The Glorious Dead may as well have been forgotten. Nobody can miss the Cenotaph opposite the All India Radio building and adjacent to the Netaji statue. Across the road, in an island has been erected of late a shoddier monument to policemen. This column in the Maidan unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VIII, is simple, dignified and massive, and has often been compared with a Lutyens design. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall in London. Made of blocks of stone, it resembles dun-coloured exposed brick. It has no ornamentation apart from the two wreaths on either side. Two bronze soldiers with lowered heads stand guard at its approach. They are painted black.
Calcutta Police is in charge of this monument built with public subscription. Saplings have sprouted on top of the monument. Cream groove lines are painted across the wreaths as on the rest of the shaft. It is one of the three monuments erected in three different locations of the city in the first half of the last century in the memory of the thousands of Indians who were killed in the Great War which erupted on July 28.
Bengalis were not among the “martial races” favoured by the British when they recruited sepoys for the battle. Yet, at one time, many middle-class Bengali boys used to be named Palton. Some of them may have been born long after World War I was over, but memories of the Bengal Regiment formed at that time lingered, and even more vivid were the photographs of Kabi Nazrul Islam looking gallant and smart in full military uniform. The “warrior poet” never saw action, but like many young men of his time with romantic notions about war, Nazrul joined the regiment attracted by the posters exhorting youths to join the army.
He was in Class X at the time, and was sent for training for three months to Nowshera in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Nazrul was in the regiment for three years when he started writing both verse and prose and some of his popular songs and ghazals, which were among his first works to be published. He also started taking lessons in Persian and Urdu from a Punjabi maulvi, who was his senior in the regiment. After this perfervid literary, if not martial activity, Nazrul returned home.
Nazrul, the bidrohi or Rebel, may have been spared the horrors of the war, but hordes of other Indians had laid down their lives in the battlefields. It is estimated that between 1.4 million and 1.7 million Indians, including non-combatants, had joined the army between 1914 and 1918. Of these, about 50,000 Indians had lost their lives in the various theatres of war in Egypt, Palestine and Egypt.
The Great War made a lasting impact on Indian literature, but the only Bengali who left a detailed and vivid first-hand account of the war was Sisir Kumar Sarbadhikari in his self-published, almost forgotten Abhi Le Baghdad (1958) or On to Baghdad. Writing in his blog on Sarbadhikari’s diary, novelist Amitav Ghosh commented: “Sisir Sarbadhikari’s Abhi Le Baghdad is in my view, one of the most remarkable war memoirs of the 20th century.” Ghosh translated large chunks of the diary which drive home the horrors and anguish in extremis of the war when hundreds of unidentified mangled bodies of both friends and foes lie strewn across the battlefield.
The second similar book was Kalyan Pradeep: Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukhopdhaya, I.M.S.-er Jiboni (1928) by the protagonist’s grandmother, Mokkhoda Debi. Sarbadhikari had crossed paths with Captain Mukherjee, and the latter does put in an appearance in the former’s diary.
The British used to look down upon the congenitally craven Bengalis. But the Bengalee War Memorial in College Square tells a different story. This inconspicuous monument — like the Bengali, I daresay — is located in front of the entrance opposite Mahabodhi Society and the Baptist Mission students’ hall.
College Square is a favourite haunt of all alleged hunger-strikers and other demonstrators of all political affiliations. So the insignificant-looking column is barely visible. When I visited College Square last week, the memorial was surrounded by fasting primary school teachers. On two earlier occasions, the column was barely visible, smothered as it was either by posters or by drying clothes. This time, the marble shaft and pedestal were clearly visible.
Inscribed on it were the words: “In memory of members of The 45th Bengalee Regiment who died in the Great War, 1914-1919, To the Glory of God, King and Country.” To serve as a reminder, 1,300,000 Indian troops had fought side by side with the British army in World War I in appalling conditions in countries as far-flung as France and Flanders, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Indian soldiers were not allowed to rise as commissioned officers, but £115 million was paid from the Indian exchequer.
The names of the 49 Bengalis who died in action during the battle that exposed the vulnerability of the British are inscribed on the pedestal. The names, ranks (sepoy, subedar, lance naik), regiment number, date of death and districts from which they came are also listed here.
The districts are Midnapore, Mymensingh, Murshidabad, Nadia, Calcutta, Jessore, Burdwan, Pabna, Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Faridpore, Pabna, 24-Parganas and Tripura (Tipperah). Many of these soldiers were Muslims. It is known that there was an uprising among Muslim soldiers who refused to battle with Islamic countries, but, of course, it was suppressed.
The third memorial to the subalterns is visible from the Fort William side of the Maidan and from Vidyasagar Setu. It is difficult to find one’s way to the Lascar War Memorial on Napier Road tucked away inside Hastings, adjacent to Navy House. The term ‘lascar’ means sailor or militiaman from the Indian subcontinent employed on European ships since the first European sailed to India, and is derived from the Persian lashkar, meaning military camp or army. It was absorbed into Bengali and is still in currency.
This memorial was constructed after the Great War as a tribute to the 896 lascars, seamen of eastern India sailing on merchant ships, who were killed as their ships became the target of enemy warships. A monument was erected by shipping and mercantile companies in their memory and was unveiled by the then governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, on February 6, 1924.
Close to Prinsep Ghat, the four-sided tower with a gilt dome and four small minarets on top resembles the victory tower in Chittor. The prow of an ancient vessel projects from each of its sides. Undulating lines beneath these symbolize waves. With chhajjas and trellises, it has a distinctly Indian look. The monument and the garden it is located in are well looked after. Years ago, when Commodore B.K. Mohanti assumed command of the naval establishment, the monument was in ruins. Prinsep Ghat was being restored at the time, and this inspired Mohanti to refurbish the memorial. The illumination was switched on 70 years after its unveiling. Late evening, it is pitch dark here. The Lascar War Memorial shines like a beacon then. But if one visits the site after 9.30 pm, it is plunged into darkness.