Charlie: There’s no going back; not now...after all these years... We’ve been here for almost two hundred years. We built this goddam country. I was born here, and I will die here. I am entitled...Do you understand?
Dodo: There is a time to keep and a time to cast away, Charlie.
Charlie: Don’t throw Christianity at me, Dodo, I am a Brahmin. They say we have lost our moral legitimacy to be here; but this is home. I was born here in Bombay, thirty-five years ago. Today, Friday, the 15th of August, 1947, I woke up to a new reality. They have divided this land into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have begun a trail of murder. I won’t be surprised, if they begin murdering the British next. Why not? They have centuries of grievances...I see this new insolent glare of independence in their eyes, they want us all to leave, but this is my home, I have family here...somewhere out there is Maya...I lost my first daughter Doris; they took her back to England, I think...now Maya is all I have. I have a gut feeling; Maya is here, somewhere...
Charlie is a six-foot-seven-inch Gulliverian entity. His white body is sun scorched, sculpted, lined and honed by the intense labour that he has had to endure at the Bombay Docks. His long black hair parted in the middle reaches his shoulders, his moustache and flowing beard seem to grow wild. A slender aquiline nose sits between high cheek bones and his piercing eyes have rutted crow’s feet by their sides.
A European Moses, with a faint sympathetic aura of the crucified Nazarene, his demeanour and deep blue eyes appear to possess learnings beyond his years. His almost reverential physicality, if confronted with antagonism, suggests a retaliatory possibility of fire and brimstone, still, no one can recall a time when Charlie used his physical prowess to win a fight. Even the lofty, sturdy Pathans eye him with respect.
When he speaks, he communicates with confidence; even if the subject matter is alien to him, Charlie talks with an authoritarian decisiveness. And always, behind the calm of his countenance and body language, there lurks a subterranean warning; an area where the antagonist can get lost, even ambushed. But he walks on the streets of Bombay with a Maharaja’s regal authority.
Through the festive streets around Ferry Warf, Charlie wandered, pensive, thinking about the Hindu-Muslim savagery. He has heard the murderous rumbles reverberating throughout the country. “These people must know that the borders of partition have not yet been revealed. The mood is strange, given the circumstances. They should be joyous and reflective, not so celebratory. Nobody seems to care right now of what would, or could, happen when the borders are made public.”
Charlie buys The Times of India from a street vendor. As Charlie hands him two annas, he looks at the banner headline: “Birth of India’s Freedom” and scans the first fourteen members of the new cabinet of India. There is no mention of the still unknown borders between India and Pakistan on the front page.
Reeling from the intoxication of independence, people dance on littered streets. A megaphone blares the hot favourite, “Yahan Badla Wafa Ka” from the Hindi film Jugnu; the badly amplified voices of Mohammad Rafi and Noor Jehan blasts through Gunpowder Road. A billboard with actress Leela Chitnis endorsing Lux Toilet Soap says, “Here Is a Lovely Tip from Leela Chitnis”, another proclaims, “Horlicks Overcomes Weakness”, and another one for Colgate toothpaste says, ‘The Test of Love Lies in Your Kiss”. The advertisements in English seem incongruous.
Ambling cows chew on rotting garbage, stray dogs scamper in the heat. He inhales vapours of sweat and sour body odour. Blaring loud cacophonous music and locomotive horns compete for attention. And the crowds swell like boiling water. A Muslim man leads a reluctant goat to slaughter; his burqa-clad wife follows.
A Hindu touches a cow’s head between the horns and places his hand on his heart in a gesture of reverence. Sweets pass hands. Slum kids are dancing, raucously appreciating the free entertainment. A street vendor selling pungent fried beef yawns and scratches his groin. Leprous beggars cry for alms, eunuchs in ill-clad saris clap their hands and offer ersatz blessings and good luck prayers for the future. They demand money in gruff tones from shopkeepers, because, after all, this is a momentous joyous day. Suddenly a skirmish begins, but it is thwarted by a rare appearance of the police before it turns ugly, and the festivities continue.
Charlie sighs. “This festival of fools will end in calamity. It seems like just yesterday, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims collectively put aside their gods, and complex social and caste differences to fight British rule, and now that they are triumphant, they turn cannibalistic. They are eating each other, and simultaneously dancing on the streets! How do you explain this paradox?”
On a crumbling wall, an old filthy poster of the Muslim leader Jinnah proclaiming a united India flaps in the wind. A scurrilous graffiti artist has drawn a pair of decorative green horns on his bony shoulders, and scrawled violent obscenities beneath the poster.
He looked at the poster, smiled and remembered, years ago when he had first encountered Kanji Dwarkadas on a hot summer afternoon in October 1936. Charlie who worked at the docks had been loitering around the unloading area when he noticed a man arguing with the Loading Supervisor.
What surprised Charlie was that the man was clearly agitated, but his mannerisms were calm, his arguments mild and explanatory. There was a low tide receding atmosphere about him that seemed contradictory to the situation, whatever the situation seemed to be...What was this man doing here anyway? Charlie asked himself. This was a restricted area.
Charlie walked up to the English supervisor, physically pulled him away by his arm and led him away from the man who was explaining his frustrations in a low, calm voice. “What’s going on here, Marty?” Charlie demanded. “Who let that man in here? And... what the hell is he protesting about?” It was the young Loading Supervisor’s fourth day on the job. He had just arrived from England two weeks ago.
Harried and short fused, he sputtered: “He’s some bigwig Congress man...demanding to know where his shipment of Italian marble is. He says his friend, who is some tinpot leader, will get agitated if this marble is not there. It’s not my fault if that damn marble is not on the cargo manifest! Still he insists...”
“What is his friend’s name?” Charlie asked. “I don’t know his friend’s first name but this man says the last name on the customer bill is Gin-Naa,” the Loading Supervisor answered. “This man says that his friend has the power to make big trouble. Do you know...have you heard of this fellow, Gin- Naa?” Charlie smiled and nodded, “Yes,” he said, ‘I know who he is. I will take care of this problem, don’t you lose sweat over this.”
Excerpted with permission from Four and Twenty Blackbirds: The Insane Life of an English Smuggler in Bombay, Godfrey Joseph Pereira, Speaking Tiger.