The Test of Time - my life and days
Childhood and Early Village Life
There was no record of the date of my birth but it was ascertained from unmistakable evidence that I was born in the month of March, 1889. Very few Muslim families in our part of the country are accustomed to keeping records of births. Hindus, however, being believers in astrology generally maintain such records from which horoscopes are drawn up. I had a Hindu friend named Lalit Chandra Sarkar, one of my intimate childhood playmates, whose elder sister, Monoroma was born in the same month and year as I and had as usual a horoscope. Through the good offices of this friend I came to know that she was born in the month of March, 1889 or 1890. I heard from my mother that my birth took place a little after midday on a Thursday in the Bengali month of Chaitra which corresponds to February – March of the English Calendar. From these dates an eminent Hindu astrologer calculated that my birth took place in March, 1889.
The place of my birth, an ancient village named Khankhanapur in the district of Faridpur in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) is of some historic renown. The name itself bears testimony to the fact that it was derived from the title of `Khan-i-Khanan’ given by royal decree to certain high Moghul military dignitaries.
What was Bengal proper or ancient Banga, comprised of the south-eastern districts of East Pakistan. This prosperous and fascinating land, guarded and intersected by formidable rivers and innumerable creeks, made it inaccessible by ordinary means of transportation, thereby developing a tradition of exclusive independence and defiance of any outside authority.
The great Moghul Emperor Akbar had dispatched a big army in the year 1574 for the subjugation of Bengal. A separate force was detached from this army under the command of General Murad Khan Khankhanan for the conquest of South-East Bengal. According to the Akbarnama (Akbar’s memoirs) Murad Khan conquered Fathabad which has now become Faridpur, as well as Bakerganj. He did not return to Delhi after completing his task but settled along with a number of his men in the district of Faridpur. According to some historians, he took up residence in a village which he honoured by conferring on it the name of Khankhanapur is the largest village in the Goalundo Subdivision of the district of Faridpur and is 13 miles to the north of the district town of Faridpur.
- My Ancestors and Family
I am inclined to conjecture that the remote ancestor from whom my family sprang up might have been amongst the retinue of Muradkhan, who settled at Khankhanapur. There is no record of my family history but my father and many others told me that our family did not originally belong to this part of the country but had migrated from the west. My father did not remember the name of any ancestor earlier than his great grandfather, Ghulam Rasul Khan, who was succeeded by two sons, Hemayetullah Khan and Fakir Mohammad Khan. Hemayetullah’s son was Shariatullah Khan, who was my grandfather. It is also not unlikely that it was my father’s great-grand-father Ghulam Rasul Khan who migrated to Bengal at a much later period than the reign of Akbar.
Till the time of my grandfather the worldly circumstances of our family were fairly prosperous. Beside other sources of income the family owned a village and the leasehold of a big market. But unfortunately the landed property was in the close vicinity of the great, erratic river Padma (lower Ganges) which has the habit of annually eroding, particularly in the rainy season, one or the other of its two banks creating havoc amongst the people affected and rendering thousands homeless. Our homestead and other landed properties which were on the west bank also fell a victim to the river. When our homestead was first washed away, another homestead was built some distance off the original, within the limits of the village of which our family was the proprietor. But the ruthless river pursued our family most relentlessly and eroded our homestead seven times ! At the seventh erosion not only our homestead, but also the remnant of the landed estate was gone. My grandfather purchased a plot of homestead land at a considerable distance from the river from a Hindu and erected thereon a number of thatched huts for our family to live in. The river pursued the family as if with a vengeance and made quick work of the wide tract of land between it and our new homestead. The latter too was all but washed away when, the river suddenly changed its mind. It receded eastward leaving a deep wide channel in the close vicinity of our house, which was navigable for quite a number of years, after which it languished and is now a mere shadow of its former self, having water in it only in the rainy season.
The damage done by the river, coupled with the characteristic pride of my grandfather reduced our family to utter poverty. Our lands washed away by the river, reformed in winter and there was a dispute over these reformed lands between two superior landlords, both Hindus, but one belonging to the Saha Caste, a trading Community considered low in the caste-ridden Hindu society. The social behaviour that grew up in the Hindu Society in the wake of the caste-system was also recognized by the Muslims, though in general the Muslim society was immune from its contamination. As luck would have it, the dispute over the superior rent receiving interest in our lands was decided in favour of the Saha landlord. My grandfather, who could easily get back the family estate, declined to lay any claim to it for the simple reason that he could never induce himself to offer to a member of such a community the customary salutations due to a Zemindar (landlord).
After this tragedy, the main income of the family consisted of what arose out of the temporary lease-hold of the local market. Misfortune never comes alone. Soon after, my grandfather, who was the mainstay of the family, died leaving my father who was then a boy of about ten a helpless orphan. With the death of my grandfather, the lease-hold of the market had also gone into other hands.
My father Mohammad Amiruddin Khan when orphaned had to give up his schooling. He had two other brothers Mohammad Nuh and Mohammad Jamaluddin. He had four sisters who had all been married during my grandfather’s life-time. Two of them had been widowed and being childless lived with their brothers. Mohammad Nuh was the eldest of all. He had already married and had several children. He was of a violent and quarrelsome temper and very soon the brothers had to separate themselves and to partition the family properties. The other brother Jamaluddin had received some education and was expecting to be employed in the Police Service when he suddenly died. The widowed sisters preferred to live with the youngest brother, my father.
There was another family that lived in the same homestead in those days. My father’s eldest sister had been married to Khandkar Mohammad Kazim Ali, who was in the Police service in North Bengal. His wife and children lived in our house and after his retirement he too lived there for a number of years before he built a separate house of his own in the same village about a quarter of a mile to the South of ours. The third sister lived with her husband and children in a separate village several miles away.
When my uncle and father separated, the entire family property consisted of the one acre homestead plot, two more acres of arable land adjoining the homestead and about three acres of `char’ land about a mile off from our house. Divided into two equal halves between my uncle and father, the sisters not claiming their shares, this little estate was hardly sufficient for the maintenance of the two families. In contravention of the family tradition, my uncle and father were compelled to cultivate these lands with their own hands and they carried on a precarious existence in extreme poverty. Most of the women members besides attending to other domestic duties were engaged in spinning which made a modest but very welcome addition to the meagre family income.
My father was a well-built handsome and courageous man who from his early youth had to put up a valiant fight against poverty and its concomitant evils, but he never gave way to despair. When he grew up he married Qulsum Bibi, my mother, who was the daughter of Mollah Dukhi Mohammad of village Shobharampur near the town of Faridpur.
My mother was of very handsome appearance with fair complexion, brownish eyes and hair, and a medium figure. She was very painstaking and industrious and had the gift of an extraordinary courage. I remember an incident when on a dark night one of our calves, tethered in a shed near a bamboo-bush to the south of the homestead, gave a terrible cry as of being attacked by a wild animal. Without a moment’s delay my mother rushed to the scene hurling shouts at the unseen beast which however had been apparently scared away by the shouts !
My mother was a child of 7 or 8 years when she was married and my father was at the time about 10 or 12 years older. My mother had a very precocious physical development and if what she told me was correct she was scarcely eleven when I was born !
She was perfectly healthy except that she suffered in her youth from that mysterious malady which is diagnosed by most physicians as hysteria. Hysteria exhibits certain astounding symptoms which are popularly believed to be due to possession by `jins’ or spirits. Whatever it is there is no doubt that it affects the nerves of the patient, and I think some of this disease was transmitted to me. In my early childhood when I was about 5 or 6 years old I was subject to a peculiar nervous affliction. Its outward symptom was that I occasionally fell into a swoon which was preceded by a phenomenon visible to me alone, of a small bluish object in the air in front of me slowly hovering towards me. All other remedies available in our locality in those days having failed, I was placed under the treatment of one Lokman Kaviraj who claimed to be an occultist and physician. He gave me an oil of abominable smell to be besmeared over my body. If nothing else, the odour itself succeeded in scaring away the `evil spirit’ and I was cured. In later years when I was bout 13 or 14 years old, one winter morning I sat for a long time near a glowing hearth in our back yard, and as I stood up to leave the place, I dropped down into a swoon. This was the last appearance of the disease.
Out of the glimmerings of conscious memory emerging out of the blankness of infancy I can picture a few incidents too trivial to mention. I learnt to speak at the usual age and I was told that the first world I uttered was “phool” (flower).
When I was a little older, a tragedy happened which made a deep impression on my mind. A beautiful white kitten was procured for me and I fell in love with it at first sight. For a time it was to me the centre of all attraction and the only object worth living for. But my happiness was short-lived. One dark evening while I was squatting on the north verandah of our southern hut, the kitten which had strayed into the back courtyard, gave a terrible cry and my father from the verandah of the eastern hut shouted, “Oh, the kitten is taken by a jackal”. I burst into a loud and prolonged cry and my parents and aunts with all their efforts could not console and pacify me until they promised to get for me a similar kitten very soon,¾a promise that was never fulfilled !
When I had become conscious of my surroundings, I found that my uncle occupied the northern hut of the homestead. He had only another small hut which was the cookshed. He lived in that portion of the homestead with his wife and a small daughter Asirannessa about two years younger to me. The rest of the homestead consisted of an eastern hut where my parents slept with my younger sister Mazirunnessa, a western hut with a verandah on the east where I used to sleep with my two aunts, a southern hut which was the cowshed and a south-west hut in the back courtyard, which was our cookshed.
The cooking, washing and cleaning including sweeping of the yards were done by my mother. Both my widowed aunts Khodeja and Sabja, who lived with us were elder to my father and as between themselves Khodeja was the elder. Khodeja, slow and sedate, did not do much household work. She took a fancy for me, loved me like her own child and undertook the arduous task of my upbringing which she performed with a devotion and solicitude exceeding that of the average mother. My youngest aunt also had a deep affection for me. She was however almost constantly preoccupied with household work and the management of the family. She was in fact the mistress of the house and her intelligence and initiative was an asset to the family. Off and on she carried on a petty trade in rice, kerosine and mustard oil, her customers begin our neighbours, particularly fisherwomen. I looked upon my aunts as mothers and on most occasions addressed them as `ma’ (mother). Like other women in those days, my aunts, particularly the elder one did a good deal of spinning. My younger aunt and my mother did so only occasionally when they were free from more pressing domestic work. A part of the required cotton was grown on a plot of land adjoining our homestead and the remainder had to be purchased from the “Fultala Hat” the local market about a mile to the north of our house, of which our family had previously held a lease. There was another less important market named “Basantapur Hat” to the south of our house at about the same distance. I used to watch with deep interest and a peculiar thrill the different processes of preparing cotton for spinning, the spinning itself, during which the quick revolutions of the wheel created the illusion of its looking like a smooth round solid mass, producing a sweet humming sound. Occasionally, much against the protestations of my aunt I could not resist the temptation of trying my hand at spinning, with disastrous consequences which made my aunts’ countenance red with anger.
Brothers and Sisters
I had two brothers and six sisters. One sister died in her infancy and the rest of the sisters except one died in their early youth. My sister Mazirunnessa, nicknamed Masi was about two years younger to me. Being nearest to me in age she was the most intimate to me amongst my sisters, though all my other sisters and my cousin Asirunnissa were also very dear to me. After Mazirunnessa, three more sisters, namely Badrunnissa nicknamed Burri, Laik-un-Nissa nicknamed Lakki, Fahamunnissa nicknamed Fali and Jobeda Khatoon nick named “Kamala” were successively born. The whole family was anxious for another boy and in 1908, Abu Ahmed nicknamed Abu my younger brother was born. He was followed by another boy who was named Tafassal Hossain in 1910 who died when he was about 2 years old.
There was no girls’ school near about our house and none of my sisters was sent to school. Jobeda alone received some education at home. They were all very good looking. Badrunnessa and Jobeda were fair-skinned while the rest were of brown complexion. Jobeda’s beauty was of an extraordinary nature and next to her in grace was Laikunnisa. They were all devotedly attached to me and I loved them with all my heart.
During the early years of my conscious existence my sister Mazirunnissa was my most intimate companion. My uncle’s daughter Asirunnissa alias Assi was a little younger than Mazi. She too was very dear to me. The family of my father’s eldest sisters’ husband, Khandkar Kasem Ali had by now moved to a new house. Knandkar Kasem Ali had only one son named Khandkar Rahmat Ali and two daughters Fahamunnissa and Karimunnessa. Both the daughters had been widowed, Fahamunnissa having a son Mohammad Nasiruddin Baig and two daughters Tasirunnissa and Fakhrunnissa, nicknamed Fulmala.
Nasiruddin was older to me by one year and five months. He was born in our house before his grandfather moved to his new residence. He used to come to our house every now and then and I too occasionally visited their house. We two were like brothers and played most important parts in each other’s life. He had a beautiful face with a dark bright complexion, was very smart and courageous, rather a little naughty, of a very genial but quick temper. He had a tenacious and determined character and a strong, practical sense in combination with certain unique qualities of leadership.
Our part of the village was inhabited mostly by Hindus. To the immediate south of our house lived a Hindu family, the Mitters, to the immediate west three barber families. To the south-west of our house was the “Sarkar” family and to the south-east was a “Chaki” family. To the south-east of our house about 150 yards off was an entire hamlet of fishermen. All these were Hindus, and there were many other Hindu families towards the west and north of our house. To the immediate east of our house was the river the east bank of which was inhabited entirely by Muslims. But as the river intervened between us, we had very little social intercourse with them. To the east and south of the fishermen hamlet there lived a large number of Muslim families.
Two barber boys, the elder Ghetu and the younger Ghetu were my close childhood associates. So was Lalit of the Sarkar family. There were no male children in the Mitter family. I had also some intimacy with Mintu and Kunja who belonged to the fishing community. Amongst Muslim playmates who became associated with me when I grew a little older were Mirjan, Rashid, Karim, Akbar and others who were close neighbours of Nasir. The circle of my Hindu associates also became wider as a matter of course, as I grew older.
My surroundings in general and most of my playmates were such that a growing youngster could easily have been led astray. The innate exclusiveness of my character coupled with such advice as I could get from my father and later on from my teachers, largely protected me from the malign influences that lay all around.
When I was about 4 years old my uncle Mohammad Nuh died. Apart from the tragedy inherent in it, his death was of far reaching consequences for our family. Shortly after his death his widow left for her father’s house with her little daughter Asirunnissa. Asirunnissa was very dear to me. Her mother also had an affection for me. I felt many a heart pang at their departure from the house.
My father was naturally anxious that my uncle’s half-share of the family property might not go to other hands. Acting upon such advice as was available he went to the house of my aunt’s father and made a settlement with them according to which my aunt agreed not to claim her share of the inheritance and my father undertook the responsibility for the upbringing of her infant daughter and looking after the property left by my uncle on behalf of his orphaned daughter. It was a joy to me when I found that my father came back successful from his mission with Asirunnissa accompanying him ! But the happiness was short-lived. After a couple of years or so Asirunnissa was attacked with cholera of which she died. My sister Badrunnissa Burri also had a mild attack, but she recovered. Practically no treatment could be given to them. A quack who dabbled in homeopathy gave some medicine to Asirun, which was of no avail, and as for my sister she had no treatment at all. There was no qualified physician near about and even if there had been any, my father’s poverty would have stood in the way of securing their services.
My first teacher was my father. One morning in my fifth year or so I was made to squat on a mat spread on the veranda of my father’s dwelling hut in front of an inkpot half filled with ink prepared from soot scraped from a blackened earthen cooking pot and a pen made from a dry bamboo twig. My father, with the sharp edge of a piece of broken earthen-pot, curved the figures of a few Bangali alphabets on a number of plantain leaves torn to size and I was asked by my father to put ink with my pen on the carvings. As my hand was unsteady, my father grasped it in his palm and guided the pen which was in my hand, over the engravings. After giving me this initial training several times he asked me to repeat the operation unaided. My efforts met with repeated failures and I felt and looked extremely puzzled. My aunts and mother were watching. My repeated failure brought forth a sharp rebuke from my father. My reaction was equally sharp and altogether unexpected by my father. I flew into a rage, burst into a loud cry and hurled the inkpot on the mud-plastered floor of the veranda spilling all the ink. My aunt Sabja clasped me in her arms and took me away from the explosive scene. Thus ended my father’s attempt to work as my teacher.
This was perhaps the most gloomy period for the Muslims of this country. The British policy of suppressing the Muslims and uplifting Hindus, adopted after the First War of Independence, derogatorily given the name of the “Senpoy Mutiny” by the foreign conquerors, had acted like a slow poison. It reduced the Muslims, who had once been superior in intellectual attainments, organisational talents and material prosperity, to a people groveling in utter indigence, ignorance and despair. The Muslims, who had naturally reacted to the British design to impose their language and culture on the conquered Indians by boycotting English education were still clinging in general to that attitude of non-cooperation and as a result the schools and colleges established and encouraged by the British Government had very few Muslim students.
The prospects of my education were rendered darker by the nerve-racking poverty of my father. Very few indeed, placed in similar circumstances could think of giving any education to their sons in those days. The education of a girl was still more unthinkable on account of these as well as social and utilitarian reasons. My father was apparently not in favour of continuing the boycott of English education. His iron determination overcame other difficulties. Family tradition had naturally created in him an ambition to give education to his son and he fought against formidable obstacles to fulfil his ambition. He was so keen about my education that he never required or allowed me, inspite of pressing necessity, to participate in the hard work of farming, out of fear that it might distract my attention from my studies.
After my father’s first effort to initiate me to the art of writing had ended in a fiasco, he placed me incharge of my cousin Khandkar Rahmat Ali, son of Khandkar Kasim Ali and a nephew (sister’s son) of my father. Nasir, Rahmat Ali’s nephew was also his pupil at that time. Rahmat Ali had read upto the Entrance standard, which was considered quite good education in those days.
I was under his charge only for a short time, because very soon a regular elementary school was started at the house of Jhapu Khan and my father sent me there. Sashi Bhusan Ghosh, who was a neighbour, was the only teacher in that school. My father called him to our house, introduced me to him and requested him to take interest in me, which he promised. The school was very near Nasir’s house and he also joined.
This mushroom school lasted only for a few months during which I made very little progress. The only vivid recollection that I have of this school is the picture of the teacher with a thin cane in his hand, of which he made quite liberal use, and his other favourite form of punishment of keeping delinquent boys standing on one leg. The teacher, probably on account of my father’s request to take interest in me, appeared to be partial to me, for I never received any chastisement at his hands.
Mosque at Jhapu Khan’s Place
Jhapu Khan, the proprietor of this school was the richest Muslim in our locality. He had more lands than any one else amongst his neighbours and was also a petty trader. Though illiterate, he had a religious bent of mind and erected a tin-roofed mosque of which Khandkar Md. Kasem Ali, my father’s brother-in-law, and later on his son, Khandkar Rahmat Ali were Imams. My father and aunts orally taught me the Quranic verses usually employed in offering prayers and its concomitant recitations, postures and procedures. I was initiated into the practice of saying prayers at a very young age. When I was a little older I used to accompany my fathers to this mosque for the purpose of “Jumaa prayers” on Fridays and “Taravi” prayers in the fasting month of Ramzan. During my early childhood, “Ramzan”, fell in winter. “Taravi Namaj” which is a lengthy process, is a special prayer offered during Raman in the early part of the night, in addition to the five daily compulsory prayers offered by Muslims throughout the year. A small child as I was, after the day’s fast and a heavy “Iftar” (food at fast Break) at sunset, I used to fall asleep and it was a difficult task for my father to wake me up for going to the “Taravi prayers”. After reluctantly waking up I felt revived and refreshed after the necessary ablutions, and the subsequent journey to the mosque and back home had ample compensations. The nightly walk behind my father during the month, in half moon-light and half darkness, with the river on one side and hedges and trees glistening with myriad’s of glow-worms on the other, unoppressed by the fear of ghosts owing to the presence of my father, was a most fascinating experience Assembled in the mosque compound, the devotees, about 15 or 20 in number warmed themselves for a while by kindling a fire with straw taken from the straw stacks of Jhapu Khan and then resorted to the mosque for prayers as the `Moazzin’ chanted the “Azan” (a sonorous and rhythmic call to prayer). Though I did not then know the meaning of the Arabic prayers, the musical delivery of the Imam enthralled me and I felt absorbed in a sense of devotion, humility and peace of mind.
