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The Booby (part 9)
The Booby (part 9)
“He is an idolatrous infidel father,” said Miran forcefully as he trotted alongside Mir Zafar on his black horse.
The chestnut coloured horse of Mir Zafar made a sound with its lips as it exhaled and stopped when the father pulled in the reins. He looked at his son somewhat puzzled and asked,”Whatever made you make a preposterous statement like that?”
“I hear rumours,” said Miran. “He wanders about in disguise and hangs around temples. In his private chamber, there are icons.”
“But he is a regular mosque goer,” said Mir Zafar still with a puzzled look in his face.
So he was without a doubt. His elephant could always be seen entering the huge gateway of the mosque every Friday, a rectangular building with four minarets on top and three arched openings. He always descended a few yards from the gateway and walked to the mosque, washed and took his place with the noblemen.
“That is a front,” said Miran. “He does that thinking that we will be fooled.”
“If he was an idol worshipper,” said Mir Zafar, “he would have become a Hindu,” and started moving.
As his son rode with him he thought of his father's brain which must have been affected by the opium he took. Miran said simply, “With respect my illustrious nobleman, one cannot become a Hindu. You have got to be born one.”
“So it is,” muttered Mir Zafar and repeated himself a few times. It is a problem he thought. Energetic, single minded iconoclasts have descended on India frequently and have done their best to convert the infidels but they seem to survive without a doubt. They prefer to live in the dark forest of ignorance.
It was a hard day for the elderly General because he was out with a group on a hunting expedition. Hunting for the ruling class was recreational and the Moghals learnt it from the many Maharajas, Hindu kings, who ruled India before them. It involved wanton killing of hapless tigers, deer, boars and birds most of them being left where they fell. Mir Zafar tired easily and the opium he consumed in substantial doses did not help. Nabab Sirajuddaula did not join the expedition but there were many Moghal grandees who pitched their tents around the nabab's hunting lodge at Palashi. A quick discussion took place at Miran's tent at his insistence.
A nobleman said, “We are Moghals. Our ancestors were Turco-Mongols. It is important to remember that. We are not Hindustanis. We are the ruling class.”
Another nobleman said, “But Siraj is a third generation Moghal. His link is with India. It is an important factor.”
“Whatever.” retorted the first nobleman. “He has not shown any respect towards us. He treats us as if we were his black subjects. Have you not seen how he has encouraged that Kashmiri Brahmin, Mohan Lal? The fellow thinks he is the suba himself!”
The second nobleman said, “Forgive me gentleman but he is not black, is he? Anybody will say that his complexion is lighter than yours. Do you agree?”
Miran changed the subject. He said, “I will make that upstart, Siraj, pay. The day of reckoning is getting nearer.”
“And,” said the first nobleman, “did you see whom he installed as the Head administrator of Calcutta? Raja Manikchand, a Hindu!”
The second nobleman laughed derisively at the first as he retorted, “I suppose you hoped that the prize mango would fall on your lap!” He laid particular emphasis to the word 'your'.
A white bearded grandee intervened. “Gentlemen, don't expend your energy bickering among yourselves. We have a job to do. This young man has got to be removed. Let us concentrate on a strategy.”
A guard came in and announced that Rai Durlabh and Jagat Seth had arrived. The latter had no interest in hunting but he joined the meeting to use it as a subterfuge since he was one of the main influential conspirators. The Muslims were asked to be careful about what they said and how they conducted themselves in the presence of two such important Hindus by the white bearded Moghal. Jagat Seth was not interested in politics and the insult in the hand of Siraj did not matter to him much. His actions and reactions were entirely motivated by gold and rupees. The Seths were the highly established and feared bankers and hence the finance of the country was controlled by them because as yet there was no Government treasury in India. Even the mighty Moghal emperor in Delhi seemed to be more beholden to the Seths than the grandees or military commanders or officers holding high civilian positions.
The departure of the British from Calcutta dealt a body blow to the Seths because their wealth increased as the Europeans looked for more and more indigo, saltpetre, calico, silk, spices and other commodities. The banker said, “Gentlemen, I will help you with funds any time provided you give me your word of honour that you will repay the capital. I will not charge you any interest.”
