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- India & South Asia Political & Social Issues
By Prof A.D.Sarkar
Hihiri Pipiri, they say, was the place where the first Indians arrived, lived, multiplied and spread out all over the natural geographical unit that was the political map of India under British rule. Not unexpectedly, the ancient past of Hihiri Pipiri was not known by everybody in the year 1935. Even the name got corrupted and it came to be known as Hiripiri.
In 1935 Hiripiri was a large industrial town with running water, electricity and unmetalled but well-maintained ochre earthly roads. The town of course was created by a British Company with its headquarters in the city of Calcutta. It also had a London office with a large staff to advise the Indian headquarters over matters of management generally and trade. There was a spacious hospital in Hiripiri providing medical care. The jobs of the employees, as in Calcutta, were assured for life. In line with private firms in India, provision for pension was non-existent for the employees at Hiripiri but the Company paid a lump sum at retirement called the Provident Fund. This allowed a retiring employee and his family to live comfortably although he had to vacate the house which was provided free throughout his working life. He never had to pay for electricity, water and property maintenance. A prudent employee could save some of his salary which provided another nest egg for his old age.
In Hiripiri the same Company established factories of all kinds; iron, steel and what was popularly known as brass foundries; rolling mills; large machine shops; factories making specialised bricks for high temperature furnaces. The management staff was one hundred per cent British , mostly Anglo-Saxons and Scots and of course white. In public perception, there was no such thing as a black Britisher those days. To an Indian in India there were three distinct groups. These were the whites, natives and the Anglo-Indians who formed a class by themselves.
The sahibs that is the British lived exclusively in a colony in spacious bungalows with well-maintained gardens.
The sahibs were self contained within that colony. Thus there were such amenities as a European club, golf course, tennis courts and gravelled wide boulevards. There was no question of the sahibs' zones being contaminated by the presence of the dirty natives except the servants who were indispensable. The Anglo-Indians had their own colony as well although their houses were not so grand to look at. Well away from these two classes lived thousands of natives in terraced houses. If the rank of a native was high in the Company, his house was relatively spacious with two large bedrooms, a small sitting room, a kitchen and a bathroom.
Inside such a house there was enough space for vegetable and flower patches. People were known to grow cauliflower, cabbage, pineapple or pumpkins. They had room for large trees of mango, lychee, guava or pomegranate.
The Anglo-Indians were referred to by the natives simply as Anglos and the Britishers as sahibs. Mind you, these pukka sahibs had to be distinguished from the self styled artificial natives who managed to westernise themselves at least in how they dressed. Naturally they wanted the lesser breeds to know that they had difficulty in communicating in what obviously was their mother tongue. These suit- wearing Indians were called by the rest of their compatriots as Kala Sahibs, kala translating literally as black, tied-up or non-tied up meaning, respectively, tie wearing or non-tie wearing.
Hiripiri was in what today is West Bengal, a state in the eastern region of north India. Its natives were Bengalis as in modern times but they wore ankle length dhoti generally and a kurta. The older sophisticated gentlemen used to have a folded shawl, chador, slung over their, usually, left shoulder. The ambition of many young Bengalis was to avoid manual work and become clerks in offices.
It was the heartfelt wish of many to work for a private British Company, there being two main reasons for this. Firstly, if you were working for an Indian employer you are likely to find, if you went for a holiday or been absent due to illness, that your service has been terminated; on the other hand even a worker prone to evade legitimate work may not be sacked in a British establishment. He will not be ashamed that he was the passenger to be supported by his co-workers. Secondly, it was a matter of supreme prestige in his society for an Indian to be able to boast of a pukka sahib from Beelat, England or Scotland and the British Isles generally, as the ultimate boss such as the manager of a department. It did not matter that his immediate supervisor might be a babu, that is a Bengali who is an office worker and the sahib himself may not even know of his existence in his department.
Kartik babu, that is, Mr. Kartik Mandal was a proud man because, effectively, the most important sahib in the company, the Commercial Manager, Mr. James Stuart knew him personally and gave him the task of doing the accounts in the Company Guest House. The guest house was important for the management because there was no hotel in Hiripiri or its outskirts which could cater exclusively for Europeans. There were various types of European visitors for the Company. Some came for business from Calcutta or other far away places in India. These stayed for a few days only. Others were long term residents staying up to six months.They were usually young bachelors who came for factory experience from Calcutta or occasionally even from Britain.
The guest house had 20 self contained rooms. Each room had an attached bathroom, four sofas, coffee table and a writing desk.The residents had access to the common dining room whose kitchen was used for both the residents of the guest house and the European club which was built in the same compound. The kitchen was connected to the European club by an enclosed pathway. The guests were provided with billiard rooms, a bar and a ballroom.
