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Torpedoing Bengal

In Nirannya: The Starved, Aditya Sen attempts to capture the contemporary life and events of Bengal in the context of pan-India scenario exploring the political and social causes of the 1943 famine. Excerpts:

The Japanese warplanes flew over Calcutta skies like a flock of birds. The Calcuttans shivered in fear for life; the dreadful evening descended. There were strong rumours that Subhas Bose had made it clear that they were all Asians; there was no harm if they made threatening gestures to the British but what benefit they would derive if that killed Indians? So the Japanese didn't throw bombs on Calcutta but it caused great terror to the Calcutta residents. The Japanese planes threw leaflets in the air: They read – "Keep away from Calcutta, Live far away from Calcutta".

The war so long was confined to Europe and Africa. Although the war was on and the people were caught in its snarl, the Indians were still ignorant what disaster the war was causing. On 7th December 1941, when Japan attacked the Pearl Harbour, it awakened America from its slumber. Within 18 days of this event, Hongkong fell in the wake of a storm; Sumatra and Java also fell and Singapore was about to surrender. A terrific panic spread throughout — especially in Calcutta. The panic-stricken people were leaving the city in any way they could manage. Tram-bus-taxi-the horse-drawn carriages— all were carrying people to the brim. Even the sun-burnt ricksha-pullers could not escape from the onslaught of people. However the people were more worried about the fate of their houses. The worry was who could look after the abandoned house? Those looking for rented premises were much in demand. Those houses which could not be rented out were locked; no other way. But the people had no faith in the lock-backed security; they have more reliance on Subhas Bose because he had given them assurance that he would come soon to India with the freedom fighters and would make the country free…Be prepared…Be united."

On January 1941 Subhash fled the country befooling the British security personnel. No one would have believed that Subhash was alive unless they heard his voice on the Berlin radio:

"I am Subhash speaking. I know you don't believe whatever the enemies spat in condemnation of me… If Britain does not hesitate a bit to beg assistance from America to save themselves from the onslaught of the Axis Powers, then I don't think I have made any mistake in seeking help from a third country to make India free…. Be prepared…. Be united."

During the war time people had formed the habit of listening to the radio. Many people felt a thrill to listen to the voice of Subhash Bose over the Berlin radio. As gossip spreads, the mysterious presence of Subhash had spread from one person to ten, from ten to all over Bengal; Subhash Bose had created much sensation.

Hitler was then on a roll conquering one country after another. He had almost become invisible and in his self-pride of conquest, Hitler could hardly care to understand the sacrifice and the indomitable spirit of Subhash. So Subhash wanted to leave Germany and go to Russia but it could not be made possible. He had no other way but to go to Japan. He promised to the Indians that if they were willing to give blood, he would give them freedom. To fulfill this promise, he sought the Japanese assistance and with the help of Germany and Japan Subhash appeared in Singapore. So even if Japanese would have almost established its rule over Calcutta, one could rely on Subhash and wait long for him.

But what could be more precious than life? Howrah and Shealdah were filled up with surging people; there was not an iota of space. As one train arrived at the platform, people jumped and leaped into it. As the Bengali proverb says: 'If you live, your father also lives.' So they fled to East Bengal, Jessore-Khulna and Barisal—all within 125 miles from Calcutta. There were swelling people in Barisal. There was rail communication between Khulna and Calcutta; that was the reason why people felt greatly attracted to go to these places. From Khulna it was easy to go to Barisal and even Faridpur. Khulna Mail left Calcutta at midday and reached Khulna at 6 pm. No train was left with any space; all filled to the brim. The train came and thousands of people jumped into it; they not only slipped through the main entrance, but got inside the train through its window; coolies helped men to plunge inside through the window but that would involve fat remuneration to the coolie. If people climbed up the train and sat in a crowd, they would have to give some money to the ticket-collectors.

In Calcutta upper castes like the Vaidyas and Brahmins were not to be seen any more; those who had some opportunities to go to other places onside Bengal for example. Bihar, Orissa, Patna, Allahabad and Lucknow — they were rushing out there. Many people were going to Benaras. Save places like Hazaribag, Madhupur, Deoghar, Giridi in Bihar were much in demand and it was getting impossible to get houses there on rent, so much pressure of the crowd.

The Viceroy of Bengal moved and acted on silent signal of the army authorities. His military advisors were more careful to meet their own interests and in case of the need, cared less to meet the political needs of the Muslim League supported by Fazlul Haq Ministry. They didn't even think it proper to consult the Ministry before taking any decision; this caused disaster to Bengal. In case of war some people would definitely die and this happened in all countries. All avenues of earning for livelihood were closed. To snatch food from the formidable hunger of the military was almost impossible; it was like snatching food from the mouth of the python. There was hardly any vacant space because of the presence of the military. They were taking over village after village— military barracks would be constructed there; airport would come up. With promise for a paltry compensation, land and buildings were being requisitioned. The poor and ordinary farmers were made to lose their lands; they were becoming refugees. And taking advantage of this dire situation, the Zamindars forced the old farmers to vacate their land they had been tilling for long; and again engaged them fresh as 'bargadar' of the lands. And they also pocketed the compensation wherever due for the lands which the military had taken over. And these very Zamindars wore a mask to show that they were great patriots.

And those dumpy-looking fellows who had brought the war to the doorsteps of India, had shown wonderful strategic skill. What they had been planning or intending to do, were difficult to fathom; when they breathed in and breathed out, it was not so easy to understand. Sirens blew up any time during the day just to avoid the poisonous breath of the enemy. What was really a rehearsal of the siren or a signal of the impending raid by the Japanese war planes— it was difficult to gauge during the day or night. No one was permitted to come to the street unless all-clear siren was bellowed. Even then Phani Chatterjee was curious and went out to the street to see what was happening around and was scolded by the police. Anjali Choudhury rushed to the roof of her house to look at the Japanese plane as if it was a big game to her. Elders scolded her for taking such unnecessary risks; was it a childish affair? They asked her to take shelter in the trench because they feared if there was any bombing, there could be a danger of splinters pierced. Despite this warning, Anjali and her elder sisters went up to the roof and burst into childish laughter as if it was hard to restraint laughter seeing the British being pushed to such a miserable situation.

On the behest of the military authorities, some top bureaucrats came from Delhi and arranged to shift some of the important offices from Calcutta like railway and many of its departments. Traffic accounts and their commercial offices were walking away to the west with their records, papers and documents. Some big shots of some private firms were moving away to safer places.

So many things were happening around Calcutta that Calcutta was shivering like a malaria patient wrapping the dark night around its body. Gas lights on the streets with a cover like a horse-drawn carriage looked around with pale eyes; some of them closed their eyes in anger. In all the houses, windows were wrapped by newspapers; a little light that seeped through the dim electric bulbs threw black lines on the pavements. Trenches were dug in parks and vacant places; they were actually considered as the safest places. During the rainy days these trenches became dangerous manholes for the people. The mosquitos got free haven to outgrow in numbers in the abundant water; even the DDT sprinkled could not kill them at all; they squeezed out blood out of men musing in dark night.

(Excerpted with permission from Nirannya: The Starved; by Aditya Sen; published by Sanbun. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Historical Prologue'.)

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