With the abolition of the school at Jhapu Khan’s house, my father faced a new difficulty in his attempt to educate me. Any other father, placed in similar circumstances would in all probability have given up the idea of educating his son. But my father was determined to overcome all difficulties. He next sent me to a `Maktab’ (A primary school with an Islamic bias) at the house of one Dianat Mridha of Nimtala, a neighbouring village, about a mile to the south-west of our house.
I made some progress at this school and completed the period during which a pupil has to do his writing of the alphabets on banana leaves. On the first day of my using paper, a customary ceremony was held at the school. The previous day I was asked to bring from home a sufficient quantity of puffed rice (Khai) and “Batasha” (a candy prepared from molasses) for the entertainment of the students and teachers on the happy occasion. My mother and aunts prepared the “Khai” at home with pride and pleasure and my father brought a supply of “batasha” from a grocer in the market.
On the appointed day I carried the same to the school, tied up in a biggish bundle with my “chadar” (thin sheet for wrapping the body, or for being folded and hung round the neck). During the midday recess the teachers and the students assembled in a group and I was given a sheet of white paper for writing the alphabets on it, which I did with a trembling hand. The delicacies were then distributed, each recipient taking his own share in a fold of his “chadar”.
I also learnt the Arabic alphabets at this school and commenced the reading of the last chapter of the Holy Quran called “Am-Para”.
In this school also the cane was used mercilessly and the way in which one of the teachers misused it on some children was nothing short of torture. The sight of it used to frighten me almost out of my wits. I was at this school for a year or so.
My father then sent me to a better school which was situated at the house of a goldsmith named Jadab Chandra Karmakar, who in addition to his ancestral profession, conducted the school as its principal teacher and superintendent. Nasir also attended this school. I was placed in a class which I found a little too advanced for me, but very soon I caught up with the rest of the class and overcame my initial embarrassment. I was very much impressed with the talents of a boy named Keshab Chandra Ghosh and in course of time a warm friendship grew up between us. Janab Chandra Karmaker was a good teacher but his stern countenance, pungent speech and his cane made him a veritable bugbear to me, though I had the singular good luck of escaping his wrath, probably on account of my earnestness as a student and my mild nature. Nasir in these respects was the opposite of me, being restless, turbulent and neglectful of his studies.
This was a combined school for both boys and girls. The thatched school house was a large longish structure with a small anteroom separated from the main hall containing the boys’ classes by a thin matwall. The anteroom accommodated the girls’ section. The wife of our teacher Jadab Karmakar was also a student. She was of a more advanced age than the rest of the girls none of whom appeared to be over 12.
The class to which I got admitted was adjacent to the girls’ room and it so happened that I occupied a seat on a bench that touched the thin matwall separating our room from that allotted to the girls. One day curiosity impelled me to look into the girls’ class through one of the innumerable tiny openings in the matwall. Forthwith an elder boy named Mandir snapped at me, rebuked me for my improper conduct and threatened that he would make a complaint to the teacher. I was stunned. This was my first initiation to the knowledge that looking at the girls was considered as a crime and my little heart was weighed down with a sense of shame and terrible fear of punishment from the teacher. I was a shy little creature, almost speechless and Mandir probably took pity on me and did not execute the threat he had administered. I learnt the lesson of my life !
There were ten or twelve girls in the school. Some of them hailed from a hamlet midway between the school and our house, situated on the west bank of the river. It so happened that on dismissal of the school in the afternoon or at midday during the hot months when the school sat in the morning, about a dozen students, both boys and girls, walked homewards together in boisterous groups which included also the girl students belonging to the aforesaid hamlet. There used to be in the group a handsome girl aged about 12, named Sarala Sundari, a very meritorious student. I was one of the youngest amongst them. I was already building up a reputation for good conduct and one day while the group was winding homewards, I was the recipient of a compliment from Surala Sundari who described me as “a very good boy”. I felt embarrassed and kept mum and others probably felt jealous, because praise from such a meritorious student had a value of its own ! Though I had then only a vague appreciation of this encomium it was probably a contributory factor to the growth of a semiconscious determination to live up to the praise. My acquaintance with her ended shortly afterwards, either on account of my leaving the school or her marriage earlier resulting in cessation of her studies, but her 4 brothers Bhuban, Bijoy, Satish and Hemanta were my school friends during long years.
On my way to the Basantapur School I had to cross a small artificial channel called “Jola” in our locality, which had water in it only during the rainy season. My childhood hobby of angling frequently brought me to this channel in the afternoon during the early rains when water from the swelling river began to enter the creeks, and swarms of small fish came upward along with the advancing water, affording not only superb sport but also a rich harvest to the anglers, mostly students, thronging the banks of the channel.
My journey to the school and back made me pass by a place, where, if alone, one had an unspeakable feeling of eerieness. My path lay across a marketplace called Basantapur Hat, about a quarter mile off from the school. Near the market there was a fairly extensive area thickly covered with bush and big trees. There was a Hindu temple in the bush and there must have been some idols there. What I could see from my pathway was only a bush covered tent-shaped hood of deep black cloth covering something underneath. I was told by some schoolmates stories about the vengeance of the gods placed there and whenever I had to pass by the ghostly scene unaccompanied, my heart almost ceased to beat.
Approaching further towards the school the pathway lay between embankments about six feet high and there were innumerable ratholes which provided assylum to snakes, on the walls of the embankments. Here also another kind of fear mixed with a sense of fun arose in my heart. The sight of these holes reminded me of one of some childhood exploits of my father as related by him. He told me that play or work often took him to that locality and one day he saw the tail of a snake protruding out of a hole in one of these embankments. He caught hold of the tail and pulled with all his might, but he could not force the snake out. Thus frustrated, he tied up the tail of the snake with a rope and with a strong pull wrapped the rope around a tree nearby. On going to the place next day he again gave a pull to the rope and a big dead snake came out of the hole !
When I was about 8 years old the great earthquake of 1897 took place. It was in the afternoon and I was somewhere near the mango-grove of the Mittras, which was a beauty spot in our locality, along with my playmates, Lalit, Ghetu the elder, Ghetu the younger and several others that alarming rumblings unheard of before reached our ears. Moments later the earth under our feet began to shake violently and the trees and huts began to swing. There were spontaneous shouts of “Earthquake ! Earthquake !” All my companions ran into the house of the Mittras. Being a Muslim boy there was probably a vaguely realised consciousness in me about the impropriety of entering the inner compound of a Hindu house. So I began to run helter-skelter towards our home about 100 yards away. I was terribly frightened and was staggering at every step. When just near our house I actually fell down on the ground. Some one at our house, my mother or one of my aunts ran to me and took me to our house, both staggering awkwardly. My father was not at home. The quake lasted probably for two or three minutes, but the period appeared to me to be much longer.
The next morning I went to our fields to the east of our house. There were aweful wide cracks in many places. The cracks were so deep that the subsoil water was visible.
I had all but finished my course at this school in about two years time when my father sent me to a school of a higher standard. To the north of our house about a mile and a half off there was a junior secondary school, called Middle English School in those days. It was the best school in the entire locality. It was rather expensive for poor folks like us, but my father was prepared to undertake the financial responsibilities involved. As I was very young my father enlisted the sympathy and assistance of a close neighbour named Basanta Kumar, who was a teacher in that school. He belonged to the Hindu fisherman community but had embraced Christianity. He was handicapped with one leg and used to walk on crutches with jumping steps. He was a thorough gentleman of a genial temperament with an eversmiling face. At my father’s request he gladly agreed to do every thing regarding my admission to the school and to take interest in me.
Early Crisis in Education
I was admitted to the 5th standard. I began to learn English at this class commencing from the alphabets but I found that I was far behind the old students who had begun to learn English earlier. To make matters worse for me our English teacher Rajani Kanta Choudhury was a terror to me and I could hardly derive any benefit from his tuition. His rebukes, administered with a cynical smile as well as his method of administering corporal punishment was terrible. He did not make much use of the cane. His powerful hands were a more fearful substitute. His favourite punishment however was to make boys kneel down on the floor or on benches and to keep them for long hours in that state. He would put a question to the first boy sitting at the head of the class and if he could not give the correct answer, the question as long as unanswered passed round the class and all who failed to answer it were made to kneel down. He was such a terror to the boys that even those, particularly myself, who knew the answer but were not quite sure of its correctness hardly ventured to hazard a reply to avoid his deadly rebukes in the event of the answer being incorrect. The result was a sort of mass punishment, and very often the entire class was on knees. He might have been a bit tired of repeating his order to “kneel down” to so many boys and therefore invented a devise for avoiding such repetition. If a boy could not answer a question, over and above his usual lot of kneeling down, he was rebuked and scolded for not having already knelt down as he knew that he would not be able to answer the question. This had the effect of introducing an element of fun in the tragic drama. As soon as the teacher would put a question the vast majority of the boys were seen lifting their dhoties above their knees to prevent the same being soiled by contact with the bare ground and kneeling down on the floor quite in advance of the question reaching them. During this period the school was a veritable hell to me. One day I played a truant, kept away from the school and hoodwinked my family by returning home as if from school, in the afternoon. Another day I pretended to have severe pain in my stomach to avoid going to school.
When I could bear the ordeal no longer I was compelled to take recourse to a more serious subterfuge which might have given a twist to my entire career. There was an alternative vernacular course available to the students, without English as a subject of study. I made a false declaration to the school authorities that it was my father’s wish that I should take up the vernacular course and thus saved myself from the daily torture. This was perhaps the unhappiest period of my academic career, because I naturally abhorred to tell a lie and particularly to conceal anything from my father.
I had a providential deliverance from this sad predicament. A few months later there was a welcome change of the English teacher. Dinabandhu Ghosh replaced Rajani Kanta Choudhury. Dinabandhu started the teaching of the English text book from the very beginning and his approach being more genial and human I could follow him very well. Not that he was averse to physical punishment. A default on the part of a boy would make him fly into a violent rage and mercilessly cane his unfortunate victim. I was lucky enough to escape his wrath as I had now been able to catch up with the class. I passed the annual examination and was promoted to the higher standard.
In my new class I was faced with another crisis. Our teacher of mathematics was altogether unequal to his task. He did not know anything about the new Arithmetic prescribed for ME Schools though he seemed to be an expert in “Shubhandkari”, the old indigenous mathematics mainly meant for the M.V. (middle vernacular) Course. Although I was a good student in other subjects, in his class I was a cipher and had to bear the full brunt of his wrath and ridicule. He formed a very poor opinion about me and was disagreeably surprised when on his inquiry some students told him about my proficiency in other subjects. His most favourite pupil was one Kalipada who was the oldest and proficient in subhankari’ though he was the worst boy in the class in all other subjects.
Saved Again !
Once again I was rescued from an inevitable doom by a change of teacher. We got a new teacher of mathematics, named Janaki Nath Biswas who had passed the Entrance (Matriculation) Examination, quite a high qualification in those days and was also an excellent teacher. He had a genial disposition and even when he used his cane he bore a smile and never struck the students except on their palms. Students in those days, particularly sons of poor parents like me could never think of engaging private tutors and everything depended on the tuition received at school besides individual application and assiduity. Under Janaki Nath’s tuition I recovered my lost confidence in mathematics and at the Annual Examination I stood first in all the subjects including mathematics. My father was visibly happy when he learnt about my success and so were my mother and aunts.
I feel tempted to narrate one ludicrous incident while I was in this class. Basanta Kumar Malo, a Christian was our Bengali Teacher. His favourite way of punishing a defaulting boy was to pull him by the `chadar’ hung round his neck, make him stoop against the table in front of the teacher and then give him a fist blow on the back. On such occasions he used to raise his right arm to the utmost height, apparently aiming a heavy blow, but actually the blow was much milder. One day I was his victim. He made me stoop against the table with bent back expecting a heavy blow. I remained in that unenviable position quite a long while and seeing no blow come I bashfully raised my head only to find the teacher wearing a broad smile and the whole class rolling in laughter.
On being promoted to the 3rd standard we got Rajani Kanta Choudhury again as our English teacher. He revealed himself to me in a new light this time. The cane had gone, there was no kneeling down any longer and what was most surprising to me to discover was that he was also an efficient teacher. His pungent rebukes however were still liberally administered, and excruciating as these must have been to the victims, the rest of the class heartily enjoyed the humour. I maintained my position in this class too and again stood first at the annual examination.
While we were in the 2nd standard our school was raised to the status of a High English School and given the name of “Suraj Mohini Institute” after the name of the wife of our Zemindar Bepin Behari Roy who was the proprietor of the school. We were placed in the 5th class (class VI from the bottom) of the high school.
Bepin Behari Roy had the reputation of being a very benevolent Zemindar, solicitous of the welfare of his tenants. He had adopted Brahmaism, a kind of reformed Vedic Hinduism which stands for monotheism and discards image-worship. The founder of the cult was Raja Rammohan Roy, who in addition to his learning in English and Sanskrit was well-versed in Islamic lore. Brahmaism like Sikhism and several other similar religions was the product of Islam’s impact on Hinduism. Our Zemindar, was however amply rewarded for his benevolence. When he desired to enhance the rate of rents payable by his tenants, the latter, one and all agreed to pay at a rate above the statutory limit and also to pay half an anna per rupee (1/32 of a rupee) of rent towards the expenses of the school. The Zemindar deserved every credit for his laudable initiative but the financial burden was entirely borne by his tenants.
Nasir took admission in the M.E. School at about the same time as I, and for about two years he was my classmate too. But he was in those days less attentive to his studies and as such could not keep pace with me and fell behind by a year. But he was almost a constant companion to me except while in our respective classes. More often than not we went to school together, returned together and played together.
While in class VI of the High School there was a set-back to my health for some time. I developed a kind of severe neuralgic headache which would attack me every morning, subjecting me to excruciating pain and then subside in the afternoon. As it was unattended with fever, my family did not take it seriously and did nothing about it. I was however in a pitiable condition and had to absent myself from school as long as I was under its deadly grip. My deliverance was rather accidental. Though I was so ill, Nasir induced me one day to go with him to our Subdivisional town, Rajbari on a pleasure trip. We went to Rajbari by the early morning train before the headache was on. While we were roaming about aimlessly along the streets of Rajbari, the headache came down on me and Nasir did not know what to do. All of a sudden an idea flashed in his mind and he proposed to take me to the Charitable Dispensary. I staggered with him to the dispensary where the physician incharge of out-door patients gave me some pills after a brief examination. The pills had a miraculous effect. On taking one then and there the head ache quickly disappeared. I took the remaining pills as directed and the malady never reappeared. This illness had made me lag behind in my class for a while, but I gradually made up the lost ground and maintained my top position at the annual examination.
Baman Das Majumdar, who had been the Head Master of the M.E. School became a junior teacher when the status of the school was raised. He too was a Brahmo and along with his superb efficiency in the art of teaching and management of the school he had an exemplary character. He had played a prominent part in converting the school to a High English School and although thereafter his own comparative status as a teacher was lowered he was, till his retirement, the key man of the institution.
The first Head Master was Rasharanjan Sen, also a Brahmo who was a great disciplinarian and had a commanding personality. The appointment of so many Brahmos as teachers is explained by the fact that the proprietor himself was a Brahmo. The benign influence of these liberal minded men kept up a high moral tone in the institution and was of immense benefit to the students, though we could hardly perceive it at the time.
Another teacher Satis Chandra Biswas though not a Brahmo was a gentlemen of high moral calibre and he was also a most efficient teacher. What was unique in him was that he came into personal contact with his students, took keen interest in them and thus became their friend and guide as well. Gradually he became the most popular teacher, loved and respected by all. He was particularly loving to me and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude for the part he played in building up my career and character.
There was no Muslim teacher in the school as long as it was an M.E. School. When it became a High school a Muslim teacher had to be appointed for teaching Persian to the Muslim students. The first Persian teacher was Maulvi Mohammad Ismail, who also during the brief tenure of his office considerably influenced my life, particularly by his emphasis on Islami values.
There is hardly anything worth mentioning while I was in class VII and class VIII except that I was deeply shocked by the misfortune that overcame a very meritorious Muslim student named Danesh Mondal during this period. He was in class IX while I was in class VIII. Danesh and two or three other Hindu students were severely caned one day for some misconduct. Danesh protested that he was innocent and he considered the punishment given him to be entirely unjustified. In protest he gave up coming to the school and as he was too poor to go to any other school a very promising career was nipped in the bud. Although Danesh was then a stranger to me there was an acute and abiding grief in my mind at his unwise decision.
Though I consider that our family life was happy on the whole inspite of a grim struggle with poverty it had its peculiar dark shadows. Feuds between my mother and my two aunts over trifles were a constant feature of our family life, though otherwise they were on good terms and there were innumerable instances of happy interludes of friendly approach including occasions of hilarity and mirth. The quarrels were over nothing of any moment and were caused by most common place trivialities. Though otherwise of no consequence, these quarrels, couched in unseemly language distracted my attention and seriously disturbed my studies. Although they were all equally solicitous about my education and welfare, my protestations with them in respect of these feuds were of no more than transitory effect, and I had to suffer intense mental agony on that score. When I was in class IX and was grappling with my Matriculation Course I thought that something drastic had to be done to do away with this serious menace to my studies. Damaging house property and smashing earthen pots to teach them a lesson, though frequently resorted to, did not produce the desired effect. One evening an idea suddenly flashed in my mind and I began to act upon it forthwith. I put on my shirt and shoes, took up my umbrella and slipped away from home unnoticed and proceeded towards the Railway station near our school. A barber neighbour, Koda Nath Seal whom I met just outside the compound of our house asked me where I was going all alone at that unusual hour and I was lucky or perhaps unlucky in being able to avoid him by giving an evasive and a very unsatisfactory reply. At about 10 P.M. I took the train to Rajbari where I passed the night, in the third class passengers’ waiting room. All the money I had was in my shirt pocket amounting to no more than two rupees. I had no idea aboutwhere I should go, except that I wanted to keep away from home for a few days to cure the quarreling propensity of my mother and aunts. The next morning while I was still in the waiting room a smart-looking fair-complexioned youngman with several other companions burst in and began to narrate exultingly the part he had played at Goalundo Ghat in giving a thrashing to a European or Anglo¾Indian Officer of the Steamship Company for insulting some Bengalee employee, as I could vaguely gather from their random talk. Later on, this youngman whose name was Mohammad Ismail, became a close relation as I married his first cousin. I very much enjoyed his narration, punctuated with characteristic gestures. After midday I boarded the train for Kalukhali station. Alighting there I was roaming about aimlessly when I met an elderly man who questioned me about my identity and whereabouts. After giving him an evasive reply I asked him where I could pass the approaching night and he told me I could go to the house of the local Zemindar, Choudhury Alimuzzaman.
I went to that house. The Zemindar was not at home. After a few words with a servant I seated myself in the hall of a big, well-built thatch-roofed outhouse, used as parlour as well as guest room. Later on a shabby upcountry man also came in. I was terribly hungry. Very late in the night we two were summoned to the outer veranda of the main building of the house, where a mat was spread, upon which we squatted for our dinner. A very simple fare was served, but hungry as I was I enjoyed the meal. The Zemindar, a tall dark gentlemen with a well-trimmed tapering beard was reclining on an easy chair and smoking a hookah. Later on in life I became an intimate associate of this gentlemen to whom, however, I never disclosed this childhood episode !
