Authors: Howard Fast
Mrs. Chatterjee, a small, dark-eyed, pretty woman, returned to the living room after she had taken the children to another part of the house. Aside from Chatterjee, a grayhaired wisp of a man with an eager yet unassuming manner, gold-rimmed glasses, and a gentle smile of greeting, there were two other people present: one was Sergeant Harold Legerman, and the other a thin, tall man with a lined, serious face, an Indian dressed in dhoti and sandals, as was Professor Chatterjee. Bruce knew of the Indian habit of dining very late in the evening and he had been told that they felt Westerners disapproved of their style of eating in part with their fingers, and thereby invited only close friends to dinner. Since it was now only six o'clock in the evening, Bruce knew that they would leave before dinner, and he looked to Legerman to make the appropriate decisions, whether to go and when to go.
Mrs. Chatterjee brought bottled water, glasses, and a tray of small fried cakes. Then she seated herself a bit apart from the four men. Legerman introduced Bruce to the professor and to the other man, whose name was Ashoka Majumdar. Majumdar shook hands heartily, smiling, an action that drove the gloom from his face and made it utterly enticing. It was Bruce's first time in an Indian home, and he found it both strange and familiar. Aside from a few pieces of polished teak, it might have been a room in a small apartment in New York. There was a pleasant drugget on the floor, and on the wall two reproductions of Indian paintings, which reminded Bruce of pictures he had seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at home. Yet for all this, the room possessed a quality of nakedness, bareness, indeed, poverty.
Noticing Bruce's appraisal of the room, Professor Chatterjee said, “You may be thinking of the contrast between our place and the palace, where the correspondents are quartered. But ours is a land of contrasts, Mr. Bacon, the poorest people in the world cheek by jowl with the richest. That is India under the Raj.”
“And before the Raj?” Bruce asked.
“Not too different, and when the time of the Raj is over, it will take many years to change it.”
“And that time â is it near?”
Majumdar answered, “Oh, near, dear sir. Very near.”
Bruce was sensitive to language, sensitive to sound and accent, and the strange musical accent of Indian speech and its unembarrassed formality charmed him. He was trying to place these people in the complex Indian social scheme, but it was not easy.
“It is almost expectoration day,” Majumdar answered, and Mrs. Chatterjee made a small sound of protest.
“A term my wife does not approve of,” Professor Chatterjee said, “but nevertheless a very colorful expression. You see, Mr. Bacon, for years we have been telling our people that if they would only learn to spit once together, there would be a wave of water that would wash the British into the sea.”
“And now they have learned?” Bruce asked.
“We think so. Yes, we think so. Very close. The time of the British Raj is over. But let us talk about you.” Mrs. Chatterjee poured a glass of water, interrupting her husband apologetically to assure Bruce that the water was safe. “We boil it at least five minutes.” She pressed one of the fried cakes on him, smiling tentatively. Her smile said that she would never have interrupted her husband under other circumstances. But he was a Westerner.
“I mean,” Professor Chatterjee said, “that it is a shame that you had to be here so close to the terrible famine we have been through. Oh, Calcutta is not the most attractive place in the world, even without a famine, but there are qualities of life here â”
“I know,” Bruce agreed. “Even under these conditions, I find it one of the most extraordinary cities I have ever seen.”
“And horrible?” Majumdar wondered.
“I've lived with the horrible for so long that it no longer horrifies me.”
“But different, different,” Chatterjee said.
Majumdar watched him thoughtfully. He'll not be inappropriate, Bruce thought, and Majumdar said slowly, “In Europe you have been killing each other. Not you, of course, Mr. Bacon, but it has been the greatest killing since the beginning of time, over forty million I am told?”
Bruce nodded. “That's the latest estimate. Of course we don't have very good figures out of Russia. They have lost better than twenty million.”
“And here Mother India weeps over her own dead, as she has always wept, and who will remember?”
