Biscoe’s Kashmir 1935

Missionary educationist, Cecil Earle Tyndale Biscoe (1863–1949) was a key player in pushing Kashmir to modern education and a better understanding of the world around them. This first-hand narrative by a Canadian writer, Gordon Sinclair, offers an idea of the situation in which the British padre fought ignorance, and backwardness by using his school as the main change-maker in a society devastated by deceit, dogmas and discrimination. Between the lines, it tells the story about who mattered in the 1930s’ of Kashmir and why

A pre-partition photograph showing the adult education class in progress, possibly in the old Biscoe School.
A pre-partition photograph showing the adult education class in progress, possibly in the old Biscoe School.

Now comes the story of a little man with a big job and a bigger heart; a Kashmir crusader who is the most hated yet most respected schoolmaster in the East.

He is the first man in all India who taught those holiest of Hindu holy men, the Brahmans, to play games. First in Kashmir to teach a native to swim, admit he lied or help a woman; first in Kashmir to arrange a wedding with a window as bride. First missionary, who made no effort and still makes no effort to convert people to Christianity, yet enjoys the full backing of the Church of England.

A Missionary

He is CE Tyndale Biscoe, and to meet him, let’s first go back to a cold spring day 44 years ago. The mountain passes had just been opened, and stumbling through Himalayan snows on a horse came this blue-eyed Britisher to take over a mission school in Srinagar, then and now one of the most filthy yet fascinating cities on earth.

To this day few Kashmiris either bathe or wash their clothes in winter. Too cold, they say, and, besides, bathing is an unhealthy nuisance, which drains oil from the skin and causes deafness, no less.

CE Tyndale Biscoe

Biscoe, reaching his school beside the spending Jhelum, was faced by 300 dirty-faced boys in filthy smocks. They lounged about with drooping shoulders and open mouths, and when asked any question gawked sleepily. This indolence was to some extent an affectation to show they were Brahmans whose life was one of ease. Each boy seemed to have a puffy stomach, swollen out of all proportion.

“What’s wrong with these boys? ” Biscoe demanded.
“Their stomachs . . . what’s all this?”
“Fire pots,” he was told.
“Fire pots?”
“Yes; to keep the boys warm. They sleep with the firepots and carry them about during the day.”
“Fire pots, fiddlesticks! What these boys need is exercise, and luckily I’ve brought something along.” He went to his pack and brought out a piece of leather.
“This,” he said, “is a football. It is used for playing games, and you boys are going to kick it about this afternoon.”
“Do we get paid for kicking it?” the Mohammedans asked.
“Certainly not-you kick it for fun.”
“Oh no, we must get paid to kick such a thing.”
A Leather Ball
As for the Hindus, they fell back in terror. It was leather; the ball was made from the skin of a beast. That beast might have been a close relative. It was certainly an ancestor. It might even have been a cow. They were horrified.
A 1913 photograph of Tyndale-Biscoe boys school, Srinagar by Ralph Stewart

A master stepped forward. “Sir, these boys are Brahmans; no Brahman may exercise. It is coolie work. It will degrade them. And with a leather ball! This is preposterous, impossible.”

 “I am the new master here, and these boys need exercise. We lay this afternoon. I expect trouble, so each of you teachers arm yourselves with sticks and help me overcome it.”

“That afternoon at three, school gates were opened and the boys pushed out like sheep to the butcher’s,” the master told me in recalling the incident. “Such a filthy and smelly crowd you never saw. They all wore long night-gowns over these pots, with clogs on their feet. As we let them loose, they ran shrieking for their parents; these, armed with broom-handles and bamboos, came hurrying to the rescue, but we drove enough boys through the mob to get two sides.

“The boys, as I’d expected, refused to play. They cried and blubbered and kicked. Some lay down moaning, so I took out my watch and said, ‘Now, you fellows; five minutes.You start kicking this ball in five minutes or I start kicking you.’

“They refused. They spat and whined. I held my watch and when the five minutes was nearly up I called off the seconds. Still they refused to kick, so I and the masters went after those boys with sticks. We made them kick and they did kick, quite furiously, while angry crowds on the side-lines jeered, hooted and cursed, but took no actual action.

“Soon one boy was smacked in the face by the flying ball. He fell to the ground in horror. Leather had touched him, touched his face-his very lips! His face was defiled. If he touched it with his hand his hand was defiled. So, as he could not do as he would and would not do what he could, he did the next best thing, which was to lie on the ground and call on his assorted gods to save him.

