“Did you see the latest they are sending over to Burma?” Yasmine said, referring to the Americans who would be deployed soon. “It is mostly coloured men and very young soldiers, with some older engineers who will be building a road between India and China.”
“England is the only safe place in the world,” Asma said wistfully. She longed to go live somewhere on a stormy moor, in a stone house with a draughty chimney, pining after a chaste love. “It’s Germany, France and Poland that are not.”
“It’s not really safe back home. The Germans keep bombing it,” Patience said. She always referred to England as “home”, even though she had never been there and had been born in Calcutta. Many Anglo-Indians thought of England as their real home, and felt they had ended up in India by some cruel mistake.
“We’re safer here,” Madhu agreed. “The Japs won’t bother bombing Calcutta,” she added. “What’s in it for them?”
This was met with a thoughtful silence.
“I heard a terrible thing a few days ago. I am sure it can’t be true. It’s too evil,” Adil Baboo said into the quiet. He rarely gave his opinion, so he had everyone’s attention. “I heard that Hitler has built these camps, these places where they’re herding all the Jews in Europe and killing them, slaughtering them like cattle. They even take them in cattle cars to these places.”
“Children as well?” Asma asked. Adil Baboo nodded. Asma shuddered.
“No, it must be a rumour,” Yasmine said.
“He wants them all out forever,” Madhu said.
Yasmine was doubtful. “If Hitler is trying to take over the world, why would he bother with a few Jews?”
Madhu shrugged. “Who knows? But if Hitler wins, he will want to rid India of her Jews as well. All five of them.” Everyone laughed and Yasmine was relieved – she couldn’t
have everyone becoming morose so close to show time.
“We’re not blonde and blue-eyed either,” Asma said. “He’ll probably rid India of Indians.”
“A few less Indians wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Patience said.
She smiled wickedly. “We reproduce like cockroaches. At least there would be more room on the street cars.”
“Actually, he must like us,” Madhu said. “It’s the swastika after all. He only hates Jews.”
“He’s probably just going to get rid of everybody. He’ll be so lonely he’s going to have to kill himself,” Patience said.
“Well that’s one way to solve the world’s problems,” Asma said.
“His right-hand man, what’s his name?” someone asked.
“Goebbels,” Asma said.
“He looks like an undertaker,” Patience said. “Have you seen him, his face is so pale and thin. Perfect!”
Everyone laughed again, this time a bit more heartily. Rahul, the young peon, started clearing the dishes.
Asma gathered all the silverware together and piled them on to a dish and handed it to him. Everyone watched as Rahul kept adding more dishes and silverware on his tray. He kept glancing at Radhika and nearly dropped a fork.
“Arrey Rahul,” Yasmine said. “You do this every time, and every time you break something.”
Rahul gave her a gummy grin and kept grabbing things off the table.
“Look at how much I can balance,” he said, again glancing at Radhika, who stared down at her plate and did not seem to be aware of what was happening around her.
Patience snatched a glass out of his hand before he placed it on the top of the precarious pile of dishes.
“If you break anything, I’m taking it out of your wages,” Yasmine said, shaking her head and stifling a smile.
“I don’t care if he is doing that!” Radhika cried out in Hindi. This startled Rahul, causing him to drop a plate, shattering it. He managed to steady the tray, saving the rest of the plates, and a month’s wages. Everyone stared at Radhika in bewildered silence.
“What am I doing?” Rahul said after a moment.
“He hates the Ingrez. He wants to destroy them! Anyone who fights the English is my friend,” the girl continued. It took a second or two before it dawned on anyone that Radhika was talking about Hitler and not Rahul.
Radhika’s was not an unusual sentiment. Many Indians supported Hitler because he was fighting the British. A distant Chittagongian relation of Yasmine’s even named her sons Hitler and, paradoxically, the other one, Stalin – or Hitoo and Staloo as they were known affectionately.
The general notion was if Hitler was going to stand up to the British, then bully for him. Yasmine, on the other hand, did not trust Hitler. He was European, and seemed more obsessed with class and race than anyone. There was no evidence he would be a just ruler, but, she ventured at times, he would be better than Hirohito, and somehow less foreign.
Until this outburst, Radhika had been quiet all through the meal, but that was normal for her. She saved all her energy for her dancing, it seemed. No one tried to engage her in small talk anymore. She had picked at her food though, and that was not normal, as she usually gulped it down like it would be snatched from her at any moment. She was moody, however, and unpredictable.
“Why are you always so cranky?” Asma asked the girl in Hindi.
“Speak English,” Yasmine said. “Or she won’t learn.”
“She’s sixteen,” Madhu said, and patted Radhika on the arm.
“Rahul is sixteen; look how happy he is all the time,” Asma said.
The group looked at Rahul, who grinned and quickly walked out with the tray before Yasmine remembered he had broken a plate.
“Rahul is a boy. Radhika is a –” Madhu was about to say Dalit, but stopped herself. “...a girl in India.”
Patience shuddered. “Egad! Thankless, to be sure.”
Everyone, including Radhika, smiled at the mock horror on Patience’s face.
“All right, time to get ready,” Yasmine said firmly, clapping her hands twice. “Adil Baboo wants to do a sound check on one of the mikes, Patience. Will you help him? And listen, everyone,” Yasmine continued, “a new batch of Americans have come in just a few days ago. They will be homesick, confused and in need of libation –’
“And us!” Patience chimed in. She gave a high kick, revealing too much leg, but it broke the tension from Radhika’s outburst. “Most likely some of them will come in tonight. Keep an eye out for the new ones. Make them forget home,” Yasmine
“You won’t be able to miss them,” Patience said to the others. “They’ll be walking around in a daze at the heat and wall-to-wall wogs.”
“Patience! That’s awful,” Asma said.
“Yet, true,” Patience replied.
“What is a wog?” Radhika asked softly.
“Never mind that,” Yasmine said, and briskly ushered the girl up the stairs.
For Yasmine, Radhika’s anti-English rant was worrisome. There was a great deal of paranoia in the air because of the agitation to end the Raj. “The stultifying air in Calcutta,” a drunken and disgruntled English customer once said to Yasmine, “smells of burning trash and treason.”
Yasmine herself noticed that more and more posters around town admonished, “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, while others showed images of luridly grinning, slant-eyed, and oddly fanged Japanese soldiers brandishing bayonets and threatening cherubic, white babies. Yet another one depicted a comely blonde temptress holding court with a gaggle of adoring men. “Keep mum, she’s not so dumb”, it warned.
She remembered this suddenly, and it made her more anxious. She would have to watch Radhika.
The bandleader, Pharaoh, and his musicians wandered in wearing white jackets and loosened black bowties. They all made their way to the stage to set up. The microphone gave off a screech, breaking into Yasmine’s reverie. The club slowly came to life. Lights were switched on; chairs were set upright. The musicians tuned their instruments and laughed amongst themselves and smoked cigarettes.
Upstairs in their rooms, the girls helped each other dress and put on makeup. Radhika chose to get ready by herself, as always. Yasmine decided it would be a good time to have a chat with the girl. She walked into the small room and watched her for a while, wondering what she could say that would send a clear message that Radhika was not to utter anything traitorous again, but without upsetting her so much that her performance was affected.
Radhika silently tied bells around her ankles and fastened the hooks around the fitted bottoms of her pants. She did not acknowledge her boss at first but then handed her strands of fragrant beli phool and asked her to plait them into her hair.
Yasmine silently tied the flowers into Radhika’s thick hair. The girl sat still, but she was nervous. She knew Yasmine was displeased. She assumed it meant her pay would be cut, as that was how Yasmine meted out most of her punishments.
“There are posters and pamphlets around town that say ‘careless talk costs lives’. I know you have seen them,” Yasmine began.
“I have, didi. But I can’t read,” the girl replied.
Yasmine turned the girl’s head around to see if she was being cheeky. Radhika blinked at her, a blank look on her face. “Mind your tongue, or I will send you out into the street with less than what you came in with. Tonight there will be more English officers than usual – you will dance for them and make them believe you love them. Even if it kills you. Do you understand?”
Radhika nodded silently.
“And you cannot utter words like the ones you did downstairs again, understand?”
“Don’t you want them out?’
“I am telling you that what you say might mean the difference between life and death.”
“But Gandhi-ji speaks his mind always.”
Yasmine stared at her, incredulous. “You are the furthest thing from Gandhi-ji,” she said. “And besides, Gandhi-ji doesn’t have a house full of mouths to feed or debt collectors breathing down his neck. He’s living in a dream world. Though I wish you lot would go on a hunger strike once in a while. It would save me money.”
Radhika clapped a hand over her mouth in horror at Yasmine’s words. To her that was far more traitorous talk than anything she could have said against the British. Yasmine scowled at her.
“Uff-oh!” she said in exasperation at the look on Radhika’s face. One would think Yasmine had insulted Lord Shiva himself. “It was a joke.”
“At least Gandhi-ji doesn’t see me as a shudra,” Radhika said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Or a prostitute.”
“Neither do I,” Yasmine said. She meant it, but to the girl it sounded hollow.
“You do!” she cried and flung herself onto her lumpy bed.
“Your life is very different from his. He is a politician, and you, a mere girl. You cannot afford to be a revolutionary right now.”
“I am not a child,” she sniffed, even as she wiped her nose with the back of her hand and shuddered from her tears. Yasmine almost smiled. The girl was so young.
“You’re from Chittagong,” Radhika said.
“Pritilata was not much older than me when she took over the armoury and shot a Britisher.”
Excerpted with permission from Dust Under Her Feet, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed, Tranquebar.