Keep the faith & the friends
The 1946 riots brought neighbours together, fostering not only peace of mind and security in troubled hours but forging bonds across communities, recalls Samir Mukerjee
when we entered grandfather’s new house at 6, Lower Circular Road on April 1, 1941, the street was purely residential with a sprinkling of shops opposite Karnani Estate. The bus service along this route was a wispy one. The buses were regular but never spoilt the peace of the locality. An Anglo-Indian family lived almost opposite us. One of the girls, Esme Tennent, was devastatingly attractive and became one of the nurses looking after aunt later on that year when she contracted typhoid.
When the communal riots broke out on August 16, 1946, our area took on a slightly haunted look as if the violence would affect our lives and we had to be prepared for emergencies. There were no Hindus left here once the riots reached their peak, except us.
Grandfather was determined to move out to the Great Eastern Hotel till the madness died down but grandmother was made of sterner stuff. She refused to budge from her own house and preferred to deploy armed guards near our gate. The threats of local Muslims passing by in tongas did not unnerve her in the least. Her will prevailed and we stayed back at No. 6.
This is the time when K.G. Morshed, ICS, our next-door neighbour, came to our rescue. He suggested that his two sons who were also at St. Xavier’s should accompany us in the car taking us to school. The Muslims wouldn’t dare intimidate us with the Morshed brothers acting as protectors. We went to school regularly through the raging riots without ever being harmed.
The Morsheds became lifelong friends and we were in constant touch with each other till we left for England to continue our studies. The Morshed boys, Akhtar and Kaiser, joined us for badminton and volleyball almost everyday and we rounded off the evening by sitting in the garden, under a star-studded sky, drinking Byron’s lemonade and ice-cream soda and imbibing the smells of well-watered flowerbeds.
Another Muslim boy who joined us at this period from the neighbourhood was Abdul Khaleque. His uncle, Maulvi Mohammad Ameen, lived in a red brick house with a character of its own, where we once had kebabs sitting on the roof. Today the same building houses the Central Model School and all traces of Khaleque’s family have been obliterated.
At this time, Hitty Banerjee from my brother’s class added to our numbers. Another recruit to our group was Butu Das, also from St. Xavier’s and capable of remarkable feats on the badminton court. All of us used to assemble in the downstairs office room where we talked our heads off and discussed plans for the future as if we were imbued with tremendous foresight.
The Bilkul Bekaar Society came into existence this way, reflecting our feelings and subdued aspirations. Our regular sittings now acquired a respectable name. This was a time for day-dreaming and building castles in the air. It was Kaiser Morshed whose eloquence made our deliberations that much more exciting.
Ever so often we used to treat each other to home-made delicacies. If the Morshed brothers and Khaleque brought biryani and kebabs, we produced payesh or ice-cream and a variety of Bengali sweets prepared with great care by my grandmother. All of us wore bow-ties and had ourselves photographed in the garden before gorging ourselves on the succulent fare.
How self-sufficient our own world seemed, insulated from the wiles and cacophony of the adult world, where children could be excited by the sound of their own voices and express their feelings with gay abandon.
During the 1946 riots mentioned above, grandfather along with our neighbours became members of a local peace committee. Some of these meetings were held in grandfather’s library where a representative from Bishop’s College and Father Dotaine from St. Xavier’s Hindu Hostel opposite our house were invariably present. We used to hear the names of Khokababu and Lal Mian, influential lower-rung Muslim leaders in our area, bandied about by our elders.
During Muharram, some of the revellers came to our garden with their flaming torches and danced for us. It was such a relief to see them in a mood of entertainment. This gesture on their part removed the fear psychosis which all of us could have been victims of during those turbulent months.
My father’s friend, A.H.M.S. Doha was the deputy commissioner of police (south) and he took the trouble of sending us policemen in mufti at night to guard our house. They allayed our fears to a very large extent and we were very grateful to our Muslim friends for appreciating our dilemma and emerging as models of reassurance.
A Hindu milkman was chased by miscreants in front of our house and while he was climbing over our gate to jump into our compound, he was repeatedly stabbed. This caused some commotion in the area.
There were also the Khaleelis ensconced in their comfortable mansion, Khaleeli Manzil. We got to know them well and the large family had tea and dinner with us a number of times. Mrs Khaleeli was covered from head to foot in the traditional chaadar. To brighten our teas she used to send us a Persian sweet called ranganak, with dates and walnuts, which was simply scrumptious. It had an exotic smoky flavour that I always imagined came from oriental markets in Cairo or Rabat.
Habib Khaleeli became our friend and turned out to be a born entertainer with his quips and exaggerations. I felt drawn to one of the sisters, Tuba, who was quiet and demure and blessed with a velvety voice. Every time I went to visit the Khaleelis right opposite our house, I used to look out for Tuba who often withdrew into her room and left me sorely disappointed.
Sometimes from their drawing room came the sound of Middle-Eastern music, wavering, sensuous, products of a culture where incense left its aroma on tangible objects and in the air. It only heightened my sense of mystery. Much later when we had all taken charge of our lives and had scattered in different parts of the world, Tuba went to Pakistan and married Sahibzada Yaqub Khan who was the foreign minister and a member of the aristocracy.
Khaleeli Manzil still stands, weathered by the Indian wind and rain. Habib Khaleeli lives there alone and is hardly in circulation. When I look at the house now, I think of the gaiety and merriment of a large, united family that I had the privilege of seeing during my impressionable years.