INDIGO - Chapter 2

Paul Teake

This is the first of the stories selected to run as a serial. This is to declare that this work is bound by the laws of Copyright and no one can reproduce any part of it, without permission.

  Table of Content

 Chapter 2

Part 1

Part 2

Chapter Two

Part (1)

For the Munshi Satisundari represented all that was inimical to him. When he watched wives, any wife, be they of the farmers or of the Zamindars, he marvelled at their dedication, at their biddable subservience to their husband’s needs and desires. Whereas his wife …

Satisundari, to the Munshi’s absolute disgust was not only gaining in stature among the farmers but was also becoming known among the Zamindars for her rebellious nature. Or so the Munshi was given to understand. At first he had scoffed at the gossip. Then together with the gossip, he became aware that his wife with Puti and Sachi in tow was making too many visits outside the plantation. When asked by the Munshi about who they were visiting, Puti described the visits as “Your wife’s relations. Your wife says as you don’t have any living members of your own family, it is her family that Sachi must be acquainted with.”

The Munshi had to acknowledge that his wife, who was no wife to him, was at least a cautious mother in introducing Sachi to her moneyed and powerful relations ... So he permitted their trips. He arranged for palanquins and bearers and sometimes out-riders to accompany them. Only after the gossip started that Satisundari was visiting the Zamindars to campaign against indigo plantations, he realised that once more his wife had made a fool of him. That he should be actually have made their passage easy, made him gnash his teeth in rage and he immediately forbade the trips to “relations”.

The Munshi did not know how this gossip of Satisundari’s wooing of the Zamindars had reached Ferdinand. But the Sahib confirmed that he knew about Satisundari’s nefarious activities one monsoon night at the Cutchery. That rainy evening Ferdinand told him “So, Munshi, what is your wife’s view on all the murmurings we are hearing?”

The Munshi was startled “What murmurings?”

Ferdinand shot him a keen look from under his bushy eyebrows. “Absurd little talks about defying the Company about indigo shipments...”

The Munshi studiedly began putting away the coins they had been counting in the Cutchery. Faintly he said, “What does that have to do with my wife?”

Ferdinand sat back and took a sip of his drink, “It’s related, Munshi, it’s related.”

The Munshi leaned forward, “Yes Sir, perhaps Sir, but unless I hear all the details that you know and are hinting at, I can’t comment. You still have not said what this has to do with my wife.”

Ferdinand chuckled “Still keep her locked up, eh Munshi?”

“Yes.”

“Spirited woman, your wife. Saw her the other day, she was teaching some of the children of farmers. Didn’t know she was educated.”

Saw her?” The Munshi echoed. He tried to hide his chagrin at his wife displaying herself to the notorious Englishman. Ferdinand had a wife in distant England whom he visited once in three or more years and the rest of the time the Englishman preyed on village girls. Everyone knew about Ferdinand and the women of the plantation hid or were hidden from him. And what had happened to the widow Bina, made the Sahib even more notorious. Why had his unnatural wife not hidden herself from the “Indigo Sahib” thought the Munshi, did she harbour any designs on the Sahib, thought he.

“Don’t worry Munshi. She did not see me at first. But when she did do so, she continued teaching and ignored me.” He chuckled again and then Ferdinand did the unforgivable, he asked the Munshi, “She is considerably younger than you, eh Munshi?” Then catching the Munshi’s expression, Ferdinand hastily added, “Yes, as I was saying. The other day in the city I was astonished to hear that your little wife, Munshi, has earned a reputation for helping those very farmers we punish.”

The Munshi’s mind was reeling. He croaked, “That is nonsense! My wife was troublesome earlier, but ever since my son was born she has changed.” Ferdinand did not say anything for a long and uncomfortable moment while the wind howled outside the Cutchery and tore into the room and the candlelight guttered and dimmed and finally went out, leaving the two men sitting in the dark. Ferdinand said “I would watch her, if I were you, Munshi. I would watch her like a hawk. It never does to educate a woman, and that too a native woman!”

