The Clarion Call of a Broken Pillar: Nabendu Ghosh and the Quit India Movement
Translated by Mitali Chakravarty, excerpted and edited by Ratnottama Sengupta from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat.
India Independence Day Special
In April 1942, our independence movement took on a new vigour. That month, Mahatma Gandhi in his article in the magazine, Harijan, demanded the Imperial government grant India a ‘sovereign’ status and withdraw peacefully. On 7th August, when the All India Congress Committee convened in Bombay, they decided to launch the ‘Quit India’ movement, forcing the colonials to leave India without resorting to violence. When on 9th August all the leaders including Gandhi were arrested, Indians were inflamed with outrage and anger.
On 11th August, while I was sorting letters in the office of the AIG-Police, I could hear distant strains of “Van-de-ey Maa-ta-ram! I bow to thee O Mother”; “Bharat mata ki jai— Victory to Mother India” and “May the British rule perish”. When I went to the teak-floored verandah to check what the commotion was about, I saw a crowd of people raising these slogans as they marched off the main road towards the entrance gate of the Secretariat. Many carried the tri-coloured flag of the Congress and some held banners that read “British, Quit India”.
“Vande mataram… British leave India” — the chant drew nearer. Two constables ran forward to shut the gates, but the demonstrators pushed past them into the main compound of the Secretariat.
“May the British rule be destroyed” … “Chase the British out of India…”
I felt the oceans were raging. My body was trembling in anticipation and excitement.
Out of the blue, eight or ten vans entered from the back gate of the Secretariat and parked in front of the building. A number of rifle-bearing military police jumped out and stood in a semi-circle formation to face the protestors. Seeing that the rifles were raised, and the commanding officer was a British, the protestors grew more agitated. “May India be independent”, “Quit India-a-a”, “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai — Victory to Mahatma Gandhi”.
Suddenly my eyes fell upon a youth of eighteen or twenty clamouring up the dome of the Secretariat. His aim was the Union Jack flying atop the Secretariat. He intended to uproot the British flag and replace it with the tri-coloured pennant he tightly held in his hand.
“Fire that bastard!” the British military commander shouted out an order. At once five policemen fired. The youth flailed his arms as the gunshots found their mark. His flag started to roll down. Faster than the flag was the pace of his falling body.
The agitated crowd was maddened by the sight. They raced forward to rescue the body of the young martyr. “May the British perish!”
“Fire!” Again, the British officer commanded. Fifty guns roared in unison. Some were injured on their legs, some on their body, some on their arms and some in their chest. The outraged protestors roared louder, “Quit India -a-a!”.
Again, the British murderer shouted, “Fire!” Gunshots again. Again, some people were injured. The cries of the injured rent the air. “Fire!” Again, the gunshots rang out. Some more people fell to the ground. “Advance!” the officer bellowed. The police started advancing. The protestors’ voice was getting faint. Some were receding. Some were sitting by the injured.
“Fire!” Again, the police fired, this time blanks. The crowds started dispersing and as they backed, they exited the compound. The protestors walked back in small groups with their defeated voices ringing in feeble protests.
We all got back to our seats. Before returning, we noticed some twenty-twenty two were dead, and fifteen to twenty injured were groaning in pain. Sitting in my chair, I suddenly felt like weeping. “Coward!” I started cursing myself, “You unheroic poltroon! Shame on you, you chicken with no ideals! Shame! Shame! Shame!”
“Letters Ghosh Babu, here…”
While placing before me a pile of files with letters, the constable peon said sotto voce, “Many people lost their lives — hey Ram!”
I did not answer. As if in a bad dream, I cursorily put the letters in the right pigeon holes, filled up envelopes, jotted down the cost of stamps. Then, at 5 pm, I stepped out of the office. I noticed that they had cleared the area of the young martyr and other wounded patriots. Their blood stains had been washed and scrubbed off. But the military police were still on guard inside and outside the Secretariat.
I pedaled furiously on my bicycle past the Harding Park towards my home. Every hundred yards armed policemen were on the watch. The roads were near-empty. I returned home like a whimpering cur. I retired to my room and lay down in my bed.
The next day I went straight to Manida. “I want to start a new novel,” I told him.
“That is good news!” Manida smiled. “Have you finished writing?”
“No, I started writing it last night.”
I told him about the firing in the Secretariat.
“Have you decided what to call your novel?” Manida wanted to know.
