1946: A Love Story
Little Rubina and her family are trapped in the midst of the Calcutta Killings of 1946. Their lives hang in the balance. Can they survive the bloodbath?
August 1946, Calcutta. It was getting late—late enough to be worried. I stepped on to the balcony once again and looked down. Except for a drenched stray dog curled up miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen. A puddle of rainwater had collected under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard, thunder rumbled in the distance. Was that a soft knock at the door? I turned back.
“Rubina? Rubina beti? It’s me, Ghafoor Chacha!” Recognizing his gentle tone, I ran to the door and stood on tiptoe to undo the latch. I had turned eight and one of the important things I could now proudly do on my own was undoing the latch.
“Doodh (milk). I was able to find some for you and your brother. Allah was kind today,” he panted from walking up the staircase. He looked older than his 50-something years. His emaciated frame, a lifetime of hard physical labour and his unkempt white beard added to his age. Ghafoor Chacha and his cart were the neighbourhood’s taxi, ambulance, pickup truck, deliveryman, Unani hakim, handyman, matchmaker and agony aunt—a single-point service provider for us all. Everyone paid him, in cash or kind, even though he never asked for it. He was Chacha to everyone, even those older than him.
“Tell your mother to boil the milk and give it to your brother while it is still warm. It will give him some strength to recover from the fever.”
“Where’s Moti?” I asked, after I had handed the milk bottle to Ma, who was sitting by the side of my fever-stricken baby brother.
“Moti ghoday bech ke so raha hai (Moti is sleeping soundly, without a worry),” replied Ghafoor Chacha. Moti was the mare that pulled Chacha’s cart and took me to school. I looked forward to going to school, sitting next to Chacha, who urged Moti to trot faster. Every day, before I left for school, Moti and I would compete—I, to finish my tall glass of milk and Moti, to finish her pail full of water.
The monsoon had arrived but the rains had been scant that year. The humidity and heat were trying on everyone’s temper. To add to Calcutta’s woes, Suhrawardy, the thuggish Chief Minister of United Bengal at the time, had ordered for a day of Direct Action, I heard the elders say. From the morning of 16 August, the madness had begun and there was no school. No one in Calcutta had a good word to say about Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy was the ‘king of the goondas’. He had deliberately planned Direct Action to cause a bloodbath. His gangs worked behind the scenes to ensure a grim toll, strengthening his case for a separate Muslim Pakistan.
Things began to get completely out of hand after the police fired on a mob of rioters on Harrison Road at 11 a.m. on 16 August. The rioting spread to Bowbazar, and later, Shyambazar and Sealdah. Suhrawardy’s goondas butchered over 50 rickshaw pullers on Vivekananda Road. In retaliation, Hindu thugs sacrificed an almost equal number of Muslims to the goddess Kali at the Central Avenue temple.
Then, the arson started. Three little children were thrown into flames at Mullick Bazar. Muslims and Hindus went amok burning each other’s houses and shops. The goondas worked overtime, manufacturing spears and knives. Iron rods were sharpened and flattened to make weapons. Bontis (iron blades traditionally used in Bengali kitchens) were repurposed into fearsome sabres.
Furtively, I looked through the shuttered windows on the rear of the house into the backyard of a madrasa. Dozens of thugs sat sharpening weapons on the cracked marble tubs containing water for use before namaz. The water was red from the blood of innocents that was being washed clean from the weapons. I saw all this secretly when Ma was busy, because I was forbidden to look out of the rear of our house. I heard that there were corpses all over Calcutta, in the river, canals, alleyways—everywhere.
The sky was grey from the fires. The wind brought with it flecks of ash, and there was a smoky, charred smell wafting through the air. None of the men in the neighbourhood, including my father, dared step out. Calcutta was a cosmopolitan city—streets with a Hindu majority would blend into Muslim areas within a 100 metres.
Regardless of religion, there was the very real danger of getting caught in the crossfire. The men sat around in groups discussing the latest rumours in low voices or just smoking. The women reassured themselves that nothing would happen. We all knew each other very well. Our families, having lived together for decades, were always a part of each other’s joys and sorrows.
(Left) Rubina, when she graduated college; (Right) Rubina, today
A little after eight that evening, as the horizon lit up with a fresh wave of burning in the north, we heard a soft, diffident knock on the door. This time, Baba opened it, gesturing me to stay put. It was Ghafoor Chacha, looking more haggard and exhausted than usual. His dark complexion had taken on an ashen hue.
“Dada, bhishon gondogol (Brother, there’s major trouble brewing),” he exclaimed, speaking in hushed tones. He gently pulled the door behind him after looking up and down the stairs to make sure he was not observed. “You must move out tonight.”
“What are you saying, Ghafoor? What harm can come to us?” said Baba aghast. “We have lived here [in Sealdah] for a decade now.”
“Dada, I beg you. Do not question what I know or how I know it, just for today,” said Chacha. “Believe me, you are in grave danger tonight. It will be a matter of life and death in a few hours.”
Ma heard everything. She stepped out and whispered to Baba, “We better not take chances. If nothing happens, we can come back later, and start afresh. God forbid some danger indeed awaits us tonight. We will regret not having heeded Ghafoor bhai and moved to a safer locality.”
“Bibiji is right. I have the cart ready. Let us leave before it is too late. Please hurry.”
The night outside was still. There was an eerie calm with none of the sounds of a busy street that evening—no chiming of trams, no brass bells tolling from rickshaws or carts, not even a street hawker crying out his wares. Even the madrasa behind the house was quiet, deserted and dark. It was like the calm before a storm—a city poised anxiously for another night of bloodletting.
Ghafoor Chacha took my hand and led me down the stairs. Ma followed with my baby brother bundled up in a quilted blanket. Baba hastily collected a few valuables in a bag and locked the main door with all the padlocks and chains he could muster.
Alighting the stairs, Ghafoor Chacha turned towards the back door meant for tradesmen, cleaners and servants. Once he was sure that there was no one in the alley, he asked us to step out. Moti the mare, was tied to the door. He was nibbling with great contentment at the leaves of a few bales of hay kept near the exit, oblivious of the pitter-patter of rain.
Ghafoor Chacha gestured for Baba, Ma and my brother to lie down on the floor of his cart. He hoisted me to my usual perch beside him on his seat.
“Bibiji, please be absolutely still. Take care that the baby does not cry,” he said to Ma, pointing at my brother, who was asleep. He then quickly opened up the bales of hay and loosely covered my parents and brother lying on the floor of the cart. He unhinged the collapsible canvas roof of the cart to shelter my family hidden in the hay. He pulled the canvas of the hood taut in swift practised movements and locked the brass serpentine into position to conceal the contents of the cart. Then Chacha clucked twice to Moti to get the horse moving and the cart started rolling down the dark lane.
Ghafoor Chacha had removed all the little brass bells on the wheels and trinkets decorating the cart. Even the wheels seemed to have been freshly greased, and the cart moved noiselessly through the muddy street. There was something like a toddler’s booties tied to Moti’s hooves so that they muffled the noise as we slowly made our way out of our neighbourhood.
“Beti, what is your name?” Ghafoor Chacha asked me in a quiet voice.
“Chacha, you forgot my name? It is Rubina,” I replied in dismay.
“Achcha bachcha (Okay, child),” he replied. “Let us play a little game. Remember to say ‘Rubina’ whenever someone asks your name tonight. Speak only if someone asks you. Now, what will you say?”
“Rubina,” I replied warming up to the game.
“And if they ask you anything else say ‘jani na’ (I don’t know). That is our game. Got it?” instructed Chacha.
“How many teeth do I have in my mouth?” asked Chacha.
“Jani na,” I replied giggling.
“How many feet does Moti have?” asked Chacha.
“Which jamaat (class) do you study in?” he asked again.
“What is your name?” asked Chacha.
“Can you swim?” asked Chacha.
“Pari na.” (I cannot)
“Pay attention beti. The only answers are ‘jani na’ and ‘Rubina’,” replied Chacha. “I know you are very good at this game.”
Rubina's father, the late Asit Banerjee
The cart slowly and silently wound its way through the back lanes. Only cart and rickshaw pullers and manual scavengers knew these paths. Ghafoor Chacha was concentrating on making our passage as discreet and quiet as possible, rather than being swift. It was raining in a steady stream now. The cart’s hooded canopy barely shielded Chacha and me from the downpour.
Eventually, the cart approached a road that was normally a busy Calcutta intersection. We were immediately accosted by a group of Muslim youth. The boys were drenched to the bone, with barely concealed sharp weapons under their dripping clothes.
“Chacha, where do you think you are off to?” asked the swarthy young man, who looked like the leader of the band of cut-throats.
“Chacha cannot stay away from his sweet begum hidden away on the other side of town,” remarked another.
“Chup bewakoof (Shut up, fool),” admonished Ghafoor Chacha. “Is this any way to talk to an elder, that too in front of a child?”
“And who is this saahabzaadi (little princess) with you?” asked the leader.
“Don’t make fun of this miskeen (poor thing),” said Chacha. “She was separated from her parents earlier today. Allah knows if they are safe. I am taking her to stay with her relatives.”
“What is your name bachcha?” asked the leader.
“Rubina,” I replied.
“What does your father do?”
“Where is your home?”
“Which jamaat do you study in?”
“Let the poor girl be,” Ghafoor Chacha chimed in. “The horrors she saw today!”
“As you wish, Chacha,” said the leader “But what are you carrying in your cart?”
“Gold from Baghdad,” quipped Chacha. “Hay for the horse, bewakoof. You are all so intent on setting fire to anything that burns, my poor animal will starve!”
“Check the cart,” snapped the gang leader. A few of the thugs rushed to check. They stuck their hands through the sides of the fastened canopy and pulled out handfuls of hay.
“Theek hai, jao (Alright, go ahead)!” said the leader, slapping Moti on her flanks.
Past the intersection, the cart picked up speed, goaded on by Ghafoor Chacha. Coming up to Belgachia Bridge, we saw it barricaded with bamboos, carts and upturned rickshaws, apparently by a band of Hindu goondas. A platoon of armed policemen, led by an English daroga (police officer) on horseback, was arguing with the Hindu cut-throats to dismantle the barricade. Three constables had the leader of the gang pinned over a toppled rickshaw, raining blows on him with lathis. Our cart, with an elderly Muslim man and a little girl, immediately grabbed the platoon’s attention. They asked us to stop beside the barricade and questioned Chacha.
“Just a minute, huzoor (Sir),” said Chacha motioning towards the back of the cart as he stepped down, “Come this way please.” Unfastening the canopy, Chacha informed Baba that it was safe to come out. Baba emerged, dusting away the hay from his clothes and hair. By then, the curious English daroga had also dismounted and walked over.
Baba explained the situation to the officer in his fluent, Bengali-accented English. He persuaded the officer to spare a couple of his men to escort us a little further to safety. He also insisted that Ghafoor Chacha and his cart be escorted back to the mohalla from which we had started our journey. With a pair of bicycle-mounted policemen for protection and me seated on Baba’s lap next to Ghafoor Chacha, Moti galloped us to safety.
We stopped in front of a house with a modest wicket gate and an unkempt garden, heavy with the sweet scent of night-flowering coral jasmine. The faded marble sign on the doorpost said Dr Amit Baran Banerjee. My Baba’s brother, Dr Banerjee was a homoeopath and took great pride in his profession. He ran a medical practice catering to middle-aged hypochondriacs. His regular patients thrived on his generous doses of sugar pills and rectified spirit. He sat on the verandah with a lukewarm cup of tea, chain-smoking a pack of Capstan cigarettes in one hand. The other hand tried to shoo away mosquitoes with a hand-held fan made of palm leaves.
Sick with worry, neither my uncle nor his wife Shrilekha had felt like having dinner. An emotional Shrilekha was again propitiating her gods with prayers, punctuated by sobs.
Moti snorted loudly as the charred air irritated her nostrils. The sound caught Shrilekha’s attention in the prayer room. She peered through the window and shrieked in delight followed by a happy “My prayers are answered! Jaamai babu (brother-in-law) and Ruby are here.” Dr Banerjee clenched his older brother to his chest. “Asit, Asit ... is that you?” he trembled, tears of joy welling up in his eyes. “We feared the worst. The police told us no Hindu survived in your entire neighbourhood!”
Shrilekha let out a cry as she caught sight of my Ma and my bleary-eyed baby brother. In her joy, she lifted the prayer conch, still in her hands, to her lips and blew into it, as she would to celebrate an auspicious occasion.
As told to Sujan Banerjee