Mir Zafar spoke clearly, “I am sure you will all agree that, as the paymaster of the army, I am an important member of the military aristocracy. As you know I am the grand uncle-in-law of the young fellow but he does not trust me. In fact he wants to destroy me. If you want proof of what I said, he has now installed several cannon against my palace, threatening to raze it to the ground if I did not toe the line. You must all have some time or other suffered humiliation and threats in his hands. The situation is untenable. We have no option but to dethrone him.” After such a gigantic effort he blinked several times and dozed off.
The white bearded Moghal said, “The British ran like dogs. It is a pity. Without them things may not be so easy. I think the French would have come to our aid but that Jean Law is like an uncle to the young fellow.”
“I can give some positive news,” said Rai Durlabh. “Both General Zafar and myself have been told about the young fellow's plan to attack his cousin, Shaukat Jang.”
They all looked at Mir Zafar but he was fast asleep. Rai Durlabh smiled and continued. “Miran will confirm that both of us have decided to go with the nabab but we will only pretend; our armies will not fight against Shaukat Jang. His army should be able to handle the small body of men, of the few faithfuls the nabab has.”
Miran nodded to confirm the plan. In the morning, the conspirators boarded a budgerow, a mixture of a house boat and a barge. They sat in the multi-windowed long cabin to complete their plans. Another boat towed them and others followed carrying servants and cooks. In a while they crossed the river and marched to Murshidabad by land.
A lone Britisher watched the group, as they proceeded by land, hiding in the green paddy fields. He concluded correctly that these were no friends of Sir Roger Dowler
and he took a boat to Fulta. The Britisher was Strahan a self appointed spy. When he arrived at Fulta he requested to see Drake who refused but allowed William Tooke to grant him an interview. Tooke laughed at him immediately they met and said “You are a rogue really.”
“How am I that Sir?” asked Strahan, his face serious.
Tooke replied trying to be officious and serious, “You are really a sailor but you have been in the fort for as long as I remember.”
“Well Sir,” said Strahan. “I was a sailor all right. I have travelled all over. I was in Bombay and then Madras. But the admiral was not pleased with me.”
“Which admiral would that be?” asked Tooke.
“The Scot Sir. What is his name now?” Strahan scratched his head. “We called him Jock the pirate. No disrespect, mind.”
“Oh I know,” responded Tooke. “Admiral Watson it will be. He holds a very high position you know; commissioned by the king!”
Strahan nodded his head in agreement and put on a very humble countenance.
“Anyway. Why wasn't the Admiral pleased with you?” asked Tooke.
“I was reported several times by the petty underlings he has you see. I did nothing wrong except that whenever I went ashore, I used to have difficulty coming back to the ship.”
“Visiting whore houses I should think,” said Tooke with a serious face.
“There was that Sir,” said Strahan without smiling. “But the main thing was trade you see. I used to buy goats and fowls from the villages and then sell them to the Admiral's fleet. Without personal trade nobody could live in India and it makes no sense Sir not making money and going back home poor. The ship's pay is nothing you must know as far as we the underlings are concerned.”
William Tooke was at a loss as to what to say. Nevertheless, he gave him a lecture. He concluded by stressing that it was his first duty to be loyal to the ship and thus to his country.
Without hesitation, Strahan blurted out, “Begging your pardon Your Honour. Will you not be one of the gentlemen who ran to the Doddaly when Sir Roger Dowler came with men and guns and horses and elephants? I stayed on doing my part of the fighting.”
Tooke was taken aback. He cleared his throat. “An insolent chap you are,” he said sternly.
Strahan could not be more obsequious. “That I am,” he said touching his forelock. “That I am Sir a thousand times. All the big shots say so. Anyway, I have been working for the Company for some time now. I made myself a spy. I have been to Catwa, Murshidabad, Chandernagore and all over Bengal. I want to tell you what information I gathered a few days ago. There were lots of Moors and Gentoos. You know whenever they get together it means trouble. Two of them came to Fort William with the nabab's army. I know their names. They are Rai Durlabh and Mir Zafar. I don't know what they were talking about. I only know Bengali. On occasions when I was within hearing distance I could tell it was not in Bengali that they were conversing.”
“Then how can you say they were conspiring?” said Tooke in a dismissive manner.
