War and teenage in Calicut

A war hero is in the making in this chapter from Raghu Karnad’s new non-fiction saga about India in World War II


Indian soldiers training with gas masks during World War II. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
Indian soldiers training with gas masks during World War II. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

It is said that the news of the world war reached Calicut along with the morning eggs. Perhaps that isn’t true at all. Perhaps it’s only true that the price of eggs was the first the Calicut Parsis saw of the costs of war; the first of many. Maybe they remembered what happened to the price of eggs, even years and years later, because they wanted to forget what happened to the boys.

If, however, it is true, then it must have begun with a commotion at the Marshall house, nearest the pier. The noise would have been swallowed by the rowdy waves of dawn, on a sea swollen by the late monsoon. If Bobby had been in Calicut, he would have been there in an instant. Rounding the corner to the beach road, he would have spotted the egg boy cowering behind his bicycle; then the Marshalls’ cook, aggrieved, wiping his neck with the tail of his checked-cotton mundu; then Keki Marshall, hollering as though he meant to argue the sun back into its bed. He would bloody well not pay four annas a dozen. Not for eggs. Whatever conspiracy of grocers, hoarders and bastards thought they could double the price of eggs overnight, they were going to learn differently from him, war or no war.

But did someone say war?

The egg boy may have been told that rationing and shortages were expected, and eggs would be priced up as a precaution. But he couldn’t have explained about the Panzers in Poland, the craven declaration from London, or the Viceroy in Delhi already committing India and Indians to the fray. Instead the egg boy fled. He wobbled his bicycle a safe distance from the gate and rested a moment, calming himself down. Ahead of him was a full street of Parsi homes. He knew precisely how many eggs they took. He knew he was going to catch hell at each doorstep. He couldn’t imagine the hell he was going to leave there.

News, like almost everything, travelled slowly to Calicut, though it was the largest town in Malabar. The province lay in the narrow lap of the western coast, with its head leaned up against the high range of the Western Ghats, and its feet dipped in the Indian Ocean. The town was a minor entrepôt for timber, pepper and cashew coming down to the sea, and fish, petrol, shop goods, and the post going back up. Once it had mattered more. It had been the seat of the Zamorin of Malabar, whose rule extended south as far as Cochin, and it was here that Europe first trod on India’s soil, when Vasco Da Gama scraped up on the beach at Kappad.

The centuries since had left Calicut to turn in its own slow eddy of trade. Its provincialism concealed the scale of its wealth and commerce, and the rhythms of the town played like a drowsy accompanist behind the full-lunged score of the sea. Arab dhows rode at anchor, waiting to unload sacks of dried fruit from Yemen, then raised their sails and blew away like kites on the horizon’s glittering string. Coconut trees crowded the shore, and further inland all was covered in layers of matted green. Pink lotus wilted in the temple pond, and in the courtyards stood elephants, black and mottled and as brilliantly daubed as the lingam within. At the market, Maplah wives in long-sleeved blouses and headscarves mingled with bare-breasted Ezhava women selling clams and jackfruit. The town had no garrison, no real port. So Calicut concerned nobody but the sahibs who owned plantations on the Wynaad Plateau, the many local castes and creeds, and the Parsis.

The Parsis: pale as scalps, mad as coots, noses like commas on the page. They were devoutly civilised, consummately lawful, and still abided by the spirit of the first contract they made in India, as refugees shin-deep in the surf. Parsi: it meant from Persia, and the label never peeled away; the centuries only stiffened their pose, polite and helpful, as India’s permanent houseguests.

