|What happens when human beings are inconsiderate?
Did you see yourself what Jhuma did this morning — what about it?
The mustard fields were on one side, the sugarcane on the other. The mud on the road has dried up. The wheels of the tractor, which had passed this way, have left deep marks on the ground. Sugarcane leaves were strewn all around. Loads of sugarcane were being taken to the sugar mills. Couldn’t one inhale the aroma of mustard in the air? One could indeed! A little pungent, the smell of the mustard flowers floated in the breeze.
A satchel was slung on one shoulder, on the other slept the girl still on milk. The child had vomited on her father’s shoulder itself. The curdled milk was drying up under the winter sun on Abhiram’s shirt. The wife carried a plastic basket. Seven-year old Haru followed singing a song.
Abhiram caught Banani to prevent her from falling as she stumbled on the uneven tracks. He put out his hand from behind and held her fast. Banani covered her head again and Abhiram could discern from her voice that her eyes were brimming with tears.
You will never see your sister’s fault — I know! The sleeping child tilted her head to the other side. Abhiram put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and said, “You shouldn’t be so upset. I know my sister is to be blamed. I saw with my own eyes. What could I tell a young girl?”
They had left the embankment and came down to the road. Motilal had parked his van-rickshaw some distance away from the mouth of the path. Looking intently at a bidi he said, “Go, go, take a stroll. I’ll wait here.”
The radio played behind the wall surrounding the big memorial plaque. Bicycles belonging to the girls and boys leaned on one side of the wall. The group of picnickers have spread a coverlet on the other side, and taken out plastic tumblers and paper plates to eat dry food — then they would cook. English song. One could make out the words. The music rose and spread with the winter breeze.
Ten-fifteen groups of revellers were scattered here and there. One could spot them from the embankment. However, everybody didn’t have a radio. All came from nearby places. Deep pink sweaters. Dark green shawls gave them away. They built stoves with bricks, washed utensils; the boys were fetching firewood. Abhiram and his family never went to such picnics. One required a large group. And a large group meant a thousand botheration.
It was to escape all these that he had built his house on his father-in-law’s land. It was lying useless. Banani’s father was also hurrying him up. Still, as they were coming out of the house this morning, Mother said, “This is what happens when you build your house on your father-in-law’s property. You will forever be at your wife’s disposal.” It was however, Jhuma’s fault. The wife was looking fervently for the red and zari-bordered yellow sari. When her search proved futile, she shook Jhuma awake and asked, “Hey, have you kept it?”
Resenting the way she was awakened at that unearthly hour in the cold winter morning, Jhuma sat up and cried aloud for some time, and then pulled out the clothes from the trunk and threw them one by one on the floor. Mother was making tea in the kitchen, and came in running, and began to vehemently scold the wife. The house is complete now and Mother doesn’t care about the wife anymore.
It was settled earlier that Mother would keep the kid, but after the quarrel, Banani yanked her daughter out of bed without a word — the child could just manage to stand, but how could she with sleep in her eyes? After some pushing and pulling, putting on the clothes, kohl and bindi on the forehead, we were all out of the house. What is all this — you will freeze in the cold — Mother came out, her voice resounding through the whole neighbourhood — “can’t you digest your rice without picking a quarrel with me?” The child too, began to wail with her fist in her mouth. Abhiram didn’t feel like coming out like that, but what was the use?
There was another alternative — to go on a picnic with Mother, Father, Jhuma and everyone else. Banani didn’t like it that way. But this isn’t too bad either, said Abhiram. The winter sun on his back was indeed soothing. The chill of early dawn has softened somewhat as the day wore on. The sky appeared bluenow, the trees fresh and green; one or two stray leaves floated in the breeze. Abhiram left the embankment and came down on the road with his family. His wife’s bag contained sweets, oranges, and luchi-tarkari bought from the roadside hotel. Abhiram carried his daughter’s quilts, feeding bottle and mug.
The son was named Hariram by his father. Was such a name befitting? Abhiram’s wife had changed it to Rajiv. Haru was shouting from the embankment, “Where is the field, Baba, the field?”
