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The Red Krisna (part 10).
The Red Krisna (part 10).
THE RED KRISNA
Strahan had seen her often and waved to her. One day she came up to him and said “Hello Sahib.” “What is your name?” asked Strahan. “Sundari,” she said tilting her head and smiling. “It means beautiful.” “You are beautiful all right,” said Strahan looking into her white teeth. “You are a terrible liar sahib,” said Sundari with a serious face. “They call me that because I am not beautiful.”
Strahan was startled a bit. In his wanderings around Fulta he was quite a familiar sight in many neighbouring villages. He spoke Bengali quite well and even, very occasionally, he could guess the meanings of some Persian words or Urdu, the languages used by people like Sir Roger Dowler. He had met many types of Indians. The quiet ones who went about their business of smoking hooka, a simple inexpensive system of smoking apparatus, a cheaper version of a hubble-bubble, or doing odd menial tasks. He knew of the greedy Indians who hang around people like Omichand or the very noisy ones from the villages who used to come to sell vegetables or poultry, goats or fish in the bazars of Black Town of Calcutta. To them every transaction had to end up in acrimony. They shouted at each other but the Bengalis of all castes had a politeness to foreigners. In fact they were exceptionally polite.
“It is rude to call anybody a liar to his face,” reproached Strahan.
“It is wrong not to tell the truth,” replied the girl sharply.
Strahan looked at the girl four and a half feet tall at the most. “How old are you girl?” asked Strahan.
Sundari replied confidently, “I could be 10 or 30 or something like that.”
Strahan was much amused. He scrutinised her head to toe; asked her to turn around and stand facing him again. Sundari obeyed dutifully. “How old is your father then?” he asked.
“He will be the same as me” replied the girl now looking a trifle bored.
As soon as Sundari had finished her sentence a stout looking man came towards them and folded his palms as he saw the sahib who reciprocated and said, “What news Badal?”
Badal beamed with pleasure or pride or, possibly, both and announced, “This is my little girl.”
Strahan looked at both of them and muttered, “Oh I see, I see. She says she could be 10 or 30 years old”
“If she says that then that's how old she is,” replied Badal seriously.
“And according to her you are the same age as she is,” said Strahan expecting a merry response from the father.
Badal looked slightly hurt. He said, “Pagal sahib, you can say what you like about my little girl. You can shout at her. You can doubt the legitimacy of my being her biological father. You can beat her to a pulp but none of these will make her tell a lie. I must be the same age as my daughter. Ask her mother. Our Sundari never lies, never.”
Badal was Bauri by caste. Strahan knew that he was a low caste fellow. Just to confirm his knowledge about Sundari's caste, Strahan asked “You are a low caste Hindu, aren't you?”
Badal said that he was a low caste Hindu. Strahan by then had lost interest in the subject of caste or the father and daughter's certain conviction about their respective age and decided to state the purpose of his visit. He said, “I have come to buy goats and chicken today. Remember, last time you did not have them but you promised you will have a supply for me today.”
“It is not possible today sahib,”announced Badal without hesitation smiling unashamedly. Strahan knew Bengalis. He shacked up with one in Black Town some time ago who left him. He found another one who was burned to death with her two children by him when the bosses at fort William decided to set Black Town on fire before the suba's army invaded them. Normally he would walk away and try somewhere else tomorrow. He had learned quite early in his Indian sojourn that there was no need, however compelling it may appear at the time, to keep on swimming against the fast flowing Hoogli. It was easier to live on or below an austere life style than to keep on striving to reach the ever rising base line of being the owner of worldly possessions. It occurred to him that he should give serious thoughts to this stoical acceptance of the minimum effort syndrome.
For the moment, to the surprise of Badal, he said, “Have them ready tomorrow.”
Next day he took a small boat from the ship, Fort William, and rowed ashore at Fulta. Walking round the main village where the upper caste Hindus lived took him only some ten minutes. In another ten minutes he crossed a strip of non-arable land with shrubs of plums and large tamarind, peepul and palm trees. He walked forward a few more yards and sat on the circular platform around a tall tree, constructed from rocks. Behind it were a row of mud huts. Sundari came out of her hut and said,”You again!”
