A kiosk by the roadside is ubiquitous in towns and cities of India. Usually, a person sits at the back preparing pan, a cone made from half a betel-leaf filled mainly with lime and areca-nut. The kiosk will also be stacked with cigarettes and their Indian variety, bidis. Chacha, uncle in one of the Indian languages, owned such an establishment in the northern part of the city of Calcutta.
Chacha was big in stature with a beard which was never trimmed. He always wore a cap and would normally be seen dressed in a green lungi, sarong, the green to emphasise his Muslim identity. His kurta, the upper garment, was always white and he carried a gamchha, towel, on his left shoulder. Indians generally and Muslims in particular held him in high respect because of his unflinching belief in his faith. Many mistook him as an imam.
A kiosk was never very deep so that someone like chacha could hand over pan or bidi to the standing customer. Transactions were swift because, unusually for India, nobody queried the price quoted by the seller. Chacha's kiosk, in common with others, stood at the far end of the pavement of a relatively wide road running east to west. Towards the east, about 10 yards from chacha's kiosk, stood a three storeyed building on the opposite side of the road, which was one of the halls of residence for a public school. Abhijit Upadhya, aged 14, was a pupil residing at the building, his home being some 140 miles west of the big city.
Chacha shook his head, “I suppose you will go somewhere else if I refuse to sell you cigarettes.”
Abhijit just stood on the pavement in front of him with an expressionless face. His answer would be superfluous because implicit in chacha's statement was the answer since another kiosk storing similar merchandise was only a few minutes' walk away.
It was the beginning of August, 1946, a time when the viceroy's office at New Delhi was busy preparing to end British rule in India. The Indians, however, faced uncertainty. The founder of Pakistan was implacable in his demand to carve out of the then India a sovereign country for the Indian Muslims who will de-Indianise themselves by not ever being identified as Indians any more and severing the age old bond that held them together for a few millennia. Other important Indian Muslim leaders and the community in general were lukewarm regarding the proposal; many Muslims showed outright hostility to the idea of dismembering the then India. Rumours had it that formation of a country exclusively for the Muslims had overt support from Britishers of influence in Great Britain. Pakistan, therefore, was his but the founder still decided to declare a day on which the Muslims will be told to take direct action against the Hindus just to make sure that the ensuing mayhem will provide the guarantee for the demise of a united India.
Abhi, as everybody called him, worried because the teachers were greatly concerned about the physical safety of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians in the city. They had good reason for this because news circulated that 100,000 Muslims were gathering by the Octerlony monument in the maidan to listen to the founding father himself. Thereafter they will disperse in groups and physically attack non-Muslims.
Abhi was a senior student. Being a sunday, he was allowed to go out wherever he wanted provided he returned for dinner which had its first sitting at 8.00 pm. Nearly all the boys had relatives and friends in Calcutta. Abhi only had chacha who would leave his kiosk to a relative or close it down altogether for the rest of the day. At about eleven in the morning they would walk 100 yards to catch a tram at Cornwallis street. They always got off at Baitakkhana and walk to meet Masood, chacha's nephew, who would wait without fail at the junction of Bentinck street and Esplanade Row. Chowringhee was merely yards away.
That sunday notwithstanding the danger due to the observance of direct action, the three of them started walking. They passed the Metro cinema and then, in a minute, the Lighthouse. An excited Abhijit asked, “Shall we go in there and see Romeo- Juliet? Basil Rathbone and Leslie Howard are in it.”
Masood tugged at the hem of his shirt without chacha seeing who muttered, “Toba, toba. The Prophet, peace be upon him, forbade us to indulge in any form of association with images.”
They walked for a few minutes and arrived at one of the two adjacent restaurants with a reputation all over Bengal for their culinary excellence. They were a family business and were run by chacha's two younger brothers, the older one being the father of Masood, who greeted Abhi, “Selam Alekum.”
Abhi recipocated, “Alekum Selam” and then wondered if he should have said, “Walekum Selam.” He was always confused about this particular Muslim etiquette, being a Brahmin, the highest class among Hindus. Each time he would tell himself that he must ask his dear friend Masood but he never remembered it.
Masood's uncle folded his palms and said, “Namaskar,” the Hindu way. Chacha frowned but said nothing.
Diving into his mutton masala with a piece torn with the fingers of his right hand from the Moghlai parotha, resting flat on his thali, plate, Abhi extolled, “Muslims are good at cooking meat.”
