Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Indo-China, Part 2, April - May 1903

On April 1st Toulet left Hué by sampan during the night, most probably on the An Cựu tributary of the Perfumed River (Sông Hương ) so as to reach Cauailles (nowadays Cầu Hai) by early morning. Dawn found them in the middle of the Cầu Hai lagoon, from whose south bank they entered the meandering and pretty little river that brought them to the town. In Cầu Hai they hired the chairs that were to carry them over the Hải Vân Quan (Pass) – the Col de Nuages*. They spent the day ascending, the it was nightfall when they started the final ascent of the col. Then darkness, fireflies, and the coolies huddling close to one another. Toulet kept an ear out for the cry of a tiger. (“Quelquefois Hubert est arraché de son sommeil par un cri. Il se réveille en sursaut, les yeux grand ouverts. De toute son âme il interroge la nuit : il écoute l’ombre. Et il n’entend que le noir silence, implacable.” - from the episode in Béhanzigue titled “le cri dans la nuit”).

Nothing was heard that night, but the following evening one took a pig not far from the lighthouse that illuminated the outskirts of Tourane. This experience was to inspire not only Béhanzigue, but also Contrerime XLIII:

Ainsi, ce chemin de nuage,
Vous ne le prendrez point,
D'où j'ai vu me sourire au loin
Votre brillant mirage ?

Le soir d'or sur les étangs bleus
D'une étrange savane,
Où pleut la fleur de frangipane,
N'éblouira vos yeux ;

Ni les feux de la luciole
Dans cette épaisse nuit
Que tout à coup perce l'ennui
D'un tigre qui miaule.

*From Hué to Tourane (modern Da Nang) by the Col de Nuages – this is the Hải Vân Pass, which crosses over a spur of the Trường Sơn (Annamite) Range that runs from east to east west and juts into the South China Sea, forming the Hải Vân Peninsula. The pass, which once formed the boundary between the kingdoms of Đại Việt and Champa, also forms a boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam, sheltering the city of Da Nang from the "Chinese winds" that blow in from the northwest. During the winter months of November–March weather on the north side of the pass may be wet and cold, while the south side may be warm and dry.

Tourane was the last link with China. They left on April 5th on la Tamise for Saïgon, where they arrived on the 8th. On Friday 10th they boarded the Sydney at 11.00 p.m. and celebrated Easter on board on Sunday 12th April.

The experience Toulet described later, in February 1905, on a postcard of Hué: "We set sail for the island of Taprobane. The mountainous coasts of Cathay sank slowly behind the horizon. It was only the beginning of summer in Annam; the long-stemmed lotus had not yet begun to blossom on the sacred waters which reflect the tombs of the Emperors. But, on the ponds at Candy, we saw them smile; some were white as the lingerie that, in her eagerness to love, my friend strews about her room in the twilight. There were also some as rosy as her finger tips.”

But first there was a stopover in Singapore. On April 13th Toulet wrote that he had been employed by a wealthy Parsee family to teach French and translate contemporary French authors into their tongue, which may have been Gujerati – can Toulet really have known this? In his next Journal entry, dated Colombo, April 20th, he laments his ignorance of foreign languages!

Curnonsky records an instance of Toulet’s wicked wit in a memoire written fifty years after. “ As we were returning to France, as we had anchored in Ceylon and stretched out on deckchairs trying to digest this incendiary Indian cuisine based on curry which is a promise of scurvy, a colossal foreigner who spoke Pidgin (that's to say the gibberish of the Oceanian islands), tapped on the shoulder of Toulet and asked him the way to the lavatory. Toulet. who lived in Mauritius and knew all these cosmopolitan jargons, replied: - You follow the corridor on the right. You arrive in front of a door where you can read this legend: ‘Gentlemen’. But you may enter anyway.”

They arrived in Colombo on April 18th, where they stayed at the Galle Face Hotel, which Toulet described as a typical vast, dark, expensive English hotel. He continues his diatribe on April 22nd, repeating his first decription and adding that the bathrooms lack water, the cellars wine, the sea breeze replaced by mosquitoes, and good breeding by bad cooking. An escape by train to Kandy on the 21st April brought some relief, fresh air, a lake, temples, silence. Kandy is some seventy-five miles from Colombo by rail at an altitude of five hundred metres or sixteen hundred feet above the sea. The high altitude makes the climate congenial. The Queen's Hotel, said Toulet, is so comfortable that it might have for its sign "coolness". Half in banter, he wrote: "I have marked with a cross the alcove of the room you occupied, henceforth illustrious. But what one cannot see, what only the mastery of your pen can render, is the lake in front, shimmering between the drooping, trees and the balustrades; and the shade where Cakya-Mouni meditated; and the flowery walk perfumed with red jasmin, where a black serpent is erect and whistling, until a handsome bonze, dressed in yellow like a beetle, tenderly puts it to one side with his naked foot."