Perhaps because the words were spoken in the dark as the rain fell in a roaring cascade outside ... perhaps because the lightening streaked across the dark skies and sent a flash of light into the room, paling Ferdinand’s pale face further; the words of the Englishman sounded like a warning to the Munshi. He said to himself that he was not going to sacrifice everything he had fought for, because of a woman whom he need not retain as a wife any longer. He determined to set her out the very night. But aloud, he said to Ferdinand, “I am not seeing what you are getting at, Sir.”

By Ferdinand’s silence he knew that he had to do the deed tonight. This was to be the night that Satisundari’s rebellion would end, forever.

That night the Munshi reached home and beat his wife in frenzy.

Puti tried to save her, but the girl was no match for the enraged Munshi and was swatted away. It was then that Sachi once again came to his mother’s rescue.

The Munshi had done no more or any less than a husband of the time, to maintain the equilibrium of a marriage. It was Satisundari who went against the tide because she demanded nothing from the man she was married to. He did not exist for her. And nothing the Munshi did could get her to acknowledge him; the riches, the beatings, the rape, not even the bearing of the flesh of his flesh could sway her. As Sachi grew and demanded a place for himself in his father’s life, the Munshi with considerable relief turned away from the woman who happened to be his wife. His regular punishment of her was unmindful, mechanical and ultimately just a necessary deed to remind her that he was her master, after all.

But that night was different. Holding the thick palm leaved umbrella over his head, the Munshi stumbled through the blinding rain towards his home. By the time he reached his home he was drenched. Sachi, his mother and Puti were in the kitchen, laughing over something the boy was saying. The dying fire in the clay oven cocooned the three in a warm light. Sachi looked up and saw his father and exclaimed, “You are completely wet!” He got to his feet saying, “You must get out of your clothes or you’ll catch a chill.”

The Munshi ignored Sachi and stared at his wife. Satisundari rose and made to leave the room. Puti said to the Munshi, “Sachi was waiting for you to have dinner together.” And she bustled about laying out the food. Satisundari, as was the tradition of the time, drew her sari to cover her face and as she passed the Munshi, he shot out a hand and grabbed her arm. “It is charming to see your modesty, wife. I wonder if you bothered to pull your sari just so, when you stood before Ferdinand!”

Then before Satisundari could say anything, or Sachi could leave the room to get dry clothes for his father, he began beating his wife. It seemed that the very fabric of his being was collapsing in a fury. Every blow that he dealt her fanned his fury further till all he remained conscious of was the sound of his breathing and his rapid heartbeat.

Sachi dashed a pail of water on the Munshi. With a roar, the man turned towards his son and that is when Satisundari at last found her voice, “No. No Sachi. Leave the room. Please.”

The water that Sachi had thrown at the Munshi dripped in pink drops onto the kitchen floor. The Munshi’s hands were dull with pain. He turned them over and found his knuckles bloody. It took a while for the Munshi to realize that someone was shaking him. It was Sachi. His face was wet with tears and he was screaming, “You cannot hit my mother! You cannot!”

Satisundari lay crumpled on the floor. Puti was attending to her, trying to staunch the blood. The Munshi found himself pushed against a wall. Sachi was slamming his body against the wall and sobbing, “You cannot! No! You cannot!” A part of the Munshi’s mind was registering that his 14 years old son was taller than he. His son was stronger than he.

Suddenly Puti cried, “Sachi! Your mother’s not breathing!” Sachi whirled around and ran to his mother. But the Munshi tried to restrain his son, tried to make him understand, why he needed to do what he did. Sachi snatched his arm away. As Sachi bent over his mother he told the Munshi, “I shall never forgive you! Never!”

But Satisundari survived. Though she took months to recover, recover she did.

Later, when she was able to speak, when the village bonesetter had corrected the injury that the Munshi had dealt her, Satisundari announced, “Eventually Puti, the Munshi is but my karma from my past life so I have to work that karma out of my system.”

Puti stared at Satisundari, the woman who had never before spoken of destiny and fate, speaking of Karma? Puti cried out, “Didi, this is the first time I have heard you speak like the other ignorant women of the village!”

Satisundari took a little time to answer, and then in a low voice she said, “I sometimes wonder if I am wrong. Why can I not accept all that he does, or all that the English do? Everyone else accepts this reality. There is no stopping the English. And there is no stopping that man. Perhaps it is all karma. Yet, I haven’t learnt to accept this.”