The natives had a club of their own, built and maintained by the Company, which housed a small library and a stage for drama or other performances. There was an open auditorium without any chairs. The natives' main form of entertainment was to gossip when gathered at the club, stage amateur dramas and read books in Bengali borrowed from the club library.
On the opposite side of the auditorium, there was a plot of land where a few played badminton, basketball or volleyball. Close to the club there was a full-sized football ground for the natives. Europeans or Anglo-Indians never participated although, occasionally, a sahib or two would come to watch a special game.
The Commercial Manager was pretty high up in the Company hierarchy and he was known by people like Kartik babu as Ishtuad sahib. For some reason, Ishtuad sahib checked the affairs of the guest house personally. It was unusual because apart from being a high official of the Company himself, his brother was a Knight of the realm of Beelat. The brother was the Managing Director of the Calcutta office and hence with total jurisdiction over the Hiripiri factory. Come Friday evening, Ishtuad sahib will go off to Calcutta and not return to Hiripiri till late Monday morning. Rest of the week he will arrive at the guest house at eight in the morning and have a look at the accounts which Kartik babu produced faithfully in a ledger. He would then check the menu for the day which was typed by Kartik babu according to the details given to him by the cook. The typing was on yellowing paper and continued on the reverse side. Each dining table was provided with a menu sheet upon which was placed a paper weight for fear of it being blown away by the electric ceiling fan. Ishtuad sahib would look at the menu carefully but he seldom offered any criticism about the details. After reading the menu, however, he would shout at Kartik babu who stood reverentially near him. Ishtuad sahib, whether to exert his authority or just to keep Kartik Mandal right, would find an excuse to shout at the babu. Typically, he might pick on a tablecloth with gravy stain on it. He would grab Kartik Mandal's ear and point to the table cloth. “You don't do your job properly; you good-for-nothing fellow,” he would say.
Kartik babu would respond right away. “Yaash Shaar,” he would say and ask the bearer, a servant, to fetch the dhobi, the washerman. In a mixture of English, Bengali and Hindi, the babu would shout at the dhobi. For good measure, he might even slap the back of his head. The dhobi would react instantaneously by threatening him in a hushed tone but Kartik Mandal was justly confident that the washerman would not dare raise his hand at him in retaliation in front of a very very high caste Beelati sahib. All Kartik babu had to do was to avoid the dhobi for a day or two and the whole episode would be superceded by some other incident involving other members of staff. Of course the dhobi would not dare supply the guest house with stained table cloth for several weeks. The Commercial Manager in the mean time would watch the proceedings with an expressionless face and say a few words to Kartik babu after the dhobi and the other servants had left.
“You are an idiot,” he would say to Kartik babu. It was the same routine each time Kartik babu would scrutinise the floor with his eyes for a few seconds when the sahib would point his finger at him and say, “What are you.” Kartik babu would stand to attention. The back of his right hand would land flatly on his forehead. Ishtuad sahib would let the babu remain fixed in that position and raise his voice while repeating his question, “What are you?”
The Commercial Manager would move away to go to his own office in the administration building in the factory about half a mile from the guest house. He would walk.
On other occasions, he would pick up the menu sheet and demand to know why the typing was not straight. He might at times shout at him because the breakfast dishes at a table or two were not cleared away. It did not occur to either of them that Kartik babu's job was to type the menu sheets and do the accounts only.
Nobody knew from whom or what institution Mr. Kartik Mandal learnt his English but it was unique. Apart from himself the only other person who understood what the menu was for the day was Ishtuad sahib. The residents, often the long term ones, had to learn to interpret this especial English. Visitors needed assistance.
One Tuesday morning Ishtuad sahib came in with a memsahib whom nobody had seen before but they gatherd later that she was the sister-in-law from Calcutta. Ishtuad sahib's wife was there as well. They obviously decided to have breakfast in the guest house because Ishtuad sahib started examining the menu sheet which Kartik babu supplied which read as follows:
Poreej also Confee
Dobol Honeeaan Maamlat
Tose Baataar also Maarmeelad
The sahib chose porridge but his wife and sister-in-law ordered cornflakes, the alternative. The memsahibs seemed to enjoy the double onion omelettes. Of course an English breakfast was incomplete without several rounds of toast with butter and marmalade. They could not complain about the Darjeeling tea, brewed to perfection.
As the sahib and memsahibs breakfasted, Mr. Kartik Mandal stood at a distance reverentially. He had a bald, trapezoidal head tapering out towards the back.His upper lip adorned a Hitlerian moustache.
