Across the Bridge – Chapter 19
Continued from “Merchant with Hundred-Thousand Animals”
By the time Shambhu got married, Gandhi had already become a leading activist in the Indian Independence Movement. He had already championed the cause of farmers in Champaran and Khera who had been forced by the landlords, mostly British, to grow cash crops like indigo even though it caused a large scale famine. On top of that, they were forced to pay high taxes. In this context, Shambhu had mentioned to Champa, “Let’s count our blessings, think of the poor peasants of Champaran and Khera.”
“Yes, but they are mostly suffering at the hands of the British, we are suffering at the hands of our own. ….. You must have heard of gold talking to iron, “I too am being beaten by a hammer but I don’t scream as loudly as you do.”
“Yes, but you are being hammered by an alien, I am being hammered by my own kind,” replied the iron piece.”
“Landlords are not our kind Champa; they are not like the British either; alien they are nevertheless.”
“Hope we can heed the advice of Gandhi ji and not install an alien government to replace that of the firangis.”
“Time for that will come after we get rid of the firangis. The way the non-cooperation movement was succeeding, I had thought that the firangis were on their way out but Gandhi ji has called the movement off. Now who knows how much longer we’ll have to endure their presence in our country.
Sometime after the Jallian Walla Bag massacre, Gandhi had called for the non-cooperation movement. In addition to the massacre, Rowlett Act giving police draconian powers to arrest and jail any Indian without cause was the fuel on fire of the Indian discontent that culminated in the non-cooperation movement. This was one of the rare occasions when the whole country was united, which accounts for its immense success. However, the movement did not go exactly as Gandhi had wanted it. After police shot and killed some marchers in Chauri Chaura, protesters retaliated with stones, which sent police to the refuge of the police station; protesters set it to fire and killed some policemen as they came out to escape the fire. Gandhi would not tolerate the slightest deviation from completely nonviolent civil disobedience; no retaliation to any atrocity, no matter how brutal. He went on a fast to call off the movement. Some leaders broke off with Gandhi as they considered that sporadic containable incidents should not be given such prominence as to call off an otherwise immensely successful and just civil movement. The breakaway leaders continued leading the non-cooperation movement but at a much reduced scale. Some youth, which had participated in the movement enthusiastically, although quite disturbed by the events at the Bagh, were disappointed and disillusioned by the ways of Gandhi and were drawn to the revolutionary ideals and tactics. Chandrasekhar Azad, Sardar Bhagat Singh, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqulla Khan, and many others opted for violent revolution. On the bridge in Kesari Nagar, it became a topic of heated discussions as there were several differing views. Not much was changing in the lives of Shambhu and the others in the family except that Parasu had provided them with a pleasant pastime.
While Gandhi and number of others were languishing in jails, Shambhu and Champa were trying to raise Parasu. Big Mouth was mostly content with her smoke aggravating her asthma. Whatever milk Parasu got was from his mother’s breasts, which was not much. As he grew up a little, what he got in the name of food was mostly chapattis with sour mango sauce, onion, and the like, except occasional lentils and vegetables. On the days of the festivals when somewhat elaborate meals were prepared, whatever elaboration Shambhu’s household could muster, he together with others got something better to eat. This was the case with all peasants and peasant-farmers. A story, likely conjured up in jest, likely a lie that tells the truth and more profoundly than the truth itself, was known to all. According to the story, a peasant’s wife took his lunch to the fields as was the standard practice. The lunch was a few chapattis with little pickle and an onion. The peasant remarked in anger, “We are not so rich as to be able to afford two vegetables with a meal.” Salt was and is an essential integral part of the diet in that hot climate as considerable amount of it is lost due to perspiration. British had levied tax on salt, which was a significant revenue generator for them. This made salt about unaffordable to the peasants. Consequently, many were getting sick for depletion of salt content in their bodies. All the protests fell on deaf years. At this point, almost everyone on the bridge was in agreement, “This is another way the British can scrap some more from our beloved motherland.”
But not to have a differing view would have been against the culture of the place, which came from Nakul’s words of wisdom, “They don’t care for a few Rupees that they collect by increasing the tax brothers, they want to increase their control over us.”
“And how’s that?”
“No one can survive here without salt. To control salt is to control us; they killed two birds with one stone.”
This generated a heated discussion on the bridge for now as they had something to disagree about.
Salt became an unaffordable commodity for the masses. Reprieve came after Gandhi led the Dandi March covering 241 miles to break the salt law by picking a hunk of salt from the seashore, which was a link in the chain of steps he took in response to the Jallian Walla Bagh Massacre. Following the Dandi March, Indians were flouting the Salt Law by producing salt openly and selling it even on the streets of Delhi. Satyagrahi volunteers were providing necessary labor like transporting salt from the production place to the distribution centers and shops. Police was quite brutal in trying to stop this illegal trade. For example, once a volunteer was transporting a bagful of salt; policeman tried to snatch the bag from him; he clutched the bag and would not let go in spite of being beaten; the policeman finally crushed his testicles with his boot; the volunteer fainted; and then of course the bag was snatched from him. On the other hand, if a policeman found someone with illegal salt, he would let him go with a bribe. Thus police were brutal if it could not get away with being corrupt, which was when it was working under a watch or someone would not pay a bribe. Satyagrahis would not pay bribes, instead they courted arrest by conducting the illegal salt trade openly. This was to defy and provoke the authorities, which resulted in brutal response but the blow to the legal salt trade generating tax revenue was dealt through underground activities supplying cheap salt to the masses. Ultimate aim was to get the Salt Tax Law repealed.