A shocked Puti exclaimed, “I can’t believe my ears! This is not you speaking. This must be the result of the beating. Just because he is a man and he can beat you, you forget all you have sworn to do?”

Satisundari said with a wan smile, “Perhaps I am tired.” Puti let it go. But she took more care to nurse Satisundari back to health and all the while, she spoke of the injustice in the plantation, every little scrap of rumour about small acts of defiance by a farmer was reported to her mistress; till she saw the light return to Satisundari’s eyes. It took a while and Puti was not quite certain that Satisundari was herself as yet, but gradually her mistress began recalling what she had set out to do.

As for the Munshi, the night’s events decided for him that his son had to be separated from his mother. He had tried to teach his son to listen to the sound of music a cache of coins made, but like his long dead mother, Sachi too was deaf to this music.

When Sachi was old enough to accompany his father on his rounds of the village, the Munshi would take his son to the Cutchery to run his hands through the piles of coins. “All this is yours, son. All this” would say the Munshi to his son and watch Sachi closely with glittering eyes, “Can you understand what that means?” Then without waiting for Sachi to reply, the Munshi would continue, “Imagine, all this will be yours one day. One day, you will be a very rich man, indeed.” However Sachi as a child would run his hands through the coins obediently, trying to enjoy the sounds of coins tumbling against each other only for a while, and then would get bored.

The Munshi would often take Sachi by the hand and walk him about the farm, around the warehouse where the indigo plants were kept stored, the English farmhouse that Ferdinand had built in the Bengal countryside, and to the land where indigo grew, and say “See? Sachi, see? All this … everything will be yours one day!”

Little Sachi, not quite ten then, pointed at Ferdinand’s house and said, “Will this be mine, as well?”

The Munshi had started and in a rage recognized his unnatural wife’s training. “Why do you want the house the Englishman built?”

“Because you said all this would be mine, one day. That’s why” replied Sachi.

And the Munshi, in a panic, said, “Listen Sachi, you should not lay claim to what the English have set up. It is foolish, extremely foolish to do so. Despite what others say! Remember I am what I am today because of the English.” And when his son looked at him, silently expressionless, the Munshi repeated, “Don’t stray into territories that you are too young to understand.”

From that time onwards, the Munshi went against the norms of the time and began to battle his wife for the possession of his son. But unlike Satisundari, the Munshi had not taken into consideration Sachi’s own personality. The boy did not contradict his father, nor did he defy his father, but in his silence, Sachi communicated his refusal to toe the Munshi’s line of genuflecting to the English, whatever the reward may be.

From the day after beating Satisundari and determining to change his son’s attitude, the Munshi employed carpenters and masons to build a wooden lodge in the land gifted to him by the English. And this was where Sachi was exiled. Satisundari knew as an Indian mother she had no say in her son’s future and for the first time after being beaten by the Munshi she experienced a resurgence of rage. She was dry-eyed when Sachi wept as he left with his father. As soon as they left Satisundari packed her few belongings and returned to the coal shed. There in the little hut, she swore vengeance and plotted to engage the Munshi and the Sahib in a battle that broke all conventions of warfare. She told Puti, “Now that my son has been taken away from me, I shall do just as I please. Now that I don’t have to be a mother to my son, I can stop being a wife, a woman in purdah as society demands, and I will ready myself for the battle.”

Part (2)

Pyarelal stared disbelieving at the land that lay before him. Gulping, swallowing the hard knot of bile that surged up his throat Pyarelal Mohan Dutta, the Munshi of the largest indigo farm in Bengal, reverted to the lifetime habit of the false ingratiating tone used for the English and exclaimed, “All this land … for me!”

The red-faced Englishmen beside him noted the subtle ribbon of falsity, but ignored it. For, the time had come to reward the faithful among the natives. And the Munshi had to be rewarded to secure his unswerving loyalty in the troubled times.

The Munshi thought, “All these years of grovelling and all I get is this swampy land?”

Ferdinand, the Indigo Sahib, patted the Munshi on his back and said in the voice the English reserved for the natives, “So, Munshi, you are finally a titled landowner, a Zamindar, at last, eh?”

