Dana Shah Part 1
Half a dozen horsemen stopped in front of a small house in a village called Agradip in India. They dismounted as the officer-in-charge barked out an order. The officer,a Moghal, remained mounted. It was the first month of the Indian year coinciding with April, 1756. The Indian name for the month is Baisakh.
The Moghals were Muslims who ruled India until the British occupation. Moghal was derived from the Persian word Mongol, the nomadic Barbarians from central Asia. The most notorious Moghal was Timur-i-Lang or Timur the lame man who attacked India, then ruled by another Muslim dynasty. It is believed that Timur killed 50,000 unarmed able-bodied Indians in one hour! The first Moghal emperor of India, or Hindustan as they called it, had both Timur and Genghis Khan as his ancestors. In about a couple of centuries the Moghal empire started to decline but the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa were still functioning reasonably successfully in the 18th century under a nabab, the regional viceroy representing the emperor in Delhi.
The village of Agradip was in Bengal and the officer, named Beg, was dressed as a Moghal. He wore tight pyjmas and a full sleeved robe falling just below his knees. The lower part of the robe was pleated. A heavily embroidered sash tied tightly round his waist fell in front nearly up to his knees. A wide bladed sword in a scabbard adorned his left and a couple of knives tucked in the waist band completed his personal armoury. His white head-dress looked more like a loose cloth tight in the front but overhanging at the back. His six horsemen wore plain ankle length red kurtas and saffron turbans. They carried muskets slung over their shoulders.
Beg circled the house a few times but the horsemen known as sowers stroked their horses or drank a little water from baked clay flasks. They ignored the little boys and girls who gathered round them making a nuisance of themselves now and again. The village Agradip was quite near the coastal town of Catwa. By coastal one meant the coast of the river Hoogly which was known by other names as well. Catwa was about 40 miles south of Murshidabad the capital of Bengal in the year 1756. Both Catwa and Murshidabad were of course known to the nabab intimately but he heard of Agradip only recently. Rumours reached him that there were a number of rebels in the village who joined the ringleaders of plots to oust him from his position conferred upon him by the emperor in Delhi.
Beg stopped to wipe his brow with the end of his sash because, although it was only seven in the morning, the April sun was unpleasant for him particularly because of his heavy Moghal robe. He had a reputation for cruelty, the degree of it only surpassed by that of the young nabab, Sirajuddaula, himself. An orphan who impressed the last nabab, the grandfather of young Siraj, Beg was brought up nearly as a member of the royal household. He fancied himself to be of royal blood but even the underlings of the palace ignored him. The young nabab's mother pitied him while the begum, the nabab's wife, loathed Beg and it showed. All this made this Moghal officer aware that no matter how much day dreaming he did, he was not a part of the royal family.
This morning's task was ample proof of his lowly position in the Bengal Government. He was ordered by a Moghal officer to arrest the man whose house Beg just circled. The householder had to be brought to the nabab himself who was staying in the fort at Catwa for a few days.
The nabab was going to punish the householder himself, his crime being to build a brick house without royal permission.
Beg gave out a sudden yell. “Sons and daughters of black dogs,” he shouted and charged at the children. The youngsters had experience of such a situation. They dispersed quickly at which Beg stopped but shouted, “I will chop your heads off if I catch you.”
The sowers were natives of northwest India and they knew of the nature of these Moghals. This Moghal was not making empty threats. Like their lame hero of a few centuries ago beheading children was as insignificant as slicing a watermelon in two halves. The sowers talked between themselves; mounted their horses and chased the children out of Beg's reach. The sowers were Hindus. “You infidels,” shouted Beg. “Protecting your own, are you?” The sowers remained mounted. It was hard to say from their facial expressions whether they were afraid, contemptuous or indifferent.
The Moghal looked at the sky and cursed. The sowers looked at him and wondered if there was any Moghal or Afghan blood in him that had been diluted over the centuries. He was Indian. Therefore he should be used to the weather. After all it was Baisakh, the first month of the Indian year. Like the Hindu cycle of rebirth the year always begins only to end but begin again and again. The beginning unfortunately is oppressive. The earth dries and fissures as if the newborn year is protesting because birth brings in karma and rebirth for ever and ever if the karmas are incorrect.
It is the Indian way not to plan and execute a task to completion. Beg knew the house was empty so he moved on with his sowers and crossed the river on a few boats. Then they rode north for 10 miles to arrive at the village of Palashi. Beg made an inspection of the houses and then rode to the nearby mango grove. The grove was oblong, 300 yards wide and 800 yards long, the long end running parallel to the river. The grove was known as Lakshabag and contained 100,000 mango trees. Its northwestern side was about 80 yards and the southwestern corner about 200 yards from the river bank. Lakshabag was surrounded by a ditch and approximately a 4 feet high bank of earth.
