The Value of a Vote

The Value of a Vote  (1910) 
by Flora Annie Steel

Extracted from Windsor magazine, v. 31 1909-10, pp. 749-752. Accompanying illustrations by Gilbert Holiday omitted.



HE was an old man, a very old man. A Syyed—that is, a Mahommedan who claims direct descent from the Prophet; by trade a Yunâni hakeem, or physician, according to the Grecian system introduced to India, doubtless, by Alexander the Great. He had a little sort of shop, close to the principal gate of the city, where he was in touch with all those who, with its ship, the camel, went out or came back from the desert beyond, and with all strangers and sojourners in the land. So all day and every day you might see wearied travellers resting on the hard wooden platform set in a dark archway of which his shop consisted, drinking, out of green glass tumblers, some restorative sherbet of things hot or things cold, things dry or things wet, while he showed dimly in the background, a visionary outline of long grey beard and high white turban. In this way he heard a good deal of what was going on both inside and outside the city, and as he was of the old school of the absolutely loyal, outspoken Mahommedan, who, while he holds our rule to be inferior to that of his own faith, emphatically believes it to be superior to all others, I used often to pause, in riding into or out of the city, for a chat with the old man, seldom without benefit to myself. One morning—I remember it so well—the gram fields outside the city were literally drenched with dew, making the fine tufts look like diamond plumes, amongst which the wealth of tiny purple-blue pea blossom showed like a sowing of sapphires—I found him sitting with a troubled look on his high wrinkled forehead, peering through his horn spectacles at a blue printed paper.

A patient was snoring contentedly on the boards, with a hard roly-poly bolster, which made me ache to look at, tucked into the hollow of his neck. Nothing brings home to one the impossibility of any Western judging what is or is not pleasant or convenient to an Eastern, more than the ordinary rolling-pin, two feet by six inches, stuffed hard with cotton wool, which the latter habitually uses as a pillow. The sight of it makes a Western neck feel stiff.

I recognised the paper at Once. We were then in the throes of "local self-government," and a violent effort was being made to induce this little far-away town, inhabited for the most part by Pathans (exiled these centuries back from northern wilds to the Indian plain), to elect a municipal committee.

I had spent the better part of the day before in explaining to various Rais'es, or honourable gentlemen of the city, that no insult was intended by asking them to put themselves up to auction, as it were, by the votes of their fellow-citizens, instead of being discreetly, and as ever, nominated to the office of councillor by those whom it is now fashionable to call the "hated alien." A few had gravely and dutifully given in to this new and quite incomprehensible fad of the constituted authorities, others had hesitated; but one, a fiery old Khân-Bâhadur who was a retired rissildar from one of our crack native cavalry regiments, had sworn with many oaths that never would he take office from, amongst others, the perjured vote of one Gunpat Lâl, pleader, who belonged to his ward, and whose evil, eloquent tongue had deliberately diddled him out of ancestral rights in a poppy-field in the Huzoor's own court. No! He had served the Sirkar with distinction—he had, with his own hands, nearly killed an agitator he had found in the lines—nay, more, he had absolutely sent his daughter to school to please the sahib logue, but this was too much. It had been all I could do to prevent the hot-tempered old soldier from giving up, as a signal of final rupture with the Government, the sword of honour with which he had been presented on retirement.

So, as I say, I recognised the blue paper at once as one of many voting papers which had been sent out for marking and return; for in these out-of-the-way places in those days, the secret ballot-box was not the "best blessing of the world" as it is now. And my old friend the hakeem was, I know, in the Aga-Khân's ward.

"What have you got to do with it?" I echoed in reply to an anxious question. "Why, put a mark against the Aga-Khan's name and give it back whence it came."

He salaamed profoundly. "Huzoor, that was the settled determination of this slave, thus combining new duties with old, which is the philosophy of faithful life. But being called in last night to an indigestion in his house, which I combated with burnt almonds, he told me that if I so much as went near his honourable name with my stylus, I should cease to be physician-in-ordinary to his household. And, father and son, we have been physicians to the Khân-sahibs since our fathers followed his fathers from Ghazni in that capacity with the great Mahmood, on whom be peace!"

"Then mark one of the other names—which you choose—and send it in," I replied, taking no notice of the scandalous attempt at coercion on the old Aga-Khân's part.

A still more profound salaam was the answer. "That also would have occurred to me," came the suave old voice, "but that the Aga-Khân said, with oaths, that if I so much as made a chance blot on this cursed paper against any of the names thereon, I should be cast for life from his honourable company."

I felt quite nettled. Her Majesty's lieges must not be intimidated in this fashion. "Well, you must think of the person whom you consider most fitted to fulfil all the many duties which will devolve on him, and put down his name," I said—for in these days, when we really wished to get at the wishes of the people, we were not so strict about nominations, and proposings, and secondings, as we are now—"and I will speak again to the Khân-Bahadur and see if I cannot induce him to stand." I meant to do so by threats of exposure for using force to Her Majesty's lieges.