“I can Sir,” insisted Strahan. “People in the bazars say that there is a conspiracy against the nabab by the high ranking Indians themselves. I am surprised that Sir Roger Dowler does not know it himself or his friends and allies.”
Drake dismissed what Strahan had said but he acknowledged that a conspiracy was afoot as he knew from truly reliable sources. In fact he knew that the suba was going to march against his cousin Shaukat Jang. If his Generals don't fight, as the Governor's informants tell him, that would be the end of nabab Sirajuddaula. As the British community at Fulta heard about this, they celebrated by getting drunk with arrack.
Truly, the suba's army marched again. He had no alternative. Egged on by Mir Zafar Shaukat Jang wrote a letter to Siraj which concluded by saying this: 'So my dear cousin I have got approval of the Emperor at Delhi to sit on the masnad at Murshidabad and therefore I am the legal suba. I have no wish to harm you as we are related and I recall spending many happy moments together in our boyhood. I do not wish to take your life. If you are a good boy and vacate Murshidabad, I will allow you to go to Dacca in East Bengal and make a financial allowance for you to lead the life to which you are accustomed but within reasonable limits.'
The rival armies met at Manihari near Rajmahal and the game of chess began. A few pawns were removed but the principal targets were the Generals. Siraj camped a few miles from the battlefield upon the advice of Mir Madan, Mohan Lal and Raja Ram Narain, the Governor of Bihar. Mir Zafar and Rai Durlabh stood idle with their huge army but Ram Narain refused to join their conspiracy and fought on doggedly. Without any warning Shaukat Jang came dashing on an elephant. The effect of narcotics made him hallucinate that Siaj was in front of him. As he dashed forward shouting a soldier shot him. His lifeless body fell a great height and his jewel studded turban rolled on the ground. His army joined Ram Narain in true Indian tradition. This was October 10th 1756, the Indian month of Kartik, a momentous day for all Hindustan because Robert Clive set sail for Calcutta. The Bengalis of all Bengal got to know of him, the source being the residual residents of Black Town of Calcutta. The Bengalis said he is the future samrat, emperor, of India. He is stronger than 10 million male buffaloes put together. You will turn to ashes if he looks at you that is why he keeps himself blindfolded but that does not stop him from seeing. He can shoot 10,000 bullets at a time. He can turn green Bengal into a desert like Rajputana and vice versa. His colour is as red as the rising sun and he lives in the Ice country, 101 million miles away from Bharat, India, but 'don't you be fooled', it was communicated from person to person this Lal sahib could travel faster than the mind. Robert Clive was given the most prestigious title in Bengali language the natives could think of. This was Lal=Red, Maha=High, Senapati=Commander. So the people listened in awe as it was rumoured that the Lal Maha Senapati was coming to spiflicate Nabab Ul-Mulk Sirajuddaula, the current Maha boss of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
However, Robert Clive did set sail on 10th October, 1756 for Calcutta, but only from Fort St David, Madras in the south, a journey of around 1,000 miles. The convoy comprised five ships belonging to the Admiralty and an equal number contributed by the Madras Council of the East India Company. There were three companies of His Majesty's marines and another 900 white European troops. Clive was appointed the commander of the expedition, answerable directly to the Council at Madras. He took with him 1,500 Tamil sepahis whom he trained himself on the European model. The Indians, immediately they got to know of these 1,500 Tamil soldiers, named them kala paltan, kala being black in Hindi and paltan meaning soldiers.
This was a small force compared to the huge Indian army of Sirajuddaula. Governor Pigot pointed this out to Clive and instructed him to sweeten the sword with diplomacy. Clive carried personal letters to Sirajuddaula from Indian potentates in the south. Governor Pigot himself wrote:
“My king in far away Britain has not had a moment's peace since he heard about the fate of Calcutta. I am obliged to send a great sardar with troops and many ships to meet you if need be. But you are wise. Please consider if it is prudent to engage in war which may never end, or is it better to do what is just and right in the sight of God.?”