“That's something we're trying to break through,” Legerman put in, more comfortable with practical talk.
“Yes, in a moment. But tell me, Mr. Bacon, should we call you âCaptain'? You wear the uniform.”
“No, I'm not army. All the correspondents wear the uniform. They brevet us captain, but I write for the
New York Tribune
and for myself. Not for the army.”
The Indians appeared to be relieved. Mrs. Chatterjee smiled and offered her small cakes again. Bruce's was still untouched. Hal Legerman took a second one and said to Chatterjee, “They got Mr. Bacon here on a merry-go-round and he's been chasing his tail for days. He's seen the rice stores that the dealers put away, but he can't make a British connection, and the word's out, and nobody will talk to him or give him the time of the day.”
“Of course, you can say that the British could impound the rice and give it out,” Chatterjee said, smiling slightly. “And if you put that to them, they will say that the rice is not theirs to impound.”
“And most of it came here only two weeks ago,” Majumdar added.
“There was enough here six months ago,” Legerman said. “Enough to break the famine. Punjee's warehouses were full of rice packs.”
“My need is to find out whether it's a conspiracy, and if it is, to get some proof.”
“It is, it is, no doubt,” Majumdar said. “We know that, because the crop was good in so many places, and back when the Japanese had some push left and everyone thought they would overrun the plantations in the hills, the British decided they would break the people. You know, they were beginning to organize resistance in the hills, and with the Japanese to support them, well â”
“I can hardly think of the Japanese as liberators,” Bruce said.
“Point of view,” Legerman said.
“Ah, well,” said Chatterjee, “you know, the British are very clever. A thing like this is done with whispered words, and the Muslims here are bitter against us. They would listen to the British. Ah, yes, certainly. But the British are very careful. The president of the university has excellent rapport with them, and they don't like student demonstrations. He begged the British to seize the rice. But this war â any and all horrors are met with sighs of what must be done. It is the war, you know. You will get no proof, Mr. Bacon, nothing like a document summing up the intentions of the British.”
“And why couldn't you organize to seize the rice â I mean with all this death?”
They were smiling at him, and Bruce felt like a fool. Majumdar said, kindly, “You are a sensitive man, but this is India. There is a British army here, as there has been for over two hundred years, and there are two million American troops. We are not a free land. As to why we need two million American soldiers here â perhaps the British are afraid. I mean of the Japanese. I understand that it is very difficult for you to think of the Japanese as liberators, but a man in a cage does not question the morality of the man who opens the door.”
Bruce nodded. Here was a world of upside-down, or was it the world he had come from that stood on its head? He could argue about the Japanese â indeed, he could argue about everything they had said â but they would be arguments without faith or real belief in whatever position he took. Somewhere, long, long ago, there was a world where people were not preoccupied with the business of killing each other, where his father practiced medicine. In that hazy other-reality, they lived in a huge old apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, where they had family dinners together, and where people laughed and joked and embraced. But he was here, and the realities of that other place, if they were realities, were quite meaningless here.
Mrs. Chatterjee, who had been sitting quietly, now wondered why Bruce had not tasted his cake. “They are quite good, you know. Almost like besan barfi.”
“Yes, I'll try it,” Bruce said, “thank you,” wondering what besan barfi were. Some marvelous treat that they had been saving for a guest like himself. Of course. The trouble was that, in the face of the famine, he was eating very little. Food mixed itself with guilt, which made no sense, as he admitted to himself, but still his appetite had shrunk away almost to nothing. He blamed it on the wet, oppressive heat; he was without hunger, but now he bit into the small confection, sweet, delicious.
The conversation had paused, and they were watching him. “Chickpeas and sugar and spices,” Mrs. Chatterjee explained. What would have been impolite and embarrassing at home was quite different here. Bruce had been watching Professor Chatterjee. Bruce was yet to encounter air conditioning anywhere in this sweltering city, but overhead fans pervaded the place. There was one here, turning slowly, and at times it would drive an insect down on Chatterjee's dhoti, not a mosquito but a smaller bug, and when that occurred, Chatterjee would gently lift the bug and drop it to the floor.
Bruce forced himself to take another minimal bite of the confection.
Chatterjee was not insensitive. “I know how hard our sad city is for you, Mr. Bacon. When I was a young man, I made a trip to America with a grant I had won from a foundation set up by your Mr. Rockefeller. It was not much money, but it paid for my passage and for two weeks in America, so I have memories of that wonderful place where there is no famine ever. It put some reality into my dream of democracy and freedom.” He paused suddenly and closed his eyes. Seconds ticked past, and then suddenly, without preamble, “Three months ago, this famine was at its height. My wife and I were sitting at that small table, there by the window, having our dinner, a bowl of rice and a pickled cucumber, and outside our window there was a family of eight people. We could see them in the moonlight and we heard their moans. They looked like the pictures in our press of the Jews you liberated from the German concentration camps. In the morning, three were dead. A British truck came and took away the three dead bodies. Those living clung to the truck and with their last bit of strength ran after it and then they fell in the roadway. The British stopped the truck and the soldiers came back to the bodies that lay in the roadway. Three of them were young children. They were alive, and the British soldiers lifted them out of the roadway and laid them on the grass. At least they would not be run over by the traffic in the roadway. The other two were either dead or close to it, out of the effort of running after the truck. The British put their bodies in the truck. The point I am making, Mr. Bacon, is that we did not do what you certainly would have done.”
After a long moment of silence, Bruce asked, “And what is that, Professor Chatterjee?”
“Would you have given your dinner to those starving people?”
Bruce was tempted to say “Yes, of course,” but swallowed the words. The people in the room were silent. Finally, Bruce said, “I have never been hungry â I mean, not hungry the way starving people are hungry.”
“You are very honest. No, we did not give them our food. We had barely enough. If we had given them ten times as much, it would not have saved their lives. We ate our food. We must survive. Only if we survive will there be people who can force the British out and heal our poor broken land.”
Silence again. Bruce felt it was incumbent upon him to say something, and he observed that their hatred for the British must be beyond measure. “I was at this British Officers' Club at the parade grounds. A correspondent for the
invited me to join him for dinner there, and they have these steam baths and we took them before dinner. Then there were these attendants with towels â bearers, they call them. Well, we dried ourselves, but the British officers were being dried by these bearers, and they were drying their â¦ well” â glancing uneasily at Mrs. Chatterjee â “their parts, and the officers appeared completely unaware of it, as if these were not men, not human â”
“Yet we don't hate them,” Professor Chatterjee said.
“Ah, you see, you must understand the British,” Majumdar said. “When I was working in Old Delhi two years ago, I would conduct an evening class in simple, beginning literacy. I must have had fifty or sixty students, bearers, tonga drivers, laborers, water carriers, rickshaw drivers. It was the most primitive thing, hardly better than
, but there was such hope, such will, and all we had for a classroom was a small, flickering streetlight, a lamppost, where we all squatted together on the pavement. So I wrote a letter to the High Commissioner, who was a few miles away in New Delhi, and I explained that my students could barely see the scraps of paper on which they wrote their letters. Do you know what the British did?”
“I hope they provided a classroom.”
“Ah, no. You must understand what they did, because it will explain why we do not hate them, but they must go. They had a larger light bulb put into the streetlamp. You see, they were responsive â but to people they regarded as only a little better than animals. Like the bearers in the steam bath. They are so polite and sometimes considerate insofar as they understand. But the one thing they do not understand is that we are human beings, as human as they are.”
Standing in front of Professor Chatterjee's little cottage later that evening, waiting for the jeep to pick them up, Legerman asked Bruce how he had enjoyed the evening.
“Enjoy is not the word.”
“Damn interesting. But I don't have the story.”