The Munshi bent low, passing his hands in the air above Ferdinand’s muddy boots, he bobbed up and down and said “Thank you, O thank you!”

The land that faced them was as thickly overgrown as any vacant land in Bengal. There were gnarled trees, thick branches of which were heavy with green leaves, at the foot of which stood knee high grass with the white feathery tipped kaash flowers. Beneath the trees were the deep holes in the ground where vipers nested, hissing and spitting and rising on their tails. A little beyond the trees lay the river that flowed fast and clear. Near the banks of the river was swampy land treacherous with slush. The English had no desire for land such as this. But then the land had also rejected them. These foreign invaders had tried to sink bricks, tried to build foundations but the soil swallowed every brick laid. What the English had no use of, they gifted to those who served them. Thus, the Munshi by the strength of one document written at the Writer’s Building was now the Zamindar of the land that stretched along the riverbank.

Ferdinand placed a firm hand on the Munshi’s shoulder and said “You may hear the thugees had once been here. But there’s no evidence of that now. Ignore rumours, my good man. Don’t worry the thugees are gone. And you are much too sensible to be superstitious, aren’t you? So build yourself a mansion here, Munshi. Build a palace and damn the rumours!”

Here it was that the thugees had once secreted their ill-gotten riches. In these very trees, in the gnarly grottos, in the deep wooden crevices of the ancient trees the murderous men had sworn their lives to bloody deeds and built a tiny red clay temple to Kali the black Goddess to whom they presented the blood caked coins and jewels that they robbed from the wayfarers, the pilgrims and the innocent travellers journeying on unprotected roads. The treasures and the coins they tore from the dead hands that curled over their worldly goods, were piled after each deathly sojourn, at the foot of the image in the tiny red clay temple.

The fearsome thugees had put their stamp on the land. Even animals feared to venture into this area that was thickly forested, darkly green even under the bright Indian sun.

The Munshi who practiced all manner of torture and cruelty, later, much later, succeeded in building a palace on this land of ruinous reputation. A palace that was a shade greyer and a shade meaner than those the English built in the city they had conquered with trade. And later, much later, the palace was fittingly converted to Police Headquarters where all manners of cruelty and torture continued. But that was later, as for now, to return to our story … ****

The palace had started with a lodge that Ferdinand designed, from his memory of an English lodge. It was built as a ruggedly male structure where men could be themselves, where men could carelessly disport themselves in manly sporting. The deer antlers were mounted on walls after furious hunting. As was the bison head. The Rampurhat fart chairs were scattered through the lodge for the hunters to put their legs up on the swivel extensions, their backs leaning against the curved and padded backs of the chairs, digesting and farting their heavy meals of hunted animals. The bare floors bore the scratch and burn marks of the muskets of the hunters. The lodge was where alliances were formed among the recent arrivals that sometimes went on to wield unimaginable power.

And none stood to profit more from the association than the Munshi who had befriended them at a time when they needed it.

The Munshi sent Sachi to this lodge and kept him there so that through association with the pale faced English Sachi too would savour the flavour of ruling. So that Sachi could perceive the necessity of cutting his crazed mother’s apron strings.

Meanwhile, by the lodge, in the accursed land gifted by the English, the Munshi began building his palace, a mansion to pale other mansions in the city built by other Indians.

Since his father had put him on exile, Sachi swore he would remain in exile at the lodge, sleep on the mat he had brought with him from the village and continue the work among the rich Indian Zamindars that his mother had begun. He had been secretly meeting those rich absentee landlords, who had left the tilling of their lands, to their farmers. Sachi was trying to unify these rich Zamindars against the Company, against the indigo cultivation. But all he could achieve was the drinking of endless cups of tea and speaking about non issues that only rarely dealt with indigo or even the English traders.

From an early age Sachi had measured the divide between the English and his own people, the Indians. He had observed his father in his association with Ferdinand, or with the young writers who visited on weekends, with the Lieutenant Governor’s office personnel and with the English traders. And Sachi had early, very early in his life taken the cue from his mother in rejecting the profits from such association. He perceived the tacit wall, the divide that looked apparently impossible to be breached. Yet the wall had an opening for someone, such as his own father, someone like the Munshi who was willing to bend very low to wriggle through the narrow opening. The lower one stooped, the easier was the opening to twist through. His father had mastered a nose scraping bow to the pale English and had gained more, far more than many Indians ever hoped to gain from the English.

