Anthony School, 15th April 1919
“We must seek revenge. Britishers must pay for what they did,” said Shyamlal.
We were seated around the closed library; our blood was boiling. Two days had passed since the Jalianwallah Baug massacre. It had lit an unstoppable fire within our still-moderate hearts, turning us into inquilabis. The urge to do something to avenge the attack on unarmed Indians was instrumental.
This eclectic group comprised of veterans like Batuknath, a doctor, writers Shamsher and Shyamlal. And novices like Pranav, a teacher, and I, a 15-year old librarian, custodian of this office.
Shamsher was an intense man, whose incendiary writings were legendary. Shyamlal, on the other hand, was quieter, slow to anger, but warier. He, in a previous protest, had been brutally beaten up by the British soldiers, and as a result, had a permanent limp. Batuknath was a gentleman, a man who had dedicated his life to saving lives, a natural commander. Our families knew each other, and he was my mentor. When I experienced his deep-seated resentment against the British and their ideologies, I failed to connect him to the man I knew. He was a gentle soul who had brought me into this world.
Pranav, still a novice, was my fiancé. We were recently engaged. As a fallout of the massacre, both of us wanted to contribute in our own way. To help our freedom fighters attain their goal – our goal – freedom from the tyrannical raj.
“We should bomb their cantonments,” said Shamsher. “It’s now time for action, enough of writing!”
“And where will we get the bombs? No, let’s rethink,” scoffed Batuknath, the de-facto leader.
“I’ve got an idea,” I haltingly spoke. “The caretaker Munshiji keeps a rifle and its ammunition in his locked cupboard. We could use it in some way… Maybe…” I faltered, feeling shy.
Usually, I rarely spoke in these meetings. I preferred to learn by listening.
Four pairs of eyes turned towards me – with amazement. I flushed.
Did I speak out of turn?
“That’s an excellent idea, Rajjo. I’ve been toying with the idea of robbing the Bank of Bombay for a while. Our krantikaris are in dire need of money. They have been protesting against a potential act the Britishers have been cooking up. This act will try certain political cases without a jury – it is an outrage. They’ve got a few protests planned in the coming months. We will donate the money to their cause. The said rifle will come in handy during the heist. Though remember, robbery’s a risky plan. The dangers of getting caught are real. You’ve solved a major issue for me, Rajjo,” praised Batuknath.
I broke out in a shy smile, bowing my head while acknowledging the praise.
They liked my idea!
Pranav seemed annoyed that the idea hadn’t struck him as he worked as a teacher in the same school where I was the librarian.
He said, “And how do you suggest we get the cupboard keys?”
“Pranavji, Munshiji keeps the keys hidden in the niche behind the Churchill frame.”
“Stupid British staff! Leaving a loaded rifle for us to find and use it,” laughed Shamsher.
“More arrogant than stupid, Shamsher. They don’t think we, Indians have it in us to defy them. Well, the jokes on them.” Shyamlal laughed along.
“Our plan should remain a secret. After the Jalianwallah incident, their army is on high alert. We’ll hit the bank on 30th April, a fortnight away. My mole at the bank mentioned, they’re flush with money as the next day’s the salary day. We can lay our hands on a decent sum. I’m awaiting further information from him. It’s getting late, let’s leave now. We’ll meet again next week,” Batuknath said.
“Inquilab Zindabad!” We said in unison.
We got up and, with quiet movements, cleaned up any evidence of the meeting.
Pranav whispered to me as we left, “Rajjoji, I’ll drop you home. I needed to talk to your baba about our upcoming nuptials.”
As Pranav and I made our way to my house, the streets wore a deserted look.
“It was a good suggestion, Rajjoji. Not only are you observant, but you also put the observation to good use. The prospect of spending our lives together excites me.” He touched my hand.
I blushed as I twirled the ends of my sari pallu in my fingers, as much for the compliment as for the touch on my wrist.
“What do you want to ask baba?”
“I needed his permission to reschedule our marriage timing. Guruji said a morning mahurat is more auspicious.”
“Baba isn’t happy about my involvement in the freedom struggle. I overheard him and amma arguing about it. She said that once I’m married, you’ll decide to let me continue. Will you stop me from participation, Pranavji?” I raised my inquisitive eyes to meet his eyes.
“No, my little sparrow. If your mind’s set on it, I’m proud of your dedication. Together we can do so much for our country. We demand freedom, and to fight for it, money’s crucial. By God’s grace, your plan will fetch us some.”
Once we reached home, Pranav and baba discussed the nitty-gritty of arranging a marriage. I retired to bed as tomorrow was a school day.
Anthony School, 21st April 1919
“Through the notes, we had been cautiously exchanging the plan has been finalized. The heist will take place in nine days. Shamsher and…,” Batuknath said.
