by Sharbari Ahmed
Drink if you like. You should have as good a time here as is commensurate with your duties. Do, however, keep your Indian liquor separated from its two quarrelsome partners, woman and song.
— The Calcutta Key, 1945: Helpful Hints for American Military Personnel In India
In 1942, as India is agitating for independence, American GIs pour into Calcutta on the way to combat in Burma and China. They demand entertainment and respite from the relentless heat. The city is a beloved bastion of the British Raj, and boasts mainly colonial clubs where neither natives nor dogs are allowed. The GIs are ill prepared for Calcutta, a pulsating city that appears to them as alien as the moon. The entertainment – bars with live music and girls with nice “gams” to serve them drinks and the occasional kiss – is not what they are used to.
Yasmine Khan, the daughter of a celebrated Bengali Muslim courtesan, is not cut out for courtesanship. Her mother advises her to find a means of survival as marriage is not an option for a courtesan’s daughter. Recognizing a prime business opportunity, Yasmine opens a nightclub called Bombay Duck smack in the middle of town to entertain the restless GIs. Here, exotic Eurasian girls who look like movie stars dance and belt out the latest Sinatra and Cole Porter tunes (albeit with a slight Indian accent) and serve the best black market whiskey Yasmine’s connections can buy. The club quickly becomes popular among the soldiers, including Edward Lefavre, a young, married U.S. Army lieutenant from Norwich, CT, who finds himself fascinated by the attractive if somewhat stoic proprietor.
Many years later, Yasmine is living in the United States, and in these opening lines she writes to her – and Edward’s – son recounting, for the first time, the story that led to his birth.
My darling boy,
I must warn you: this is a love story. I know how much you dislike all that sappy stuff when we go to the Lighthouse to watch the picture shows. When Gable kissed Vivien, everyone sighed and you groaned and sank deeper into your seat. You only pay attention during the war scenes. I know that makes you a normal boy but I am so relieved that you never had to experience war firsthand. I suspect you would not be so enthusiastic about torpedoes if you were staring down the business end of one. This story, mine, yours, began a long time ago. It actually began before I was even born. Even before my grandmother was born. It began near a small Bengali village called Plassey in 1757 where the British Raj was officially born. We Bengalis consider ourselves the artists and intellectuals of India and pride ourselves on being visionaries. Some enlightened Englishman once said, “What Bengal thinks of first, India realizes later.” Or something like that. So, initially we had no problem with the British – by all accounts they were like wide-eyed children let loose in a candy store and they wanted to partake of everything. But since that first battle in Plassey, we have been agitating to get them out as soon as possible. They got greedy you see, and then of course some religious types showed up and demanded they cease and desist feeling good at once and to that end sent them pinched faced English women, who “tamed” them. The moment the memsahibs alighted from the ships in their crinoline and corsets, the party was over.
Two hundred years later, we were still agitating and had pinned all our hopes on one man. He seemed to be the only one who knew how to get under their stiff upper lip. He did it by doing nothing. He sat quietly, received people, peered at them over his too small spectacles and showered them with love, wove cloth, starved himself and irritated Winston Churchill to the point of dementia – an added benefit.
When they first arrived in the 1600s to set up a trading post, the Ingrez embraced everything about India. They donned Indian clothing, ate with their fingers from communal platters and learned to speak the various languages fluently. They seemed to draw no distinction between themselves and the natives and became Indians. They married Indian women and didn’t just take them as mistresses. Unlike now, of course. It’s amazing how backward modern civilization can be. If the opportunists hadn’t arrived with their frigid, corseted wives, things might have been very different for us.
You might as well know, I am the daughter and granddaughter of courtesans. A courtesan is like a companion of sorts, for lonely people, well, men, really. Lonely and bored men. Part of being a courtesan involves being able to play an instrument. Amma played the sitar. People travelled from as far as Delhi to hear her play. She was a performer from days of old who thought deeply about her audience and worked solely to give them what they came for. She did not sing or play for her own gratification and that made her the perfect performer. She had a deep, syrupy voice that to the untrained ear sounded like mosquitoes droning, but to the men who gathered around her feet on Isfahani carpets, it sounded like the tinkling of bells.
