As the light grew dimmer, the young man walked about in his cell. His walk was not one of unease, but rather one that stemmed from the customary silence that haunted his existence here. To his mind which had grown accustomed to the dreary quiet, the noise of his own footsteps was a welcome song. He glanced around in his cabin, not that he could find something worth wasting his gaze on, and thought, how much longer he would have to think.
For how long still would he have to ponder the deep recesses of this baffled mind of his, without an answer. No answer, only silence, disturbed perpetually by the seemingly futile noise of the footsteps, the footsteps and gaze of his conscience, searching for an answer, a ray of light. But the light was getting dimmer, leaving only darkness to settle over the deepest corners of his heart and mind- yes, the ‘cell’; his mind, where he could wander undisturbed by the pandemonium outside, but also where he was all alone, with no help coming.
Ranendra had already been sitting at his desk for 3 hours, with his head down, when he realized that the maachh-bhat (fish-rice, the staple food of Bengal) platter that Neelu had brought him had gone cold. His forehead and shirt were soaked in perspiration, despite the slow blowing breeze of spring, entering through the window, caressing his head gently. But this wasn’t new. He had passed the greater part of this week similarly, trying to get a solution to the intense dilemma that was tearing him into pieces from inside.
‘Ranendra’, a Sanskrit word, means as fierce as Indra (the Hindu king of Gods) in battle. But here he was, unable even to take sides in the war raging inside his head.
The day before’s event had especially wrecked him. All his education, his high ideals seemed futile in justifying what his eyes had shown him, when a man from his team chopped off the right hand of a young fellow of 25 or so. No, the man with the saw wasn’t totally insensitive. He had given an option to the boy- right hand or left hand? It was the boy, who wouldn’t bow down. No, he’d take it in the right one itself.
Ranendra had later learnt from his wife, Neelu that the district hospital could do nothing to fix the severed limb.
There had been other instances as well, sometimes less grotesque and sometimes when Ranendra had been fortunate enough not to be present at the scene. Ranendra had seen his people rampage through the platforms of the local railway station on many a shady night, with big steel torches, and also other steel objects in hands that need not be spoken of. There they waited for the trains, looked for the selected people. Sometimes, rarely, they got hold of a prime target, an important person. Sometimes they were chased away, even captured sometimes by the CRPF (paramilitary) or police personnel. But mostly, it was the common man, whose mistake was supporting the United front government in the state. The common man, whose story was then, never heard of again.
There were other times when Ranendra hadn’t seen things, but heard. Gossip is something which is often unaffected by the grimness of the prevailing situation and makes way through alleys, corners, nooks, doorways. He had heard of Debendranath Basu’s wedding last winter. An old colleague of his, Debendranath had married a girl from the neighbouring Mandir paada part of the town. In his mind, Ranendra had blessed the couple. And hence, it was slightly disturbing to him to learn that members of his group had visited them on the day of the ceremony, bringing to halt the iconic melody of the shehnai track, so characteristic of Bengali weddings. The armed men threatened them with death, if they refused to pay Rs. 500 for the cause of the war. Yes, ‘People’s war’, that’s what Ranendra and his
group called their movement. Debendranath was from a well-off family. How much wealth he finally had to lose though, was unknown to Ranendra, but definitely that amount wouldn’t have been easy on anyone in those days of March 1970. But it was still better, considering that many such newly wed couples lost much more than just money.
These were the things which were squeezing Ranendra’s heart to such an extent that it seemed it was no longer able to pump all those 5 litres of blood across the vast network of vessels. Much like the vast network of threads of right and wrong which hold us in this world. His hands shook at the thought that he had finally been selected to be part of a battalion. His people, the peasants, the labourers, but many others who belonged to well off families, studied in the university, who had taken up arms, to fight against oppression. And tomorrow was the day, when he too would fight with them, as one. Before this, he had only served as a kind of an apprentice. Oh, how he had fantasized of this day.
