[ The Friday Times (Lahore) July 6-12, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 21 ; Globeistan]
As Kolkata was being scalded by a particularly oppressive and damp south Bengal summer, in the middle of the erstwhile Anglo district of the city, a tragedy was unfolding. In the once-greatest city between Aden and Singapore, the Calcutta Race Course maidan, with its turf Club and Derby, had been the ‘pride’ of a certain kind of people of the Orient. On 6th June, on that very ground, Abhishek Pal, a Bengali youth of 22, was running a race to get a police job in spite of his martially-challenged, rice-eating race. He lost consciousness and died shortly thereafter. Such is the trial by fire one needs to overcome to be able to serve Bharatmata. Such is the poverty of Bharatmata’s sons that there will be thousands of Abhisheks running that race again, whatever the heat, whatever the cost. The lay and the non-martial often feel inadequate as they are given an impression that the hearts of the Indian Union’s ‘finest men’ beat in step with its national anthem. The goddess of fate had a curious way to capture the ‘finest’ and ‘darkest’ aspects of the Indian Union’s 65-year old nation-state-hood in that desperate dash that Abhishek Pal made. As his heartbeat became faint, I suspect it also started getting out of tune with the Indian Union’s national anthem. And then it stopped beating altogether.
This was not the first time, nor will it the last time – such is the pull of service, especially in a nation where such a job is one of the few ways to escape the endemic poverty and the cycle of daily humiliation that the impoverished know as life as usual. Abhishek was running to join the police service in Bengal, a force developed by the British along the lines of the Irish constabulary to keep a restive population in check by any means necessary. Like police anywhere, some of its members form that rare set of men who actually take money from sex workers after raping them. In the post-partition era, these means of keeping in check have acquired a vicious edge, as many older people recall with a sense of tragic wistfulness that the British generally aimed below the knees when they shot. Abhishek possibly saw the police in its many avatars as he was growing up. As I sat thinking, a sequence from a Western flick seen two decades ago flashed in my mind. Boss kicks his underling, underling shows rank by slapping his aide, aide comes out and punches a guard, and guard finds a commoner to thrash, who finally takes it out on a dog. Everyone wants to rise up in the chain to bear a lesser number of kicks and slaps, even at the cost of death. The lines to join the police and army grow. So do the number of people who gave the ‘supreme sacrifice’ even before being recruited – 2 youths in Chandauli, UP in July 2009, 2 more youths in Khasa, East Punjab in December 2008. A twisted director could have made a surreal slow-motion shot of the stampede moments that would have surpassed Chariots of Fire. You cannot beat the ending. Fervour, tragedy, action, emotions. There will be more such races and recruitments. We cannot change neighbours, or masters. At recruitments events, those with non-religious tattoos are also rejected. Tattoos represent ties, ties that bind man to man, to thoughts, to life. Hence they are sure signs of a subterranean unknown, a second life. Those without such explicit marks are better – they are tabula rasa, ready to be imprinted with the state, ably represented by the commanding officer.
Qaumparast or not, joining the armed forces forms a far less viable option in the mindscape of the middle-class Bengalee young man. In my whole family, and we are a large family (my grandfather had 6 brothers and 3 sisters), there was not a single person who was in the army. Nor did I know anyone who was in the army among my friends’ families. My overt knowledge of anything that was both ‘Indian’ and ‘Army’ was the Indian National Army of 1940s vintage, which, though headed by a Bengalee, unsurprisingly, had few Bengalee combatants. Once, when I was less than 10 years old, I had asked (I don’t know where the thought had come from) – Ma, Should I join the army? Ma answered in a concerned tone – Are you crazy? I had pushed on – Ma, somebody has to join the army? If not me, who then? Let other people’s sons join, not mine. Thus spake my rice-eating non-martial mother whose martial skills were limited to whacking me with a comb or a rolled newspaper. What can I say – I just had the wrong kind of upbringing. Looking around me, in school and college in West Bengal, I realized that rather than being the exception, I was a very typical specimen. At that point, I did not think that Bengalees, Tamils and many other people of the Subcontintent have very low army sign-up rates. Not knowing this growing up in Calcutta, a few visits to Delhi made me understand what a rice-eating non-martial chicken I was. There, every now and then I would meet someone whose father was in the army, or whose elder brother had returned home from ‘posting’, or someone who was preparing hard to crack the National Defence Academy / Naval Academy exams. This was another social reality, another society actually, with a different set of ‘normal’ expectations – the world of sarfarosh, a lot of talk of ‘dushman’ and ‘tujhe pata nahi mai kaun hu’. Here, being in the army was a part of public culture and imagination. When they said ‘our men in uniform’, the ‘our’ had a different truth-value to it and rightly so. I was in Hindustan or Al-Hind, far away from rice-eating lands. It is in Hindustan ‘over here’ and the Al-Hind ‘over there’ that Fauji and Alpha Bravo Charlie were runaway hits, while we in the Deccan and Bengal ate rice and dreamt other dreams in blissful oblivion. There were testosterone laced recruitment ads on television asking “Do you have it in you?” Another said – Join the Indian army – be a winner for life. I wondered who the losers were. The mirror never lies.