Luckily, Amma didn’t pressure me to join the family business. It was determined early that I lacked the necessary temperament for the job. I am not unattractive, and I had the intellectual ability required of a courtesan. I am well read and can communicate clearly, both in English and Bengali. I can dance well – but the problem is that I am tone deaf. Profoundly. I found the sitar an unwieldy, awkward instrument and tablas were far too masculine for my taste. Most importantly I cannot do that thing that some have honed into an art form: I cannot flirt. I am told that effective flirting requires one to be an enigma but playful and accessible. This makes no sense to me. How can one be a mystery and available at the same time? It also requires acting abilities, which I do not possess. I cannot pretend to enjoy a man’s company and listen to his interminable lamentations about his wife’s ever widening hips and spendthrift ways. I cannot pretend that someone is more important than he is.
There was a courtesan named Daisy (her main patron, an Irish Captain of the seventh Hussars, gave her the nickname because she was fair skinned and merry) who took particular pleasure in tormenting my mother and boasting ad nauseam about her various abilities (contortionist, dancer, adept at making sweetmeats and biriyani). When her daughter Patience (also bestowed upon her by the Irish captain) was born, Daisy would boast endlessly about how perfect Patience was, how her beauty was unmatched, how she was the best dancer in the whole house. Patience was a sweet, smart girl, prone to being plump, much to Daisy’s horror. She smiled tolerantly as her mother went on and on about how splendid she was and munched on rashmillai and laddoos. Daisy hated me on sight and never failed to comment on my inadequacies. She was such a devout Muslim but even going on Hajj didn’t really change her. She was heartbroken when Patience decided to become a Catholic like her father’s people and tried in vain to bully her daughter back to Islam but on this point Patience did not budge. Patience and I were good friends and when I opened Bombay Duck she didn’t laugh at me or predict my financial ruin within a year. She came with me, and became one of my girls. “I’m a topnotch, nautch girl,” she joked to me. I agreed readily; her mother’s training was very thorough, and she was my mainstay for three years. My head girl.
I often wondered why my mother allowed Daisy to go on and on and talk maliciously to her face about me. My mother later said that she knew that Daisy was a bitter woman. The captain found out she was pregnant and never came back. My father did a disappearing act as well but was slower about it. I guess he just faded instead of exiting abruptly. It seemed to me that I was surrounded by bitter, lonely women who waited for lovers who never came, and promises of respectability that never materialized. I was lucky because your Nanoo was not such a woman. She is and always was a pragmatist. She understood that her beauty and lack of class status destined her for nothing else but this life but she knew how to make the best of it and she taught me how to do the same.
I know I told you that this was a love story, but it is through no machination of mine. Even my own father was impervious to my charms. He never came back, did he? Men have to be convinced into loving a woman. I can convince a fishmonger to charge ten annas less for a pound of koi but that’s about it. Being pretty is not enough; even being beautiful is not enough. My strength lies in my ability to, as the Americans say, make a buck. I think, in the end, your father admired that.
I am a good business woman. In 1942 I became one in earnest. That year the Japanese started bombing Calcutta. I opened a restaurant that I turned into a bit of a nightclub, called Bombay Duck. That is why I left you every Sunday morning before the sun was even up. That was the hardest thing for me to do. You always insisted that you would see me off but couldn’t open your eyes so early and I kissed you while you slept and started counting the hours until Saturday.
Did you know that Bombay Duck is a fish? I thought I was being frightfully clever when I named it that. It got its name in a rather complicated way – the fish, that is. The way the tale – pardon the pun – the way the tale goes is that the lizardfish, bhamholo in Bangla, gives off a pungent odor when dried. You know the one. Cook always crushes it up and mixes chili and cilantro into it and tries to get you to sprinkle it onto your rice. You said the smell makes you gag. Well, they transport the stuff by rail across the country and the train compartments smell heavily of the fish, especially the Bombay Mail or Bombay Dak. Some minor official from Surrey started calling it Bombay Duck in the 19th century, and that was that.