A 1913 photograph of Mission School Fateh Kadal students and teachers

“The crowd, meantime, grew more menacing. They leaped into the playing fields and my masters deserted me. Luckily the idea of sacred waters entered my head. The Hindu considers many rivers sacred and holy; among them the Jhelum. ‘Take the boy down to the canal and wash him there lies his salvation,’ 1 commanded. This worked. Irate Hindus ceased threatening me and took the boy away to be bathed. The other players streaked for safety, but I brought them back and made them finish that game out.”

 “And did that end the opposition to football?” I queried.
“Gracious, no! It took me twenty years of alternate threat and persuasion eventually to kill that opposition, but kill it we did, and today not only our school, but every school in Kashmir, has passable football teams.”

Making Them Swim
Most of the Biscoe boys also swim today, and that’s another story of dogged persistence. At the time Biscoe came to Kashmir, the state had one of the most amazing laws on record. Srinagar, like Venice or Bangkok, is split by canals. Few people in the city swam but the law said that if any man, woman or child fell into the water, everyone should try to rescue him. This was a sane enough edict, but if the unlucky faller-in drowned, as hundreds did every year, any person who saw the drowning was promptly clapped into jail for six months. The result was that if anyone spilled into the canals, everyone within sight or hearing ran pell-mell for liberty and the victim lost his life in solitude.
After two of his own boys drowned, the fighting padre petitioned everyone from maharaja to magistrate to abolish this law. They refused. Determined, however, that his own boys should swim, Biscoe gave them a year to learn, then doubled the fees on those who had failed. Half his pupils quit at once. That made no difference. The fees stayed double. To this day, any Biscoe boy who reaches the age of thirteen without being able to swim must quit the school or pay double. At fourteen he pays four times the normal rates, at fifteen eight times, and if he still refuses to swim he is expelled. Just now there are several lads who would rather pay four times the usual fee than learn to swim, but none paying the eight times penalty.
In one classroom is a list of those pupils who have swum Wular Lake, eight miles of cold and rough Kashmiri water. So changed has the spirit of the Biscoe school been that everyboy strives to get his name there.
The school’s worst tragedy struck them when in April 1934, five masters were out with two pupils who were attempting this grind. A sudden squall howled through the mountain passes, screamed across the lake, upset boats and killed the entire seven. One of the victims was the school captain and his body was recovered first and brought 30 miles by shikaree to the city. There, enraged relatives metit, hoisted the body on their shoulders and started marching it through the streets shouting that this was how Biscoe murdered his men. As it turned out, the leader of the exclusive Brahman community heard of this, rushed toward the parade in a tonga and stopped it, as only a Brahman can stop things in Kashmir. As Biscoe had been soundly hated by the Brahman community ever since that first afternoon when he made their sons do physical exercise with a leather ball, and later when he had the audacity to arrange a wedding with a Hindu widow as bride, this friendly move came as a surprise.
The Francis Aberigh Mackay Memorial School considered the first school for women that operated from Fateh Kadal

The city, however, rose in fury and demanded that the teaching of swimming be stopped there and then. Biscoe refused and the Brahmans had a big palaver in which to his further relief and surprise they said he was quite right, that the seven deaths were accidents, and that swimming should be carried on. It took ten days of active search to find the last body, and they were all cremated in a large funeral fire, while sorrowing relatives cursed. Undaunted a dozen boys swam the lake in 1935 and 20 have announced their intentions for ’36. Not only that, but the maharaja has finally abolished the prison term for witnesses of drowning.

Girl Education

Most of Biscoe’s clashes with the priesthood have cropped up because of women, and since he was continually landing in hot water over females, he decided to add a girls’ school, first of its kind in Kashmir where 95 per cent of the women are kept veiled and under guard to this day. He made it a rule that girl wives could not enrol. Girls of six to twelve were early applicants for knowledge; but of the first batch nearly all were married, and he shipped them off to their husbands again, whereupon people jeered. Did the man expect twelve-year-olds who were virgins? The idea was preposterous!

Nevertheless, the crusading padre persisted and now has 300 young maidens absorbing the classics and domestic arts. The only concession he had to make was in the matter of dress. When a Kashmiri girl marries, she puts on a white veil and enormous earrings and wears them from that time forward. These in time pull the ear out of shape, but are not removed until her body is dipped in the sacred waters before cremation. For girls over ten these matronly earrings are advertisements of respectability.

