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Essay

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.

Zohra Sehgal. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Zohra Sehgal[1] mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.

Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western  dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.

So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.

But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘A Biography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.

Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe[2] and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.

Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan[3]  in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…

So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI[4].

Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.

It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…

Young Zohra. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”

All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!

Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier[5] – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”

When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.  

Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.

With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan[6], Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.

On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…

*

When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara[7] and Chandralekha[8]; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.

Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.

Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.

Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi[9]’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement[10] started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed.  Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”

*

However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.

Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.

But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.

Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan[11], writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.

Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef[12] – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor[13], to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.

*

Prithviraj[14], although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla [15]sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”

Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.

The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.

Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.

The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!

In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day[16] riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.

And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.

Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.

When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallas[17]and hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”

Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.

Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”

As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”

Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?”  People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.

However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.

Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?

In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.

The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.

All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.


[1] Born Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtaz Khan Begum (1912-2014)

[2] From the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[3] Pathans of Afghan origin who migrated to Uttar Pradesh in the 1700-1800CE

[4] Communist Party of India

[5] A famous French dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe

[6] Allaudin Khan(1862-1972)

[7] Nayantara Sahgal

[8] Chandralekha Mehta

[9] Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s husband and son-in-law of Nehru

[10] The Quit India Movement started on 8th August 1942

[11] All film stars

[12] Writers

[13] Film stars, directors, composers

[14] Prithviraj Kapoor(1906-1972)

[15] Hindu or a Muslim priest

[16] 16th August, 1946

[17] Colonies

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC (Certified Board of Film Certification), served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

Conversations

‘He made History stand still on his Pages’

A conversation about an eminent screenwriter and author, Nabendu Ghosh. His daughter, senior journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, unfolds stories about her father. Click here to read.

Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Senguptaconverses with legendary actress, Deepti Naval, on her literary aspirations at the Simla Literary festival, Unmesh, in June 2022. Click here to read.

Poetry

Poetry by Ratnottama Sengupta… Click here to read.

Prose

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click hereto read.

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a tribute to famed actress, Swatilekha Sengupta (May 1950- June 2021). Click here to read.

A Special Tribute

In Jean Claude Carriere: A Writer for all DirectorsRatnottama Sengupta pays homage to Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021), the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Click here to read.

When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn? 

Ratnottama Sengupta, comments on the current situation in Ukraine while dwelling on her memorable meeting with folk legend Pete Seeger, a pacifist, who wrote ‘Where have all the Flowers gone’, based on a folk song from Ukraine. Click here to read.

Beg Your Pardon

Ratnottama Sengupta explores beggary in fact, films and fiction. Click here to read.

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day. Click here to read.

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata Mangeshkar. Click here to read.

For the Want of a Cloth

Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Two Birds

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates a Tagore’s song. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a language and culture. Click here to read.

Dilip Kumar: Kohinoor-e-Hind

In a tribute to Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar,  Ratnottama Sengupta recollects the days the great actor sprinted about on the sets of Bombay’s studios …spiced up with fragments from the autobiography of Sengupta’s father, Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read. 

Yesterday Once More?

Ratnottama Sengupta recalls her experiences of the Egyptian unrest while covering the 35th Cairo International Film Festival in 2012. Click here to read.

Gliding along the Silk Route

Ratnottama Sengupta recaps about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.

When Needles Became Canons…

Ratnottama Sengupta gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.

How Green was our Valley

Ratnottama Sengupta goes back to her childhood Mumbai to the mid-twentieth century. Click here to read.

The Worshipper of Mother Earth: A Nostalgic journey

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys to show how past and present are interlinked in art and pays tribute to a polyglot, Maniklal Chatterjee. Click here to read.

Wisdom of the Wild

Ratnottama Sengupta muses on the wisdom of the wild in a storm. Click here to read.

In Praise of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta discusses how translations impact the world of literature. Click here to read.

Translations

Down the stairs by Nabendu Ghosh, a gripping story exploring the greyer areas of ethical dilemmas, has been translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay with editorial input from Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read.

Ratnottama Sengupta translates Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Bijoya Doushami. Click here to read.

Colour the World: Rangiye Diye Jao, a song by Tagore, transcreated by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology: To mark the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography experience of Pather PanchaliSong of the Road) — between covers and on screen. Click here to read.

