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)

East Bengal trip

When nothing much remained for us to do in Calcutta, we went to East Bengal to look over the work of the East Bengal Relief committees over there.

Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherji was the President, and Sri B. M. Kanoria was the secretary of this organization. Shanti, a student and my niece Dhira accompanied me. Shanti was from East Bengal and so would be a great help over there.

It was early morning and we were on the Chittagong Express. Our first halt would be at Chattagram. There was a wonderful thrill in my heart for Chattagram is my father's birth place. For the first time I was going to visit "Chattal " the land anointed with the blood of martyr's.

We boarded the train for Chattagram at night. There was such a rush that many passengers had to climb to the roof of the compartments. Somehow we found a corner in a third class ladies compartment. There were no lights and we could not see anything, and had to call out to each other to assure ourselves of our presence. In this darkness no one could leave their places, even to go to the bathroom. As a natural result it soon became almost impossible to breathe in the malodorous atmosphere in the compartment. In this terrible condition sleep was impossible, so I sat meditating on our sorry fate.

When the train reached Chattagram after hours of journey.we descended with all our belongings. All the gloom of night disappeared in the morning light. We sang with the poet, "The sun glows in the morning with hope, as the doors open to welcome it." We bowed our heads in reverence on the soil of Chattagram, made precious with my father's childhood memories, and glorified with the blood of brave martyrs.

The friend, in whose house we were to put up, had not received any information about our coming. But by the movement of the C. I. D. he was forewarned about the arrival of visitors. The master of the house gave us a warm brotherly welcome. He looked after all our comforts. At this time, fearing a Japanese attack, all the womenfolk of the town had been sent away to interior villages. Next few days we went round visiting the relief centres, and wrote reports for our Calcutta office and the press. The press over here was trying to suppress all news about starvation deaths.

At almost all relief centres thousands of starving men and women were standing in queues, with an earthen bowl or a broken tin can in their hands for the 'kichuri' that was being served. They had trudged along eight or ten miles to reach these centres where after twenty-four hours they might get something to eat. At one centre we found the hungry people turning away sad and disappointed, for no food had been cooked at the centre that day, as rice and lentils had not arrived from the stores. But when we enquired at the stores we learned that they had sent the requisitioned raw material, after making a proper entry in the register. All the food stuff must have been stolen on the way. How inhuman can men be,to snatch food away from hungry starving people, who were eagerly waiting for food after twenty-four hours. I wondered why they did not rob the government stores with their waning strength.

We learned from the Circle Officer that bales of cloth were lying in their stores, while the people were in rags, with nothing to cover themselves with in the cold winter nights. No one knew when these bales would be opened and the material distributed. We learned from the local workers that agents of the government had procured rice from the farmers at a low price and had sold it to the government with a large margin of profit. The government sold it to hoarders in the city at a very high rate. The rich farmers in the villages secreted all their stock away from the public eye and waited for the price to go up still further. The poor villagers suddenly found out that there was no rice in any shop or market place. Men with money could procure rice secretly at a very high rate. These transactions took place in the darkness of night.

The poor people started selling land, then ornaments and clothes - finally cows and cattle to find money for rice. The carpenter, the jeweler, the blacksmith sold their instruments of work to procure some rice. The fisherman sold his net. The house-holder sold the tin roof over his head, and finally thought of selling child and wife. The only other alternative was to lie down on ones native hearth and court painful death through hunger. The few who could reach the city survived a few days longer. In village after village numberless men, weavers, priests, fishermen, craftsmen, school teachers, students perished for just a fistful of rice. Many families tried to survive on leaves of trees. When we heard these stories we could not believe them to be true.

One day we were visiting a relief centre, when a thin, emaciated girl was brought to us.She was the only survivor of a large family of father, mother, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters, and cousins. There were about fifteen in the family, and one by one they had all succumbed, and now she was the only one left alive. She also seemed to be on her way to death. We had no words of comfort for her, nor could we do anything to keep her alive.

A short while later a woman came and placed her young son and baby on my lap, and said, "You take them with you. I as mother just can't stand and watch them die." Her skeleton like husband was standing in the queue for food. I stepped back in nervous fear. How would I look after them? She was distantly related. Her husband was a graduate, and had worked in Rangoon. There during the Japanese invasion he had lost everything, and had walked back home with his family. He found no job at home and lived on the charity of his wife's family. Now the famine had turned them all on the road, where they were struggling to survive on dole. There was a look of sullen anger on the graduate husband's face as he stood for hours together for some food for his family. A few months later when I again came back to this place, I did not have courage to make enquiries about this family. I dreaded to hear how they had fared. Had they survived the horrors of the famine? Or had they succumbed one by one.

We had brought some old and new clothes for the suffering people here. But the needy people overwhelmingly out-numbered the clothes we had brought. We were in a fix and did not know how to distribute them. The people rushed at us and surrounded us, until we were almost suffocated. The volunteers tried to bring some order, but failed and I was pulled around this way and that. I wondered what will they get after all this trouble? Just an old worn out dress. Many will have to return empty-handed. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and was feeling terribly depressed. A few days ago, I had seen a lady in the city buying an ornament for her daughter for forty-five thousand rupees. I had heard of a Rani of a state, who being childless, spent her money on her pet dogs.

The rich do not know what to do with their money, while the poor live such hard cruel lives.

One evening some ladies came to us with the request that some clothes be given to them for they were not present when clothes were distributed. Seeing their sad plight we gave them some saris from our own personal stock. One of the ladies was a refugee from Burma, who had lost all her belongings over there. By mistake we gave her two saris. A little later her niece came for her sari and we requested the former lady to give her the extra one she had received by mistake. We were shocked at her reaction and soon we heard both of them, aunt and niece, shouting and screaming over the possession of the extra sari.

This degradation of human nature was the most depressing aspect of the famine. The famine had devastated families and societies; it had also wiped out all human values and feelings. This was an example. In better days the aunt must have given her niece her best sari to wear. It was so easy for her to be generous then. But now stark naked poverty had demeaned her nature completely.

A human corpse creates terror, no doubt, but the death of the human soul is a much more fearful tragedy.

I left Chattagram with a store of sad experiences. As I left I wondered if the powerful British army had succeeded in killing the unconquerable soul of Chattagram.

On our way back we visited Dacca, Comilla, Chandpur, Barisal and many other places. Every where we noticed it was only the effort of non-government organizations that had helped the suffering people in this devastating situation. In the darkness all around, these organizations stood out like lamps of hope. The workers of the Ramkrishna Mission in Comilla and Chandpur, worked tirelessly like the workers of Prabartak Sangha in Chattagram.. The Bengal branch of the All India Women's Conference, the Hindu Mahasabha, Hindu Mission, Brahmo Samaj relief mission, and other organizations tried their utmost to save the dying villages. Boys and girls of the Communist groups also helped through the government bodies. The Bengal Relief Committee had opened many relief centres for the distribution of rice and clothes. Very little help came from the Railway department. In Dacca we learned that many sackful of rice were lying in the station, and no permit was issued to take them out for distribution. At many places we found separate /langarkhanas' for Muslims and Hindus. But there were exceptions. The Bengal Relief Committee had specially asked their workers to make no differences between Hindus and Muslims.