Gordon Sinclair in his Toronto Star office

Biscoe girls, of course, had no earrings because they had no husbands. Gradually they ripened into their teens, still without earrings. People on the streets stared and jeered. This is what education did for girls! They could get no husbands! Girls without husbands were obviously loose of morals and good men avoided them. Sensible men would, of course, have no truck with educated women. The girls faced public ridicule at every turn. They were despised old maids at fifteen. So the order went out that Kashmiri dress, which is picturesque and warm, should not be used at all. The co-eds were not put in uniform, but were asked to wear the costumes of Rajputana, which are flowing silken garments of rich beauty but without the primitive savagery of the Kashmiri.

One of the tasks I had faced with great trouble was trying to photograph Kashmiri girls. It was not only difficult, but dangerous. One infuriated father walloped me with a clay pot out in the Shalimar Gardens, and several men came after me with sticks as I tried to get snapshots of wives or daughters.

With one exception, the only pictures I could get were of coolies or harlots, the harlots being frequently brought to my room by ingratiating pimps who knew I was anxious to make pictures. I preferred the coolies.

I figured, however, that the Biscoe girls’ school would have beautiful talented girls. Here I could make pictures of the true Kashmiri beauties because they’d be enlightened enough to help me. I was wrong; not wrong about the beauty because there was much of it, but wrong about the pictures. Not one girl in that school would dare face the evil eye of a camera.

Remarrying Widows

But it was the widow wedding that almost wrecked the Biscoe School. India, as you know, considers it a hideous sin on a woman’s part if her husband dies. Regardless of the fact that girls of ten marry men of forty every hour of every day of every week, and regardless of the fact that nature kills off forty-year-old husbands before ten-year-old brides, it’s still a sin and the woman must forever afterward go about and weep her sorrow. She dare not remarry; she must never dress up, go to a party or take a trip. She is a sinner and an outcaste, the servant of temple priests or of her own servants if she has any.

Biscoe took the first step toward ending the curse of widowhood, and here is the official church report of that adventure into matrimony:

After much preliminary spade work, two men and two widows had been found willing to face the music and go contrary to orthodoxy. So, on the day before Ascension Day, 300 Brahman guests marched to fetch the bridegrooms, and brought them to the house of the two waiting brides at 6.30 am. But when the ceremony should have begun it was discovered that the padres had bolted! However, one of our Sanskrit teachers is a priest, so he performed the ceremony, for which heinous sin he is the target for the poisonous darts of the enraged priesthood.

They called the faithful to attend a monster meeting on Sunday at the principal temple, in order to let off wordy fireworks and excommunicate the Mission School staff. Some friends came with me to see the great show; but the meeting did not take place, for one of our old boys, who is in a high position in the state, asked an official to intervene, so he wrote to the head priest of the temple telling him that he must pay down in hard cash Rs 20,000  ($8,000) before the meeting could take place, which he would forfeit should there be a disturbance.

A 1950 photograph showing an open-air classroom in the harvested rice-fields to help students stay warm.

The orthodox waited until two Sundays later, and then called a meeting at the same temple. But when the faithful arrived they found a policeman at the door, who told them that anyone who attempted to enter the temple precincts would be taken to the lockup and kept there. The shackles of this disgraceful custom had been cracked if not broken.

After the padre had read me this 1928 report, I asked if other widows had found husbands since that day. “About 40,” he explained. “The marriage of 40 widows in six years out of a population of 175,000 is certainly not many, but when you consider the hideous hold the priests have over their people and the bitter hatred with which they view widow remarriage, you will realize that we have made progress.”

Biscoe and his team of teacher out on a picnic.

“And what is your deepest satisfaction concerning your work here?”

“That we have taught our boys-even the highest of all Brahmans-the fact that manual labour is not degrading. Every boy in this school must work with his hands in the building, and assist with manual work outside. It is a rule here that once a month every boy, low caste or high, performs on the public streets the work of sweepers. Invariably he is hooted and laughed at, but he either goes on with it or leaves this school . . . and nobody has recently left.

“I also think that our boys helped end the traffic in women. Kashmir has always had beautiful women; fair-skinned and dreamy-eyed. They are soft, feminine women, much in demand outside the state as ladies of the evening and nautch girls. The export of women was one of the principal industries here.

