Rivers Tell Stories

Rivers Tell Stories

We speak you know, me and my ilk. We whisper our tales, but only to those who really care to listen.  My stories have swollen in number as I lived on, and I find respite in repeating them in my old gurgling voice. Just so someone stops by to listen.

What was it that Tennyson said? 

“…For men may come and men may go

But I go on forever…”

He, of course, was speaking of a little brook, but it applies to me just like it applies to the power games that you mortals play.  Lately though, I’ve begun to doubt my immortality and fear that my stories will die with me. 

Who am I?

I am the famous Ganga.

Anyhow, you stopped by for a story, so let me begin.

Let me tell you of terrible events that unfolded on my banks as I flowed on quietly through a region then called the United Provinces. 

These were the events that were responsible for the eventual transfer of power from an overambitious trading company to and even more ambitious British crown.  However, the reason I have chosen this particular tale is because it may be relevant as a lesson even today. It all began with a prophecy, superstition and rumors. Somewhat like the fake news of today. And that is the very reason I’ve chosen to tell you this story. For those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. It could be a lesson to both, those in power and those without much of it. 

The land was already agog with a certain unrest. This land, my sister, had welcomed visitors earlier. Visitors who had either left laden with gifts or stayed put adapting themselves to her ways and in turn changing her little. But this time, the visitors did not seem too keen to leave and were adept at changing her instead of adapting to her.  So, unrest was bound to creep in. 

My banks at Barrackpore perhaps witnessed the first impactful rebellion against these foreigners, and from there it spread upstream to my banks which I speak of today.  That of Cawnpur and Bithoor.  This is the story of two banks, a prophecy, some rumors and a curious chain of happenings that flummoxed even the top ranking foreign officials.

You’re getting impatient, I can see. That is the problem with the ‘get-to-the-point-quick’ generation. But if I made it a habit to get to my point in a rush, I’d end up causing destruction I assure you. You’ll prefer me meandering slowly so you can sit at my banks and admire my curves. 

 Yes, I make cheesy jokes too!

So where was I? Ah, at my banks at Barrackpore. After the hanging of Mangal Pandey, a prophecy from an unknown time suddenly echoed through these lands again – that the rule of these foreigners would end on the Centenary of the very event that had in fact firmly established their rule in this land. Irony! That event was the Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757.

As that particular date on 100th year drew closer, such a prophecy naturally caused the blood of the natives to surge with extra vigor and rebellion. It was about then that another curious chain of events started.

In the darkness of the night, a blanket-shrouded figure emerged from the forest and headed towards the chowkidar of the nearest village. Before the puzzled chowkidar could raise an alarm, the man handed him two chapattis, the size of small biscuits that the foreigners bit into at tea time, and whispered the instructions to make ten chapattis and pass two each to five neighboring village watchmen with the same instructions.

A few mornings later, the magistrate at Mathura curiously had two such chapattis staring at him from his table as he entered his office.

What could this mean?

The inquiry he ordered did not reveal anything other than just one startling truth.  No one knew why these chapattis were zipping around the length and breadth of the country being carried by night watchmen of villages. It was the speed at which this feat was being achieved that defeated the pride of the foreigners: their mail system!  In fact, one such foreign official actually felt challenged enough calculate the speed at which these chapattis were travelling and came up with an astounding figure of up to 300 km per night!  Here they were patting each other on the back that they were finally beating some sort of decency and progress into the local barbarians only to be shocked that the barbarians could achieve a few things faster using their own rustic system!

Okay, I seem to have meandered a little again, but dots will connect later. Besides, meandering’s in my habit!

So, let me take the flow of this story back to the ghat at Cawnpore. Here, the story of two mortal lives was to be played out:  One a General and the other an adopted son of a peshwa. Both gentlemen!

The General had a long and illustrious career in these lands spanning over several decades. He had married a local woman and spoke the local language fluently. No one doubted his capabilities, and he perhaps had become too secure and complacent or even overconfident. But, one can never be sure of the nature of human minds.

The adopted son was, on the other hand, growing more and more insecure by the day!  The devious methods that the foreigners were applying in acquiring all of the land were by no means fair, and their latest the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ compelled him to take action finally. The prophecy itself ignited his ambitions further, no doubt.

Meanwhile, the chapatti chain like the modern-day superstitious chain letters and fake news continued to zip from one village to another confusing one and all. But this time, they were doing the remarkable job of showing the natives that each of them was connected like dots of a whole puzzle.

Amidst this unrest and confusion, the general found himself with the duty of protecting around 400 European men and women. He, in his own wisdom, decided to create an entrenchment quite near my banks to safeguard his people. 

The adopted son saw all signs of the prophecy coming true and at first joined the forces to march to Delhi in support of the newly reappointed blind emperor, but changed his mind and convinced the rebels to march with him to Cawnpur. 

In the ensuing fight, the General and his men were outnumbered and held under siege till he raised the white flag, but he first extracted the agreement that he and his people would get a safe passage to Allahabad.

Unfortunately, when rumor and superstition reign, even the slightest provocation can turn into a bloodbath.

As the foreigners marched from the entrenchment to the boats lined up at my ghats for their safe passage to Allahabad, they looked raggedy and even pitiful. A far cry from their usual! Some bitter natives shouted hateful slogans and slogans of victory. This proved too much for their British pride perhaps and a shot was fired. And though no one could pinpoint later from where it came, all hell broke loose. 

My waters turned red with the blood of the natives as well as foreigners, but it was the foreigners who suffered heavier losses.  This was not going to be taken lightly by the British, and another counter attack was planned where the natives were slaughtered like lambs.

My waters continued to run red like the *Lohit, yet there was more to come!

The adopted son of the peshwa had managed to save some women and children and transferred them to a safe house close to my banks in Bithoor to keep at least part of his promise of a safe passage.  But the moment the guardian of this safe house heard of the retaliation by the British to what happened at Cawnpur Ghat, not a single woman or child was spared.

I still continued to flow red.

As the news of the killings at Bithoor reached the British forces, they attacked Bithoor with a vengeance.  The adopted son of the peshwa was forced to flee and was bereft of seeing the prophecy come true.  The small town of Bithoor saw bloodshed of unrivaled proportions.  Rebels were made to lick the bloodied floor where the British women and children were slaughtered before being killed and hung from old banyan trees around the town. The enraged foreigners wiped out almost the whole town of up to 25000.

The branches of the banyan tree on my bank alone held bodies of more than 200 men and women. The corpses hung and rotted as a message to any rebel who harbored even the slightest belief that the old prophecy would come true. 

The chapatti chain came to a sudden stop but even centuries later, no one seemed to have a definite clue as to its originator or its real purpose.

I continued to flow red like the scarlet jackets of the British soldiers for some more time. 

Perhaps it was the prophecy or simple utterance of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that held true this time.

*“Sab Laal ho Jayega!”

That colour has since been washed off by my own waters. It’s just that I am slowly but surely tiring of washing sins.

***
Glossary:
Lohit: Another name for the Brahmaputra which flows red sometimes.
Sab Laal ho Jayega – Everything will turn red (Maharaj Ranjit Singh had uttered these words to perhaps say that The British Red Jackets would take over everything)
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Manoshi Bose
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