Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

A STUDY OF LIFE

KALYANI BHATTACHARJEE

Translated from the original Bengali JEEBON ADHYAYAN, by Dhira Dhar. Reproduced with permission of Jay Bhattacharjee (son of Kalyani Bhattacharjee)

The Bengal famine

"With the change of fortune , one day the British will have to leave their Indian Empire and depart. But what a God-forsaken and poverty-stricken India they will leave behind. When centuries of reign will run dry , what a vast stretch of poisonous and fruitless land will lie before us." Rabindra Nath.

My dear son,

You are sleeping now. Let me tell you a very sad story. It is not a story - it is stark reality , that your mother has witnessed.

When I sit with you on my lap and feed you milk and rice , I am reminded of those hundreds of mothers whose children have perished for want of milk. The mothers had starved so they had no milk for their new-born infants. I have seen children in their mothers' arms struggling to get some milk and when they failed they breathed their last , in their mothers' arms. The mothers would cry for a moment and then leaving the child on the wayside , would join their companions and move on from door to door , begging for food. Many mothers sold their babies for a few coins , with which they bought some food. The woman who bought the baby would carry her around as she went begging , hoping to rouse pity in the hearts of people.

I remember the numberless dead bodies of little children scattered along the village path , as we moved from one village to another for relief work. There were living skeletons, and dead bodies all along the way. My heart breaks with sorrow as I recall those hunger-stricken starving faces of the little children. Their memory will stay with me till my last breathing day. The world will never forgive them, who created this situation , where helpless, innocent children died such painful, lingering deaths. I wish to ask God, in the poet's words, "They have poisoned your air, darkened your light , Have you forgiven them, and given them your love?"

When food becomes scarce through famine or flood then men succumb to Nature's wrath. There is pain in such death , but not the bitterness that was in the minds of men at this man-made famine. There was plenty of food in the country, but it was confiscated by the Government machinery, and later thrown away when it rotted in the government stores. The government requisitioned all the available food grain for the soldiers on the eastern front. Food could have been brought into Bengal from other parts of India, but the government did not do so, for as they said , all their transport vehicles were busy on the war front, so were not available for the dying millions of Bengal. We have read in the papers how food came in planeloads from America when Greece was suffering from shortage of food. Famine was averted so easily over there. When there was shortage of milk in Bombay , the government over there immediately prohibited ice-cream and other milk products , and supplied cheap milk to children and their mothers. But when villagers in Bengal were dying in thousands, shops in Kolkata were loaded with ice-cream and other milk products. Bengal then had an anti-people government.

Bengal was leading the nation in its battle for freedom. The Bengalis were inspiring the rest of the country to Civil Disobedience and non-co-operation with an alien government. The land of Bengal was drenched in her martyr's blood. Subhas of Bengal was leading a National army with cries of "Chalo Delhi" So the British government used all its strength to choke the aspiring spirit of Bengal. They ruthlessly drove the chariot of starvation and deprivation all over the districts of Bengal , more so over the districts that were politically advanced. Their plan was to punish Subhas Chandra by making his countrymen suffer. They hoped that Subhas would relent when he would learn about the sad plight of his people. These are some of the reasons for the famine of Bengal. Many books have been written on this. When you grow up you will read them. I am just describing some of the pictures of that tragic famine for the children of your generation.

Sitting in the Arthur Road jail of Bombay , I would turn over the sheets of "Amrita Bazar Patrika " and see the pictures of hordes of hungry men and women on the streets of Calcutta. Seeing the terrible face of death in the villages , they had rushed to the city , trudging miles and miles , in search of food. With their life force already spent , they found little succour in the city. The "khichuri" they found in the :langar khana " of the city could not save them. After confronting death ,they collapsed on the footpaths in front of the palatial buildings of the city.

On being released from jail I returned to Calcutta. On my way home from the station I saw hordes of human skeletons walking along the road. There were mothers and babies and others in the groups. There were human corpses lying in rows on the pavement. They were resting over there after fighting their last battle. Other men and women were passing by. Some were even laughing and chatting. They were at times tripping over these dead bodies. All this did not shock them for they had got used to these sights. At cinema halls buyers of tickets queued up with corpses lying around. The Corporation vans could not pick them as there were too many of them.

The city of Calcutta seemed to have turned into a burial ground. I could not recognize it. How long will this city survive? There was darkness all around. It was impossible to walk on the streets because of the malodorous garbage lying all around. It seemed the city would soon succumb to deadly epidemics.

A few days later the government started picking up these hungry people forcibly from the streets into trucks. They cried and begged to be left on the streets. They did not want much; just a bowlful of rice water , which rich house-holders usually throw away or feed their cows. They did not want rice, nor did they want a roof over their heads. They just wanted to die on the footpaths of the city. But the government could not allow them to do so, for the people were coming to know of this disgrace. Soldiers from England and America were writing home describing the horrors of this man made famine.

The rich people of the city were also being disturbed by the constant moaning of the hungry thousands on the streets. They wanted the government to take some action , so that these beggars could go back to their villages and die over there in government built refugee homes. As they were being picked up forcibly , wives got separated from their husbands , little children lost their parents. Death would have parted them eventually. The government did it ruthlessly. Day after day we watched this scene , and thought thankfully , that Rabindranath , Prafulla Chandra and others were no longer in our midst to witness this inhuman cruelty of man to man. They had loved Bengal with their heart and soul. Their sympathetic hearts would have been shattered by this terrible disaster.