“It is me again,”replied Strahan smiling as Sundari stood in front of him.“Have you seen the plum bushes; there are plums galore; lots of plums this year. They will ripen soon. Don't eat them all yourself. Save some for me.”
Sundari puckered her lips. “We seldom get our share. The jackals eat them. They come and invade the trees once the plums ripen.”
“Jackals eat them!” exclaimed Strahan with genuine incredulity. “Whoever heard of vegetarian jackals!”
Sundari thought that here was a funny sahib. He does not seem to know much. She looked at him a few times as stealthily as she could manage. She noted his shoulder length red hair tied in a pig tail. His green eyes against a young pink face looked like glistening precious stones. Strahan liked her looking at him furtively but pretended not to notice although 'notice' he did. He noticed her colour, as black as ebony. He noticed her sharp features and black hair. He noticed her big black eyes. He noticed her curvaceous, pubescent body which titillated the perennial male in him.
The main object of being in India, however, was to make money so, thought Strahan, there was the important business of buying and selling at a handsome profit. “Where is everybody?” he asked. It was not necessarily a question addressed to the coal black tiny girl. He knew the answer which was, in a nutshell, the lazy bones were sleeping. They did nothing else, these blacks, he pondered. Eat when they have rice and sleep and produce children by the dozens. Safety in numbers is the excuse made by Brahmin sahib, the scholar in western and Indian philosophy and history, an unusual white sahib among all the upstarts who hope to conquer and rule India. Brahmin sahib said that these Indians have lost freedom and dignity as a result of occupation of their natural habitat by intruders from Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Central Asia for easily a thousand years now. They have to do back breaking work for their, usually, foreign masters. So offspring particularly the male variety, mean increased income which may stave off starvation. “That being the case, why don't they work even when work is brought to them with handsome financial reward?” asked Strahan. Brahmin sahib had an answer to everything. He said that they did not believe that the present life, which was one of many, was at all important and all they were hoping for was the moment when the cycle of rebirth would cease. Their essence which inhabited their many bodies through millennia or centuries will then remain in a more permanent state without the sufferings which life inflicts on a sentient being.
He asked him once that the Muslims did not believe in this sort of nonsense but they were just as lazy. Brahmin sahib's reply was that they were converts and it took time for one's conviction to change. You could not win with Brahmin sahib, thought Strahan.
It occurred to Strahan that he was sitting leaning against the tree. Was he asleep? That would be embarrassing because he noticed that Sundari was sitting beside him with her eyes fixed on him all those tiny moments while he was dreaming or recalling what Brahmin sahib says. Strahan fixed his eyes on her and said softly, “It does not look as if your father has got me the goats and chickens he promised”
“I don't know,” replied Sundari now chewing a blade of grass. “But he will be up shortly,”
It must have been three in the afternoon. Strahan became anxious. He would have to get some supplies or there would be no meat for the British community at Fulta. He would feel very sorry for them and of course he would be very annoyed with himself for failing them. Pragmatically, in that case the Council would find someone else to supply the commodity. But there was no great hurry. The people will have to eat vegetables and potatoes with, hopefully, eggs or cheese. His personal worry was that, the Company being in a state of penury, Strahan had not been paid regularly. He was not sure if he would be paid for his current effort but for the time being he got excited to learn that the sloop, Kingfisher, did bring the glad news for the British that Colonel Clive and Admiral Watson were on their way. It was the third week of October and Strahan was not aware that it was some tome since the fleet was able to turn north and start speeding towards Calcutta, past Fort St David again, then Pondichery, Madras, Pulicat, Masulipattam and Vizagapattam on the east coast of southern India.