“Batuknath bhaiya, sorry for the interruption, but now we need two rifles. When I was at the sweet shop, while placing an order, I kept a close eye on the bank on the opposite side. Since the massacre, they’ve increased the number of armed guards – there are two of them. One rifle will not help us,” said Pranav.
Shamsher exclaimed, “Dhat! Now, where do we get another one?”
“My maternal uncle’s son is a sepoy in the army, and he said he’ll arrange for one. But it’ll take him 10-12 days to get it,” added Pranav.
“But we will miss our deadline!” I cried.
“Yes, that’s true. But we can reschedule it for 31st May as it can be more beneficial for us. In addition to the staff salaries, the bank will be stuffed with the year-end school fees. More money is on the cards – but, at the cost of a month delay,” explained Pranav.
“I like it,” declared Batuknath.
“I don’t like the month delay, but we don’t have much of choice, do we?” said Shyamlal.
“Arrey! Won’t you guys be married by next month, Pranav?” Shamsher asked.
“Yes, bhaijaan. Our marriage is on 15th May. But it won’t cause any hiccups in our plans. If anything, Rajjoji and I plan to speed up our activities.”
“God bless the two of you! To defeat the British, young blood like yours is crucial,” said Batuknath. “Rajjo and Pranav ‘guard’ the rifle. Succeeding in our mission is critical. We’ll continue to communicate via the notes. Pranav, once you’ve got the gun in your hands, let us know. We’ll meet again, till then, Inquilab Zindabad!”
I was very excited about our upcoming wedding. While I loved my parents, baba didn’t approve of my nocturnal activities. He believed the British were evil, and meddling in their affairs would only bring more misery in our lives. Pranav came from a family whose values were steeped in the freedom struggle – it was what attracted Pranav to me. In him, I saw a man who upheld his morals, was willing to risk it all to help his country in her times of need.
Despite my intense dislike for all things British, I loved the all-girls school and its library. The library was bursting at the seams with books I loved to read! It was another endearing aspect of Pranav’s personality, a shared trait – our love for books – and for a librarian, it enhanced his appeal. And we could always use the library for our meetings as I had the keys.
It’s my most favourite place where I can do something for my country.
Anthony School, 3rd May 1919
“The rifle is at home, Batuknath bhaiya,” said Pranav. “It was hand-delivered, hidden in the marriage items. I stuffed it under my mattress. No one suspects anything.”
“That’s great news. The plan goes like this, on 31st Shamsher and I, armed with our rifles, will enter the bank, followed by Pranav and Rajjo. Shyamlal will wait outside with our bicycles, so we can escape using them. Once inside, we’ll go straight to the cashier, where Pranav will ask him to hand over the money. Shamsher and I’ll guard us, our rifles, drawn. Rajjo will help Pranav stuff the bag with the cash. We aim to avoid firing our rifle…,” said Batuknath.
“Why? I say we must shoot those pigs. They are so subservient to the British. They’re barely worthy of our bullets!” Shamsher spat in anger, interrupting him.
“You’re right, Shamsher, but they’re still our brothers. Shooting them isn’t right,” responded Batuknath.
“That’s the doctor in you speaking, Batuknath. I agree with Shamsher. Let us blast them!” said Shyamlal, in a rare display of anger.
“Gandhiji’s also against violence. I think Batuknath bhaiya’s right,” I said, and Pranav nodded.
“We’ll shoot if necessary. Continuing, by chance, if anyone’s captured, no one will try and rescue them. Just run with the money. Each one takes care of themselves. Got it? We’ll use our turban ends to cover our faces. Rajjo can use her sari pallu. Maintain tight secrecy as we never know who’s a spy these days. Nothing can dampen our will to succeed. Vande Mataram!”
Rajjo’s house, 15th May 1919
The morning of our wedding dawned bright and clear. Our house was full of guests, milling around. When I entered the mandap, dressed in all my formal finery, Pranav could barely take his eyes off me, my veil playing a spoilsport in his pursuit.
After the ceremony and a tearful farewell, Pranav perched me, wedding sari and all, on the rear-seat of his bicycle and rode around the block, much to baba’s embarrassment. I felt I’d finally escaped the confines of baba’s will as I started my new life with Pranav.
On our wedding night, Pranav held my icy cold hand in his warm ones. “Rajjoji, my little sparrow, I promise you our little nest will always be filled with joy. Your happiness means everything to me. Everything. You’re free to do as you wish as no one has any right to stop you.”
Anthony School, 30th May 1919
“Tomorrow at 09:00 am, we’ll meet at the corner sweet shop, our rifles will be hidden. If anyone wants to back-off, now’s the time. No? Good. God willing, our tryst with destiny will bear fruits.”
“Inshaallah!” said Shamsher.
Dalal Street, 31st May 1919
The street corner was crowded; people, going about their morning chores. The morning felt humid and dark clouds were visible at the horizon. As if foretelling an unfortunate event. There was a hint of desperation in the air.
Maybe I’m projecting my feelings.
