GHOSTS SURROUND ME. Eight of them stare with unseeing eyes from the wall above my desk. I think the slumped skeletal figures captioned ‘Groupe d’affames’ (starving group) are victims of the Great Famine of 1876-1878, one of the many recurrent miseries that inspired the ‘City of Dreadful Night’ moniker and encouraged the search for an etymological link between ‘Calcutta’ and the dreaded Golgotha, land of skulls.
Covid-19 kills in silence. Not so other killers. Through the passage of years echoes the haunting cry for food from the street beyond the barred and bolted doors and windows of my uncle’s firstfloor flat where we were staying in 1943, visitors from Benares where my father’s employer, the East Indian Railway, had moved its wartime headquarters. ‘Bhaat! Rice!’—the anguished whimper floated on the wind before the owner curled up on the pavement beneath our balcony to gasp out his last breath. The silence was shattered far more raucously three years later as the muffed roar of ‘Allah ho Akbar! God is Great!’ proclaimed the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day and Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s determination to win Pakistan. A much older cousin taught me to distinguish between two kinds of ‘Allah ho Akbar!’ A throbbing drumbeat meant the faithful were marching to battle, he said. A long-drawn-out plaintive chant signalled retreat.
Other nightmares peopled other nights. Many bore the impact of distant terror. When the Bay of Bengal’s ferocious waves lashed the Sunderbans coast, destitute villagers were washed up starving and in tatters on our streets. Partition overwhelmed parks and pavements with ragged refugees. Communal riots in East Pakistan sparked bloody retaliation here. Noakhali was avenged in Bihar; Calcutta—as it was then—linked the two battlefields. East Bengalis, instantly identifiable by food habits and lifestyle, comprising a majority of Kolkata’s population, have transformed the city into a permanent monument to displacement and dispossession.
Benjamin Kingsbury, a young historian based in New Zealand, graphically describes in An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876 the tragedy that my 19th century hand-coloured engraving commemorates. The engraving itself is from the 19-volume La Nouvelle Géographieuniverselle, la terre et les hommes (Universal Geography) by the renowned French anarchist and geographer Élisée Reclus (1830-1905), who may never have visited India for all I know. I bought the picture, which was published in Paris between 1883 and 1889,in an elegant airconditioned antiques shop just off Singapore’s Orchard Road where everything was neatly filed and catalogued. A sticker read, ‘Guaranteed over 100 years old.’ It was lucky to escape British vigilance.
Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s Hungry Bengal with its dramatic drawings of Midnapore’s dead and dying didn’t. The police burnt 5,000 copies. Sunil Janah, the distinguished photographer who accompanied Bhattacharya to Midnapore, saved his negatives, but some feared he didn’t save himself. His god having failed, Sunil found final refuge in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free. Ela Sen’s Darkening Days, Being a Narrative of Famine-stricken Bengal didn’t escape either. Andrew Whitehead of the BBC is ecstatic about Darkening Days. ‘What a powerful book this is!’ he exclaims in his blog. The stories ‘all culled from real life’ represent the profound tragedy and misery of the famine which ravaged Bengal in 1943. The British banned the book ‘presumably because of its impact on wartime morale’.
I must confess I was unaware of Darkening Days despite multiple connections: Ela and her parents were old family friends, she and I were professional colleagues in London, and her British second husband, Alec Reid, was news editor of The Statesman in Kolkata. The Reids were also close to my friends, the Communist Party of India’s fiery Manikuntala Sen and her husband, Jolly Mohan Kaul, who will soon be a centenarian. Whitehead is even more impressed by Zainul Abedin’s ‘deeply shocking and emotive… drawings from life’ in Ela’s book. He used Chinese ink and paper made from rags ‘to capture these desperate depictions of the human impact of famine’.
It was pictures all the way also for Ian Stephens, then editor of The Statesman, who won undying fame for exposing the famine that may have caused 3 million deaths. Uncharacteristically, according to some who knew him, Stephens shares the credit with Reid. He says they agonised over the famine at every editorial conference. “Write, write, write, but nothing came of it… .” Then a voice piped up, “A pageful of photos!” It was Alec Reid. Stephens jumped at the idea, brushing aside qualms about wartime censorship. Thus was born one of the most effective campaigns in newspaper history. Pictures all over the paper; special brochures of pictures; pictures that made an impact in Delhi and London where they had been denying the famine until then.
Covid-19 kills in silence. Not so other killers. Through the passage of years echoes the haunting cry for food from the street
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The paper and the famine became thoroughly entwined. “We are part of its history, and I understand my name is still affectionately remembered by some Bengalis for what we did,” Stephens mused 23 years later, 18 years before he died. He would have been pleased to know that when he did die, Amartya Sen wrote to The Times: ‘In the subcontinent in which Ian Stephens spent a substantial part of his life, he is remembered not only as a great editor (with amiable, if somewhat eccentric, manners), but also as someone whose hard-fought campaign possibly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.’
ANTICIPATING TODAY’S CONSPIRACY theorists, Howard Fast’s novel, The Pledge, which turns historian Romila Thapar into a male Bengali communist revolutionary, also accused the British of deliberately creating the 1943 shortage to weaken the independence movement. Food is politics. Another American, the political activist Mike Davis, had already denounced the 1866 famine as ‘colonial genocide’ in his book Late Victorian Holocausts.