Kandy, Toulet remarked, is like England of fifty years previously, large simple houses with verandas, nothing Victorian about ther style. The people he met at the hotel were old-fashioned gentlemen, completely unlike (Joseph) Chamberlain, which made him reflect on the distance that separated Dickens and Thackeray from Kipling and Rider Haggard!

The stay in Kandy was brief. They were back in Colombo on April 22nd, to embark on the Dupleix for Calcutta. The pair arrived in Pondichery, on the east coast of India, on April 25th – a Pondichery miserable, degraded, teeming, redeemed only by a porcelain blue sky at sunset. 

After Pondicherry, the two travellers made a quick excursion through India by the Coromandel coast to Calcutta, then Benares (Vārānasi), Agra and Delhi by Ahmadabad to Bombay.

They arrived in Calcutta on April 28th. The heat was oppressive – 58oC. Despite that they visited th Botanic Gardens and admired the snakes and the tigers. On the 29th they arrived in Benares at 11.00 p.m. The Indian landscape, what they saw of it at Benares, was "a sky the colour of tin, a kind of metallic dust which eats up the colour of everything, which settles far and wide on a confusion of temples and mosques with rickety steps and domes in ruin, and amongst all that, thousands of emaciated Hindoos bathing or praying. . . two or three dead bodies nearly burned away over a slow fire at the foot of some marble steps." 

Benares smelled of death. There were monkeys in the white marble temples, cows in the golden temples, and all around the white and gold domes in the shape of closed umbrellas.
The heat was so intense that Toulet was prostrated with sunstroke, and when he came too found that he was “deaf as a Pole.” Sailland went so far as to stick his fingers in his ears, to no avail. With Toulet unable to hear, and Sailland unable to speak English, the pair paid over their money to be conducted to the French consulate. Instead of this, their guides brought them to the Ganges and had them strip off and bathe in the sacred but unhealthy water!

On Saturday, May 2nd, the pair visited the Taj Mahal, both during the day and by moonlight. On Sunday they journeyed from Agra to Delhi, where next day they visited the Red Fort and Great Mosque (the Dewan-e-khas and Jama Musjid) before taking the evening train for Bombay.

Nearing Ahmadabad, Toulet, on the advice of Sailland, ordered lunch by telegram. "We were gloriously received," he says, "by people who were waving fans made of feathers. And the eggs were fresh but a little dear, so that we hardly had any money left and we had to live after that on a pot of jam which came from Hué and a bottle of cognac which we had bought at Hanoï. That lasted two days and we were sizzling in a train so hot that even the black leather of the seats and the pig-skin of our valises were crying out for rain; but Curnonsky simply because he was hungry. Whilst I was stirring up his memory by talking to him about marrow patties and Rhône wine, India, with its dry mud and crumbling temples, was flying past the windows. Finally, unable to contain himself any longer, he brought his fist down on the hinged table and cried: 'For G..'s sake ! I'm in the habit of eating beefsteak, I am.' "

On Thursday May 7th they finally arrived in Bombay after a train journey of 58 hours. On Sunday they embarked on the Tonkin of the Messageries Maritimes. Some difficulties with their baggage were followed by a visit to the doctor because of concerns about the plague, but at last the intrepid voyagers were on their way home.

Lettres à Madame Bulteau, p. 1209, En vue de Marseille, 25th May 1903.
“When we embarked at Bombay, Sailland and I, we had between us 5fr. 50. Since I had broken a window in the hotel, I was extremely anxious that it would be added to the bill, as perhaps window glass is very expensive in Bombay… As for Kurne, he is well. The idea that he will have to return to work is making him melancholy, which he calls “missing Indochina”. I believe that he especially misses the 18 hours a day that he slept at Hanoï. India was less kind, he had to get up, take trains, pack his baggage, everything to be done in a temperature that a lobster, even after cooking, would have thought excessive.”

What Toulet failed to relate to Madame Bulteau was a further reason for Kurne missing Indochina, a tale that emerged in the Commentaires du Night Cap:

« Vous pouvez même dire, Whynot, que, moyennant le versement d'une dot fabuleuse de cinq cents piastres, vous fûtes pendant cinq lunes l'heureux seigneur et locataire, de Mme Ti Nam, qui passait, non sans raison pour la plus jolie congaï d'Haïphong. »

No comments:

Post a Comment