Masood interjected, “But they have no idea about vegetarian meals. The Hindus are experts at producing mouth-watering delicacies from vegetables.”
Chacha stared at Masood and demanded to know from where did the nephew gain this experience of Hindu cooking. In a moment's carelessness Masood blurted out, “I often eat at Amherst street in a Bengali restaurant; totally authentic.”
Chacha was furious. “Badmas, you bad fellow. Did you not know that it is haram, forbidden, to eat non-halal food cooked by infidels? It is haram to even sit near a Hindu and eat. And Bengali food! We are Beluchs; did you not know?”
The others threw quick glances at Abhi and chacha.
The Assistant superintendent informed Abhi that he will have to see the English teacher tomorrow at the superintendent's office at 7.00pm. The English teacher arrived in India about a year ago and was in his late 20s. He was tall and handsome and already popular with students. He was Mr William Illet, MA(Cantab) -highly educated; 'not a matter of joke!' as the Indian community would announce with pride.
Abhijit Upadhya cogitated about the reason for the interview unnecessarily.
Unlike other pupils, his conversational English was, everybody agreed, very good but he was nervous of speaking face to face with proper sahibs. Sahibs, being sahibs, pronounced English words differently to Indians. Their idioms and culture were also so different. For example, thought the Indian boy, a sahib would say, “If I were you, I wouldn't do that.” Why not say, “Don't do that,” or “You should not do that.”
Illet sahib had great sympathy for the people of India and their future but he will never be an Indian. He, being born in Britain of white Anglo-Saxon parents whose ancestors go back centuries, became white and tall and spoke English which came naturally to him. Abhi was Indian. His natural habitat was anywhere between the Hindu Kush and the eastern border of Bengal and from Kashmir to Ceylon or Lanka as the Indian epics call it. No amount of dismemberment of present India will alter that. He is therefore smaller in stature than an Englishman, although there are tall Indians. His skin is dark and his language will be unintelligible to a native of Great Britain. English as a language is not natural to him. Being synthetic, in his case, his written and conversational English can be good but the quality can go disastrously wrong without warning.
Abhi remained serious all day at school. He had his tiffin of luchi, deep fried unleavened bread in ghee and spiced vegetables followed by tea when he came to his hall of residence at the end of his lessons at school for that day. He played basketball, had his customary shower and
evening-walk before he arrived at the superintendent's office. He rehearsed while waiting, “I must say good evening Sirs; I must remember the plural.”
He could kick himself because as he entered the room, he said cheerfully, “Good morning Sir,” and realised immediately his double error.
The Indian smiled but Mr Illet put a serious face on as he said, “How is it good morning at seven in the evening?”
Abhi licked his lips in an obviously nervous manner. He was now in an unseen world where he was vigorously whipping himself with a whip he had seen in English films – a whip used by the deck-hand chosen by the bosun who in turn was obeying the captain's order.
Mr Illet asked, “You like English poetry?”
“Yes Sir,” answered Abhi. “I like to read both prose and poetry in Bengali and Sanskrit as well.”
“I was reading your discussion on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge”
Abhi's face lit up. “I cry reading it,” he said.
“He begins by saying:
The ship was cheered,
The harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk,
Below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
I identify the kirk, the hill and the lighthouse top with three railway stations I pass when I travel from my home to this hall of residence in Calcutta. I take the overnight train called Moghal Sarai Passenger which starts from somewhere near Punjub. It is a mail train and hence a very slow one. I am taken about 4 miles or so west to a large railway station called Asansol to catch my train at 9.00 pm. Asansol is the kirk. As I travel east we come to a railway station where I see a lot of khaki clad soldiers. There is probably a military cantonment there and that is the hill. Next, there is a large railway station called Bardhaman, named Burdwan by the British. I buy some sweets called mihidana and sitabhog from the hawker who comes to the carriage window for which the town is famous. Bardhaman railway station is my lighthouse.
There is no cheer as I leave home and
I don't drop merrily as I leave Asansol. But when I go home on vacation Bardhaman station makes me shout, not aloud of course:
Oh! Dream of joy! Is this indeed
The lighthouse top I see?
Is this the hill?
Is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?”
The boy became emotional as he thought of home; his grandparents; parents, siblings, cousins and the cheerful full moon as it peeps over the head of the bamboo grove at the eastern edge of the spacious walled compound of his family home.