There is a running joke about the Indian Railways. The Railways often declares something to the effect that we should take care of the rail as it is our ‘national property’. One person who took this seriously removed a fan from one railway compartment and left a note ‘I have taken my share of the ‘national property’. When it comes to the Army, Bengalees, Tamils and some others seem to be largely disinterested in their share. Are they genetically non-martial? May be C R Datta, Surya Sen, Bagha Jatin and Bagha Siddiqui could answer that. But I have met none of them. Two of them have been killed long ago.
Who killed Bagha Jatin? Who captured Surya Sen? Which army? Who was it loyal to? Who did it serve by killing Bagha Jatin? Did anything substantially change in that army on that fateful August day in 1947? What did not change was the sense of regimental accomplishment in having been awarded Victoria crosses, barrah khana traditions, fake ‘Sandhurst’isms, subsidized liquor, that peculiar brown-skinned sense of pride of having served the House Saxe-Coburg Gotha and the House of Windsor in Iraq, Egypt, France, Belgium, Burma, Thailand and most poignantly, in the Subcontinent, including Jallianwala Bagh. If some Union of India citizen were to do the same today by making a career out of serving the House of Windsor militarily and then go on to claim loyalty to Bharatmata the next day, what would one say? The crucial difference however lies in the formal idea of loyalty to a state – often confused with the country. Nationalism apart, there is another thing Bengalees call “deshoprem” or love of one’s own land. The definition of land is mostly left to the person. Which is why there can be deshoprem for a 30 square mile area around one’s home. I don’t know if there is a Hindustani word for it – qaumparast does not quite do it, which I reckon is nearer to nationalism. I am sure they too have a word or expression for it – for they too like everyone else came to know their own land before they came to heed their nation-state which tells them what their land ought to be and how much does it extend. Ideologies that reverse this sequence are sociopathic.
Most Bengalees are not into shoes – especially those that cover the whole foot. They are not into shirts either – having given up being topless quite late. I was sent to a ‘proper’ Bengali middle-class Inglish school. Here, while the text was in English, the subtext was unrepentantly and unabashedly Bengali. I never quite liked wearing the black shoes that we were mandated to wear. That was the case with some of my other friends. So in class, especially in the middle and back benches, some of us would get out of our shoes and sit cross legged, in what we call babu style. In giving in to what was second nature, we managed to partially keep the shoe out of us. However, many in the subcontinent take shoes seriously. A friend of mine, a batchmate at the Medical College, Kolkata, recounted this to me. He hailed from one of the laterite-red districts of Bengal, I had visited his very modest home. There I had met his father, an upright man who had briefly worked as a shoeshine to educate his children. My friend went on to join the Indian Army. Years later, he told me of a strange encounter. As one of the ‘finest of men’ in the ‘officer grade’, no less, he was entitled to assisted shoeshine services. This means there was another human being, employed by the Indian Army, among whose job description was to clean and tidy up the shoes of officers and higher-ups. Paying for this, is perhaps, the minimum the citizens of the Union of India can do, to show thankful they were. This particular friend of mine, a rather conscientious fellow who dabbled in left wing student activism in his student days, felt a pang of unease every time his pale shoe was made to glow. No order to stand at ease would cure that. However nothing would surpass the strange feeling he had when his father came visiting where he was stationed. The army shoeshine came forward to shine his shoe in presence of his father. His father had come to see how much his son had risen. ‘As I endured the shoeshine ritual in front of my father, I felt I was falling in my father’s eyes, every passing moment.’ He left his job after the stipulated years of commission, discharged honourably. He did not have ‘it’ in him, I guess, to gather greater honours. Unless one has ‘it’, it is hard to be loyal till death to a white man sitting continents away, then be loyal till death to the constitution of sickly brown people the next day and still be taken seriously. But it was and still is all very serious.
The subcontinent is a land of many gods. There are as many holy cows as there are gods. Looking at the holy officer grade Jersey-Shahiwals, I wondered why are the jawan-grade desi cows so sickly? After all, they give the milk, plough the land, pull carts and what not. In archaic commie-speak, in a class-divided society, one can imagine a conversation quite similar to the one I had with my mother. Ma – Shall I become a jawan or a lance-naik? No beta. You will become an officer. Who will then become a jawan then? Other people’s sons of course, otherwise how will my grandson be able to attend a foreign university? All cows are holy but some are holier than others. Nothing joins Pakistan and the Indian Union more than this shared two-tier holiness. Very few like Laxminarayan Ramdas and Asghar Khan have developed mad-cow disease. Thankfully, this virus can cross the Radcliffe. After all, it is not natural to have a sense of visceral belonging to the snowy tracts of Siachen, and a concern that it might be taken away or held on to indefinitely, while we really are steaming like potatoes in Karachi and Kolkata in summer. Our napaak-ness keeps it real.