In the Side Margins of History

The silence brought on by the curfew was so stark, Subba could register the thudding of his own heart. Waheguru[i] only knew how long his poor heart could sustain before becoming a floating cadaver of carbs in a river of cheap oil, like the samosas[ii] he had wolfed down just a few hours ago. Mosquitoes buzzed near his ears, aiding his unsuccessful attempts to stay awake. When he tried slapping them away, the echo reverberated in the entire moholla[iii]. It was followed by the sound of a tin can rolling at some distance.

While Subba was certain it was only the work of some stray animal, his job required him to confirm that under no circumstances was the curfew being infringed. With a sigh, Subba pulled himself out a chair that had only just begun to feel comfortable. He stood up, stretched his arms and pulled his belt above bulging belly. After collecting a sturdy lathi[iv] and a torchlight, he shook his partner awake and informed him that he was going to patrol for a bit, without saying any words. The partner nodded and dozed off again. Subba started to think of a good song to hum while lumbering his way into a sleeping town.

He had finished half his patrol before he could find a good song. Yellow streetlights did a poor job in lighting up the path or perhaps it was the moths swarming around them, eating away their light. Since there wasn’t anyone around to stop, tease, threaten and accept bribes from, Subba allowed himself the privilege of indulging into some recreational rumination. And he bloody well deserved some recreation, Subba thought to himself, for tomorrow these same tranquil streets would be blistering with throngs led by a couple of fork-tongued leaders who had nothing better to do than giving him lasting back aches. In his five months of being posted in that jungle of insanity, Subba hadn’t had one moment of respite–of course he deserved some recreation!

There used to be a time, he recalled, when patrolling was his recreation, his adventure. He loved treading unfamiliar roads, sketching paths were none were visible, believing steadfastly that he was affirming law and order in his wake. He was so young then, and so terribly fit. A proud jawan[v] of the Crown Representative Police. The year was 1945.

Like his father before him, Subba had joined the police as soon as he got of age. A strapping boy of eighteen he was when he got inducted into his own Rajasthan Regiment. Policing came naturally to him, for a diplomat he ever was; easily could he subdue, convince and influence the people of his kind as he was well aware of their reasoning and its limitations. Little did he know, outside of his small hamlet a juggernaut revolution for independence was being set into motion.

When matters surpassed the capability of provincial kings, they called unto their British suzerain for assistance, and hence was created the Crown Representative Police, CRP. For Subba it seemed like a chance to travel and police packed into one; he signed up for the CRP without skipping a beat. And hence began the journey he could’ve never been prepared for.

There was much less policing to do in the CRP. The mobs were more unreasonable and indomitable than less. Subba found the strength of their resolve rather unfathomable. So much hype and hassle just for a change in the skin colour of your rulers? State after state his battalion travelled, aiding the state police in controlling mob activity. However, Subba became increasingly distressed by the violence he had to resort to as a part of his job. Fed up with the task of policing, he began volunteering for patrolling jobs and menial labour. And all was well until one day, when his closest friend is the battalion was stoned and crushed to death by a frenzied mob in Gujarat. Looking back, Subba believed that to be the turning point of his career.

Over were the days of peaceful aloofness; Subba was now a raging bull which charged at anyone and everyone who challenged the authority of his battalion and its employers. If his team was being attacked, Subba made sure to counter with double the force and ruthlessness–it mattered none to him what the skin colour, allegiance or nativity of his victim was. In the heart of his hearts, he sympathised the indigenous peoples’ right to rule over themselves, but he bore no love for mob frenzy.

As the country moved on to redeem its inevitable tryst with destiny, Subba found himself wishing for the British would stay a little while longer. Between moving around and settling one mob after another, he never had the time to plan his future in the Independent India. Of course the CRP would be dispersed. Where would he go then? Being a CRP jawan was the only thing he knew, the only thing he was good at. How was he going to feed his family in the Independent India?