I had a sign of a fish made up and hung it in front of the nightclub’s small brass plaque that read simply Bombay Duck, est. 1942. The gorah customers found it quirky and exotic. Somehow it summed up India for them. That nothing is what it seems, or maybe that things have more than one meaning or that India is a smelly, unappetizing place that must be smothered in spices to be palatable. Who knows?
For the first year business went decently, but not very well, thanks in part to the war. We were also competing with well-established restaurants like Firpos, where they served haute cuisine (as haute as the rationing would allow) and pretended they were located in Piccadilly Circus, and Cathay, the only decent Chinese place in town – though they suffered terribly from the rice shortages. The American servicemen loved that Cathay and the American Kitchen – another Chinese joint. Oddly, Chinese places reminded them of home. But the Duck offered something that none of these other places did: women, nautch girls if you will, but with a modern twist. My girls were Hollywood glamour all the way. Patience, you know, even looked like Merle Oberon, from that other film you hated, Wuthering Heights. She claimed they were related but I doubt it. I hand picked these girls, sometimes right out of the maw of utter destitution. At least two of them were facing an inevitable demise from disease and botched abortions in some shanty brothel north of Tollygunge somewhere if I had not come along. After the club opened, we had some difficulties with the Americans stationed here. I have to say they are a most paradoxical and peculiar group of people. They are not as stuffy and formal as the British. They treat all the Indians they encounter with warmth and innocent curiosity. I noticed they love to laugh and are generally sentimental and optimistic, yet they segregated their coloured soldiers and treated their Jewish soldiers with suspicion and contempt. I guess they are more self-indulgent. Three Negro soldiers were accused of attacking one of my girls, though the situation turned out to be a bit more complicated than we first thought, and Rahul, a bearer, whom you loved so much, was killed during the Direct Action Day riots. I wonder if you still remember him?
Well, this is my legacy to you – among other things, not quite as delightful. Someday, I know you are going to want to know where you came from, where I ran off to every Sunday and what kind of man your father was. I want to say that he was the best of men. He could have been. I firmly believe that. But fate and the time he was born into conspired against him. Your father, in an ill-conceived effort to rid himself of his feelings for me, volunteered to fight off the Japanese and rebuild a road. He was nearly felled by disease and despair but people were counting on him so he persevered. He came back to me for a short time, a superstitious man believing in ghosts and angels. He claimed that the Japanese were ultimately supernatural and unafraid of death. They had given their souls to their emperor and so had nothing to fear. This made them almost impossible to defeat. As usual your father and his ilk grossly underestimated the Asians. They thought them inferior and expected to trounce them within weeks of arriving in Burma. It cost them thousands of men. The jungle was another enemy, in some ways even more formidable. He told me it swallowed men whole – on both sides, or ate away at them slowly. When your father returned from Burma he came carrying three demons on his back. His life back in Connecticut, you, and what he had seen in the jungle. He knew he had failed to live up to his potential. I ended despising him for it. Too many things conspired against us. The war, rules about race and class that were in place for hundreds of years, and our own limitations. This was my karma phal, the fruit of my fate and I cannot say that it was all rotten. It was an adventure, after all.
I fear, though, that some of these letters may have suffered from too many nights at the Lighthouse Cinema. I do love a good war-torn love story. Speaking of love: I love you. This is my story. This is your story – but only the bits you choose to claim. Use it, discard it, whatever you want. But please, please don’t let it end with me.
Always and forever,
On August 16, 1946, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and head of the Muslim League, declared “Direct Action Day,” calling for a separate Muslim state. Students and protesters were encouraged and spurred by fiery speeches given by Jinnah, and his cohort the Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal Province, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, to take action to that end. Suhrawardy did initially want the day to be declared simply a national holiday and a day of reflection, and asked the Governor for permission to do so. Through a series of miscommunications, and perhaps, simply the fact that communal unrest and vitriol were mounting in India, August 16, 1946 quickly spiralled into a day where thousands were massacred. A week of murders, rapes and violence followed, spilling into various regions – even as far away from Calcutta as the Northwest Province. Hindu and Muslim friends turned on one another in ways that were unfathomable. The following excerpt describes how Yasmine and other characters are affected by the riots, and the terrible price exacted on one of them.