Mr Illet and the superintendent went silent. They waited till the boy finished wiping the tears off his eyes with the end of his dhoti. Mr Illet said, “Your father sent you to us with the object of introducing you to science so that you can go and study mining engineering in Dhanbad. You know the place?”
“Yes Sir. One of my uncles took me there; only last year. It will be about 50 miles from our home, in Bihar province. I can speak Hindi and there is a large Bengali community there.”
“How would you like to change course and study for a degree in literature? You will be able to study English, Bengali and Sanskrit at a very advanced level.”
An excited Abhi shouted, “Can I Sir? Can I?” But he immediately became crestfallen. He said in a near inaudible voice, “My father will not allow this. He said that we must all be prepared to build India which will soon be free. We need engineers.”
“True,” said Mr Illet. “But man does not live by bread alone!”
Seeing a puzzled look in the boy's face, the superintendent who was the teacher for physical education offered to help. “You see Mr Illet means that how can you eat bread by itself? You will need dal, vegetables and so on. And of course how can you live without rice?”
Mr Illet glanced at the teacher of physical education and then turned to Abhi. He said
“We have discussed this matter with your father by exchanging letters for some time. Your family owns coal mines, don't they? We thought that was the reason why he wanted you to be a mining engineer. He said that was one of the reasons but he can employ engineers when he needs to. He was genuine when he was thinking in terms of India. He will not, however, disregard our advice but he would like you to decide. Whatever you decide he will not stand in your way.”
The superintendent interjected. He asked the boy if he understood what his father meant by 'stand in your way.' Mr Illet ignored him and asked Abhi if he would like to think about the suggestion for a few days.
Abhi said without hesitation, “Thank you very much Sir. I will really like to study literature.” The dinner bell rang.
Next day Mr Illet distributed the marked homework to the students in the class. He then addressed them as follows:
“Today we shall read Thomas Moore's 'The Light of Other Days' but before that I have a question to ask of Abhijit. You say that why does Coleridge not say 'The braw breeze blew-The frothy foam flew-The furrow followed free?' It would make the alliteration more inclusive. I would like you all to think about it. Why did the poet not use the words Abhi suggests instead of 'fair' and 'white'?”
Abhi felt grateful to Mr Illet for persuading his father. He looked forward to what he would do at college soon. He told chacha the following sunday as he walked to Cornwallis street to catch the tram for their trip to Chowringhee. There was no reaction from chacha but he said that the boy must watch it. There is going to be murder and devastation soon. There was no outward expression of concern from Abhi either. Instead they with Masood sat by the Victoria monument for a while.
Abhi suddenly held the hands of both chacha and Masood. He said earnestly, “Chacha, people talk about nothing else but killing that is to happen. Muslims will kill Hindus and Sikhs. They will retaliate.”
Chacha looked doleful. He said,“That is the way with humans. That is the wish of Allah to cleanse this earth of evil.”
“Your shop chacha?”
“What about it?”
“It is in the Hindu area. Bad men will attack you; kill you.”
The man of the kiosk looked at the boy for a while. Masood fixed his eyes on his uncle. Chacha looked at both of them before saying, “Don't panic beta, son. I am Indian. Ghabrao mat beta, mai Hindustani. This is my land. Have you not read the Muslim poet writing, 'In this whole world, the best is our India.' Sare
jahan se achchha, Hindustan hamara.”
One evening soon a very large Sikh came to Abhi's Hall of Residence complete with his kripan, sword, on the left and revolver in a holster on his right. He told them and the superintendent and his assistant as they stood on the flat roof what they all already knew. He ended up by denigrating the Bengalis as only fit for verbal combat but useless when attacked physically. On top of all this the passive Hindus will rather be slaughtered than fight back. Not to worry though, he assured them, he will patrol the area with other armed volunteers but the boys must be kept indoors.
The usual sunday came soon but before that Abhi persuaded chacha to take him to Barobazar and show him the mosque called Nakhoda masjid on the sunday
rather than go to their usual haunt
Chacha agreed but asked why a Hindu boy would want to go to a Muslim place of worship. Abhi said that his mother has written to him saying that Bengal will go to Pakistan. In that case his family, his mother writes, would move to Bihar because they could not give up their Indian identity. Abhi himself did not understand how suddenly chacha and Masood would become foreigners to him.
He did not quite answer chacha's question.
