“Bimal Da! What do you mean by Swadeshi?” questioned the chirpy ten-year old Rupa, as she noticed Bimal Da hustle about in the house, picking up random stuff from across the house and tossing it in a pile.
Two years back Rupa had lost her parents to the atrocities of the British. Since then she was looked after by her grandmother Kalyani, who worked as a maid at Banerjee household. Bimal Banerjee was the chief engineer in the electricity department under the British. Living a lavish life with his childless wife, he had reasons enough to shower all his love for Rupa. He would often bring gifts from his travels and if not, he would carry sweets from the market on his way back home. Rupa was indeed lucky to have found home after hers was brutally snatched away from her.
Rupa looked on with wide-eyed curiosity as Bimal Da struggled to find words to explain it to her. The Swadeshi movement was gaining momentum and the fear of impending chaos was worrisome. His own heart wanted to join the independence struggle but he had mouths to feed. To say that Bimal Da was conflicted would be an understatement. The air of ‘Swadeshi’ that was blowing across the nation was too enticing. He was a true desh bhakth but…
His father wanted to him to side with the British. Young Bimal had no option but to concede to keep the family afloat. But with Rupa he saw a hope to contribute to his brethren who were fighting with the British.
“What’s taking you so long, Bimal da?” asked Rupa as she noticed Bimal Da lost in his thoughts.
“Rupa, child, today I am going to ‘show’ you what swadesi means. Today we are going to prove that we are true ‘bhartiya’. Do you know what that means?” asked Bimal Da. Rupa could see that he was bubbling with excitement as his eyes shone with a glow of pride in them.
“No, but you can explain it to me,” she answered, unsure of the answer that she was supposed to give.
“Rupa, no time to ask questions. Let us go and collect all the items that are firangi. We are going to have a bonfire near Fort William today. We will burn down all that is not swadeshi.”
“Burn down… Bimal da what are talking about?” Rupa was confused noticing the mood shift in the house.
“You heard what I said,” clapping his hands, Bimal Da expressed his joy as he encouraged little Rupa to join him.
“Then what are we going to use for our daily requirements?” Rupa was confused still. She was unable to join the dots.
“We will make our own Swadeshi stuff!”
Bimal Da’s nonchalant remark stunned Rupa. She stood there aghast when she heard this. How could she let go of her favourite dresses? In fact, All her belongings were so precious to her.
Bimal da could identify with the unease Rupa expressed. The whole nation was engulfed in the same uncertainty. He would explain everything to her, but later. Now was the time for some swift action. But he decided that before he could even start explaining her, he needed to comfort her. He lifted a piece of coarse looking cloth from his table drawer and showed to her.
“This is Khadi,” she exclaimed, even before Bimal Da could utter a word.
He was surprised to hear that. “How do you know about this, Rupa?”
“Thakuramma has a very pretty Khadi saree which she never allows me to touch,” Rupa remarked reminiscing a similar material packed away in her grandmother’s trunk. “But Bimal Da, what about the uniform you wear to office everyday? Those shirts and pants? You want them to be discarded too?”
Bimal was jolted back to his job dependence. But wasn’t Rupa right? Nevertheless, he remarked confidently, “Yes, they too shall go. Now go, get your clothes quickly.” This was the time Bimal Da realised that he had to stand tall… for Rupa.
With a heavy heart, she trudged home to gather up her favorite dresses, although her young mind was unsure if she even wanted to be a part of all the chaos. As she turned around the corner, she saw men and women carrying arms-full of clothes moving ahead in hordes.
Bimal Da cautioned her to take off only after the crowd had passed. He would need to take it further with caution, he realised. Rupa was a small child but she had given him a new goal, a goal for the motherland. He owed his awakening to her, so he could not endanger the child. Yet he knew that the fire that now burned in the whole country could not be suppressed. He would not be able to suppress it.
Rupa brought her favourite doll back from home. It was a beautiful pink silk and satin doll Bimal Da had gifted her which he had got from Bombay. It had been her companion through the trauma of losing her parents. But today she was willing to let it go too. She trusted Bimal Da enough to let go of her prized possessions now. Rupa held his hand and spoke softly. “Bimal Da, I want to be Swadeshi too,” she said as she handed her doll to him. She forsook her doll, the one that she loved the most. That was her first sacrifice for swadeshi!
“I know that feeling Rupa. Years ago I had dreamt to be a Swadeshi too just like you,” Bimal Da assured her. “But I did not have as much courage as you have, my child. You make me so proud.” He then placed the doll in the pile he had collected to be taken away.