Next day Strahan went about nine miles up north to Mayapur near Pengels Point where the river Hoogli takes a sharp turn in the north-easterly direction. Budge Budge was only five miles away. He knew of a French ship anchored there on its way to Chandernagore. There was some activity at the landing stage. Coolies were loading the ship in their slow unenthusiastic manner. The cargo seemed to be mostly rice, vegetables and fowls of all sorts in huge round cane baskets. Strahan walked round a bit until some half a mile to the north he saw a few men sitting with their chins resting on their raised knees. It was nearly eleven in the morning and, in spite of the sun, they covered their heads and body with shawls to protect themselves from the cold. Strahan sat down at a little distance from them and started thinking of his move because the men were obviously guarding the goats all tied to one another with ropes round their necks. There must have been more than one hundred of these animals.
Strahan walked back the half mile to the spot where the toddy seller was fast asleep possibly as a result of helping himself to a quantity of the merchandise he was selling. Pagal sahib helped himself as well to two large clay jars full of toddy and walked back to the goats, although he preferred arrack himself which was more potent.
Judging by the position of the sun it was about two in the afternoon. The red head with eyes like precious stones thought of a girl in a plain sari whose name meant beautiful. He reproached himself for his obsession with money and decided that from now on at least he would spend a little time on other things but what those other things might be he wondered right away. He kicked the three coolies who were fast asleep. “You lazy swine,” he shouted. “You do nothing but sleep while your country is slipping away right from your hands.”
“Sahib!” exclaimed the frightened coolies now totally alert.
“What are you doing here anyway?” he asked.
One of them replied. “We have to wait here till a sahib comes and collects the goats.”
Strahan thought quickly. His strategy changed again. “Here,” he said. “You can have these,” handing over the two clay jars.
The delighted coolies followed him to the ship with the goats and Strahan talked to an officer. He told him that he was a private trader and understood that the French were taking supplies of food to Chandernagore.
“But you are English,” said the officer. “You could do with some food yourselves. Why don't you take these goats to Fulta?”
“The problem, replied Strahan, “is this you see. We need money for other things. So what else can we do but trade? These goats were given to us by Raja Manikchand but we have a lot more than we need right now. Our Governor ordered me to get some cash.” The officer left and came back in a while with an Indian clerk.
The French were very generous. Apart from giving Strahan more money than the market price, he was given two baskets of ducks to take back to Fulta with him. The clerk took possession of the goats as the coolies carried the baskets to Strahan's rowing boat.
The following day as he rowed ashore again from the ship, Fort William, he spotted Sundari sitting on the river bank. She was weeping. “What is the matter girl? asked Strahan. “Did somebody beat you?”
“Much worse than that sahib,” replied Sundari wiping her eyes with the end of her pale blue sari.”My father is marrying me off to a man from the next village.”
Strahan's heart sank. He felt a great sense of loss immediately. He was a man of action like most Europeans and he was also used to having his way in India. He was proud of the fact that he was good at persuasion by either argument or chicanery. He was not averse to ruthless actions if all else failed. As he looked at Sundari he felt that he should kidnap the girl right away and thus put an end to her father's machinations. Unfortunately, he remembered quickly that John Company was very strict about these things. The Britishers were all carefully briefed to deal with the natives fairly and, especially, nobody must ever interfere with their personal affairs. It was the Parliament in Westminster which was forever creating trouble even in such a far away place as India.
“Have you seen this man?” asked Strahan.
“Oh yes,” replied Sundari. “He is very old, toothless and cannot walk without a stick.”
This was India, thought Strahan. The youth is sacrificed on the alter of tradition based on non-reason, on non-thinking. Nobody questions it because there is no provision for an individual to blossom in isolation. Whatever one does must be for the wider benefit of the society and family which shelter and sustain the person. It was perfectly normal for an infirm old man to marry a girl young enough to be his granddaughter because that brings her security. When he dies she inherits all his worldly possessions and returns to her parents' home if need be.
“The hypocrites,” murmured Pagal sahib in English.”
“What sahib?” asked Sundari who was now in a cheerful mood.
“Nothing,” said Strahan quietly.