Where to begin? They called the day of the start of the horrendous riots, Direct Action Day, the politicians that is – their jaunty name for it. As if we were taking our fate into our own hands and moulding our destiny. What rubbish! You know what action came about that day? I will tell you one thing, you were almost snatched out of my arms by a crazed Hindu woman, Devika, who had just seen her 14-year-old son beheaded by a Muslim mob, and wanted nothing more than to do the same to someone else’s baby. And take direct action. I knew this Devika, had laughed with her, bought bread from her for the club. Patience had advised her on the best way to style her hair. She wanted to look like Mumtaz Shanti, who was a Muslim from that movie Kismet.
Mere days earlier, this woman was calm, even happy, maybe, but while she hummed in her kitchen and made the bread for that night’s meal, Jinnah was holding court from his house on Malabar Hill in Bombay and pontificating about a place he concocted called Pakistan and putting in motion – for his own purposes – events that would render this mother a monster.
Three weeks after the riots Edward wrote to me: “If you are alive, please send me a wire as soon as possible and please tell me what happened. We are hearing so many conflicting reports. Some say six thousand were killed, some sixteen thousand. I am going mad. Every day there is some new horror story. It’s like Nanking all over again, they’re saying. I know you hate me, but please just let me know if you and Alec (he insisted on calling you that) are okay.” I wired him as soon as I could, when I remembered to, more than a month later. Short and not so sweet. “ALIVE STOP COUNTLESS KILLED STOP RAHUL AMONG THEM STOP STAY WELL STOP”
The fact is, even I didn’t know how many had perished. But I am getting ahead of myself. The war was over, your father was gone. You were three years old and growing, it seemed, every night. The Duck continued as before. Some of the characters had changed. Patience had left for England as soon as the Germans surrendered. She married a soldier and moved to Plymouth. Before she left she came to say goodbye, but that is for another letter.
The British started the painstaking process of taking stock. The war had all but crippled them financially and the agitation to end the Raj was reaching a fever pitch. It was in this chaos that poor leadership was born and the corruption and selfishness of the politicians seeped into the psyche of the people. But I think this is what the British wanted all along.
“Let those darkies kill each other,” they said in their parlours and European-only clubs, “and have done with it, the ingrates, after all we have done for them.”
I know that is what Churchill thought. And the Congress and Muslim League provided much fodder. It was all some of us sensible ones could do to keep people from one another’s throats. In the Duck we were such a mishmash of religions, castes and whatnot. Somehow we managed. Our differences were not along religious lines, ever. It was always about personalities and living on top of one another. The usual human drama. It was during this time that all of us, Adil Baboo, Asma, Madhu, Ghosh and Rahul, understood that we had been living in a bubble. This was our odd little family, of which I was the matriarch. Without realizing it, I had created a sort of miniature society that was almost idealistic, utopian if you will, and therefore when the riots erupted, no one was more shocked than the staff and occupants of Bombay Duck.
On the morning of August 16th, Rahul and Adil Baboo came rushing into the club. They had gone to their usual tea stall on Harrison Street – East Bengal Cabin. It was run by a very nice gentleman by the name of Nanda Lal whom I had known for years. He was dignified and well educated. Adil Baboo and Rahul said that Nanda Lal’s tea stall had been burnt and vandalized and that he and his family were trapped in their own house and were fighting back. Nanda Lal had been attacked as well and was wounded.
“Who are they fighting?” I asked.
“Muslims,” Adil Baboo replied. “From Mirzapore Street.” He looked crestfallen.
“I got away,” Rahul said, “because of Adil Da. He said I was his son. They would have killed me.”
Adil Baboo later told me that they had barely escaped. A crazed mob had demanded to see if Rahul was circumcised and, when he refused, fell upon him with broken bottles and lathis. Adil Baboo had stood between the boy and the mob and offered to show them that he was circumcised. He told them that Rahul was his son and if a father was cut then it followed that a son would be as well. The mob did not buy this story but became momentarily distracted when Adil Baboo undid his dhoti and obligingly showed them. Somehow it worked and he and Rahul escaped.