Beg's horse trotted through the mango trees and then into the hunting lodge just a few yards northwest of Lakshabag. The hunting lodge was surrounded by a high wall and stood close to the river. Beg and his sowers decided to spend the hot afternoon inside the cool lodge.
In Agradip, the owner of the brick house,Raghu, returned with his wife, Savitri, son Gopal and daughter Malati. He was surprised to see nearly all the villagers waiting for him. One of them asked, “Where have you been Raghu?”
Raghu rubbed his eyes and looked at the faces around him. The villager repeated his question.
“Why?” asked Raghu. “What is the matter?”
“What is the matter!” retorted the concerned villager. He looked around as the other villagers nodded their heads.
“The nabab must be after you,” added the villager. “No less a person than Beg was hanging around your house this morning. You are in some kind of trouble; serious trouble.”
Raghu's blood ran cold. He swallowed and involuntarily grabbed the hand of Malati. He looked anxiously at Savitri and dragged Gopal towards himself. The nabab was only 18 years old. His grandfather the previous viceroy spoiled him. He was an unruly boy when his grandfather was alive. Now being on the masnad, the throne, himself what he would not do without the reins of his grandfather to restrain him!
The India of 1756 was in a state of disarray. The last most militarily powerful emperor Aurangzeb murdered his three brothers, put his father under confinement and took over the throne in 1656. His sole obsession seemed to be to denigrade the Hindus who refused to convert to Islam. He imposed arbitrary, punitive taxes on the kafirs only, who were the majority, and mounted military campaign to punish errant Maharajas and nababs alike. India approached disintegration as his reign ended in 1707 with his death. There were successive emperors in Delhi after his demise but they ruled only nominally and one of them proved to be no match for Nadir Shah of Persia, a Turk from Khurasen, who invaded India in 1738. The invader murdered gratuitously, like Timur-i-Lang before him , 30,000 civilians in one day and looted gold and precious stones including the peacock throne from Delhi. However, he decided to return to Persia quickly with a thousand elephants, several hundred artisans and of course women.
With time, the provincial rulers became independent of the emperor at Delhi for all practical purposes. Nabab Sirajuddaula of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa had only a tenuous link with the Moghal emperor. The people under their rule were ignored and they suffered from their own predatory rulers and also from marauding Marhatas who were Hindus from the west coast of India. There was tax to pay any time the nabab so demanded. The women were unsafe so much so that they hid themselves each time the nabab or his henchmen passed through their area. Nobody dared lead an affluent life style even if that was possible. Mud huts as dwelling places were permitted. Building a brick house was an offence unless prior permission was obtained from the nabab's officials.
The villagers of Agradip had spent the large part of the day conjecturing about the reason for Beg's visit that morning. Let us face it, they thought, the Moghal brought with him six sowers, enough manpower to put all the residents of Agradip to sword but they did not kill anybody. Therefore it was likely that he was simply looking for a brick house to occupy for a few days as the headquarters for some sort of campaign. On the other hand Raghu might not have paid his taxes. It could well be that they came to abduct the daughter, Malati, as an addition to the nabab's harem. The daughter was a pretty sixteen year old and she was jolly.
“That's it,” said her mother quite irritated. “How many times have I told you not to go about talking to strange men. Even this morning she was flirting with men we have never met before in the market place.”
Malati became weepy immediately. It was in her nature to be elated in anticipation only of a possible favourable event. Equally she got hurt if her family admonished her for something she had not done knowingly.
The son protested, “But mother, she is just happy.”
The mother snapped back at the son. “And you are 18 years old! You should help me knock some sense into this girl. If you don't you have got a wayward sister on your hands.”
A villager added, “Listen to your mother girl or you will end up in the clutches of Sirajuddaula. And when he is finished with you his soldiers will have you. Where will you go then because the Hindus will not accept you back in their fold!” Another said, “You will have to become a Mussalman.” “Ah, Ram, Ram,” muttered the villagers with a genuine sense of foreboding.
Raghu was composed by the time he had his midday meal and a nap. He was very confident about the safety of his family because he had been working at John Company's main office in the city of Calcutta for the last 15 years; John company was the notorious East India Company of India. He started as an accounts clerk but now he was a section leader with direct responsibility to one of the writers, a red-skin straight from England. Raghu was popular among the British community and could even boast of having a friend who was a Beelati sahib. In fact he was an Irishman, a lowly infantryman, called Strahan by Indians. The friendship started like this.
Once promoted to the position of section leader, his salary was now high. So Raghu decided to lash out on a suit like the sahibs. He thought that if he came to work dressed up in a long coat and trousers, he would cause a stir beause he would be the first native to deny being an Indian to become a sahib willingly. Seeing him dressed like this the bosses in England would surely promote him further once the news reached them!
The tailor took some time to make the suit for him. One evening after work he wore his suit and went for a stroll in the eastern part of Calcutta known as the black town. He stopped abruptly as he bumped into Strahan who frowned and then shouted, “Is that you Raghu?” Upon being asked why he was dressed like that Raghu gave his reason truthfully. The Irishman had no hesitation in calling him a fool. He then explained that the sahibs dress the way they do at home. It does not mean that the natives should copy them. In fact the bosses want the natives to stay within their own culture. Strahan emphasised that the sahibs were very strict about that. Raghu was not averse to taking heed of warnings particularly from a friend like Strahan who had a very good working knowledge of the Bengali language. “What do I do about this?” asked Raghu. “Would you like to have it?”
“You must be joking,” said Strahan. “Only the bosses dress like that. I will be shot if I am seen in one of them.”
Raghu just had to throw it away in the river one day. He was nevertheless relieved that he would not have to dress up as a sahib. At any rate, apart from a good salary, he had a few profitable sidelines.
Money being plentiful he built a brick house in Agradip recently. Raghu did not ask for the nabab's permission because it was rare to get an affirmative answer from the royal officials. A Muslim stood a chance; but a Hindu! It was out of the question. Not so long ago, according to his grandfather, a Hindu was not allowed to ride a horse. It was the right of a Muslim nobleman to carry away a Hindu's daughter or wife or any female relation for sexual gratification if he so pleased.
Things were not very much better in 1756 but Raghu was perspicacious. He worked out the future of India. He was convinced that both Hindus and Muslims of his land were intellectually underdeveloped and the country was divided. On the other hand, the Anglo-Celtic races had a very superior cunning. They were more able than the French and the Dutch who were desperate to occupy India. Raghu was certain that the British would be the new masters soon at least of Bengal. Since Raghu was their faithful servant, the sahibs would protect him and his family from danger.
Agradip was his ancestral village going back a couple of centuries. He wanted something better than the mud house left to him. The accommodation was spacious and on its own grounds but he wanted a brick house as one sees them in the white town of Calcutta. The problem was that as soon as his house was completed by builders from Calcutta, the villagers shunned him and his family. Nobody spoke to him for a full year. They came round this morning quite probably to gloat over their affluent neighbour's misfortune.
Raghu lived in a mud hut in the black town of Calcutta. The irony was that he had been planning for sometime to take his family to Calcutta and leave his house and arable land in the capable hands of the man from a neighbouring village who acted as, one might say, his manager for quite some time.
“I have an idea,” said Raghu to his wife. “Let us go to Calcutta right away.” “How is that possible?” questioned Savitri. “We have to make arrangements. There is packing to do and can we get a place on the ferry?”
Raghu dismissed the first part of his wife's question. He said that the four of them would finish the packing in no time. If, however, things got left behind, it won't matter. His wife could spend days and buy whatever she needed or fancied in the city.
Of course the question of transport needed serious consideration. As his wife said the most suitable transport system was the ferry. The majority travelled by the river because transport by boats was well established and organised. The only other way of going to Calcutta was by a bullock cart, a form of transport although available was not as reliable. At any rate, Calcutta being some 80 miles from Agradip, it would take them a week's travelling at least. The roads were bad and unsafe. If nothing else happened, the Thuggies would murder them for sure. The rogues would probably sacrifice their son, Gopal, to mother Kali.
Raghu decided to see his steadfast friend, fakir Dana Shah. One could describe a fakir as a Muslim holy man. Dana Shah was certainly a man of faith who prayed five times a day and engaged in charitable work. They both grew up together and when the villagers became envious of Raghu because of his brick house and abandoned him, Dana Shah stood firm in his friendship.
Raghu walked slowly through the narrow lanes made by the clusters of mud houses and then turned southeast. He walked the one half of a mile to the river bank where the fakir was washing himself which was mandatory for a Muslim before he faced west and prayed. Raghu waited indifferently at a distance.
Dana Shah was a small wiry man and bearded. He listened to Raghu as they both sat side by side on the river bank. The fakir cleared his throat and spat before saying, “Toba,toba. You are in trouble.”
As they both sat on the river bank, Dana Shah went on talking about the tyrannical Moghal emperors and their nababs with their underlings. Raghu pretended to listen but in fact he did not. He opened his mouth and then moved his mandible up every so often. The next step was to spit in the direction of the river through his closed front teeth by manipulating his tongue. He had nearly forgotten the art of doing this or, if he was a sahib, he would be obliged to say the science of spitting through closed teeth. Art or science did not matter to him but he had a problem. The problem was John Company or rather the red-skins it attracted from Beelat who had peculiar ways. Spitting is prohibited; blowing your nose in the air is prohibited.
