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Authors: Howard Fast

The Pledge

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The Pledge

Howard Fast

Contents

CALCUTTA

NEW YORK CITY: Uptown

NEW YORK CITY: Downtown

THE SUBPOENA

A WALL STREET LAWYER

THE STAR CHAMBER

AS SUCH THINGS GO

A CURIOUS COURTROOM

ENTER HERE

MILL BOG

GOING HOME

“THE NIGHT THAT COVERS ME”

A Biography of Howard Fast

Copyright Page

CALCUTTA

   

T
HE MANY TURNS
, twists, and circumstances that led Bruce Bacon down the curious path his life took probably threaded back through all his years on earth. No one is constructed instantly — in terms of mind and outlook — any more than one is changed instantly. The making and the changing are part of a process. But there is no question that in Bacon's case, the process climaxed in Calcutta in 1945. Bacon had been in Europe since the Normandy landing, writing for the
New York Tribune
, with the understanding that he could do magazine pieces for other publications, namely,
The New.Yorker
and
The Saturday Evening Post.
His newspaper pieces were personalized and intimate, very much like the stuff that Ernie Pyle had been writing, and he had made a good name for himself, considering that he had just turned thirty.

By the time Berlin fell to the Allied armies, Bruce Bacon felt that he had seen enough of war and a war-shattered Europe. He had heard vaguely, from an officer who had been transferred from India to France, that the British, fearing a Japanese penetration of Assam and India, where they might be welcomed as liberators, had cornered the rice supply and contrived a famine, which broke the will of the people in Assam and in part of Bengal. The rumor held that hundreds of thousands had already died of starvation, and that thousands more were now in the process of dying. Bruce decided that it was an interesting and important story, something very different from the war stories he had been sending home, and well worth investigating.

Bruce returned to Paris with orders for Air Transport, and a few days later, after a stopover at New Delhi, a lumbering C-37 put him down outside Calcutta. He was quartered in a one-time rajah's palace that had been assigned to the press corps, where a tiny room, the size of a jail cell, became his home. There was a small, hard bed, on which he spent an uneasy night under mosquito netting, half choking in the heat.

Ignoring the advice of his colleagues, the old hands in Calcutta, he ventured out on his own. It didn't surprise him that they were uninterested in the source of the famine. It was everywhere around them; they hated it; they hated Calcutta, where there was no war; and nobody ever made a name as a war correspondent without a war. They hated the heat, the filth, the poverty, the stench, the gentle and so often abject people, whom they called “wogs” without discrimination, and they found solace drinking with their British counterparts and rewriting the dull handouts of the local army press office.

Bruce had the advantage of being new to it, and he was utterly entranced as well as horrified by the huge, throbbing, aching mass of humanity that was Calcutta. He walked miles through the streets; he rode the crowded streetcars for hours. He was enchanted by the big, ancient Buick touring cars that were the local taxicabs, each driven by two large, turbaned, bearded Sikhs, the clanging streetcars that were everywhere, the pools of water where the Bengalis washed and washed, endlessly observing their rite of cleanliness in very dirty water, the cows that wandered everywhere, worshipped and untouched by starving people, the thousands of peasant families living on the street, the focal point of their homes tiny charcoal fires, the dead mingled with the living. He saw the sleeping streets, set aside for the homeless to sleep on the pavement, and he saw them by night, when the broad streets were carpeted by living human beings, and he also saw them in the early hours of the morning, when the human skeletons that were alive had departed, leaving, scattered on the street, the human skeletons that had died during the night.

Bruce Bacon was a healthy, large-boned man, six feet in height, well dressed, well fed. The people he saw were short, skinny, many of them in rags, yet he never found anger or hostile words directed against him. Himself a product of middle-class America, he had not suffered in the Depression, the time of his childhood years. His father was a New York physician. His growing-up had been managed and sheltered, as an only child, by two loving and intelligent people, and until he saw the aftermath of an air raid on London, he had never actually seen a dead person. Like millions of other American young men, he was fed innocent into a world of death and horror, and in the course of three years of witnessing and writing about the largest mass slaughter in the history of the human race, he had come to the conclusion that nothing man did to man could shock him. Calcutta shocked him.

At the same time, it fascinated him. Essentially — like most men — he was a gentle person, fighting always for the macho that men were supposed to have and which women were blessedly exempt from. The things he saw in Calcutta ripped away the thin veneer of indifference that war had forced onto him, and he made the story he had come to write a sort of obsession. But no matter how many people he spoke to, no one could make the British connection for him. There was rice, millions of pounds of it, airplane hangars filled with bags of rice, warehouses of rice; but this, he was told, was the doing of the rich Muslim rice dealers, functioning within the doctrine that profits were not sinful, and that he who owned goods had the inalienable right to raise the price of those goods. But when he questioned why the British, who ruled the land, did not break the price, the answer was always that this was neither their right nor their function.

