I've gotten addicted to, of all people, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Because of growing up on an unfortunate diet of T. S. Eliot, I always had her pictured as an overweight hard-nosed ersatz spiritualist money-hunting witch, but I came down with one of her books, and now I am quite in love with her.She is informed, funny, sly, and knows practically everything there is to know about the obscure caves, temples, towns, dens, and rivers, religions and peoples of India. She also had a profound loathing for the English and their supercilious attitude towards the Hindus. (The feeling was mutual --- she was followed by the English Secret Service during her whole tour of India.)Caves and Jungles of Hindostan is a description of a three-month trip that she and some of her friends took in 1885 or thereabouts. This, for example, on Indian birds:
The first thing that struck us in Bombay was the millions of crows and vultures. The first are the garbage collectors of the city, and to kill them is not only forbidden by the police, but would in fact be very dangerous, as it would arouse the vengeance of the Hindus, who are always ready to offer their own lives in exchange for a crow's. The souls of their sinful forefathers transmigrate into crows: to kill the bird is to interfere with the law of retribution, and to doom the soul to something still worse...
The terrible cawing of the crows, which does not cease even at night, strikes the newcomer as uncanny, but it can be very simply explained after awhile. Every tree of the numerous coconut forests surrounding Bombay is leased from the government; a hollow pumpkin is tied to it, the sap of the tree runs into the pumpkin and, after fermenting, becomes a strong intoxicating beverage, known here as 'toddy'.
Completely naked toddy-walas (usually Portuguese), modestly adorned in a coral necklace, fetch this beverage twice a day, climbing the hundred and fifty feet high trunks like squirrels. The crows build their nests in these trees and incessantly drink out of the open pumpkins. The result is the chronic intoxication of these noisy birds.
Immediately when we went into the garden of our future abode, flocks of crowns flew down from every tree, cawing noisily. The birds surrounded us, jumping on one leg. There seemed to be something positively human in the position of the slyly bent heads of the drunken birds, and a fiendish expression shone in their cunning eyes, as they examined us from head to foot...
Blavatsky, as is true of so many of the travellers of her time, is indefatigable --- up before dawn, going dozens of miles in a day on horse, boats, elephant, ox-cart and trains. She penetrates everywhere, up the most rugged mountains, down in the darkest caves, across the most violent rivers, sliding --- occasionally --- on the worn thousand steps, graved in the cliff-side, to some obscure temple. She is the ideal travel writer, knowing immense amounts of history, quoting from every known guide of the day, plus those of the previous 2,000 centuries. She is also the opposite of the fading violet:
The mountain cell was entirely empty except for black spiders as big as crabs. Our appearance, and especially the light which probably blinded them, produced a regular panic among them; they scrambled in hundreds over the walls, hung in mid-air, then fell on our heads. Miss B's [one of her travelling companions] first impulse was to kill them, but this time the four Hindus strongly and unanimously protested against such an intention. The English lady was peeved and irked at this:
"I thought you were a reformer," she sneeringly remarked, addressing Mulji [another companion], "but you are as superstitious as any idol-worshipper."
"Above all else I am a Hundu," replied Mulji. "The Hindus consider it sinful before nature and before their own conscience to deprive of life any creatures instinctively running away from the strength of man, be it even a dangerous animal, let alone such a harmless one as is the spider."
"You are probably afraid of having to transmigrate into a black spider!" she retorted angrily.
"Hardly, but in case of necessity I would rather transmigrate into a black spider than into an Englishman," sharply retorted Mulji.
§ § §
Blavatsky is not only a great traveller, an immaculate historian, but as well almost a poet:
The moon in India looks like a large pearl surrounded with diamonds, rolling on the blue velvet of the heavenly vault. It is possible to read a letter written in small handwriting in her light and to perceive the various shadings of green on the surrounding vegetation --- a thing unheard of in Europe. Cast a glance at the trees during full moon, at the stately palms with their fronds spreading outward like a fan! From the moment the moon has risen, her rays begin to glide over every tree, like a shimmering silvery scale, descending from its crest, lower and lower, until the whole tree is bathed in a sea of light.
Without metaphor, the surface of the leaves appears all night long to bathe in swirling, trembling waves of liquid silver, whereas underneath they look darker and softer than black velvet. But woe to the careless novice, woe to the mortal who gazes at the moon with his head uncovered. It is not only dangerous to sleep in moonlight, but even to gaze too long at the chaste Indian Diana. Epilepsy, madness and often death are the punishment wrought by her dangerous arrows...