His teeth were discoloured because of the betel leaves he chewed and the bidis, Indian cigarettes, he smoked. He made a long bow each time Ishtuad sahib looked in his direction and a short one for the memsahibs.
That Tuesday morning, most uncharacteristically, the Commercial Manager did not even glance at Mr. Mandal until he finished his breakfast. Once the breakfast was over the sahib stood up and asked in an angry voice if the babu had typed the menus for lunch, afternoon tea or chota hajri as it was known and dinner that is barakhana.
Kartik babu curled his fore and middle fingers which then struck his forehead as he made a bow simultaneously. He said loudly in a military fashion “Yaash Shaar.”
“You liar,” shouted Ishtuad sahib standing close to Kartik babu. “Go and fetch it at once then.”
As the babu turned to do what he was told, the sahib kicked him. Kartik babu stumbled out. The memsahibs looked on in mild amusement.
The truth was that Kartik babu typed the usual 20 odd menu sheets that morning.
However, when he realised that sahib himself with his family was going to eat, he quickly typed out three breakfast menu sheets so that the guests would not be distracted by superfluous information.
As he stumbled out he spread his hands which cushioned the impact against the opposite wall of the corridor. He rubbed his hands together and much regretted the situation that annoyed the sahib so much. Without comprehending what the situation was he said to himself that he must not repeat it again.
With a heavy heart Mr. Mandal returned with three sheets showing the full menu for the day and handed them to Ishtuad sahib and his wife and sister-in-law cautiously. The menus read as follows, excluding the sparate one for breakfast which was also typed on the same sheet:
Manoo Manoo Manoo
Laanch Chota Hajri Barakhana
Col Maaton Bired Okos Tel
Slaad also Batar Soop
Sooedish Kak Chiken Rosht
Cofe Tee Frieed Bodatos
Apel Pi also
Not unexpectedly both the memsahibs were a bit puzzled so the sahib explained by rewriting the menu between the lines. The rewritten parts of the same menu read like this:
Menu: Lunch: Salad, Cold Mutton,
Afternoon Tea: Bread and Butter,
Dinner: Ox Tail Soup, Roast
Chicken, Fried Potatoes, Boiled
Cabbage, Boiled Carrots, Apple
Pi, Cheese and Biscuits, Losenzes,
This especial English of Kartik babu's menu was not quite so unfamiliar to the Calcutta memsahib. Nevertheless she compared the Mandal-English with that revised by Ishtuad sahib and dissolved into laughter. The response from Kartik babu was instantaneous. He first made himself look intelligent and then laughed, hey, hey, hey …..Memsahib looked at him and laughed uncontrollably. Ishtuad sahib shouted, “Have you nothing to do idiot?”
As regular as clockwork Kartik babu disappeared from the guest house everyday as soon as the manager left.He would walk to the railway station, about 2 miles from the guest house, and catch the 11.00 o'clock passenger train to the town of Asansol. Asansol was some 10 miles east of Hiripiri and, being an important railway junction, was the centre of commerce for the whole district of which Hiripiri was a part. It incorporated the district courthouse.
There was a great demand for documents typed in English for litigants in the court house. There were other candidates who needed typing such as applicants for jobs in the railway or many commercial establishments. Kartik babu took advantage of the demand.He had a friend in Asansol who let him borrow his typewriter and a shallow table for a small charge. His friend's house was about 5 minutes' walk from the court house which itself was not very far from the railway station. It was easy for Kartik Mandal therefore to collect the necessary equipment from his friend's house and settle down for a few hours' work. He sat under a tree by the main road on a piece of hessian cloth which he carried from Hiripiri and typed away; not in his own English but copy typing. He made a good income and after he returned the typewriter and table, not forgetting the hire charge, he went to his favourite shop. There he bought sweetmeats and savoury snacks like singara, a variation of samosa. These were for the afternoon tea at home in Hiripiri with his wife and two sons aged 12 and 14 in 1935. Mr. Kartik Mandal was then 39 years old and his wife 31.
The passenger train from Asansol to Hiripiri took about half an hour so that normally Kartik Mandal got home by four in the afternoon. He used to love his chota hajri, as the sahibs called their afternoon tea, with his wife and children. Unless his family wanted to visit the district town, Kartik babu's trips to Asansol were confined to three consecutive days only in a week beginning with Monday. He took his family to the village ancestral home once a month and on especial festival times. He visited Calcutta frequently when his wife went to stay with her parents during the long school holidays. Kartik Mandal was happy with his lot.
On that Tuesday after Ishtuad sahib and the two memsahibs left the guest house,
Kartik babu folded the piece of absorbent cloth and placed it on his left shoulder. The cloth is known as gamchha. A gamchha is used to wipe one's face. It is often used to dry oneself after a bath or a wash if the gamchha is of reasonable size.
Kartik Mandal rolled up the piece of hessian cloth and he was at the point of walking out when a chaprasi appeared in his khaki shorts, bush shirt, wide brown leather belt around his waist and red turban. A chaprasi is often a watchman but some may use him as a messenger boy. All the sahibs at the Hiripiri factories had a chaprasi sitting on a stool outside their secretaries' offices those days. Many junior sahibs did not have secretaries in which case a chaprasi sat outside his office which was seldom luxurious compared with those of the higher sahibs. An important task of a chaprasi, which he enjoyed very much, was to keep undesirables out of the office area and carry little pieces of paper with scribbled messages from office to office because telephones were nearly non-existent in a place like Hiripiri.
“Most peculiar. How surprising!” muttered Kartik babu in Bengali several times as the chaprasi said that Ishtuad sahib wanted to see him in his office. Nobody ever expected him to do anything except the adding up of expenses in the guest house and typing the menus. He did what he liked the rest of the time, being a law unto himself.
The main door in the corridor led to the secretary's office. The door had a substantial glass pane so that one could see the secretary sitting facing the corridor with his back to a large glass window. The boss's office was on the left as one entered this door. The door to the boss's office did not have a glass pane.
The secretary was Anglo-Indian. Now Mr. Mandal knew that the Beelati sahibs looked down upon pure Indians. Why shouldn't they? Their skin was as fair as the full moon. You should see; some of them take the hue of the setting sun especially if they 'expose' themselves to the hot sun.
Yes 'Shaar'; they have no right to look down upon the natives. May be the fair-skinned ones; but the rest of them! Let us face it. The red sahibs and other Europeans performed uncivilised acts with low caste Indians; result? Half castes. Furthermore, Kartik Mandal understood from impeccable sources that the Beelati sahibs who performed uncivilised acts with native women were themselves very low castes in their own land. Mandal knew history. Clive himself was very low caste. He bribed the poor king in Beelat with money he looted from India and that is how he became a lord and an MP, master performer. Warren Hastings did some looting himself but he refused to bribe the king; result? Impeachment. Warren Hastings never performed uncivilised acts with native women, being an upper caste man.
Kartik Mandal stood frozen outside the secretary's door. Seeing that the chaprasi opened the door and settled down on his stool in the corridor. He said dismissively, “Get in there old man.”
Kartik babu came down to earth immediately. “Old man!” he exclaimed. “Shala shooar ka bachcha.”
Shala means brother-in-law and shooar ka bachcha literally means son of a pig.
Both are derrogatory to anyone in the Indian subcontinent although it is not known why brother-in-law should be so.
“Don't call me names, you black coolie,” snapped the chaprasi and moved his stool as if to block the entry to the secretary's office. The chaprasi was a native of modern day Bihar, the state adjacent to West Bengal where Hiripiri was. The chaprasi's skin was a few shades lighter than that of Mr. Mandal.
Kartik babu's right arm swang back in a generous arc and returned to land on the chaprasi's turban which detached and fell on the floor of the secretary's office, a few feet from the stool in the corridor. The chaprasi himself stumbled in, rose and then bent down to pick up the turban. In the mean time, Kartik babu's right arm was rotating vigorously for reasons, if any, only known to him. He bit his upper lip, rushed into the secretary's office and let the sole of his right sandal land on the chaprasi's posterior. Upon this the victim stumbled forward and bumped into the sahib as he happened to open the door to his office from within right at that moment.
Ishtuad sahib held Kartik babu by his left ear and shouted, “It is you who is creating all this holla,commotion!” He then let go of his ear so that he could kick him a few times. As Kartik babu began rubbing his posterior over his kurta, the chaprasi left the office to settle down on the stool. The Anglo-Indian secretary also sat down once Ishtuad sahib pulled a chair and became seated. Kartik babu now made a short bow and said, “Good night Shaar.” It was about 9-30 a.m. but nobody made any comment. Kartik babu stood twisting the end of his dhoti nervously as the secretary passed a typed letter to Ishtuad sahib.
“Did you write this?” asked the sahib without even looking at the letter.
“Yaash Shaar,” admitted the babu immediately but did not bother to look at the letter either.
The secretary got up, picked up the letter which was now lying on the table and held it in front of Kartik babu who started to read it aloud.
The sahib interrupted. He said in a loud voice, “You damn rascal good-for-nothing coolie. I will hang you next time I catch you wrting anything like this. Get out you stupid idiot.”
The secretary opened his office door. As Kartik Mandal moved towards the corridor, Ishtuad sahib's mighty boot landed on his backside. The babu stumbled out.