Amazing! Where was the field? Farming was carried out in the various lowered patches of land on both sides of the embankment. A path ran between two fields. The soil rose and sunk at places. Abhiram was surprised. There wasn’t another such wide meadow as the one in the south of Murshidabad. It was said so in the book. There were a number of palaash trees ; those were felled a long time ago. But there was an orchard of one lakh mango trees which was why a portion of the field was called ‘Lakhbaag’– have the mango trees disappeared too! Four miles from north to south, and two miles from east to west — so huge was the battlefield! The cultivated fields lay like a patch-worked coverlet under the mellow sun. Alighting from the van-rickshaw the wife exclaimed, “Nonsense, how can a battle be fought here? Horses, soldiers,… how would they move?”
Abhiram, the teacher of Nayanbehari High School had come to see the battlefield of Plassey with his family. Abhiram teaches Geography in six and seven and takes drill classes in primary school. When she heard of the journey, Mother said, “Do you teach History? Of what use would it be to you?”
Amusing. It meant that if one taught Geography he was not supposed to see the Bidhan Sabha — because that was Civics! One who taught Hygiene would not know Alaska on the map. Abhiram knew, that to argue at home meant to invite trouble; as it is, he was taking only his own ones along! It was better to keep mute.
Abhiram stayed at his maternal uncle’s home at Burdwan to attend school and college. His in-laws lived in Shiuri. His father-in-law quarrelled with his kinsfolk and came to Jiagunj. Little did he know then that his future son-in-law was laying in wait for him. At one time, Murshidabad was the capital of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa — Calcutta was not born then — but say that to my mother once.
Mother had travelled the entire city, the whole of Lalbaag, even Kathgolabagan on a phaeton. She was not the one to go ecstatic on beholding the sun setting behind ruins and overgrown weeds.
It was in the field of Plassey that the fate of Bengal or rather the whole of India changed drastically. This held no significance to his people. They saw fate as unalterable from birth.
The playful Bhagirathi flowed west of the field. In the south was the village of Plassey. A large pargana named Plassey lies between Murshidabad and Nadia. Plassey village and the field fall within this pargana. The wide road of the Sultanate which ran from Murshidabad to Krishnanagar along the east of the Bhagirathi, passed through the huge field of Plassey. Here one found the rows of palaash trees. Where are they today?
A wide road indeed! While the luchis and tarkari were stuffed into paper packets and clay pots at the roadside, Abhiram had glanced over his daughter’s shaven head, off which the silk scarf had slipped, towards the road. The road that broke off from the highway and went towards Plassey, was somewhat weak, scraped off its upper layer. The van-rickshaw teetered as it tried to overtake a waiting tractor loaded with sugarcane. Banani was grumbling as she came out of the hotel with her son, “No one bothers to arrange Tiffin when one has to leave home early; only complaints and complaints!”
Abhiram felt sorry for his wife. Really, what do they all do the whole day in the house? Mother, Jhuma, Banani. Chopping vegetables, boiling lentils, grating coconut, feeding the cow, folding clothes, watching films or serials on TV in the evenings if there was electricity. But just you try to come out of that treadmill and Mother’s and Jhuma’s faces would be glum. Father was a forthright man; he didn’t understand the arts of domesticity, nor did he endeavour to.
On 23rd June, 1757, 5th Sawal of 1170, a Thursday by the Hijra calendar, a great battle was fought between Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah and the English here, in this field.
As the sari slipped half-way off her head, Banani looked at her husband. “I say, you know, there was no battle at all. It is all made up. Your Nawab and Clive came alone and conversed here in secret and went back.”
Did the battlefield appear like a place of compromise? Abhiram fell in a quandary. In the yellow winter’s day, among the bees and butterflies, it was difficult to think of blood, wounds, bullets, gunpowder, and cries of men.
Clive and Watson arrived from Madras on hearing of the Nawab’s attack on the English in Calcutta. The Nawab lost and surrendered himself. 9th February 1757. The Nawab declared that no English would be persecuted, and that they would be granted compensation. In return, the English would carry on trade like merchants and not disrupt the peace of the Nawab’s territory.
Though the Nawab kept his word, Clive didn’t abide by the conditions of the treaty. The result was Clive’s attack on and annexation of Chandannagar. After being rebuffed by Nandkumar, Durlabhram left for Plassey.
A huge field, the road lined with palaash trees, a great battle,— yet the whole affair seemed cloaked in secrecy. The conspiracy hatched by Jagatseth, Mir Jafar, Rai Durlabh; Mir Jafar’s appeal for the Nawab’s throne. Clive has given him assurance and is proceeding to the battle. Yet he writes, “I am going to meet the Nawab.”
