2015-01-01 · in Books · 385 words

I couldn't decide whether I preferred this quotation:

When all were seated each monk plunged his hand into the bosom of his capacious frock and pulled out a small wooden bowl, into which a young attendant poured tea from a wooden pot neatly laced with a woven covering of cane. Holding the bowls poised on their finger tips they waved them slowly round over their heads while they chanted a long, solemn litany in Tibetan, after which they drank their tea, and with many bows to the altar departed one by one. I also had a cup of tea. It was brick tea, made of broken tea-leaves, stalks and refuse cemented into a cake with bullock's blood. It is made into a thick, soupy liquid, with hot water, salt and rancid butter and, strange to say, is not nasty.

Or this one:

Each step in the manufacture and sale of salt is surrounded with the most minute precautions on the part of Government, and there is a distinct and separate kind of fraud practised at each stage. As each fresh precaution is evolved by the Board of Revenue, the Board of Smugglers invents a means of circumventing it.

John Beames was a civil servant in India in the second half of the nineteenth century. These are his unfinished memoirs, written between 1985 and 1900, and finally published in 1961. He notes that much of the content was based upon or quoted from letters he'd written to a friend; I imagine a collection of the letters alone would make for equally interesting reading.

Beames wrote his memoirs for his family to read rather than for publication, although he was also a successful author in the fields of Indian languages, literature and history. It's a pity that there was no opportunity for this book to be edited for a wider audience during Beames' lifetime; he frequently omits descriptions of places that would have been familiar to his expected readers, and the work is prefaced by a lengthy history of the Beames family. Nonetheless, there's a great deal of interesting and insightful writing here.

(I first heard this book mentioned in the fourth episode of John Kenneth Galbraith's splendidly bizarre TV series The Age of Uncertainty — which includes a dramatisation of Beames' early-morning arrival in Gujrat!)