Perhaps the forces running the universe had taken pity to Subba’s plight. The CRP was never disbanded but instead reformed and rechristened. Soon enough he became Head Constable Hoshiyaarsinh Subba of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) of India. Once again the excitement of beginning the job anew made his heart flutter with joy. The same roads and streets seemed novel again, for now, they were owned by his own people. With the British gone, Subba could not imagine the need for a reserve police force actually–in this new India, Indians were governing over Indians, how could anything possibly go wrong? Isn’t that what everyone wanted for the last two centuries? Now there would be peace, now India would finally have its ‘happily ever after’… how wrong was the poor Subba he only came to realise much later.

It began slowly, like a chip falling off from the centre of a dam that hadn’t quite succeeded in holding back the chaos of a river. Water began to trickle down from the hole in the wall. In time, the holes gave way to cracks and slim jets of water shot out. Not much later were craters occurring in the dam and soon, the flooding was beyond all control. The Independent India dream crumbled similarly. Neighbours attacked and fought over mere pieces of earth, as if they were efficiently able to handle the land that was already in their control. While India succeeded in defending itself against exterior forces, hate began to brew on its inside. Left wing extremism took over the eastern parts of the country. Immediately the CRPF was deployed to bring the situation under control, but somehow it only managed to stoke the fire. Subba, an officer of 56, was on the edge of his retirement when he received a grim reading letter ordering him to leave for eastern Madhya Pradesh at once.

The last five months in the volatile jungle had the most memorable in Subba’s life, but he wished they had never happened to him. Every morning he set out to ‘control’ the very people he had sworn to protect. Not many of them recognised the difference between the British and India governments, for they had been callously ignored by both regimes. Their demands weren’t fancy, Subba found himself reasoning one night, all they wanted was the right to live as had been promised in the new Constitution. When denied vehemently and indifferently, they had taken up arms. Wasn’t this a lot like self-defence than offence?

 However, regardless of opinions, Subba reported for duty every morning with the same energy. That his heart was being eaten out by innumerable questions and doubts was never made known to any of his colleagues. If the Indian government was going to treat its own people in a manner so high-handed as the British once did, what was the purpose of the entire freedom drama? While traversing time through the dark night, Subba found himself wondering if the British rule had truly been a blessing in disguise.

At least back then he faced no moral qualms in lashing out against a brown brother–it was his job and he had mouths to feed. He was clear about belonging to the British team and hence, it was easier to be a police officer. But now, both the teams were made of his own people. One had touched his stomach and the other had touched his heart. Secretly Subba wished that he did not have to be present for tomorrow’s rallies. Not anymore did he have the heart to strike at anyone made of the same earth as him.

He finally found the ‘good song’ he had been searching for – slipping on his favourite Mukesh[vi] expression, Subba began humming ‘Awaara hoon, awaara hoon, ya gardish mein hu aasaman ka taara hu…’[vii]

Perhaps Subba was in luck again (or was he?). The forces of the universe had heard him once again, and they were too ready to oblige him at the moment’s notice. Unwittingly in the dark had Subba stepped on an IED[viii]. The next step he took was no more towards life.

The explosion was resounding. Red flames leapt to touch the sky. In a flash, Head Constable Subba was reduced into ashes and along with him the memories of an uncared for history.

[i] Waheguru can be loosely translated to ‘Wonderful God!’

[ii] Samosas are a triangular savoury pastry fried oil, containing spiced vegetables or meat.

[iii]Mohalla is an area of a town or village; a close-knit community.

[iv] Lathi is a long, heavy iron-bound bamboo stick used as a weapon.

[v] Jawan refers to a male police officer or soldier

[vi] Mukesh was a legendary Indian playback singer of Hindi movies in the mid 1900s.

[vii]Awaara hoon, awaara hoon, ya gardish mein hu aasaman ka tara hu…’ is a song from the classic Hindi film, Awara (1951). The lyrics can be loosely translated to ‘Vagabond am I, vagabond am I, or maybe a star, doing its circuits, in the sky’

[viii] IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device, or a roadside bomb. In the recent years IEDs have become something of a patent weapon of the Maoists in India.

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