Benu looked to her left and then to her right. The Banana leaves created strange silhouettes around her. The breeze smelt of raw mangoes. A strange shadow crossed their path and vanished into the woods. Benu shivered a little – just a little. Not as much as Nenu, her younger sister. Even if she felt afraid, Benu knew she had to keep up a brave face. Atleast for the sake of her younger sister. With their mother already busy with two other kids, she was in charge of her sister. Atleast that is what she thought.
A man appeared in the vicinity with a lantern in his hand.
“Selaam Sahib”, he grinned from ear to ear – trying to balance the lantern and the clumsy salute.
“I was told that a bullock-cart would be available at the station. Why was it not sent?”, John Solomon thundered.
“ I am sorry Sahib but the pig ditched at the last minute”, the man sounded apologetic.
“Sejdi, what use is a pig to a bullock cart?”, Nenu whispered.
Benu giggled. It was no use explaining to her that the pig in this case was the cart driver himself.
As they walked behind him, the man went on to explain in detail as to why it was not possible to catch hold of yet another bullock cart and the challenges of staying in a remote village.
The post sunset evening light was not bright enough for Benu to get a clearer picture of the village. At that moment she wasn’t interested either. Her stomach rumbled for want of food.
The last food they had was a sumptuous lunch at the Ferry-ghat where their steamer had just landed. The sailors always had a make-shift arrangement for the travellers using the steamers and launch-boats. Balancing through the knee deep water and clay the Solomon family had managed to sit under the make-shift canopy. The sailors had then served huge helpings of steaming rice and chicken curry – heavily peppered with red chilly paste.
But that was five hours back. And the railway ride and walk had already made the children hungry.
The landscape of the suburb village in East Bengal was so much different from their home at Kolkata. This truth dawned upon Benu the next day when kissed by the morning sun, the sky became clearer. As far as her eyes could see it was endless expanse of greenery. Little huts and single-storied houses dotted here and there but there was an engulfing calmness all around. The numerous ponds and water-bodies mirrored the travelling tufts of cloud sailing in the blue sky above. For Benu, who was the naughtiest among her siblings, this was an open invitation to unending adventure.
John Solomon, who was a police under the narcotics department, was too happy to be back to where his roots were. Inspite of constant complaints by his wife, he was not too eager to admit the children to school. He wanted them to enjoy the landscape, people and unending happiness of his homeland before being pushed to the daily grind.
For Benu it meant unleashing her curiosity to the maximum extent possible. In the afternoons her mother would go for an afternoon siesta with her two younger ones, giving a warning to Nenu and Benu that they should never venture out in the afternoons as the ‘Childpickers’ use those hours to kidnap young children. Nenu would close her eyes and pretend to be asleep, while Benu would wait for the signal of the soft snores. She would then tip-toe to the huge expanse of mango orchard at the back of their two-storied residence. Bundling up her long tresses into a top-bun, she would wander from tree to tree – plucking raw mangoes, searching for bird nests. Interspersed with the rustle of the dry leaves there would be the faint sound of breeze through the branches. Ta hoot utu, ta hoot utu…..Tihaa tihaaa tihaaa…..kirik kirik kirik….birds would twit on their own. Benu would train her ears to identify the birds. Picking a twig from one of the trees she would travel deeper into the orchards….till she reached the old, broken, deserted house. No one stayed in that abandoned house. Some locals even labelled it as a haunted house. Though curious, she hardly had that much guts to enter the dilapidated building. Till the day she gathered the courage enough to look through one of the half closed windows. To her surprise and much to the discomfort of her racing heart she discovered a moving figure inside the building. She would have let out a loud scream but placing his finger on his lips – the young man gestured her to keep silence.
“Who are you? Dacoit ? Ghost ? “, having regained her courage, Benu asked in a low tone.
“Ha, ha, ha”, the young man laughed, “a bit of both”.
“Come in through the back door”, he spoke to her through the little slit of the window opening.
Benu was in dilemma. She wasn’t sure if it would be safe to listen to someone who may be partially a ghost and a dacoit. But as always, her curiosity won hands down.
She tip-toed in through the back-door. The old, rusted door made a creaking noise. The inside looked as dilapidated and dirty as the outside. The young man stood at the entrance.
“Sit here”, he instructed, clearing out a small stone-platform near the back entrance.
Benu hopped in.
“Who are you?”, Benu asked.
“I told you, didn’t I? Half ghost-half dacoit. And who are you?”, the man asked, a smile hanging on to his lips.
“Benu. And what is your name?”. By now, the paced of her heart had subsided it’s speed.
“Haider. Do you know I have a niece like you back home? She loves me very much.”
“Then why are you here? Have you done something wrong?”, Benu was curious.
“Ha ha ha. I should be home. But I have to kill demons. So I am hiding here”.
Benu felt a mild touch of fear reaching somewhere down her throat.
“Are there really any demons here?”, she asked, taking a quick glance around.
“Not here exactly. They are many in numbers – out to destroy our country”.
Benu really didn’t like the idea of someone destroying this beautiful country.
“And with what will you kill them? Do you need a gun? My father is a police. He can give you a gun”.
For a few seconds Benu could see his face turn ashen.
“ No, not really. I do not need a gun. But promise me that you will not talk about me to anyone. Otherwise no one would allow me to kill those demons. And never come this side”.
His voice had suddenly turned stern.
“I have to go now….You run and get back home”
Benu jumped down from her seat. It was already late afternoon and her mother would have already woken up.
As she walked away from the house she looked back once more. She couldn’t see much but could sense a pair of eyes that were keeping a watch on her.
The oldest among the girls spoke up.