They expect you to keep your lips together while you are in the process of eating; ha- how do you chew! “And another thing,” said Raghu with an unnecessarily loud voice, “you can't belch after a meal-ha.”
But Dana was not paying any attention either. He was not talking simply because he was busy spitting through his teeth following the example of his dear friend. In a moment he said abruptly, “You must go back to Calcutta. I think it was Miran who sent Beg to your house. You know Miran whose father married the young nabab's grandfather's half sister. They are after your daughter and son. Miran hates Hindus. He wants to convert the young ones so that their children will be Mussalmans; toba,toba.”
“Oh, ma-Kali,” shouted Raghu closing his eyes and folding his palms.
“A boat leaves at five in the morning,” said Dana. “I know the Head majhi. We will go and speak to him right now.” A majhi is a boatman.
“Another thing,” said Dana Shah. “Go and bathe in the river. Then give puja to your personal devata.”
Devatas are usually, but not always, unseen forces. They could also be visible such as certain animals and a specific tree or two. Devatas shine and give. Rather than using the blanket term one should say deva and devi the male and female powers respectively. Puja is a ritual which entails looking after one's chosen deva or devi. Some give puja to many devatas at a time to ensure that one of them at least would grant his or her wish if asked.
“I will give puja tomorrow,” said Raghu.
This irritated Dana Shah. He shouted, “That's your trouble. The devatas are there to help you. How can they if you don't ask?”
The Raghu family packed as many things as they could and arrived at the landing stage, ghat in the Bengali language, the following morning.They were about one and a half hour before the time of departure but there was no sign of the Head majhi or his men.
Time has not got much importance among the Hindus of India. They believe in an entity called atma, translated by the British as soul, which cannot be seen nor have the Hindus been able to define or describe it. They believe, however, that atma is eternal. A being, whether an insect or a large animal comprises the body and atma which resides in the former. The body decomposes and disintegrates upon death but the atma may take residence in another geometric form. It may go on hopping from body to body. Eventually a time comes when it is free of embodiment. Until then there is such a superfluity of time to squander in inaction!
Raghu always liked to listen and learn from the village kaviraj, the practitioner of Aurvedic medicine, who was very well versed in the ancient Indian literature but he was not enthusiastic about puja and other rituals. However, for some reason, Dana's admonishment of Raghu shook him. He said to himself that the fakir was excessively religious and he was not always right. He dutifully chanted petitionary mantras, composed by himself if necessary, to devatas and gave puja to them whenever danger lurked round the corner or when placating a deva or devi increased the probability of material profit.In the cool morning when the sun, a deva, was still asleep, Raghu's family lay on their backs on the river bank and slept. Raghu himself decided to bathe because bathing in river Bhagirati was itself good karma since the Bengalis called it Bhagirati but she was actually Ma Ganga, a devi. Waist deep in water he muttered, “Devi Bhagirati, Devi Ganga guard my family; give us safe journey to the protection of the sahibs in Calcutta.He then faced east and remembered his parents. He made obeisance to his grandparents and all the bygone ancestors now scattered through an infinite number of bodily cages. When his day came, he would pause a while to appreciate his unseen and unknown progenitors before moving on again. Raghu took his gamchha off his left shoulder, a thin piece of absorbent cloth used as a towel and a handkerchief, and wrapped it round his waist to detach his dhoti which he washed in the flowing stream. He rose to spread the washed dhoti on the bank to dry and returned to the river. He took three dips in the water, and standing waist deep in the river recited a few mantras in Sanskrit. He then joined his palms together and separated them below the water surface before scooping a small amount of devi Ganga with his right hand and drinking it.Raghu wiped his torso and rubbed his head with the gamchha, wrapped it round his waist and climbed up to the bank. By then the crimson sun was just beginning its ascent in the eastern horizon.
An hour later the Head majhi appeared with his crew and, without any exchange of words, the Raghu family came aboard.Typically, the boat did not possess a keel; it was flat bottomed with two sails of canvas torn in places. Men rowed and used a large paddle to steer the boat. As it moved smoothly, the boatmen made a rythmic panting sound while rowing upstream. Raghu looked worried as he stood watching the bank for a while. “Eh majhi,”he said in a concerned voice, “We should be going south not north as you are doing. We are going to Calcutta. Didn't you know?” The Head majhi ignored him. Raghu sulked but his children were animated with excitement. They watched as the boat passed Catwa and then the village of Palashi. About a mile upstream the river turned nearly east. “Look,look,” shouted Malati, “Mango trees; hundreds of them.” Gopal and his mother also watched. The trees were full of green mangoes hanging like little parrots upside down. They all watched with excitement as the boat came close to the nabab's hunting lodge; first a strip of narrow flat land and small shrubs along the building. A flight of five steps led up to a high wall. They could see another perimeter wall behind it with arched openings, five on either side of the steps. Beyond those were seven taller openings which led to the inside of the lodge. There were two high pillars one on either side of the building. At the front corners of the flat roof stood two small minerets. At the edge of the lodge, they noticed a tall peepul tree.
The river then made a loop and came back west for about a mile and a quarter before sweeping north in an arc. It turned east again up to the end of the first loop before resuming a northern track. The boat passed Daudpur, Mancar and then stopped at Kasimbazar.
“This is river Kasimbazar,” announced the Head majhi.
Raghu disagreed. “No no. The sahibs call it that but actually it is Bhagirati.”
Gopal added,”But we call her ma Ganga, don't we ?”
“It is that as well,” replied Raghu. mechanically. He was thinking. It was evening which meant spending the night on the boat. The problem was how to provide food for his family. There were no cooks with the Head majhi and they were all hungry. Getting up so early in the morning and running to the ghat gave them no time for breakfast. First time in their life probably they missed lunch and afternoon tea. He was not sure of the safety aspect of Kasimbazar in the evening but, inspite of his apprehension, Raghu had to leave the boat and take his family to town which was busy and well lit with torches. The main road was bustling with carts drawn by camels and oxen. Men and women were just walking. Shops of all kinds were full of customers. A particular sight drew the Raghu family's attention. “Peculiar,” said Savitri. “Never seen anybody dressing like that. How can he stand with all those clothes on him in this heat!” The man in question was a black Englishman, that is, an Indian dressed up as a European. He was swearing in English at the many urchins who gathered round him shouting 'sahib,sahib....'. The man went on admonishing them in English which the boys did not understand. Raghu recalled his own attempt a while ago. It looked as if neither the red-skins nor the natives liked a black Englishman. 'My gratitude to you Strahan sahib,' he said to himself.
They moved on looking for a restaurant or hotel as the Indians were apt to call an eatery.
Although hungry, the children stopped frequently to watch what was going on. A Moghal grandee went past on horse back with sowers carrying long javelins. A palanquin or palki as Indians called it carried a European with armed guards in front and rear. The children craned their necks to have a good look at him but the passenger had so many items of clothing on and he wore such a large hat that it was nearly impossible to see his face. Raghu's wife marvelled again at the impracticality of wearing so many layers of clothes in weather like this. Raghu tried to explain that that was how they dressed back home; a very cold country. They did not want to copy the natives' way of dressing because that would mean giving up their own customs and traditions and of course lowering their high standards.
They stopped to watch as Raghu pointed out what was known as John Company's factory, a big brick built warehouse with a very large front door for bullock carts to get in. A few yards from there was a hotel where they ate. The rui fish was highly spicy and tasted wonderful. It was the only meal of the day and the first experience of Raghu's family in eating out. They ate so much rice that they could just about walk back to the boat. There was a lot of activity when they returned. Coolies were loading the boat with calico, silk, indigo, saltpetre and many other things. They watched for a while and then slept.
The boat sailed again in the opposite direction when the eastern sky was just taking on a multi-coloured hue of gold, silver and pink the following morning.The riverbanks were lined with peepul and tamarind trees with a variety of birds flying off from the branches.Wild deer looked at the boat with curiosity and peacocks and peahens trotted about aimlessly. Men and women started to bathe and wash their discarded clothes in the river. Fishermen caught fish with large nets; they greeted the boatmen.
They passed Catwa again. Raghu's wife sighed. It looked as if a large, happy part of her life ebbed away for ever. The children observed with great curiosity as the boat passed Patli, khulna, Niaserai and then Chandernagar.
“How far is Calcutta father?” asked Gopal.
Raghu replied, “Not far; about 20 more miles.”
The boat sailed downstream effortlessly. The boatmen sang Bengali ballads. Raghu settled down a bit because, although there were dangers, life was quite safe for people in the black town of the city. It was not as clean as Agradip but his family would soon get used to it. He thought about such things but he was unaware of the turmoil in Agradip that morning.
As Raghu travelled, Miran set off from the fort at Catwa. Beg had informed him about the brick house the night before. The Moghal was indignant particularly when he heard that the householder could not be apprehended and punished. The village was known to him. It was dominated by Hindus and he noticed some rebellious trends in them. This he blamed on the grandfather of the present nabab. The old fool would not allow anybody to punish the villagers. Now that he was dead, it was the right time to teach these dogs a lesson.