That sunday chacha said that he would meet Abhi and Masood by Nakhoda masjid. Unusually, in the morning, a purohit came to the Hall of Residence with statuettes of Visnu, Shiva and Gautam Buddha. The puja was organised by the superintendent to bring peace not turmoil and killing. The purohit chanted mantras, offered flowers to the statuettes resting on a silk cloth on the floor and finished off by saying 'Om, Hari Om, Shanti, Shanti Shanti.' He painted a small round tilak of sandalwood paste on everybody's forehead.
The boys took their usual tram by the Star theatre in Cornwallis street and got off at Harrison road which ran across from west to east. From there they went in the south eastern direction to Amherst street to eat at the restaurant which Masood used to visit whenever he could. While waiting for the waiter to take their order, Masood asked why Abhi wanted to see the mosque. Abhi replied right away that if his family moved to Bihar he would like to imagine chacha with his prayer mat in his favourite mosque. After their meal they walked to Nakhoda Masjid which was about three quarters of a mile in the north-western direction.
Chacha had a busy day. He went to Entally to visit relations. From there he went to Barobazar to order material for his kiosk; Nakhoda Masjid and prayer after that. No sooner he finished his prayer and went outside, the boys arrived; punctual, thought chacha; good.
Cacha took the boys round the perimeter of the mosque. Abhi asked “I would like to see the inside.”
“Out of the question beta,” There was a softness in his voice and possibly regret.
“Why so?” demanded Abhi obstinately.
“You are an idol-worshipper. You are an infidel. Your presence will pollute the mosque.”
“Shall we go?” asked an irate Masood. “We shall take him to College street for his tram.”
As they came to College street, they noticed six young men in green lungi and kurta with heads covered by red and white chequered cloths complete with large black holding rings round their heads; Arab style. One of them was holding up a placard which showed the provinces of Bengal, Assam, North-east frontier and part of eastern Nepal in the form of a green map which had the Urdu word Pakistan written in black. A crowd gathered around them. All the six activists, that is what they must have been, blocked the three of them as they were at the point of crossing Harrison road for the tram.
“Let us pass,” said Masood. “We are in a hurry.”
“You and Imamji can go but not this boy”
“He is Hindu.”
“How can you tell?”
The activist held the end of Abhijit's dhoti as he answered Masood. “The way he looks and, as if proof was needed, see this tika- only the Hindus do silly things like that.”
“He is with us and he is going to stay with us,” said Masood dismissively.
Wagging his forefinger, the man said, “You are a traitor. We are fighting for Pakistan and you are fraternising with Hindus. There will be no room for Hindus in our land which will be exclusively for the Muslims of India.”
Masood said, “I feel nothing but contempt for you. Go to your masters, the Arabs, the Turks or any other country but there is no room for you here.”
Unusually for him, Masood shouted “Get out, Get out” and pulled the placard down and stamped on it violently.
A scuffle broke out between Masood and the six activists. Unaccustomed though he was to physical violence Abhi jumped in to defend his friend. A crowd had gathered by then but chacha stood silently all this time until Abhi stood up screaming with pain and shock.
An activist had stabbed him during the affray. He was at the point of striking again as if to finish the unfinished job when chacha pounced. He got hold of the assailant by his throat with both of his hands and lifted him. The man struggled for breath as chacha dropped him. A second man came running towards Abhi with a raised meat cleaver but chacha grabbed his waist skilfully with both hands, raised him above his head, spun him a few times and let go. The man fell and cracked his skull. Of the protagonists of Pakistan, two of them lay on the floor, unconscious if not dead and the rest fled. The onlookers, all Muslims, dispersed quickly.
Chacha asked a rikshaw-walla to take Abhi to the Marwari hospital of which chacha knew and which was about 200 yards away. The rikshaw-walla refused because he did not want his rikshaw to be blood stained. The uncle and the nephew carried the wounded boy, now semi-conscious, to the main entrance of the hospital but a boy in his teens, dressed in khaki safari suit, long trousers, the usual uniform in India for a watchman or a message-boy, often with a red turban, refused them entry while seated on a stool. Masood slapped him. Whereupon the boy started screaming. A doctor in a white coat came out, had a look at the boy and asked what did the visitors want. Upon being asked for medical help, the doctor said that they would have to make an appointment for which forms were available for a price from the hospital reception office. Masood said that the boy was at the point of death and his life could only be saved if he received medical help without delay. The doctor said that they could try the Medical College Hospital which was about half a mile away but he himself could not do anything unless they made an application by filling in the forms in triplicate.