While the fire started raging among the Indians, it started to rain unexpectedly. The petrichor reminded Bimal da how his family of farmers would wait for a rain shower like this, when he was young. Of course, his father was a supporter of the British who eventually persuaded him to take up engineering. The rain today reminded him of his long lost dream, to go Swadeshi. The melancholia was heavy in the breeze.
Rupa nudged Bimal snapping him back to present. “Bimal Da, since my parents left me, you and thakurama have been my only friends. Although I don’t understand this fully at this time but I am sure the feeling of Swadeshi tastes better. I am nervous to go to the demonstration. Promise me you will not leave my hand.”
“I promise, my child,” said Bimal Da, firmly clutching Rupa’s hand in his. “Your parents lost their lives to atrocities of British who occupied our land and now we are their mercy to live our lives on their terms. While the freedom fighters are fighting the battle, we as common people need to support them and boycott the British rule in every possible way. This is our contribution, my child. We are together in this.” Bimal Da, with Rupa in tow, exited the house. There was a spring in his step, a determined gait and a spark in his eyes that made him seem more confident than he usually was.
In the courtyard was Kalyani Amma working, “Amma, the time has come, time to avenge your children’s death, time to breathe an air of self-respect.” Kalyani appeared confused and tossed the remark unconcerned.
They reached the street corner. Wooden logs had been arranged in a wide circle and people had begun gathering around with bags of foreign made belongings.
“Is there going to be a bonfire just like the celebrations we used to have on Holi in our village?” questioned the curious Rupa.
“Yes, it will be similar to that. On Holi, the evil was perished and the good tasted victory. Today will be the onset of the evil rulers perishing from our pious motherland.”
‘Bimal!” He heard somebody call out from behind. “Are you crazy? What do you think you are doing?”
Bimal did not wish to stop. He kept walking with Rupa by his side. The little girl was all charged up with his words, he had to go ahead with what he had promised her. But…
But the sepoys came in charging with their lathies. “Hush! This is no fish market! Go away all of you,” they ordered.
The crowd started panicking as Bimal da held Rupa’s hands even more tightly.
A young boy quietly went from the other side and quickly lit the fire with a matchstick. The logs sprinkled with oil, caught fire. The sepoys were befuddled and rushed towards the bonfire.
In the commotion that followed, Rupa’s hand slipped out of Bimal’s. She was out of his sight even before he realised that he had lost her.
“Bharat mata ki jai!” shouted the boy with enthusiasm. Making everyone alert of the fire which had already raged. Bimal eyes darted in all directions but he couldn’t find Rupa in all of this commotion. Just then, he noticed a petite figure through the flames of the fire .
“Ah! there she is,” he heaved a sigh of relief. Rupa was standing near the bonfire to toss her doll in there. As he leapt forward to get her, he felt a heavy blow on his head. ‘Bimal daaaaa,’ shouted Rupa as she saw blood trickling from his forehead. She ran towards him.
In the meantime the crowd had begun to gather momentum. The slogans had changed the mood from fear to defiance. People who were running away after seeing the sepoys were now inching forward.
In all of this clamour, her cries went unheard and she could do nothing to help Bimal as the sepoys had already arrested him. Bimal da could see a vague figure of a small girl rushing towards him. “Rupaaaa…,” he muttered, extending his hands for her to hold as the sepoys dragged him towards Fort William.
The crowd was now growing aggressive looking at Bimal Da and a few others being mercilessly dragged. The little girl kept running after them, imploring them to leave him.
Some of the youngsters came forward putting up a fight with the sepoys to rescue Bimal Da. They were showered with lathies as well. There was mayhem and bloodshed, but the surge for Swaraj was high. The crowd was ready to do anything. The slogans of Vande Matram and Bharat mata ki jai resonated in the dark street of Kolkata, illuminated by the bonfire.
Bimal Da fell on his back as the sepoys dragged him. Just then Kalyani also came looking for them in all of this commotion. “What is all this? Let me take you home. But where is my Rupa?”
Rupa was rushing towards them, when Bimal screamed, “Rupa, I’m fine. Burn that doll.”
Nobody could think of an idea on how to set Bimal Da free. Out of nowhere one brave lad came close to the group of sepoys with a burning log threatening them to leave him. Influenced by the young fellow, others gathered courage too and came forward to help Bimal Da. There were only a handful sepoys till the time the backup came. Fearing for their life from the angry crowd, they decided to leave him. Seeing the uproar of the people, sepoys were frightened. Never had they seen this vigour and enthusiasm in the locals.
For the first time they were frightened for their lives. They rushed towards the main gate of the Fort William as the crowd chased them frantically. Terrified at the anger they saw in the people, the unity that they were exhibiting, the scared sepoys rushed to safety. A few of them did not make it because they realised that they belonged to the crowd, their own countrymen. All these years they had selflessly served the rulers without thinking of their own freedom. Today when these civilians, non-uniform clad people could voice their anger, why couldn’t they?
The crowd cheered as the sepoys loosened their hold on Bimal Da. Vande Matram echoed all around. The boys lifted Bimal Da. Someone brought him water. Bimal Da saw Rupa whose face was glowing in the shadow of the fire.
Tilak Basu, one of the sepoys was moved looking at the crowd’s zest for Swaraj.
“It’s now or never,” he said to himself as he threw his uniform in the fire shouting on top of his voice ‘Vandeeee Mataram.’
A new dawn was rising. Each and every human could feel the heat of Swaraj and freedom running in their blood. The Sarkar would have to bow down. On the other side, some of the sepoys had reported the matter to the authorities. The gates of the Fort opened and the commandment in charge came riding on his horse.
“How dare you Indians! What audacity is this?” He screamed, firing in the air.
The gunfire made the crowd tremble. And for a moment people were confused and started looking for escape, lest the officer shoots anyone of them.
The crowd knew that this was just the beginning and they had a bigger responsibility of spreading the fire. They were not afraid a bit to go to the jail but now was not the right time. So they dispersed quickly leaving just a pile of charred silks and clothing for the higher authorities to see. Bimal Da knew he couldn’t go back to his officer’s bungalow now. Rupa and Kalyani came up with an idea.
“Why don’t you come to our home? The authorities or the Sepoys don’t come to the area of the untouchables. You would not be safe if you go back to your own house. In their eyes you are no less than a traitor,” suggested Kalyani.
“That’s a great idea Thakurama. Bimal Da, please say yes,” exclaimed Rupa.
Bimal Da reached their small shanty with Kalyani and Rupa. Kalyani dressed his wounds and asked both of them to rest. She hurried about making a poultice to put on Bimal Da’s wounds. Serving him a strong sweet tea, she applied the poultice. Bimal Da sighed, resting his wearied feet on the threadbare chatai spread on the ground.
She insisted him to take a nap but sleep was nowhere close. On closing his eyes all he could see was a self-reliant, independent nation free of any foreign rule. Soon enough he slipped into a reverie.
“Bimal Da, Bimal Da, I want you to meet someone.” Bimal was awakened by Rupa. Standing next to her was a tall, dark man in his twenties. “This is Deepu bhaiya and just like you he keeps on using big, heavy words like Swaraj, Boycott, nationalism. I thought since you are here, I would have him meet you. Maybe he could be of some help to you. And he has a group of friends who work closely for Swaraj. Whenever I urge him to tell me, he always mocks at me saying that I am too young. Now that you are here tell him not to make fun of me.”
“It is nice to meet you Deepu,” said Bimal Da, clasping both his hands around Deepu’s frail ones. Deepu was just a wisp of a man but with a serious expression on his face. His age belied his experience. He was wise beyond his years.
“It’s nice to meet you Bimal Da. It’s commendable to see that you have encouraged little Rupa into the movement. I worked for the Raj once…”
“Really? What did you do? Where did you work? What happened?” Bimal Da sat up in his excitement. He was enthused to find a kindred spirit. Deepu would be one to understand his own angst.
“I worked at a factory. I was like everyone else, riding on the false notions of development. Now I have vowed to sacrifice my life for the nation. I will not stop till we achieve independence.” Deepu sat by his side. This was going to be long conversation.
“I am joining Dada Bhai Naroji in his tour to spread the awareness for the Swadeshi goods and to boycott the foreign products. We need to take this message to each and every village and town. Every street in India should resonate with the swadeshi movement. Bimal Da will you join us?
Bimal Da was in disbelief looking at the conviction in the young man’s voice and his commitment to the freedom movement. His clarity of purpose impressed and moved him.
Somewhere he saw his own reflection in him. “I want to join hands too, brother. Freedom is our birthright. Take me with you.”
“Meet us tomorrow evening at 6pm at Howrah station.” Deepu beamed with excitement as he unfolded the program.
Rupa jumped in with excitement. “I will also come with you.” Kalyani looked at Bimal and Deepu with concern.
