A little over two years ago, it so happened that I had to travel on work to a town in Central India, situated amongst the parched scrub forests of that area. The name of the town isn’t important – it was like any of a hundred others, indistinguishably hot, dun-coloured and dusty, with cows wandering the rutted streets and rooting in the rubbish dumps. When I arrived by one of the very few trains which deigned to stop at its tiny railway station, I had no intention of remaining more than a couple of hours. But the man I needed to meet was not in town, as it turned out; I found that he had gone to a village in the district and wasn’t due back for three or four days. Since there was no question of my waiting for him to return, I had no other option but to follow him there.
To get to that village, I hired an ancient Tempo Hanseat which looked as if it would fall to pieces at the first bump in the road. It produced an appalling amount of smoke and deafening engine noise, and I felt each jolt in the base of my spine, but it was the only vehicle I could find to hire. The driver, a thin man with a thick moustache, kept up a nearly incomprehensible babble in the local dialect as we juddered along in a cloud of dust. That dust was some of the worst I’d ever experienced. I could feel it in my eyes, in the sweat running down the small of my back, even in my mouth, gritty between my teeth.
The road ran through straggling scrub forest, dun-brown and dry under the blazing sun. It was so bad that the drive took almost two hours, though the village and the little town weren’t all that far apart. By the time we reached the destination, I felt as though my fillings had jolted loose in my teeth.
The village was an untidy sprawl of houses, some of bricks and others of mud with thatched roofs, centred round a small marketplace, which lay drowsing in the midday sun. Apart from a couple of stalls selling snacks and lukewarm tea, nothing was open, and there was hardly anyone to be seen. It was not the planting season, and therefore nobody was working in the fields around the village, but most of them had sought refuge from the heat of the sun in their houses.
Asking the driver to wait for me, I went seeking the man I’d come all this way to meet. Running him to earth took some time, and when I found him he was more than half drunk on sachets of the liquor the locals brewed. It took him some time to sober up enough to sign the documents I’d brought with me, and by the time I returned to the marketplace the sun was beginning to dip down towards the west.
I found the Hanseat parked under the shade of a tree, its hood raised and the driver casually poking at the engine with a screwdriver. He glanced up at me and shook his head. “It is not starting, saab.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is it something serious?”
He shrugged, turning back to the engine. “I don’t know. Old car, very old car. Mechanic is in the town, have to fetch him tomorrow to repair.”
“Tomorrow?” I almost screamed. “I have to go back now! I need to leave by the evening train.”
He didn’t even bother to look up at me. “No other car in village, saab. Tomorrow morning, maybe someone going to town, will send for mechanic. Impossible to get him here today.”
In the mysterious way of villages, a small crowd had suddenly appeared round us. An old man with a white moustache and a red turban stepped forward. “He says right,” he informed me. “Old car always breaks down. Mechanic has to come.” He looked around. “You can stay in the mukhia’s house, saab. Tomorrow, when mechanic comes, you go back.”
“I can’t wait for the mechanic to come,” I said. Nor did I want to spend a night in that village. I’d seen more than enough of it already. “I have to leave by the evening train.” Inspiration struck me suddenly. “If one walks straight through the jungle,” I continued, “the town isn’t that far off, is it? One might be able to walk it in a couple of hours. If you provide me a guide, I could still make it in time to take the train.”
I was amazed at the horror at which the crowd greeted this suggestion. Even the red-turbaned gentleman seemed to turn pale under his white moustache. “No, saab,” he said. “Nobody will go through there, not with night coming.”
“Why?” I asked. “There aren’t any dangerous animals in these parts, are there? Nor are there Maoists or bandits in the jungles.”
“No,” the old man said, falling back a few steps. Everyone was stepping back, as though I was infected with some kind of disease. “Not animals or anything. But they are there.”
“They?” I frowned. “Who are you talking about?”
“The ones who come out at night,” he said. “When the sky glows red and you can hear their cries, but you can’t see them. But,” he whispered, loud enough for me to hear, “you can see their shadows.”
“Mahaparna,“ someone else chipped in. “It was Mahaparna...” Several people glared at him, and he broke off abruptly.
“You can’t take their name,” the driver snapped. “Taking their name is forbidden.”
“Yes,” the old man in the red turban agreed. “Since Mackay sahib’s time they come out at night, and nobody will go through the forest.”
I shook my head. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re going on about,” I said. “But I have important work – government work – and I can’t wait. If you can’t or won’t give me a guide, I’ll just go alone.”
Nobody said anything. They looked away from me, shuffling their feet in the dust, pulling at their moustaches in embarrassment, and though like so many villagers they lived in awe of the sarkar, the government, not one of them made any move to help me. It was more than puzzling. It was maddening.
But I had no time to waste on trying to persuade them, so I walked away from them and into the forest that lay on the other side of the dusty fields. Once I glanced over my shoulder. They were all standing there staring after me, motionless.
I’m a good walker and have always had an excellent sense of direction, so even without a guide I was fairly certain that I’d be able to make the town in time to catch the train. But night was coming in a couple of hours at the most, and it would be almost impossible to keep going in the dark without even a torch on me. So, clasping my briefcase of documents under my arm, I moved through the scrub as fast as I could.
It was not easy going. The trees were thorny and scraped at my skin through my jeans, and I had to watch where I put my feet because of the danger of stepping on a snake. The heat was still intense, and I hadn’t even had a glass of water since the morning. But there was no way but onward; I couldn’t return to the village even if I’d wanted to, not after I’d declared that I’d go on alone.
I’d estimated that about two hours’ walking should see me through the forest and onto the road by which we’d come, and after that it would be at most another half an hour’s slog to the town. That would even give me a little time to refresh myself before the evening train arrived. But an hour and a half passed, and I was still pushing through the undergrowth, which seemed denser than ever, the thorns like fingers grabbing at my clothes to hold me back. And then, suddenly, as though by magic, the worst of the scrub was gone. The tangle of undergrowth was still around, but lesser, lower to the ground, and it was much easier to go onward.
I looked around me in surprise, and then it was that I saw the ruins. They were obviously very old, overgrown and blurred by time, but still clearly visible – tumbled mud bricks, the remnants of walls, and a pit that must once have been a well, all covered by the dun brown tangle of dry grass.
Despite my hurry, curiosity made me pause a few moments amongst this desolation. It must have been a fairly substantial settlement once, I thought, larger than the godforsaken village where I’d been earlier, and I wondered what had happened to it. And then my foot struck against something which rolled away, and I looked down to find that what I’d kicked was a human skull.
Yes, it was a skull, the dome of the cranium partly caved in, the teeth gone from the jaw and the eye sockets filled with debris. And, looking around, I saw other bones, partly buried, ribs and the long bones of the limbs. Only a little further I found another two or three skeletons, their bones mingled together and covered by the earth and grass. One of the skulls had a hole in the centre of the forehead, for all the world like a bullet hole. But how could that be?
Clearly, I thought, the villagers must know of this place and the skeletons, and in their superstitious little minds have created a taboo out of it. Clearly, also, there must be some kind of mystery here, something that needed to be explored. I wished I could stay longer and sift through the ruins for a clue, but the sun was already touching the tree tops to the west and the shadows were growing long, so, most reluctantly, I had to hurry on again. Before going on, on a sudden impulse I picked up a fragment of brick and put it in my pocket. It was scorched, as though from a fire.
Only a little way past the ruins, the scrub was back, and the going harder than ever.
Night fell while I was still floundering through the jungle, but the moon rose, just short of full, and threw enough light to make out my way. I thought it a lucky break, and did not realise then that the light was strangely reddish for the moon, and seemed to be coming from the wrong direction entirely. But then I stopped for a moment to wipe the sweat from my face, and happened to look back the way I’d come.
At first I thought the forest was on fire, for the sky behind me glowed red, flickering as if there was a mighty blaze just beyond the furthest trees I could see. But there was no smell of smoke on the slow evening breeze, and I heard no crackle of flames. Instead, I heard – or thought I heard – something else.