I held onto tightly to Pranav. We were on his bicycle when we turned around the corner, my shyness giving way to apprehension. My heart was thundering as the shop came into focus. Everyone was sitting on the benches with cups of tea and an air of nonchalance.
I wonder if they are scared but hiding it well. Not like me, who is quaking in her proverbial boots.
“Namaste. A warm day isn’t it?” said Pranav.
“Yes,” said Shamsher wiping his forehead with the hanging end of his turban. “Hot tea helps in bringing the heat down.”
That was our cue to rise and move towards the bank. Shyamlal broke away from the group, limping; it was his job to ensure our cycles were in position so we could escape. We headed towards the bank, on every step of the way, my heart threatened to jump out of my mouth. I realized under the overpowering fear, a frisson of excitement was present. I was contributing my two-bit to the freedom struggle, however small it may appear.
I will fulfil my promise to my motherland. Patriotism flows in my blood, and the burning quest for freedom will keep me going.
We entered the bank with several customers inside. As Pranav and Shamsher made their way to the cashier, a clap of thunder startled me. Overhead, the brooding clouds mocked us, threatening to rain. Everything felt so oppressive.
“Hand over the rupaiya, now! Do as you’ve been asked,” screamed Pranav with Shamsher pointing his rifle at the cashier.
The whole scene feels surreal as it’s a scene from my beloved books, and I, a standby character.
Suddenly, complete chaos broke out with hordes of police storming into the room. They surrounded us, pushed into an ad-hoc circle. They pointed their guns at us. Confusion reigned in the air. People stared, wide-eyed at the unfolding events.
“Ah, we’ve been waiting for you!” said Mr. Charles, the bank manager, waltzing in.
Batuknath and I exchanged glances.
We’d been betrayed. But, by who?
I peered through the windows but couldn’t locate Shyamlal. It had started to rain.
Mr. Charles walked up to us. “You thought you’d steal from the British coffers, eh? Your so-called fantastic plan wasn’t airtight. Don’t worry. You will have a lot of time to mull over it when you would be imprisoned.”
Just then, Shyamlal, handcuffed, limped into the bank with the policemen, holding him by his sides. He was shoved in our circle, causing him to fall. I was bamboozled.
If it wasn’t Shyamlal bhaiya, then who betrayed us?
I looked at the men, trying to read their inscrutable faces. They were glaring at each other, doing the same.
“Who is the wolf wearing the sheep’s clothing, eh? Isn’t that what you’re thinking? Well…well…well,” asked Charles. “Time will reveal it all.”
Shamsher surreptitiously bent down to pick up his fallen rifle and pointed it at Mr. Charles, who laughed, “That thing? It’s got rubber bullets inside. As if we’d leave a loaded gun in the cupboard! You silly, silly Indians.”
The men looked at me, eyes filled with accusation. I shook my head, “No, no. It wasn’t me,” I start to cry silent tears.
Mr. Charles nodded at his henchman, who approached us with handcuffs. He bound Shamsher.
Not Shamsher bhaijaan.
He turned towards Pranav and Batuknath, moving between them.
Moment of truth. Can Batuknath bhaiya be the spy? It cannot be Pranav. It is got to be Batuknath bhaiya.
He held the handcuffs out for a minute and slowly shackled Batuknath bhaiya’s wrists. Pranav smiled at Mr. Charles, shattering me.
The rain came down in torrents. Turning everything black.
Pranav is a British spy? How’s that possible? He planned today’s event. Oh, he planned today’s event. How about the rubber bullets? What about his patriotism? His family values? What will his family say? What a fool I’ve been! I couldn’t read the signs.
I stared at Pranav, my face white. He gazed at me, beseechingly, “Rajjoji, they promised the headmaster’s role to me. And a pay hike for us. They said we’d have complete control over the school. I did it for you, for us, for our future. You mean so much to me.”
I glanced at the others standing next to me. Their manacled hands, coiled in tight fists, with disgust and repulsion on their faces. They wouldn’t meet my eyes. I shook my head, dazed. I felt like I were underwater, the silence deafening. The water pulling me in, coaxing me to stop struggling, to give in. I fought the urge.
I can’t give in. I’ve made a promise to my motherland. Patriotism runs in my blood, not betrayal.
The thunder rumbled. I kept my head high, dropped the pallu from my face, and walked to the policeman, “Handcuff me, too, thandedaarji. I’m the mastermind of this plan. I’m responsible for it.”
Mr. Charles smiled creepily. Batuknath bhaiya’s eyes lit up with pride. He nodded at me.
I felt at peace, in solidarity with my brothers. Ab bhi jiska khoon nahi khaula, khoon nahi vo paani hai, jo desh ke kaam na aaye, vo bekaar jawani hai. Vande Mataram.
The clunk of the handcuffs locking around my wrists drowned Pranav’s wails.
* Prompt: Librarian; a loved one is what they seem to; Pre-partition India
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