“My father has got those goats for you,” Sundari informed him. “He was hoping you to come yesterday.”
“Let's go and see him,” said Strahan
“I cannot be seen alone with you any more,” came a matter of fact statement from Sundari.
“Why?” asked Strahan, now visibly irritated.
“You see I am now someone else's property,” she replied seriously “I must not be seen with young men until, I don't know, until I am married.”
“Holy mother,” swore Strahan in English.
Sundari probably guessed that Pagal sahib was saying something he should not. She held his hand and said, “Come and see something before you go.”
They bypassed houses of the upper caste Hindus and stopped in front of a derelict mud building. It was a temple once but now abandoned for a better and newer building. Upon the alter, Strahan noticed a crude clay statuette about a foot tall. The clay was now dry giving it an off-white colour. As he went close to it, even in that ill-lit surrounding, Strahan noticed that its face was painted red with vermilion paste and the head was covered with straw, also red in colour. The eyes were green marbles, obviously pushed into the appropriate area while the statuette was still moist and soft. The marbles were cleaned with care but they were disproportionately large.
“Do pranam sahib,” she said as she knelt down in front of the clay statuette. Noticing a lack of response she looked up as she said, “This is my personal devata; the Lal Krisna.”
“Ah! Krisna!” thought Strahan. Brahmin sahib had told them many a time. He is the incarnate of Visnu; the naughty, unruly child Krisna with the world motherhood doting over him because of it; the husband of Radha but the lover of all women; the charioteer of the mighty warrior, Arjun of this Mahabharat, the greater India.
But Krisna is birthless, deathless, timeless. He is the infinite. He is the cosmos; hence painted blue or black in his anthropomorphic form. A Lal Krisna, Red Krisna! Strahan's lips quivered, his eyes went misty. He looked fondly at the little girl and knelt down beside her. She looked vibrant, her eyes shut as she uttered her own unrecognised mantra and offered flowers to her personal devata. Her ritual finished, she led Strahan out of the temple and said, “Go sahib, go now.”
"I will be back you will see,” said Strahan and walked towards his small boat. He stopped and looked back to see Sundari in front of the hut watching him disappear. As he came near the river bank he saw Badal with two other men standing by his boat with a herd of some 30 goats. “Got your goats sahib,” said Badal beaming from ear to ear. The Irishman's fist landed on his jaw and Badal, the father of Sundari, fell in the water.
“Pick the pig up,” shouted Strahan to the two men as he pushed his boat into the river. “And deliver the goats to the village where the sahibs and memsahibs are staying.” It was the eighth Bengali month of Pous, the precise date in the Gregorian calendar being December 21st, 1756.
Strahan went over towards Brahmin sahib's house. He wanted to know more about Krisna, but he could not get past the huge crowd that gathered by the river bank, excited and shouting. It seemed they were pleased that soldiers have arrived from Madras to attack Nabab Ul Mulk Sirajuddaula. Strange is human nature. They did not think that it will simply be old wine in a new bottle. They, the natural habitants of India, will still be in servitude. Only the master will change. There will be a new system, new laws and different form of tyranny. Strahan pushed through the crowd to the riverside. There they were anchored in mid stream, three of them, HM flagship the Kent and two other ships, Tyger and Walpole. The crowd learnt that there were more to follow.
The news was also confirmed that war between France and England had definitely broken out. Nevertheless, the ships' crew and officers rested and they hoped for a few tranquil days before active service but no sooner the sun went down than a drunken Irishman boarded the flagship and started a fight with the sentry outside the Admiral's cabin. Overpowered and tied hand and foot with ropes, he was made to wait on the deck until the Admiral arrived to decide on his punishment. The Admiral was informed but he was busy talking to Thomas Latham about plans for battle. Admiral Watson was a plump, moon faced man in his mid forties. Very rapid promotion in his career, as many thought, had made him arrogant. He was particularly contemptuous of non-military personnel.