Yet, Forget Me Not…: Short story by actress film-maker Aparajita Ghosh translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Across Time: Ratnottama Sengupta transcreates three poems from Bengali. Click here to read.

An August Account of ‘Quit India’ Movement: Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule. Click here to read.

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights: Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, these are reflections by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) on the magic of storytelling in Arabian Nights. Click here to read.

The Awaited Mother’s Day: Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, a short story by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016). Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Triumph of the Human Spirit

On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.

One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.

…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky 
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.

As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.

This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?

From Malaysia, Julian Matthews and Malachi Edwin Vethamani cry out against societal, religious and political bindings – quite a powerful outcry at that with a story and poems. Akbar Barakzai continues his quest with three poems around ideas of freedom translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Jaydeep Sarangi and Joan Mcnerny pick up these reverberations of freedom, each defining it in different ways through poetry.

Jared Carter takes us back to his childhood with nostalgic verses. Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Michael Lee Johnson, Vandana Sharma and many more sing to us with their lines. Rhys Hughes has of course humour in verse that makes us smile as does Jay Nicholls who continues with her story-poems on Pirate Blacktarn – fabulous pieces all of them. The sport of hummingbirds and cats among jacaranda trees is caught in words and photographs by Penny Wilkes in her Nature’s Musings. A poetic tribute to Danish Siddiqui by young Sutputra Radheye rings with admiration for the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who met his untimely end last month on 16th while at work in Afghanistan, covering a skirmish between Taliban and Afghanistan security forces. John Linwood Grant takes up interesting issues in his poetry which brings me back to ‘freedom’ from colonial regimes, perhaps one of the most popular themes for writers.

Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.

Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?

Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.

A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece.  We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.

Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.

We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.

Maithreyi Karnoor’s Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion,Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra,  Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.

As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.

I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal, August 2021

Categories
Slices from Life

An August Account of ‘Quit India’


Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an uprising in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule

The golden anniversary of the Quit India Movement of 1942 had occasioned another wave of animation. There was an urge to do something spectacular. Newspapers vied with one another to write about it. Leaders exercised their jaws over speeches to ‘inspire’ the masses, eighty percent of whom had not witnessed the sacrifice and unity of the people then and could not feel the passion.

The significance of August 9th 1942, lies in the spontaneous outburst of fury and wrath in the minds of every indignant citizen. It was a peerless uprising that spread like forest fire, engulfing cities and towns, hamlets and provinces, suburbs and mohallas, causing a crack in the very foundation of the British Raj. To control the unarmed citizens the colonial rulers had unleashed armed soldiers in large numbers. Viceroy Linlithgow even issued orders to fire from the air!

There’s a big difference between those days and now. The patriotic values that suffused even the poorest of the poor in the land under foreign rule have not been passed on to independent India. People then equipped themselves physically and emotionally, to rid the land of imperialism. Those mortals had the dedication, will power and courage to sacrifice their lives at the altar of motherland. From a tender age the parents and schools inculcated in them a sense of belonging to the country. And they had inviolable faith in their leaders.

Five decades have lapsed but I can vividly recall the dance of destruction in Patna of August 9 and 11, 1942. I must have been fourteen then, a student of class IX in the Government Girls High School Bankipur. We stayed in No 8 Mangles Road, an endearing spacious government bungalow to the left of the Secretariat. Outside it, a well-pitched road and across it was the vast quadrangle of the Secretariat. The thoroughfare was lined on both sides with rows of banyan and mango, jackfruit and jamun trees. Morning, evening, companies of parrots would flock in.

To the right was Hardinge Road, again with rows of government bungalows with expansive premises. From the intersection of Hardinge and Mangles Road, a smooth road ran up right through the iron gates of the Secretariat. The ambience was stately, solemn, as favoured by the British administration. On August 11, this very road witnessed the daring adventure of unarmed multitudes, awash with the life blood of eighteen young men.

There was no television then, there was only the radio. But there was a wide gulf between what was broadcast and what actually transpired. The pride and hope of every Bengali, Subhash Chandra Bose, had hoodwinked the British government and escaped the country. He was determined in his resolve to overthrow the imperialists with the help of the Japanese. Occasionally we – all of us in the family of gazetted officer Phanindra Nath Mitra – would gather behind closed doors and listen with bated breath to Aami Subhash Bolchhi (I am Subhash speaking), his nightly broadcast from Berlin on Free India Radio which Bose had set up in 1941 with German funds. I was anguished and deeply hurt by the thought that the INA chief’s dream could have come true if all our political elders had joined forces with him.

