A little before midnight the radio plays Bande Mataram. The announcer reminds listeners that this patriotic song, written by Bankim Chandra and sung by Tagore at the 1896 session of the Indian Congress, was immediately banned by the British. But everyone learned it; freedom fighters chose it as their special anthem. Jamini remembers Nabakumar humming it as he went about his chores. He must have sung it on the Salt March, perhaps even as he was being struck down. Now finally it is on the radio. People wipe their tears—even Jamini who is not sentimental. She joins in the rousing chorus. The words reverberate through the mansion and flow into the street where the crowd, too, is singing. Bande Mataram, Bande Mataram, Salutations to the Motherland. They stop only when the announcer asks for silence to honour the martyrs who died to bring them this precious gift.
Nehru’s voice comes on, deep and grainy, filled with optimism and the gravity of the moment. Jamini’s English is not as good as Priya’s, but she understands enough for a shiver to go through her.
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge … when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance…. To the people of India we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell
A translator repeats the speech in Bengali; cheers break out from the street below. The announcer adds that Gandhi has chosen to not be in Delhi, celebrating, but in Calcutta with the people of Bengal, fasting and praying for a non-violent transfer of power, may his hope come true. More cheering, firecrackers bursting, food and drinks served. Gandhi’s favourite song by Tagore, Ekla cholo re, comes on the radio. Jamini hums it as she goes downstairs to make sure that the two guards have opened the gate and are distributing shingaras and jilipis to the crowd outside. Yes, all is going as planned. She starts up the stairs, hungry for another glimpse of Amit even if he is upset with her.
But there is a commotion. In the hazy light of the torches set outside, she sees jostling. A group of passing revellers has had an altercation with the villagers at the gate. Their lungis and skullcaps reveal them to be Muslims. Voices and fists are raised, people are shoved, someone shouts why don’t you go to your own country. Suddenly a full-fledged fight is going on, people pushed into the compound and thrown to the ground, fists smashing into faces. Jamini shouts to the gatekeepers to close the gates, but the press of the crowd is too strong. She shouts for the other guards, but they do not hear her; they are on the roof setting off fireworks. She hurries upstairs to alert the Chowdhurys, cursing her leg for slowing her down.
Gandhi with Bengal prime minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in Calcutta, during his 73-hour fast for a smooth transfer of powerWikimedia Commons
Then she hears a terrible, booming sound. It takes her a moment to decipher. A gunshot. Amit is on the edge of the balcony, pistol in hand. As Jamini stares, he fires again. He aims well above their heads, but it is enough to shock the crowd into stopping. He shouts at the troublemakers to go home before he is forced to hurt someone. The guards on the roof rush down and help the darwans push the gates shut. The crowd disperses, grumbling, but the festive mood is ruined. The guests stare down in distaste at the entrance—trampled flowers, ground littered with food, an overturned cauldron of tea.
‘Stupid, illiterate villagers!’ Bela’s father, Mahendra, grumbles. ‘Can’t stop their bickering even for an occasion like this.’
A young man says, ‘It is not the fault of Somnath Babu’s tenants. They were listening peacefully until those Muslim hooligans came and started the fight.’
‘Why are they even here?’ someone says. ‘Hasn’t Jinnah snatched two big chunks of our motherland for people like them? Why don’t they leave for Pakistan?’
‘Maybe we should persuade them to go,’ another guest adds. Several people nod enthusiastically.
Amit frowns. ‘Educated men like you should not be saying these things. Didn’t you just hear the prime minister calling for togetherness? Didn’t he entreat us not to be communal in our thinking?’
The men mutter among themselves, they do not seem convinced. Jamini tries to defuse the situation; she calls for more sweets, more tea; but even Bhim Nag cannot restore the jubilant mood. People begin to leave.
Later Somnath says, ‘What an unfortunate end to the evening.’
Manorama clicks her tongue angrily. ‘All the effort we made to plan, all the food we bought. Ruined.’ Jamini knows what she is thinking: expenses we can ill afford. ‘I do not understand what all this fighting is about. Haven’t Hindus and Muslims been living side-by-side in Ranipur for generations? It is the fault of the politicians—they have them riled up.’
‘Hopefully it will die down soon,’ Somnath says. He looks at Amit for confirmation, but Amit is staring out over the dark fields.
Speakers and fans disconnected, carpets rolled up, the floor mopped, the driveway swept clean of waste, the radio repacked in its box because Amit says it should be returned to the store. Jamini oversees everything, chiding the servants superbly. She hopes Manorama is taking note, but Manorama has retired, yawning and inadequately appreciative. Never mind. Jamini, too, leaves, calling out a loud goodnight. Her bedroom is charming, even though it is the smallest, the least ornate. Its windows open onto a banana grove. The leaves whisper in the dark August wind, a secret, an invitation.
Jamini leaves the door unlocked. She sits on her mahogany bed—yes, it is hers tonight—and runs her hands over carvings in the shape of lotuses. She does not change out of her silk sari. She unbraids her hair and lets it fall down her back. Bina calls it her best feature. She will tell Amit the truth about how Priya left the bangle behind, why she did not want to take it with her. When one lacks better choices, it is prudent to stick with what really happened.
Jamini waits. The grandfather clock strikes two, three, four. At some point she falls asleep with her head against the bedpost, waking in the morning with a crumpled sari, a stiff neck and mortification at her stupidity. She leaves without saying goodbye to anyone.
This excerpt, along with images, from Independence by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is republished with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India. Get the book here.