I was vibrant 17 years old then, a second year student of graduation in City College, Calcutta.
Those days it was Calcutta in English, and Kolkata in Bengali. It took them a few more decades to still feel enslaved by the British name of an Indian city, offensively carried forward; it was corrected thereafter and Bengal office-bearers finally felt proud that the state had conclusively come out of the British shadows.
At 12 midnight, not a single soul slept. Pt. Nehru’s voice beamed from the other side of the radio. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to light and freedom…!” For those like me who heard him speaking at that hour would probably recollect the bundle of emotions we felt passing through our veins and nerves. The voice will reverberate inside our heart as long as we breathe. It was the first voice of Independent India.
Those days I was living with my cousin at Paikpara in North Calcutta. Usually I clung on to my bed till 8.30 in the morning, but that was a special sun-rise after the night when we hardly slept. Everyone was up and excited, everyone wanted to celebrate. The day was something we had earned with blood and sweat, literally. From Paikpara I walked some two and a half kilometres, to reach Shyambazar five point crossing. There was no one accompanying me, but I wasn’t alone. Many others walked to feel the taste of this strange morning.
At Shyambazar, many people had gathered with paper slags. Lots of trucks stood there waiting. I was yet to know who supplied those trucks, but rode one nevertheless. The trucks were waiting for the general public to ride on and go wherever they wanted. We started from Shyambazar and went to Rajabazar area first, through Upper Circular road, now renamed as Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road. Rajabazar was a sensitive area because of communal furies. People used to avoid that area after the great Calcutta killing of 15th August, 1946. Exactly a year after, I’m not sure why we headed towards the same place first, so fearlessly. Today when I look back, I feel, perhaps that was where we wanted to touch the soil, forgive and seek forgiveness.
To my surprise, people crowded there at Rajabazar crossing with rose petals and perfumed water. They sprayed those, hugged and exchanged pleasantries, regaling with the travellers on the trucks.
From there we went to Sealdah station, following the same route which went to Tiljala. There was no flyover then. The truck also took us to Dharmatala. All these were infamous areas which people had been avoiding till sometime back. But this morning, the same places treated us with perfumed water, welcoming every soul with a smile.
Somehow people had forgotten the animosity that existed between religious communities. Overnight people had changed their attitude. The wand of independence transformed everyone from militants to friends. A feeling of togetherness of belonging to India was ushering in.
Our truck, me included, decided that we must visit the Governor’s house nearby, which was the hot-bed of political and administrative directions. Amidst loud cheers, we reached our destination. All the gates of the Governor’s house were flung open and people in large numbers were going inside. This was an unimaginable sight which one could not even dream of during the British rule. It seemed as if it was truly the common people of India who were assuming office. Doors were opened to tell people that everything now belonged to everyone; nothing was prohibited any longer.
The new Governor, Sri Rajagopalachari stood on the 2nd floor balcony, watching the people invading the gates. They were very jubilant having crossed the boundaries which once happened to be the house of British power; something they were allowed to see only from outside. In their mirth, they started breaking the glass panes of the windows as they passed the corridors and went upstairs. They thought that it was their duty to break whatever British remnants were still visible. No one stopped them. The police, the government officials, the servants and workers, the watchmen, all stood aside watching people lose their senses. A few from the crowd, who seemed comparatively sane, tried to resist these atrocities; but they were overpowered by others. Vandalising this power centre of Britishers seemed to be a venting point for their accumulated anger.
We went through all the floors of the Governor’s house before we came out to board the truck, once again. The drivers wanted to know the next destination. We drove off to Metiaburuz, another notorious spot those days that bred communal disharmony. Surprisingly, all those areas which were forbidden earlier, apprehending calamities, were now open. The truck ran through the lanes and bylanes of Metiaburuz. Who would have said that those same dark lanes had seen so much blood when riots broke out frequently? Conduct of the residents and visitors had changed, and how! It was such a miracle.
We came back to Shyambazar again in the afternoon. By then, almost every house had hoisted the tri-colour. There were processions on the road, celebrating the freshly founded nation, headed by its own people. I didn’t have to go back to Paikpara on foot. Those who drove cars were offering free rides to the people walking on the road. At 4pm, I came back totally exhausted and hungry. Till a few days post that, I could not move as my limbs felt heavy with the exhaustion.
Inside the house that evening, the radio commentary kept feeding us about the Independence Day celebrations in different corners of the country. With tired eyes demanding to sign off for the day, I heard how the British flag was lowered and Indian flag hoisted in the presence of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British ruled state and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Prisoners had been released from various jails. Constituent Assembly Members have taken their oath and assumed office.
Before I lost myself to sleep, I faintly heard the newsreader say, “Today, on August 15, 1947, many Bengalis, who lived in the vicinity of what today constitutes the border between Bangladesh and India on the West Bengal side, woke up not knowing where they belonged, India or Pakistan!”