Sir Stafford Cripps of the Left-wing Labour party (traditionally sympathetic to Indian self-rule), a member of the coalition War Cabinet under Churchill, had come to negotiate an agreement with the nationalist Congress leaders. His Mission was to secure full Indian support for the British efforts in World War II – in exchange of a promise of elections and self-government as a Dominion once the war was over. The mission was unacceptable to both, the Indian leaders and Churchill. No midway was found, the mission failed and on August 9 the country resounded with the war cry of ‘Angrez Bharat Chhodo! British Quit India!’

Gandhiji gave out the historical call of ‘Quit India’ but the responsibility for the success of the movement rested on every single Indian who now vowed, “Karenge ya Marenge! We shall do or die!” The leaders were well aware that the desperate call would lead to incarceration, but the oath armed every Indian with the resolve to carry on the andolan (revolution) if push came to shove. The fear was not unfounded: overnight all the Congress leaders were stuffed into far flung prison cells. This simply set fire to a pile of gunpowder.

On August 9, as usual I took bus no 14 but on the way to school, I noticed people agitatedly assembling in groups or heading for some place with the tri-colour in their hands. The famous Golghar was opposite our school and the Patna Maidan was close by. People were breaking into brief runs to reach the Maidan. There were countless heads right outside the school. With great difficulty the buses manoeuvred their way into the school compound and the enormous iron gates were locked.

Principal Charushila Rosa and a few other teachers stood at the door. The minute we got off the bus they directed us to go to the prayer shed at the back of the school. On the other hand, the seniors, standing with flags on the first-floor veranda, asked everyone to join them. Taradi – Tarkeshwari Sinha, who was elected to the first Lok Sabha at the young age of 26 — normally donned khaddar. That day she was attired in a red border white Khadi sari. Her eyes red and swollen from shedding tears, she was pleading with everyone, “Come on dear, Do or die! We shall force them to quit!”

All of Golghar resounded with the cry of ‘Vande Mataram! Hail Motherland!’ The senior girls echoed the slogan from the first-floor veranda. The minute that reached my ears, a strange motivation drove out every shred of fright or inhibition. We ignored Mrs Rosa and stomped up the stairs. The senior expostulated, “By arresting our leaders the British government has betrayed us. We must avenge this. We do not want the Englishmen to rule over us. Today none of us will attend classes. In the Prayer Hall we shall raise the slogan of Vande Mataram andwe will hoist our tricolor on the flag pole. We must all remain united.”

When the bell sounded, we stood on the first floor upholding the flag, sending out the message that we too were protestors. When the second bell rang, we joined the prayer line where, at the end of every row, one senior girl stood with a rolled flag in her hand. Taradi was a hostel inmate — wonder how they got hold of so many flags! Mrs Rosa, a strict disciplinarian with a temper, looked at us disparagingly, the other teachers also watched anxiously. Moments later, Taradi’s voice rang out, “Angrez Bharat Chhodo! British Quit India! Vande Mataram! We bow to thee, Motherland!”

In a blink the chorus of Vande Mataram filled the air. Mrs Rosa turned red as we walked out in front of her eyes and assembled in the front yard, all the while bellowing ‘Vande Marataram!’ I can’t put into words the emotion that coursed through my being.

Watching our unsuccessful attempt to hoist the tri-colour on the flag post some men tried to jump over the school’s boundary wall. That triggered a bout of screaming and scampering. All of a sudden, the iron gates were opened for armed policemen who mercilessly started thrashing the young men, now flung to the ground. Four trucks of armed police had entered the school compound. Word went out that they were there to arrest some of us led by Taradi. But the teachers demanded police protection to drop us home instead.

So far, we could hear distant noise beyond the compound walls. Now that was pierced by the painful outcry of wounded men. Curious to know what was going on, we rushed back to the first-floor veranda. The sight that met our eyes froze the blood in our veins. White-skinned British mounted policemen! They were wildly thrashing the ocean of human heads, lashing them right and left with iron-laced whips as they strode from one end of the road to the other. The blood-covered men were crashing to the ground, then scrambling back to their feet with raised fist and screaming in choked voices, ‘Vande Mataram! Quit India!’ Later we learnt that this incident at Bankipur Girls School was the first ever charge by the mounted police.

Never before had we witnessed such barbarity. For the first time I also witnessed how the love of motherland makes even unarmed populace lose every fear, even for their lives. We – even Taradi — started howling out of frustration, helplessness, shame, dejection. In that state we were put on the bus. Our teachers explained to us that in view of the circumstances, and in deference to what our parents would be going through, we ought to return home.

The bus moved at snail’s pace, side stepping legions of injured men. Bankipur Maidan was a sea of human heads. Where did so many turn up from? They were not attired for such an ‘outing’ but there was no trace of fear on their visage. At the risk of facing the worst kind of atrocity, thousands of unarmed people were striding forth, towards the Secretariat. We crossed another intersection and witnessed the same sight: clusters of people racing with our bus towards Mangles Road. Repeatedly they were hitting on the glass windows to stop the bus. We panicked when we saw that the Gurkha Regiment of Mounted Police was also galloping towards the city. Until this day we had seen the British only on duty at the Government House: this was the first time they were trotting through Patna’s arteries.

After dropping off Kanak at the Power House, the bus moved slower than an ant but managed to drop Rekha Di and me outside our houses. Our petrified parents were waiting on the verandas for their daughters to come home. Gazetted officers were home for lunch had not returned to their office desk! Father directed us to stay indoors without opening any door or window. But if the men trooped into our compound, we were not to stop them — they might want a drink of water to quench their thirst! And if Ganga Da – Baba’s Hindi speaking adopted son — came home from his hostel, he should stay back: the unrest would surely mount in the school-college areas.

Our pet dog was chained up in the veranda behind the house. The curb on his normal movement was least acceptable to Jack: he let the world know that through ceaseless baying that drove us out of our minds. Next morning his howls rose in pitch as the stream of voices kept rising around the Secretariat. My brothers Nilu, Dilu and I took turns at comforting him. He lapped up all the water in his bowl but since he was not free of his chain, he barked his head off.

There was no news of Ganga Da these three days. We had heard that hordes of people from neighboring regions were streaming into the city. That day, August 11, the air was thick with foreboding. The entire area was packed with people and police. All of a sudden, Jack stopped barking. Through the slatted window I saw him desperately chasing a horse – the whiplashes could not deter him. Impulsively, without a word to anyone at home, I ran out to bring him back and found myself in the thick of the unrest. Near the Secretariat the goras were attacking the protestors with unspeakable aggression. Here and there a horse would neigh loudly and rear on its hind legs — perhaps they were not trained to trample upon live humans! The groans and moans of anguished souls made me tremble. I also saw a few crazed men incredibly holding on to the cracking whips splitting the air with resounding shup-shup!

I managed to grab Jack outside No 5 Mangles Road. Someone had grasped me and pulled me back into the safety of the gap between the trunks of two massive banyans. Holding Jack in a tight embrace I was shivering away. I was stunned to see trepidation in the eyes of the men around me as, hand in hand, an inviolable mass of humans approached the Secretariat, holding aloft the tricolor, ‘Vande Mataram!’ on their lips, head held high.

Their determination showed in their raised fists as the White policemen continually rained their batons to halt them. The Police Commissioner, microphone in hand, commanded, “Stop or you will be shot! Rukk jao, simply halt! Ekdam rukk jao, stop at once!” In response, the human wall came closer. Apparently, Ganga Da was present among them, in the second row, although I did not see him. Again, the snarl: “Rukk jao, halt!!”

Suddenly I saw Durga Prasanna, the 12-year-old motherless son of my private tutor, darting in that direction, ignoring alike the crowds and the mounted police. He simply had to see for himself why all these people had gathered. So, in a jiffy, he climbed up to the topmost branch of the tree closest to the Maidan and perched himself with his feet dangling on either side. Shortly his fear-driven father arrived in search of his only child. He had no time to don his fatua shirt, or tie his dhoti properly, it was scraping the ground.

The human wall was relentlessly tiding ahead. I had no inkling that, at that very moment, seven Gurkhas were waiting in front of the Secretariat with rifles ready to shower bullets. The ageing master must have fathomed the seriousness of the situation. So, the minute he spotted Durga Prasanna atop the tree, he tried to scramble up its trunk.

Again, the microphone roared, “This is the last warning to stop!!” It prompted the human wall to take another step forward. “Fire!” the order flew out, so did the bullets. Eleven young men in the first row kissed the ground – they had been shot in the lower half of their body. Those behind them lunged forward to pick up the injured comrades and ran, crazed, confused, in no particular direction. The rest of the assembled crowds surged ahead.

The second order to ‘Fire!’ triggered simultaneous action on the treetop. To escape his father’s thrashing Durga jumped off his perch. But he did not live to rejoice: a bullet pierced his ribcage and blood gushed out in repeated spurts as the pre-teen body hit the ground. And not just one Durga Prasanna, so many vivacious young lives fell to the bullets. “Durga-a! Durga re!!” – the heart-rending wail was all the old master could let out before losing consciousness. The poor Brahmin’s foolish son had become an unintended martyr.

Had I not witnessed all this with my own eyes, I would never have believed that death can be so instantaneous, and remorseless. Like me, thousand others also did not believe that people on the payroll of the British could fire on their own unarmed countrymen. Two rounds were fired before the fact registered on the dumbfounded lot, driving them crazy. Picking up those groaning in pain, blood flowing like fountain, they carried them to the safety of the bungalows. To provide first aid the grown-ups brought out water, cotton wool, tincture of iodine and rags to bandage the wounds and save lives. Some were tenderly resting the injured in their laps, to infuse warmth in them even as they themselves were bathed in warm blood. All those who had taken the bullets on their chest were students from colleges in and around Patna. So much killing! Such bloodshed! It threw to the winds the last shred of restrain: the frantic crowd went berserk and started hitting the policemen wildly. Again, the rifles roared out in a third round of firing.

With unblinking eyes, I was watching the horrifying turn of events. I was transfixed: the suddenness of the appalling developments had stupefied me. Overcome with fear and fatigue, I stood like a statue on the rocky roots of the banyan. Before my eyes some men were carrying two injured youths with blood spurting out, towards 5 Mangles Road. A streak of red outlined their course on the muddy path. The youths were gasping. I too felt stifled and fell to the ground between the two banyans. In the midst of the mayhem, all around these people were looking for doctors to attend to the dying.

The Gurkhas and the Mounted Police, perhaps daunted by the agitated numbers now blinded with rage, went and stood inside the Secretariat compound. Carloads of local Indian policemen were taking into custody anybody they could lay their hands on. Somewhere a clock hammered three gongs: I realised it was 3 pm and I ought to get back home. I heard people say, “It would serve no purpose to be stuffed into jails, let us get away, run!” They ran helter-skelter cutting through the bungalow courtyards, jumping over the fences. Across the railway line, R-Block Water Tower was chockablock with people. They did not leave their bleeding companions, they carried them even as they fled.

A couple of jeeps with the sirens blazing gave them a chase. Countless shoes, chappals, gamchhas, torn cloth, spectacles, Gandhi topis and caking blood lay on the vast Maidan and Mangles Road to recount the story of debacle.

I have no idea how I reached home – probably the fleeing masses had carried me along. On seeing Maa’s ashen face, I believe I had merely uttered, “Maa, blood!” and then fainted.

That fateful night of August 11 had come to an end but the sacrifice of so many lives desirous of freedom had gone in vain. Fired by hope, we had all started dreaming of living in a golden India free of the yoke of colonialism but only for a brief period. Under the commendable leadership of certain parties a Free Government had temporarily come into force in parts of Bihar, Bengal, UP, Orissa, and Maharashtra. Patna itself had no rule of British law for four-five days. Rebel leader Jaiprakash Narayan had fled to Nepal border and led a guerrilla war from there.

The Quit India Movement of 1942 is the blood splattered tale of outrageous courage of India’s populace, not the ballad of the triumph of a single party. Prior to this, our history had not witnessed such an all-consuming uprising across India’s length and breadth. This was the first instance of a unique wave of emotion overnight seizing the country from one end to the other. In whom does the real power of the land rest? In 1942 people rose above caste and creed and became a force to reckon with. The imperialists realised that Indians can no longer be dominated on the pretext of a World War. Unfortunately, the gains were frittered away. Within months the movement was squashed.

Over the passing decades this date – August 9 – drags me back to the scene of crime. If only all the people and every political party in India had joined hands! Then, in all probability, the history of India would have read different.

The Kranti Memorial Sculpture near the old Secretariat in Patna. The photograph has been provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant. 

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the permission of the family to translate and publish this piece.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL