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

A tour through 24 Parganas

Returning from East Bengal we went to visit the famine-stricken villages of 24 Parganas. After reaching Diamond Harbour by train, we entered the villages by sailing along the canals in small boats called 'saltis'. Sitting on our 'salti' we heard our oarsman calling out to a villager, "Hey mian, how many died to-day in your home?" The reply came, "Six have died until to-day. My wife died three days ago, and to-day my eldest daughter also passed away." Our 'salti' was moving on. He pointed out to us a tree bowed down with gourds, but there was no one there to eat them. The women of the hut had planted the tree, but now they were all dead. We went from village to village, but there was no one to light the evening lamps. Most of the people had died, and the few who were still living were too weak to get up. Soon they will also die, and with no one to cremate them, their bodies will become carrion for wild animals, and birds of prey. We sat speechless in a state of shock.

One of us asked our oarsman about his home. Quite easily he answered with a sad smile, "Did I get a chance to keep any one alive? I am all alone at home. How much longer do I have? You rich people have come from the city, so I am plying my boat. Otherwise there is no work, nor do I have the strength to work. When I die there will be no one to pull my corpse from the room. I feel sad when I think I will be rotting in my hut."

As we were moving around the village we heard a sound from a near-by pond. A housewife had no clothes, so she had wrapped herself up in big leaves. She had jumped into the pond to hide herself when she heard us coming.

Then we went to the burial ground, where we found dead bodies heaped up in huge piles. There was no money for wood to burn these corpses, so they were just left there. With bodies all around we had no place to stand. On our way back we found a lone woman going by in a 'salti'. She was returning from the burial ground leaving the dead body of her sister over there. There was no one else in her home, but she was dry eyed for all her tears had vanished.

On our way back we found some dying people with flies all over their bodies, with no strength to whisk them away. In a government relief centre an old woman was eaten up by a fox at night. The doctor had written in his report that the woman had been attacked by a fox and he had given her medicine for her wounds.

Such a devastating tragedy in human life was surely unheard of in human history. Was India the only country that took part in the great war? The other warring countries did not face such dire heart-rending consequences. Why was only Bengal punished in this horrible manner? Was this the price she was paying for her sacrifices in the cause of freedom?

After returning from 24 Parganas we helped to set up Medical Relief centres with the money given by the Bengal Relief committee. About one hundred and fifty centres were opened all over Bengal. Medical appliances, medicine and dietary items were sent from Kolkata. Local doctors were employed on nominal pay to work at the centres. They regularly submitted weekly reports of their work. At every centre, 'sevadals' or volunteer corps were set to help the doctors. A group of twenty workers, under a leader checked on the patients in their homes, looked after their medicine and diet, and prepared weekly reports for Kolkata, which they submitted every week when they came to the city, for medicine and other necessaries. In many centres there were women volunteers, who helped the doctors in distributing medicine, and even in giving injections. Women were doing commendable work in Chandpur, Malda, Diamond Harbour, and Sarisha and other places. The Women's Volunteer Corps run by Ramkrishna Mission at Sarisha distributed food among nearly three to four thousand hungry villagers every day. They gave milk and clothes to children in a most orderly manner. Student volunteers cycled to distant villages with food and medicine for the people who were too weak to come. There was not a single report of death, due to starvation from the area under their supervision.

I had learned from the mission authorities that the Governor of Bengal had praised their work when he visited their centre. But he had also asked them to use up all the worm-eaten wheat lying in the government godowns in feeding the hungry. It was difficult for me to believe this. In free countries such worm-eaten grain is not even given to animals. But here human life had no value even to the Governor, who was supposed to be the protector of the land. This was possible for India was a nation in chains.

Craft centres were opened in some villages, where the poor people did some work. They were given training and some instruments to help them in their rehabilitation. If such rehabilitation work had been started in all relief centres from the beginning, then the work over there would have been helped with the sale proceeds of the articles produced by the villagers. As it was, money became a problem in every relief centre, where all work slowed down for want of funds, while rehabilitation of the homeless villagers still remained unaccomplished. The famine of 1943 came like a whirlwind and no one was prepared for it.

Political leaders who could have made this a political issue were in jail. There was no time or opportunity to work according to plan. It would have been possible with government money, but the government was averse to such plans. They had willfully created this situation to weaken Bengali as a nation, so that the revolutionary spirit of Bengal would be broken for ever, and the people would never have the strength to hold up their heads again.