Mir Jafar also has concealed his intentions from the Nawab. He too was proceeding to Plassey, not to fight, but to reinstate his claim on the throne. After sending Mir Jafar to Plassey, the Nawab first went to Mankara, then Daadpur, and then set up tent at Plassey twelve hours before the arrival of the English.
“It was raining that day.” Abhiram said, his nose raised in the air. The sky is clear today; the yellow of the sun has entered its blood, so the breeze felt lukewarm.
Banani raised her tear-dried eyes to ask.
The child too lifted her head from her father’s shoulder as if to speak. She just had a sound sleep. She yawned with her tiny mouth wide open. Abhiram forgot to snap his fingers, and gazed mesmerized at the pink round of her thin lips. Traces of two small teeth were discernible on the lower ridge. At first they could be felt by the touch of a finger, now they were visible like the tips of little white pebbles. It was indeed late for annaprashan. The parents have considerable hopes for the first-born, and the pocket bears its brunt. His son had a hasty annaprashan when all of five months in case the teething spoilt the sanctity of the rice-eating ceremony, and Abhiram had taken loan without his wife’s knowledge. But he was casual about his daughter. He hadn’t yet recovered from the expenses of the house, and now the invitations, Satyanarayan’s shinni — the very thought suffocated him!
“When did it rain?”
“On the day of the battle. The battle of Plassey. The Nawab’s ammunitions were soaked through. And that did it.…”
They had turned right and were walking along the path. They didn’t know about this way before. They would have gone back after seeing the plaque which stood at the end of the embankment. It had been repaired a few years back. The picnickers had settled down behind it, which was why it was difficult to even stand there. But a little below, where there was a farmer’s cottage, the girl in a maxi, lifted her fodder-smeared finger even as she fed the cow, “Take that road and go down below… you will find Mirmadan’s memorial in the middle of the field.…”
Haru wanted to pluck the little green tomatoes hanging from the bushes. Banani discouraged him. The householder castigates sometimes. It is humiliating. There were dense shadows at the foot of the sugarcane. Bees hummed though it was midday. Their wings made a faint buzzing sound. At a distance was a huge patch of water — shimmering in the sunlight. What a big pond — look, look! As Banani turned, Abhiram wondered, “Hey, is that the pond adjacent to the mango-orchard? Could it manage to survive through the years, eluding the hawkish eyes of promoters and politicians? It is almost 250 years old!”
Certain objects, men or memories live on like this. Or appear to have survived, remained without encumbrance.
The mango-orchard of Plassey in which the English sought refuge, was 1600 hands from north to south, and 600 hands in breadth. The branches of the lined mango and other trees had hidden the English. The Bhagirathi flowed nearby. The orchard was surrounded by a broad canal and beyond it was a little embankment.
Rai Durlabh put up tent in the northern side of the orchard. In the northeast, was a small peninsula formed by the horse-hoof bend of the Bhagirathi. The river was comparatively narrow in this part. The army assembled here with the arrival of the Nawab. Before the moat, near the tent, bastions were built and cannons positioned in them. 600 hands east of the bastions was a hillock, and a small and then a large pond, some distance away. On the morning of 23rd June, the Nawab’s army emerged from the tent and marched towards the orchard and gradually spread all over the field.
At the head were the French shooter Sinfray and his men who carried out their assault for three hours. Clive began to count his stars. From his hunter’s platform he had watched the sea of Siraj-ud-daulah’s men. Clive’s heart trembled. He began to devise ways of withdrawing his own army to attack later in the dark. And then it began to rain.
“Baba, we have arrived… O, Baba, look we have come” Haru shouted. He ran and sat down in a corner of the enclosed space.
“Hey, don’t sit in the dust, get up” Banani followed, carrying her basket, her sari slipping from her head. At the rear was Abiram, his daughter in his arms.
Mirmadan waited with his army behind Sinfray and his men. Behind him was Madanlal. South of them, from the woody hills of the south-east up to Plassey village, were the armies of Durlabhram, Yar Latif and Mir Jafar. The three traitors had the greatest number of men under them, and didn’t care to move even a muscle of their feet during battle.
The sudden rain drenched the Nawab’s ammunition. The English had however, covered theirs up. As the English were returning to the orchard, Mirmadan pursued them. He had gone some distance, when a cannon-ball fatally injured him. The Nawab’s army panicked. But Mohanlal led them on….
