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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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The Wealth of the Indies

By Raymond La Cour, '36

The Magpie, May 1935, p. 39.

The suave clerk pushed the register across the mahogany desk, and waited for me to affix signature to the list of scribbled names that already decorated the page. I was surprised to find the hotel routine as brisk and effective in Bombay as it was in New York. The quietness of a modernly furnished room was quite a contrast to the hullabaloo that had marked the ship's docking. The purplish foothills, visible through the curtained window, were a fitting background for the ancient seaport.

Disappointment overwhelmed me as I gazed out of my window onto the street scene below. European styled houses lined both sides of the thorough-fare. Rattling trolley cars and honking automobile horns sounded exactly like those of Times Square. Half the people promenading along the avenue were tourists. The others were natives in Occidental dress except for the customary purgaree or turban. It irked me to think that I had traveled half-way round the world to visit mysterious India, and as yet I had not as much as glimpsed anything that was even questionable.

I turned on the radio only to hear the strains of modern jazz flowing out of the loud speaker. Disgruntled and raving madly to myself, I rushed out of the room without even bothering to turn off the damnable machine or see to it that the door was locked. The native doorman acted as if a sacrilege had been committed when I refused to step into the waiting touring car that he had automatically called for me.

My first adventure in this strange city came in the way of a street brawl. Men fought and yelled as women, caught in the turmoil, screamed for assistance. Mounted police, armed with long bamboo quirts, rode into the thick of the melee, and lashed the cursing rioters into submission. The fighting seemed to be centered about, what had been a short time before, a thriving fruit stand. A bruised and discontented cow was also in the spotlight, but two natives were trying to lead her to a safer place by tugging at her horns.

Law and order were quickly restored by the native police who treated it like a common occurrence. The Moslem store-keeper, whose once immaculate and compact stand was now spread from one end of the square to the other, was being questioned by an English official.. Although I had no knowledge of Hindustan, the victim's gestures were enough to convey to me that he was speaking, none too affectionately, of the gentlemen who had caused his late and lamented business to come to such an abrupt end.

Curiosity got the better of me and I edged my way through the swiftly growing crowd to the side of a man I recognized as a fellow passenger. He was as much at a loss as to the cause of the trouble as I was myself. A Hindu army officer standing near-by overheard our conversation, and turning, volunteered to explain.

It seemed that one of the sacred cows that roam the bazaars of India had satisfied her hunger by devouring a large amount of the merchant's choice fruit. Being a Moslem, he regarded the cow as nothing sacred, and was soon massaging the animal's hide with a fairly thick piece of lumber. His Hindu competitors protested strongly against such conduct, and followed the old proverb that "actions are stronger than words." The storekeeper, however, was not the only Moslem in the vicinity, and a well rounded and noisy riot was soon in progress. This was my first experience with the religious fanaticism of the East, but I was to witness a much stranger and more awe inspiring spectacle several hours later.

The dying down of the excitement diverted my attention to the scorching rays of the sun. The tourist and I returned to the hotel, and chatted between cool and refreshing drinks. We finally decided to spend the evening on a sight-seeing tour. Following a light dinner, we set out in a rented car to explore the city. A road map, showing the places of interest, was our only guide.

We left the modern city of Bombay and entered the outskirts where native costumes were the accepted style. The majority of the houses were one story affairs made of clay. Even these soon vanished leaving nothing but large rolling fields that were spotted with clumps of trees. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a strange looking structure appeared before us. It was a great, circular wall, somewhat similar to a gigantic well. Atop it, vultures seemed to screech a warning to us as we approached the "TOWER OF SILENCE." The Parsees, worshippers of Ormazd, the spirit of good, made the tower the final resting place of members of their creed. The history of these people is stranger and more interesting than fiction.

Driven from Paris by invading Arabs, the Parsees had landed at Sariar, some distance north of the present city of Bombay, and settled among the Hindus. The marauding Mohammedans destroyed Sarjar some years later, and the Parsees were forced to take refuge in the Bharhat Hills. It was there that they kept their sacred fires alive, and preserved their ancient ceremonial rites during the following years. The Zoroastrians began to spread out in the sixteenth century with the greatest number of them gathering at Bombay. It was on the outskirts of this city that they built the "Tower of Silence." As I gazed upon the scene in the fading twilight, the sun sank down behind the tower and transformed the vultures into shapeless silhouettes who resembled the black cloaks of death. These birds of prey make this strange place their rendezvous, and take the place of the funeral pyre or burial. They devour the carrion, and thus keep the fire and earth free of impurities. Zoroaster, founder of the Persian religion, taught his followers to preserve the elements. The tower is a symbol of adherence to his preachings.

I was not reluctant when the suggestion of returning to our hotel was offered. The sight of the terrible birds, and thoughts of the scenes that must have existed inside those sombre walls were enough to alter any intention I might have entertained of lingering in the shadow of the ghostly place. The return trip was by no means a joyful one. We were both under the spell of the sight we had just viewed. The use of funny stories to make us forget it were acknowledged with forced laughter containing a noticeable artificiality. Those few moments we had stood observing the terrifying scene were enough to imbed in our minds an indelible picture.

Like every good and law-abiding tourist that visits India, I set out the next day for the city of Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. The world famous mausoleum was even more beautiful than what so many books describe it to be, for no author could ever paint a true word-picture of the architectural masterpiece. The magnificent splendor of the place was enough to enchant those who saw it.

The trip back to Bombay was one that I did not relish, for the boat was due to sail a few hours after the train's arrival. I was unwilling to leave India without being able to see a few more marvels, but ship schedules are not altered to suit the whims of a travel-crazy tourist. I must have been a perfect specimen of mournfulness as I leaned against the railing at the stern of the ship, and gazed at the city of Bombay that was slowly being hidden from view by the heavy grey fog that hung over the ever-widening gap of black water. Bombay—why even the name sounded like the beat of a native tom-tom. India was after all, the land of mystery and romance, of beauty and horror,— the land I was leaving, perhaps never to return to again.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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