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An Evening at the Maharanee's
Hitler was dead, the peace in Europe almost a month old; only the Japanese remained to be dealt with. In June the Viceroy left London, flew back to Delhi, said nothing in public for nearly two weeks and then announced a conference of Indian leaders at Simla to discuss proposals which he hoped would ease the political situation, hasten final victory and advance the country towards her goal of full self-government. To enable all the leaders to be there he had to issue several orders of release from imprisonment.
The conference opened on June 25 and did not break down until July 14, an unexpectedly long time in the opinion of many English officials for Congress and Muslim League views on the composition of a new Indianised Executive Council or interim government to prove irreconcilable. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, admitting failure, blamed himself and begged that there should be no recriminations. Subsequently, in press conference, the leader of the All-India Congress Party, a Muslim, blamed the leader of the Muslim League for the unbending nature of his claim for the League's right to nominate all Muslim members of the proposed Executive Council and blamed the British Government for not having foreseen that the conference would break down if one party were given the right of veto on nominations and therefore the opportunity to hold up the country's progress to autonomy. The leader of the Muslim League spoke disapprovingly of a combination of Hindu interests supported by the 'latest exponent of geographical unity' – the Viceroy – whose plan in his opinion was a snare for Muslim interests. Mr Nehru described the Muslim League as mediaeval in conception, and warned that the real problem facing a free India would not be communal and religious differences but economic backwardness.
The members of the conference then left Simla to consider the situation in private. Among the first to go was Mr Mohammed Ali Kasim, a Muslim Congressman and ex-chief minister of the prewar government of the province of Ranpur, who, if Jinnah had his way, could expect no portfolio in the higher council. Like several other prominent Congress politicians Mr Kasim had not been seen in public for nearly three years. Guarded from reporters by a small but efficient entourage headed by his younger son Ahmed, he ignored the questions shouted at him as he left the Cecil Hotel and concentrated on helping Ahmed to support a frail old man later identified by onlookers as his aged and ailing secretary – Mr Mahsood. Safe in his car at last he snubbed the young man from the Civil and Military Gazette who got close enough to the window to say, 'Minister, is Pakistan now inevitable?' by commanding Ahmed to put up the glass and pull down the blinds.
The lowering of the blinds caught the imagination of an Indian cartoonist who portrayed the car (identified as that of the ex-chief minister by the initials MAK on one of its doors) with all its windows, including the driver's, shuttered and making off at high speed (smoke-rings from the exhaust) from a once imposing but now crumbling portal inscribed 'Congress' towards a distant horizon with a sun marked 'Hopes of Office' rising behind a broken-down bungalow on whose rickety verandah the leader of the Muslim League, Mr Jinnah, could be seen conferring with several of his associates.
The cartoon annoyed adherents of Congress. They objected both to the inference that Mr Kasim was about to betray them and join the League and to the representation of their party as a derelict doorway with nothing behind it. Similarly, Muslim Leaguers objected to the portrayal of the Qaid-e-Azam as the occupier of a squalid little property such as the one depicted.
By the time the cartoon appeared (two days after the end of the conference) the liberals and middle-of-the-road men in Indian politics – who might have protested at the lampooning of a man whose legal skills and political integrity had commanded wide respect for a quarter of a century – could not help wondering whether Mr Kasim had after all shown himself as capable as men of lesser merit of acting with an eye to the main chance. What else, they asked, but an intention to shift his allegiance to the League, in the hope of securing his political future with a party that had grown strong enough to wreck a viceregal conference, could better explain his subsequent mysterious behaviour?
Between Delhi and Ranpur Mr Kasim seemed to have succeeded not only in evading the journalists but in disappearing together with his entire entourage. He was not on the train when it arrived in Ranpur and he never turned up at the old Kasim house on the Kandipat road. This house had been closed since Mr Kasim's wife (and then Mr Mahsood) had left it in the middle of 1944 to join him after his release from the Fort at Premanagar in the protective custody of his distant kinsman, the Nawab of Mirat. The reason given for that release had been Mr Kasim's reported ill-health, but it was Mrs Kasim who, some six month later, died.
The journalists who waited outside the still-locked gates of the house on the Kandipat road to greet the distinguished Muslim Congressman on his return home after three years detention and restriction, found themselves joined, towards evening, by colleagues who had waited just as uselessly at the station, and then by a growing crowd of spectators who eventually tangled with a truck-load of police sent to disperse them. A running battle developed between the lathi-armed constables and the quicker-tempered of Mr Kasim's admirers (students). The peaceful pleasures of families taking the air in the Sir Ahmed Kasim Memorial Gardens opposite were disturbed. A number of arrests were made and rumours then spread through the Koti bazaar and out to the suburb of Kandipat that Mr Kasim had been arrested by the British on the train from Delhi, had been abducted by Hindu extremists, had been murdered by the communists, had succumbed to poison administered by agents of the Viceroy. The shop of an unpopular merchant, a Hindu who gave short weight, was broken into and looted and that of another, a Muslim, ransacked in retaliation. The following day students of the Ranpur Government College demonstrated in the area of the Civil Lines carrying placards asking 'Where is MAK?' and hartal was observed in the Koti bazaar by Hindus and Muslims alike for fear of riot, arson and the consequent loss of profits.
At this stage it was discreetly leaked by the Inspector-General of Police to the Municipal Board that Mr Kasim was alive and well and back in the Nawab of Mirat's summer palace in the Nanoora Hills, and this information was simultaneously confirmed by a telephone call from a correspondent in Mirat to his editor in Ranpur. It seemed that Mr Kasim and his party had left the Delhi-Ranpur train at a wayside halt some miles outside the provincial capital and had then been driven to another wayside halt where the Nawab's private train awaited him and carried him back to the scene of his protective custody, although in this case it had to be assumed that his return was voluntary and caused by nothing more sinister than the need to sort out the detritus of the year he had spent there under government restriction.
The news inspired the same cartoonist to a further interpretation of Mr Kasim's evasive behaviour. Mirat was a princely state whose territory was contiguous to the province, whose inhabitants were predominantly Hindu but whose ruler was of the Islamic faith. In the new cartoon MAK was shown sitting cross-legged at a low table in the company of the Nawab and Mr Jinnah. The table, heavily spread with a feast, was labelled 'Islam'. Beneath it, only head and arms visible, was the struggling body of Free India. From behind a pillar the puckish face of Winston Churchill peered, the head sporting a Jinnah-shaped fez to depict the English leader's alleged preference for Muslims and sympathy with their aspirations, the face smoothed by an expression of satisfaction at the thought that the Princes, those loyal Indian supporters of the Crown in two world wars, and the Muslim League which had refused to have anything to do with the non-cooperation tactics of the Congress Party, would together – for whatever different reasons – now so bedevil every move the Congress made to force the issue of Indian independence to a conclusion favourable to themselves that British rule could comfortably be extended far enough into the future for the phrase 'indefinitely if not in perpetuity' not to seem inappropriate. Another cartoon on the following day depicted Mr Churchill receiving an ovation from a moronic (or badly drawn) and adoring British public, to whom he was about to appeal for re-election, holding in one arm a baby labelled 'Victory in Europe', with the other arm extended presenting its hand in giant perspective and the famous V-sign, but with the two fingers raised the wrong way round. One of these fingers was labelled 'Jinnah' and the other 'Princely India'. Clenched in the curled fist below the fingers was a limp body representing Indian unity and nationalism. Thereafter, as a result of a visit to the editor's office by a representative of the CID no cartoons by this particular artist appeared in this or any other newspaper for some time.
The news that Mr Kasim had gone back to Mirat caused a similar influx of journalists into Nanoora to that of the previous year when he had been let out of the Fort; but although there were now presumably no restrictions on his movements or activities the journalists again failed to obtain an interview and this time did not even receive official messages of regret from court officials that Mr Kasim had no statement to make. Several abortive attempts were made to enter the grounds of the summer palace; a costly business since it involved bribing servants and officials, and a dangerous one because there was the risk of arrest for trespass, even (it was said) of summary imprisonment in one of the Nawab's dungeons. One by one the journalists departed, filing imaginative copy, until only a handful remained in the rambling little hill town, drinking in the coffee and liquor shops, discussing the interesting rumour about Mr Kasim's elder son Sayed, which their editors dared not yet print, and visiting the brothels, for private entertainment but also in the hope of meeting Mr Kasim's younger son, Ahmed, who was said to be a drunkard and a lecher, an incorrigible wastrel who had come near to breaking his father's heart before being packed off to Mirat in the Nawab's service, to womanize and drink himself to death if he wished.
But there was no sign of Ahmed Kasim either. A story that he was being treated for venereal disease in a room in the private residence of Dr Habbibullah, chief physician to the Nawab, sent the remaining journalists from the Nanoora Hills down to the city of Mirat and then a rumour that MAK had initiated the story of his younger son's illness to get rid of the press and leave Nanoora unnoticed sent some of them rushing back and others out of the State altogether, back to Ranpur and British India. The latter found the Kasim house on the Kandipat road still closed and the former were no more successful than hitherto in establishing through the evidence of their own eyes whether the elusive Congressman was in fact in residence at the summer palace.
Journalists in other parts of India thought they detected in the attitude of members of the Congress high command more pious hopes than firm convictions of Mr Kasim's continuing allegiance to the twin cause of freedom and unity which he had supported throughout his political life, and a characteristically enigmatic comment by the Mahatma (not spoken, but written down, it being his day of silence) did little to remove the suspicion that during the Simla conference there had been private differences of opinion between MAK and his distinguished colleagues. Asked if he could throw any light on Mr Kasim's apparently self-imposed security screen, Mr Gandhi wrote: 'God alone throws light on any matter and in this light we may from time to time perceive the truth.'
With this the two journalists had to be content because the Mahatma indicated that the interview was over. They departed, leaving him to bathe and have his massage.
A few days later public interest in Mr Kasim's political intentions was temporarily extinguished by the unexpected news that the British electorate had voted overwhelmingly for the Socialists and, in doing so, relegated the arch-imperialist, Mr Churchill, at the moment of his triumph, to the post of Leader of His Majesty's now numerically harmless Tory Opposition.
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The story that three senior members of the Bengal Club promptly died of apoplexy, although not without a certain macabre charm, proved to have no foundation in fact; but there was no doubt that for several days relations between many British officers and the rank and file of conscript British soldiers serving their time in India, who had voted by post and proxy, were a little distant, and in one reported case demonstrably strained and only saved from escalating to the point where they would have formed the basis of a very serious affair of conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline by the presence-of-mind of a sergeant-major who stood between his captain and a lance-corporal who had admitted 'voting for old Clem' on the railway station at Poona and said, 'Sir, I think we have a little touch of the sun.' It was raining at the time.
The rifle company of which this captain was in command formed part of a British infantry battalion that was on its way to Kalyan, near Bombay, to join the forces gathering there for the invasion and liberation of Malaya, in an operation known as Zipper. The battalion reached Kalyan on July 30 and settled itself in to a section of an immense hutted encampment that looked and proved dreary. The wet monsoon was at its peak. The Churchillian officer and most of his colleagues managed to travel frequently by jeep to find solace in Bombay, in whose roads part of the invasion force of shipping had already anchored in preparation for the embarkation of the troops, but the rank and file were less fortunate.
There was Housey-Housey, a camp cinema, and Indian prostitutes who were cheap but out-of-bounds. There was mud. It was a bleak terrain that it took some effort of imagination to see as once having been part of the background to the romantic and exotic affairs of the Mahratta kings in whom a fair-haired and well-spoken British Field Security sergeant – with a degree in history from Cambridge – attempted to interest a bored and restive group of captive Cockney, Welsh, Midlands and Northern Englishmen who had to be forgiven for wondering what they were doing in Kalyan getting kitted up for the Far East when the real war (the one in Europe) was over and the lights had actually gone up in London, in every sense. Accounts received from home of VE night celebrations had already eroded what little sense of India's attractions they had acquired and since this had in any case never been lively enough to nourish in them any kind of curiosity about her history or her future, the Field Security sergeant, whose name was Perron, was soon left in little doubt of his audience's indifference to the political machinations and territorial ambitions of Mahdaji and Daulat Rao Sindia. Since he had embarked on the lecture with neither enthusiasm nor optimism, the audible appeal to wrap it up for ****** sake caused him no surprise and scarcely a pang. His closing description of a lady-warrior said to have reduced her male rivals to a state of military impotence, by admitting them to her chamber one after the other on the night before a battle, brought the lecture to an end in an atmosphere of nearhysteria. 'Bring 'er on,' the same voice cried, and the room then resounded to whistling and the stamping of hundreds of ammunition boots – a noise that greeted the Welfare Officer as he arrived to see how Sergeant Perron was getting on and which seemed to encourage him in a belief that such lectures were a good thing; a belief of which Sergeant Perron did not disabuse him because he had decided quite early in his military service that for life to be supportable officers had to be protected from anything that might shatter their illusion that they knew what the men were thinking.
Knowing himself incapable of reaching the required standard of self-deception in this, and other matters that came under the heading 'Leadership', and believing that life in the ranks would provide him with a far greater measure of freedom and better opportunities to study in depth human behaviour during an interesting period of history, he had politely but stubbornly resisted every attempt made to commission him. Only one set of the batch of uncles and aunts who had taken it in turns to bring him up thought this short-sighted. The others approved of his decision. They thought it agreeably eccentric, quite in keeping with the radical upper-class tradition which they liked to feel distinguished them as a family.
Excerpted from A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott. Copyright © 1976 Paul Scott. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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