They were friends to all, up to the King and down to the cobbler, and while they could be silly buggers, there was always a politesse, acceptance of the King’s law, distaste for conversion or preaching aloud. They were sporting in business, and businesslike at sport. What Gurkhas were in the Army, Parsis were in civilian life—the exemplary race, making the best of British command without any desire to usurp it. So they retained the state of public grace that best served private wealth. Humata, hukhta, huvrastha: Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

Bombay was their metropole, Karachi too; further south they got a bit native. In Malabar the men all spoke Malayalam, could gallop it in their mouths, but the women were not exposed too much, for the sake of their complexion, and their accents remained. Women wore saris but the men wore shoes indoors. Like Anglo-Indians, they were attentive to cutlery; unlike Anglo-Indians, they were content—a creed of Oneness had chased them out of Persia, and a creed of Innumerables had received them, and they had prospered, most major of minorities. At the beginning of the new war they were as numerous as they would ever be, and that was only 100,000, a homeopathic dose for India: a thimble of sweet milk set down beside its vats of steaming oils and syrups.

Away from the pier, near the Heerjees’ soda factory, was the house in which Bobby Mugaseth grew up with his three sisters. The pier was where Bobby staged one of his classic pranks: going down at dawn, when the boats knocked against it like toddy-drunks clutching at a rail, and dropping into the water for a swim, against his father’s rules. Afterward he splashed up the beach to circle the Marshall house, tapping at the louvred windows until Bacha Aunty suffered him coming in to bathe.

Bobby, properly Godrej Khodadad Mugaseth, did believe himself a good Parsi. If his hand was easily turned to mischief, that was not necessarily un-Parsi-like—only unlike the paragons of Parsi merit who occupied the nearer branches of his family tree.

His grandfather Dhanjibhoy had arrived in Malabar in the 1850s, and quickly transformed from a sunken-cheeked boxwallah into the very Moses of Parsi society there. On the broad Beypore he had built Malabar’s first steam-powered sawmill, turning its estuary into one of the busiest timber yards in the world, and himself into the patron of Calicut’s industrial and civic life.

Bobby was relieved to have never known him, and to encounter him principally through the clipping books in which his obituaries were preserved. He was a ‘sincere admirer of British rule and British institutions’ (the Statesman) ‘held in high esteem among a very wide circle of European friends and admirers’. He was ‘the Grand Old Man of Calicut’ (the Spectator). Yet the most captivating image of his grandfather was from the story, gleaned from these admiring reports, of a single spectacular failure.

The coffee-planters of Wynaad had long struggled with transport between plantation and coast. Dhanjibhoy had an inspired solution: a camel caravan. He purchased a herd from the Rann of Kutch, had it transported by boat and equipped in Calicut. But there his animals perished, unable to tolerate the tropical climate. Nothing could displace the picture in Bobby’s mind of a silverbearded prophet, brow shining with sweat, struggling up the slick incline to the promised plateau, followed by a train of damp, doomed camels.

Young eyes primed for slights, Bobby noticed that every obituary tipped its hat to Dhanjibhoy’s older surviving son, his Uncle Kobad. None bothered to name the younger son, Bobby’s father Khodadad. Kobad, a doctor, had both retained ‘a large practice among the European community’ and ‘nobly maintained the traditional charity of his honoured and esteemed father’. He was in a big book called Who’s Who, and was the sole Indian member of the Whites-only Malabar Club. Nothing persuaded the British to embrace an Indian as warmly as when the Indian could treat a baby that had squalled through the night.

Kobad served the Empire directly, too. The Great War had ended the year before Bobby was born. In Europe they said there’d be no war ever again, but in Asia it started at once: in the Arab states, in Afghanistan, and eventually in Malabar. The Maplah Muslims, many of them soldiers demobilised after 1918, rose in rebellion and took the districts around Calicut hostage. Thousands were killed, even British soldiers, before order was restored. Afterwards, hundreds of Maplahs were sent to penal settlements in the Andaman Islands. When an Indian delegation was sent to check on their welfare, Kobad was asked to join. The other delegates reported that the convicts were half-dead, but Kobad authored a minority report, insisting that ‘the Maplah had proved himself to be an ideal colonist and pioneer’. For this—for recognising the humane intentions of the Maplah Colonisation Scheme—he was specially thanked by the Excellency-in-Council in Madras.

Britain was their good master. Dhanjibhoy’s early career had been testament to how the colonial economy rewarded enterprise, and his later life showed how the government rewarded loyalty. The family firm was given a monopoly contract to supply salt to all of Malabar. They had, even in a literal sense, accepted the salt of the Raj.

