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Customs

When a law is bred into the very fibre of a race it becomes a custom and persists long after the need is gone and the occasion forgotten. For man gives to his children not only the shape of his own nose and the cranks in his character, he also teaches them his fears and forebodings, his songs and curses. He moulds his child as nearly as he can to his own shape. The civilised man does it through his schools and books, the press and platform. He is not ashamed to use a little gunpowder and occasionally the hanging block to drive home some of his points. Civilisation is a continuous surrender of individual perfections to mass imperfection. Civilisation is not built on the songs of Don Juans but on the solid and pious resolutions of respectable middle-aged old husbands. That is why it is so poor in laughter. Each generation inherits a load of complications, adds to it and then passses it on to the next generation ; the load of laws and beliefs increases from age to age until the feet that have to carry it grow too weak for it. Then the crash comes. A culture dies. The worn-out runner drops out of the race. Those with stronger legs and lighter loads race forward.

Customs are subtle chains with which the primitive man tries to keep intact the pattern of his society. They are his school and radio, prime minister and preacher. You make a law and keep a good supply of gunpowder and men to help your weak brothers uphold it. He made a custom and invented magic and the devil to keep watch and ward for him. There is absolutely no difference between your law and his custom in object and purpose. Your wise judges wear the same serious expression as his high priest; indeed they even wear his costume. Your laws are as stupid to him as his customs are to you. You can tie a knot in a silk thread as well as you can in thick rope. He used a thin simple thread and you used a complicated thick rope. He did not need the thick rope any more than he had any necessity for your elaborate city drainage system. The interesting point is the knot. It is the same in both cases. Some say it was tied by fools to strangle the wise. Some say it was tied by the wise to help the fools. Be that as it may, the knot is there. A pathetic and heroic effort on the part of man to instil into his child’s eyes his dreams and fears and follies.

You call it law and keep it in big hooks. He calls it custom and keeps it in his wife’s treasure chest. You have to be either a judge or a criminal to know your law. He knows his customs before he knows how to eat. It is bred in him. It is mixed in his bones and works in his liver. He does not have to go to a learned man in a wig to know the law against which he sinned. He knows it as soon as he does it. He is his own judge and jailer. His ancestors have seen to it that it is so.

Now let us examine a few Pathan customs and try to see what they are driving at. For customs are the only tools with which primitive man carves the shape of his culture. It is a stroke of the brush in the hands of man the artist. It is not a stroke of lightning. It has a purpose, a will and a definite meaning, however awkward the shape. Let us take one of his most violent customs, which prescribes death for elopement or adultery. This ancient principle is active and living in the blood of the Pathan even today. It reacts violently when it clashes with the loose and generous ethics of the British-made law. The Pathan will shoot the seducer of his sister and walk proudly to the British-made gallows for it. The law is made for the cold English sister and the detached English brother. The Pathan is short of girls and generous of emotions. He must breed well if he is to breed fighters. The potential mother of the man of tomorrow is the greatest treasure of the tribe and is guarded jealously.
This primitive custom is also useful for weeding out the over-sexed. It is a subtle system of selective breeding. But does the Pathan realise any of these things when he lifts his rifle to shoot the culprit? He does not. He is mad with anger. He must shoot, there is no alternative. If he does not, his neighbours will look down upon him, his father will sneer at him, his sister will avoid his eyes, his wife will be insolent and his friends will cut him dead. It is easier to be misunderstood by a judge who does not speak his language and be hanged by a law that does not understand his life. He does his duty by his people. He will play true to his blood even if he breaks his heart and neck in the bargain. He will walk to the gallows with proud steps with his hands covered with the blood of his wife or sister. And the admiring eyes of his people will follow him as they always do those who pay with their life for a principle. “Hero,” shout the Pathans. “Murderer,” says the judge. And I have never been able to find out who is right.

This very custom when given a chance to act alone works perfectly. In the tribal area where nearly four million people live without law courts, policemen, judges and hangmen, you seldom hear of adultery or murder. Elopements are rare. For the risk is great and the price heavy for rare lips and beautiful eyes. If the culprits get married, the hunt is slackened; the boy is made to pay damages in the form of giving away two or three girls to the family from which he stole one. But he won’t live long if he deceives her or deserts her. The whole tribe of the girl will hunt him down and his own will refuse to protect him. Custom does not allow protection to the breakers of custom. He stands alone and must pay the price. Even his friends will avoid the funeral. It is hard and brutal, but it works. After all you cannot use a dog leash to tame a wolf.

There is another point. The Pathan has no hospitals or doctors. And it is established that the most horrible diseases are given by men to women and women to men. Syphilis, for example. The Pathan knew no cure for it, so he took the most drastic preventive measure. Death to him who dares to risk the health of his tribe. It is treachery and sabotage which you also punish with death. The knot is the same though the thread is different.

The Pathan has thousands of customs – for death, birth, marriage, love, hate and war. To try to count them or even to attempt a very sketchy portrait of their purpose and function is impossible. They are neither good nor bad, for they depend on time, place and circumstance. But this can be said about all of them, that they are an attempt to hold and preserve a standard of value and way of life that has given the world a great fighter and a poor soldier. For many of the customs of the Pathans are older than their Greek soldier-fathers. But they also have many customs and traditions which give a picture of the system of thinking and living that produced the wild Alexander and his conquering army. When the Pathan is a child his mother tells him, “the coward dies but his shrieks live long after,” and so he learns not to shriek. He is shown dozens of things dearer than life so that he will not mind either dying or killing. He is forbidden colourful clothes or exotic music, for they weaken the arm and soften the eye. He is taught to look at the hawk and forget the nightingale. He is asked to kill his beloved to save the soul of her children. It is a perpetual surrender – an eternal giving up of man to man and to their wise follies.

You and I do the same every day. In this age of vote and democracy Don Juan is hopelessly outnumbered. The respectable, the wise, and the aged make the laws and customs to mould to a pattern the youth and rebellion of life. An artist mingles many strokes and shades to create an impression, a musician many tunes to create a single song. The colour that does not mix, the note that is out of harmony, must go though the going be hard.

Customs and laws save man from what is too good for him and from what is too bad for him. They maintain a standard and knock out those who are too big for it. His customs are as good as your laws and as bad. Both are intolerant of rebels and both depend for their growth on those who are big enough to break them. Such is life.

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