Calcutta has always been independent in its identity and character. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world, and that includes India itself. Therefore, when the Raj ended and Independent India was born, the metropolis maintained its continuum, despite the succession of famine, war, and rioting. These were no mere birth pangs, but the epic of history in play.
Geographically, I’ve always been in awe of Calcutta’s unusual location. That is, on the nether bank of the Hooghly, with (most of) India across the wide river. A situation to instill a sort of go-it-alone approach. Despite that aspect, the city served as a key element in the Independence movement, particularly at its climax.
The day of Independence was of course keenly felt all over the subcontinent, but perhaps more so in Calcutta than anywhere else. Because, as a focal point for the tensions of the moment, Calcutta became a city of destiny, a powerful symbol for the imminent changes ahead.
No need to delve into historical documentation here, except to reflect on a few notions.
In the progression of events, one site of special significance lies out on the Beliaghata Main Road, east of the rail line. A friend of mine happens to butcher chickens on the sidewalk just there – while you wait. But further on, a terracotta-embellished gateway opens onto a short, quiet lane leading to the Hyderi Manzil, an unpretentious but pukka residence, in the classic Tuscan-columned style. It was here, in mid-August, 70 years ago, that Mahatma Gandhi chose to station himself for the actualisation of the independent-minded goal he’d championed for nearly half a century. For him though, the outcome was profoundly flawed. As violent tensions returned to the city, Gandhi announced he would fast unto death. The gesture so affected the warring factions, after three days they saw reason and declared peace, which held. The Mahatma was so moved as to state: ‘Calcutta holds the key to peace in India’.
Peering through the locked gate at the natty forecourt and the institutional frontage of the Manzil, it’s pretty difficult to imagine the momentous (and tumultuous) events that took place right here at that pivotal time. Though I would’ve liked to go in and experience those historical spaces, it is sufficient to remain outside, alone with my thoughts on what things must’ve been like.
One consummately independent figure who was not present to witness Independence was Subhas Chandra Bose – Netaji. My late friend Samaren Roy used to deliver tiffin to him as he spoke at rallies in the old squares, as well as in the Maidan. The mystery of his presumed-dead disappearance in 1945 is ongoing, but we will never know what he might have thought of the consequences of Independence.
All sorts of gestures of independent thinking throughout India burst forth that August night, but one of the first in Calcutta was to remove the signs indicating Clive Street (with all its East India Company associations) and replace them with those identifying Netaji Subhas Road.
Speaking of the Maidan, even though the Ochterlony Monument commemorated a Brit officer who did most of his deeds in Rajasthan, its main purpose was to become a rallying point from which to proclaim movements, goals and aspirations. I would imagine that the living presence surrounding it on 15 August ’47 was of gigantic proportions.
Today, as the Shaheed Minar, it officially commemorates martyrs of the Independence movement, of which there were many. But it’s also an easy-to-find chess piece, which, continuing in the independent-minded Calcuttan mode, isn’t ever going to be played against any king. Figuratively speaking, this city answers to no one but itself. That’s pure Calcuttan practicality in play, via an obvious logic.
Within the revisionist history movement, pretty much every world figure of note has been reassessed, re-judged, and hung out to dry via the luxury of modern purview. Granted, everyone has their human flaws, but I must say, given the circumstances, India was quite fortunate in having the figures it had to enact the epic of the nation’s birth. And from the miracle of Gandhi’s Calcuttan peace came the miracle of Dr. Ambedkar’s enlightened Constitution, thus setting a new standard of democracy, to be appreciated with renewed perspectives, as befitting a nation 70 years-young. And the job is never done.
Be glad of your youth, ancient India! For you possess both the old and the new, to be utilised equally, through gathered wisdom and new energies – for the benefit of all.
That being the case, on this occasion, I can confidently and independently proclaim, in the most peaceful terms possible: Jai Hind!
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!