After the meal we retired to the outhouse. There was a big oval table on which I lay down, with the upcountry-man just close to me. After some conversation with the man I kept quiet. Taking me to have fallen asleep he began a manual survey of my person apparently for any money that he might lay his hands on. All the money I had was in my right shirt-pocket and I lay down on my left side with my right hand on that pocket. When the man tried gently to remove my hand I pretended to wake up whereupon he withdrew his hand from my body. There was no question of my going to sleep after that. I transferred myself from the table to a bench placed against the wooden wall of the building and passed an uneasy and sleepless night. Next morning I went to the Kalukhali station and from there by train to Rajbari.
While at Rajbari an idea occurred to me that I should go to my maternal uncle’s house at Shobharampur near the town of Faridpur. The easiest way to go there was to take the train for Faridpur and walk about two miles back from there to Shobharampur. But on pecuniary consideration I did not adopt that course and took the tree lined picturesque District Board road that runs between Rajbari and Faridpur. I walked the entire distance of 18 miles at a stretch at a terrific speed. During the journey I had to pass by a point on the road, from where my house was only half a mile off. Though I felt an acute yearning for home I had no intention of returning so soon. I was only afraid of accidentally encountering some acquaintance and of being prematurely discovered. Nearabout my destination the rail road was only a quarter of a mile from my uncle’s house and at that point I left the railway track and took the pathway leading to that house. The whole family was taken by surprise at my sudden arrival. Gradually I disclosed the sequence of events leading me to that house.
During the five or six days I was there, I took it into my head to get admitted into the Faridpur Government High School called Zilla School. I actually went there and on expressing my desire to that effect I was examined and recommended for admission. As I was too poor to live in the school hostel I could study there only if I could stay at my uncle’s house. The family however, particularly my aunt, the mistress of the house, was not at all enthusiastic about the proposal. While that question was still being repeatedly discussed, my uncle Mollah Naimuddin, who was the head of the family and who naturally realised what anxious days my parents and aunts must have been passing proposed that I should go home without further delay and might come back if I decided to study at Faridupur. My youngest uncle, Mollah Nadiruddin nicknamed Nidan who was then about 25 years old was deputed to escort me home. When we were near our house but were still on the road we were seen by my mother who had come to the date palm garden to the east of our house. She rushed forward and overcome by emotion burst into tears while pressing me to her bosom with out-stretched arms. We went into the courtyard and my aunts too behaved almost in the same fashion. My father though visibly moved remained speechless for a time.
My proposal to study at the Faridpur Zilla School which had the reputation of being the best school in the district did not materialise. My family did not look upon the idea with favour. I disclosed the matter to my teacher Satis Chandra Biswas. He too disapproved of the proposal on the score of the unwelcome circumstances in which I would have to live at my uncle’s house.
My escape from home had produced the desired effect and for a time we had a quiet house. But the effect was transient and after a time human nature reasserted itself. The feud reappearing, at my suggestion my father erected a small temporary shed for my studies on open ground to the west of our house. There I was comparatively immune from the principal menace to my studies, though I became a victim to another source of disturbance. My isolation from the main house gave ideas to our neighbour Koda Nath Seal, a middle aged barber, who also carried on the subsidiary occupation of a quack physician. He forced himself on me as a pupil to supplement his knowledge of reading and writing Bengali. Almost every evening he used to come to me for taking lessons. I had not the heart to deny him this neighbourly favour, particularly as he was a good and likeable man, although in my mind I very much resented this intrusion which robbed me of so much of my valuable time.
A far more formidable menace to my studies was lying in wait for me. While I was in Class X, the final Entrance (Matriculation) Class, in the month of September or October in the year 1905, on a holiday the students and teachers of the school were assembled at a meeting which was attended also by some neighbouring people. Ambica Charan Majumdar, a distinguished advocate of Faridpur, who later on rose to be the President of the Indian National Congress, was the principal speaker. His long and powerful oration absolutely captivated the audience. He explained the evil design of the Government in partitioning Bengal and urged the audience to retaliate by boycotting British goods, particularly British cloth and salt. He appealed to the patriotism of the students and asked them to join the boycott movement as volunteers. The students were electrified. His hypnotic appeal was irresistible to them. There were other speakers too and at the conclusion of speeches a boycott resolution was unanimously and enthusiastically adopted.
- Partition of Bengal
The British conquered India from the Muslims. They found that the Muslims, though overtaken by degradation and decline, were superior in powers and organisational capacities to the rest of the population. And they naturally thought that danger, if any, to the British empire in India might emanate from the Muslim source. The Muslims were therefore looked upon with suspicion and a policy of Muslim suppression was adopted. The sepoy revolt of 1857 confirmed their fear and the policy of running down the Muslims and uplifting the Hindus began to be more ruthlessly pursued. About half a century of inhuman victimisation had all but killed the Muslims as a community and there were ugly indications of aggressive Hindu revivalism which in course of time, came to be regarded by the British rulers as a new source of danger. The age¾old policy of `divide and rule’ could not operate in such circumstances as it required at least two to divide and in this case one was all but non-existent; some far-sighted Britishers realised the futility as well as the inhumanity of the policy of slow poisoning an entire community, as Hunter’s (2) account would seem to indicate, and at length the old policy underwent a modification. But the Hindus, who had now tasted blood, resented measures meant for doing some justice to the Muslims. The Hindus who had already occupied many key positions in the administration were largely successful in defeating this new policy of giving the Muslim devil his due. But this very change of attitude on the part of the Administration was resented by the Hindus. Furthermore, a sense of bitterness grew up in the minds of the English educated intelligentsia consisting almost entirely of Hindus, at the imperious behaviour of the average Britisher in this country, which brought into bold relief India’s subjugation to her British masters. This bitterness gradually developed into hostility towards the Britishers, who reacted by being more determined to do justice to the Muslims, which in turn was interpreted by Hindus as undue favour shown to the Muslims at their expense.
Against this psychological background Lord Curzon, no greater intellectual than him ever came from the British Isles to administer this sub-continent, assumed the Governor-Generalship of India. Apparently for administrative reasons, the cogency of which no one could deny, but probably also with an eye to the growing Hindu aggressiveness and the paradoxical Muslim docility, he decided to partition the unwieldy province of Bengal and Behar. The Partition was announced on the 20th July, 1905 and the new Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam came into existence.
The new province was 60% Muslim and 40% Hindu. Preponderance in numbers was naturally expected to place the Muslim in an advantageous position and hopes were raised that the long dark night of their misery was at last going to dawn. The Hindus on the other hand apprehended that the gain to the Muslims would mean corresponding loss to them and their leaders decided to fight Partition tooth and nail. It is an irony of destiny that about 40 years later, in the year 1947, the seam Hindu Community fought tooth and nail for a second time to get Bengal partitioned on the eve of the establishment of Pakistan.
In launching an agitation against the Partition of Bengal the Hindus never disclosed the real reason for their dissatisfaction but skillfully clothed the movement in an alluring nationalistic garb. The press and platform resounded with the clarion call that Bengali nationalism was in danger and that the menace must be fought in all possible ways.
The movement was started 17 days after the announcement of the partition by holding a meeting in the Calcutta Town Hall on the 7th August, 1905. The meeting was attended by representatives from almost all the districts of Bengal. It was named the “Boycott Movement”, and lateron the “Swadeshi (native) Movement”, because it advocated not only the boycott of British cloth and salt amongst other things, but also the adoption of homemade substitutes. The movement spread through the entire length and breadth of the Province like a wild fire. Processions singing national songs and uttering exciting slogans with “Bande¾Mataram” as an inevitable concomitant, public meetings and picketing of foreign cloth shops were the order of the day in every nook and corner of the Province. Surendra Nath Banerjee, the Congress leader was the high priest of the movement and Ambica Charan Majumdar of Faridpur was his right-hand man. Both of them were most powerful orators. Aurobindo Ghosh gave up his high office at Baroda and joined the movement preaching a new doctrine of cultural revolt. Poets like Rabindranath Tagore, D.L. Roy, and Rajani Sen, poured out innumerable soul-stirring songs. The boycott of British goods and the vow to use countrymade articles produced a veritable industrial revolution ! The all-round political, industrial and cultural renaissance that originated in Bengal in the wake of the boycott movement and very soon encompassed the entire subcontinent, unmistakably demonstrated the intellectual leadership of Bengal and made Ramkrishna Gokhale exclaim,¾“What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”.
The agitation and the renaissance were mainly confined to the already advanced Hindu Community. The Muslim is general not yet politically conscious, kept aloof from the movement. Educated Muslims, with a few exceptions, opposed it because in essence it was an anti-Muslim movement.
The accredited leader of the Muslims in those days was Nawab Salimullah of Dacca. He was the premier landlord of Eastern Bengal. He possessed a unique vision and had an intense love for his people, on whom he lavishly spent his wealth. It is not unlikely that Lord Curzon had taken his decision to partition Bengal after consultation with him. As the partition of Bengal and the consequent creation of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam was calculated to benefit the Muslims,¾whatever might have been the real motive behind it¾Nawab Salimullah naturally opposed the agitation against the partition. He succeeded in preventing the bulk of the Muslims from joining the boycott movement.
Nawab Salimullah, however with a handful of lieutenants and workers was fighting an unequal battle against a formidable array of enemies and there were innumerable remote places where his message did not reach at all. To counteract the effect of his opposition the Hindu leaders were always at pains to enlist whatever support from misguided or self-seeking Muslims might be available and they succeeded in propping up artificially a few Muslims, mostly nincompoops, as `great leaders’ to serve their end.
Ours was one of the localities where the message of Nawab Salimullah never reached in time. The students of our school, irrespective of creed were completely overpowered by the powerful speeches of leaders like Ambica Charan Majumdar and drawn into the movement heart and soul. Even the Muslim students were worked up to such a pitch that later on when the message of Nawab Salimullah reached them, they joined the Hindu students in ridiculing the Muslim opposition.
First Political speech
One day I was induced by one of my teachers to attend a public meeting at Panchooria which was addressed by the veteran leader Bepin Chandra Pal and his companion, Dr. Abdul Gafoor. A resolution supporting the boycott movement had to be adopted. I was asked by my teacher Rajani Kanta Choudhury to support the resolution on behalf of the Muslim community. I had never before stood up to address a public meeting and I was feeling extremely diffident. My teacher and several others went on encouraging me and when my name was called I rose up on my trembling legs. My heart sank within, but assuming an air of boldness, I shouted parrot like ¾“I support the resolution on behalf of the Muslim Community.” Nothing else came to my mind and I sat down forthwith in the midst of loud applause which only added to my embarrassment.
Most of the students of our school offered their services to the movement as volunteers. Occasionally we had to do some more serious job than merely shouting slogans at public meetings. We divided ourselves into batches and picketted foreign cloth shops and salt stalls. When the picketting did not have the desired effect, we did not hesitate to resort to violence. Budles of Liverpool salt were snatched from unwary purchasers, scattered on the ground and trampled upon. One day we found a cooli carrying on his head a two-maund sack of Liverpool salt. The spectacle acted upon us like the red rag to the bull. We got infuriated, brought down the load to the ground, opened the sack, scattered the salt in the dust and trampled it under our feet. We hardly met with any opposition and got away with the idea that we were all-powerful. Law and order completely broke down for the time being.
Rank rowdyism like this could not however continue for long. The movement was proving more successful than the Government suspected at first and acquired an unprecedented momentum. Drastic Governmental repressive measures inevitably came. In our locality a criminal case for rioting was started against a number of volunteers and Nasir was amongst those sent up by the police for trial. I do not know how I escaped being sent up. Nasir along with a few others was tried by a Magistrate at Rajbari. Two veteran lawyers of Faridpur, Purna Chandra Maitra and Nalini Kanta Sen defended the accused. They were convicted and Nasir was sentenced to pay a fine of Rupees thirty. The case had a sobering effect on the enthusiasts of the movement which however continued, though with less fury and fun.
The repressive steps taken by Government were of a comprehensive character. Special notice was taken of educational institutions and the student community. The students were taught a very good lesson in various ways. When the result of the Matriculation Examination, then called Entrance Examination, of 1906 was out, it was found that only 25% of the examinees came out successful, the lowest percentage of success in the history of the Calcutta University. The year 1906 was called by the students as “the year of massacre.”
Entrance Examination, 1906; First Visit to Calcutta
I was an examinee that year and belying the hopes of everybody I was placed in the third division and my two other fellow examinees Sarat Chandra Bhakta and Jogendra Nath Ghosh got plucked. It was no doubt a fact that the movement having overtaken the intending examinees at a time when they were in the thick of their studies was partly responsible for their failure, but apparently the main cause of the disastrous result was victimisation.
I had to go to Calcutta to sit for the Matriculation (Entrance) Examination which was held in the month of March, 1906. This was my first visit to Calcutta, 150 miles from my village by train, though as the crow flies, the city was not more than 90 miles off to the south-west. The city which was the ambition of every citizen to visit at least once in his life opened up to me the vision of a new world. Its vastness, the concourse of people and vehicles on its innumerable streets, its palatial buildings, its magnificent museum, unique Zoological and Botanical gardens, its superb “maidan” (openfield) its Monument and the fascinating Eden Garden were to me objects of great admiration and wonder. The political atmosphere of the city was saturated with the spirit of intense nationalism; the boycott of British goods and the use of home made substitutes. After my examinations were over, I visited the Minerva Theatre. I was dazzled by the scenes, the lights, the dresses, the charms of actors and actresses, their actings and songs,¾so much so that for about a fortnight after my return home, in my dreams and dozings the entire scene of the theatrical performance hovered before my vision. At length it became a menace and I had to make strenuous mental efforts to divert my mind to other things whenever the vision of the theatre made its pleasant but unwelcome intrusion on my mind.
While in Calcutta for my examinations I put up at the Muslim Hostel attached to the Laik Jubilee Institute which was a High English School established by a rich Muslim hide merchant from Faridpur, named Choudhury Mohammad Laik at 29 Mirzapur Street, very close to the famous “College Square” and the university buildings.
The Barisal Conference
On my return home after my examinations, I was happily passing my days in my village home when I heard about the Barisal Conference and the drastic measures taken by Government to disperse it. The Conference met in April, 1906. Government promulgated orders prohibiting the Conference and the holding of any procession leading to the Conference. Most of the prominent leaders of the Province had come and a large crowd assembled. Inspite of the prohibitory orders a procession led by Surendra Nath Banerjee was proceeding towards the Conference pandal. Attacked at the rear by the Police, the Conference refused to disperse until after that a large number of ladies and children had assembled, the leaders decided that the Conference should disperse. Surendra Nath was arrested on the way to the pandal. On this occasion Bhupendra Nath Bose made the prophetic utterance, “It is the beginning of the end of British rule in India”.
Though there can be no doubt of the fact that the underlying motive behind the Boycott movement was to rectify the supposed harm the partition was likely to cause to the Hindu Community, it must be said in fairness that amongst the Hindu leaders of the movement there were many who, as well as the bulk of the Hindu youth joining the movement, were actuated by pure feeling of patriotism. It was their sincere zeal and readiness for self sacrifice that were responsible for the phenomenal success that the movement attained. Subsequent history has proved that the boycott movement was not only a substantial link in the long chain of popular upheavals beginning with the struggle led by Syed Ahmed Bulvi, popularly known as the `Wahabi movement’ and culminating in the final struggle for independence that saw the end of British rule in this subcontinent, but was the real driving force behind the mass awakening which steadily grew into a gigantic countrywide upheaval that eventually shook off the shackles of imperial rule.
“The average Muslim is a bully and the average Hindu is a coward”
The immediate effect of the boycott movement was all the same gloomy. The widespread disorder that it created led the Government to take drastic action to suppress the movement. The repressive measures adopted did not kill but drove the movement underground, which very soon erupted in the shape of “terrorism”. A large number of ghastly outrages were committed, such as the murder of Mr. Allen at Goalundo, the murder Mrs. and Miss Kennedy, of Naren Gosain who was shot dead in prison, the murder of Ashu Biswas and of Shamsul Alam, and the attempt to blow up the train of the Lieutenant Governor. Some of these outrages led to equally startling consequences, such as the suicide of Prafulla Chaki and the hanging of Khudiram Bose.
A side effect of the anti-partition movement was Hindu-Muslim tension which burst out into bloody Hindu-Muslim riots, such as the riots of 1906 and 1907 and the subsequent Calcutta riots of 1910.
Seen from a purely Hindu angle of vision, the terrorist movement had also a constructive side. Mr. Gandhi uttered a truth when he said years later that `the average Muslim is a bully and the average Hindu is a coward’. This was demonstrated in the periodical Hindu-Muslim riots, which was a constant feature of the history of our country. The East Bengal Hindu, particularly the educated Hindu youth who were far more politically conscious than the Hindu youth of Western India, regarded this Hindu inferiority in prowess as a national disgrace and were determined for vindication. They started training centres for the Hindu youth in various places. Enthusiastic youngmen flocked to these centres and went through long courses of psychological, religious and physical exercises to equip them on the one hand to meet the Muslim `bully’ and on the other to kill the foreign enemy, and if necessary, also the enemy at home. This movement proved a unique success. The Hindu hooligan gradually became almost an equal of the Muslim hooligan, although generally speaking the correctness of Mr. Gandhi’s observation about the average Muslim and `the average Hindu’ still held good. This movement was confined to the educated Hindu youth and had no effect on the Hindu masses. The result was that the “terrorists” and the bulk of the Hindu “goondas” were recruited from the educated Hindu youth whereas the Muslim “goondas” consisted entirely of the riff-raff of the Muslim society.
- Childhood Hobbies
My earliest childhood hobby was kite flying. My initiation to this art was at the insistence of my aunt Khodeja. She took me, one summer afternoon to a man named Masim aged about 40, who lived in a neighbouring hamlet about 1/3 of a mile to the south-west of our house. She requested him to prepare a kite for me. He obliged her by making one for me a very simple device, which however very successfully gave me my first thrills of flying a kite.
This reminds me of an extraordinary event in Masim’s life about which I heard later on. He had such a serious attack of fever that he was taken for dead. A grave was dug for him and in accordance with Muslim practice some attendants began to give the body the necessary ceremonial bath before being clothed in shroud and placed into the grave. To the utter surprise of the people assembled, the hairs of the body stood up at the touch of water showing signs of life. He soon regained consciousness and ultimately recovered. All this had happened long before he had made a kite for me.
Kites used to be purchased for me also from the annual fairs. To meet my demand for kites when I grew a little older, I began to make kites myself. Nasir had a very dexterous hand in making kites and we together produced dozens of them. The most favourite kite was the “Kaura kite”, an oblong shaped structure with two long tapering cloth tails coloured black, two similar flags attached to its two horns and a fine, flattened ribbon shaped piece of cane attached string-like to a split bamboo bow fixed on the head of the kite. The cane fluttering in the wind produces a sweet humming sound as the kite flies. The “Kaura” was a powerful kite. I heard from my aunts and other neighbours that Jata Kahar of our village had once been dragged into the river by his big kite when the wind suddenly grew very strong, and he narrowly escaped being drowned. One such giant “Kaura” was made by another man named Entas of our village. That kite excited our admiration and jealousy and Nasir succeeded in purchasing it from Entas. Later on it came to my possession. I had to use very strong thick string to fly such a big structure. One monsoon morning Nasir and I had sent out the giant to the sky. The wind was already stronger than usual and we could hardly resist the pull of the kite by holding the string in our hands. I fixed a strong peg to the ground and tied the string to the peg. The wind was growing stronger and any sane lad would have brought down the kite to save it from destruction. But I was more curious to see what happens when the wind grows still stronger. The wind suddenly came in a furious gust and the kite snapped its string and flew off towards the west. Quite a crowd had collected at the scene. We ran desperately in the direction taken by the kite and discovered it about a mile off, badly damaged and entangled in a jungle.
