Sepahi Sukhram or Sepoy Sukhram as the British called an infantryman in their characteristic manner of corrupting all Indian words kept on nursing the chapati in his hands. The chapati, an Indian unleavened bread, was handed to him by a fakir, a holy Muslim man, who somehow had sneaked into the military barracks. To be exact, Sukhram was stationed in the Barrackpur military barracks in Calcutta.
The year was 1856 and the British must have been contaminated by the lax behaviour and the generally indolent ways of Indians. Otherwise how else would a perfect stranger like the fakir gain access so easily to a military establishment? How else would he walk out of there without being apprehended?
The chapati probably travelled far or it may have remained with the fakir for at least a couple of days. It was old and dirty.
Its putrid nature told Sukhram that the fakir did not expect him to eat it. At any rate, the fakir whispered to him that he must distribute a chapati each to two men.
Any men would do but the preference was for sepahis.
Sepahi Sukhram asked the storeman for flour, enough to make two chapatis,which was given without questions. In the evening, he proceeded on foot towards the river and stopped at a very small colony of mud huts about a mile southwest of the barracks. The huts were spacious with perimeter walls and belonged to prostitutes. Sukhram pushed the small gate constructed out of rattan and reeds, closed it and went in through the open door. The house belonged to Ramani, a young Bengali prostitute and the open door meant that she was ready to receive customers.
“I need two chapatis to take away with me,” announced Sukhram in a matter of fact manner.
“Go to that hotel,” she said. “I don't cook everyday. Those days I eat over there.”
The hotel in question was a simple shed 30 feet by 20 feet. It had a thatched roof and was open on the front and on one side.There were provisions to close the open ends with thick curtains woven from palm leaves as protection against rain during the Monsoon season. Anybody wishing to eat there had to take his own plates and drinking implements. Such items of course were provided by the hotel if an unexpected stranger arrived for a meal. The oven and the pots and pans were in full view of the diners. Mats were provided for people to sit on and dine. People ate sitting on the floor as was the custom in India.
Sukhram looked horrified. “You know I can't go in there? They eat fish and meat!”
The sepahi came from the province named Bihar and, being a Brahmin, he was a strict vegetarian. There were rigid rules. Even onions and garlic were prohibited. “But you eat with me!” exclaimed Ramani. “I eat both. If not meat I must have fish everyday.”
“You Bengalis are barbarians; primitive,” said Sukhram contemptuously. “Even your Brahmins are non-vegetarians. You are a disgrace to the Hindu society.”
Actually, Sukhram rarely ate at Ramani's house.When he did, the woman cooked a vegetarian meal. She cooked chapatis which she learnt from the sepahi and ate them occasionally to be polite; a great sacrifice because, without rice, a Bengali woman would feel that she did not eat properly.
Ramani reminded Sukhram that he cooked his own meals in the barracks everyday. Why had she got to produce the chapatis for him suddenly? The sepahi lied. ''I am not supposed to cook these chapatis myself; that's why. The fakir said that the chapatis must be cooked by someone else, preferably a female. Females represent power.''
In his mind he started wondering why he got the bag of flour and why he decided to ask Ramani to cook the chapatis for him anyway. In a while his face lit up. Fixing his eyes squarely on the young woman he said, ''Can't go to anybody. The whole affair is confidential. Besides, the chapatis have got to be exactly this size.'' He placed the chapati on the floor and took the curls off by coaxing them with his hands.
Ramani ignored the fact that the young man had given two different answers to her question. She asked, ''What are the chapatis for?''
The sepahi nodded his head slowly from side to side a couple of times and gave a superior smile. He poked the space above him with his forefinger and said, “So far doubt, that information cannot be given to a stupied woman of loose character.”
The phrase 'so far doubt' and the word 'Loose character' were spoken in English and not in his inadequate Bengali he used to converse with Ramani.
Nobody ever pressed Sukhram to explain why he used 'so far doubt' so frequently and what exactly it meant. Just as well because it is doubtful if the young man knew himself. The words 'loose character' became 'luz chareektaar' as the sepahi pronounced them; of course he knew the collective meaning of these terms very well because Ramani was a woman of easy virtue.
The woman resented it not because she knew what it meant exactly. She assumed them to be swear words. Swearing did not matter to her but she resented being sworn at in English, the tongue of feringees, the Europeans. She had seen Feringee sailors in the city centre; a violent, uncouth and generally dangerous people. She had given up going to the city centre in the evening for that reason.
The sepahi observed Ramani intently. One would think that it was the first time he met her. Her tiny face seemed lost against her waist length jet black hair. Her eyes glistened in the flickering light of the clay oil lamps.
He sighed and said, “So far doubt-no business with you tonight. I have been very busy today but make me the two chapatis.”
Ramani got busy as clients appeared; all kinds of clients – mostly Indian infantrymen but some babus as well. Babus are usually clerical workers but it is equivalent to a Mr for Bengalis. Sukhram was surprised to see a kala sahib, a black Englishman. That is, an Indian dressed in European clothes to begin with. The sepahi knew him. He worked in the office of a private English company and one could conclude that he was an administrator, a high ranking official.
The office was near the barracks. Possibly,for that reason, he was nervous about being spotted by an infantryman.
Unfortunately for the kala sahib a sepahi from the Barrackpur barracks spotted him. Fortunately for him, the black sahib did not know this.
Sepahi Sukhram picked up pieces of wood and lit the fire in the kitchen area. He brought out a clay funnel from his pocket, packed it with ganja and lit the stuff with a small lump of burning wood from the fire. As he exhaled, dense white smoke bellowed out of his mouth and nostrils. His eyes went bloody. With unsteady feet, he went over to a little hut in the yard where Ramani gave puja to devatas.
Devatas are powers, usually unseen, who have superior capabilities to humans. Puja involves looking after them. The sepahi knew all this from his uncle who took western education in Calcutta and now taught in Bihar. He made Hindi translations of many nasty articles the British wrote and still continue to write about Hindu social and religious practices.
As he looked at the images of various devatas in Ramani's puja room, he recited the Hindi version of what Bishop Hever said some 30 years ago. The original writing in English was as follows:
'In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strown
The heathen in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone'
The sepahi became very angry after reciting it because he remembered his uncle fuming at the superficiality of the Bishop's diatribe. A leader of the Christian community he certainly was but he did not understand anything about Hinduism nor did he want to.Yet he was ignorant enough to make baseless comments arrogantly.
Sukhram came back to the verandah and made shooting gestures with his forefinger at the clients who came and went. He shouted after the kala sahib, 'death to the Feringees'. Nobody took any notice of him.
“Sukhram, Hey Sukhram,” shouted Ramani shaking the prostrate sepahi. She emptied a pitcher full of water on his head and dried him with a gamchha, an Indian towel.
“All business finished?” asked Sukhram.
“Two hours ago,” replied the woman.”It is ten o'clock now.”
They went to the kitchen area. She placed a mound of chapatis on a plate in front of him and an appropriate amount of boiled rice for herself. They both ate their chapatis and rice with dal and spiced vegetables. The sepahi did not expect all this. Ramani was a working girl. How could she find time to cook all this? He felt embarrassed. He could have had all this ready for her.
Sukhram smoked a bidi after finishing his meal. He buckled his sword, tied up two chapatis in his gamchha and stood in front of the young woman who said, “ Half a pice for the two chapatis.”
“Uh!” gasped Sukhram in mock incredulity.
He gave her four times the money she asked for, squeezed her cheeks with his fingers and disappeared into the cold moonlit night. He stamped as he walked to ward off snakes and scorpions and generally remained alert because the road was surrounded by dense jungle. The road was wide enough for two horse carriages to go through but there was this everpresent danger for a pedestrian to be attacked by tigers, bears, hyenas and stray dogs or jackals. The latter two animals could easily be rabid. He gave namaskar to Visnu, Shiva and Gautam Buddha. He pledged ahinsa, non-violence, to Mahavir, a tirthankar of the Jains.
The sepahi moved away to the middle of the road and stopped. He rubbed his eyes and looked around carefully. The path was well lit by the moon. There was no mistaking the two men ahead, standing in front of him, each holding a machete in the right hand.
“Hand over your money,” whispered one of the men in a menacing tone. Sukhram sized them up. They were without headgears and their black thick hair was long and wavy. They were very small, smaller than an average Bengali. Even in that cold night, all each of them wore were a singlet and dhoti reaching only up to the knees. Judging by their features, they were probably from the northeastern region of India.
Raising their weapons they repeated their demand again. Sukhram unwrapped the shawl from his body and let it drop on the ground and drew his wide bladed sword from the scabbard. In their excitement and possibly because of the shawl, the armed muggers did not notice the sword in the scabbard hanging by the side of their intended victim. Altough startled, they soon lunged forward to kill their prey.
Sukhram's sword clashed with their machetes. The birds expressed verbal protests at the most unwelcome disturbance. Odd ones flew out of the trees foolishly. A few dogs in the jungle barked, first hesitantly, then howled in unison. The sepahi with great skill manipulated his sword and then within a minute decapitated one of them with an almighty blow. The other lost his hand and fled into the jungle.
