Far from being afraid, Chuckerbutty was filled with a new sense of purpose. There was nothing like a war to get people to put their heads and hearts together.
Although he had not been assigned any official role in the defence of Pipli junction, there was plenty for a responsible railwayman to do. Being the only officer in the barracks, he decided to take charge. He got the staff to fix cardboard on window panes, fasten conical shields on lamp posts, dig trenches and fortify them with sandbags. During drills, the men followed every instruction at top speed. The air raid wardens who took turns at the night patrol were impressed. He had every reason to be proud of himself.
Mandalay fell on 1 May. The evacuation of civilians from Burma continued. There was still no news of his father. By now, everyone in the barracks knew this. He had mentioned it one night while sitting idle in a trench during an air raid drill. Others had family in Burma too. They too were waiting to hear from them. And all this while he had thought he had nothing in common with the staff.
Ever since the stationmaster spoke of secret agents among the government employees, Chuckerbutty had remained alert to suspicious activities of any kind.
He paid special attention to gossip, even encouraging the staff to speak freely in his presence. At first they hesitated because he had rebuked them for loose talk in the past. But they opened up after a few nights in the trenches. Many of their stories were about females – this was only natural. In order to win the men’s trust, he told a few tall tales himself. Although the more lustful ones were less believable, they certainly helped to pass the time.
Mimicking the officers was another popular pastime. He could not bring himself to mimic his colleagues, but took care to laugh along with the others. Politics was the other favourite topic. To his surprise, the men knew more about what was happening in the country – and in the world – than he did. He relied on newspapers; they relied on word of mouth. Each of them had a view on all that was going on, but so far nobody had said anything seditious. The most vocal among them was one of the khalasis – a man who was otherwise silent. The quiet ones were always the most dangerous. Chuckerbutty decided to keep an eye on him. There would be no revolutionary activity in the barracks – not on his watch.
Krishna salaamed him and ordered a youth to vacate the front bench in the far corner. That was where Chuckerbutty liked to sit. The youth picked up his plate of laddus and moved to the next table. The tea shop was crowded that evening. The only vacant spot was next to Chuckerbutty. It would stay vacant. That was how he liked it.
Krishna bustled up with steaming tea and pakoras. Chuckerbutty took a sip and grimaced. There was too much sugar. Krishna emptied the glass outside the shack and quickly made another. This time it was all right.
An elderly man entered the tea shop, closing his black umbrella. He looked around for somewhere to sit. Chuckerbutty pretended to be absorbed in a passing tonga. The man mopped his brow with a white handkerchief that he pulled from his trouser pocket. After a moment’s hesitation, Chuckerbutty slid a little to his left. The man smiled his thanks and sat down, careful that their shoulders should not touch. Such civility was unusual. The man was obviously educated. He tucked his umbrella under the bench and waited to be served. Krishna was busy arguing with a customer, who insisted that he had been overcharged. The elderly man crossed his legs and rested his hands on the table. They were slender, like those of an artist, or a writer perhaps. Chuckerbutty raised an arm and snapped his fingers. At once, Krishna appeared with a glass of water for his companion. The man smiled again, and placed his order.
“It’s very hot today,” he observed. His voice was cultured, like his hands.
Chuckerbutty nodded. “Even hotter than yesterday. It will stay like this till the monsoon.”
“You live here?”
Chuckerbutty explained how he happened to be in a remote place like Pipli.
“So,” the man said, “you are a sahib.”
He shook his head modestly. “No, no, nothing like that. And you are–?”
“People call me a professor, but I think of myself as a student.”
“And you study – what?”
“Life,” he said simply.
Chuckerbutty was amused. “There isn’t much life here.”
“I can see that people are a bit sleepy,” the man said, looking meaningfully towards Krishna, who was yet to serve him, “but perhaps they will wake up when the time comes.”
Sure enough, Krishna set down a glass of tea before him. The man continued chatting. He was from Deoghar, a town famous for the temple of Lord Baidyanath. Devotees came to worship all year round, but in the month of July their number would swell enormously. Millions walked from Sultanganj to Deoghar – a distance of about 60 miles – carrying water from the Ganga to offer at the temple. The professor was not one of them. Neither was Chuckerbutty, but his mother and father were.
“If we were as devoted to our country as we are to the countless gods and goddesses, we would not be slaves today – don’t you think?”
Chuckerbutty could not agree without being disrespectful to his parents. A person at the other end of the bench got up and left. The elderly man shifted a little to his right. Now that there was some space between them, Chuckerbutty got a better look at him. He had misjudged the man’s age. Although his hair was grey, his face was young. He could not be more than thirty-five or so. Only a brilliant teacher could be a professor at that age.
The professor asked if he followed politics. Chuckerbutty confessed that he did not.
“I don’t blame you.” He took a sip of tea. “Nobody knows what is really going on these days. Nothing is as it seems.”
“Meaning that the British keep saying that they will grant us self-rule, but when and how is a mystery. Our politicians may believe them, but I don’t. I think it’s just an empty promise, a ploy to force us to cooperate in the war effort, to keep us quiet as long as the war is on.”
“But they will go once the war is over. Everybody says so.”
“Will they? I’m not so sure. Why should they?”
“Because they believe in liberty and justice – that’s why they went to war in the first place – isn’t it?” It was like being back in a classroom. He had been an excellent student.
The professor raised his eyebrows. “Liberty and justice for people like themselves, not for us. Why else are they still here?”
“Once the war is over –”
“By then they’ll have milked us dry. Should we wait for that to happen? I don’t think so.”
“So then,” he said with a mischievous smile, “I think we should prepare for the final struggle – now – while their defences are down.” He spoke loud enough for the others to hear.
Chuckerbutty was taken aback. The professor looked very respectable, but he was just a troublemaker. Disgusted, he pushed his glass aside and slapped a few coins on the table. Before he could get to his feet, the person sitting behind them spoke up, declaring that he was right.
“Talk, talk, talk – that’s all our leaders do. I say we’ve talked enough. We won’t beg for what’s ours. We’ll fight for it.”
Encouraged by the murmurs of approval around him, the man raised his voice. “Freedom won’t come by begging, it must be taken by force.”
From across the shack, someone pointed out that they were farmers, not fighters.
“I don’t know about you,” the man retorted, “but I’m ready to shed my blood at the altar of my motherland. If you aren’t, then keep quiet and let others do their duty.”
“God helps those who help themselves,” said a pious voice.
Others joined in with all sorts of nonsense. They should stop paying taxes, someone said. It was the best way to defy the authorities. So was flouting the ban on public meetings and demonstrations. They could fell trees to block roads and railway tracks, cut telegraph wires, bring down electricity poles. They could also burn down post offices, police posts and railway stations. It was difficult to attack British officials since they were always protected, but their lackeys were easy targets.
The professor tugged at his ear lobes and shook his head ruefully.
Excerpted with permission from Kitty’s War, Daman Singh, Westland.