“Yes. Bhagnastup, Broken Pillar.”
“What is the theme?”
“The theme is the Quit India movement. Such a massive movement, yet the various political parties stand divided for their own petty self-interests! No one is thinking of their motherland or of the evil times that have befallen us all.”
“Can you do this alone?”
“It must be made to happen. And this realization can be kindled among people only by writers and artists.”
Manida looked at me calmly. “Nabendu,” he said, “don’t forget that you work for the British government. I wear khadi* because I will never ever work for them.”
“Manida,” I smiled, “my heart and soul are draped in khadi too.”
Manida patted my shoulder and said, “Well then, write on. May victory be ours!”
And I started writing. The novel was serialised on a monthly basis in Manida’s magazine, Prabhati. My friends started praising me. Praise, plenty of praise poured in.
A few days later a youth of about twenty-two or twenty-four came to meet me at home. His name was Bimalacharan Mukherjee. He was the youngest brother of CID officer Amiya Mukherjee. His elder brother had sent him to me, he said.
“Can you tell me why?”
Bimalacharan said, “A novel titled Broken Pillar is being serialised in the Prabhati magazine of the Prabhati Committee.”
Bimalacharan said, “My elder brother has read your serials. He believes that your novel can be seen as seditious. Now, as there is widespread anti-British sentiment in the country, this sedition, though small, can lead to trouble.”
I asked him, “So, what has your brother suggested?”
Bimalacharan said, “My brother is a fan of your organisation’s ideology, its literature, and he is mesmerised by your writing. That is why he is requesting you to write, write more, but to mute it down a little.”
I thought a while before responding, “Give my regards to your brother and tell him that I will bear his counsel in my heart. And many thanks to you too for bringing me your brother’s message.”
I fed him sweetmeats and saw him off.
Then I went straight to Manida.
“So, what will you do now?” Manida asked.
“I will keep writing,” I answered.
“In a muted tone?”
“Manida I have told you that in my heart I too am clad in khadi.”
Manida used the phrase he always used to express admiration: “Bravo!”
My writing kept flowing. Needless to say, I did not tone down the fire in my pen.
After about four months, my friend Amal came frowning to me in the dispatch room. “Nabendu,” he said in a hushed voice, “our deputy inspector general has written a letter to your assistant general and it was I who typed that letter.”
“But what is the letter about? You must explain that. For you speak with fear in your heart.”
“The letter is about your novel in the Prabhati,” Amal said. “If it is signed today, it will reach your office by this evening. The letter says, the CID is convinced that your novel spells sedition against the government and urges the AIG to take necessary action against you.”
“It means they will sack you.”
I thought quietly for a few minutes and then asked, “Will you send the letter to be signed today?”
“If I do not send it today, it will have to be sent in the morning, latest.”
“Then do that Amal. Give me a night to think it out.”
Amal said, “Alright Nabendu. I will send it to the DIG at eleven O’ clock tomorrow.”
After Amal left, I also went home, in the middle of the day. Without telling anyone anything, I walked around Beni Babu’s garden all by myself and sorted out my thoughts. In a few months, I would have completed my probation and become permanent. But the fault was all mine. I could not water down my pen.
Late at night, after giving it a lot of thought, I wrote a plea: “Honourable Inspector General of Police, due to family pressures I cannot continue to work in your office anymore. I am therefore resigning from my job with immediate effect. Please accept my resignation letter. Your trusted employee, Nabendu Ghosh.”
I did not divulge a single thing at home. Like every other day, I had my meal and cycled to the Secretariat. As on other days, I entered the registration room at ten in the morning. But instead of writing my name on the register, I went to Gatigovind Dey’s table and placed the resignation letter on his table.
After reading it he looked at me, “Have you got another job?”
“No sir. I have written the truth. I have a problem which I cannot explain to you right now. Please accept my resignation and set me free.”
Gatigovind Babu stared at me for some time. “You have thought it all out well I hope?” he asked.
He stamped the letter, put it on the side and said, “I pray for your well-being Nabendu.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I left the AIG office for life and faced a dark, uncertain future. Do we have the strength to force the British to quit India? The day it happens, how old will I be? How will I earn a living till then? What will I tell my parents when I get home?
All of a sudden, while walking under the belting sun, I stopped short.
It was nearly midnight. I was still writing. My father came and asked me, “What I heard is true, then?”
“Then how will you subsist now?”
“I cannot answer that now. But I have done no wrong, Baba.”