On the morning of August 17th, when Devika ripped you out of my arms, she did not see me anymore, and I did not see her. I saw a rakosh, Ma Kali at her worst. She was running down the street, a mad look in her eyes. She was covered in blood, none of it her own, I found out later. Her son’s blood. She kept looking around, for something to kill. Rahul had ventured out earlier to see what was happening in the Hindu sections of town and told me that her son had been killed. I was overcome with grief for her. But I shut the door in her face. She banged on the door, screaming to let her in.
“For God’s sake, Yassu!” Madhu cried. “Let her in. Her son is dead. She will be killed if we leave her to wander around.”
I thought Madhu was right. The woman was a mother like me. It was Devika. The woman who sold us her bread. I opened the door. She stood on the steps, her chest heaving. She walked into the room slowly. We all parted to let her through. Her eyes were wide as she looked at all of us. No one said a word. She smelled like the streets after kurbani eid. But this was not cow’s blood. Human blood, which is what she was covered in, smells sweeter. It was nauseating.
Death had followed her into the Duck. My eyes instinctively went to where you were sleeping, in my room at the top of the stairs. Devika had been staring at me so she saw where my eyes went and she knew at once what I was feeling. She moved so quickly I almost did not beat her to the stairs.
I screamed, “No!” and ran up the stairs, two at a time. She was on my heels. Someone, Madhu, I think, tried to grab Devika’s sari, but she kicked at Madhu hard and she fell back on top of Adil Baboo and Rahul, who were also trying to get up the stairs. I tried to shut the door in her face, but she was so strong, Akash. She was a small, slim woman, but she was now overcome with superhuman strength. It was adrenaline brought on by grief and rage. She pushed the door in and I fell to the ground. She locked the door. Her movements were slow and deliberate. I grabbed her ankle and kept her from snatching you from the bed. You were awake now, sitting up and staring at me and Devika struggle on the floor. It was silent, eerie struggle from what I remember. I was so close to her I could smell her sour breath. Adil Baboo, Rahul and the others were at the door, trying to break it down. I managed to shove her away and get up and grab you. You started crying then. Devika took a fistful of your hair and tried to yank you out of my arms. You screamed, I slapped her, but she would not stop. Finally, Adil Baboo and Rahul broke down the door and pulled her off us. They held her back as she snarled at me. Like a beast. Madhu took her by the hair and threw her down the stairs. She lay at the bottom, whimpering.
Asma took you and went to her room where she locked the door and tried to comfort you. We all stood and watched to see what Devika would do. Eventually, she got up and limped to the door and walked into the street, which was now overrun with broken bottles, dead bodies, and people running around screaming. Rahul quickly ran down the stairs and slammed the door and barred it against the din.
When Asma came of the room holding you, you jumped into my arms. You were shaking and told me that a rakosh had come to eat you. For weeks afterwards you could not sleep through the night without waking up to check that I was next to you. We had just managed to potty train you and you started wetting the bed again.
Whenever I see a picture of Jinnah, or even Nehru, I want to spit at it.
He was a Shakespearean trained actor you know, that Jinnah, so he knew how to pontificate. If he had done “Hamlet,” it would have been a Hindu skull he would have been holding. But Suhrawardy was the real mastermind behind all this. The history books don’t mention that. He was cruel and he whipped all those Muslim Leaguers into a frenzy and they in turn hired their goondahs to exact terror.
But Jinnah was obsessed with the idea that Muslims would be systematically persecuted under a Hindu majority government and the truth was, he was probably right. They outnumber us three to one, he declared. We will be crushed under them. We must have our own state, etc., etc. Jinnah was not even religious! His grandfather was a Hindu, for pity’s sake! We were all Hindus at some point, my nanoo Pardis liked to say. Hating them was like hating ourselves. It was irrational in the extreme. She also liked to say the root of all the troubles was the cow. They worshipped them, we shish kebabed them. She was just being tongue in cheek, but she hated they way they were allowed to lounge about on intersections and in the road, blocking up traffic and staring at us stupidly while we tried to cross the street.
“Cows are evil incarnate,” she said. “What’s that Chatgaya expression? Better to have an empty corral than naughty cows.”
Many hapless cows died in those five days, along with their owners.
Not that the Hindus did not welcome the fight. Everyone was straining at the bit. The politicians gave them the opportunity. We all have monsters in us, nah? Sometimes I think most of us are just waiting for an excuse to release them.
All that first night we would hear the cries Allahu Akbar! And then screaming or silence. Eventually, in the distance someone would shout Jai Hind! in response followed by bellowing or more silence. Rahul said that on the Ripon College campus the flagpole had been flying the green, white and orange flag of the Congress in the morning but it had been replaced by the Islamic green star and crescent of the Muslim League by the afternoon. Who had died to make that happen, I wondered. The Indian colleges were a seething hotbed of communal strife and a perfect place for both parties to recruit pawns and henchmen. Nanda Lal would later tell us how he had witnessed a heated skirmish on the roof of the college between the Muslim Leaguers and the Congress goondahs. The Muslim Leaguers won that battle. He too heard the disparate slogans of Jai Hind! and Pakistan Zindabad! Being shouted in every street and bylane. But then, and this was the terrible thing, these cries were replaced by the staccato sound of gunfire.
“It came from the the window of an apartment building opposite the college,” he said. “Never, in all my years, have I heard gunfire in a riot.”
This, you see, had changed the stakes. On the fourth day the street weapons changed from bottles and lathis to iron staves and knives. The killings became more brutal and frenzied. Nanda Lal’s shop and home was on the corner of Harrison Street and Mirzapore Street in the Muslim section, so he had a front row view of the mayhem when he was not cowering in the upper hallway of his house.
Since the Duck had no windows facing the street, we did not have much damage in the front. Someone had painted the words Mohammed’s whores on the side. Madhu had ventured out that afternoon to see about her family and had been attacked by Congress goondahs who mistook her for Muslim when they saw her emerging from the club. They beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized for a week. Thankfully they did not sexually assault her. They refused to listen to her protestations that she was a Hindu. They didn’t care that her real name was Laxmi.
On the fourth day, we thought somehow we had weathered the worst of it. The police had yet to actively intervene and we still heard truckloads of rioters from both sides thundering down the streets at all hours but we were left alone.
“Murderers never sleep, it seems,” Adil Baboo said.
“Oh the real ones do,” I said bitterly. I was referring to Jinnah and Suhrawardy, who had tried to show his might in Calcutta and organized these goondahs in the first place. You were crying incessantly because you were hungry. We had run out of food and Rahul, brave, sweet, foolish boy, insisted he go out to find some. I refused to let him, but Adil Baboo convinced me. Here, I don’t know how personal a narrative you want. You said your teacher wanted first hand acounts. They are always more powerful, I agree.
Rahul picked you up from where you were playing on the dusty floor and pressed his cheek to yours. You put your skinny little arms around his neck and kissed him. You loved him very much. He was like a big toy and playmate for you. Rahul was so tender with you, and far more patient than I was. He often looked at you with wonder.
“Choto Sahib is going to break the ladies!” he would declare happily in his muddled English. He insisted on speaking English as much as possible with you because you were an “Amrikan” and used as much slang as he could remember from his beloved Corporal Addison.
“Mashallah bolo!” I would say. I had become superstitious now that I was a mother and started believing in all the nonsense that I had been so dismissive of, like nazars and whatnot. Though there were many times when you were growing up where I wondered if Allah had gone AWOL, I still invoked Mashallah and Inshallah when it suited me.
“I can’t see choto sahib suffer,” Rahul said, squeezing you tightly. You let out a yelp of delight and hugged him tighter in return. “He’s so skinny now.”
He poked at your ribs, which were sticking out. Just in three days, you had lost so much weight. But you were so happy, even after the ordeal with Devika. You were loved darling, by everyone in the Duck.
Rahul gave you a big kiss on your head, smiled at me winningly and walked out the door. That was the last time we saw him alive. We still do not know what happened to him. He just never came back and when the riots were over we all looked for him but he was gone. I would like to believe that he had seen his beloved Radhika and they had run off together and married and had many babies. You know, I was the one who had banished her and he had never once blamed me or expressed any anger at me. I can say now, I loved that boy. And I still miss him.
Photos accompanying this excerpt were collected from a creative commons library, and are attributed to a United States soldier, Mr. Claude Waddel, who was posted to Calcutta during 1945–46.