It was as though, in the infinite distance, a thousand voices were raised in terror, crying out in panic. It came and went, almost below the threshold of hearing, and when the breeze died down it faded away completely. The glow still hung in the sky, flickering, and when the wind stirred slightly I thought I could hear the sound again.
More disturbed than I cared to admit to myself, and much more by luck than judgement, I came out on to the road some time later, and stumbled through the dust towards town. I got there much later than I’d thought, at a time by which the train should have already passed through, but for once luck was with me. The train was also delayed, and I managed to get to the station in time to board it.
I sank back into a window seat, letting the wind through the window dry my sweat, and decided that I had to solve the mystery of those ruins and the skeletons. At the earliest opportunity I’d look into the government records to see what I could discover.
I had only two things to go on – two names, which the villagers had mentioned. These names would be the starting point of my investigation. Mackay – and Mahaparna.
I didn’t know it then, but the search would take me from one end of the country to another. It would frustrate me so many times that more than once I almost decided to give up the effort, and might have if not for the memory of those skeletons and the lights in the sky. I interviewed historians who denied anything had happened. I read official histories and private memoirs, I visited museums and wrote letters and emails to people in Britain and Ireland, and even then it was only by a great stroke of fortune that I laid hands on the diary of a man named Charles Mackay. After that I had definitive leads to go on – leads which would finally tell the story of the massacre of 1392 people at the village of Mahaparna on 15th June 1879.
Even then, to dig out all the facts took me over two years.
The summer of 1879 was a long and terrible one for the people of Mahaparna. It was the third straight year that the rains had failed, and the fields lay parched and fallow, an anvil on which the sun hammered mercilessly. The ponds had long since run dry, and the little water that remained in the wells was gritty and almost unusable. The stocks of grain had almost been exhausted. Starvation stalked the land.
Before the drought, Mahaparna had been a fairly prosperous village, with perhaps three thousand inhabitants. Most of them were Hindus, but there were many Muslims and even a couple of dozen Christians. Most of the people were farmers, while the remainder were craftsmen and traders. For the time, it was a fairly good life. There were no epidemics, and though nobody was rich, nobody was desperately poor. The village grew its produce, paid its taxes, and didn’t worry overmuch about the future.
But then the drought came on the land, and the fields fell to dust. Though the people prayed to their gods for the rains, the sky stayed obstinately the colour of brass, and nothing grew in the parched soil. People began to go to the other villages in search of work, but there was no work to be had. Many migrated elsewhere, to the Imperial capital in Calcutta or even as far as Delhi. Others stayed back, hoping desperately that things would get better. But the months turned to years, and still the drought did not lift.
The British administrator in charge of the district at the time was Charles Mackay. His portrait shows him to have been a rotund little man with a red face and protruding blue eyes. He looks like the archetype of the bullying colonial tyrant, but he wasn’t.
In 1879 Mackay was fifty years old. His father had been an officer in the service of the East India Company, and his mother one of the many Englishwomen who had journeyed to the new colonies to find a husband. She did not long survive Charles’ birth, and his father had taken only a distant interest in his upbringing. Therefore, he had grown up in the care of a succession of Indian nannies and servants, so that he came to think of himself as an Indian.
It is possible that Mackay was gay. He never married, and if he took any native mistress, no record of it exists. It is, however, completely certain that he was no lover of Victoria Regina’s Empire. He had only once been to England, and had hated every moment he’d spent in the fabled Mother Country. On his return he’d joined the administrative service and tried to do his best for the people he thought of as his fellow countrymen.
But promotion had come slowly, because as Mackay himself was well aware, he was cordially detested in the ranks of the civil service because of his identifying himself with the natives. This was his first posting in a position of real responsibility, and he was well aware that while he was unlikely to rise much further, there were plenty of people in the service who would love to see him fall.
The drought would give them an excellent opportunity.
The order came from the Viceroy’s office in the Imperial capital, Calcutta: all back taxes were to be collected without delay. To Mackay, it must have come as a bombshell; he knew that the villagers of his district had almost nothing to eat, let alone pay any taxes at all. They hadn’t been paid any taxes since the beginning of the drought, and he had not asked them to.
But since the order bore the Viceroy’s own signature, Mackay was left with no alternative but to obey. So he called a meeting of the chiefs of the villages of the district. Most of the villages, as it happened, were largely deserted, the people having left for work elsewhere, so only a few of the chiefs attended. Among them was the chief of Mahaparna, one Bablu Ram.
Bablu Ram had been a soldier in his youth, in the employ of the East India Company, and though his unit had not taken part in the great rebellion of 1857, it’s likely his sympathy lay with the troops who had taken up arms against the British. In the aftermath of the collapse of the uprising, he had left the army, returned home, and finally been chosen the chief – a position he’d held for several years. Despite their very different backgrounds, he and Mackay seem to have had a cautious liking for each other.
“An elderly man with a most tremendous pair of white moustaches,” Mackay wrote of him, “with an equally imposing air of dignity. When you looked into his eyes you felt as though you stood in the presence of a king, yet he habitually clad himself in the simplest village clothes and the turban of a peasant. I have seldom met a man simpler in his personal habits, and yet more imbued with the qualities of a leader. It is a matter of great regret for me that our respective stations in life did not permit us to be friends.”
Whatever their mutual feelings might have been, Bablu Ram’s reaction can only mean that he took it as a measure of deliberate oppression on the part of the white overlords. For, without a word in response, he left the meeting, returned to Mahaparna, and called a council of his own, which declared conclusively that the village would under no circumstances pay the taxes.
Mackay cannot altogether have been taken by surprise at this response, for he had already made an alternate plan: that the villages of the district should only pay a token amount, and leave the rest to be settled when the drought ended. The other villages agreed. Bablu Ram, though, would have none of it. He declared that it was a travesty of justice to ask the villages to pay any tax at all – that in a time of near famine, it was the government’s duty to provide food and other essentials to the people, not to exact taxes from them while giving nothing at all. Even the Mughal kings and the Sultans before them, he said, had been more understanding. Whatever other villages did, Mahaparna would stand on principle and not pay a grain of millet or a copper coin.
The powder train had been laid to the disaster in the making. It only waited for a spark. That spark was not long in coming.
Mackay had enemies in his office – more than one of his subordinates had ambitions of supplanting him – and the news of Bablu Ram’s tax strike reached the Viceroy’s office even before Mackay himself had heard all details of it. It seems likely that the report to the Viceroy was suitably embellished until it sounded like a full scale rebellion was brewing. Someone in Calcutta, with memories of 1857 still quite fresh, decided that the insurrection had to be crushed before it spread further. And, fortuitously, at hand was just the man for the job.
His name was Brigadier George Montgomery-Smith, known to his native troops as Smith Sahib. As a fresh young subaltern, he had arrived in India just before the Great Rebellion of 1857, and had fought through the relief of Lucknow and later at Delhi. He had learned through the fighting to hate the brown natives who were too ungrateful to accept the benisons of imperial culture, and who did not spare even the women and children of their colonial masters. By the time the fighting ended, his fellow officers had begun to call him the Sepoy Killer.
He had stayed on in India after the war, winning promotion in a series of postings on the Afghan frontier, until brought back to a staff position in Calcutta. Despite the passing of the years, he had grown to neither like nor trust the Indian soldiers he commanded, or the mass of native humanity from which they sprang. At the same time he had begun to suffer from rheumatism, which kept him in constant pain and shortened his temper. He blamed everything on the Indians – it was their fault, for forcing soldiers like him to stay back to keep them in their place. He awaited an opportunity to take his revenge.
Such was the officer tasked with making sure the rebellion was crushed before it could begin. He left Calcutta on the 14th June, 1879, at the head of a battalion of Irish soldiers from the 88th Foot; Montgomery-Smith did not trust native troops to fire on their own people if ordered. A day’s train ride and an afternoon’s forced march would bring them to Mahaparna. They did not intend to stay long.
Meanwhile, by a most unfortunate coincidence, Mackay had had a riding accident which had confined him to bed for several days. As a consequence, his subordinates were in temporary charge of his office and made no attempt to inform him that a military force was on the way to put down the tax strike at Mahaparna. They probably wanted a disaster to happen.
At this time the population of Mahaparna was a little over fourteen hundred. A large majority of them were the old, the very young, and the women – the able-bodied males had mostly left the village in search of work elsewhere. But those who remained were all with Bablu Ram, who had, on the evening of the fifteenth of June, called a meeting of the villagers to explain the situation. They had gathered in the village square, in the light of torches, to listen to him. And it was just then that the soldiers arrived.
To Montgomery-Smith, it must have seemed like a golden opportunity. The enemy were obviously in a council of war, gathered together in a massed target, splendidly illuminated by the burning torches. There’s no evidence that he hesitated a moment or issued any kind of warning – deploying his troops in an extended arc, he ordered them to open fire.
At the first volley, the people sank to the ground, and then began to run. But they were caught in crossfire from the entire battalion’s arc of deployment, and to run from one volley of bullets simply meant running into another. Calmly reloading their Martini-Henry rifles, the soldiers kept up a steady barrage, their aim as accurate as though they were on a firing range. For their targets, there was nowhere to hide in the expanse of the square, so splendidly lit up for the meeting. Stumbling over the screaming, bleeding bodies of their friends, neighbours and relatives, many sought shelter in the houses, and hid there, shivering, for the shooting to end.
And then Montgomery-Smith’s soldiers set fire to the houses.
It’s almost certain that by that time – over half an hour after the first shot had been fired – Montgomery-Smith had realised that he’d made a bad mistake. The piles of bleeding corpses and screaming wounded on the square were not warriors – there was not so much as a spear or a sword amongst them, and they were mostly old people and women. It must have seemed to him that the best solution was to cover up the massacre by burning the village down, and eradicating the survivors. He would leave no witnesses.
As the red glow of the flames leaped into the sky, the screams of those being burned alive merged with the staccato sound of shots as the soldiers gunned down the survivors. It was nearly midnight before they finished, and Montgomery-Smith ordered them to assemble in marching order.
And it was then that Charles Mackay arrived, his leg in a cast, leaning on the shoulder of a native servant, having limped all the way after hearing shooting in the distance and seeing flames in the sky. He came upon Montgomery-Smith just as the latter was about to lead his troops away.
The two men had never met before, but knew each other by reputation. They came face to face, the short bureaucrat and the tall officer, in the red light of the flames, as though, Mackay would write in his diary, they stood in the midst of hell.
“My god,” Mackay whispered, staring at the destruction. “My god, what have you done?”
“What have I done?” Montgomery-Smith replied. “Cleaned out this nest of snakes, that’s what.” He made to push past Mackay. “If you will step aside, my troops are tired and wish to return to barracks.”
Mackay did not write down the precise reply he made to this, but his diary records a long and acrimonious argument, in which he was accused, among other things, of being a “native lover” and a “traitor to the Crown.” Finally, Montgomery-Smith and his troops marched off by another route. On the way to the railway, they made a point of going through other villages and warning them of the fate that lay in wait for them if they dared raise a hand against the Empire.
Promising to expose what he called a “horrendous atrocity”, Mackay got back to his office to organise a rescue expedition. He found his own staff, as he put it, “most remarkably uncooperative”, and it was the next afternoon before he could put together a small relief group. They found the village burned out, and heaps of charred corpses. At first there didn’t seem to be any survivors.
“I was on the point of giving up in despair,” Mackay wrote, “when I heard a mewling from the ruins of one of the huts. There we found a couple of children, crouched under the body of their mother, who had sought to shelter them from the flames even in death. When we tried to take them from her dead arms, she still clutched them to her, as if she could not bear to let them go. It was one of the most affecting things I have ever seen.”
Over the next couple of days, Mackay’s men found about forty other survivors hiding in the forest. Most of them were children who had managed to escape the shooting due to their small size. Estimating the fatalities from his knowledge of the village’s population, Mackay arrived at the figure of 1392 dead. It may have been that some of the survivors escaped elsewhere; in any case, though the exact toll can never be known, not less than a thousand men, women and children must have perished under Montgomery-Smith’s bullets and in the flames.
Nobody ever saw Bablu Ram again. It was rumoured that he had survived the massacre, and had sought eternal revenge on the British. But though policemen sought news of him for several years, they never found him or any news of him. It is probable that he was killed in the massacre, for he was not the kind of man to run away.
As for Mackay, the massacre effectively ended his career. When he sent angry cables to Calcutta, stating that Montgomery-Smith had massacred a village full of innocent people, his own subordinates sabotaged him each step of the way. They said that to their certain knowledge the villagers had taken up arms in the days after Mackay’s accident, and had been on the point of open rebellion. In support, they produced people from other villages in the district, who had been terrorised by Montgomery-Smith’s troops and meekly said whatever they had been ordered to say.
In the end, officialdom won easily. The Viceroy’s office exonerated Montgomery-Smith of all wrongdoing and gave him a medal. But they must have had an inkling of where the truth actually lay, because the Brigadier was quietly shipped off back to England and the massacre buried in the records. Nobody brought up the matter of the taxes again.
It was the victory that dared not speak its name.
Six months after the destruction of Mahaparna, Mackay left the civil service. He spent the last years of his life trying to care for the children of the massacre, to feed, clothe and educate them in whatever way he was able. Most of them were eventually reunited with relatives from other villages, but the two children he had found under the corpse of their mother remained with him for the rest of his life. Shortly before his death, he adopted them both.
And it was from the great-grandson of one of them that I got the diary Mackay had written; the diary which was the key that threw open the door.
It was a windy afternoon in late September when Thomas Mackay and I stepped through the gates of the cemetery. It was drizzling, and the wind whipped the rain so hard against our faces that we felt as though we were being pricked with a thousand tiny needles.
The cemetery was dark and gloomy, the spaces between the graves overgrown and moss staining the marble, the names partly effaced and difficult to make out. Nobody had been buried here in over sixty years.
“I haven’t actually been in here before,” Mackay said. “I don’t really know what we’re doing here. I don’t know what good it will do.”
“I thought you wouldn’t come,” I said. I’d called on him to ask the way to the cemetery, and he’d said he’d come along. “Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing here either.”
Mackay shrugged. He was a big, round-shouldered man with thick greying hair. “I wouldn’t be here but for the old man, would I? Nor would any of my relatives. So...”
For a while neither of us said anything as we searched among the graves. “Now that you have the facts,” Mackay asked suddenly, “what are you planning to do? Write a book?”
“I could,” I said. “But, I can tell you already what will happen. Nothing.”
Mackay raised an eyebrow. “Nothing? Isn’t it a story? A hidden colonial massacre?”
“It’s a story which nobody wants to know,” I replied, bending over another grave. “The historians don’t want to admit they never heard of it. The politicians don’t want to know about it because it might devalue the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 – after all, it’s even bigger and even less justifiable. As for the government, the last thing it wants is for anything to detract from its efforts to suck up to the British and Americans – after all, it’s pretty much declared that their wars are India’s wars as well. The only ones who might be interested are the far left, and they’d probably twist the facts until even Mackay looks like one of the villains.”
“So...that’s it? It ends here?”
“I’ve written the facts down,” I said. “It’s for people to believe or not to believe. But at least I know, and that’s my satisfaction.”
Instead of replying, Mackay crouched down by a grave. “Come here.”
It was a simple slab, tilted slightly in the weedy ground. The letters on the white marble were almost illegible, faint greyish tracing under dark green moss. They simply read CHARLES MACKAY 1828-95. Nothing else.
“It seems a trite memorial for such a man,” I said.
Mackay laid a hand on my shoulder. “He was a simple man,” he told me. “He wouldn’t really have wanted anything else.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “But it’s trite, all the same.”
“Well...should we go?”
“Yes,” I said. “No. Wait.” From my pocket, I took the fragment of brick I’d picked up in the ruins of Mahaparna so many months ago, and put it at the base of Mackay’s headstone. It was all the gift I had to give him. We stood looking down at it for a while.
Then we walked out of the cemetery through the freshening rain.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012
Note: This story came to me almost fully-formed in an extremely vivid dream. All I've done is give it a narrative shape.