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Hanged Bengali icon's great-niece bags MBE

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 14.06.08

London, June 14: The descendant of a young Bengali revolutionary hanged by the British in Alipore Central Jail nearly eight decades ago received recognition today from the queen in her Birthday Honours’ List.

Tanika Gupta, 44, a playwright, has been given an MBE — Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — “for services to drama”, the citation said.

“I did struggle with the decision whether or not to accept because of the word, ‘empire,’” Tanika admitted to The Telegraph. “I think it should be changed.”

Dinesh Chandra Gupta, the youngest brother of Tanika’s paternal grandfather, Dr Pritish Gupta, was only 19 when he went to the gallows at Alipore Central Jail on July 7, 1931, for the assassination of Colonel N.S. Simpson, the inspector-general of prisons, inside the Writers’ Building in Calcutta.

In fact, Tanika’s first play, Voices in the Wind, written for radio in the early 1990s, was about her great-uncle’s sacrifice.

She said it was his example which “inspired me to become a playwright”.

What persuaded Tanika to accept the MBE was encouragement from her mother, Gairika Gupta, who with her late husband, Tapan, set up the Tagoreans, a society aimed at spreading the best of Bengali culture, after the couple arrived in London from Calcutta in 1961.

“My mum said, ‘Dinesh would be happy,’” explained Tanika. “She is going to cook ilish maach to celebrate.”

She added her father, who passed away in 1991 — her parents had dragged her to meetings of the Tagoreans, giving her a love of the arts — “would have been thrilled”.

“They were into Bengali literature and Rabindranath Tagore,” recalled Tanika. “They met and fell in love at Santiniketan. The artistic side of things was just bred into me — I didn’t even notice it.”

Tanika, who was born in Chiswick, west London, in 1963, read modern history at Oxford — her current commission is to write a historical play about non-white people in Victorian England for the Royal Shakespeare Company — and eventually became a playwright.

Dinesh Chandra Gupta

One of her plays, The Waiting Room, was performed at the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank in May, 2000, and included Shabana Azmi in the cast.

After today’s MBE, Tanika joked: “I am now a member of the Establishment. It should be good for an upgrade (on flights) and a booking at the Ivy.”

The Ivy is a London restaurant frequented by the who’s who of show business, collectively referred to as the “luvvies” (because of their proclivity for air kissing and calling each other, “Darling”.)

While some will find it ironic that the British have bestowed the great-niece of an Indian they hanged with an MBE, more mature minds will recognise this is evidence of the revolution that has taken place in society. Not only do the young British carry little baggage from the empire but Indians, too, have become more confident and are at ease dealing with their former colonial masters on equal terms.

Tanika and her husband, David Archer, an Englishman whom she met at university, have “teen kanya” — Nandini, 17, who is a keen painter, Niharika, 15, and Malini, eight.

And what would Dinesh Chandra Gupta make of Tanika Gupta, MBE?

“He’d be rolling in the Ganges,” quipped his great-niece, adapting the expression, “turning in his grave”.

Dinesh was born on December 6, 1911, in the village of Josholong in Munshiganj district, now in Bangladesh. While he was studying in Dhaka College, Dinesh joined the Bengal Volunteers, a group set up by Subhas Chandra Bose in 1928 at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress.

Soon the Bengal Volunteers transformed itself to a more active revolutionary association and planned to liquidate British officers known to have tortured Indian prisoners.

High on the hit list, said Tanika, was a man called “Tegart, who was the chief commissioner of police”.

On December 8, 1930, Dinesh, accompanied by two associates, Benoy Basu and Badal Gupta, slipped into the Writers’ Building dressed in European clothes.

But the man they shot was Colonel Simpson.

“It was the wrong man — he was a reformer,” said Tanika. “It was a botched job.”

Cornered by British police, the three determined not to be taken alive.

Badal swallowed potassium cyanide, while Benoy and Dinesh shot themselves with their own revolvers. Benoy was taken to the hospital and died five days later.

Dinesh, however, survived, was put on trial and sentenced to death for anti-government activities and murder. Following independence, Dalhousie Square in Calcutta was eventually renamed BBD Bagh after the Benoy-Badal-Dinesh trio.

While awaiting execution, Dinesh wrote a number of letters from his prison cell on the heroism of the revolutionaries and his belief in the greatness of self-sacrifice.

Tanika confirmed: “In prison he wrote all these beautifully eloquent letters to his family, which I was given and used as the basis of Voices on the Wind. My family is very proud of him.”