Chacha was an Indian. He knew the pulse of the people of his country. Walking back another half a mile to the other hospital! Abhi would not survive. He brought out an amount of paper money from the pocket of his kurta and held the doctor's right hand with both of his. The doctor assumed the expression of indifference, looked askance at the denomination of the paper money and counted stealthily. His face lit up at this unexpected windfall because chacha was generous in desperation. Everything was organised right away. A team started to treat the boy without delay with the doctor himself leading it.
Abhi's superintendent was notified who, in turn, contacted his father. He with a few other family members arrived at Calcutta promptly and transferred the boy to a private, very expensive hospital. The boy suffered serious injury. The knife missed his heart narrowly. He had to have further
The day for direct action came in no time. The rumours were true. Thousands gathered by the Octerlony monument on the maidan to hear the leader declare that Islam was in danger from the marauding grass-grazing idol worshippers. They must fight to get the protection of their own country. Highly charged groups of Mussalmans dispersed to most parts of the city and went on the rampage armed with machete, axe, swords, javelins, petrol bombs and a few revolvers. The slaughter began and continued for a couple of days before the Hindus realised what was happening; they, however, got organised quickly and began to resist and retaliate.
As promised the tall sikh with many other sikhs fought Muslims who were on the rampage by Abhijit's Hall of Residence and the vicinity. The streets of Calcutta began to fill up with corpses of children and men and women of all ages. Stray dogs, hesitant at first, started tearing at the dead bodies, some headless, many women naked. Vultures appeared out of nowhere.
Blood-curdling war cries ripped through the air- Har Har Mahadeo or Jai Ma Kali and Allah Ho Akbar.
Harrison Road, Mirzapur Street, Chitpur Road, Brabourn Road, Clive Street right up to Howrah Bridge even Grey Street where chacha's kiosk stood became covered with dead bodies like flies on unclean surfaces. People started to flee the city to go west to relatives or friends. The roads filled up with private cars, taxis, rikshaws, handcarts and even carts pulled by buffaloes and bullocks. Men and women with children ran across Howrah Bridge to catch a train; any train. They stepped over hundreds of dead bodies often dodging dogs and vultures.
People wondered if at last some British journalists reported the slaughter and misery of innocent human beings at the hands of mindless men, goaded by leaders who were seized by the grim determination for high office in a new government and hence material and political gain because suddenly groups of troops appeared; sikhs, gurkhas, Punjabi Mussalmans, Pashtuns and Beluchs, each under the command of a British, white, officer, possibly a lieutenant. Officers were driven in khaki coloured jeeps while troops travelled in trucks. Nearly all of them were truculent and they shot at people indiscriminately. This was a massacre of Jallianwallabagh variety killing Hindus, Sikhs or Mussalmans but it had the desired effect of quelling the blood bath in a land where millions and millions are unimaginably poor and all they wish is to eke out a living by whatever honest means that came their way and maintain and protect their family. Only a very small fraction of the privileged individuals want the power to rule and exploit the struggling poor.
The doctors in the hospital worked hard because Abhijit's father was rich and influential but the boy developed complications and he remained in a semi-conscious state for a whole week. His parents and members of his family stayed in Calcutta. Chacha with Masood came to the hospital everyday.
Newton's law states that the rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the impressed force. Pakistan's founding father was not a stupid man. He knew when to stop agitating the mob from whom he always disassociated himself unlike Mahatma Gandhi who wished to identify himself with them. The founding father decided not to encourage carnage for the moment any further. An absence of Newton's impressed force and the pitiless blood letting by the military dissipated the momentum of blood-lust of the riotous mob. The vitriolic impetus which impelled man's cruelty to man gave way to a lull, as it proved to be very soon, before the storm but until then a momentary respite ensued from murder, mutilation and looting of property.
On the eighth day of Abhijit's transfer to the expensive hospital chacha came on his own because Masood, a future cook in the family business, was being given instructions on how to cook biriani Luckhnow style. A cook came especially for that purpose at the invitation of his father from the province of UP.
Chacha sat by Abhijit's bedside as usual but suddenly the boy opened his eyes. A mournful chacha with a voice betraying a sense of injury exclaimed, “Beta!”
The boy extended his hand towards the one time owner of a kiosk, now weeping uncontrollably, and admonished him with a voice ever so feeble 'Chacha!'