Then a U.S. Army sergeant, one Hal Legerman, found Bruce in the correspondents' palace, hunched over his typewriter in the smoking room, and said to him, “My name is Legerman, and if you'll stand for a dry martini, I'll put you on the track.”

Looking at his watch, Bruce remarked that it was only four o'clock in the afternoon.

“I haven't had a martini in six months, so what the hell is the difference? I'm not allowed into this holy place; I bulled my way, and the Limeys don't know what a martini is anyway and they don't have vermouth, so just ask for straight gin.”

“How come,” Bruce asked suspiciously, “if you're that fond of gin, you waited six months?”

“I been up in the hills with the Tenth Air Force.”

“And just what track are you going to put me on?”

“Jesus God, Bacon — you are Bacon, aren't you? At least that's what the guy at the bar said.”

“I'm Bacon.”

“OK. So you're trying to put the famine and the Limeys together, right?”

“How do you know that?”

“How do I know it? Shit, man, everyone in Calcutta knows it by now. I don't mean the people. I mean the assholes who run the place.”

“Let's have that dry martini without vermouth,” Bruce said.

It turned out that Hal Legerman had spent more than two years in the China-Burma-India Theater, otherwise known as the CBI. He was a supply sergeant, with tours of duty that included Burma and over the Hump into China, and there was not much in Bengal that he didn't know about. He was a conduit and a magnet for news, and when news came to him, he passed it on to the proper destination, as he saw it. He had friends at the local
Yank
office and at the two major Bengali newspapers, and he knew people in Karachi and Delhi and Bombay as well as in Calcutta. At home in New York, he had been a flack in a small public relations firm, but war does strange things to people, and now, sipping at his second gin on ice in the palace bar, he said to Bruce, “You're looking for a connection between this famine and the Limeys, something you can print, but even if you get it, nobody back home is going to print it.”

“Why?”

“They'll tell you the war. That's the reason for everything, right? They knew the Jews were being murdered by the millions and they didn't do one damn thing. They wouldn't even bomb the camps. The war. More important targets.”

“I saw the camps,” Bruce said.

“All right. You're no fucken innocent. Do you know how many people have died already in this stinking famine?”

“Thousands.”

“Millions. They do a body count that's as secret as a general's brain, and the latest figure is over five million. It'll be six million before it's over.”

Bruce stared at him in disbelief. “You're kidding.”

“Hell, no! I'm telling you the truth.”

“That matches Hitler — damn near.”

“You bet it does. And I'll tell you something, Bacon; you can hang in here for the next six months and you won't get anyone to verify that figure. Try to get your handle on any of this. Last week there was an argument between our local command and the Limeys that was pretty damn wild, considering that we're supposed to be allies. You've seen the sleeping streets?”

“I saw them. You can't be in Calcutta and not see them.”

“Well, the Limeys were picking up over a thousand bodies each morning — just the urban crop — and they didn't have the trucks to handle it. So they demanded that we organize burial detail and use our trucks to help them out. Our CO told them to fuck off and pick up their own dead, not their troops, you understand, but the peasants who had poured into town when their food ran out, and it got ugly as hell.”

“What happened?”

“It went up to the High Command and in the end we used our trucks — shit, Bacon, it's diseased, totally diseased. A human life around here is not worth two cents.”

“You were going to put me on the track,” Bruce said. “All you gave me so far are dead ends and closed doors.”

“I'm not cadging a lousy shot of gin,” Legerman said with annoyance. “I figured you for a good guy.”

“Why? You don't know me from Adam.”

“I don't know. You wear glasses. You look good. How the hell do I know? Maybe because you're on this story. Nobody else is.”

“And putting me on the track?”

“OK. There's a Professor Chandra Chatterjee, teaches at the university here. I'll arrange for you to spend an evening with him. It should be profitable.”

“He speaks English?”

“Come on, Bacon. This is India. Practically every educated Bengali talks English, most of them better than I do.”

Professor Chatterjee's house, as Bruce saw it two days later, was a small stucco cottage, part of a cluster of such cottages near the university. It was pleasantly shaded by a large live oak and located at the opposite side of Calcutta, thus demanding a long twisting ride through an endless maze of streets and avenues. Fortunately, Bruce had the use of one of the three jeeps and a chauffeur, one of several that the army had assigned to the correspondents. When he reached the professor's house, he was introduced to two small children, nine and eleven, both boys, and to Professor Chatterjee's wife.

BOOK: The Pledge
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