“Here fell Bakshi Mirmadan, Bahadur Ali Khan, Nawey Singh Hazari….” The ink shaping the words was peeling off the stone. Dry bamboo leaves, straw, chewed up sugarcane, dust from the mustard fields were accumulated around the memorial. On the right, the water sparkled in the sun… a crooked neem-tree offered shade to the plaque. A babla-tree… a cuckoo called from some secret hollow… the noon sky seemed to heave a little.
“What happened here? This is a grave, isn’t it?”
Banani appeared eager to spread the newspapers on the wall to take out the luchis, tarkari and sweets. We were all hungry.
“No, no, not there, not now”.
Though snatches of English and Hindi songs blaring from the speakers, floated from all corners of the field, how could Abhiram the Geography teacher, the lover of history, eat luchi and sweets with his family on this sacred soil where fell Mirmadan, Bahadur Ali Khan, Nawey Singh Hazari….
After Mirmadan’s death, the current of events were brief. The agonized, frightened Nawab, placed his turban at Mir Jafar’s feet and prayed for mercy. Mohanlal was ordered to retreat at Mir Jafar’s advice. At first Mohanlal refused. But the same orders came in repeatedly. As soon as Mohanlal retired, the English fell on the scattered forces of the Nawab. Sinfray fought to the last. His small army of men continued to shoot at the English from the bastions and the hillock, in a final attempt to save the day.
There was hardly any struggle at Plassey beside the ones put up by Mirmadan, Mohanlal and Sinfray. Only preparations for battle, idle waiting or turning tail; the exchange of glances between conspiracy and cowardice….
It is said that the last mango tree had dried up in the year 1879. It was uprooted and sent to England. A cannon ball from the English side had ripped through it. The Bhagirathi has moved from the west to the east. The peninsula at the heart of the river has turned into a grazing ground. The peasants would find bullets and shards while tilling the soil… new villages and settlements have come up in the last 150 years in the once open field… Tejnagar, Nutangram, Kadamkhali….
On the following night of the battle, the Nawab left for Murshidabad on his camel. After a terrible death in the hands of Muhammadi Beg, his mutilated and quartered body was paraded on an elephant’s back around Murshidabad… that was a long time ago!
The English brought back Luftunnisah, Siraj’s wife, from Dacca.
She looked after the graves of Nawab Alivardi and Siraj at a monthly pay of 305 rupees. The lonely woman would light lamps, cover the graves with black cloth embroidered with silver and gold flowers, and worship them….
Banani’s face turned sombre. Perhaps she was now beginning to believe that a battle had actually taken place.
What a pity! By the way, can’t they keep the place clean? Heaps of leaves, grass, dirt, dust— one feels bad even to step on them! Now that we are free… doesn’t anyone feel anything!
“Heaven knows”, Abhiram said, “maybe we feel ashamed. We didn’t win. And to honour fallen heroes.…”
Abhiram saw the wide battlefield lying beneath his feet, all around, from the van-rickshaw to his house… into his house; Mother was fighting, Banani, Jhuma. That inconsequential fight… even more petty was its reasons, its memories all the more short-lived.
Even the child with dimples on her cheek, this little girl will learn to struggle for survival….
Murshidabad, the centre of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, fell and was plundered. Calcutta came into being. The future of the entire country changed overnight. In the battlefield are strewn the leaves of sugarcane— the impressions made by tractor’s tyres. Even the men of a free nation do not light lamps on the soil where the true warriors fell. They do not sweep with brooms, nor do they remove the dry leaves….
No one remembers, no one remembers anything. Place, history, and time… they themselves get entangled in the web of antiquity, and remain silent covered with dust.
Abhiram will remember. His mother’s anger, his sister’s ill-humour, his wife’s tears, and keep them hidden in his breast like the mango tree struck by the cannon-ball!
Translated from Bengali by Naina Dey.
ANITA AGNIHOTRI. Member of the Indian Administrative Service. Is a prolific young fictionist and poet. Some of her works have been translated into English. She started writing in early childhood. This process was further strengthened by her writing for Sandesh, a children’s monthly magazine edited by Satyajit Ray and Lila Mazumdar. Originally a poet, she started writing prose as well as poetry from early 1980’s. She has four volumes of poetry, five collections of short stories, two novels, five books for children and one collection of essays to her credit.
NAINA DEY. Teaches English at Maharaja Manindra Chandra College, Kolkata. Her publications include several translations as well as her own short stories in English.