“ Girls, it is time we express ourselves against the atrocities of the British. They don’t want us to use our own clothes. They want to push their ideas, their clothes, their food. But there are so many who have come forward to protest against this. Khadi is our answer to their atrocities. And for that we have the Tokli.”, she held out a small device – a hand held version of the Charkha.
Benu and her friends skewed their eyes to look at the mini version of the device to make threads from cotton balls in an indigenous way.
“Do you know who she is?”, one of the friends whispered.
Benu looked quizzically.
“She is the cousin of the famous revolutionary Pritilata Wadedar”.
Benu felt happy. She had heard a lot about Pritilata Wadedar.
A girl younger than the speaker handed over the Toklis to the small group of girls around.
“Girls, today we shall use the Toklis to make threads as a mark of protest against the British atrocities on our freedom fighters. We are school girls, we cannot do much. But by this way we can send them a message”, the speaker concluded amidst a light applause. Their little gathering before the school hours had mostly gone unnoticed by the school authorities.
As promised, Benu held on to her Tokli during class hours. She could hardly make a proper piece of thread but she knew that it was a symbol of protest.
“Rekha Solomon, will you please deposit your device here on the table!”, the teacher thundered.
Benu tightened her grasp on the Tokli.
“Rekha Solomon! This is my last warning to you. You will be thrown out of the school if you do not part with that thing!”
Benu looked down, her fingers adamantly clinging on to the Tokli.
“Please follow me out of the class”, the teacher ordered.
Being the younger among the girls, she escaped being rusticated but as a punishment Benu had to stand outside in the hot afternoon sun for the rest of the day.
“Hold the edges carefully”, Benu instructed her younger sister.
Nenu obeyed her sister but her young fingers were too small to hold on to the slippery banana leaf.
“What are you doing?”, John Solomon tried to figure out the plan from the wide array of things strewn around – Huge Banana leaves, bamboo pole, red colour, small pieces of cloth.
“Trying to make a flag Baba”, Benu smiled – her fingers and nose already dotted with various hues of color.
“Flag? What flag?”, Solomon Sahib quizzed his daughters.
“An independence flag”.
“With Banana leaves?”
“Yesss”, Benu replied empahtically, “we shall write I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-C-E on the leaves and put outside with the help of a pole”.
“Yes. And I am helping Sejdi”, Nenu smiled meekly.
“Hmm….”, their father turned to look at their mother.
“Let them”, she answered, her eyes shining with pride. “This is the only way they can take part in the freedom movement. I too have thought of a plan”.
John Solomon laughed out loudly.
“Pramila, I am a Police under the British. If they get to know the grand plans of my family, it wouldn’t take long for them to boot me out of my job”.
“You are in a different department Mr.Solomon. And moreover, it really does not matter. We have to stand for what is right”, his wife teased.
“Ofcourse. I have my full endorsement for that. But what is your grand plan ?”
“As a housewife I cannot do much but from now onwards, no chinese silks or georgettes. If you can get me some Khadi cloth pieces I can stitch dresses for the children. I too would like to wear only Khadi saree”. Her determination reflected in her voice.
“ As you say”, John Solomon smiled, as he left for his duty.
The honeymoon with the picturesque sub-urban East Bengal wasn’t for a long time. Soon there was a transfer order back to Calcutta.
Benu’s mother spent an entire day sharing her tears with her neighbour Mehrunnissa. They spoke about the beautiful days they spent discussing new stitch patterns, learning new recipes, sharing the woes of family life.
John Solomon tried to mask his gloom with business of last minute duties.
And for the last time Benu visited the Mango orchard. After many, many long days she tiptoed to the broken and abandoned house in the orchard – just in case she would chance upon the half ghost-half dacoit! The house seemed totally empty. A lone bat flew away as she tried to open the window to look inside. Disappointed, she returned home, having said her good-bye to the birds and trees.
As the bullock-cart made took it’s last turn from the village premises, a small gathering of men and women stood on the road –unknowingly blocking their way.
“Is something wrong?”, Benu’s mother asked her father.
“Yes, I guess they are here for Haider”.
“Haider? Who Haider?”
Benu shuddered a little. Did she hear the name somewhere ?
“Haider was a young chap – a revolutionary of sorts. He died last night in a gun battle with the British police. It seems he was hiding somewhere around”, John Solomon’s voice drowned in grief.
Benu felt like crying. She could never ask him if he could ever meet his niece again. Or if he could atleast kill the demons.
Brave that she always was, she wiped face with the edge of her khadi frock. She hated to let others know that she way crying. She would rather let the tears melt away with the fading sun-set.
For all my life, I had seen my grandma holding a special place for anything to do with the country. Once, as I was colouring a flag, she asked me if I knew what the colors of our Indian flag meant. “The orange means…”, I was about to begin.
“Na..na…not orange.”, she interjected, “ It is called a Saffron – Gerua. It is the colour of sacrifice.”
Everytime the National Anthem would be played in the TV or on radio, she would prompt us to stand up.
“You must. That way you show your respect to the country, as well as those who have fought for the country”, she would insist.
Those days I could not fathom her spirit or her emotions. But today, as I have grown older, I realize that India’s freedom came with a lot of cost and a lot of sacrifice – a sacrifice that was not limited to big names and big leaders alone but also to thousands of Haiders, Benus and unknown faces.
I really hope my children would see Independence Day as being beyond yet another holiday with a lazy morning and a sumptuous lunch….for the sake of the sacrifice – big or small – of many Haiders or another little Benu – their great grandmother!
Rang de tu mohe Gerua….
PHOTO COURTESY: Subhadip Mukherjee (Indian Vagabond)