At about eight in the morning, the villagers were summoned to bring money as tax for the nabab.In fact of course Miran had no intention of handing the money over to the treasury in Murshidabad. He had his own life style to maintain and that needed money; a lot of it. Miran sat under a banyan tree on what looked like a throne. Two liveried attendants fanned him with large fans made out of palm leaves. Beg stood alongside him and a dozen guards made an arc behind the throne with spears in their hands. Miran was dressed in the typical fashion of a Moghal grandee with a red waistcoat embroidered with pearls, jewels and gold. His elephant stood at a diatance munching at green leaves, richly caparisoned. Miran shouted at the assembled men, “where is the owner of the brick house?” Nobody answered even though the Moghal grandee asked a few times. “Right,” said Miran and gave instructions to Beg.
A soldier dragged the first man he could lay his hands on from the crowd and tied him up to a tree. Beg proceeded with a large fat cane and struck a blow with full force on his bare back. The man yelled, “Hey Bhagaban.” Who or what Bhagaban is has not been defined exactly in Hinduism. He is unseen and powerful. He protects anybody if asked.
The man yelled at the second lashing again. As Beg struck him repeatedly, the helpless man's yellings changed to whimpers until there was no sound from him.He was cut down and dumped a little distance away so as not to offend Miran's eyes. Miran was at the point of getting another villager to whip to death when a sweating, panting Dana Shah came running and stood in front of the Moghal. While trying to get his breath back, he postured and bowed to acknowledge the superior position of the man on the throne. From his skullcap and beard Miran concluded correctly that the man in front of him was a Muslim. “What are you?” asked Miran. “Who are you?
“I am fakir Dana Shah janab,” answered the man. Janab can be paraphrased as 'your excellency'
Miran stroked his moustache with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand and passed his palm over his bearded chin vertically. “I want to know where the owner of this brick house is.” asked Miran.
“He is not in Agradip obviously,” replied Dana Shah.
Miran frowned and touched the handle of his sword in the scabbard as he said, “Are you trying to be funny?”
The fakir was seething inside with anger and hatred. He had seen the bloody body of his neighbour. He restrained himself by biting his lip and said calmly, “No janab. I am merely stating the truth.”
“Where is he?”
“He has gone to Calcutta.”
Miran started to stroke his beard again. He had heard of these Feringees. They were apparently after conquering India. His own father was the commander-in-chief of the nabab's army. He was aware that the red-skins were building forts for themselves in India. He felt irritated at his father's lack of foresight and energy.
“Tell these men then,” said Miran, “to pay up their taxes.”
“Janab,” replied Dana Shah. “They have already paid their annual tax. It is impossible to pay another. It is the month of Baisakh. We have to wait another two months before the Monsoon starts. By the time we harvest, it will be a few more months when we can have the wherewithal to pay our tax.
“This village is irregular in paying the nabab's due. What do you say to that?”
“We always pay our rightful dues janab.” answered Dana Shah.
Miran shouted, “Are you calling me a liar?”
“I am not, janab,” answered the fakir politely.
“You are a kafir,” shouted Miran. “Why do you hang around with these filthy idol worshippers?”
“They are my kith and kin.”
“How?” Miran was genuinely puzzled.
“My ancestors were Hindu. Someone in my immediate family converted to Islam;
hence I am a muslim. My religion may be different from the one you just whipped to death but I am a Bengali; same as him. I am an Indian, same as my dead neighbour was. You have no right to be in this country. You are the interloper.”
“You are insolent,” shouted Miran. He was particularly angry because it was a sore point with him that the young nabab had inclinations to befriend Hindus. One Mohan Lall, a Kashmiri, was his trusted lieutenant. In fact they were nearly inseparable friends. Miran repeated, “You insolent ugly kafir.” Dana Shah's mouth twisted. He was still fuming at the plight of the now dead villager The dead man was a husband and a father. His aged parents were dependent on him. Who would now look after his family? He was the only breadwinner. As he thought in this manner, he became contemptuous of Beg and this Moghal. He wanted to chastise the two of them; lunge forward and put a sword through Miran's miserable heart. Instead Miran stood up and drew his sword. “Answer me,” he demanded.
“I am only a humble villager,” retorted Dana Shah. “How dare I be insolent to so grand a person as you!”
“Are you going to pay or not?”
“We can't pay,” replied Dana Shah shaking his head. “We barely got enough to feed ourselves.”
Miran shouted at Beg. “Here is your ringleader. Bury him up to the neck; pour honey on his head and leave him for the ants.”
But Beg could not commandeer any villager who would do the digging. He could not order the soldiers to do the job either because they would feel insulted if asked to undertake such a lowly task. Beg was not so stupid as to antagonise a group of armed Hindus.
The sun by then had reached the vicinity of the polar centre of the sultry sky. The earth stood in silent awe apprehending the calamity that was soon to encircle the villagers.
Beg and Miran discussed the situation in whispers. The Moghals did not believe in killing someone relatively humanely such as by beheading. The victim had to be tortured. In all circumstances, death would have to be slow in coming. A man must suffer beforehand because, after all, death brings the end to suffering. Thus Beg said that the best course of action for this ugly fakir was death after torturing him in front of his friends. So a barber was summoned. He asked for the fakir's forgiveness and then shaved his head as commanded. The trouble with barbers is the inevitable cuts they would leave so when one of Miran's minions rubbed salt and lime juice on Dana's head, he cried in agony which pleased the Moghals. In no time the fakir was dragged to a bullock cart which was commandeered from one of the villagers. On the cart sat Dana Shah and a soldier beside him. He held an elastic cane bent backwards from Dana and against his nose. It was a cruel way of deforming a person because if the top end of the cane was released, it would shear the bulk of the nose off. If it missed the nose, the cane might shear part of the lips or simply inflict a painful gash in the cheek. Dana Shah sat quitely with his eyes shut tight.The bullock cart ws open. In that unbearable heat and fright, the fakir perspired profusely.A villager ran to him with water. At this, Miran walking slowly with Beg, ran forward, caught the villager by his long hair and slit his throat with a knife which Beg handed to him. He threw the knife to Beg and shouted that he would kill anyone who tried to assist this fakir. The bullock cart rolled through the narrow alleyways surrounded by mud huts. The villagers were made to follow. Turning to Beg Miran queried, “Are there no women in this village?”“Bring out the women,” shouted Beg at the soldiers. Some of the soldiers entered the huts and made a thorough search. Not unexpectedly to them, the women had disappeared into thin air. That was how it was in India. Invaders came through the far away Khyber pass and subdued the rulers of kingdoms whether Hindu or Muslim. It was easy for them because the Indians always found a reason to divide themselves so that the foreign invader could rule without opposition. The rulers who allowed the foreigners easy access to India were themselves despotic. They had allegience to themselves only and the country and people did not count.The men would be beaten, deformed and killed and the women had to offer themselves as and when the rulers and their hangers-on demanded. Nevertheless, humans are resilient. History shows that even a mass murderer has not been able to exterminate a people. Some fortunately escape the worst most of the time. The news of Miran's visit spread fast and the villagers gave their long established plan to effect. The men stayed back but the women ran as far as they could into the nearby forest. If the men took the first brunt, it was unlikely the nabab's men would have the energy left for the women. Beg became frustrated and angry. He ordered the houses to be burnt. The crows gave alarm. They cawed coarsely and flew away from their perched positions. The very dry thatched roofs caught fire readily. The unwelcome flames rose lazily in the still air. Black smoke curled upwards as if reluctantly.The villagers looked on from a diatance. They anticipated this and began to talk among themselves ignoring the Moghals and their soldiers. All this meant rebuilding or founding a village for themselves somewhere else. That of course was not a problem. The land was so rich that it gave food in abundance. River Bhagirati gave them fish. There were wild fowls if anyone wanted them for meals. For the vegetarians there was a variety of seasonal vegetables. Most households produced their own butter and curds. The villagers were proficient in using hand-looms to produce cloths. Devi Prakriti, nature, was kind to them because people never abused her. They led a self sufficient healthy life but not a profligate one like the Moghals. They knew they would make good again. If not, there was always work at the British factories in Kasimbazar or Calcutta. There were other factories in Dutch Chinsura or in French Chandernagar. Life would be enjoyable as before if only they could survive today.A few soldiers galloped ahead to find boats and boatmen to ferry them across the river to Catwa. The soldier with Dana Shah whispered to him, “My arms are getting stiff. Keep alert and open your eyes. If the cane slips, I will gasp. You make sure that you move your head back at once. Soon Miran released the bullock cart and Dana Shah was made to stand as the village blacksmith was forced to put him in leg irons. Half a dozen horsemen, two abreast, drew their swords and took up positions on the earthly road. Miran appeared behind them on his elephant. More horsemen positioned themselves behind the elephant. At the end stood Dana Shah and a column of infantrymen. They moved until they came to fort Catwa. Unknown to Miran and Beg the infantrymen found a place for Dana Shah to hitch a ride in one of the supply wagons.The fakir was dumped in a corner of the parade ground with two soldiers to guard him. They gave him water to drink once the Moghals with their retinue were out of sight. He was even allowed to wash and pray as darkness fell. In due course, they gave him a dozen chapatis, dahl and spiced vegetables which they cooked themselves as was the custom.The fakir joked “What a thing to do you up-countrymen! Don't you know a Bengali has to have rice and fish!” “Tut, tut,” said one of the soldiers. “We are both brhmins and vegetarians.”“Our Bengali brahmins eat fish,” said Dana Shah.“We know,” said the other soldier. “Bad that; very bad.”Dana was starving. Hunger does not discriminate against food. He ate all the twelve chapatis and drank water; a lot of water. It was all delicious.He asked, “What have I done wrong?”
“I don't know” replied one of the soldiers who were sitting by him cross-legged. “Who knows what the nabab thinks, what pleases him, what displeases?”
Dana Shah felt feverish. He lay down on the grass and fixed his eyes on the cloudless sky. The crickets made the familiar, monotonous noise continuously. He hoped that Raghu made it to Calcutta; his dear friend Raghu, now probably lost to him for ever. He wondered if the monsoon would be good this year. He thought of his house in Agradip with mulberry trees for silkworms and the loom in his verandah. The topimen from Beelat had an insatiable demand for cloth, cotton and silk. In fact they were for ever looking for merchandise. At that very moment, Dana Shah resolved to concentrate on his loom. He, in all probability, would become a very rich merchant.
Very early in the morning, while still in deep sleep, a soldier kicked him. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. Those kindly soldiers were gone. This strange one shouted, “Stand up.”In front of him was standing the young nabab. Dana Shah guessed by the way he was dressed and by his demeanour. On his right, a few feet away, stood Miran and Beg. Two Moghal noblemen stood close to him on his left. Some five yards behind him waited Mohan Lall and Mir Madan, the suba's, that is the nabab's, most close friends and very high ranking military officers. They were mounted on horses as was the military officer, in charge of the fort, a few feet to the left of them. The suba's horse stood between Mohan Lall and Mir Madan without a rider of course.Beyond them, on horseback, waited Monsieur Jean Law and St Frais, the Head of the French factory at Ksimbazar and the chief gunner of the French army respectively. In effect Jean Law was the Governor of the French Metropolitan Territoris in northern India as Bussy was in southern India and St Frais was his chief of army staff. Behind them stood elephants and horses with appropriate riders, infantrymen, supply wagons, palanquins and carts full of weapons. The nabab must have been visiting the fort and now going on a military campaign judging by the cannons pulled by bulls, thought Dana. “Speak up, You ugly imbecile,” shouted Sirajuddaula.Dana Shah's fevered brow oozed beads of sweat. His ankles burnt as the chains round them cut deeper and deeper whenever the ball moved. He tried to speak but his teeth just chattered and no words came out of his lips.
The nabab turned to Miran briefly and said while looking at the prisoner, “An organiser of rebellion you say. But he does not speak!”
Beg came forward. He said with a sardonic twist of his mouth, “I will make him speak, Siraj.” Siraj shouted and slapped him hard. “Get this upstart out of here.” Miran nodded in Beg's direction, who dutifully sidled out rubbing his cheek.
“Forgive the interruption janab,” said Miran. “He is the ringleader of a whole village full of traitors.We are arranging for his punishment.”
“Surely,” said Siraj. “There can be only one punishment. Behead the rascal.”
The first nobleman whispered, “Sir, he is a muslim.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Siraj. He thought for a few seconds and then said, “Cut his nose and ears off. Make sure he does not die of bleeding and then let him loose. He will look so revolting that no one will come near him. He will have no followers to support his misdeeds.”
Miran nodded and mumbled, “Will do.”
The young ruler of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa flew into a rage again. He shouted “Will do! Get on with it right away. I want to see it before I depart for Calcutta.” “It will take time janab,” said the second nobleman . “A barber will have to be called. The operation must be carried out carefully” “Shut up,” shouted Siraj. “I am surrounded by imbeciles”
In a fraction of a second he took out a knife from his waist band, pinned Dana Shah to the ground and cut off his left ear; then the right. He turned the prisoner on his back and proceeded to cut his nose but a strong hand grabbed his wrist while Dana cried “What have I done wrong janab?” looking at both of them. He cried and groaned and went silent. Mohan Lall twisted the suba's wrist and soon the knife dropped on the ground. Mir Madan came over, lifted him by his left arm and led him to the horse. The Head of the prison arranged for the bleeding fakir to be taken to the fort for medical care.
Mir Madan raised his left arm in the air while mounted on his horse and captains and sergeants barked out orders. The vast array of carts, animals and humans moved forward.
The ruler of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, nabab Sirajuddaula sulked as he rode between two of his elite Generals. In a while, he said reproachfully, “You assaulted me.”
Mohan Lall raised his voice as he said, “You inflicted severe pain upon a man without hesitation. You humiliated him for life! You are a spoilt, recalcitrant young man.”
“I am the suba!” said Siraj blandly.
A very irritated Mir Madan shouted, “Then try to act like one!”