“How is the morale of your men?” the Admiral asked his companion who was Thomas Latham, the captain of the ship, Tyger. He replied without hesitation, “There was some frustration at the beginning when we veered south but now they seem in very good spirits.”
“Good,” said a pleased Admiral. “That's what we need but we have to work out a plan of our own based on our knowledge of the situation.”
“But Sir,” said the captain. “Robert Clive is the commander of this expedition. We need to consult him if not follow him faithfully.”
“This is the problem,” said the Admiral with a frown. “The civilian has suddenly turned military!”
“He had great success in the Deccan, the southern part of India, though,”said the captain.
The Admiral said, “He was lucky. At any rate it is not difficult beating the Indians in battle. They make a big show with their horses and elephants. The leader does not know how to give orders so his men fight on as they please. Have you not noticed how they stampede at the slightest hint of any serious opposition?”
Strangely, noticed the Admiral, the captain was not interested in themselves denigrating Indian soldiers. He asked honestly, “What is our role in this expedition?”
“You are one of the captains; a very important man. You don't know!” asked the Admiral gruffly.
“No Sir,” replied Latham. “I was not told.”
The Admiral looked at him and seemed to repent his irritation. It must be so that the captain did not know because he did not tell him anything. Nevertheless he maintained a stern countenance as he said, “We are here to give support to Clive when he asks. That is the agreement with the Madras Council. Colonel Robert Clive is in command of the land forces.”
The captain asked, “Does it mean that we don't take the initiative?”
“That is so,” agreed the Admiral. “But I would rather bombard the blacks from our ships and get it over with.”
He went to the window and looked at the river. Captain Latham got up and stood by him looking out. The Admiral turned towards the captain, brushed off an imaginary something from the arm of Latham's coat, and said thoughtfully,”You see, the real battle is to come yet. We are at war with the French.”
The Admiral decided to give a brief lecture. He reminded the captain that there was a difference between the French and the British. The former had this grand design for an extended France, an empire incorporating Asia, Africa and North America. The British at the moment at least were only interested in protecting their trade.
“We are primarily a mercantile nation you see,” he said.
He moved over to the map of India hanging on the wall. Looking at it he said, “It is a rich country but the Indians have no sense of nationhood. You know we Europeans can only win it if, in land battles, we get cavalry support and there is plenty of that available from the native elites. You have only got to play one against the other. There are so many Maharajas, rajas, nababs and sultans here but they are envious of one another. There is no unity among them whatsoever. Let's go to my cabin and have a drink or two. I have some excellent Scotch.”
The captain said as they took to the boat and went aboard the flagship “But we have no unity in Europe either Sir; have we?”
“We are really united against outsiders,” said the Admiral seriously. “We, let us say the French and us, you may have noticed, have maintained neutrality in India. Of course our traders have this worry about competition. I know, some three years ago, the French turnover from India was nearly nine million British sterling, nearly half that of our turnover. They are catching up with us. That's what worries people like Clive whose personal fortune depends on profits from trade.”
The captain smiled and said, “But Clive has other ambitions for himself.”
“I should certainly say so,” said the Admiral smiling meaningfully. “He hopes to make himself the suba if not the emperor of all India in Delhi.”
The Admiral and captain came near the cabin and they spotted Strahan from a distance. The Admiral was amused. He whispered to Captain Latham, “You know who that is. He is that mad Irish, Strahan.”
“Oh yes, I know,” replied the captain, turning his head away because he was laughing. “He is our irregular able bodied seaman. We have lost count as to how many times he deserted us.”
As the two bosses came close, Strahan stood up and said putting on a sad voice, “Forgive me your honour Admiral Sir, I cannot salute you, me a humble sailor. You see these pigs have tied me up. Holy mother, I have never been so insulted in all my life! But I am warning them: a Scot never forgets.”
“How are you a Scot my good man,” asked the captain, “with the way you look and with an accent such as yours?”
“Forgive me Sir,” replied Strahan immediately. “You being English, I don't expect you to know an Irishman from a Scot.”