My father kept quiet for some time and then left. I understood that he was worried.
After about a week, I received a letter. Days before resigning from the AIG-Police office, I had sent an application to the Military Accounts. This was a response to that. They had called me for an interview.
Six months back, Military Accounts had opened an Eastern Command Office in the ancient palatial home of Imran Vishal. War was on in the eastern front too. Many people manned the office, but they wanted more people immediately because the work was growing in leaps and bounds.
My interview was scheduled for five days later. After ten days, I was called in to join within three days. This was at the end of the year 1943.
Manida smiled when he heard. But I was worried, “What if the military accounts check with the AIG office?”
Manida said, “See what fate has in store for you. You have done no wrong. Then why do you worry?”
Manida was right. So, I joined on the appointed date. Based on my performance in the English essay and interview, I was not placed in the general section, or in the dispatch but in the Eastern Command’s national office. It dealt with the corruption in the garrison or elsewhere, and with issues like when people would be confirmed in their jobs. This was an important department as it had to do with secret files.
I started working with trepidation but after a month I grew confident. The section superintendent, Mr Chopra, was very happy with my work and notes. And some Bengali colleagues had come to hear of my reputation as a writer and dancer.
After about ten days, the controller, Mr Hazare called me. I went with apprehension in my heart. Mr Hazare said, “This command library needs to be brought up to date. I have heard of your literary and cultural prowess. So, you will have to take this responsibility.”
I responded, “I will take on this challenge with heartfelt happiness.”
After a month, I found I had won the approval and regard of the three hundred employees of Eastern Command.
In a few days, Mr Hazare would be retiring. The accounts department organised a farewell for him. The Patna Music Club was invited for the function. That meant, I would dance and comedian Jahar Roy would enact his skits. With that performance, I won over the Eastern Command fully.
The next day, Mr Hazare called me and said, “Ghosh you are a very talented man, don’t rot here.”
I said, “I do not want to rot here sir. I want to be made permanent.”
He looked at me calmly and said, “You shall be made permanent, by God, Ghosh.”
Assistant Controller Mr Upadhyay replaced Mr Hazare. He was a young man. He was also very kind to me. My luck had turned for the better.
At this juncture I married Kanaklata.
Three months passed after that.
That morning I found the superintendent, Mr Chopra looking rather stern. As I made for my table, he called me: “Ghosh, please come here.”
As I drew close to Mr Chopra, he said, “Ghosh, sit. There are certain things I want to discuss.”
I felt disconcerted. “Yes sir?”
“We have to go through some formalities before making you permanent,” Chopra said. “And one of them is going through your police records.”
My heart missed a beat. I got it.
Chopra said, “Everything in your reports is good except your writing — it is seen as ‘Sedition’.”
I sat still. I realised that this was the end of my job.
Chopra coughed mildly before going on, “That is why we are forced to ask you to leave today itself. The war is spreading fast to the Eastern front and this is a military department — yaar**. Ghosh, my heart breaks when I say this…”
Mr Chopra’s voice was overcome with emotion.
“Thank you, sir.” That was all I could say in a lifeless voice.
At that point a peon walked in to say, “Mr Ghosh, the Controller Sahib has summoned you.”
I entered the controller’s room and folded my hands in a namaskar.
The controller looked at me, “You have heard everything?”
“I am helpless Ghosh.” He was up on his feet. “I am sorry to lose you. But you have inherited blessings for all the good you have done. I know God will protect you.” He extended his right hand, “Goodbye Ghosh, and good luck.”
“You are very kind sir. Goodbye.”
In half-an-hour, I left Eastern Command behind me. I was jobless again, for a second time.
I returned home. It was not yet one in the afternoon. I went to my room and sat quietly. Kanaklata came into the room. She saw the darkness on my face and enquired, “What is the matter?”
I told her.
Kanaklata smiled and said, “Are all Indians living off jobs generated by the British government?”
I did not answer.
Kanaklata said, “Do you know what God wants?”
I looked at her.
“He wants you to be a writer.”
I stared at Kanaklata for some time.
Suddenly it struck me that one of the nomenclatures of a married woman ought to be of “secretary”. I felt that Kanaklata was my best “secretary”. And it was a positive result of marriage.
*Home spun fabric, popularised by Gandhi during the Independence movement to provide an inexpensive alternative to cloth from Lancashire Mills, UK.
** Slang for friend in Hindi
Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!