Gordon Sinclair: An Introduction
Gordon Sinclair

Legendary Canadian journalist and commentator, Allan Gordon Sinclair (June 3, 1900 – May 17, 1984) was a high school drop-out who was sacked twice by different companies before being hired by Toronto Star in 1922. He worked for seven years and then got his first by-line. He had the honour of being one of the rare authors whose 1932 book Foot-loose in India, a travelogue, was completely sold on the first day of its publication.  Now a celebrated author when he announced his next trip to South East Asia, a crowd of 6500 people came to see him off. This trip was key to his books Cannibal Quest and Loose Among The Devils. This followed his sacking by The Star for his failure for missing a story. This was despite the fact that he had travelled 340000 miles to report from 73 countries. Post sacking, he started working on his book Khyber Caravan for which he visited Kashmir in summer of 1935. The anecdotes of his book were so controversial in Canada and America that The Star sent another reporter to crosscheck the facts.    Soon, Sinclair returned to Star and was sacked again. By 1938, he left sports reportage for general reporting. Before his death in 1984, he had done a lot in radio and TV medium. By 1949, he was back to The Star, this time as a columnist. Sinclair’s 1966 autobiography, Will the Real Gordon Sinclair Please Stand Up was followed by a sequel in 1975, Will Gordon Sinclair Please Sit Down. “As a reporter, who never was, never can and never wants to be either editor or publisher he’s probably Canada’s richest but he seldom lends or gives money to anybody,” an obituary on him mentions. “In many ways he’s a man without sympathy, feeling, or religious belief, but he’s a good reporter.”

 

Majority Demands

 

“Four years ago this state was an autocratic dominion, ruled by the maharaja and by him done. He was an absolute monarch and nobody voted for anything or anybody. This might have gone on indefinitely were he not a Hindu and 80 per cent of his people Mohammedans. Twenty per cent of the people had 100 per cent of state jobs.

“The Mohammedans, at last, became vocal and demanded rights; when they did not get them rebellion broke loose.

“The result was that the raja changed the constitution, and granted a parliament to which six of my boys were elected. The first act brought forth in that first Kashmir parliament was to abolish the traffic in women-what we call the White Slave trade. One of my boys sponsored the law and it passed.

“The following year penalties were stiffened to include the cat-o’-nine-tails for procurers who had formerly made annual buying tours through these mountains.”

“Has this stopped the traffic?”
“Definitely not, but it has cut it by 75 per cent and eventually we will stamp it out.”
The Biscoe School, in spite of having defied practically all the deep-rooted Hindu traditions, has grown steadily. Today it has 1400 boys who go in for most of the sports and crafts practised by boys all over the world. It took twenty years of steady coaxing to get up a band, because Hindu lips dare not touch alien things, least of all things that have been touched by others. The boys, after twenty years, agreed to put lips to a wooden flute, but it took another five to make them put lips to a brass bugle. Fifteen years of coaxing were necessary to persuade boys to row, because rowing, in a canal town like Srinagar, is the very lowest of all coolie tasks. Today almost every Biscoe boy rows, and they have regattas every week, even in late autumn when the snows fly.

 

Insulated From The World

Strange as it sounds, not a solitary pupil among the 1400 boys and 300 girls in the school has ever in his life seen India.

Biscoe boys on Wullar banks – swimming is part of education. Photo: Gordon Sinclair

Just a few hundred miles over the mountains lies their neighbouring country, the mad, savage land of Hindustan, but not one in 1700 has ever been there, and to this hour the padre has not been able to persuade his classes that the world is round or the sea salty. The priests have told them the sea is made of butter, and that they still believe.

“In the late nineteen-twenties when money was freer, I did arrange one pilgrimage. I wanted to prove to the masters that there was on earth an Oriental country that was clean instead of filthy, that had free women instead of domestic slaves, and that did not abuse the beasts of the field. That was Burma. I sent four masters to Burma, and they came back full of excitement and delight. They also said they had definitely tasted the water of the sea, and it was salty, not made of butter. Some day, when money flows again, we will repeat that voyage and show Burma to some of our pupils.”

This group of Brahmin students were trained enough to rescue people from getting drowned. Photo: Gordon Sinclair

“And what, after forty-four years is your principal disappointment?”

“Dishonesty!” the padre exclaimed. “We have never once in all those years of advancement had an honest examination.

The Indian mentality is completely amazing at all times, but never more so than in education. He does not desire or want knowledge. He will not, out of his own curiosity, ask questions or seek answers. He wants a degree. He wants to pass. He wants a title even if it’s only a failed BA. So he is a parrot. He learns answers to certain questions by heart, and that is all he cares about. Deeply as I regret it, he steals much of his knowledge and then promptly forgets it. The only advance I can claim in this direction is that now many of our boys admit that they have cheated on examinations.”

(Excerpted from Khyber Caravan: Through Kashmir, Waziristan, Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Northern India by Gordon Sinclair FRGS, published in Canda and America in 1936.)

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