Bimal turned to Rupa. Holding her hand, he said. “We will need all the help of a brave girl like you. You will stay here for now. We will ask for your help at the right time.”
Although Rupa was disheartened to hear this, she put up a brave face. If Bimal Da has told me that he needs someone to hold the fort for him here, that that is exactly what I must do. She was determined not to let him down. That was her part to play, after all.
The next evening, when Bimal Da reached the station, he was surprised to see Tilak Basu, the sepoy from the British police among the crowd. Though it was a task for him go unnoticed by the sepoys stationed on the station but he managed to cover himself behind the group of people he was to join. The volunteers had fanned out on the platform. Placing themselves at the destined positions, as per the plan, they were all waiting for the train. BImal Da had been briefed of his role too by Deepu and his men. Looking around, he positioned himself as well.
The first step of action was to divide themselves into groups and that is what they all did. Their course was to spread out to the neighbouring villages and towns and seek support from other men and women who were ready to ignite the fire of Swaraj.
The nascent enthusiasm had now taken the shape of an organized movement. They were to embark in different directions carrying the message of Swaraj and recruiting the like-minded people in their cause. The destinations had been marked and duties allocated. Tilak Basu was elected as the leader of the group unanimously and Bimal Da was given the charge for the groundwork. It was a plan so perfect, that no one noticed the tiny flaw looming at the back, in the form of a sepoy who had crossed over…not to join the movement but to kill it.
Bimal Da returned to Calcutta and began his work from base. What followed were innumerable meetings and gatherings. And Rupa would always accompany Bimal Da like his shadow. Some people objected in bringing along such a small girl. Bimal Da would defend by saying, “These kids are the future of our free India. They should know how the foundation towards independent India was being laid. And especially the girls will play a key role.”
Slowly, the fire spread had through every town and village where people rose to join the movement. At the hearts of every town, piles of belongings burned as the villagers stared with a renewed sense of determination.
The volunteers of the movement were pleased with their efforts. But, in their growing bid to victory, from cobbled paths far away something was fast approaching… Something familiar and sinister…
There were demonstrations and meetings happening all over the place. The volunteers were oblivious to the sound of marching boots. The troops had been summoned to trample the growing rebellion across the region.
This time the enemy had come prepared with enough number of sepoys to tackle that number of demonstrators. Bimal Da too was caught but not without Rupa. One sepoy tried to remove Rupa’s hand saying she was a minor and couldn’t accompany him to jail. Bimal Da insisted Rupa to leave and go and take care of her Thakurama. She was determined and refused saying, “This is our struggle as one nation irrespective of the caste, creed, age and gender. There is no way I am going to leave you in this.”
Her plea fell on deaf ears. In the ensuing commotion, before Bimal Da could react he was pushed aside and his hands were tied with a rope by a policeman. They were raining blows on anyone and everyone in their vicinity. The group dispersed but couldn’t get away because the area had been cordoned off by the troops. There was no escape.
Rupa was sent to her house. Bimal Da and others were sent to jail. Everyday she would look at the door in the hope that he would return.
The surge for swadeshi movement had taken deep roots in Rupa. She realised that going with Bimal Da would be futile. She had to do something from her end and contribute whatever little she could. Just like little drops of water makes the mighty ocean, her contribution in spreading the awareness from her end would help the movement take mighty steps ahead.
Not a single day went when she didn’t visit Bimal Da’s house in the hope to find him there other than waiting for him at her house. She continued with spreading awareness to people about the Swadeshi movement and found many like-minded people in the process. After all, she had to carry her friend’s dream forward.
One day, as she casually mentioned to one of her comrades about Bimal Da, he recalled having met him once. From him she came to know that he had managed to escape prison with the others and now remained undercover.
It was ironical that Bimal Da, who was initially skeptical had been inspired by little Rupa’s fervour to plunge into the movement. Today, he was her biggest icon and inspiration. The Resolution for Swaraj was passed in 1906. Bimal Da reunited with Rupa. They carried forward their partnership in the movement for Independence.
Their tale of camaraderie was popular amongst the revolutionaries and people drew inspiration from them. Their names were etched in the history of the nation forever.
Contributed by: Sonali Prasad, Sheena Jain, Sonal Singh, Shristee Singh, Maneet Gulati Ahuja, Preethi Warrier, Sheetal Ashpalia, Anjali Sharma, Rashim Rohit Brutta, Olinda Braganza
Connect with Penmancy: