[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]
There was excitement when Napoo Singh died. The Singhs were a small community from India who lived very much by themselves, on a cluster of farms ten miles out from the township, amongst the mountains. White Australia resentment hardly touched them, probably because they kept entirely to themselves, and, not being coolies, did not work for wages in competition with whites. We only saw them occasionally, one or two of them, tall, black-bearded fellows, with white turbans, very dignified, bringing produce to the railway station, or fetching 100, thence simple provisions, such as bags of rice, for the nutriment of their community.
The Singhs never mixed, or attempted to mix, with the bushwhackers. We knew nothing about them, except that they had a lot of strange religious ideas. It was said that they cooked each one his own food in a pot over an open fire, squatted upon the ground, and that they would throw it away if a stranger’s shadow fell across the pot. Inoffensively, they tolerated the white men, keeping their opinions to themselves, and somehow we felt more akin to these sombre, fanatical Aryans than to the possibly reptile-blooded Chinese. At any rate, they were the last coloured men to leave our district, eventually; and perhaps they would be there to this day if Napoo Singh had not died. This was the calamity and the indignity which caused them all to pack up and leave us, for Napoo Singh was their leader.
Two Singhs came into the township one day and asked Sergeant O’Leary for a Death Certificate, as required by law. The body was in a spring-cart, coolly swathed in a shimmering white cloth, for the Sergeant to view, as required by law, or not to view if possible, as required by their code, for to this strange sect in exile from an old land of religions, it was a sacrilege for outcaste eyes to rest upon the mortal frame of one of the pure.
— Could Sergeant O’Leary give a Death Certificate without viewing the body?
— Begob, he could not. It was against regulations. So the pious mourning brethren lovingly unwrapped the winding-cloth, and the Sergeant, crossing himself hastily, viewed the dead Napoo, as required by law.
— “Ye had better be goin’,” he said, “to Bob Gray the carpenter to make ye a coffin, while I make ye out a Certificate, and the deceased can be buried this afternoon in the cemetery.”
The Singhs were as thunder-struck.
They explained to the Sergeant that Napoo Singh could not possibly be buried in the Christian cemetary, or indeed in any cemetary. He would have to be burned upon a pyre, such was their religion, otherwise the soul could never be liberated from the body. The pyre was already prepared, and the other brethren were waiting, in prayer, for their return.
Then Sergeant O’Leary was as thunder-struck.
“To be bur-r-ned! A human carpse to be bur-r-ned like a baste of the field! Certainly not, it is agin’ regulations, altogidder.”
But the Singhs very quietly insisted, and the Sergeant, more worried than he had been for many a day, withdrew to consult his regulations, and his conscience as a Catholic, in each case without avail, so he telegraphed to headquarters for instructions; while the Singhs patiently unharnessed their horse, propped the shafts of the springcart, and kept vigil, squatted facing the white bundle in the cart, as required by their code.
It was Thursday afternoon when the Sergeant telegraphed to Brisbane — Napoo Singh having deceased on Wednesday evening. I mention this, because the Australian sun is hot, and because no reply came on Friday to the Sergeant’s telegram. In the morning ten bearded Singhs came on horseback with flowing robes, anxious; and on hearing the reason for the delay in consummation of their rites, they, too, dignified, squatted by the spring-cart in the hot sun, waiting, praying . . .
Saturday morning was a pig-sale day, and the township was full of bushwhackers. No reply came to the telegram up till closing time of the post-office, which was one o’clock. Perhaps the Sergeant’s telegram was ambiguously worded, perhaps it was pigeon-holed by a junior, as is the fashion in Government offices. But the sun was still hot; the Singhs were still fasting and watching that slightly swollen white bundle; and the bushwhackers, having sold their pigs well, being flush, decided — most of them — to stay in the township until the telegram came, to join, in fact, the funeral, and to see, as the Sergeant put it: “The sight-of-a-life-time, a huyman carpse bur-r-ned like a baste of the field.”
Sunday was hot, too. The Sergeant requested the Singhs to move the spring-cart further away from the Police Station gate. Also he tactfully offered them, on the advice of Dan Billings, the sanitary man, a roll of cotton-wool to place in their nostrils; but they did not understand, and kept vigil still by the yet more swollen bundle.
A scratch cricket match was played, to use up time, for no telegram could now possibly arrive till Monday. Most of the bushwhackers got quite drunk on their pig-money. Things livened up, there were brawls, the Sergeant had quite enough on his hands without Napoo Singh, rising, as he said, “like a cake in an oven in that there springcart.” Charley Black punched Fred Horsley’s nose in Brasch’s pub at lunch-time; Fred Horsley having been umpire in the cricket match when Charley was given out leg before to what everybody on the batting side agreed was practically a wide. Things livened up. All night long on Sunday the drunk grew more intense, the whites celebrating, according to their code, the decease of Napoo; and the pigsale.
On Monday morning, at nine o’clock, immediately the post-office opened, Sergeant O’Leary sent to headquarters the following historic telegram:
“URGENT DEAD INDIAN NAPOO SINGH STINKING TERRIBLY SHALL WE BURN OR BURY THE BODY.”
No reply having arrived by midday, and the township having wakened to a blearier, but more intense, continuation of the drunk, and the silent turbaned watchers being almost ready to collapse in their vigil, and the white cloth having become stained from beneath in sinister patches, Sergeant O’Leary importantly approached the Singhs to windward and communicated to them that, although the law of the land forbade cremation, to the best of his knowledge, the same being a haythen practice, nevertheless the law also gave him, the Sergeant, summary power to deal with nuisances, and, therefore, saving the consequences, he, the Sergeant, formally instructed the Singhs to dispose of the deceased Napoo Singh forthwith by burning, and may the Lord have Mercy on his soul.
Which being understood by the Singhs, they rose from the ground like wraiths, harnessed two horses to the springcart, decorously, but with haste, saddled their mounts, and the strangest funeral began. Two turbaned Singhs were in the springcart with the bundle; ten turbaned Singhs in flowing white robes rode in file as an escort; and before the funeral had ascended the first hill on its journey of ten miles to the waiting pyre, no less than eighty drunken white bushwhackers, swaying, but drunkenly serious, on eighty stockhorses, had fallen in a cavalcade of pairs behind the hearse. And there was whisky in the saddle-pouches.
For the first half-mile the funeral proceeded at a walking pace, and the uninvited mourners were maudlin quiet. But then, suddenly, Tommy Bates’ dog started a wallaby right under the wheels of the springcart, and at least a dozen mourners broke the ranks to belt through the bush in pursuit; and the whole line yelled. The Singhs looked anxiously at one another, and were still dignified. Then a wind rose, and blew straight down the line from ahead, bringing whiffs of Napoo to the whole dusty procession. Big Jim MacLachlan, a Boer War veteran sergeant-major, astride a prancing grey, suddenly started yelling after a pull at his flask, and burst into a gallop up and down the line, roaring out military orders “For-r-r-r-m Squadron.”
The wallaby was lost in thick scrub, and the vagrant mourners came thundering back to rejoin the funeral.
The Singhs looked again, most anxiously at one another; and then the one of them driving the springcart whipped up the nags to a trot, and the whole cavalcade, cheering, broke into a trot raising clouds of dust. Five miles to go. Suddenly, frenzied, the Singh driver lashed his horses into a gallop.
Up hills and ridges, down into creeks and gullys, bumping and swaying over stones, the bundle seemed to float in a chariot on a dust-cloud as Napoo Singh was borne to the liberation of his soul by fire, through the towering cathedral aisles of the gumtrees.
Fully entering into it now, trick-riding, prancing, yelling at one another, roaring songs, hats waved in the air, galloping horses lashed to a sweat, eighty bushwhackers that day gave a dead Aryan chief a hero’s send-off.
It was five o’clock when the procession clattered into the Singh settlement and drew up at the pyre. Throughout all that strange career, the ten turbaned riders had kept military formation: five of them in file each side of the hearse, never speaking, never even noticing the capers of the bushwhackers.
But now the tallest of them suddenly raised his eyes, blazing with dignity they were, and confronted the boys of the Bush. He spoke.
“We will pray now. Please go.”
I record the fact that without speaking a word in reply, the bushmen withdrew and formed a silent grand circle round the pyre, out of earshot, and dismounted from their horses, and squatted or reclined, suddenly hushed by a universal compulsion.
While the Singhs, all in flowing robes, reverently hoisted the late Napoo to the very top of the great pyre of logs, then themselves formed a smaller circle facing inwards, to chant farewell.
As the sun went down in the silenced Bush, a flame went up in that paddock — a mighty crackling flame which threw flickering red lights and shadows upon the tall trees; and that flame bore the spirit of Napoo Singh to the gods of the Singhs as required by their code, while eighty white men, heads bared, gaped at the sight-of-a-lifetime.
Official permission for the cremation reached Sergeant O’Leary three days later.
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, , pp. 100-113
altogidder = altogether (a literary rendering of the word as pronounced with an Irish accent)
baste = beast (a literary rendering of the word as pronounced with an Irish accent)
begob = an exclamatory oath; a euphemism for “by God”, from the tradition of avoiding blasphemy and the misuse of sacred words (usually such phrases are created by substituting words with the same initial letter, instead of the last letter as in “begob”; exclamatory oaths that use a word substitution for “God” include “by George”, “good golly”, and “oh my gosh”)
carpse = corpse (a literary rendering of the word as pronounced with an Irish accent)
haythen = heathen (a literary rendering of the word as pronounced with an Irish accent)
huyman = human (a literary rendering of the word as pronounced with an Irish accent)
[Editor: Corrected “cemetary” to “cemetery”.]