“He won't survive” muttered the sepahi and turned back towards the river, Ma Ganga, Mother Ganges, to Hindus. He washed his sword, hands and face. The ice- cold water assuaged the anger in him. He felt cold without his shawl which must still be lying on the road. He folded his palms and addressed the river:
“Ma Ganga,” he said. “Namaskar. My karma tonight is the correct one. Stealing is forbidden. Armed robbery is forbidden.
The two succumbed to the evil in them which I have removed. But who will remove the bigger evil from India? This evil has come from across the black water.
These Feringees will not rest until all of us are Christians. Who will offer you puja then?
To a Hindu Ma Ganga is a devi, the fremale equivalent of a deva. Some simply used the word devata to include both devas and devis. A devata gives and shines. So the sun is a devata as is a tree. Parents are devatas. Certain principles such as truth are devatas. Hindus produce many unseen mythological devatas in their anthropomorphic, theriomorphic or therianthropic forms.
His uncle back in Bihar told him all this. He frequently would say that if one asked a kala sahib about Ma Ganga he will instruct you with great conviction that she is a goddess to a Hindu. He will not use the word devi because the sahibs have translated it as goddess to fit in with their own Greek-Roman traditions. They care little about black peoples' culture because blacks will remain uncivilised until they give up the loincloth and wear western clothes, speak in English, eat cow and pig-meats with knives and forks. Kala sahibs would say that the Hindu faith is nonsense because the white sahibs say so. The white sahibs and their memsahibs are the most civilised and sophisticated people in the whole world.
Sukhram said to himself that he was a Hindu. His uncle insisted that the Hindus have become dispirited because they had been an occupied, indeed a slave group of people since the 8th century. It is time they asserted themselves again and respected their own culture. Sukhram asserted that he wanted the world to know that to him Ma Ganga was a superior devi. She flows from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal covering a distance of some 1,500 miles. She is actually everywhere. Far away from us mortals in a realm called swarga, she is known as Mandakini. She, Hindus say, originated there because swarga is a realm of perpetual innocent pleasure. It is from swarga that she arrived among the Hindus who welcomed her as Ma Ganga. From our earth she drops into a region in the downward direction and travels for many miles.
Thoughts of devatas and Ma Ganga occupied Sukhram until he realised that he would be accused of being absent without leave. He noticed the eastern sky hinting at sunrise. The sepahi sneaked into the barracks, completed his morning ablutions and offered puja to unseen devatas. He wrapped himself up in a shawl and sneaked out of the barracks again. He headed for the market place in nearby Baranagar.
Being a Sunday the place was already full of people, women in saris and men in dhotis or pyjamas. Nearly all of them were wrapped up in shawls to keep warm in that chilly morning. Horse drawn carriages, bullock carts, palkees (palanquins) and push carts called thela gadis moved through the main thoroughfare. Muslim noblemen rode past on their horses. Richly caparisoned elephants carried wealthy Hindu merchants or landowners. Proper sahibs and their memsahibs rushed along in their landaus. Not to be outdone, kala sahibs alighted from horse-drawn carriages with their servants and purchased rice,vegetables, ghee and fish. They wore breeches and long coats, neckerchiefs and English shoes. The cold of Calcutta did not bother them judging by their postures. Strangely, they did not wear any hats but made a bow each time they came across Europeans.
A padre sat on a horse and harangued the Hindus in Bengali. Groups stopped and seemed to listen to him. He spoke pidgin Bengali and then repeated himself in terrible unintelligible Hindi. A few among the public agreed with him and muttered, “That's right padre sahib; there is no hope for us.”
A few stood there with sullen countenances. The kala sahibs avoided the padre. It is one thing wearing clothes imitating the masters. It is one thing eating beef and heap ridicule on Hindu ideas and practices but it is quite out of the question to cease to be a Hindu for the very large majority of them. To do that would be to deny the history and heritage of their race or, more accurately, the federation of the Indic races to which they belonged. It was unthinkable to convert to Christianity.
The padre knew this. If he knew that there was a chance he would have spoken in English rather than struggle in the two heathen tongues. He shouted, “You monkey-like creatures, you eat like monkeys. You are without prayer. Your idols are hideous.The smell near your temples is nauseating. You are in hell. I wll save you. Convert. Be civilised. Be humans. Demolish your mandirs housing those abominable idols. The noise of your drums and cymbals is horrible. My heart grieves for you. Your soul is as black as your body.”
From a little distance a teenager with his right hand behind him shouted “Why Oh
red-skin do you call us black?”