Sachi had no wish to add to his father’s gains. Sachi had told his father very firmly that he did not intend to befriend the young writers and that he did not intend to wear English clothes or to pick up English habits. The Munshi had apparently accepted Sachi’s decision, but continued having the tailor, the Darzi, to visit and measure Sachi for the English clothes that the Munshi himself was wearing more and more frequently.

Sachi had not been permitted by his father to return to the village in the three years of his exile. But his indomitable mother had stolen a few visits to the lodge and sneered at the mansion being built by the Munshi, “Whom does he want to impress now, the king of England?” She had turned a disgusted look from what she dubbed the “Munshi’s folly”.

Satisundari had told Sachi, “In my next life I want to be born a man one who is just and kind and one who fights wrong. But till then I shall train you to be so.” Sachi had grinned at her words. Satisundari ran her hands to over her son’s face and head and said, “I miss you. You cannot imagine how much I miss you. But I also know, that your father has done us a good turn by separating us. You have work to do in the city; only you can unify the rich men here to put the pressure on the English, to end the cruelty on the farmers. Sometimes at night, in the coal shed, when sleep refuses to visit me I think of you. I think of you as a child, as a baby when you gave me so much joy …”

Sachi knew that his mother lived an ascetic’s life in the shed where he had been born. Husband and wife rarely if ever, met. The Munshi spent long weekends at the lodge and his mother spent long days nursing the revolution and eating as frugally as the farmers who lived in abject poverty. Puti tended to the Munshi’s house during the day, slept in the shed with his mother and assisted her mistress in creating trouble for the English and the Munshi. However, even if the Munshi knew what the two women were up to, he was much too distracted in the building of his mansion to pay heed. Sachi said to his mother, “I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to unite people in the city. I have failed you.”

Satisundari smiled back, “No. You have not failed; it is taking a little time, that’s all.” Sachi knew that most of the Zamindars were reluctant to pitch in their lot with Satisundari against the rampage of the English over indigo, but he could not tell her so as that would end her dreams.

However he did tell her about the bid to create a Zamindari Association, he said, “I have spoken to Raja Dwarkanath Tagore and Babu Bhabani Charan Mitra who are now trying to build a landowners or a Zamindars association. Ma, they told me, both of them told me separately, that they really feel for the ryots and will most certainly bring the matter of the cruelty of treatment, up for hearing.” But it was not till about five or so years later in 1859 when the indigo revolution occurred that the Association strongly and emphatically pleaded for the ryots and demanded an Inquiry Commission, thus beginning our common and much dreaded attempt by current governments to stall for time. But we meander again, to return to the story …

This new mansion was to be the Munshi’s palace and to be made of marble and mosaic and mirrors and carved mahogany wood from Burma and gold and mother of pearl inlay work and beaten silver and all the expensive building materials that were draining the Munshi’s store of coins. For the moment the lodge, surrounded by tall mango and jackfruit trees and flowering trees and shrubs was where the Munshi entertained Englishmen on weekends. The men, who came with muskets to flush out tigers, crocodiles and birds, which they killed, and after killing often ate the flesh of as cooked by the chef that the Munshi had stolen from an Englishman who lived in a state of permanent drunkenness up in the hills.

That weekend when Satisundari had made her surreptitious visit, the English sat in the shade of the long curved veranda of the lodge, weary limbs splayed as the servants pulled off the long leather boots reputed to ward off snakes and break the crocodile’s teeth if needs be. The Munshi signalled with his eyes and the heavy silver tray was brought carrying Belgian crystal glasses with gin and tonic water. The Englishmen grabbed and in one gulp downed their drinks.

“The tonic water has quinine, you know, keeps away malaria.” The Munshi said as he poured another round of gin and tonic, sending an exasperated look at his son sitting on his haunches among the coolies. They had formed a circle under the shade of the mango tree outside. Should he raise his voice and casually call out to Sachi, ask him to join the rest of the ruling class on the veranda? Would Sachi obey him? Or would his son make a fine show of disobedience in obeying his father?