As others, Shambhu would go to a bazaar in a nearby town for his weekly shopping. Whenever he needed salt, he would buy it from a shop that kept illegal salt hidden in his house, which was attached to the shop. He paid police bribes to conduct his illegal trade. Production places and transport lines were raided frequently but the shops selling it also were raided occasionally. However, this did not make much of a dent in the illegal salt trade. As for the likes of Shambhu, they hid salt among other items. If someone got caught, he would be let go in exchange for a bribe. People rarely had cash, particularly after shopping at the bazaar. They would pay part of the salt as bribe. This would still be cheaper than buying the legal salt.
Gandhi was jailed yet again. By the time he came out, the British had given up; it became clear that the law had to be repealed. Viceroy called Gandhi for a meeting.
“Would you like something to drink?” asked the Viceroy.
“A glass of warm water, Your Excellency.”
A glass of warm water was brought in. Gandhi took a small hunk of something, which he had tied securely in his loincloth, dropped it in the glass and stirred.
“What was that?” the viceroy asked rather amused.
“Don’t tell anybody, Your Excellency,” Gandhi whispered, “it was a piece of illegally produced salt.”
The viceroy smirked and took it in jest as it was intended.
By the time, the Salt Tax Law was repealed, most of the prominent revolutionaries of the period were dead. Bhagat Singh, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqulla Khan and some others were hanged and Azad shot himself with his last bullet to avoid capture after a gun battle with the police as he had avowed. In any case, people got salt and Kesari Nagar got its own Bismil as well as its London Tor and also a Chandu, which was spurred by some quite different events.
During his school years in town, Parasu got better food: Lentil and one vegetable together with chapattis regularly and of course there was no shortage of salt. In time, he completed his seventh grade education, opened a private school in a neighboring village and even experienced his first romance with the gardener’s daughter followed by him becoming a clerk at the sugarcane collection center.
There was a village nearby with most of its population being Shia Muslims and another one, mostly Sunnis. On the occasion of Moharram, there was the chest beating and striking backs with knives in chains. When Shias mourned the death of Hassan this way, Sunnis and Hindus from the other villages went to watch. Parasu also decided to go that year. After mourning in the afternoon, there used to be a fair in the evening. In addition to its religious significance, the rituals of Moharram worked well to lure the customers to the evening bazaar. During the chest beating and back thrashing, a Sunni boy made a disparaging comment on a Shia youth. No one could ever tell what the exact comment was but its content was something like that Shias lost the battle at Karbala some fourteen hundred years ago and they should come to terms with it and they would be thrashed again if they fought with the Sunnis in spite of their bravado. The Shia boy struck Sunni boy with the knives, which he was using to thrash his back. A fight broke out. Some of the Sunnis managed to snatch the knives and chains from the Shias and they were striking each other. Soon there was mayhem. Shias were mostly bare back and Sunnis were well dressed for the celebration. Bareback ones were fighting on the side of the bareback ones and the well-dressed ones, on the side of the well-dressed ones. Hindus just watched from a distance. In the meantime, someone rushed to the police station several miles away. By the time, the police showed up, the fight was over and mourning had been concluded whatever it was after that. Police never had any interest in law and order; this was just another occasion for the inspector to make some money.
As the inspector started his ritual of investigation and making the pitch that it would be a serious charge punishable with long jail terms for many, the elder Shias and Sunnis moved in to ask the amount of ‘commission’ that would be acceptable to the inspector.
“This is a major incident; I must lay the charges. Such behavior can’t be tolerated.”
“How much is your commission Inspector Sahib?” an elder Shia asked in a stern voice.
After some usual ritual, the inspector stated a large amount; after all it was a major incident! Negotiations followed and an amount was agreed upon. Shias and Sunnis collected the amount and handed it over to the inspector. By that time, police had been treated with tea and sweets. Police left and things returned to normal. Everyone was waiting for the bazaar to commence.
Soon the shops were lit with kerosene lamps specially made for such occasions; the lamps could light almost as well as the propane lamps; about the same as quite high watt bulbs. So the shops were well lit and there was some light in the street also but due to the shadows and all that, visibility was very little. Parasu and his friends went their ways in the bazaar with an understanding to band together after the bazaar to go to their village. Women from the other villages never went as they were not allowed mainly for the safety concerns but women from the same village could go usually with a male, even if a child, or with other women. When Parasu was looking at some toys in a shop, three burqa clad women passed by. At some distance away, they stopped and conferred for a minute or so. Then one of them turned back. Parasu was in the street by that time. She came close and suddenly lifted her niqab just for a few seconds but Parasu did see her mischievously smiling face. Then she turned back and joined her friends. Parasu managed to find a way to stay close to the burqa clad women; they looked in his direction at times and whispered among themselves. The crowds can offer an immense amount of privacy, so no one noticed. Such activities and even minor pranks did take place at fairs, in most cases the protagonists would get away but at times, they generated fights.
Continued to “Thorn in the Side”