As the ships sailed Clive's thoughts were elsewhere. He had visited Calcutta some six years ago. Bengal was swampy, malarial and generally unhealthy but it was the wealthiest province in India. It just needed enterprise to make money. He would win the war undoubtedly and then surely he would exact a fortune from the vanquished, he thought. Clive had a lot of time on his hands while on board the Kent, Admiral Watson's flagship, because gales blew relentlessly and the ships went off course arriving at Ceylon to the south. He befriended a young marine who became his personal orderly.
As His Majesty's flagship rolled and tossed, Clive looked at the foaming waves and thought of the marshy land in Styche, England, upon which their five hundred year old Elizabethan manor house stood. Although an old established family, the Head, his father Richard Clive found it hard to keep up appearances with his inheritance of five hundred pounds a year. In fact everything around them was dilapidated, even the Saxon church in Moreton Say, about a mile from Styche.
“The Booby is going to do well,” said Clive to himself as he watched the cloudy sky south of Madras.
“Beg your pardon Sir,” enquired the marine.
“Booby,” said Clive with a smile. “That's what my father used to call me. He was pretty useless really. A trained lawyer he was but lost most of his cases.” Clive laughed and the marine smiled politely.
Clive looked at him and said,”And you know, he would lend money to people without any collateral. He never got his money back.”
“He must have been a very kind man,” commented the marine.
“He is still around you know,” said Clive, his eyes betraying a sensitive man.
It started to rain. This is expected in the Coromondal coast as the monsoon returns. They went inside where there was a lounge with chairs and tables fixed to the floor permanently or tied up to pillars with ropes. Clive asked for a glass of wine and took out a small black tablet from one of his pockets which he swallowed with the wine. He pressed his abdomen with his right palm and twisted his mouth momentarily.
“Are you all right Sir?” asked the anxious marine.
“I am,” he replied.” “Just an abdominal pain; going on for the last four years but the medicine is good.” He nodded his head as the officers and crew went past him saluting. “Take me to my cabin,” said Clive. “It cramps the style of the others with the commander-in-Chief being here.”
The marine did what he was asked right away and made him comfortable in an arm chair and a stool to rest his feet and put a blanket over him. Outside, the weather deteriorated. Dev Indra, the chief of all devatas, threw his thunderbolts and myriads of water lances pierced the waves which, in turn, foamed, roared and swiped venomously at them unceasingly.
The opium relieved the pain. He said to the marine, “You don't get rain like this in England, do you?”
“Only very occasionally, Sir,” replied the marine.
“Oh yes,” said Clive with a smile. “I remember once at least. I should tell you about it. My parents must have got fed up with me so they sent Booby to his aunt Bay in Manchester. My uncle was Daniel Bayley you see. I was only three years old then.” He paused for a while and looked out into the sky and added softly, “My mother had a tough time. She had six sons and seven daughters. Anyway my uncle was a successful businessman and we all lived in Bayleys court on Market Place. I gathered later that I was always fighting but my uncle hoped that I would grow up to be a gentleman.” He laughed loudly as he added, “My uncle must have given up eventually.” He turned to the marine and asked, “You think I am a gentleman now.”
“No Sir,” came a quick answer.
“What!” he turned to the marine as he shouted. “What!” He turned his head quickly and looked at the sky as he tried vainly to suppress a sigh. “My aunt Bay died. I was ten. She was only thirty five! If I could only visit Manchester once; all my hopes and desires will be fulfilled.”
That night, Clive wrote a letter to his father. In this he added: ' Honoured Sir,..... it is by far the grandest of my undertakings. I go with great forces and great authority. I have desired Mrs Clive, who has nothing else to do, to write you all particulars and I am with duty to my mother and affection to my brothers and sisters. Honoured Sir – Your most dutiful and obedient son, Robert Clive.'
The same night, after supper, he held a brief meeting with his East India Company officers including Mun, Walsh and his cousin, George. He said to them, “Gentlemen, we are heading south as you know. It will take some time I think before the ship turns north and heads towards Calcutta. I have no doubt we will retake our grand city.”
An officer asked, “We are not sure about our situation. There are two groups here, one force belonging to His Majesty and the other to the Company. It is very confusing.”
“There is nothing confusing about it,” asserted Clive. “I am in command of the whole operation.” Seeing that the men did not react, he felt obliged to give more information. They were told that the Madras Council first suggested that a single fifty-gun ship would be sufficient to scare Raja Manikchand away but Admiral Watson was unwilling to split his squadron in view of the imminent war with the French in Europe. Watson, however, agreed to the second request of taking the whole squadron to Calcutta. A wrangle started about choosing a commander for the expedition. The obvious choice was Stringer Lawrence, a very experienced military man and much respected by Clive, but he was too ill to do anything. Although not an army man, Clive proved himself in battle in Bombay and the Carnatic and hence he was chosen the commander for this expedition.
“But,” said Clive angrily. “Colonel John Aldercron, the commanding officer of the 39th Foot, the only battalion to be sent to India from Britain, demanded that the command was his!”
Cousin George added, “And remember, unlike Robert, he has no field experience in India.”
Walsh, the paymaster, said, “That Aldercron is a pompous little parade boy.”
Mun added, “What do you expect from a Huguenot anyway?”
Cousin George added, “This Aldercron openly shows his contempt for Company men.”
“Does he now!” protested a Company man.
Cousin George reconfirmed volubly. “Oh yes. He says openly that these writers and factors getting dressed up as soldiers give the regular army, the proper army, a bad name.”
Clive laughed and said, “And he thinks that my battles in the Deccan were merely jungle skirmishes. My promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel was a farce and it did not give me the right to be in command of King's regular army.” The effect was good. The men were more angry and automatically became closer to Clive than before. The Lieutenant Colonel paused until the men quietened down and continued with development in Madras prior to their departure.
The Madras Council was in a quandary. The members hated Aldercron but they did not want to be deprived of his regiment with considerable artillery. To complicate matters a letter arrived from the suba of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It said that since Governor Pigot was a great man the nabab wanted to communicate with him. He had no intention of driving the British away. On the contrary, he would like them to continue trading as they did before. It was that Drake who was responsible for all that happened.
The Madras administration wanted an entirely new Council for Calcutta in view of the shameful behaviour of Drake and his cohorts but Watson objected. He said that it was their duty merely to restore the old Council and not to interfere any further. The Madras Council had to agree regarding the restoration but precious time was being lost. Aldercron tried also to delay the expedition for as long as possible hoping that the monsoon would soon break and discourage the Admiral from sailing. However, Madras Council kept up the pressure on him and he eventually agreed to allow 250 of his men to join the invading force provided they were declared as marines until the battle was over. He forced the Company bosses to unload all the artillery from the ships which were already loaded without his agreement.
Clive felt that the men were in the picture so he decided to leave them. He announced as if as an afterthought that he would have another meeting tomorrow afternoon after lunch which would include the officers of the 39th foot. He took an amount of opium and retired to bed.
Clive felt excited next day. He had the support of all the Company men but the black soldiers had a grievance. Normally they camped on the decks and anywhere else they could find a place but the weather precluded the deck. Not only the rain but there was the danger of being tossed into the sea while asleep. That left them with no alternative but to spend their time in the ship's hold and the experience was fraying their nerves. No special arrangements could be made for them but Clive spoke to them personally. The Tamils probably acquired a working knowledge of English so they were highly flattered that the top sahib spoke to them personally. That very action of the big sardar, the Lal Maha Senapati, as the Bengalis had begun to call him, seemed to assuage their feelings.
After dinner, Clive spoke to as many men as could be accommodated by the bar. Others assembled outside on the deck but the noisy weather made it difficult for the ones outside to hear all he said. “Gentlemen, I hope you are not too bored and frustrated because there will be plenty of action soon. Don't blame me for the ship's fate due to the weather. There is nothing I could do. I don't belong to the navy.” Admiral Watson's men laughed good humouredly.
He talked with them in an informal manner but he managed to get across his experience of the Indian techniques of warfare. He told them that he did not know how the army in Bengal would conduct itself but the tradition of conducting war in India was pretty much uniform irrespective of race, language or faith. At any rate it was doubtful if the Bengalis were part of the soldiery. Most of them were Pathans, Rajputs, the people from Rohilkhand or, perhaps, even a few Marhatas. These are the martial races of India but nobody could envy the way they conducted themselves in battles.
“I must say,” he told his audience, “the quality of our European troops is regarded as not as good as at home but, nevertheless, they are imbued with a great sense of discipline. The Moghal armies have no discipline. They have cavalry and elephants, infantrymen and gunners. We are not dealing with people as we have done elsewhere in the past in a sparsely populated land where the only resistance if any will be by small groups of tribal inhabitants with sticks and stones or a few spears. You could not kill Indians by infecting them with western diseases because they have plenty of their own. Regarding the army, they are supposed to have regular pay but only in theory. The rank and file come to fight because they admire or owe allegiance to a particular General but there is no compulsion or urgency in winning a war. An important if not the sole reason for winning is the loot after. You see, a cavalryman has to provide his own horse; the rest of them have to buy their own ammunition and uniforms. The cavalrymen don't like risking their animals never mind their own lives. Mind you, don't be complacent. They can be dangerous if they really respect their commanding officer but of course, to gain respect, the officer has to be exceptional. An officer cannot demand respect the way our system compels our soldiers to do.”
Such a detailed talk from an officer of Clive's rank was unusual and the men were puzzled. Clive just wanted to impress upon them that an Indian regiment would stop fighting and either desert or go to the erstwhile enemy as soon as the officer they were following was killed or captured. “So,” he stressed “please do your utmost to destroy their General.”
Clive left at this point but the officers of both the Company and King's army got together and held a discussion among themselves. Those with Indian experience were able to tell the others that the people of this country had no sense of national identity. They were unlikely to fight for king and country. In fact millions of ordinary Indians particularly the Hindus, had little affection for the ruling Moghals who in turn regarded themselves as exclusive and non-Indians. At any rate it mattered little to the people of India who ruled because for centuries they have got used to the idea of getting killed, having their homes burnt and left in penury to die of hunger or scratch a living somehow.
After the dispersal of the group, Mun, Walsh and cousin George sat in the lounge and talked. Walsh said, “I never saw this side of him. I think he has got Aldercrons men impressed.”
“I can say,” added cousin George, “if he cannot persuade them by talking he will use intimidation. He is an expert at that. He started it when he was a mere boy.” Then he narrated an incident. In Market Drayton Clive was the leader of a gang of five other boys. They were totally submissive to him because the Booby was not averse to using physical force to quell any rebellion. Clive had an idea. He offered the local shopkeepers protection from his gang in return for a small regular retainer. Some of them would laugh and offer them a bag of sweets but most of them chased the gang with threats and abuse. The gang would then divide. One group would throw stones at the shop window while the other group entered the back ransacking the place. Clive would return after this, suggesting that they paid up and most of them did out of fear. But one shopkeeper refused stubbornly no matter what the gang tried to do.
One day it rained heavily filling the gutter in the middle of the road with dirty water. Clive built a dam and directed the water to the shop. Suddenly the dam burst. Upon this, Clive threw himself over it and did not get up until he boys repaired the breach. The much harassed shopkeeper paid up. He was about ten years old then. “There are many stories like this about him,” added cousin George.
“He still behaves like a gang boss,” said Mun.
“He has a reputation though,” said Walsh. “He has a reputation.”
Mun added,”Being superstitious as they are, the Indian soldiers, I am told, are spooked at the very mention of his name.”
“These black soldiers on board this ship who have been accommodated in the hold are his creation as you know,” cousin George reminded them.
“And unlike their fellow Indians they seem to respond to discipline,” added Mun.
“There is that danger of deserting though,” said Walsh. “It is in their blood.”
“No more than our own white soldiers,” retorted cousin George. “Our lot will desert to the French or Dutch if we lose I am sure.”
“Talking about the French,” said Walsh, “The suba of Bengal has a very strong ally in Jean Law I believe.”
“Yes,” said cousin George. “But as long as Robert is in command, the French, Dutch, or the nabab's army, vast though it may be, are no match for the British. I can assure you.”
“I believe you are right,” agreed Mun.
For the moment, however, Robert's authority failed. A black soldier appeared in the lounge bar; then another and another until all 1,500 of them filled the lounge and the decks. They disobeyed the order to stay in the hold.
The large ship creaked as it rocked. The foaming, furious waves kept swiping viciously like the hoods of giant cobras at the water lances of Dev Paryanna which propelled relentlessly from the sullen sky.