Just as the 1866 famine inspired civilians like William Wedderburn and Alan Octavian Hume to help found the Indian National Congress, the 1943 famine hastened independence. But my childhood memory will forever retain the anguished cry of ‘Bhaat!’ and the vision of tattered corpses under our balcony. Nor are the names of the Indian businessmen held responsible for the hoarding forgotten. In 1866, too, Cecil Beadon, Bengal’s Lieutenant-Governor, blamed the devastating famine that wiped out a quarter of the population on dealers ‘keeping back stocks out of greed’. People waited for Jawaharlal Nehru to fulfil the promise he made on his release from prison in June 1945, “In an independent India such black marketeers will be hung from the lamp post.” Many of those businessmen were soon financing the movers and shakers of independent India.
They prompt the old, unanswered and despairing question: is a transaction possible in India without some ruthless Indian pocketing a cut? Is ‘honest businessman’ a contradiction in terms?
The onomatopoeia of hunger is matched by the onomatopoeia of fanaticism. We were at Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram in Pondicherry on Direct Action Day, August 16th, 1946, but gory reports of blood flowing like water, looted shops, houses fired and human butchery reached us at every halt as the Madras Mail steamed towards Howrah two days later. The journey ended to ‘Allah ho Akbar!’, though whether throbbing or plaintive I cannot now remember. The woman with whom we shared our compartment exploded in hysterics. With zamindari antecedents, she lived in an Old Ballygunge rajbari. There were bustees nearby. Her aged mother and young daughter must have met, she wept, a fate worse than death.
Howrah station was eerily silent. Not a single porter could be seen. Nor the usual cacophony heard. My mother, sister and I sat on the deserted platform while my father went away. He was gone a long time but returned eventually with a Major Kulkarni in uniform—I was much taken by the jungle of hair in his ears—and some labouring men in tow. Avoiding the station concourse, we walked down the railway tracks, past sidings and gates and over crossings, to a block of flats called Colvin Court, rumblings of ‘Allah ho Akbar!’ reaching us every so often.
We spent three days at Colvin Court as guests of another railway officer. The bazaars were closed, the servants had decamped and food was scarce. Rice and sabji for lunch, chapattis and sabji for dinner. The broad balcony permitted a distant view of trucks laden with belligerently shouting men, trucks laden with mounds covered in sheets, fluttering flags, brandished swords and the eternal inevitable ‘Allah ho Akbar!’ The monotony was occasionally punctuated by a jubilant ‘Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai!’ but the respite was shortlived. It was soon back to ‘Allah ho Akbar!’
A British officer wrote, ‘Calcutta was the battlefield. The battle was mob rule versus civilization and decency.’ The city has never recovered from that bruising. Neither has India
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My father disappeared and my mother took out her anxiety on me, reprimanding me for playfulness while my father faced danger in the turbulent city. Later, much later, I learnt he had walked the stricken streets to ensure that the family had come to no harm. He was the old-fashioned karta of what was legally called a Hindu Undivided Family but his HUF was a state of mind, a voluntary assumption of responsibility that had nothing to do with taxes. Mandeville Gardens where we lived was safe since the bungalows were then studded with European families, but there were aunts in Ganesh Chandra Avenue and Mirzapur Street, my uncle in Entally and grandmother and her sister in Auckland Place. He had also dropped in on a Muslim college friend in Park Street and received a mouthful about Muslims being decimated. The tension of waiting, of not knowing, got to my mother and, through her, to me.
Just as the 1866 famine inspired civilians like William Wedderburn and Alan Octavian Hume to help found the Indian National Congress, the 1943 famine hastened independence
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We left on the third day in a car with armed guards provided by the mysterious Major Kulkarni. It was a nightmare drive through empty streets, past smoke-blackened houses and the stench of death. Today’s lockdown is like the tranquillity of a resort in comparison. A handcart piled with stinking animal carcasses trundled along Beck Bagan. A man in a fresh white dhoti lay on Syed Ameer Ali Avenue, his stomach ripped open, the attache case beside him spilling papers. The only movement was of vultures too gorged to do more than slowly flap their wings Doha, Suhrawardy, Jinnah… the names recurred again and again in overheard grown-up conversation. Shams-ud-Doha was Kolkata’s Deputy Commissioner of Police and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was of course Bengal’s premier. In childish foolishness, I imagined them interspersing ‘Allah ho Akbar!’ with a popular jingle, ‘Kaan me bidi, muh mein paan, lad ke leynge Pakistan.’ The sequel ran, ‘Kaan me bidi, muh mein paan, lad ke liya Pakistan / kaan mein bidi, muh mein paan, hus ke leyga Hindustan.’ Suhrawardy’s decision to declare a three-day holiday and assure the mob that he had made all arrangements with the police and military not to interfere with them set the stage for the carnage. A British officer wrote, ‘Calcutta was the battlefield. The battle was mob rule versus civilisation and decency.’
The city has never recovered from that bruising. Neither has India. I have often wondered in the years since whether Partition and Independence were worth the devastation, the damage to the trust and confidence between the two communities that is so essential for harmony in South Asia. Jinnah’s Direct Action Day worked its evil; its legacy still haunts us. What happened, I also wonder, to that woman from the rajbari in Old Ballygunge.