“Suppose I told you I was English,” said the Admiral without smiling.
Strahan laughed to placate the big man, “Hey, hey, hey,” and then said, “You will have your joke your honour but we know different; don't we?” He then made a valiant effort at saluting him but twirled, moved side ways and bumped into the guard who lost his balance and fell on the floor. The whole thing happened very quickly but as the guard managed to get up, he was ordered by the Admiral to untie him.
Admiral Watson looked annoyed. He said, “You frequently jump ship and now you have come aboard the flagship to cause an affray. You have to be punished but I am prepared to give you a choice. You either face court martial or I punish you on the spot”
“Oh your honour,” replied a totally obsequious Strahan without the slightest hesitation, “I don't want to face the upstarts you have around you. You punish me yourself Sir.”
“You are a rascal and a rogue,” chided the Admiral.
“I am that Sir, I am that; a thousand times over,” agreed the sailor rubbing his hands.
“All right,” said the Admiral. “You polish all the guns on this flagship starting from now. I will then consider whether you can stay with my fleet or whether we throw you out.”
The Admiral did not enter his cabin but instead moved on further along the deck and came up to a merchant who had an interview with him. Captain Latham said, “I suppose he deserts us to spend his time drinking arrack and visiting whorehouses.”
“Arrack, yes,” answered the merchant seriously. “But from what I gather, whorehouses, no. He actually cohabited with an Indian woman and lived in No-Man's-Land who left him. He had a second one with two children of his own.
Unusually, He lived in Black Town. They were burnt alive when, I am sure, the British set fire to the mud huts of the Indians for what reason I cannot remember. Pagal sahib was broken hearted; poor soul.”
“Not such a poor soul,” said the captain laughing.
“He is incorrigible,” commented the Admiral and laughed heartily.
As they moved out of sight the sentry who collided with Strahan before said to him, “Shall I get some grease in case the big boss comes back?” Strahan's first reaction was to start another fight but he changed his mind quickly. He said, “Listen. I have a business proposition. You polish the guns.”
“How much?” asked the guard. They bargained for a while and the guard, satisfied, took on the job of polishing all the cannon. The Admiral was pleased with the appearance of the guns and the following day Strahan had things to do.
He had heard that the great sardar had already written to Raja Manikchand thanking him for the help he had given the British. He also said that there was no doubt that the raja was for the British and it was very much hoped that if the need arose the British could rely for more help from him. Peculiar these people thought Strahan. The raja had been honoured and favoured by the young nabab, yet, undoubtedly he turned out to be a traitor as well.
The letter to Raja Manikchand was the gossip of the market place in Fulta but Strahan was not all that interested. He had money to collect and say goodbye to many contacts he had made. He thought of fakir Dana Shah whose ears were cut off not so long ago by the headstrong suba who assumed that he was a traitor. If Mohan Lal and Mir Madan had not intervened at the last moment the fakir would have lost his nose as well. He was a very useful source for silk, but he lived in far away Agradip near the capital Murshidabad and, hopefully, he is still there. His friend Raghu, the accounts clerk in the Writers Building, comes from there too who supplied him with saltpetre. His son, Gopal is an important source for calico and indigo. He must meet them all right away but a little girl with colour as black as her hair and big eyes as restless as a doe in the wild haunted him.
He quickened his steps; crossed the upper caste Hindu settlement and paused at the open field to gather some wild flowers. He moved towards the Red Krisna temple covered with off-white green creepers. As he walked in, monkeys hurtled past him screeching and pausing to grimace at the intruder. “Get off with you,” shouted Strahan waving his arms, “you cheeky monkeys.” The alter now had a clay lamp, extinguished but with oil and a partially burnt wick left in it. Strahan lit the lamp and sat in front of it. The glowing lump of vermilion smeared clay appeared to come alive to him and Krisna, the lover of all women, seemed to smile at him.
But Strahan felt the terrible pang of hopelessness; that doleful locked-in stress of a caged bird wishing to reach the surrounding freedom which is denied him.