“Your son seems to like the company of the menials, eh Munshi?” Remarked one of the English guests, whom the Munshi ignored and thankfully the conversation that weekend revolved around malaria. One red-faced guest said, “Soaked himself in the damned thing did Watson, Robert Watson of Writer’s, when the malarial shakes got him, poor bastard. Says thanks to the tonic he’s on his feet today. I say, Munshi, how do you keep that malaria pest away? Or do you also tipple some tonic water with the merest dash of gin, on the sly, eh?” The men burst into raucous laughter, the sort of laughter that the lodge had been witnessing every weekend since the Munshi threw the doors open to the young clerks and writers fresh off the boats, residing in dormitories at the Fort and during the day at the Writer’s building doing the accounts for the Company and in plotting to earn the fortunes that they knew waited just outside the doors of the Writer’ Building where the official business of East India Company was conducted.

They were young, the new arrivals, but they had already wearied of the sun by the time their ships had rounded the Cape. They had had a passage wherein all the conceivable evils of India had been described in details by old India hands. They had been warned of the heat, the diseases, the snakes and the tigers. They had been warned of a loneliness that far exceeded their worst imagination. But none of them had ever visualized the sun to be as vengeful as they found it in this part of the world. It shone relentlessly. At the Writer’s they shut doors and windows and curtained and shaded every crevice through which the sunlight might filter in. But the harsh sun still seemed to creep in through cracks between the folds of the curtains and between the slatted windows. And when some Indians like the Munshi, ignoring their lowly status in the Company, invited them to lunch after Sunday Church service, the young writers attended en masse. Every musket shot was aimed at the sun - at least at the beginning of each lunch they would empty shells skywards as if they were trying to darken the sun in the clouds of euphoric smoke that emerged from their muskets. At the end of their acts of fury against their condition, they would also manage to bag some game and end the day drunk on gin and relatively happy at defying the perennial heat of the blasted sun.

The Munshi looked sternly at the cheeky young man who accused him of tippling on the sly. “I don’t touch this poison!” He exclaimed. “I have been gifted a certain medicine derived from a plant to protect me from malaria.”

“Mumbo Jumbo” said another and won approving nods. “So who was it that gifted this wonder medicine to you? Someone who goes by the name of Satan, I presume, eh Munshi?”

The Munshi wondered whether he should just smile and let the comment pass as he usually did with the English; or should he try and make the young writer understand the Indian concept of traditional secret medicine? The Munshi surprised himself with the thought. Perhaps it was his age that was catching up with him, after all. The English, he had always believed are here today to be gone tomorrow and in the meantime the Munshi made wealth by stealth from them. Lately however, he had found himself weakening. Often times he found himself while in the company of his guests at the lodge, overlooking or even forgetting the colour of their skins. “Who, Sir, is Satan?” a deep young voice from behind the Munshi asked.

“Sachi!” The Munshi cried in too a hearty voice, to divert his son. He knew his son well and he knew that Sachi at his deadliest is when Sachi pretends to be an ignorant fool. “At last, my son Sachi decides to grace the gathering!” The Munshi grinned and tried to shoot warning glances at his son, it did not do to confront the English in this manner, lowly writers they may be today but who knows what power they get to wield all too soon. But Sachi was not his mother’s son for nothing. Sachi had learnt pride on his mother’s lap. And he had learnt to defend himself with words sharp of edge, polished, and carved to hit true.

The Englishman realized he had gone too far. The English star was ascending at that time but had not yet reached the desired height. It was impolite to abuse the host under his own roof even if he was a native. “Sorry” he mumbled, “Blame my loose tongue on the gin. I got a bit carried away.”

“Never mind. Never mind.” Said the Munshi hastily, patting Sachi’s tense shoulders.

The boy was his Achilles’ heel. The Munshi could not care if his wife lived or died, he could not care for anything much as he cared for his coins and now, his son, Sachi. Seeing his son among the English, he thought how much more attractive than he, indeed quite manly, was his Sachi. From the curve of his well defined forehead, to his aquiline nose and his determined chin, his imposing height and his confident walk, Sachi did not bow and scrape to the English however much the Munshi taught him.

- - -

MAGAZINES