Padre was glad to have a dialogue. He said, because you are black; as black as charcoal and your soul is blacker.”
The padre continued with his insults. He said, “Come and see me. I shall give you free English education after teaching you English, the language of heaven. You will then stop this degrading and polluting worship of those filthy idols. I will bring to you the knowledge of the one true God and Jesus Christ His son.”
“Who is your father padre?” shouted the boy. “Did your mother marry your father?”
“You insolent swine,” shouted a very angry padre. “You filthy black illegitimate offspring of a subhuman.”
The boy felt honour bound to do something drastic. To call someone illegitimate is to inflict humiliating insult to his mother. The young fellow's right hand came forward and a ball of moist cowdung hurtled through space. His aim was good. The padre got hit in the face.
“You black son of a donkey,” shouted the padre and urged his horse forward. He hit the boy a few times with his horsewhip.
Sukhram covered his face and head partially with his shawl which he wrapped round his body tightly. He did not belong to the warrior class but his distant ancestors were military men a profession not prescribed for Brahmins. Fighting was in his blood therefore but he had to follow strict codes whenever he had to be involved in physical conflict with a single person or an enemy army. He had very vague recollection of his paternal grandfather, a bronzed face adorned with an ample white moustache. The grandfather was the first in the family who joined the East India Company as a mercenary soldier after defecting from a Hindu king who did not pay his soldier's wages for several years. Grandfather had no option but leave the king because while he moved about with his employer as he mounted military expeditions to settle often imaginary disputes with neighbouring rulers, the grandfather's family had to eke out a living from the scant family agricultural land. His grandfather died while still in service with the East India Company and his son became a havilder, sergeant, in the company's army. He was stationed in Barrackpur far away from home. His son Sukhram joined the army when he was 15, 5 years ago. He could read and write Hindi and, of course, was a fluent speaker in it being his mother tongue but the sahibs classified him as illiterate because of his inadequate knowledge of the English language. He could, however, converse in hesitant English and most of the time understood what the sahibs were saying. He coined the phrase 'so far doubt' from which source nobody knew but he was popular with the sahibs in Barrackpur.
Sukhram's reminiscences in that cold morning at Barrackpur were random and he did not quite take in all the drama that the padre was creating. Sukhram woke up from his thoughts suddenly as the boy fell on the ground and cried and rolled about in pain. The sepahi ran over to the padre and unhorsed him skilfully. He slapped the dazed padre hard at which the mob came over and were at the point of molesting the Feringee. With outstretched hands Sukhram kept the crowd at bay but shouted the command, “Distribute chapatis” and threw the two chapatis into the crowd. The crowd roared 'chapatis' and forgot about the padre who mounted his horse and galloped away. Sukhram disappeared for fear of being apprehended.
The atmosphere in the Barrackpur military barracks was unusually tense on 26th February, 1857. There was this 19th Native Infantry assembled in the parade ground, everyone with a ball and chain around his ankles. Sukhram saw them from a distance, the magnificent men from Bundelkhand, a few hundred miles to the west of his village in Bihar.
In the Indian tradition as far as the young sepahi knew, a soldier joined an existing army when he pleased and left as well if and when he so wished. The British way was to regiment soldiers. They were not allowed to have a will of their own and they must carry out the task, however demeaning, given to them by the officer who must be always right. Blood rushed into the young sepahi's head to see the men humiliated. He swore under his breath and vowed to kill as many Feringees as he could but first thing first. He started enquiring about the reason for the men to be paraded for all to see with ball and chain.The first account that was consistent was that the soldiers of the 19th Native Infantry were normally located in Baharampur, a small but important town, 80 miles north of Calcutta. Next to Barrackpur, Baharampur cantonment was important to the security and the expansionist ambition of the company. The saga of those humiliated men unfolded soon.
Sukhram and a few other infantrymen stood at a distance watching the 19th native and piecing together the reason for this abject mass humiliation. 'The insolent dogs' muttered Sukhram looking at the white officers. Sukhram and the other Indian soldiers of Barrackpur looked proud as a sepahi from the 19th Native dragged himself forward and shouted “Long live the king of Oudh.” Another came forward and joined his fellow soldier from Baharampur. He shouted,”Long live Rani Laxmibhai of Jhansi.”
In the north, far away from Calcutta, reigned the Rani, queen, in her kingdom of Jhansi. The British were displeased with her because she would not kowtow to the Company chiefs. Her independent spirit could not be tolerated by the sahibs. To the British as in modern times the only good Indian was a subservient one. They were not fit to govern themselves. As the evangelicals pointed out, the natives had to be educated in the western way of life. Now Rani Laxmibhai did not read or speak any English. How could such a person be entrusted with running a kingdom?
