Kotal Kahini by Biswanath Lahiri

Biswanath Lahiri. Kotaal Kahini. Dey’s Publishing. Calcutta. 1971.

When I was growing up in the early 1970’s, I often heard Madhuri mashi, whose death anniversary is today talk of Kotaal Kahini as though it were a novel. Only last week I accessed the book from our local library, a collection that Mashi had exhausted in her lifetime.

I was surprised to find that the book is not a novel. Far from it, the book is a hardnosed memoir of Biswanath Lahiri, the first Inspector General of Police of the Central Provinces, who retired soon after Independence. Published in 1971 from Dey’s Publishing, the book reads like a veritable work of literature as the author has an amazing way of writing about his work life where the personal opinions and emotions are completely removed to make this book into an empirical survey of a non-participant observer. Through a description of crime as objectively as possible, the author creates a gripping account of the social life of the Central Provinces which emulates the feel of Middle March or the Old Curiosity Shop.

While we know only of the Kakori Train dacoity by the Hindustan Republic Army, it seems that such train robberies were common under the banner of the HRA. The passengers on the train would recount the terror they struck as they extorted money, ornaments and other valuables at gun point while raising slogans in the name of Gandhiji and Netaji Subhas! These robberies used to keep the police the busiest.  Many would evade arrests and slip away into the princely states where the renegades were handsomely rewarded with pensions and land grants. The shelter and the cover offered by the princely states would often leave the police relieved because most of them as Indians never quite liked the job of gunning down the Freedom Fighters. The author writes objectively and yet creates a gripping interest in barely the few paragraphs that he devotes to the killing of Chandrashekhar Azad. He recounts that Azad was a valiant fighter and it took a few batteries of armed men to hem him in. Azad was killed in a forest and his blood smeared on the barks of some trees; the locals tied strings around those trees, lit lamps and incense and started worshipping them as icons of the martyr.

Once the railway police arrested a large company of men and women on their way back from a Congress meeting when they refused to pay the fare for their train ride. The railways handed them over to the police and the author had to arrest them. When the police vans arrived on the spot, local men and women attacked the police and refused to let the Congress workers be arrested. The author set the elderly men and women free and detained the juveniles for a few hours in the police campus. But soon a telegram reached from the Congress headquarters asking the workers to pay up the fares to the railways.

The author speaks of how an Italian prisoner of war escaped the Imperial Army and took shelter in the home of the police head, the author in this case. He also speaks of the many suicides that were reported in his jurisdiction in the aftermath of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He particularly mentions a suicide of a family in the most bizarre way. The family consisted of a married couple and their five children, who went into a depression after the death of Gandhiji and after their infant daughter died of cholera. It seems that they bought new clothes, dressed themselves up ceremoniously, took a boat into an island in the Ganges, made a shiva linga of sand, did their ablutions and distributed prasad among themselves containing lethal poison. Since the man was a practicing Ayurvedist and a merchant of herbal products, he did not find it difficult to procure a large portion of poison.

There are stories of remarkable forensic feats for instance in the tracking down of a serial robber and a killer. There were about six murders across the province those which followed similar patterns. In each case the matriarch of the house would be slain after she was robbed of the entire stock of ornaments arranged as dowry for a daughter’s marriage. Each of the families reported that a man had arrived to help around the house as a servant and since during weddings one always needs hands to do the extra work, he was readily employed. He would then plan the robbery carefully and after the act, disappear completely but always left behind his pair of shoes. He would also stab the woman and wipe his blood drenched hands on the outer walls of the house. He was arrested, tried, and hanged for murder and six of his aides were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. This was a typical city crime but thefts that often turned violent seemed to be a matter of villages. The city and the suburbs were often the site of gang wars; Lucknow seems to be the Bombay of its times in its versions of dreaded gangsters.

For the common person engaged in the business of everyday life, the police were looked upon with respect if not reverence, accessed as assurance of help and not as a fearful incumbent of an office. The acceptance of the police was widespread and universal irrespective of whether they were freedom fighters or rioters, city people or rural folks. This is even though the fires of freedom were raging through the province, the police were not construed as colonial handmaids.

Interestingly, the number of Muslims in organized employment in the city seemed to be much larger than those of the Hindus. They served as orderlies with the police and military, as cooks and waiters in the posh colonial clubs, were numerous in the police both as officers and as part of the force and were very well represented, if not overrepresented in the medical and legal professions. Despite this, there was no animosity between the Hindus and the Muslims of this professional class. Communal disharmony prevailed among the lower classes and erupted predictably over festivals that required the use of the public space. Hindus would blare bhajans in front of mosques and Muslims would climb atop their homes and look down with rageful eyes. The Muslims took to the streets pelting stones on a Hindu ramnavami procession because they were playing the same music as in Muharram; Muharram music is for grieving and yet Hindus were celebrating with it and even dancing with abandon.

I must put in a personal experience here when one of my mamas innocently hired a tasa party for the bisarjan of Ma Durga in my mother’s ancestral village. Both Hindus and Muslims were furious at a funeral band seeing off Durga to her husband’s home! The Muharram and the bisarjan have remained contentious since a long time.

Riots do not figure in the annals of the author who by now is already promoted as the DIG. The war, its supplies, and management of crowds at railway stations when Gandhiji would pass by and the control of tempers of the demonstrators of the Quit India Movement seems to be greater harassments. The communal riots are confined to Deoband where Muslim clerics seem to object to everything that Hindus would do as celebrations of festivals on the public roads. Hindus attacked mostly in defense, provoked in defiance but also raided Muslim settlements where they insisted on putting up installations for Janmaashtami. But interestingly, there does not seem to be much interest in Jinnah’s call for Direct Action as much as there was to Gandhi’s call for Quit India Movement.  Among the middle class, old aristocracy and princely states, the spirit of Freedom flowered and there was absolutely no evidence of communal intolerance. Communal frenzy seemed to be a lower class and rural affair here among people with surplus energy and deficient gainful employment.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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