Amongst the other craft that we prepared, the serpent kite was the most spectacular and awe-inspiring. To me however the “Chila”, literally ‘kite’ appeared to be the prettiest. I became quite an expert in making “Chilas”. After sending my “Chila” to the sky in the open ground to the east of our house I often times used to skilfully pass the string through the labyrinths of datepalm branches to our inner courtyard to the evident amazement of my father and other members of our family.
My propensity to catch fish was almost as strong as that of flying kite. The main source of fish was the river just to the east of our house, which was a deep wide channel left by the great Padma when it receded to the east. In my infancy, I saw steam vessels plying in this river. Boat disasters were quite frequent. In the rainy season it was infested with man eating crocodiles. Every year during the flood season enormous quantities of silt were deposited and the river ultimately shrunk into a seasonal channel. In receding to the site which the Padma occupied while I was a child, it had left behind three other big paralled “beels”, (channels) the Baliakum, the Arial Beel and the Barra Beel all of which abounded in fish. Besides these there were two smaller swamps the “Burang” and the “Mati-ar-Kum” a few miles to the south-east of our house. To the west of our house at varying distances were the “Nimtala Bell” the “Khans’ Beel” and the great “Mashalia Beel”. All these and many other smaller and temporary water channels were frequented by me in my fish-catching exploits.
I was accustomed to using various kinds of devices available to amateur fish-catchers, the rod and line, hand nets, traps, spears and the ‘Palo’, which is a sort of moving fish prison in water !
Amongst all these techniques, catching fish with the “Palo” was the most spectacular. The “Palo” is a simple split bamboo device knit together by split cane that looks like a fully opened umbrella from the top. It is round in shape, the bottom about a yard in radius, gradually narrowing towards the top, which is about 6 inches in radius and is wide enough for inserting the arm through it to catch the fish when trapped. The height of the craft is about a yard.
The “Palo” is used for catching fish both individually and collectively. In individual fishing, one places the device in front of him in knee or waist-deep water, pressing it till it touches the ground and trapping any stray fish happening to be there. The entrapped fish creates a commotion within the enclosure beating violently against the wall of the ‘Palo’ and the catcher inserts his arm through the opening at the top and catches the fish after groping for it for a considerable while. The catch is perforated and threaded and tied round the waist of the catcher or put into a floating earthen pot with a narrow mouth, which is tied to his waist. Abortive attempts far outnumber the successful ones; the proportion of which depends on the abundance of fish in the water concerned, and the ability of the catcher.
Collective fishing with ‘Palo’ takes place on fixed days in the big channels, generally during the full moon or new moon days or the last day of the Bengali month, during the ‘Palo’ fishing season from January to April, or on other days announced by the beating of the drums in the market place. On the appointed day thousands are seen winding their way towards the fishery concerned, with their ‘Palos’ on their shoulders or under their armpits, by different routes all around, forming long picturesque lines. The men gather together at the fishery, wear their clothes in the fashion of wrestlers and then jump in, covering the entire breadth of the channel, five, ten or twenty deep according to the number of people joining, and proceed forward with the characteristic sweeps of their Palos into the water. The man who happens to entrap of fish lags behind to catch it while the phalanx moves on. His first act on entrapping a fish is to press the ‘Palo’ deep into the mud with his hands if in shallow water or by standing on it if in deep water. Generally a neighbouring comrade volunteers his help if the fish is a big one, pressing down the Palo and the person catching the fish inserts his fingers into the jaws of the fish.
One day I witnessed a very disappointing incident which took place while capturing a big “rahu” fish. I had joined the fishing campaign that day with my father in the “Baliakum”. An acquaintance of my father had entrapped the fish in deep water. My father caught the fish for him, but just when he had lifted it out of water and was going to hook it, the fish gave a jerk and slipped into the water leaving a trail of blood in my father’s palm and fingers. Apparently the joint between the two jaws was severed which enabled the fish to escape. I felt very awkward because some one might have suspected jealousy and foul play in my father, which however was out of the question.
The army continues to push forward until the entire channel is covered, after which, time permitting, it invades another channel. Not that every one returns home with a large catch. Some make very poor show but many proudly carry home tremendous loads.
I had my most exciting personal experience in this respect one summer afternoon. I was then an advanced student in our High School which at that time used to sit in the morning. On return home at mid-day I heard that people were catching fish in the “Baliakum” with “Palos”, I took a hurried meal and proceeded to the fishery with a few companions. When we reached the place the operations were converging to a close at the southern end of the channel. I joined the crowd with my ‘Palo’ with a diffident heart as the whole affair was going to end in a few minutes. But my endeavours were very startlingly rewarded. The water there was less than knee deep. As luck would have it, I entrapped a “rahu” fish. The commotion created by the fish was tremendous. It was beating against the wall of my ‘Palo’ with such lightning speed and force that I found it extremely difficult to keep the ‘Palo’ steady. After the fish was a little exhausted, a man caught it for me. It was not a very big fish, but I returned home exceedingly proud amidst the admiration of my companions and the ecstasy of the entire family.
My father had very strong likes and dislikes, particularly in respect of his food. Amongst fishes he did not take eels because these creatures, as popularly believed, have the habit of entering into the entrails of dead cattle thrown into the water. He also did not take any fish angled with earthworm as bait, because it is considered loathsome. But in our part of the country for the kind of angling in vogue earthworm is the best and most easily available bait. One morning, while I was still a small urchin, at the approach of the rains when our river was fast swelling, I caught a moderate-sized fish with rod and line using earthworm as bait. Fish was very rare at that time and the whole family was very happy to see the fish. My father was not at home at that time. My aunt Sabja was much concerned that my father won’t partake of it. She asked me to tell father that I had used boiled rice as bait in catching the fish. There was a conflict between my love for truth and my filial affection in my little heart. I was angry within against my aunt for putting me into such a predicament but ultimately acted as advised with considerable chagrin. I felt very happy however when I saw father partake of the fish.
Another day in the evening when I was older I was angling, along with others using earthworm as bait as a matter of course. I was the only fortunate angler to catch a fairly large “Boal” fish. On this occasion there was no question of concealing from my father that I used earthworm as bait. I apprehended that my father won’t take it. But to my great joy he partook of it without raising the question of the bait.
One day I was angling at the ‘ghat’ near Nasir’s house. Nasir had not joined me in catching fish on the occasion. As ill-luck would have it, I hooked a tortoise which had swallowed the hook. I found no other way of rescuing the hook than severing the throat of the animal. I brought a knife from the house of Nasir and completely severed the neck of the poor creature. I thought it was now quite safe to pull out the hook from its mouth. But lo! As I put two of my fingers into its mouth the sharp jaws closed with a considerable force causing a bleeding wound in my thumb. Probably this is the only instance in the world of a dead creature taking revenge on its cruel enemy ! While I was writhing with pain Nasir came to the scene. To add to my misery, he mischievously said that tortoise bite was a very serious affair and if I cared to escape dire consequence I must not tell my parents about my predicament. I was seized with an eerie apprehension and dolefully returned home a little devil, painfully concealing my agony.
I must refrain from narrating other fish catching exploits which were so numerous that it would cover an entire book. Amongst the other modes of my catching fish, one was to spear them after a chase in a boat along their track indicated by shaking paddy plants in flooded paddy lands in the rainy season and another was to catch predatory fishes by hanging the line into water with a small live fish attached to the hook as bait. The rod is fixed in an inclined position to the ground at the water-edge. The live bait fish swims hither and thither attracting predatory fishes which get hooked in trying to gulp the bait and create a hellish commotion in attempting to get disentangled. The angler who at times detects the hooking from a distance runs helter-skelter to secure the victim before it escapes.
- Childhood Games
In a poor country like ours, indigenous games naturally assume a character and form entailing little or no expenditure of money. The games I indulged in my childhood with my comrades were of the same nature except cricket and football to which I was introduced when I was older. I played with my schoolmates as well as non-school going boys, who formed the overwhelming majority of the youth of our locality.
One of the earliest of my pastimes was to play marbles in which I became an expert. To the north of our house and on the west bank of the river there was the prosperous family of the Duttas. Theirs was the only brick-built house in our part of the village. They were also the most advanced family and the boys and youngmen of that family were pioneers in western games newly introduced in our country. I became very friendly with them, particularly with Keshab who was my class mate, and with Jatin his younger brother. It was my association with them that made me an expert in marble play. I played the game mostly with my playmates belonging to the neighbouring barber and other caste Hindu families almost at all hours of the day except while I was at school. In the morning I could prepare my lessons in about an hour’s time and the rest of the morning I devoted to marble. I did not however join in the game played at school by other boys. One day I felt inclined to join them and when I did everyone was surprised to see me hit my rivals’ marble from what my comrades thought to be an incredible distance!
I also mastered the art of playing with the top, I could not only hit and smash my rivals’ top with mine with rare marksmanship, but also learnt such tricks as to hurl my top spinning into the air and before it could drop to the ground take it dexterously on my palm where it spun for a considerable time before it spent its force.
Gollachut, Chee and Hadudu
Games in which fast running and dodging skill were the deciding factors in establishing one’s reputation were “Golla chhut”, “Chee” and “Hadudu” which is generally known as “Kabadi” in most parts of the subcontinent. I excelled in the first two, while Nasir was an expert in the last. In all these three games the players, had to hold breath while running and to utter without break, certain sonorous doggerel; a break in the breath meant that the player was ‘dead’, which meant that he was out. Quoted below are a few examples of the doggerels used by us. There were some which were extremely vulgar and were used almost exclusively by cow-boys:
“Having killed my player
say, you buried him where
Jackals and vultures find on him
the stench I cannot bear”
“My player is not dead,
In the “bakhsha” bush is he living
Three or four servants
Are on him attending”
(Bakhsha is a kind of long reedlike grass)
Ami gulam oi
Ki doi Khawali maoi
Adha Kanch Koloi
(This is almost meaningless)
Ami gelam ube
Dhak baje pube
Dhaker Karmari Kular ba
Chhi karibo kee
Chantar age dauraichhi
Feincha mari jhanke-jhank.
In Hadoodu, physical strength as well as skill play a great part. There is an equal number of players on each side under the command of a captains as in the other two games. The party that wins the toss attack first. Generally only one player attacks at a time. A small part of the play ground is allotted as the “homeland” of the attacker and the rest of the ground is initially occupied by the defenders. The Captain called ‘Gatch-Kharu’ (tree-player) of the attacking side chooses the player who is to invade the opponent’s territory. The attack is made by the selected player dashing into the defender’s land chanting a doggerel of his own choice without breaking his breath, that is without any inhalation. He aims at touching one or more opponents while holding his breath and returning to his own without being successfully held or “captured”. If he can do this, the opponents he may touch are out (‘dead). He repeats the attack and if he or his successors succeed in eliminating all the opponents the attacking side wins the game. If on the other hand the attacker can be caught by one or more opponents and compelled to break the continuous chanting of his doggerel, he is ‘killed’ (out). In this way if all the attackers can be eliminated the defending side wins the game. The game is then repeated with the sides changing their respective position. Nasir, though looking frail, was very strong in physique and he had a peculiar knack for over-powering an attacker by holding him by his arms.
In these games school students were generally more proficient than cow boys. One day however our colour was lowered by a cow-boy. We challenged a few cow-boy who were led by one Kasiruddin. Kasiruddin did not look strong. But when we began to play we found that none of the school students was a match for him. He was invincible in attack. All of us including Nasir and another Hindu boy, Kunja Chaki who was very good at this game, failed to overpower him. His arms and legs were as hard as iron poles and he also had lightening speed. In making a desperate attempt to hold him, I was thrown on the hard ground upon my knees. My knees, though perhaps somewhat hardened by constant kneeling down at the bidding of teacher Rajani Choudhury, could not withstand the impact and were badly bruised. One of my knees began to bleed and a festering wound developed, which took about three months to heal, leaving a permanent scarmark which however was useful as an identification mark!
I also used to play “Tam-barri” which has a very remote resemblance to cricket. The instruments of the game are a short stick about a foot and a half long and a small piece of wood or split bamboo about two inches long. There is one single player on each side. A small stick is fixed to the ground as a stump and one of the contenders chooses to defend it. He has to defend it with the stick in his hand. The attacker tries to hit the stump with the “Tam” by hurling it from a specified distance and the defender tries to hit back the “Tam” with his stick. If the “Tam” strikes the stump the defender is out. If on the other the “Tam” after being hurled at the stump deposits itself at a distance, the defender measures the distance with his stick, each stick length making a “mark” and adds the marks to his credit. Or if he can hit back the Tam to a distance, the distance is similarly measured for “marks” and then the attacker has to hurl the “Tam” next time from that distance. I felt great interest in this simple but somewhat risky game which was not however generally played by school boys amongst whom it was considered to be rather vulgar. There was another similar game named “Gul-barri” which had a resemblance to field hockey and was more risky. No school boys were allowed by their guardians to play this game and I too never took part in it.
Amongst water sports I indulged in swimming races either on the surface or under water. There was another game of playing the crocodile which was very nerve-shaking. The player playing the crocodile dived at some distance from a line of boys standing in the water and swam unseen under water towards the line. If he could catch one by the legs while still under water there was an exiting struggle between the two and if the crocodile could drag down his victim’s head under water he won or if he was compelled to raise his head from water for taking breath, he lost. But it was more a crude sort of hilarity than a regular game with hard and fast rules.
I took my first lessons in cricket by playing with bats improvised by carving small planks and with balls made by rag lengths twisted round and covered with a piece of cloth sown round it. Then bamboo branches cut to size served as stumps. I fell in love with this game and have maintained my partially to it to this day, although I hardly played the game after I graduated except on one extra-ordinary occasion which may find mention later on. I was considered one of the best if not the best cricketer amongst the students of our school and in a friendly match played between our school team and another school team from Rajbari I was selected as a bowler. My batting reputation was however greater than that as a bowler.
I greatly liked football too, and was considered very good as a half back. Nasir was superb in football. He could play well in any position, but was particularly good as a back. His anticipation was market with the greatest sagacity and his dribbling was a sight to see. He was however always afraid of physical injury and did not play as often as his admirers would have liked.
The most manly of games, horse polo, was unknown in our part of the country. There was however another manly game, lathi play (playing with clubs and sticks) which was prevalent in our locality, but which, to my abiding regret, I never learnt. The game had a military touch in it and was rather discouraged by the authorities. It was hardly played by any student or by educated people. The game was mostly confined to illiterate villagers having a flair for adventure. It was played on certain ceremonial occasions and particularly during The Arabic month of muharram. Sometimes the game gave rise to free fifths between the contending parties. I may have occasion to revert to this subject when I come to describe some events of my life while I was a District Court Lawyer at Faridpur.
From early childhood I felt a great attraction for music, both vocal and instrumental. I enjoyed music, but had not the aptitude of a performer. Nasir on the other hand could sing well and had he specialised in it he would have been a good musician. My father was very fond of Nasir and off and on in the evening if Nasir happened to be in our house my father requested him to sing and he readily complied.
My aunt Sabja had a sweet voice. Religious and social reasons would not permit a Muslim woman to indulge in music in those days. But gazals (religious and love hymns) and recitations were not altogether tabooed. Though my aunt was illiterate, she had learnt by heart certain passages from semi-religious poetic works, which I liked very much and at my request she recited it in her sweet sonorous voice on very many occasions. My mother and aunts used to tell me many old stories onto which I altogether lost myself. The stories were dotted with short intermittent songs which recited in a musical undertone were also fascinating to me.
- Puthi Reading
From my father I acquired the habit of reading “Puthis” (Books in Bengali verse depicting generally Muslim exploits and sentiments and abounding in Arabic and Persian words). These were and still are very popular in the Muslim society and it has developed into an art. Expert readers of “puthi” were very popular figures. During the darkest period of Muslim history in this subcontinent, i. e. The early British period , it was these puthies which largely contributed to the preservation of Muslim culture in Bengal. my father had a good collection of puthies which he read with a chanting voice during his leisure house. He used to read those “puthis” and sometimes narrated to me and to others stories from the same. I became almost an addict to these ‘puthis’. The exploits and victories of Muslim heroes and the vivid description of strange lands and people as well as of colourful imaginary characters including genies and fairies completely captivated me. I became a fairly good reader of “puthies” and on visits to the houses of relations I had oblige them by reading some “puthi” or other far into the night on many occasions.
One evening when I should have been engaged in preparing my school lessons I was heard reading a “ puthi” by a Hindu acquaintance of my father, named Dinu Das who was passing by the pathway adjacent to our house. He had a very opinion about me and was shocked to hear me read a puthi, which he thought might be detrimental to my curricular studies and forthwith he had a short talk with my father on the subject. Since then my father discouraged my habit of reading puthies. But since I had already become an addict my puthi reading activities were driven underground !
I think the reading of “puthis” was beneficial to me in many respects. It made me acquainted with a large number of Arabic and Persian words, which stood me in good stead when I learnt those languages as well as Urdu. Further, it gave me a glimpse of Islamic history and traditions and some knowledge of our religion. Puthi reading, though perhaps less popular now-a-days is still in vogue, particularly amongst peasants and the labour classes.
- Jatras, Dramas, Kavi and Jari
Dramas and Jatras
Modern drama performances were few and far-between in those days. Besides short performances at school functions, I witnessed only one dramatic performance at the house of a Saha Zemindar (land holder) at Kholabaria, about 2 miles from our house, on the occasion of a Hindu religious festival, the Durga Puja.
“Jatra” was more or less an indigenous version of the theater. Jatra performances were quite frequent and used to be held on the occasion of Hindu religious festivals or marriages. There were both professional and amateur Jatra Parties. In such performances no scanic arrangements were necessary. An earthen platform about a foot high, closed round with their fencing was used as the stage. The musicians with their instruments occupied a corner of the stage. The orchestra played, accompanied with tedious vocal music of a classical nature for a long time between two scenes. The actor emerged out of a green room at some distance and proceeded to the stage under the gaze of the entire audience which occupied specified places of all sides of the stage except that in which the green room lies. Class distinction was rigorously observed,¾the most common place sitting arrangements being made for the Muslims. Although Muslims attended such performances in large numbers these were, par-excellence. Hindu affairs being generally connected with Hindu religion and tradition.
After the Bengal Partition Agitation had commenced, the Jatra was used as a powerful instrument for political propaganda and Hindu revivalism. Almost all school students, Hindus and Muslims used to attend Jatra performances. Although I enjoyed these performances their long duration’s were rather tiresome. Commencing in the evening the performances continued throughout the entire night till 8 or 9 A.M. next morning.
As time went, in some enlightened pioneers introduced a cosmopolitan note into these performances. One such pioneer was Mukunda Das of Barisal. He was also a good actor and generally played the part of a sage or a reformer. Here I am referring to an incident of a much later period, 1916 or 1917, when Mukunda Das was giving a performance at Faridpur. During his peroration from the stage he made an appeal to Muslims to regularly observe their prayers, as the result of which, my brother-in-law, Abdul Quader, then a school student, was inspired to observe this essential Muslim religious practice.
Kavi and Jari
Kavi (poetry competition) is a type of recreation which is probably peculiar to Bengal. Unlike Drama or Jatra in which only one performing party produces the show, two rival parties are necessary in “Kavi” and “Jari”. Each party has a leader called “Sarkar” who is the central figure and by whose name the party is known, and a number of singers and instrumental musicians. The stage arrangement is exactly in line with the Jatra with the exception that no green room is necessary in Kavi or Jari. When one party performs, the other keeps quiet at a corner of the stage and becomes active only when the other party has finished at act. This goes on alternately and at the closing stage, generally next morning, the two Sarkars appear together alternately attacking and defending in impromptu verse. This is the most dramatic and the most attractive scene of the whole show and was the main cause of my attraction to such performances. The play commences by one of the parties taking the floor and its Sarker posing himself as a hero or heroine in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses or as a character in Hindu mythology or tradition and also assigns an appropriately opposite role to his opponent, the Sarkar of the rival party. He does this through extempore songs which he dictates line by lien to his confederates who sing them in chorus in accompaniment of appropriate dances and music. He also brings some charges against his opponent, which he has to substantiate from quotations form Hindu shastras or relevant books. When his opponent takes the floor, he accepts the role assigned to him by his rival and answers the charges in songs similarly composed extempore. The leaders sometime rise to great heights in making these compositions and particularly at the time of the poetic dual at the end.
“Kavi” had an irrestible fascination for me. The Sarkar, if really efficient, appeared to me like supermen and they simply captivated my heart by their extempore poetry. In our village such performances were held generally in the market place called Fultala Hat, a little more than a mile form our house. Unluckily such shows had a bad reputation and was shunned by polished, society, as well as by men of religious disposition. This was due to the fact that on occasions, particularly during the last duel indecent and even obscene expressions were indulged in by some Sarkars with a view to pander to the vulgar appetite of the rabble mustering strong in such gatherings. The few instances of sharing expressions that I came across did not appear too vulgar to me. I regarded the poetic duels as aesthetic and intellectual treats of the highest order. My father however entirely disapproved of my visits to such performances and used to administer sharp reproofs. I was a singularly obedient son, but in this respect I was completely overpowered by my passion. One night there was to be such a performance at the market place. My father was at home and despairing of any possible opportunity to go to the show I went to bed after my evening meal. It was impossible to induce sleep. A little while later the characteristic beat of drums, the invariable accompaniment of such performances reached my ears. I could no longer contain myself. I slipped away from my bed and ran to the market to join the audience.
Although Hindu mythology provided the themes of these performances, on account of their inherent strength and capacity for providing entertainment they became popular wit all classes of people irrespective of religious denomination. Sarkars arose from amongst all communities including Muslims and mostly from communities considered low in the scale of Hindu society. I mention here a few who belonged to our locality. Madan Napit was a barber. Gurucharan Ghosh was a milkman. Mahim Kolu, a Muslim, was an oil grocer. Ismail Mallick also a Muslim, was a weaver. I knew only one who was a caste Hindu, but I have forgotten his name now.
I heard of a unique personality who was a renowned Sarkar a few generations back. He was either an Englishman or an Anglo¾Indian named Mr. Anthony. In those days Englishmen had not yet adopted their studied aloofness from Bengali life and society. Anthony had learnt the Bengali language and fell in love with two things Bengali. One was the profession of a “Kavi” and the other was a beautiful Hindu girl, probably a widow whom he first saw bathing in a village pond. He married the girl, thenceforward lived like a Bengali and became a famous “Sarkar”. I refrain from quoting some of his poetic outbursts, still preserved in public memory on account of their vulgarism, though otherwise they are master-pieces of poetic repartee.
Jari was something like a Muslim version of the Kavi. The Jari leader was called “Ustad” or “Sardar” instead of “Sarkar”. The themes were taken from Muslim history or traditions. In Jari too, the songs were dictated by the leaders but I do not think they were extempore compositions as in Kavi. The most marked difference was that in Jari there was no face to face poetic contest, on account of which Jari was less attractive than Kavi. I did not have occasion to attend such performances except once or twice and I was bored by its monotony. Though references to certain well known incidents of Muslim history naturally touched my heart. In artistic quality Jari was but a shadow of the Kavi. Jari is still popular amongst Muslims in this province.
Puppet shows were also popular. There were two varieties, one exhibiting miniature dolls and the other life-size ones. I attended these shows on one or two occasions and thoroughly enjoyed the performance with miniature puppets on account of the satire and farce I saw in it.
- Hindu Pujas
The Hindu Pujas (ritualistic idol worship) are quite numerous. There is a popular saying that “there are thirteen Pujas in twelve months”. Amongst these the most important were the Durga Puja, the Kali Puja (also called Dewali), the Saraswati Puja and the Doljatra. Almost all the entertainments available to the people were associated with these Pujas. Fairs were annually held on the occasion of some of these Pujas, the most spectacular fair being held in connection with the Durga Puja. While I was young, Hindu- Muslim differences had not crystalised, and with some exceptions Muslims also attended the fairs and other jovial functions connected with Hindu religious festivals. The fair in the principal market place of our village used to be a very big and colourful show. The idol that is worshipped on the occasion is an elaborate and picturesque structure, a veritable pantheon depicting besides the principal beautiful goddess Parbati or Durga (wife of Shiva) many other gods, goddesses and demons in brilliant variegated colours dazzling the eyes of the on lookers. The fair used to be held on the last day of the Puja, that is the immersion day, on which with spectacular ceremony and pomp the huge structure holding the various idols used to be consigned to the waters, which brought spontaneous tears to the eyes of women devotees. I had a great fascination for this fair and used to attend it in my best dress after extracting as much money as I could from my aunt Sabja to make odd purchases,¾toys, flutes, paper kites and sweets specially made for the occasion.
Saraswati Puja i.e. the worship of the goddess of learning, was almost universal among Hindus. The Puja was invariably observed by Hindu school students at the school premises. During our time good relations existed between Hindu and Muslim students. Muslim students did not participate in the religious rites of the occasion but took part in the attendant festivities in those days. When Hindu-Muslim relations deteriorated, the student community was also affected, and quarrels arose over the propriety of a Hindu Puja being held in schools attended also by Muslim students, to whom idol worship was repugnant. The aggressiveness exhibited by Hindu students of certain schools in this regard was answered by Muslim students demanding to sacrifice cows and in a few instances Muslim students actually sacrificed cows on the occasion of the Induzzoha in Muslim Hostels attached to such schools, leading very often to communal riots and consequent police intervention.
The two festive Hindu Pujas Doljatra and Holi, and Charrak Puja were held in spring time. The former is held in honour of Srikrishna and its principal feature is the colour sport; during which coloured water and sometimes foul water mixed with cowdung is sprinkled at passers-by. Muslims happening to be so treated became naturally infuriated and during days of Hindu-Muslim tension communal riots ensued out of these festivities. Many a time, I became the victim of such treatment at the hands of my Hindu fellow students who I knew did it in fun and not in spite and though I resented such awkward and vulgar practical joke, no untoward incident happened in this connection amongst students in our school.
The Charrak Puja meant for the worship of the Crocodile god was performed mainly by lower caste Hindus. Devotees joining the Puja, which was a prolonged process, were called Sanyasis who donned a peculiar crimson costume and some of the others wearing dress to match, were known as clowns throughout the Puja period. I very much enjoyed their clownish dances and gestures. Sometimes ardent devotees practiced almost inhuman mortification of the flesh on such occasions by allowing their persons to be pierced with thorns and iron hooks. The swinging of devotees subjected to such mortification around a stout pole called the “Charalak” tree was the climax of such functions. I felt a great revulsion for this inhuman practice.
The “Manasha Puja” or the worship of the Snke-god at the depth of the rainy season when the greatest toll of life is taken by snakes, was another puja which inspired in me nothing but a hair-raising awe. An offering of milk and banana is made to the deity who appears all night and partakes of the sumptuous feast.
Boat races provided a thrilling entertainment to thousands of spectactators. These were also held on the occasion of the Durga Puja in the river that passes by our house as well as the market place. I was a regular visitor to these races and I felt very happy that on most of these occasions I could go to these shows in our own boat with my father. The narrow race boats of enormous lengths, with two long rows of rowers on two sides, the foreman occupying the front-most seat in the boat, whom the rest of the rowers had to follow in weilding their respective paddles in accompaniment of exciting music, the standing helmsmen gravely weilding the rudder, and the captain occupying the hindmost seat with or without a paddle, commending the operations, were a sight to see. Quite a number of boats depending on the water space available, used to take part in a round. The final round took place amongst the winners of the different batches, but on most occasions the final round was not held either for want of time or out of fear of riots breaking out. When after a hard competition a boat was defeated, there was a likelihood of the defeated party creating a row on some plea or other. In anticipation of such outbreaks, many of the boats carried in their hulls lethal weapons of various types. I heard that such a riot was inevitable if the winning boat in a spirit of bravado or exhibitionism chose to crosscut the defeated boat at the front. I did not however actually see any winning boat committing at act of such indiscretion.
Having a small boat of our own and living on the bank of a river I also mastered the art of rowing and used to join minor and spontaneous boat races particularly amongst students and other youngsters. In such races my part was that of the captain of my boat occupying the hindmost position at the stern. I could row in tune with the rest of the crew and at the same time also play the helmsman, keeping the boat straight or guiding it as needed by a twist of my paddle during the split seconds it used to be in the water along with the paddles of the other rowers.
Though boat races were generally held on the occasion of Hindu festivals the participants were almost exclusively Muslims. Hindus, particularly caste Hindus, took no part in such strenuous and somewhat risky pastimes.
Cattle Races, Lathi-Play, and other merry making
Bullock race was another exciting game. This was another Muslim pastime. Some low caste Hindu cultivators also participated at times. It was a very tough game requiring great courage and skill and was extremely risky. Such races were unfortunately very few and far between in our locality. I was present only once at such a race at the famous fair of Nalia¾Jamalpur about 20 miles away from our village when I was a boy of 13 or 14. I walked the whole distance along with a few other villagers including one Haran, who though already an adult at that time and quite illiterate, was an intimate friend to me. The race was held on a spacious ploughed up tract of land. There were a large number of contestants. Different styles of cattle race were in vogue in those days. In the one I saw on that occasion, a pair of cattle were yoked together and a ladder was slantingly attached to the yoke. Two men stood on each ladder holding the tails of the two bullocks. This made one unit of contestants and there were many such units in a round. The contestants made the start with the firing of a gun and raced towards the destination. The ladders jumped up and jolted over the hard clods of earth thrown up by ploughs and it was an extremely difficult feat for the men to keep hanging on to their ladders. Many fell off and got injured and ran the risk of being run over by the surging cattle and ladders that were following close behind.
Lathi play, i.e. playing with clubs and sticks was also a popular and a predominantly Muslim sport. Whenever such sports were held in our neighbourhood I used to attend, very often with my father who told me about the reputation of the different players and also explained to me the various intricacies of the game.
- Musical Riddle Contest
I feel tempted to refer to a peculiar kind of merry-making which I think was rather rare and which I saw only once. One afternoon I was passing by the hamlet of the fishermen near our house when I saw a crowd at one of the houses. I went there and saw that a musical riddle contest was proceeding on the courtyard and there was an audience of 30 or 40 people. After my arrival at the spot towards the close of the show I had the good fortune of witnessing only two rounds of the contest and felt greatly amused and entertained. There were two contestants only. One took the floor in the middle of the courtyard and in a musical and rhythmic tone posed the following question:
Mukhi Tele lele la, Mukhi tele lele la
(A meaningless alliterative expression to keep up the rhythm).
Banda bala dekhini
(Oh devotee let met see if you can say).
Batshar ante mukh firae
(Turns his face once a year
What god is called he)
He then retired inside a hut and his opponent took the floor, answering,:
Mukhi tele lele la, Mukhi tele lele la
(Oh devotee I am telling thee
Turns his face once a year
He (it) is called the date palm tree
the date palm tree.)
It requires to be mentioned that in our part of the country the fruits yielded by the date-palm tree is of the poorest quality and has no commercial value. But people tap the date tree for juice from which a high quality “gurr” (molases, or rather a kind of crude sugar) is prepared. The tapping operations begin in October and continues till April. In one season a portion of one side of the tree near the top is tapped. The side that is tapped looks like the face of the tree. The opposite side is topped in the following season and thus the tree may be said to turn or alternate its face annually.
The first contestant then returned to the field and questioningly sang out the following riddle:
Mukhi tele lele la, mukhi tele lele la
Banda bala dekhi ni
(Oh devotee say if you can)
Guru goshthhi nakh dei
(Everyone in the family puts finger in)
Tare bale kon devata ti
(What god is called he ?)
His rival came and replied;
Mukhi tele lele la, mukhi tele lele la,
(Oh devotee I am telling thee)
Guru goshthhi nakh dei
(Every one in the family puts finger in)
Tare bala chuner khuti ti, chuner khuti ti
(It is the “lime pot” you see, the lime pot you see.)
This refers to the practice of lime being kept in one small common pot in the family, out of which each member takes out a little lime every time he or she eats a betel leaf.
I felt greatly entertained and was sorry that I was not present from the start. I was very fond of riddles and knew a large number of those in vogue, but not these two now quoted, nor was I acquainted with this spectacular mode of riddle contest.
- Muslim Festivals
As against the plethora of Hindu festivals Muslim festivals were few and far between. Muslim festivals were generally of an austere character devoid of frivolous merry making. The greatest of these festivals is the Eid-ul-Fitr which follows the month of rigorous fasting and evokes the greatest enthusiasm amongst Muslims. Young and old are dressed in their best, the best possible meals are prepared at every home and huge congregations assemble in open fields and mosques to offer the special prayers prescribed for the occasion. The devotees are arrayed in symmetrical rows, bowing and prostrating in unison, led by an Imam presiding over the ceremony. There is no distinction of race, nationality, colour, birth, rank or wealth. All stand on an equal footing as brothers in the worship of the universal creator.
In our village there was no village there was no suitable large, open field for ‘Id’ congregation and as such the function was held in the village mosque. Prayers over, the house owner Jhapu Khan who was the Mutwalli (proprietor) of the mosque used to give a special feast to the congregation and many devotees carried to the mosque home made sweet dishes which were distributed amongst the congregation after the prayers were over. I used to attend these functions, dressed in my best in the company of my father. After the feast at the proprietor’s house, several other persons invited the guests to their respective houses and custom as well as courtesy demanded that such invitations must be accepted. It is surprising how well the men could do justice to the food served in such quick succession !
The “Eid-ul-Azha”, the festival of sacrifice is performed in commemoration of the supreme sacrifice of Hazrat Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham) and his son Ismail (peace be on them) and after the congregational prayers which are similar in character to the “Eid-ul-Fitr” prayers, all but the indigent are required to sacrifice a domestic animal, a sheep, a goat or a cow or a camel; a sheep or a goat according to ritual sufficing for one person only and a cow or a camel for seven. Like all other Muslim festivals this festival is universally observed and closely follows the great pilgrimage to Mecca when devotees assemble in the birth place of Islam from all over the world to perform the Haji. This festival is but a symbol of the Islamic concept of the complete self surrender of man to the cause of his Maker and its spirit is embodied in this unique verse of the Holy Quran. “Say, verily, my prayer and my sacrifice, my life and my death, are all for Allah, the Nourisher of the universe.”
The sacrifice of cow, otherwise an innocent and exclusive religious rite with which only Muslims are concerned, has been a regular source of communal fury and bloodshed and a matter of the greatest social and political consequence in the subcontinent of India. Although there was a time when Hindus too not only performed cow¾ sacrifice festivals (“go-medh janja”) but also indulged in beef-eating, they gradually converted themselves to worshippers of the cow. They, therefore, resented the killing of cows by their Muslim neighbours and almost invariably took up the offensive on such occasions. The Muslim, not a docile people, were not prepared to tolerate such nonsense and to forgo not only their civic right of killing, whenever possible in secluded places their own animals for purposes of meal, but also the religious duty of animal sacrifice on the occasion of the “Eid-ul-Azha”. The substitution of sheep or goats for cows were not generally economically feasible as seven goats or sheep were required in substitution of one cow. The riots that ensued on such occasions generally in cities and towns were sometimes of the bloodiest character resulting in heavy loss of human life and damage to property. This intolerance was one of the principal causes that led to the Muslim demand for various constitutional safeguards and ultimately to the demand for carving out from India the independent Muslim State of Pakistan.
Muharram is a ceremony of mourning, commemorating the most poignant tragedy that was ever enacted on the face of the earth; that tragedy on the fields of Kerbala in modern day Iraq. The undoubted courage and heroism, the unflinching devotion and adherence to Truth and the readiness to give away the most precious earthly possessions including his own life and the lives of those nearest and dearest to him in the service of the Divine Cause, which Imam Hossain, the grandson of the holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) exhibited on the burning sands of Kerbala on the 10th day of Muharram in the year 72 of the Hijri era, is a glorious example of the human spirit winning its highest victory and is a perennial source of inspiration to a Muslim to win immortality by sacrificing his or her self at the throne of the Almightly.
The Shia and Sunni sects of Islam observe it in different ways, but common observance throughout the centuries have given rise to some common practices. As the tragedy happened in the course of a struggle of a military character, the Muharram rouses the latent military instincts of the people and Muslims resort to practices reminiscent of their military origin such as lathi-play sword-play etc. During the period of the festival covering the first ten days of the lunar (Arabic) month of Muharram. Religious minded people observe fast, particularly on the last two days, offer special prayers and practice charity. As the Kerbala tragedy resulted in the death of all male adult members of the mertyr’s family and only widows and a few orphans were the survivors, many people on this occasion are particularly charitable to orphans. The spectacular practice of Tazia processions and other attendant shows and activities are generally confined to the big cities. For no apparent cause these Tazia processions also sometimes led to Hindu-Muslim riots, though otherwise Muharram was the only Muslim festival in which Hindus also took some interest and in some places they even participated in the lathi plays arranged on such occasions.
The festival of Shab-i-Barat, which is a precursor to the month long fast of the Ramzan takes place on the night of the fifteenth of the previous lunar month of Shaban. This is the night when a Muslim’s fate is supposed to be determined for the following year. According to local custom special sweets are prepared on the occasion, which evokes great interest amongst youngsters. In most places in our country another practice of fireworks display on the occasion has grown up. This is an additional reason for the festival being popular amongst children. The devout of course generally congregate on the occasion in mosques and spend a part of the night in prayers. Another practice, particularly in some big cities is to illuminate and to visit the graves of relatives and ancestors and pray for the peace of their souls. On this night I used to go to our village mosque with my father and join in long prayers along with others. Prayers over, there was distribution of the sweet dishes prepared for the occasion.
The festival of Shab-i-Qadar or Lialatul Qadar, observed on the twenty-seventh night of the feasting month of Ramzan is exclusively devotional in nature and represents a Muslim’s quest for a beatific spiritual state in which he may be rewarded with the rare vision of entire creation prostrating in submission before the Divine Being. The occasion, which can hardly be called a festival, is only for the devout and is altogether devoid of any mundane merry-making. There are many who spend the whole night in deep contemplation and prayers. Lailatul Qadar is invested with an illusive charm. The vision may take shape in the cognition of seekers after Truth on any of the last three nights of the fasting month. During my childhood I used to visit our village mosque with my father on the night of the 27th Ramzan and offer prayers along with the rest of the gathering. But my immature mind knew little of the significance of the occasion.
Another important occasion for Muslim is the anniversary of the birth as well as of the demise of our holy Prophet (peace be on him). According to some traditions and commonly accepted belief, the Holy Prophet was born on the twelfth day of the Hijri month of Rabi-ul-Awal and he also died on the same date. The occasion is therefore called “Id-e-Miladunnabi or Fateha-e-Doazdaham” according to the emphasis given to his birth or to his demise. The observance of this day is yearly growing in importance and in many places, Karachi being one of them, public meeting to commemorate the occasion are daily held in different ‘mahallas’ throughout the month of Rabi-ul-Awal.
Recounting the life story and the teachings of the Holy Prophet is not however confined to the month of Rabi-ul-Awal. On the basis of the birthday celebrations of the Holy Prophet, a new institution, called “Maulad Sharif” (“The ceremony of the Exalted Birth”) has grown up in Islamic society, particularly in the Indian subcontinent where Islam, innately austere, found itself in surroundings almost constantly resounding with the gaieties of Hindu festivals. In the “Maulad Sharif” the incidents of the Prophets life, and his teachings, over and above being narrated in prose, are also sung in melodious verses, thus providing a lighter vein to the generally grave and ascetic note of Islamic institutions, “Maulad Sharif” gatherings are of very frequent occurrence in Muslim villages and one special feature of this institution is that sweets and sometimes full meals are provided at the close of these functions. The village Mollah or Moulvi specially invited for the purpose presides over the function. In many cities there are specially trained professional “Miladkhans” (reciters of the Maulad Sharif). The real utility of such functions depends on the ability of the person presiding in dealing with the subject in a manner calculated to inspire the audience to follow the teachings of the prophet in their own lives.
Such functions were frequently held in our village and I was a regular attendant. In those day the “Maulad Sharif” functions, presided over by a well-known Moulvi, (a person educated in the Islamic lore) who was my namesake, were very popular. He had an angelic voice and his power of exposition was also of an extraordinary character. Though very young, I learnt many things from his addresses.
The charms of this Moulvi produced an interesting result in one particular instance. Ladies also sometimes attend such functions, but they sat behind a screen. A lady belonging to a respectable family who was a beautiful young widow and who had attended a few gathering addressed by this gentlemen asked me to write a letter to him on her behalf as she was illiterate. I complied but not without hesitation because I had never written a letter before. The entire letter was dictated to me by her. I do not know whether she was able to send the letter to the Moulvi Saheb. I was at that time only about ten years old and it was long afterwards that I realised that it was a love letter in which the lady, after describing how she was captivated by his charms, offered herself in marriage to the accomplished Moulvi. The Moulvi unfortunately, left our village soon afterwards in pursuance of his own tour programme.
As in many other countries, marriages provided occasions of entertainment not only to the families concerned but also to the neighbours. This applied more to Hindu than to Muslim marriages. Well-to-do Hindus, on such occasions used to engage the services of professional Jatra parties, Kavi parties singing and dancing girls and also arranged for the exhibition of fireworks. Even the poorest Hindu would invariably engage the village orchestra. Muslim marriages, with rare exceptions, were devoid of these attractive features on account of religious scruples as well as poverty. But feasts were a common feature of all marriages, Hindu or Muslim.
Although the orchestra was almost exclusively engaged in Hindu marriages it is a curious fact that the musicians were all Muslims. These Muslims were apparently converts from Hinduism and they still retained many Hindu rites, customs and ways of life. The drum was the chief instrument of the orchestra and on account of the predominance of its use of the occasion of marriages its common tune was invariably associated in peoples minds with the ceremony of marriage and the tune was popularly interpreted as “Chhai-kapalir gabda bhatar”, meaning “the ugly husband of the ashen-lucked or ill-lucked bride”. We children, whenever we heard the drum beat used to chant the tune,¾“chhai kapalir gabda bhatar”.
I have already referred to the Dutta family who were our neighbours. On the occasion of the marriage of one of the Dutta brothers, an elaborate fireworks exhibition was arranged. There was a huge crowd of spectators. A basketfull of explosives accidentally caught fire causing a sudden conflagration and a large number of men were seriously burnt, out of whom several victims succumbed to their injuries. I and Nasir were then standing at some distance. It was winter time and people were more heavily dressed than in summer. The sight of the victims running helter skelter with their burning clothes on them excited Nasir to a spasmodic laughter which he could hardly control, while I was overpowered by a contrary sentiment of dismay and grief.
The first marriage ceremony I attended was that of my cousin Rahmat Ali who was Nasir’s maternal uncle. I was then probably six or seven years old. It was the rainy season. Our river had already overflown its banks and the pathway to the east of our house had been converted into a canal. I had no previous information whatsoever concerning this marriage. One morning I was standing near our house on the bank of the pathway canal where two big boats containing the bridegroom’s party came from the direction of Nasir’s house and stopped at our ghat near the place where I was standing. My father was also in one of the boats which stopped at our ghat as my father had to attend to something at our house. He alighted, went straightway to our house and returned almost immediately afterwards. At this time some one suggested that I should also be taken with the party and I was asked to get in. I had only my dhoti on and I boarded without being able to get my shirt from our house. All this while I had no other feeling in my mind than that of complete bewilderment. I cannot recall whether Nasir was in the party. Probably he was not, for otherwise I would most likely have some recollection. The five or six miles journey appeared to me to be very long. The only thing I remember about what happened at the bride’s house was that the bridegroom’s party was accommodated in a fairly large hut. We sat on the floor on which cushions covered by a chadar had been spread. Some persons of our party mischievously inserted pieces of raw betelnut underneath the white chadar which got stained red at those places. When people of the bride’s house came and saw the stains that discoloured the white sheet, they inquired about it, but the people responsible denied all knowledge. This appeared to me to be outrageous. I volunteered a statement in the course of which I disclosed every thing. I was later on taken to task for exposing our own men and was given a lecture about the special ethics of such occasions !
During this period under review, upto my appearance at the Entrance Examination, certain happy events took place in our family. The eldest amongst my sisters was married to Abdul Alim of village Jaipur situated about 21/2 miles to the west of our house. I used to pay frequent visits to that house. During such visits very often after the night meal the younger brothers, sisters and cousins of my brother-in-law used to gather round me and I entertained them, at their request, by reading out to them in a chanting voice Bengali Puthies (Epics) far into the night.
The next sister Badrunnissa was married to Mohammad Qiamuddin of Char Panchoria, a village about 5 miles to the north-east of our house. The third sister Laekunnissa was married to Rahim, eldest son of Munshi Banu Mollah of village Nimtala about a mile and a half to the west of our house. Banu Mollah’s house lay on the way to the house of the eldest sister and very often I used to visit both the houses in one trip. To go to the house of Badrunnissa I used to go to Panchuria by train and then walk a distance of about 2 miles to the east.
The year 1906 was a happy year for our family. This was the year in which I passed the Entrance Examination and a son was born to my sister Majirunnissa. He was named Nuruzzaman.
Development of my personality
For many years I was the only male child in our family and as such as overdose of affection, attention and indulgence naturally developed in me some traits of a spoilt child. I became wayward, could not accept chastisement in the proper spirit and was often arrogant and exacting. But by nature I was of a gentle disposition and not assertive except in the family circle.
A peculiar circumstance made me start my conscious life with a sense of self-diffidence which has been a stumbling block to my progress in life. My father, orphaned at an early age and dogged by penury and adversity, developed in his character an attitude of humility. Far from boasting of any possession or achievement even in cases where he could be justifiably proud, he used to belittle such things in conversation with his friends and acquaintances. I think it was due to this humility that he would belittle me too, during such conversations by referring to me as a “dullard”. I felt small on all such occasions and continuous repetition of this epithet, by one who was so loving to me and on whom I had absolute reliance, had a hypnotic effect on my mind and generated in me a conviction that I was really deficient in intellect. The consequence was lack of self-confidence. It also influenced and moulded my entire behaviour and impost which became an inseparable part of my being. The reawakening of my spirit from this morphia commenced when I found that I did better than my fellow students in my studies. This revival received a positive impetus when I wrote my first essay in English along with the rest of my class. My essay was adjudged the best and when I told the teacher how I found out the definition of the subject he remarked, “that was very clever” ! This compliment acted as a reinvigorating tonic in the long subconscious process of recovery of self-confidence.
The reason for thinking that my father was in the habit of belittling me on account of excess of humility, and not because he actually believed that I was worthless, is that he accepted with evident pride the compliments of his friends and acquaintances on account of my merit as a student and my reputation of being a well-behaved boy. He also took keen interest in my progress as a student and after every examination he used to inquire about the marks I obtained in every subject as compared with the marks obtained by the second boy of my class. He felt very happy that I did so well in my examinations.
Adherence to Truth
Ever since I began my conscious life, I felt a natural inclination to truth. How far this inclination was the result of my father’s instructions it is impossible for me to say. Or how far, like physical traits, mental habits and tendencies are also inherited, or whether difference in such habits and tendencies has some other mysterious origin, are questions into which I refrain from entering for obvious reasons.
I have already mentioned the first instance of my instructive adherence to truth when I attended the marriage ceremony of my cousin at the age of six or seven. To my mind, adherence to truth is the basis of morality and almost all other moral traits such as honesty, faithfulness, reliability, fulfillment of promise and even the religious conviction of one ultimate Entity being the source of all that exists, emanate from the same origin. There is a world of significance in the Quranic teaching that ‘God is Truth’.
Ever since I began my life, outside my home circle I enjoyed the reputation of being a most well-behaved child in all respects. Indeed I was good to a fault, and my aunt my Sabja one day expressed her dismay that my behaviour was not befitting that of a male child at least in one respect, namely that I never used any vulgar expression in my speech as was the habit of boys in general in those days; I was at that time about seven years old. Her remarks spurred me up to use one vulgar expression which I did for a year or so! My innate sense of decency then asserted itself and I gave up the practice. Apart from the approbation received from neighbours both Muslims and Hindu, some Hindu women also in the course of conversation with the female members of our family gave me compliments for my good behaviour, though the only occasions on which they could observe me were when I passed by or compelled by necessity, crossed the compounds of their house while going to and returning from school. My schoolmates taunted me for my strict behaviour by calling me a “Sadhu” (Moralist) !
But I had a most regrettable lapse on one occasion. Outbreak of malaria in the autumn was a hardy annual. Doctors being very few, we depended on quinine and some other popular patented drugs for the cure of that fell disease. On one occasion myself and two of my close neighbours, Koda Nath Seal, a barber and Sita Nath Sarkar, father of my playmate Lalit, combined together to get a supply of the then famous anti-malarial patent drug called “Sarba-jwara-gaja Sinha” (Lion to the Elephant of fever of all kinds) by value-payable parcel from Dacca. I acted as the Secretary of this small combine. When the V.P. packet was taken delivery of, I found that the price was written in such a way that the amount could be easily enhanced by about ten or twelve annas by making a slight alteration for which there was ample room. I was about fourteen years old at the time. The idea took entire possession of me and I executed it, as the result of which I made a dishonest profit of ten or twelve annas from my unsuspecting partners. Almost immediately after the commission of the crime remorse overtook me and tormented me terribly during long years. The bitter memory and repentance ultimately became intolerable and I made up my mind to make whatever amends were then possible. I was then well-established in life and was known throughout the country. I am thankful to the Divine Dispenser of all things that I could brush aside all considerations of prestige and go to the two old gentlemen to make a clean breast of the whole affair and ask for their pardon which they readily accorded. I am also happy that I was able to persuade each of them to accept one rupee from me in repayment of the debt. When I made my confession to Koda Nath he remarked “ Tamizuddin, you will be a great man!” Sita Nath Sarkar was also pleasantly astonished at my behaviour. This moral lapse which I am now disclosing to the whole world was never mentioned to any one else.
I was timid-hearted by nature. Whatever courage I have given proof of on various occasions was nothing but calculated courage summoned by a sense of duty and propriety. My heart was prone to sink at the sight of a snake, a ferocious animal, a vicious dog or a bull, a violent madman or at the thought of ghosts. But luckily there was also in my heart a counter urge to overcome this timidness and this urge gradually acquired strength. As an example of the gradual ascendancy of this urge it may be narrated that in my early youth unlike other boys, when the river adjacent to our house became violent at the time of a storm I used to board our little boat all along, take it to the middle of the river and enjoyed with trepidation of heart the tossing of the boat by the high waves !
But one day this calculated courage too failed me altogether. I was then about twelve years old. I had gone in the afternoon all alone, to Fultala Hut to witness a boat race. I was there till the race ended at sunset and spent some more time there in conversation with school friends whom I found there. So it was pitch dark when I started back for home. It was the rainy season, and as such the shorter route by the side of the river being under water, I had to take the more round-about route via the railway line. I covered more than half the distance along the railway track and then had to turn east and take the village path which lay through jungles intermingled here and there with houses. It had already begun to rain and the downpour was quite heavy. I groped all alone along the pitch dark jungle track which was infested with wild boars. I did not however encounter any. Ultimately I approached a desolate and deserted homestead site which was surrounded by dense jungle and which was believed to be haunted. The place was only about two hundred yards to the west of our house and was near the house of the “Chakies”, amongst whom I had several friends. There my courage gave way. Protecting myself from the torrential rains as best as I could with my umbrella, I approached the deserted “bhita” (homestead site), came to its very edge but dared not proceed further. I went back near the house of the Chakis, stood on the pathway for a while fondly hoping some one from the house would perchance detect my presence and come to my rescue. But as nothing like this happened I again approached the ‘bhita’, but again my courage failed and, I returned near the house of the ‘Chakis’. I think I repeated this performance once or twice more and at length some one in the house detected me and came upto me with an umbrella on. He was Banka Behari Chaki, elder brother of my playmate Kunja Behari Chaki. After exchange of a few questions and answers he reprimanded me and asked me why I did not go straight to their house and ask someone to accompany me to my house. I kept silent. The real answer to the question was my shyness and my reluctance to disclose my lack of courage. He accompanied me to my house, told my father the whole story and went back.
Wild boars, crocodiles and my friend Kajali
This reminds me of two occasions when I did encounter wild boars. One evening I was returning home from some school function accompanied by my classmate Jogendra Chandra Ghosh along the same jungly pathway from the railway track to our village. We suddenly saw a big wild boar about thirty yards off from us. My friend forthwith ran away towards a neighbouring house. I stood still to observe the behaviour of the beast. It had apparently no aggressive intention was perhaps itself embarrassed at the unexpected encounter and went its own way, after which I proceeded homewards and found my friend waiting for me near the neighbouring house.
On another occasion, though not at the same place, I had a narrow escape from a wild sow. A boar hunting party was in search for boars and I had gone to watch the hunting. The party was active in a jungle near the house of the Rudras about half a mile to the south-west of our house. A small crowd of spectators had assembled. When I was at a somewhat isolated spot a white sow with three or four young ones suddenly emerged from the jungle with lighting speed and barking furiously was heading towards me. I made a quick sideways run and had a narrow escape because boars given chase particularly those with young ones are always in a dangerous mood.
Earlier, I had all but witnessed a pig-sticking exploit within the compound of our own house. To the adjacent south of our house was a bamboo jungle on the other side of which was the house of the Mitters. The hunting party was headed by my friend Haran, who was a labourer, and was about fifteen years my senior. He had a flair for adventure. The net was set between our house and that of Mitters. Two spearsmen stood at the two ends and a few others too stoodby. Beaters began to beat the jungle from the west towards the east. As the crucial moment was approaching, I was taken away from the hazardous scene. Soon afterwards there was a great commotion and an uproar. I was thereafter allowed to go back to see that a boar had been entangled in the net and then speared and beaten to death. There were some ‘Muchies’ (Hindu cobblers) with the party, who took away the corpse. The flesh of swine is forbidden to Muslims; and Hindus too, except certain very low castes abhor it.
On one other occasion I had seen a boar in this bamboo bush near our house. I used to go deep into this bush to ease myself. One morning when I had gone there with my brass waterpot in hand I found a boar lying ahead, I stood still and the animal quickly made off to my great relief.
Haran used to tell me about a brave ‘Shikari’ (huntsmen) who used to spear wild boars single handed. Boars are said to be very responsive to challenges. When this ‘Shikari’ discovered the animal after nightfall, he would hold a spear in his hands and challenge it. The animal would make a dashing charge without taking notice of the spear, would get pierced through the breast, and disregarding this plight would still try to reach his enemy, with the spear sliding through the rest of its body. The greatest courage, presence of mind and skill are required to successfully face such potentially deadly encounters.
No human being was killed in our locality during my time. But my aunts used to tell me that a Hindu, whose name I now forget, was killed by a boar before I was born. His entrails were pierced open and he lived for quite a while and could speak after the fatal attack.
Wild boars are a menace to crops, particularly to sugarcane and root vegetables and as such people make every effort to eliminate them.
The river Padma is a home of crocodiles and so are its innumerable tributaries. During the early years of my childhood our river was also notorious for crocodiles, particularly during the flood season when people used to put up spacious bamboo cages in their ghats, inside which they used to bathe for fear of these ferocious reptiles. We had our own enclosure in our ghat, but inspite of the barrier, I never felt secure while bathing under such condition. People became particularly panicky when they heard rumours of a human being or a head of cattle being carried away by crocodiles. At times there was lack of vigilance, and most incidents happened during these carsfree periods.
During my childhood there was such a tragedy in the neighbouring ‘ghat’ of the fishermen. A young girl of that community named Kajali, whom I knew very well and who was then about twelve years old, had come to our house in the morning of the day of occurrence. On her return home she had gone to bathe in their ‘ghat’ at the usual hour along with other women and children.
While they were bathing there was a great commotion in the water, the tail of a crocodile emerged out of the water and hit another woman on the forearn causing a severe injury. In the same instant Kajuli disappeared. The crocodile came to the surface of the water at some distance with Kajuli in the grip of its jaws. It dived again and reappeared in the same way further off. It is said that crocodiles have the habit of showing their victims seven times like this. They come to the surface I suppose to take breath. I felt an excruciating heart pang when I heard of this tragic incident and for quite a long time it was the common talk of the village.
- Snake-bites and Treatments and Accidents
Snakes were a more dreaded and more insidious menace to the villagers. In this low-lying deltaic region, homesteads are generally turned into isolated islands in the flood season and snakes from the overflooded fields and jungles take shelter near human habitations. That is why most snake-bite casualties occur during the rainy season.
During my childhood there were two snake-bite deaths in our immediate neighbourhood. One victim was a Hindu school boy living in the house of the Dutts. After his evening meal he sat on his bedstead and while he was engaged in conversation with other boys in the room and was swinging his right hand just below the edge of the bedstead, he was bitten on a finger by a cobra. Death was almost instantaneous. The other victim was a Muslim cultivator living in a house to the east of the river across our house. He was bitten by a slow-poisoning snake and died after suffering excruciating pain for five or six days. There was no treatment for snake-bite except what dubious assistance was available from a special class of quacks called “Ojhas” who are believed to be experts in curing snake-bites. Fantastic stories are in vogue about extraordinary cures effected by “Ojhas”. But I never saw any such claim substantiated. They are either cheats or self-deluded maniacs. But there being no other effective treatment available, affected people have no other alternative than to seek help form ‘Ojhas’. There are however, certain precautionary measures and processed of indigenous treatment, which if resorted to quickly, may save the snake-bitten victim. The first thing to do is to put one or more ligatures at appropriate places to prevent the poison from circulating with the blood. Then one of the recognised effective processes is to procure about a dozen chicken and one by one pierce the skin of the birds and make the pierced spot or the rectum of the chicken come into contact with the snake-bite injury. The chicken will die immediately one by one, and when they die no more all the poison is expected to have been absorbed by the chicken and the patient is placed on a footing of safety. I have not been able to personally verify the effectiveness of this method, but from what I have heard I believe it to be efficacious.
On one occasion I had gone to the other side of our river along with my barber playmate the junior Ghetu, who was extremely timid and something of a half-wit, to catch fish with my jerk net. I had placed my net according to the usual practice at the edge of the water and was sitting at a distance of about fifteen yards holding the end of the rope, which tied to the bamboo framing of the net. Ghetu was sitting beside me. I saw a rather biggish fish gliding into the net and I gave a strong jerking pull to the rope. To our dismay, instead of a fish a snake was lifted into the air, glided over our heads and dropped to the ground about five or six yards away from us. Ghetu ran for his life, crossed over to the other side of the river which was then crossable and ran away to his house. The poor snake, had apparently been paralysed by the impact of the fall and lay motionless. I killed it with a stick. It was a more or less harmless non-venomous water snake.
I had however a somewhat narrow escape from a cobra on another occasion. I had gone to catch fish with rod and line along with a few friends to a village called Nimtala about three quarters of a mile from us. While we were returning home at dusk our path lay through paddy fields. It was the rainy season. I was ahead of others and while we were carefully winding our way along the narrow dividing lines between plots of paddy land, I had all but trampled upon a cobra which happened to cross our path at the time. The enraged cobra raised and expanded its hood, and giving a panicky cry I ran away sideways and my other companions too ran the same way ! When we were together again, we all agreed that it was a narrow escape indeed for the party.
During my childhood I was involved in several accidents. The earliest of them occurred when I had climbed a small tree at a corner of the inner courtyard of our house to pluck cucumber. The cucumber creeper had been allowed to spread over the tree. While climbing I caught hold of a very thin branch which snapped and I was thrown on the ground on my back. I was about seven years old at the time. Although I was fully conscious, my breathing stopped and I was in extreme pain. My mother and my aunts raised a hue and cry and began to apply oil and water to my head. I was almost dying whenall of a sudden I resumed breathing with a terrific jerk.
Another accident occurred when I had gone with Nasir and another friend, Abdul Karim Khan, son of Zhapu Khan, Nasir’s neighbour, to Panchuria about five miles from our house, to see Railway engines. The Rajbari¾Faridpur railway line was then under construction. We heard that construction had been completed upto Panchuria and that engines and wagons were coming form Rajbari to Panchuria. We were lucky enough to see an engine and a few wagons. While after nightfall, we were proceeding back homewards we found pleasure in walking with jumps over the slippers just laid on the newly constructed railroad from Panchuria towards Khankhanapur, our village. As it was dark, in stepping from one slipper to another I missed a step and fell handlong along the line, the upper portion of my nose striking against the sharp edge of a slipper. I think I was senseless for a while. My companions raised me up and for some time I could see nothing. There was extreme pain in the head in the region of the nose and I was almost sure that there was a serious fracture. After resting me for a while, my companions bandaged my head with my chadar almost covering my eyes, and with great difficulty almost dragged me to my home. I had not taken leave of my father before I had gone and we were all afraid of encountering him. My companions quietly left me near my sleeping hut. I went in unnoticed and seeing my bed ready on the mud-floor I forthwith lay down covering myself from head to foot with my rag quilt. Though the pain was almost unbearable I was more afraid of my father’s wrath than the pain I was suffering from. My mother asked me to take my night meal, but I said from underneath the quilt that I had no appetite. I lay down writhing in pain for quite a while and thought my father had gone to sleep. Unable to bear the pain in silence any longer I disclosed my plight to my aunts saying “my nose is gone”. My aunt Sabja forthwith raised a hue and cry which awakened my father. The cup of my misery was now full ! My father began to reprimand me in strong terms. I am grateful for the sagacity of my aunts and mother in their efforts to give me relief from the excruciating pain. They forthwith made poultices of sand, baked hot and began to apply the same to the affected area. This had a wonderful effect and in about an hour’s time the pain subsided. I was thereafter persuaded to have my meal which I took lying down in morsels inserted into my month by my mother. Luckily there was no fracture. There was a skin deep injury which healed in a few days leaving only a permanent, but almost invisible scarmark.
A third accident happened when I had climbed a fairly tall date tree which had been tapped to collect juice the previous evening. After climbing to the top, I held with one hand the stem of a dried up branch and tried with the other to disentangle the juicepot from the tree, when the stem gave way and within a few seconds I found myself at the bottom of the tree. I did not drop headlong on the ground in which case the fall might have been fatal, but I had clasped my arms around the tree and I slipped down the trunk while still keeping my hold to the tree, with the result that my chest and belly were badly lacerated with long longitudinal bleeding injuries.
There was another incident which was a near accident. I had gone on a boat excursion in the rainy season with Nasir, Keshab, Lalit and one or two other friends. Our destination was the river Padma which was then about three miles to the east of our house, and we had also an intention of purchasing ‘hilsa’ fish from fishermen in the river. We purchased no fish as none were available and after a random rowing excursion we thought of returning home as it was dark. Our boat was very small and not equipped for plying in the turbulent Padma. So we studiedly kept our boat at a safe distance from the current of the river. The river had overflown its banks and it was somewhat difficult to distinguish between the river proper and the overflown banks. It soon became dark and Keshab raised an alarm that our boat had been caught by the current of the river. I was the principal rower as well as the helmsman. I too became alarmed. Some of my companions said that we were not going in the right direction. Others said that we were heading towards the mainstream of the dreaded river. But I was confident that we were going in the right direction towards our village as I knew some of the constellations indicating directions such as Orion and the Great Bear in relation to the Pole star. Inspite of the protests of some of my friends I kept my head cool and took the boat to safety.
Although I consider myself as a practical man and a man of action, any account of my character would be incomplete unless at least a passing reference is made to the fact that right from my early boyhood I have allowed myself to spend long periods of valuable time in building castles in the air. Whether this has been due to an inner urge of my ego to seek escape from the frustrations of my life, only a proper psycho-analysis could discover, but it is a fact that such day dreams, despite what futile satisfaction these may have given my ego, proved an eventual hindrance to my progress. It was during the best part of life, and even now is, though with less frequent recurrence, a morbid mental ailment to me. I have paid a heavy penalty for it not only in loss of time, but also in considerable emasculation of my mind as the long hours of intense concentration on airy nothings, from which I found it most difficult to extricate myself, took a heavy tool on my vital energy. It also must have robbed me of a good deal of my zest for action since the workaday world loomed so drab and un-inviting vis-à-vis the glamorous world of my fancy. There was perhaps one redeeming feature in this childish game. In creating the world of my dream I adhered tenaciously to my ideal of service¾service to my kith and kin, to the poor, to my country and to mankind in general, which all combined is regarded according to the Islamic conception as service to God, if rendered in the proper spirit. What was wrong about it was that I prepared a most fantastic and elaborate minute scheme complete with circumstantial details, culminating in the establishment of a new world order, and also worked out in my imagination not only the processes but also the very events ultimately leading to the envisaged goal, the trickery of the Ego making myself the central figure in this imaginary drama. I have too often transported myself to this Eldorado and too often enacted this fascinating but morbid drama on my mental stage at the cost of my mental and physical health. This day dream proved to be a serious menace to my studies.
- The Social and Economic Picture
There has been a good deal of speculation about the causes of concentration of such a large number of Muslims in the tract of land known as Bengal. With the probable exception of the island of Java in Indonesia, it is the largest single Muslim block in the world. Non-Muslims, both indigenous and foreign, generally believed that the vast majority of this mass of humanity consists of converts to Islam mainly out of low caste Hindus. That there were large-scale conversions is un-doubted. Not only in the Indian sub-continent, but throughout the world wherever there are Muslim converts their history can be traced to the fact that they found in Islam, a religion of universal brotherhood and equality, recognising no distinction of class or colour, and asylum from the social tyranny of those times and were captivated by the simple mono-theistic creed of the new religion. In India an additional reason was the tyranny of the caste system and of the cult and curse of untouchability. With regard to large sections of downtrodden humanity finding shelter in Islam, Vivekananda, the great Hindu writer said, “Even to the Muhammadan rule we owe that great blessing, the destruction of exclusive privilege . . . . . . . The Muhammadan conquest of India came as a salvation to the downtrodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifth of our people have become Muhammadans”. But immediate conversion does not seem to be a full explanation for the preponderance of Muslims in Bengal, where the caste system was far less rigorous than in South India which saw no large scale conversion. There is reason to believe that in Bengal an additional cause for such a large concentration of Muslims was the fact that millions of Muslim soldiers comprising the vast disbanded armies of the disintegrated Moghul Empire and of the innumerable provincial satraps and chieftains settled in the fertile soil of Bengal and most of them took to the cultivation of the land. This process had been going on during the long centuries of Muslim rule in India and soldiers retiring or released from the armies as well as innumerable other Muslim families from the west were attracted to this part of the country where nature’s bounties were showered on a much more generous measure than elsewhere. Convincing internal evidence of this theory is supplied by the characteristic difference between the general run of Muslims and Hindus of Bengal in certain social behaviours and particularly in language. Certain most homely words used by Muslims in general are of Arabic and Persian origin and while these are not in use amongst Hindus. They are in vogue amongst most Muslims throughout India. It is unlikely that these homely words could come into common use amongst illiterate Muslims converted from Hindus who never used these words. The theory receives further support from the fact that amongst the Muslims of Bengal there are certain classes such as “Dhuties” (a class of instrumental musicians), “Dais” (a class of people whose menfolk used to carry messages of child-births and whose womenfolk were quack midwives and used to sever the umbilical cords of new born babies) etc. Who are known converts from Hinduism and who, unlike other Muslims, use homely words common amongst Hindus.
It has already been stated how the deliberate policy of British Government in unholy alliance with Hindu hostility, brought about the economic ruin of the Muslims. Almost all avenues of worldly advancement including employment under Government had been monopolised by Britishers and Hindus. The bulk of the Muslims had been reduced to cultivators with small uneconomic holdings and they were subjected to most humiliating treatment and exploitation by Hindu Zemindars and other non-Muslims dominating the social scene almost all cultivation, and also the few Muslims who were in a better position in the social hierarchy, were indebted to Hindu money lenders who imposed most exorbitant rates of interest, and in most cases it was compound interest. The Namasudras and certain other low caste Hindus who were cultivators also stood in the same unenviable position as Muslim cultivators. My father also, in certain years, could not balance his family budget and had to borrow money on bonds. Money lenders in our locality were mostly Kundus and Sahas who were also traders. My father’s creditors were “Kundus”. My father, however, was very particular about regular repayment and he generally repaid his debts in the jute season but out of the sale proceeds of jute which was our main money crop. We also produced small quantities of mustard seeds, sesame, linseeds, coriander seeds, onions, garlic’s, turmeric, bananas etc. which also brought in some little money.
As regards trade and commerce the high caste Hindus in general had not yet taken to trade and commerce and they still looked down upon the lower caste Hindus engaged in the same. In the wake of the Swadeshi movement the high caste Hindus discarded this mentality, but curiously enough the Muslims who in imitation of High Caste Hindus had acquired an attitude of mind averse to trade and commerce still clung to that deplorable mentality. It was much later that the Muslims woke up and made same efforts to take to trade and commerce. Most of them however were easily elbowed out by those who were already active in the field.
- Hindu-Muslim Relations
Hinduism arose amongst the Aryan invaders and conquerors of India and was in the course of time accepted by the conquered Dravidians and innumerable aboriginal sects. The Aryan genius, amply supplemented later on by Dravidian talent, built up wonderful systems of philosophy, science, art and architecture. But along with these glorious achievements there was a contrary pull towards degradation provided mainly by two factors. One was the geographical situation largely isolating India from the rest of the world although much later on when there was the growth of an appreciable sea-power, Indian presence expanded south-ward and South-east-wards, particularly in Indonesia, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and certain other Indian Ocean islands. The other was the self-aggrandising spirit of the ruling classes which gradually petrified and fossilised the caste-system, which at first seems to have originated purely as a division of labour amongst the people of the land, but was later transformed into a most inhuman and tyrannical cult.
India’s chequered history shows that except during certain comparatively brief periods, there was no political unity amongst Indians as a whole and the entire record is interspersed with innumerable internecine jealousy, hatred and bloody warfare. India thus weakened, fell an easy victim to the various foreign invasions through the Khyber and Bolan Passes and this coupled with other factors, created in Indians a chronic hatred of the foreigner. The last invaders before the British were the Muslims and as such Hindu hatred became particularly concentrated against them.
In this connection it will be interesting to see what one world renowned Muslim scholar and Traveler, Alberuni has said about this aspect of the Hindu character. Alberuni was a contemporary of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who began his invasion of India about 1000 A.D. On reaching India, Alberuni learnt Sanskrit and studied the religion, philosophy, science, arts, laws and customs of the country. He was already well-versed in Greek literature and philosophy. He writes, “The Hindus believe that there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more of course from any foreigner.” He further writes, “There is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves’ at the utmost they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body, or their property on religious controversy. On the contrary all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them; against all foreigners. They call them ‘Mlechha’ i.e. impure and forbid having any connection with them”.
The entire passage is taken form “The Autobiography of an unknown Indian” (5) by the well known Hindu scholar and historian Nirad Chaudhuri. He seems to be in full agreement with Alberuni’s characterisation of the Indian people. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his “Discovery of India” also quotes a portion of Alberuni’s above description and says that it is “probably a correct enough description of the temper of the people.”
Alberuni ascribes the Hindu hostility to the people of the Middle-East to the rivalry between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and says that the advent of Islam intensified this hostility. There cannot be any doubt about the fact that the conquests of Ibne Qasem and the invasions of Sultan Mahmood added fuel to the fire of this Hindu hatred for the Muslims.
According to Mr. Nirad Chaudhuri, this hatred of the foreigner, particularly the Muslim, has in the course of centuries become an inseparable part of the Hindu being. This was the mainspring out of the which Hindu nationalism originated and influenced the entire course of subsequent Indian history. He further says, “The Muslim rulers of India, so long as they remained strong themselves, had no Hindu rebellion to fear; on the other hand they could reckon on being able to enlist any number of Hindu helpers, provided they were ready to offer a commensurate material reward . . . . . .” “Throughout the period of the Muslim rule, Hindu society as a whole and more specially Hindu lawgivers went on tightening the rules against inter-marriage and commensality. New rules were introduced to control fraternisation with the foreigner and the cultivation of his manners . . . . . .” Mr. Choudhury says that the illustrious Tagore family that produced a genius like Rabindra Nath Tagore was amongst those victimised for transgression of some of these rules.
Mr. Chaudhuri goes on, “In the sphere of emotion and ideas, no Hindu was expected to give the allegiance of his heart to the Muslim, and no Hindu did. The more thoroughgoing his external and internal servility, the more complete was also his emotional disaffection. The Muslim ruler could count on the loyalty of his Hindu servants and vassal princes as a class only as long as he had power and could reward and punish them; the moment he lost his power he also lost the loyalty. The Hindu clung desperately to his disloyalty, because he looked upon it as his inspiration for the service he was giving to the foreign conqueror against what he called his convictions. On this disaffection rested his hope of heaven as on the service of the Muslim depended his worldly advancement. Therefore, the initial hatred noted by Alberuni, with which the Hindu began his life of political subjection, went on swelling in volume during the whole period of Muslim rule. There was no fear of its atrophy form any lack of external expression. The passivity which the Hindu mode of life and the Hindu outlook generate makes the Hindu more or less independent of action in his emotional satisfactions. On the other hand, being incapable of action, he considers it all the more his duty to nurse his hatred in secret and take care of it as a priceless heirloom from his free ancestors.”
“Thus Hindu nationalism during Muslim rule flourished on a plane where neither the military nor the political power of the conqueror could attack it. On its part this nationalism saw no necessity to go out of its way to challenge the foreigners’ power when it was at its strongest and while it remained strong . . . . . .”
“As soon as Muslim political power weakened in India at the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th, Hindu nationalism rose in a flood to the political plane . . . . .”
“The Hindu exultantly stamped on the head of the exhausted enemy.”
“By the end of the 18th century Muslim political power had vanished. Then a new problem arose¾ whom could the Hindus hate now?”
“For this reason a spiritual crisis threatened the Hindus at the end of the Muslim rule, but it was averted by the establishment of British power. Almost instantaneously the hatred formerly felt for the Muslim was transferred to the English, as today with disappearance of British rule the undying hatred has again fastened itself on the Muslim . . . .”
In support of the above analysis of the Hindu national character, Mr. Nirad Chaudhuri in his autobiography quotes the following passage from the Introduction to the English translation of ‘Siyar-ul-Mutakh-khirin’, a historical work in Persian by Ghulam Hossain Khan Tabatabai. The original work was completed in 1781. The translation which was completed in 1786 was by a Creole named Raymend who became a convert to Islam and assumed the name of Hajee Mustafa.
“The reader accustomed to read accounts of India these twenty or thirty years past will possibly wonder at my warning him against the disaffection of a nation which by all accounts seems to be the tamest, and most pusillanimous set of men on the face of the earth, and the most incapable of any man by action. The Indians have been a more dangerous nation than they seem to be now. They may be in a slumber’ but they may awake, and they deserve to have a more watchful eye than the English Government seems to think.”
Though the foregoing quotations give a picture of the Hindu society with regard to only one side of the Hindu character an do not deal with its impressive credit side, they are relevant for my present purpose of giving a brief account of the relations existing between Muslims and Hindus during the critical period of the history of our country, synchronising with my early youth.
The teachings of the higher Hindu religion and philosophy concerning human relation are as liberal as those of any other religion. But Hinduism as practised, is a vast conglomeration of various creeds and tenets often contradictory to one another, ranging from pure mono-theism to atheism, idolatry, image-worship, polytheism, pantheism, nature-worship and so on and so forth. It also includes various practices and taboos either corresponding to these cults or of an independent nature. That is why it is difficult to define Hinduism. Modern Hindu revivalists of India represented by organisations like the “Hindu Mahasava” have described Hinduism as comprehending all religions of Indian origin, thus excluding from its purview Islam, Christianity and Juduism, three of the great religions of the world. The comprehensiveness of Hinduism has an advantage. This enabled Hinduism to gradually absorb within its fold hordes of foreign invaders from abroad in different periods of India’s long history and maintain some sort of Indian unity in the midst of a chaotic diversity of race, language and colour. But when in the cycle of time Hinduism came face to face with alien faiths, it saw a danger of being itself engulfed by them and as a measure of passive self-protection developed around itself the shell of exclusiveness, hatred, boycott and untouchability against the foreigner. But for this artificial and synthetically prepared armour, Hinduism, internally torn by self-contradictory doctrines on the one hand, and the elaborate network of caste barrier on the other could have hardly survived the spiritual and moral onslaught of these alien religions, particularly Islam. Even this armour did not completely succeed and countless millions of oppressed humanity broke open the shell and ran away to the protection of cosmopolitan Islam. These conversions would have been on a much larger scale notwithstanding the protective measures resorted to by Hinduism but for the fact that the Islamic society by virtue of its contact with Hindu society and other causes became itself corrupt in many respects in the course of time. Islam in India presented a picture which reflected very little of the effulgence of the high principles and teachings of Islam.
These conversions were naturally an eyesore to the Hindu Community and considerably intensified the already existing Hindu bitterness against the Muslim intruder.
The relations that existed between Hindus and Muslims during the period of my childhood and early youth have to be studied in relations to the background described above.
Socially, Muslims were in most respects untouchable to the Hindus. Intermarriage and inter-dining were unthinkable. Social intercourses of other kinds were also very rare. A Muslim was not allowed access to the inner compounds of a Hindu house. If a Muslim happened to touch the food, particularly cooked food of a Hindu, the entire stuff was considered ceremonially polluted and had to be thrown away ! If a Muslim somehow happened to enter the cookshed of a Hindu, even if he did not touch the food or the utensils, all cooked food stored in the house along with the earthen cooking pots were considered polluted and had to be thrown away ! Hindu landlords meted out humiliating treatment to their Muslim tenants. Muslim tenants, most of whom were cultivators, while visiting the landlord’s offices were to squat on gunny cloths spread on the floor or planks or ‘piris’ (low stools not higher than an inch or two) placed on the floor while Hindu tenants of similar status were allowed to sit on the raised ‘farsh’ (knee-high platforms covered with ‘satranj’ (a cloth mat) and sheets) on which the officers of the landlords also used to be seated. Muslims were not allowed to smoke from the same hookas as the Hindus and had to smoke from inferior hooka meant for them or from the ‘chillims’ (cone-shaped earthen containers of tobacco prepared for smoking placed on the perpendicular cylinder of the hooka) with the help of their fingers and folded palms. If a Muslim ever ate at the house of a Hindu he had to do so in utter segregation, and after the meal he was expected to cleanse the spot himself, because the Hindu servants of the house would not do so ! Muslims visiting functions of amusement at Hindu houses had to squat on inferior bamboo mats whereas Hindu spectators were given superior seats. The segregation of the two communities was so pronounced that they felt at the heart of their hearts that they were two distinct peoples inspite of fraternisation in certain fields of activity. Naturally this created a bitter resentment in the Muslim mind against the Hindu although generally speaking this resentment found little outward expression except on occasions when on account of sparks provided by otherwise insignificant incidents, the smouldering embers within burst out into conflagrations in the shape of bloody communal riots.
This was a tragedy of the highest magnitude not only for India and its peoples but also for humanity at large. Like the barbarous institution of colour bar still clung to with vengeance by so may of the race-conscious and petty-minded white peoples of the West, the Hindu version of the same disease in the shape of caste barrier and untouchability, along with a new cult of world domination based on class hatred and ruthless suppression of the freedom of the human spirit, stand as steelborn insurmountable rocks in the way of the unification of the entire human species. Human beings, inspite of certain superficial distinctions are essentially one and the same, and were designed to live in one world community on the bed-rock of human equality, universal brotherhood and freedom of though and expression within the obvious limits dictated by reason in the interest of universal weal. But however adamant and ineradicable these senseless taboos may appear to be, mankind may draw comfort form the obvious indications that these barriers are gradually giving way to the irresistible impact of the general human urge towards the ultimate goal of unity. Unless the people, who, like drowning men, are still holding fast to these straws of prejudice, voluntarily relinquish them and swim shoulder to shoulder with the rest of humanity towards the goal, the approaching tidal waves, whose distant rumblings are already reaching discerning ears in clear peals, will in the fullness of time mercilessly wash away their straws.
There are already indications that the ranks of the narrow-minded and misguided sponsors of these anti-human institutions are gradually thinning away. During my school life I found that the Hindu students, generally speaking, had already liberated themselves from the shackles of some of these taboos. They felt no hesitation in eating with Muslim students though they seldom dared to do so in the open under the gaze of their elders. What is important is that their minds had already revolted against these sub-human practices. This liberal spirit gained considerable ground during the countrywide agitation against the partition of Bengal when a substantial section of the Muslim community had made common cause with the Hindus, though largely under a misapprehension of the real motive of the Hindu-sponsored movement.
As already indicated, the British policy of state patronisation of the Hindus, and the neglect, victimisation and suppression of the Muslims coupled with many other factors such as the ingrained hatred which accumulated in the Hindu heart against the Muslim invader during long centuries and which under state protection burst out in practical expression during certain stages of the British rule, and the natural decay that had crept in the Muslim society had produced a corroding inferiority-complex in the average Muslim. One of the most effective weapons diabolically used for the psychological massacre of the Muslims was the literacy offensive. The text books lionised British and Hindu historical characters and hardly made any reference to Muslim characters except in rare instances when the purpose of such reference was to slander them or at best to mention them with faint praise. History itself was distorted with the same purpose. This naturally made the Muslim student invariably feel small while elevating the spirit of the Hindu student. This was a period of great revival for the Hindus and the Hindus of Bengal were at the vanguard of this revivalist movement. Renowned scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, poets, novelists and dramatists grew up amongst them. The pens of almost all the writers amongst them, particularly of the great novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee were wielded with the purpose of idolizing everything Hindu and condemning the Muslim.
A byproduct of this literary offensive against the Muslims proved equally disastrous to the latter. The Bengali language, on account of its heterogeneous origin had been generally kept at arm’s length by the orthodox Hindu at the early stages of its growth. It developed under the patronage of Muslim kings, chieftains and Nawabs and in course of time by the influx of Arabian and Persian words and expressions. As a vehicle of Muslim thought it had assumed a character which both in form and content was largely Muslim. After Muslim power had vanished, the Hindu revivalists realised the importance of the mother-tongue of the people in the furtherance of their objective, and adopted Bengali as the vehicle of their literary expression. And by the introduction of Sanskrit words and expressions and elimination of those Arabic and Persian, and by infusing into their powerful writings the spirit of Hindu religion and culture, they changed the very character of the language both in form and content and practically snatched it away from the Muslims ! The result was that the Muslims came under the complete domination of the Hindus, economically, culturally and to a large extent also politically. As far as the Muslims were concerned, the British no doubt were their titular masters, but their real masters were the Hindus !
The inferiority complex injected into the Muslims through all these channels was all-pervading except in two respects. The Muslims felt that they were still physically superior to the Hindus and they had a general feeling that their monotheistic religion was superior to the idol-worshipping Hindu polytheism. The uneducated Muslims however had in general, very little real knowledge about their religion and as such this idea about the superiority of their religion was more or less superficial.
The system of education introduced by the British was only nominally secular and culturally was both pro-British and pro-Hindu and pointedly anti-Muslim. The old Muslim institutions had already died of inanition, and the only newly established institution imparting some sort of Muslim religious education established by the British in Bengal was the Calcutta “Madrassah” or religious school. The Aligar Movement, which was the first bullwork set up against the Hindu cultural onslaught could not yet make its impact felt in distant Bengal. So even the educated Muslim youth of Bengal had, in those days, very little means of acquiring any real knowledge of their religion, culture and history, except family traditions which naturally existed only as a few isolated islands in the vast ocean of ignorance. But even this family tradition wherever it existed could hardly be an adequate substitute for a regular religious education. In my own instance, for example, inspite of the fact that family tradition had given me some sort of an Islamic background in my early youth, my eyes were first opened to the greatness of my religion when I listened to the address of Munshi Shaikh Zamiruddin at a Muslim public meeting at Goalundo-ghat about seven or eight miles to the north-east of our house. Munshi Zamiruddin, who was originally a Muslim, had been converted to Christianity, became a Christian missionary, but after having made a thorough comparative study of the two religions, reverted back to the Muslim faith and became a preacher of Islam. I was at that time a student in the topmost class of our High English School.
The Muslims during those days of their degradation had, curiously enough, adopted in many places certain Hindu manners, customs and social patterns diametrically opposed to their religion and culture. Although nowhere they actually took to idol-worship in certain places they used to imitate certain customary rites connected with the worship of the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi) and sometimes of the goddess of learning (Saraswati). In certain limited respects they also adopted something like the caste system. There were no intermarriages between Muslim weavers, fishermen, oilmen, etc. And other Muslims! like the Hindus, who were divided into four mutually exclusive castes, the Brahmins, Khatriya, Vaisya and Sudra, the Muslims allowed themselves, under Hindu initiative, it be classified as Sheikh, Mogol and Pathan although there was no caste barrier of any kind whatsoever between these classes per se. Educated Muslims, in most cases, imitated the dress and certain other manners of the Hindus. Many of them were anxious to pass off for Hindus and when dressed like Hindus there was nothing to distinguish an educated Muslim from a Hindu. The Hindus also encouraged such imitation in their Muslim acquaintances by frequently remarking “you look exactly like a gentleman” (Bhadralok”) and the Muslims so accosted, with rare exceptions, took such remarks as compliments !
During my schooldays, I too, like all other Muslim boys of our drove, used to dress myself as a Hindu boy and while in the market place I was once addressed as a Brahmin (“Thakur Mahasaya”). This habit continues, though intermingled with occasions of dressing like a Muslim, even while I was a College student upto the intermediate standard, after which however I used to dress myself as a Muslim generally. Later on after entering life first of all as a teacher and then as a lawyer, I used to dress myself invariably as a Muslim. On a second occasion also I was mistaken for a Brahmin under very awkward circumstances. I was still a college student and was at that time at the house of my father-in-law. I was standing in the outer courtyard one morning and my father-in-law as well as several other persons were near about. I was dressed in ‘dhoti’ and shirt like a Hindu. A low-caste Hindu tenant of my father-in-law happened to approach the scene to have a talk with my father-in-law. The superior landlords of my father-in-law were Brahmis and apparently the Hindu tenant in question took me to be a member of the Zemindar family on a visit to this village. I did not suspect anything unusual and was standing indifferently. The manner of the tenant’s approach when he was quite near to us aroused my father-in-law’s suspicion and he cried out twice saying, “He is not a Brahmin, he is not a Brahmin” ! But the warning was too late and the man stooped and touched my sandalled feet. I blushed embarrassingly and quickly stepped away from the awkward scene !
It has already been mentioned in another connection that the performance of some religious rites both of the Hindus and Muslims, such as the “Holi”, “Swaraswati puja”, processions with music in front of mosques, cow sacrifice, Muharram processions etc. Were regular sources of Hindu-Muslim tension and of eventual bloody communal riots. These however generally took place only in big cities and towns, and not in the villages.
In the villages owned by Hindu landlords, and in about two-third of the entire area of the Province of Bengal hardly any cow sacrifice was permitted. Our village was owned by a Hindu Zemindar professing the liberal Brahmo cult. There was an ingenious unwritten ordinance promulgated by the Zemindar. Anyone sacrificing a cow and any person carrying information of such sacrifice to the Zemindar were both liable to be punished with a heavy fine of one hundred rupees ! The result was that there was no cow sacrifice in the village. Amongst the inhabitants of our village, as far as I knew, it was only my uncle (‘Fufa’, i.e. father’s sister’s husband) Khandkar Kazim Ali who used to sacrifice a cow on the occasion of the “Idul Azha”. Though he was an inhabitant of our village he had landed properties also in a neighbouring village under “Parghana Dhuldi”, the Zemindar of which, though a Hindu, usually did not take any serious notice of such sacrifices. My uncle used to take the cow meant for sacrifice to that village and the ceremony over, used to bring home the owner’s customary one-third share of the meat,¾ the rest being distributed amongst the poor people present on the occasion. Our family used to be invited to partake of the feast that followed and we greatly relished the various delicious dishes prepared on such occasions. After my uncle’s death, his son Khandkar Rahmat Ali could not maintain the family tradition and discontinued the practice of sacrificing a cow on the occasion.
It would be wrong to conclude from what I have stated above regarding Hindu-Muslim relations that the two communities were in a constant state of tension and ever ready for a showdown. The tension certainly existed but it was normally in a dormant state, living in the subconscious minds of the two communities under cover of a smooth skull of apparent harmony and co-operation and appearing on the surface on rare occasions spurred by the stimulus provided by some untoward incident very often trivial and insignificant. Although some villages and hamlets were exclusively Hindu or Muslim, most of them were inhabited by both the communities and their homes were intermingled. Hindu and Muslim neighbours were generally on the house had similar good relations with us. They were very poor and most of them used to purchase rice on credit from my aunt Sabja who used to carry on a small business in rice.
Our relationship with the Mitter family living to the immediate south of our house was somewhat of an indifferent character. On one occasion there was a serious quarrel with that family. A she goat of that family had strayed into our house and seriously damaged certain vegetable plants. My aunt Sabja in a loud voice abused the womenfolk of that house for letting loose their goat. Thereupon Gopal Mitra, the head of the family lodged a complaint to the Zemindar’s Katchary (court) at Khankhanapur. A bailiff of the zemindars came and took my father to the Katchery under arrest. A trial took place then and there and my father was to pay a fine of twenty rupees ! The Zemindar in those days wielded tremendous powers under the patronage of the British Raj and the tenants in general had not the courage to raise a voice of protest against them. My young heart was weighed down with a terrible sense of humiliation at this incident. In course of time normal relations were restored between our two families.
My father’s Muslim friends were quite numerous. Later on in life my father was recognized as the head of our part of the village and almost every one used to come to him for advice and help when necessary. Amongst his particular friends were Dagu Mandal, Sefatullah, Qadir, Kalimuddin, Qamaruddin, Haran, Dukhi Mollah and others. Some of them coming to see my father in the evening used to talk on same good terms as existed between neighbours belonging to the same communities, though this good neighbourliness was visible only in the outer circle of relationship and was non-existent or far less in evidence in the more intimate inner ring of the social structure.
Relations with neighbours
Most of our immediate neighbours were Hindus and our relationship with them were normally very cordial. The male members of the three barber families living in houses to the contiguous west of our house used to come to my father every now and then for advice or friendly chat. They were Kutiswar and Purna who were our own barbers and elder brothers of my playmate senior Ghetu, Mathur, elder brother of my playmate junior Ghetu and Kodai, cousin of Mathur. Their women folk similarly visited the female members of our house and vice-versa except that my mother did not go to their houses. We were also on very good terms with the Sarkar family. Sitanath Sarkar, the head of the family, who was a reputed scribe, was the father of my friend Lalit. There was another prosperous Hindu family headed by Ishan Chandra Das under whom my father held about two bighas of land. He was much older than my father and treated the latter with apparent affection. His son Barada Kanta Das was a senior student of the Khankhanapur M.E. School when I joined that school and later on became the Manager of a Tea Garden. On one occasion he sent me in Calcutta a consignment of excellent tea from his garden. Barada Kanta’s younger brothers, Sashi Bhusan Das and Purna Chandra Das were my friends. Good relations also existed between our family and the families of the Chakies and Ghoshes. The fishermen families living in a small hamlet to the south of our interminably far into the night to the great annoyance of the female members of the family. Very often they partook of the night meal with my father.
Amongst these friends Dagu Mandal and Sefatullah had a great sense of humour. On occasions I still recall with pleasure some of their witty remarks and humorous stories.
The religious and moral plane
The Hindus observed their religious rituals with strict regularity. But the impact of western materialism conveyed through western education, which spread amongst Hindus earlier than the Muslims, made the bulk of educated Hindus lose faith in their religion. The Hindu revivalist movement had begun a struggle against this tendency but had not yet attained any appreciable success so far as the purely religious plane was concerned.
As far as the Muslims are concerned, their boycott of western education for several decades saved them from a similar fate although the boycott proved to be detrimental to their secular interests. Happily when the boycott was gradually lifted, it was through the instrumentality of the Aligar movement, which took adequate precaution against this poisoning effect of western education. This partly safeguarded the educated Muslims from the materialistic influence of English education. But the spirit of the Aligar movement took time to spread and many parts of this vast subcontinent including Bengal had hardly felt the impact of the movement for a time. Moreover, having adopted or accepted the western system of education under stress of circumstances, it was impossible for the Indian Communities to remain unaffected by its inherent spirit and as such we have had on the whole to accept the good that is there in the English education along with what is bad in it.
The religiosity of the Muslim masses, however, had no deep roots except in one important aspect of it, “Tauhid”. They believed in one God who is the Creater, Sustainer and Noursher of the universe, without any partner, as distinguished from the polytheistic or atheistic beliefs prevalent amongst certain other peoples, and felt convinced about the truth and superiority of their Faith. But as far as the other fundamental principles of Islam, they were quite ignorant about them and as a consequence their observance of the religious practices enjoined by Islam was more or less formal without any soul in them. They were thus largely deprived of the real ennobling influence of Islam. They were also split up into innumerable warring sects constantly quarreling over flimsy trivialities having very little to do with the spirit and fundamentals of Islam. In this they were the victims of certain mushroom Pirs, who goaded by necessity in the absence of other avenues of employment, and taking advantage of the general ignorance and credulity of the people, adopted this profession and unscrupulously exploited and misled the ignorant masses. They divided the people into innumerable rival groups and brought discredit to Pirs in general among whom there were and still are many who are genuinely holy men and are true guides for those who seek enlightenment form them.
As already stated there was a two-pronged attack against Muslim culture,¾ the one was the impact of western culture and the other that of Hindu culture. The Hindu influence had been quite considerable particularly amongst certain poverty-stricken sectors of the Muslim Community, many of whom were being gradually drawn towards certain rituals of the Hindus and Hindu culture in general. This onslaught was effectively checked by the missionary efforts of Mowlana Keramat Ali Marhum of Jainpur, in the state of Utter Pradesh, who was a disciple of the great Muslim leader and savant, Syed Ahmed Bulvi of immortal fame. He reawakened the Muslims of the entire subcontinent and organised them to fight the forces inimical to the Muslims, and also the Sikhs at the first instance, who had by then made themselves masters of the predominantly north-western regions of the subcontinent. Mowlana Keramat Ali’s name became familiar to every Muslim family in Bengal. Another great Muslim savant Hajee Shariatullah Marhoom of Faridpur also took up similar work to fight the de-Muslimising tendencies of the age. They largely succeeded in reinfusing the Islamic spirit in the hearts of these Hindu-ised Muslims who gave up the un-Islamic practices they had taken to. As a result of their efforts, a system of social boycott came into vogue and any person transgressing the religious or the moral code, which in Islam are almost identical, used to be under a social ban. This came to be regarded as a debasing punishment and the fear of it became so great that there was very few transgressions of the religious or the moral code. In my childhood, I found this institution of boycott to be a very effective weapon. But gradually it began to wane in influence until it almost disappeared.
In that limited but very important field of morality concerning extramarital relationship between men and women, Muslims stood in a better position than non-Muslim on account of the former’s strict religious injunctions with regard to such misbehaviour and the consequent social customs in conformity with those strict injunctions. On the otherhand, the stories about Hindu god Krishna’s incestuous relationships, which though in all probability were utterly unfounded, unfortunately were believed by the bulk of the Hindu community to be sacred love. Similar stories about gods and goddesses and of otherwise holy personages, and the ban on widow marriage were to my mind the main causes of the laxity noticed in the Hindu society in this regard. Again this laxity was more in evidence amongst certain castes in the lowest rung of that society. Western education, which influenced Hindus much earlier than the Muslims, was more of an aid than a corrective to such laxity. Western education, however, awakened and proved to be an incentive to certain latent creative and moral faculties and as such contributed to the general uplift of the Hindu society while the Muslims were still rotting in their old ruts. In imagination, courage, determination, tenacity of purpose, organising capacity etc. The educated Hindus took a lead and strode far ahead of the Muslims.
The standard of morality was low amongst the general masses irrespective of their religious denomination. The British legal system transplanted to the Indian soil, though an improvement upon the old system in many respects, bore some bitter fruits. It facilitated perjury in the witness box. It encouraged litigation and proved ruinous to thousands of families.
While I was a school boy I came to know of a criminal case amongst certain neighbours. The young wife of Quadir, younger brother of Safatullah, my father’s friend, was enticed away at night. None saw the actual occurrence. Suspicion fell upon Abdur Rashid Khan, a son of Jhapur Khan, and to all appearances he was the real culprit. Quadir instituted a criminal case against Rashid. A number of witnesses deposed to having seen Rashid taking away the girl. I came to know about this as the complainants party often came to take advice from my father. Rashid was convicted and sent to jail for several months. The witnesses who gave false evidence probably acted on the unIslamic principle that the end justifies the means. They were convinced that Rashid was the culprit and as such felt no hesitation in perjuring themselves to get the “culprit” punished.
There was very little public sentiment against bribery, corruption and even forgery. The judiciary, including the magistracy was thoroughly honest and uncorrupted. But the police had the reputation of being grossly corrupt. Cases of forgery were, no doubt, few and far between. But unfortunately it was not generally regarded as disreputable. A Muslim belonging to a respectable family, who lived in a village about five miles to the north of our house had the reputation of being an expert forger. I heard many stories about he superb cleverness he gave proof of in performing such acts. People narrating those stories eulogised his skill and had not a word of disapproval or condemnation of such a heinous crime.
The Test of Time – my life and days
MAULVI TAMIZUDDIN KHAN