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There was once a man in India whose name was Puran Dass and who was Prime Minister of the largest independent State in the northern part of India. He was a Brahmin and his father before him had been a high official in the gay-colored, old fashioned Hindu Court.
But as Puran Dass grew up he felt that the old order of things was changing, and that if anyone wished to get on in the world he must stand well with the English, and imitate all that the English believed to be good. At the same time a native official must keep his own master's favor.
This was a difficult game, but the quiet, close mouthed young Brahmin helped by a good English education at a native university, played it coolly, and rose step by step, to be the Prime Minister of the kingdom.
When the old Maharajah who was suspicious of the English, their railways and telegraphs, died, Puran Dass stood high with his young English-tutored successor, and between them, though he always took care that his master should have the credit, they established schools, made roads, and started State dispensaries and shows of agricultural products and published a yearly blue-book on the "Material Progress of the State", and the Foreign Office and the Government of India were just delighted.
The Prime Minister became the honored friend of Viceroys, and Governors, missionaries, and English officers as well as of whole hosts of tourists who travelled up and down India in the cold weather, showing how things ought to be managed. In his spare time he would endow scholarships and write letters to the Pioneer, the greatest Indian daily paper.
At last he went to England on a visit. In London he met and talked with every one worth knowing - men whose names go all over the world. He was given honorary degrees by learned universities, and he made speeches and talked of Hindu social reform to English ladies in evening dress, till all London sung his praises and cried, "This is the most fascinating man we have met since the empire was established."
When he returned to India there was a blaze of glory, for the Viceroy himself made a special visit to confer upon the Maharajah the Grand Cross of the Star of India, all diamonds and ribbons and at the same ceremony, while the cannon boomed, Puran Dass was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire; so that his name stood Sir Puran Dass, K.C.I.E.
That evening, at dinner in the big Viceregal tent, he stood up with the badge and the collar of the Order on his breast, and replying to the toast of his master's health, made a speech no Englishmen could have bettered.
Next month, when the city had returned to its sunbaked quiet, he did a thing no Englishman would have dreamed of doing; for, so far as the world's affairs went, he disappeared.
The jewelled order of his knighthood went back to the Indian Government, and a new Prime Minister was appointed to the charge of affairs, and a great game of transferring Posts began in all the subordinate appointments.
The priests knew what had happened, and the people guessed; but India is the one place in the world where a man can do as he pleases and nobody asks why; and the fact that His Excellency Sir Puran Dass, K.C.I.E., had resigned position, palace, and power, and taken up the begging-bowl and ochre-colored dress of a Sannyasi was considered nothing extraordinary. He had been, as the Old Law recommends, twenty years a youth, twenty years a fighter, and twenty years head of a household. He had used his wealth and his power for what he knew both to be worth; he had seen men and cities far and near, and men and cities had stood up and honored him. Now he let these things go, as a man drops the cloak he no longer needs.
Behind him, as he walked through the city gates, an antelope skin and brass-handled crutch under his arm, and a begging-bowl in his hand, barefoot, alone, with eyes cast on the ground, behind him they were firing salutes in honor of his happy successor.
Puran Dass nodded. All that life was ended; and he bore it no more ill-will or good-will than a man bears to a passing dream of the night. He was a Sannyasin, a houseless wanderer, depending on his neighbors for his daily bread; and so long as there is a morsel to divide in India, neither priest nor beggar starves. He had never in his life tasted meat. A five-pound note would have covered his personal expenses for food through any one of the many years in which he had been absolute master of tens of millions of money. Even when he was being lionized in London, he had held before him his dream of peace and quiet - the long, white, dusty Indian road, printed all over with bare feet.
When the time came to make that dream true, the Prime Minister took the proper steps, and in three days you might more easily have found a bubble in the great Pacific Ocean than find Puran Dass among the roving millions of India.
At night his antelope skin was spread where the darkness overtook him, sometimes in a Sannyasi monastery by the roadside; sometimes by a mud shrine, where the Yogis would receive him; sometimes on the outskirts of a little Hindu village, where the children would steal up with the food their parents had prepared. It was all one to Puran Dass. Earth, people, and food were all one.