I can think of no better tribute to this book than to recount one of its anecdotes in full, partly because it gives you the ‘voice’ of the man, partly because of the directness and simplicity of the language, the effortless way one image follows another, and partly because it reminds me of the stories my dad and uncles told when we were very small children. The final section of the anecdote comes with a hint of reproval accompanied perhaps by an ironic wink that belies it, and again you have the certainty of Victorian values with their lack of cultural relativism that pervades our culture today:
‘A few miles away from Karachi there is a very curious place called ‘Muggur Pir.’ It is a small pond of water surrounded with palm trees and jungle. A very pretty place . . . but you will at once exclaim, what are these curious looking animals I see in the water and on the banks?
‘Well, these are alligators, who inhabit this pool. They are held sacred by a certain class of natives and called Muggurs. Certain priests, as they call them reside close by who feed these animals with the offerings brought by devotees seeking help from some affliction. Goats, brought there alive, are the customary offerings. These are killed on the margin of the pool by the priest, who cuts the body of the victim up into small pieces. When this is done, at the top of his voice he calls out ‘Ow! Ow!’ which means ‘Come! Come!’ From the pool there issue the Muggurs, who approach the priest ranging themselves in a line at the water edge – with their enormous mouths wide open.
' The priest goes along the line, throwing into the open jaws of each as he passes a portion of the goat. The portion is immediately crushed between their very powerful jaws, and away each one scuttles back into the pool again to enjoy is repast.
‘I have seen the complete head of a goat, horns and all, thrown into the mouth of one of these Muggurs. One crunch and the whole head, horns and all are smashed. The old patriarch of these inhabitants of the pool is kept in an enclosed den separate from the rest. He is called the ‘King of the Muggurs’ and is fed separately as becomes his rank. He is kept painted red, he is of larger size than the rest and considered specially holy. What a fearful depth of superstition and ignorance!
‘Visitors to the place out of curiosity are particularly requested in no way to interfere with the animals. One day two larky young officers went there, armed with 2 soda bottles, full, but tied together with about 2 yards of cord.
‘When the priest began feeding at one end of the line of muggers, these two young men commenced at the other by each throwing a bottle into the open mouths of two adjacent animals. Crash went the bottle with an explosion, and into the pool went the muggurs each clutching its prize – great was the commotion underwater, each Muggur trying to swallow its portion but prevented by its neighbour at the other end of the cord, greatly to the amusement of the authors of this miserable trick. The priests complained to the authorities and a severe reprimand followed, I believe accompanied by a fine. I think your verdict would be that it served them right.
I’ll not be blogging for a fortnight as I’m taking a fortnight’s holiday into the C16th and the final book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy – a worthy but not the preferred alternative to the American holiday we had planned. Preparing a blog – even a weekly one – takes some time and I’m a slow reader. Sunglasses on and goodbye for now.