Under the Same Sky: Part IX (Part II)
The Last Days Before Partition
As the horror of communal riots increased in Calcutta, and while my parents endeavoured to keep face, telling you not to listen to incitement propagated by both Hindus and Muslims, but just to attend school and do our home work, we could not be screened off from the smoke hazed air of burning houses, the faint distant cries from mohallas being attacked and then an eerie hush in the air. I recall how the Convent school bus in which my sister, brother and I would travel daily, would be stopped by bands of political party workers, who would tell the Conductor to get us to raise the slogan "Jai Hind" and "Vande Mataram" thrice before letting us pass on. This we would do with gusto, hardly realising as children, the backdrop of the quit India movement that was causing incidents of intolerance and brutality that were only to grow worse as time went on. National fervour took a sudden turn and before we knew it, it became the monster of communal violence.
My mother's excessive migraine headaches and nausea would draw our attention to her suffering from the horrifying situation. She broke down one day while returning home from Calcutta to our railway colony at Lilloah, she witnessed a nerve shattering incident in which a mob assaulted a British woman of Fairly Place, in Calcutta, tearing off her clothes and throwing her up in the air, passing her body down along those at the head of the processions, till mercifully, her unconscious body was rescued by the police. It was several days before my mother, shivering from the memory of the scene tried to steady herself for the sake of her children.
While months passed with news of disruption and strikes called "Bunds" in the city, tension grew among our neighbours, who had shared decades of excellent kindness and care. We too, at school began to sense the change in relationships. One started describing people by saying "A Hindu boy in my brother's class Krishna is very rich. He wears a wrist watch". Before we wouldn't have qualified his religious status. School was still however a haven of happiness. One charming scene comes to mind. We used to have our lunch sent from home by a trusted servant, who would cycle down with a Tiffin-carrier slung over the handle bar. There would be our plates, spoons, forks and glasses (Called tumblers in those days, for what reason I don't know) all tied up in a clean white duster cloth, placed in the wicker basket hooked on to the cycle's front handle bar. Our servant would arrive just before the bell rang for lunch break at 12-30 pm (so the food was always hot) and as we ran into the large dining hall there was a marvellous din of children's voices. We scrambled over long benches as our bearer opened and placed plants on the long wooden tables. Then the wholesome aroma of home food would come to our nostrils and we would be helped to serve ourselves from out of the enamel Tiffin-carrier bowls. The potato and peas curry, the rice and 'dal' (lentils) tasted so good in those days. Our servant invariably a gently courteous man, would address each of us to eat well and take more, ensuring that we ate as much as we were supposed to for our health. "Cuckoo baby take some more," and "Choti baby" (that was me) "there's special matar-gosht which you like. Eat well or Mummy-ji will punish me", our loyal, caring bearer Habib would say.
The aftermath of communal violence. Photo:wikimedia.org
It may be very hard for children of the post-1947 generation to understand the deep and supportive relationships that children of our times had with our house servants. It is difficult nowadays to find such sincere and altruistic behaviour from human beings who are not bound by ties of blood or marriage, yet we grew up with the care, concern and immeasurable services of these loyal souls. One such great source of devotion among many of our loyal and caring servants was our most venerable “Barre Mian”. He was a storyteller and minstrel to us, and an Old Faithful to my parents. He was also a believer in humanity, the oneness of God, and that death comes only once for the believer, a gentle patriarch, just sixty years old then. Schools were to close for the summer holidays and everyone was waiting for that with relief, so the daily hazards of sending children to school and praying fervently for their safe return, would get a break. The system of sending hot lunches to school had already stopped, due to sporadic rioting on the way, and my mother used to give us substantial sandwiches of corned beef, egg or chicken shreds, or “keema-paratha” (mince meat and grill fried wheat bread) in tin boxes. When we would return at 4pm we would have our regular hot lunch. One Friday we sat down to late lunch and there wasn’t any meat dish on the table. My sister who loves meat asked, “Mummy what happened, why is there no meat curry?” My mother said something about shortages in the bazaar and the closure of shops. An hour later when we went out to play in the garden, we found our other servants morose and quiet. My sister returned to my mother to ask the reason and said “Where’s Barre Mian?” My poor mother took my sister in her arms and said, “He went to get meat and he didn’t come back”. She explained that a riot had started as Hindus attacked the meat shops demanding a closure. In the stampede it was reported, a man rushed past with a knife in his hand and slit open Barre Mian’s stomach. He staggered a few steps, holding his protruding intestines, but fell down and died within minutes. His body was brought to my father in the office, as most people knew he was Saied Sahib’s old faithful. The man who slit Barre Mian’s abdomen, acted in incited frenzy. He had never seen our Old Faithful, he had no grudge against him. He was told to kill Muslims. Why? What for? My parents told us not to hate. It never solves anything, they said. My sister broke down and wept and I could only suck my thumb in wide-eyed disbelief as I nestled near my mother.
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