But today he was weak. Well of course their cause was right. There was no doubt there. But he felt broken to think of what he’d do if he encountered one of the masses. The leader’s orders were clear. They were supposed to attack the house of the MLA (the local legislator), while causing maximum damage to the deployed forces…and to the kin of the leader, any other people that might come in the way of the mission. Ranendra’s conscience somehow banged the insides of his cerebral arteries, questioning these mass killings.
But that night when he went to bed, Ranendra had made up his mind. He had turned the pages of the various books he had read and beamed at many times before. All those volumes of ‘Mao’s road to power’, ‘The Revolutions of 1848’ by Karl Marx. He also revisited his copy of ‘On Guerrilla Warfare’ by Mao, to reignite the fire of rebellion inside his troubled heart. The red poster on his old greasy wall with the hammer and the sickle, gleamed in the mellow moonlight, it was beckoning him. The government, which was nothing but a battered remnant of the imperial regime had to be removed. The people’s own indigenous front had to be put in power. No, the ghastly evils of this capitalist regime must be undone. And for that, such small steps do count, and small sacrifices of life and property don’t. The great Mao had shown it. Even Charu Majumdar had shown it. No, the Maoists are not at fault.
Ranendra didn’t sleep properly that night. But excitement was not the cause.
The events of the next day weren’t very clear. Everything was like a dream, a nightmare rather, so living, yet so unreal. The spring was in full bloom, with the gentle breeze bringing in a wildly pleasant mixture of odours- tulsi, champa, rajnigandha. Spring apparently has always been this enchanting in India. But there is something about the weather of Bengal, you can smell the mud, the river, the sea, the music in the air, it binds you and doesn’t let you go.
But all these were incapable of hiding the deafening cracks of guns, the scorching heat of grenades, and the bloody screams. The bazaar (market) road in front of the MLA’s house was not its usual self. Most people were within their homes with bolted doors, perhaps peeping through drawn curtains. And some other people were on the roads, lying senseless, lifeless. There were people running all around, CRPF personnel with their guns, some with Kalashnikovs, and other people in plain clothes and turbans, with pistols, grenades, swords, knives.
Someone had betrayed Ranendra’s group, and tipped off the forces. The men fought valiantly, but the government forces were well-prepared. The Maoist fighters just couldn’t retaliate. The group commander had thus asked the men to cause maximum damage to life. Kill all, people on the streets,
people in the corners, everyone. Afterall, these were subjects of the government and were at fault in electing it.
An hour into the struggle, Ranendra found himself confronting two people. Three to be accurate, only that, one was dying-the father. Ranendra was facing the daughter and the wife, both shrieking with grief, trying to hold back whatever life was left in the old man’s body. Dozens of carcasses lay all around, bleeding men, headless torsos. What difference would three more make? But, in taking 3 lives, would he be losing his own ‘life’…
Ranendra so wanted the two to run away, flee somewhere far off. Why weren’t they leaving, even at the sight of his weapon! No, they wouldn’t move an inch. Ranendra had the commander’s words clear in his mind, “spare no one”. And he didn’t have much time, the security forces would be catching up any moment. He had to run away to the rest of his battalion. But his feet seemed fixed at the spot. Despite all the morale boosting of the previous night, he had failed to take even a single life.
Suddenly, Ranendra had the sensation of an excruciating pain, and then he knew no more.
The trial and sentencing did not take long. All these things were too materialistic in comparison to the spiritual quality of what had happened. Ranendra had got to know that the CRPF jawans (literally ‘youth’, but a word used respectfully for the soldiers in India) had rescued the mother and the daughter.
As the light grew dimmer, Ranendra walked about in his cell. His walk was not one of unease, but rather one that stemmed from the customary silence that haunted his existence here. To his mind which had grown accustomed to the dreary quiet, the noise of his own footsteps was a welcome song. This was a real cell, one among the many at Presidency Jail, Calcutta.
But now the dimming of the light did not bother him. His mind was no longer covered in darkness. The war had been won, the war in his mind. He had lost everything he possessed lately, but had gained the biggest gain in life, he had found an answer to the dilemma in his heart. He had finally become ‘Ranendra’.