They were happily out of the salt trade by 1930, when Gandhi rallied against the monopoly, leading his long march to lift a clump of slimy salt at Dandi. Inspired, the local Congressmen planned their own salt satyagraha, to start out on the Calicut beach and end up at Payyanur. But the police let them have it, right there in front of the Cosmopolitan Club. Bobby could hear the cries from his house, and drew a picture of the thin men being knocked one way and the other by the arcing lathis and the curl of the morning waves. Some left on stretchers.

School reopened, and while the Civil Disobedience Movement ran its course, eleven-year-old Bobby led a thrilling double life. The Congress was demanding purna swaraj, complete independence. He was swept up in the boys’ talk of boycott and bonfires, and their ardent horror at the convulsions in the furthest reaches of the country: revolt in Chittagong and massacre in Peshawar. At home there was only contempt for Gandhi and his eruptions; Bobby’s father was no less loyal to the British order than his father before him.

Khodadad had always been bright, but had achieved nothing to the hurricane lamp of his brother’s success. What made it worse was that when a certain kind of Calicut conversation came up about Uncle Kobad, it drifted into a vague and unnecessary reproach of Bobby’s father. Khodadad ran the firm, chased shipments at the Harbour Works, and managed the increase of a venture that was already big. He built up accounting successes that interested nobody. His disappointment did not move him to draw his family closer. Instead he pressed his affections like flowers between the pages of two books: his Avesta and his accounts ledger.

He began to assume a pious scrutiny of the community: a prerogative recognised mainly by himself. During Sunday service at the dharamsala, a building built by his father, Khodadad would clear his throat if the dastur misspoke a prayer, to embarrass him into repeating it. When Khodadad came down the street, kids scattered, abandoning their game. By the time they were teenagers, Khodadad only seemed to notice his children when he carried the aferghaniyu, swinging it on its thin, squeaking chains and puffing sweet smoke into every room of the house. He’d present it to each child, and watch from behind a veil of smoke as each one added a piece of frankincense to earn its benediction.

While the country fought for freedom, it was his sisters who first showed Bobby what that might mean. There were four children—one every four years, like clockwork. Bobby was third; the only boy. The oldest, Subur, was eight when Bobby was born and featured in his life mainly as an exemplar of good schoolwork, which never struck him as much of an identity. Subur was a regular bluestocking, and her academic career was for a while the light of Khodadad’s eyes.

Nurgesh, the next sister, was clever too, but her nature was tempered by her strident and overbroad compassion. ‘Nugs’ was the one who sighed and worried about the ribbed creatures, man or horse, that pulled the family around Calicut on rickshaws and tongas. To the world she turned a bright and stubborn face, though on her own she was prayerful and nervous about the hard work it took to be a woman, and furthermore, a doctor, which was her intention. Khorshed—‘Kosh’—four years younger than Bobby, was spoilt and a baby. She had looted the family’s share of good looks, with an oval face and delicate nose, and without the wide mouth that made them look so Parsi. People said she looked like a movie star—like Ingrid Bergman, they would say later on. Bobby said that was ridiculous.

When Khodadad had a photographer come to take family portraits (always at home, never with backdrops, though it pleased him to have a mat printed with a lion at his feet), the girls behaved but their faces gave much away. Subur wore the faint beginning of a smirk, Nugs alone would be smiling; Kosh had her cheek and her neck turned just so. Bobby’s expression was the most elusive. His face was a good one, with large, somnolent eyes under dark brows, smooth cheeks, and a bundle of dark hair with the slightest widow’s peak. He could easily make himself look both handsome and sincere, which was useful for a young man so capricious. But in every photograph his expression was slightly translucent, as if he meant to defy the picture, or anyone looking at it, to record what he really was.