Apart from that the Company wanted to control all India. They therefore went on deposing Indian rulers and absorbing their kingdoms in the already large domain of the East India Company in India. Rani of Jhansi fought the invading British army but she lost as did the other rulers of India.The British murdered the Rani and occupied her kingdom in 1854.
Two years after they deposed the nabab of Oudh, a long established Muslim aristocrat, under the audacious pretence that he was an incompetent ruler. The nabab was in all probability indifferent to his responsibilities. He was partial to a profligate life-style. He acquiesced readily so that the British took his kingdom and appropriated all his wealth.
The people of kingdoms such as Jhansi and Oudh grieved because now there was no long-stnding indigenous power to whom they could turn as they always did. They grieved because they lost patronage and the sahibs were upstarts and totally alien. Above all these Indians were forcibly uprooted from their centuries old congenial order and compelled to learn a totally unfamiliar system. People lost their homes, arable land and respect. The majority of soldiers in John Company's army came from those kingdoms. They lost face even among the prostitutes.
The two sepahis in ball and chain must have reached the end of their tether. They would not have come forward otherwise because the British were forever ready to humiliate and kill.
A lieutenant sahib bawled out an order. Two white soldiers approached the two sepahis and took off their red tunics and the especially designed head-dresses. With hands tied behind their backs and without blindfolds, they were then unceremoniously hanged from the nearest tree.
As the men dangled at the ends of the ropes, a young sepahi dragged himself forward, spat in the direction of the lieutenant and shouted, “Your rule will end on the centenary of Palashi- you foreign dogs.”
He was referring to the battle of Palashi, a place near Murshidabad where John Company won India on 24th June,1757.
The lieutenant did not react but the Scottish sergeant saw red. He shouted, “You insolent nigger,” and dragged the, young sepahi so that his back was close to the hanging tree, stepped back and pointed his revolver at him. “Bend on your knees and lick my boots,” said the sergeant, “And I will spare your life.” The young man's voice quaked with anger as he said, “Go back where you came from,you son of a pig.”
The sergeant did not need any more prompting. He fired. The sepahi fell and wriggled and writhed for a long time as blood rushed out of his wound. Sukhram ran to him and held his flask of water to his mouth. The boy drank a little but died soon in Sukhram's arms.
There was a hush until the General in command of Barrackpur cantonment and half a dozen officers came galloping on their horses. They were fully armed. The General looked carefully at the corpse of the young sepahi without dismounting and then glanced at the hanging infntrymen, now dead. He spoke to the lieutenant who gave the order for hanging. His voice was hardly audible. The lieutenant saluted as the General left with his officers. The soldiers of the 19th Native Infantry were marched off to the tents which were struck by them before.
Sukhram listened gravely as a havildar, native sergeant, assembled the infantrymen and told them the reason for the 19th Native Infantry to be there in that humiliating state. It might have been a ploy by the General that the source for the news leak will be an Indian.
Although the south of India was quiet, both the Hindus and the Muslims in the north were disturbed, particularly the former. Throughout the history of India, Hindus were generally ambivalent about who ruled them as long as their way of life was not interfered with. Some of the Muslim rulers, all foreigners, encouraged conversion to Islam by force if necessary but,eventually, they themselves became influenced by at least Hindu social customs. At any rate they did not dare to insist upon those who could not be converted to eat beef or bury their dead rather than cremate them. The powers- that-be seemed to know this in John Company. Before a battle or on especial occasions such as celebrating a treaty in Europe, they not only offered puja in a Hindu temple but often appeared in person to pay respect. They repaired temples and agreed to give money generously when asked.
With time, however, seeds of dissent and anger were sown by a minority of Britishers who were powerful enough to get their way.Their motive was to anglicise the Hidus by establishing western educational institutions and completely sweeping out the Indian counterparts by declaring them to be inferior in standard. This produced the black sahibs who became eager and faithful servants of the European master.What became a dangerously damaging move for the British was the importation of Christian missionaries to India who started to proselytise. The Company of course tried to discourage conversion by banning Indian converts from positions in Government and judicial services. This was in the early days of the Company in India.
In sepahi Sukhram's time, new generations of white sahibs and memsahibs who came to India showed total contempt for the natives.The missionaries became obsessed with their resolve to eradicate Hinduism totally from India.
Resentment towards the alien conqueror built up at a fast pace each time a padre sahib castigated Hinduism. The sepahis were ordered to shave off their beards, unthinkable for Muslims of the then India.
The Hindus were forbidden from wearing tilaks, the especial marks drawn on their foreheads with sandalwood paste or vermilion. The first thing after waking up in the morning every Hindu, whether in commerce or military, should do is bathe and give puja to a devata of his choice. In the process he or she will decorate his or her forehead with a tilak. To ban them from that is like preventing a devout Christian from singing or listening to songs of praise.
The Indian soldiers of the Company's army became aggrieved as orders of do's and don't's came pouring in fast as the sahibs got bolder by the day. They took the accustomed politeness and ambivalence of the Indians as weakness. A bully would always intimidate a weak victim. The 19th Native infantry became desperate as orders went out one day that Brown Bess, the old musket, would be replaced by the Enfield rifle. The new rifle had to be loaded with cartridge that was greased. Before loading, the end of the cartridge had to be bitten off by the teeth. The grease was manufactured from cow fat and hog's lard. Cow fat in the mouth results in the Hindu ceasing to be a Hindu automatically. Pig is an unclean animal to Muslims and it is a great insult to expect them to even be close to that animal. Soon a Muslim fakir in his white robe and a Hindu guru in saffron appeared. Each held a chapati up in the air and one of them announced, “ Examine the flour you use next time to make your chapati.The Feringees wll mix powdered bones of cows and pigs in it once they have succeeded in making you bite the cartridges.”
The sepahis got engulfed in a sea of deep foreboding. They ate rice that day and missed their chapatis. The next day they were all assembled in the parade ground and issued with Enfield rifles and new cartridges. The white sergeant demonstrated how to bite off the end of a cartridge and load the gun.When ordered to do the same, one by one, the sepahis laid down their rifles and placed the new cartridges alongside them. This was unexpected and it posed a quandary because the contonment was thin on European officers and soldiers. Normally they will hang a few and order would be restored. Unfortunaely such actions could only be successful by armed European soldiers. The only alternative was to march them to the city centre.
The lieutenant and the sergeant who murdered the three native infantrymen did so out of anger. It was legitimate for them to be angry because they were the most superior race in the whole world. It was their considered opinion that an Indian, no matter how proficient he was in his own language, was illiterate if he did not read,write or speak English. Most of the infantrymen did not. Even the kala sahibs were not excluded because they were still ignorant, idol-worshippng Hindus belonging to an inferior race.
However, although the General concurred with the opinion of most Britishers he was obliged to demonstrate that his officers do not act impetuously as a rule. The British tradition is to show that their system of justice is the most fair in the comity of nations. They have just reward, just punishment and even just war, just in bello.
Even in a colony like India, the British liked everything to be tidy. There had to be laid down procedures for all eventualities. Every proceeding had to be documented. Whether it was the wrong man who was hanged mattered little provided correct procedures were followed. Dispensation of justice was a very serious business. The sepahis of the 19th Native were certainly guilty but there had to be a fair trial. This is what the General said when he came to the parade ground on horseback accompanied by a number of officers. There would be a court martial. The sepahis of the Baharampur cantonment must be hanged for refusing to obey the order of a European officer but this must be preceded by a trial.
Sukhram disappeared in the evening. It was very easy beause the sepahis at Barrackpur were restless and many absconded for the night. Some went to mandirs, Hindu temples. Others sat at the banks of Ma Ganga facing northwest where their home was. A few went visiting houses of ill repute. Sukhram took the road to the prostitutes' village. He stamped his feet as the wide road got surrounded by dense growth of shrubs and trees. He felt for his sword to reassure himself but he was unarmed. He could not see the dead man from the other night. Jackals, hyenas and dogs must have dragged the body away to feast on him.
The rattan gate to Ramani's house was closed which pleased the young man from Bihar. It meant she was not entertaining clients yet. Of late Sukhram did not like the idea of the Bengali girl being with other men; he was only thinking of her safety, mind you.
“Hey Videshi (Not of my land),” beamed Ramani. “From the land of Ram Sita!”
“Hey Pardeshi (Of a different land),” replied Sukhram. “Followers of shakti!”
Shakti is power, usually physical, and is always represented in female form. Examples are Durga and Kali.
They both sat down in the glow of torches placed strategically away from the thatched roof. Sukhram said abruptly, “Girl, don't do business with those horrible people tonight.”
“And what happens to me?” snapped Ramani. “How am I going to eat?”
Sukhram was dressed as a civilian. He brought out a handful of copper coins from one of the pockets of his white kurta.
“Here take these,” he said in broken Bengali with a characteristic accent.
“Thik hai (All right),” replied Ramani in Hindi. She picked a number of coins and said, “That will compensate for tonight.
Sukhram put back the rest of the money in his pocket.
They walked away from Ramani's hut and went towards the market place. The night was dark. From the jungle came noises. Jackels howled occasionally interrupted by a coarse short cough of a tiger. Footsteps came from behind. Sukhram reached for his sword and immediately regretted being unarmed. Two men overtook them. “Selam Alekum,” said the men looking at them. “Walekam Selam,” replied Sukhram. He wondered if they were his Muslim villagers from back home.
They went to various mandirs. Sukhram prostrated himself each time in front of images of devas and devis. Then they went into a hotel; steaming white rice, vegetables and goat-masala for Ramani.
Sitting a distance away from her the sepahi enjoyed chapati, dal, spiced vegetables and chillified mango achar, pickle. With full stomachs they lay down on the grass of the river bank.
“I am not going back to the barracks tonight,” said Sukhram softly. “See that,” he said after a while pointing to the northwesterly direction. “My father and I will take the boat from Chandpal ghat next month and go home. Adjaant(adjutant) sahib has sanctioned our leave. He is an exception. We all like him.”
“Have you a large family?” asked Ramani.
“I have grandparents, two uncles and four sisters. I am the eldest. I will be married off soon otherwise my sisters can't get married. That is the custom with Hindus as you must know. The eldest first; the younger ones after.”
“In Bengal the son can marry after. The sisters, though younger, can marry before their elder brother but the eldest sister first and the youngest the last.”
Sukhram wondered if he had made a mistake. Customs should be the same for all Hindus but he had noticed the Bengalis not being as enthusiastic about Diwali as they are about Durga Puja.
Ramani sat up resting her face on her knees. She asked in a while, “Has your family found a bride for you?”
“I don't know.”
Ramani sat upright, held his hand and said,”I will be your bride.”
Sukhram sat up, looked at her and shouted “Are you stupid? You are a Bengali. So far doubt, you won't be able to hold a conversation with my family and you slaughter and eat animals. People like you are not allowed in our house.”
“I will learn Hindi,” said Ramani. “I understand a little of the language anyway and I will not eat animal flesh while in your house.”
Sukhram shook his head and said,”You are also a woman of luz chareektaar.”
The videshi got up as did the pardeshi. He hugged her. She said “Take me home.” He complied readily. “I miss my scholarly uncle.,” said the young man. “I never knew my family,” said the young woman.
Long before the sun rose, Sukhram left Ramani and sneaked into the barracks. He bathed and gave puja to his ancestors. He decorated his forehead with two kinds of tilaks; a vertical one up to the tip of his nose for Visnu and three horizontal bars on his forehead to signify his devotion to Shiva as well. He put on his soldier's uniform,loaded his Brown Bess, buckled his sword and stood to attention a little distance from the officers who were sitting at the court martial with the General of the Barrackpur cantonment presiding. They deliberated for about two minutes only because the case was straightforward. For all to see, the 19th Native had mutinied. Mutiny was an offence punishable by death. The presiding officer announced the verdict. Immediately six soldiers from the 19th native were isolated by a white European sergeant to be hanged.
Their leg irons were removed but not the handcuffs. Each one was led to a tree with a noose for each sepahi in position. Something made the General stop the hanging process. He asked, “Men. Have you anything to say?” He turned to the Lt Colonel of the 19th Native who nodded his approval.
A sepahi pleaded, addressing the Baharampur officer in command, “Colonel sahib we are soldiers. Don't hang us please. We are entitled to a firing squad.”
The General said immediately, “Request refused.”
The Lt Colonel looked away and the six were hanged unceremoniously. They were brought down after a while and a medical officer examined them before pronouncing them dead. They were raised again in hanging positions for all to see.
The General was pleased. Everything was done according to the book and there was no clemency.
Six more sepahis were isolated. The General talked in whisper with the members of the court martial. Without looking at the Indian infantrymen, he said pompously, “To show that we British are honest and fair, I will allow these six to be executed by a firing squad.”
The adjutant of the Barrackpur barracks translated the General's decision in Hindustani. The six sepahis were shot by European soldiers and then hanged from another tree. The sahibs looked up at the gathering vultures and an officer ordered the dead Indian infantrymen to be thrown into the river. As a groan of protest boomed in the parade ground from the Indians, the chairman announced that the remaining sepahis will be committed to 14 years hard labour each building roads for the military. The General said that it was appreciated that the soldiers' families would suffer, indeed they may not have enough to eat. Nevertheless the infantrymen doing hard labour will not be paid any wages whatsoever. However, the British are not a vindictive people. The Baharampur sepahis will be entitled to one full meal every evening throughout the 14 years. Flour etc. will be supplied by the Company and they will be allowed to cook their own meals. The last aspect was a big concession because each sepahi in John Company's army preferred to cook for himself or join groups to avoid caste pollution.
The General disregarded the religious belief of the ones who were thrown in the water, whether deliberately or not is not known. The sahibs should have known that it was bad karma for a Hindu if he was not cremated.All the sepahis whether Hindu or Muslim were distressed at the General's action which prevented the dead Hindus from being cremated.
As the European officers moved on to their morning ride, breakfast and gossip, Sukhram walked to the quarter-guard and asked the buglar to sound for assembly. Seeing that he refused, he urged his fellow soldiers of Barrackpur to pick up their loaded muskets and follow him. They hesitated and then declined. Sukhram's face twisted with contempt. He muttered, “So far doubt. You cowards. You sons of slaves of the Mughals and the Feringees.”
He fired at the two European soldiers who had just arrived to clear up the confidential papers of court martial. He missed. The soldiers, very startled, fired back but missed as well. They ran to the officers' quarters.
Sukhram reloaded his musket and noticed the adjutant and the General riding towards him. He took careful aim and fired at the General. The horse fell dead but the rider survived. The sahibs fired their revolvers but missed the sepahi. The General and the adjutant drew their swords. Sukhram did likewise. He stepped back to lunge with his sword in hand pointing at the officers. He moved back again and then struck. All that the two Europeans could do was defend themselves as Sukhram continued with aggressive thrusts. He manoeuvred skilfully. Both the General and the adjutant bled from their wounds but, fortunately, a number of European troops arrived and overpowered Sukhram.
A quick court martial ensued immediately and the General, the presiding officer, sentenced the sepahi to be hanged from the nearest appropriate tree until dead. The General ordered the adjutant to arrange for the hanging without delay. The adjutant, though wounded, pleaded with the General that the condemned man was an able soldier and he had always behaved in an exemplary manner. Troublemakers in the country have led him astray as he gathered from the chapati incidents. To be fair, he had seen his fellow soldiers humiliated and hanged or shot. As a Brahmin he must have been horrified to see the dead bodies of Hindus being thrown into the river. The adjutant made a fervent plea that Sukhram be blown off the mouth of a cannon.
“Death will be swift,” said the adjutant. “It will give us a lot of credit as people of compassion even for those who do not deserve it.”
“So be it,” said the General. “I would rather hang the lot of them; the mutinous heathens.”
Sukhram stood close to them and understood the conversation. He had often spoken to the kindly adjutant. For so many years the adjutant himself, if he came across the young sepahi, will begin his sentence with 'so far doubt' and ask in clear Hindustani, “How are you?”
As the General left, Sukhram saluted the adjutant and asked, “Permission to speak Sir”.
“Permission granted,” said the sahib.
Skhram saluted again before saying, “Let me die as surya dev, the sun, dies for the day”
Sahib said thoughtfully, “I will speak to the General sepahi Sukhram.”
The young man was given permission to bathe in the river but not allowed to wear tilaks. The General was adamant about it. However, he had no serious objection to the young Hindu doing his puja.
In due time Sukhram and his father bathed in the river,Ganga. They wore fresh dhotis and shawls and carried out the ceremony of puja. Sukhram prostrated, resting his forehead on his father's feet followed by placing a few flowers on them.
The father raised his son and said, “My son, don't be afraid.”
“I am not,” replied the son. He faced the northwesterly direction, folded his palms and gently knocked his forehead with them a few times; perhaps, offering pranam, veneration, to members of his family far away.
The cannon faced the river. The Indian soldiers stood unarmed on the left hand side of the cannon.The European soldiers stood in a similar manner on the opposite side with their muskets loaded and ready to fire at the assembled sepahis.
Sukhram's back rested against the muzzle and his body was tied to the cannon by ropes.He wore a dhoti, a shawl and a turban, all white. His hands were left free at the request of the adjutant. Sepahi Sukhram folded them and remained in the tied up position with dry eyes staring at the river.
As the sun went crimson, the very young man started in a whisper, “Ganga Ma, Ganga Ma......”which soon became a loud chant. The Indian soldiers joined in involuntarily. The European soldiers looked nervously at the lieutenant who was standing near the cannon. Half the sun disappeared in the horizon. A British officer read out from a piece of paper. The drums rolled. The sepahis and Sukhram stopped chanting. The lieutenant by the cannon drew his sword and held it high above his head.As the sun was just about to disappear, the lieutenant lowered his sword forcefully as if to behead someone. The drums went silent. The port fire brushed on the touch hole. A deafening explosion followed.