Perhaps at the last I might be induced to speak the truth. And even if I did not own up bravely, it was at anyrate necessary to bid farewell to a countryman, though he denied his own country. He came close to me in the crowd and touched my sleeve appealingly.

"What is it, Pondy?"

"Oh, sahib, you tell me _now_ where you learn Pondicherry?"

"Pondy, I told you the truth long ago," I answered.

"Sahib, it is not possible."

He turned away, and I went on board the tug which served us as a tender. Presently I saw him lean over the rail and wave his hand. When he saw that I noticed him he called out in French once more, with angry, scornful reproach,--

"If you were not there, how, _how_ can you speak it?"

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: Pondicherry Boy