The letter had a history. About a fortnight before that Tuesday, for some reason, Kartik Mandal felt an uncontrollable urge to be with his family and decided to catch the earlier passenger train to Hiripiri from Asansol. Going through the heavy tall gates of the railway station which led to the platforms involved buying a ticket to show it to the man in uniform. Kartik babu was not a fool. He devised a system. This involved walking along the embankment parallel to the rails, starting at a point about half a mile east of the station building. It soon brought him to a platform without a man in uniform confronting him.It was easy to take the appropriate over bridge from there to gain access to the platform of his train to Hiripiri. He went through this exercise each time because it made sound financial sense by not wasting money on a rail ticket and the babu had a reputation to maintain. This was that anyone who knew him from Calcutta to Hiipiri was aware that it was a matter of honour for Kartik babu to make each return journey to Asansol without paying but only when he was travelling alone. He was forced to pay when he took his wife and family with him because Mrs Mandal was a woman with strict principles. She considered her husband's habit of fare-dodging as downright dishonest.
That afternoon as he was ambling along the embankment, just before the bricked platform began, a dog became problematic. As it turned out, the animal had just finished doing a No. 2 and was in the process of kicking the ground with his paws as they normally did for some reason, Kartik babu muttered 'shala' and kicked him. It is customary for people in India to offer a dog food if there is any left over after their meals. Equally it is the tradition to kick the dog and it is expected that the animal will yelp and run even if the person kicking it missed.
This dog was different though. It belonged to the railway superintendant who was a pukka Beelati sahib. Consequently the animal, not being stupid, had a regal air about himself. It curled its upper lip and growled at the good-for-nothing coolie who legged it promptly. The dog chased him, gripped the back of his dhoti in his jaws and nearly disrobed him. Kartik babu had enough. He stopped, turned around and kicked the dog again with some force. This time the animal yelped and turned tail but the babu lost his balance and fell, the impact making a sound, dharam, as Indians would describe it verbally. There were a lot of women sitting around on the platform waiting for their trains. They just laughed and laughed because, as the man fell, he exposed some of his private parts since his dhoti by now had nearly come off. He was embarrassed at what happened and blamed the dog for making dung at a critical time. He would never have kicked him if the animal was not in his way committing a nuisance.
Kartik babu went across to the other side of the platform and behind the waiting rooms where there were no females so that he could feel confident to put on his dhoti. His train was already waiting. Unlike his usual train it was a long stop because mail was being loaded on it. Kartik babu, grasping his dhoti against himself, walked quickly to the back of the train and asked the Anglo-Indian guard in Hindi not to blow the whistle until he was again respectable and got on the train. The guard was already standing on the platform holding the handle of the green flag in his hand. Kartik Mandal knew that he had already blown the whistle twice. He was now waiting to blow the whistle for the last time and wave the green flag upon which signal the train will move. Kartik Mandal repeated his request, this time in English, to impress upon the guard that although he exposed some of his private parts he was not an ordinary mortal. He said, “You am not mak hooisel blo, uh? I am come shoon.” The Anglo-Indian was aware of the authority the position his emloyer assigned to him. He was justly proud of the royal blood in his veins. Even the high class, high caste coolies were inferior in social status to him. This babu of course was a very low class illiterate judging by his English and apparel. He would not even look at Mr. Mandal's direction. Instead he concentrated on watching the time on his wrist watch. Calamity struck immediately Kartik babu reached the spot on the opposite side behind the rest rooms. The guard blew his third and final whistle, waved the green flag and got on the train himself as the engine started noisily and the train moved forward towards the next railway station. Kartik babu with his dishevelled dhoti came running towards the train; dharam; he fell. The rude women commenced their merciless laughter. The train disappeared from view and the babu got left at the station waiting to catch the next, his usual, train.
Who could blame him for being angry? Who could blame him if he felt compelled to write the letter to the railway superintendent at Asansol? He never imagined in his wildest dreams that the letter would be forwarded to Ishtuad sahib. Be as it may, he had to write the letter for 'public sake', being a public spirited man. Was he not very polite in the letter? He even said 'Dandobat sahib' in his letter. The phrase meant that he was touching the railway superintendent's feet with his forehead, a most humble and respectful act! The letter was typed, interspersed with arbitrary punctuation marks and read as follows:
To The Shoopartand
Mosh haamlee also reshpetfoolee I am beg to stat that I am come to Asansol Ishtishaan to am cach tren to the Hiripiri Yor dog is do noshance on the railway line The dog then is ataak me also, I am then dharam. Fall ovaar also ekoshposhing saam my parshonaal thin to Femel Omans. On the pelatfprom; femel omans is rood, also is laaf also laaf. I am get leeved on Asansol Ishtishaan becosh shaala shooaar Anglo gaard is mak hooisel blo for tren to go Hoosh,hoosh.hoosh. hoosh. This am to maach bad if pesenger fal becosh dog is mak daang on railway line,also becosh that dam raashkaal; Anglo gaard not egri to ishtop tren for him for one minit, Ha. ha. ha.Haha. Haha. I am laaf also;I am laaf, You red ishkin is our faathar also maathar therfor; I taach yor feet so dandobat sahib, I am haamlee also reshpetfoolee am beg that you are mak big fine to that lo cast anglo; for paableekh shak. If you are; not fine as I am beg. I am mak to maach big terabol with nush pepaars
Kind shaar yor mosh obeedent shaarvaant
Mr; Kartik Mandal. European Guest House. Hiripiri.
All the sahibs living from Calcutta to Hiripiri knew one another. Kartik Mandal was foolish in not realising that the railway sahib would obviously know Mr stuart and report the letter. It was easy to identify the offender because Kartik Mandal copied the address from the guest house letter heading so the address escaped Mandal English. Mr Stuart seemed to be very angry. Kartik Mandal was 39 years old in 1935 but he looked considerably older. Ishtuad sahib's boot landed on him regularly but only lightly. The babu was always aware that it was a habit or culture with the lal chamra, the red skins. They liked to swear at the blacks in English and kick them at the slightest excuse. None of these created a problem for Kartik babu but on this occasion the sahib kicked hard; very hard in fact; he must have been very angry with this particular employee.
As he stumbled out of the secretary's office into the corridor outside, the chaprasi clapped his hands once and laughed hilariously. To his surprise, however, the babu did not even seem to have noticed; his face betrayed disappointment. He held his back with his left hand pressing on it and walked slowly on towards the railway station to catch the 11.00 o'clock train to Asansol. Very soon he got a lift from a Company lorry which was going past Hiripiri railway station. His train moved on with him seated in an over crowded third class compartment as did the seasons of India.The very hot summer came to admonish both mother earth and her creatures. Came the much wanted monotonous rain of the monsoon season. Came October the month of the great Hindu festival of Durga Puja. The winter brought with it Kartik babu's favourite vegetable, the cauliflower. Cauliflower and duck eggs or tiger prawns cooked the Bengali way with plain boiled long grain steaming rice was something to which he looked forward for an evening meal, what the sahibs knew as barakhana. For breakfast, on occasions, unleavened bread deep fried in ghee with cauliflower and new potatoes from far away Nainital cooked with green chillies and onions. In a matter of weeks, the market place would become full of cabbage, another favourite of Kartik babu. Then came the spring which made him sigh with some unfathomable longing. He felt sad and oh! The last month of the Indian year! Warm days and breezy evenings underneath a near black sky with myriad flickering drops of lights beyond anybody's reach. As the years rolled on, like the locomotives to Asansol or Calcutta, things happened in the country that was then India. 'Quit India' shouted millions of voices to the red-skins. Little school children lay down on the streets of Calcutta to disrupt the flow of traffic. Leaders were jailed. The British employed Gurkhas to shoot men, women and children. Kartik Mandal heard people saying, 'Gurkhas- Angrej ka kutta', Gurkhas-the dogs of the English. He learnt that Dyer, a high ranking military officer stationed in India, a pure red-skin, used Gurkhas to shoot down unarmed Indians in Jallianwallibagh. Kartik babu looked on with trepidation as a few millions died in the streets of Calcutta due to famine. An artificial famine created by the British raj as a punitive measure for disobedience to the rule of the sahibs. Famine was followed by riots and then the violent process of separating a large chunk of the country to form a new nation in 1947. Things were going reasonably the same old way in Hiripiri until Kartik babu came face to face with a frustrating and disappointing situation. This was the appearance in the factory of a youngish kala sahib. He was a Bengali and a Nerks, Not England Returned Kala Sahib. This Nerks came to work dressed up in three piece suits, complete with ties. This was in total contrast to the Beelati sahibs who wore a pair of khaki shorts and a half-sleeved shirt, tucked in. A tucked-in shirt makes one uncomfortably hot in a hot climate but the red-skins were averse to forsaking their own culture and accepting someone else's. The Nerks in India, or, for that matter, the Erks,England Returned Kala sahibs, did not know much about Beelati or Indian way of life so they always tucked their shirts in and wore long trousers and jackets.Regarding this recently arrived Nerks in the Hiripiri factory, rumour had it that Ishtuad sahib was leaving India and this well 'tied-up' man was taking over as the Commercial Manager. Those Indians who read English but retained their Indian ways in dress and food coined the phrase 'tied-up' to describe a man who adorned himself in ties to de-Indianise himself. This newly arrived Nerks must have assumed to step into Ishtuad sahib's shoes because he came to the guest house one Monday morning. Mr Nerks examined the menu sheet, frowned and insisted that Kartik babu's English was not English at all. He corrected every item on the menu and then ordered him to retype. Kartik babu ignored him no matter how many times he was asked by kala sahib and produced the menu in his own characteristic English everyday. After a month's persistent but futile attempts Nerks went to the manager sahib with the vexing problem. He thought the Company was being made a fool of by this babu and he was dumbfounded by his insubordination. Kala sahib, however, was crestfallen because the Beelati sahib told him to leave the menus as they were. Kartik babu's presentation was so unique that the Calcutta office borrowed him now and again to talk to the head chef and write out the menus. Furthermore, copies of the menus were taken back to Beelat from time to time as valuable souvenir by many returning red-skins. After such a detailed preamble, Ishtuad sahib told Nerks in an obviously annoyed tone not to interfere. Nerks recalled a sahib elsewhere saying once 'Don't bark at the wrong tree'. Mr Stuart was the wrong tree. Therefore he will not approach him again. Nerks realised that his position in the Company was not really defined. He was recruited for Hiripiri and all he was told was that he was to assist the Commercial Manager but given no designation; no office. He was surely entitled to an office and a chaprasi considering he dressed in a suit complete with a tie and spoke in English all the time even to those who did not understand the language! The white sahib who told him about the wrong tree commended him. He told Nerks that he was getting quite civilised. He certainly was not, according to this sahib, like those damn half-naked coolies of India. Frustrated though he was for not getting the respect and fear a white sahib got, Nerks was recalling with great satisfaction those nectar-oozing words from the lips of a pukka sahib. One day soon he recalled the same sahib advising him that there were more ways than one in giving a cat a hair cut. A hair cut he would certainly give to this damn Indian coolie of Hiripiri guest house. So he attacked from a different angle. He discovered that members of the guest house staff were stealing meat, vegetables and flour from their daily shopping trips.He ordered Kartik babu to take stock of the food items. He worked out a complicated table for the babu to fill in daily including the weekends. For example, in the first column, state the price of one lamb chop. Then using the other columns state how many lamb chops were bought that day,how many were served at the tables and how many were left over if any. Kartik babu twisted his lips in a wry smile. He took out a bidi from his pocket, blew once through the end that would be lit and then started to smoke it. Nerks lost his cool. He shouted, “Did you hear me?” “Ekosjamine pleeze,” answered Kartik babu in English and moved his left ear close to the eyes of Kala Sahib .Nerks moved back a couple of steps and gave a sharp command. “I want this table I have prepared to be filled in everyday, starting from now.”Kartik babu said in Bengali, “I will be here at the guest house in that case for 24 hours a day.One thing about this Bengali Nerks. He knew that there were various types of Beelati sahibs. There were those uncouth ones who spoke in a rough manner with a generous helpings of expletives, spat a lot,drank and visited prostitutes in the city. There was another class whom this Nerks tried to emulate. This class spoke politely without raising their voice and apparently were the sophisticated elite of Beelat. Of course Nerks was fully aware that they were backstabbing you while speaking with a honey-soaked tongue. Nerks was not a fool altogether.He said very, very politely in English, “I am sorry that you think that way but you can complete what I am asking in an hour or so.” The babu made a sound, 'Aai?” meaning he did not understand. This was very rude but nevertheless Nerks repeated himself although his politeness got somewhat attenuated.The reply was forceful and confident. “Never. Never in an hour or so.”Nerks became very polite again. “Forgive me babu. We pay you to work from 7.30 in the morning till 4.30 in the afternoon.”Conversation in this mode went on for a few days but Kala Sahib got nowhere. He had a third angle. Some of the employees in the guest house were definitely getting drunk with the whisky and gin they were stealing from the bar. Nerks devised another table for Kartik babu to complete everyday which was again ignored as well. Kartik babu's defiance was bad enough but Nerks suffered physical assault one night. It happened like this. Kala sahib and his wife together started visiting the European club on Saturdays. This was unprecedented. A black man in a club for white sahibs and memsahibs! Nerks of course had raised himself to the parallel status of a Beelati sahib by simply being 'tied up'. Moreover he abandoned his mother tongue Bengali and spoke in English. Furthermore, he ate breakfast with knives and forks in the guest house quite frequently. Admittedly he was still living in the native colonies but he expected to move into one of the European bungalows soon. Nerks and his wife started drinking and danced Saturday evenings away. The red-skins did not like their presence at all. India might have got its independence but it will still take the British a century or two to educate them. They were not sure what disease these natives carried with them. Eating and drinking together was out of the question. Lal Chamra folks resolved to emphasise that the natives must keep their place. They sent a deputation to Mr Stuart complaining about the Indian couple trying to be on equal par with the white sahibs and memsahibs. Unfortunately, contrary to expectation, the Commercial Manager, who seldom went to the European club, gave them a long lecture.He reminded the deputation that India was the country of these Indians. Europeans here were merely guests and they must behave as such.“I wouldn't mind,” said one member of the deputation, “if these two knew how to dance. No matter what the music is they are doing the same thing which could be Indian I suppose.” “Most Indians avoid dancing the way we do it,” said the Commercial Manager. “They think it to be a primitive behaviour.”The members of the deputation were surprised and indignant. One of them said, “Why come to our club then?” “I don't know,” replied Mr Stuart as he stood up to dismiss the deputation. “He is probably trying to prove something.”One Saturday night as the guest house was about to close, Nerks and his wife resumed the mile and a half's walk to their house in one of the Indian colonies. Totally unexpected to them, a couple of Beelati sahibs accosted the couple outside the guest house.
They were told in certain and abusive terms not to come to the club any more.To be fair, Kala sahib was going through an immense degree of frustration of late. Nobody was giving him the respect which even a lowly Beelati sahib got from the natives. He became defiant. “We are not your colony any more,” he said. “I am a senior officer of the Company. I will do exactly as I please.”At this audacity he was punched and kicked by the two Scots, judging by their accents. They left with the clear threat that next time the sahibs will cripple him. Nerks was too embarrassed to complain to his boss. At any rate he did not know the culprits. They must have been visitors to Hiripiri from somewhere so he sent a sick note for a few days. However, he was still angry when he returned to work. He went straight to the guest house and spoke to Kartik Mandal. He said in English, “I forbid you to do your private work in Company time!” Kartik babu's reply was that he did not understand him. No matter how many times Kala sahib repeated himself, the babu gave the same answer. He did not comprehend what he was being told. In desperation, Nerks spoke in pidgin Hindi. It would have been easier and natural for him to communicate in Bengali but the Beelati sahibs would never do that!
Therefore Nerks was obliged to speak in Hindi.He said, “You have disobeyed every order I had given you.” “My boss is Ishtuad sahib,” replied the babu dismissively in Bengali.“Please don't be rude,” said Nerks. “I am your boss. I give you respect because you are an old man. I will not do so if you keep on disobeying me.”Kartik Mandal became furious. He gesticulated violently as he shouted in Bengali. “I am an old man, am I? Youthink you are a sahib. We all know about your daanch and the beating you got the other night. Everybody in Hiripiri is laughing at you. Ha, ha, ha, haha. The proper sahibs know how to treat me. I have been sworn at, kicked and thrown out of offices but never insulted. I will not be insulted by a Kala sahib.” He went straight up to the Commercial Manager's office and succeeded in explaining his difficulties due to the appearance of this kala sahib. Ishtuad sahib listened without interrupting him once. Upon being asked if he was leaving India the sahib said, “I don't have to leave you understand, but it is time for me to retire. I want to be back in my native Scotland. I don't want to die in India.”Ishtuad sahib let him know that the kala sahib was too inexperienced to step into his shoes. His replacement is coming from Beelat. He will be the Commercial Manager but he wll also take the title, Deputy General Manager. If Kartik babu wanted to leave the Company he need not resign as he just told Mr Stuart. The sahib will arrange for his retirement. In that case he will get his Provident Fund.“Would you like me to do that?” asked Mr Stuart. Kartik Mandal nodded to express his agreement and gratitude.The sahib stood up and shook his hand. “Come and see me before you leave,” he said smiling gently. Kartik Mandal wiped his eyes with his gamchha. Mr James Stuart, a big boss at Hiripiri, brother of the Managing Director in Calcutta, a knight of the realm of Beelat, shook his head and fixed his eyes on the half-naked babu clad in loincloth and kurta. “What does one do with you?” said the sahib and moved over to the window as if curious to know what was going on outside. He returned soon, went over to Kartik babu and placing his hands on his shoulders said, “You are an idiot.” Kartik babu, unusually, with an amused look, fixed his eyes on the sahib. Ishtuad sahib moved back a little and pointed his right index finger at the menu writer. “What are you?” KartikMandal stood to attention with the back of his right hand on his forehead. In a moment Ishtuad sahib repeated his question. “What are you?” Still saluting, the babu replied, “Ideeat, sahib.” The sahib said, grasping the babu's hand with his two hands, “That's better,” and opened the door of his office for him.