Now comes the story of a little man with a big job and a big-ger heart; a Kashmir crusader who is the most hated yet most respected schoolmaster in the East.
He is the first man in all India who taught those holiest of Hindu holy men, the Brahmans, to play games. First in Kashmir to teach a native to swim, admit he lied or help a woman; first in Kashmir to arrange a wedding with a widow as bride. First missionary, who made no effort and still makes no effort to convert people to Christianity, yet enjoys the full backing of the Church of England.
He is CE Tyndale Biscoe, and to meet him, let’s first go back to a cold spring day 44 years ago. The mountain passes had just been opened, and stumbling through Himalayan snows on a horse came this blue-eyed Britisher to take over a mission school in Srinagar, then and now one of the most filthy yet fascinating cities on earth.
To this day few Kashmiris either bathe or wash their clothes in winter. Too cold, they say, and, besides, bathing is an unhealthy nuisance which drains oil from the skin and causes deafness, no less.
Biscoe, reaching his school beside the spending Jhelum, was faced by 300 dirty-faced boys in filthy smocks. They lounged about with drooping shoulders and open mouths, and when asked any question gawked sleepily. This indolence was to some extent an affectation to show they were Brahmans whose life was one of ease. Each boy seemed to have a puffy stomach, swollen out of all proportion.
“What’s wrong with these boys? “ Biscoe demanded.
“Their stomachs . . . what’s all this?”
“Fire pots,” he was told.
“Yes; to keep the boys warm. They sleep with the firepots and carry them about during the day.”
“Fire pots, fiddlesticks! What these boys need is exercise, and luckily I’ve brought something along.” He went to his pack and brought out a piece of leather.
“This,” he said, “is a football. It is used for playing games, and you boys are going to kick it about this afternoon.”
“Do we get paid for kicking it?” the Mohammedans asked.
“Certainly not-you kick it for fun.”
“Oh no, we must get paid to kick such a thing.”
A LEATHER BALL
As for the Hindus, they fell back in terror. It was leather; the ball was made from the skin of a beast. That beast might have been a close relative. It was certainly an ancestor. It might even have been a cow. They were horrified.
A master stepped forward. “Sir, these boys are Brahmans; no Brahman may exercise. It is coolie work. It will degrade them. And with a leather ball! This is preposterous, impossible.”
“I am the new master here, and these boys need exercise. We lay this afternoon. I expect trouble, so each of you teachers arm yourselves with sticks and help me overcome it.”
“That afternoon at three, school gates were opened and the boys pushed out like sheep to the butcher’s,” the master told me in recalling the incident. “Such a filthy and smelly crowd you never saw. They all wore long night-gowns over these pots, with clogs on their feet. As we let them loose, they ran shrieking for their parents; these, armed with broom-handles and bamboos, came hurrying to the rescue, but we drove enough boys through the mob to get two sides.
“The boys, as I’d expected, refused to play. They cried and blubbered and kicked. Some lay down moaning, so I took out my watch and said, ‘Now, you fellows; five minutes. You start kicking this ball in five minutes or I start kicking you.’
“They refused. They spat and whined. I held my watch and when the five minutes was nearly up I called off the seconds. Still they refused to kick, so I and the masters went after those boys with sticks. We made them kick and they did kick, quite furiously, while angry crowds on the sidelines jeered, hooted and cursed, but took no actual action.
“Soon one boy was smacked in the face by the flying ball. He fell to the ground in horror. Leather had touched him, touched his face-his very lips! His face was defiled. If he touched it with his hand his hand was defiled. So, as he could not do as he would and would not do what he could, he did the next best thing, which was to lie on the ground and call on his assorted gods to save him.
“The crowd, meantime, grew more menacing. They leaped into the playing fields and my masters deserted me. Luckily the idea of sacred waters entered my head. The Hindu considers many rivers sacred and holy; among them the Jhelum. ‘Take the boy down to the canal and wash him there lies his salvation,’ 1 commanded. This worked. Irate Hindus ceased threatening me and took the boy away to be bathed. The other players streaked for safety, but I brought them back and made them finish that game out.”
“And did that end the opposition to football?” I queried.
“Gracious, no! It took me twenty years of alternate threat and persuasion eventually to kill that opposition, but kill it we did, and today not only our school, but every school in Kashmir, has passable football teams.”
MAKING THEM SWIM
Most of the Biscoe boys also swim today, and that’s another story of dogged persistence. At the time Biscoe came to Kashmir, the state had one of the most amazing laws on record. Srinagar, like Venice or Bangkok, is split by canals. Few people in the city swam but the law said that if any man, woman or child fell into the water, everyone should try to rescue him. This was a sane enough edict, but if the unlucky faller-in drowned, as hundreds did every year, any person who saw the drowning was promptly clapped into jail for six months. The result was that if anyone spilled into the canals, everyone within sight or hearing ran pell-mell for liberty and the victim lost his life in solitude.
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