The house belonged to the women. Every room was a warehouse of lace and muslin, light sadras and blouse pieces and petticoats, nighties and Chinese borders and vials of rose water. It was the girls who paid the real price of Khodadad’s piety, however. Trapped at home, confined for five or six days each month to a dim room that held nothing but an iron bedstead, and kept from going to the cinema—even when the Crown and Coronation showed pictures that would be the summer’s sole conversation.

Their freedom movement began with Subur, who won a scholarship to Oxford in 1932, before Khodadad knew women could even go to Oxford. Yet off she went, past the horizon of his control, to dilate on the poetry of the contemporaries of Alexander Pope. For four years she was reduced to a monthly telegram that reported her successes in exams and Society. Then Subur cabled from Marseilles, to say she was about to board the HMS Strathaird and come home. She was not returning alone, but with a man she planned to marry: Gopalaswami Parthasarathi. The Iyengar name hit Khodadad like a lead weight, and left the rest of the boy’s identity (…a double blue at Wadham, son of a distinguished civil servant…) barely ringing in his ears.

It was betrayal. The pure blood in their veins had been poured carefully from the cup of one generation into the cup of the next through centuries, without admitting a drop of pollution. Subur was allowing a Hindu’s spit in it. A Parsi woman who married a non-Parsi lost her religion and her community. She could never enter a fire temple, not even for her parents’ last rites. That Khodadad, whose distinction in Calicut was his religious excellence, had to watch his favourite daughter stray from the faith was vandalism—not only of her soul but of his. A carriage came to the gate one evening and Subur was in it. Her parents had not seen her in four years, and now they would not. Khodadad sat by the door, curled and tense and hard as a scorpion to see that she wasn’t let in. Out front, Nugs and Subur hugged each other’s heads through the carriage window and sobbed.

Those were hot months, mingling too many tears in the sweat of the coastal summer. Bobby watched from the sidelines, ready to run away into the street and ripen his Malayalam in the sun. The house weighed less heavily on him, except that he was the only boy. He must inherit the town’s most eminent trading concern, to manage in his turn. Sons turn into their fathers, Bobby knew, but an end so inevitable could only be treated as impossible: same as death. The picture playing on the screen in Bobby’s head was different. Its action would not be caught in the stifling funnel of the southern coasts, between that seaward gate of the Calicut customs office and the cargo bay of the Madras docks. His story would take him further, though he could not yet imagine how far.

He went hunting with the Heerjee boys and daydreamed down his barrel. Out on the estuary were the only decent summer game—fat, mean muggers lying still and inconspicuous by the water’s edge, looking like sunbaked cowpats unless one had its jaws open. As long as they were sunbathing, the advantage was yours. Once the crocodiles entered the water, it was theirs. You had to get a mugger at the base of its neck, where the scales weren’t armour-hard. If you missed, they were in the water in an instant. They could overturn a boat and slide a child down their throats as if it were a prawn. Or so he’d been told, when he was a child. In the bellies of the oldest muggers there was royal treasure, silver nose-rings and anklets, intact long after the princesses who wore them had been digested.

The moss-mirror surface of the Beypore gave him no foreboding of what lay ahead; bridges on the Ganga, pontoons on the Euphrates or the ferry across the boiling waters of the Manipur. The decade already hastened towards war, but it was someone else’s war, very far away. Bobby never imagined, any more than the egg boy, how the war would rise up around India, or how it would divide the country, divide the army that enlisted him, and even divide Bobby against himself. Or that he, his sisters and new-found brothers, his countrymen and men from all over the Empire, would be drawn out onto roads that led very far from home, and did not all lead back.

If he had known, he might not have been in such a hurry to leave. But nothing was changing yet in Calicut. Every year on his birthday, his family bathed him in milk and rose petals. Every year he protested, letting only his mother Tehmina do it, and every year his sisters would break in, shrieking, to fling the petals at him before he even had his pants on. In his teens, his long face revealed a strong jawline, to balance the effect of the sweet mouth and eyes. As soon as he could, he wore the sharp moustache that was in fashion, like Errol Flynn’s—two sabres crossed on his lip. He was seventeen. It was time to get moving.

Excerpted from Farthest Field with permission from HarperCollins India.

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