As I rode off, my horse picking its way through the piles of melons, the bags of corn, the jars of milk, the nets of pottery, and all the olla podrida of trivial daily merchandise which finds pause for a few minutes about an octroi-gate at dawn-time, the patient sat up straight from his backboard and yawned, then asked for another violet drink. But the hakeem was absorbed in the problem of voting.

I happened that day to have business in the city in the evening also, but I entered by another gate, so that the sun was nigh setting when, on my homeward way, I saw my old friend the Yunâni hakeem, sitting with his pile of little medicine bottles and tiny earthenware goglets of pills and ointments beside him.

He was pounding away at something in a minute jade mortar, and looked no longer disturbed, but weary utterly.

"Have you settled that knotty point, hakeem sahib?" I asked.

He gave a sigh of relief, but pounded away faster than ever. "I give God thanks I have been led into the way of wisdom," he replied, "else would I be harried indeed! Never within the memory of man have so many Hindoo gentlemen of rank been sick, or have I had so many new patients as during this day. I am but now compounding the 'thirty-six-ingredient-drug' for one honourable house, and have but just finished the 'Four-great-things' for another. 'Tis anxiety about the elections, methinks, for they talk of nothing else. Hardly had your honour left this morning, than Gunpat Lâl sent to say he had a belly-ache which his idolatrous miracle-monger could not touch. I had it away in half an hour with cucumber and lemon-juice. Cold things to cold. And Lalajee full of compliments, and regrets that the Agâ-Sahib would not be elected." A faintly worried air crept over the high old face.

"Did he ask you to give him your vote?" I inquired, with a sinking at my heart.

"Yea," replied the Yunâni hakeem cheerfully, "and offered me five rupees for it."

Ye gods above! How soon political corruption seizes on the innocent! I thought.

"But others have offered more," continued the old man, with a certain self-satisfaction. Then his face clouded. "Yonder pasty-faced, knock-kneed student, who calls himself 'Heddi-terlile-jackdaw'" (Editor Loyal Objector), "told me it was his by right, since he and his like were Hindustan. But I told the lad he mistook—God had ordained otherwise—for look you, Huzoor, we Mussalmans came from the north many long years before the sahib-logue came from the west. So I let him talk, having by God's mercy come to a decision."

"What is that, hakeem-jee?" I asked, curious to know what had influenced the old man.

He salaamed quite simply. "The Huzoor bade me think who could best do the work, so I decided to vote for him. He is noble, and he knows what has to be done. He knows santation and hinspukshon-conservancy. [1] Also noo-senses and karl-ra-prekar-sons,[2] and," he added, with the most beautiful supplementary salaam of pure flattery, "all other noble arts and philosophies."

It quite gave me a pang to have to tell him that this scheme of his would not work—that I was ex officio president of the Municipal Committee, and thus beyond the reach of voters. His face was illumined by a vast relief even amidst his perplexities.

"That is as it should be," he said simply. "The Sirkar then, has not, as the people were saying, quite lost its head. The Huzoor, God willing, retains it still. But what am I to do?"

I left him looking the picture of woe, absolutely unheeding of two patient travellers, who had been awaiting my departure with that calm, stolid disregard of the passing hour which brings with it to the Western such a sense of personal grievance, whereas to the Eastern it only emphasises trust in Providence by proving the omnipotence of Fate.

Next morning, however, the whole aspect of affairs had been changed. Hakeem-jee was alert, spry, surrounded by quite a congregation of would-be patients, to whom he was giving out his dicta with quite a lordly air.

There was no need to ask him if he had settled his vexed question. That was apparent. I simply asked him what he had done about the paper.

"Huzoor," he said again, with that lucid candour which was so marked a feature of the man himself, "the Lord mercifully directed me. Therefore I ate it, and it hath done me much good."

"Ate it?" I echoed. "You don't mean to say——"

"Huzoor," he interrupted cheerfully, "this is how it was. After your honour left, it was the time of evening prayer. So I went, after my usual custom, to the house of God, to await the cry of the Muazzim and prepare myself for the presence of the Most High by the necessary ablutions. And as I sat squatted on the edge of the Pool of Purification, my hands in the cool water, I felt as if naught could cleanse me from that accursed paper that lay folded in my breast. So I cried in my heart to the Prophet that he should show me a way, and then in one moment I saw where the error lay. I was arrogating to myself decisions that should be left to the Almighty. So I did what I do ever when life and death are at issue, when even the mighty skill of medicine has to stand on one side and do nothing.

"I took my stylus and I wrote all over that paper the attributes of the Most High—His mercy. His truth. His wisdom. His great loving-kindness. And then, Huzoor, I crushed it into the form of a bolus, I covered it with silver foil, and swallowed it as a pill.

"It hath done me much good. I am now free from anxiety. The decision of all things rests with the Most Mighty."

  1. Sanitation, inspection conservancy.
  2. Nuisances, cholera precautions.

Copyright, 1910, by Flora Annie Steel the United States of America.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.