Riot: A Short Story by Somen Chanda (1920-1942)

somen chanda
Somen Chanda

A man was crossing the platoon-fields fast. Up ahead lay the level-crossing. He was aiming to cross the railway yard adjoining the level crossing. Perhaps, he had thought that he would be safe once he reaches the Nazia Bazaar area.

No one can be seen near or far away. Everything is empty, like a desert.  At a distance lies a paved road. A well-decked motorcar or two whooshes past. But the cars are running so fast that, seeing them hurtle, one might think that those cars had been stabbed by someone; – they are pressing their wounds with their hands and running, frantic.

The sight of cars moving up and down deserted streets induce even more fear to the ambience. Some distance away, the Governor’s House displays its proud gravitas to humans. A mockery, as if. On both sides of the street stand tall Krishnachurha trees – the Flame of the Forest. A mild movement can be seen in their foliage because of the breeze. A few random crows are trotting around the Maidan-fields of Calcutta. What are they hoping for? Who is that, far away, scampering like a rat? A soldier. He has been on duty in this part of the greens for three days at a stretch.

That other man leaves the fields and steps on the street. He is wearing a tattered and dirty lungi. The Gamchha on his shoulder is even more soiled. The hair on his head is dishevelled like a crow’s nest. His face bears a sad expression. Much dust has gathered on his feet and legs. It seems like he is a villager.

Suddenly, two boys arrive – as if, out of nowhere! One of them takes out a dagger and stabs the man once, on his back. The man screams out in agony. Unfazed, they stab him in that same place of his body three more times. And then, these lads run away like dogs run with their tails up. Screaming on, that man drags himself to the (rail-)gate and flops down. His body is drenched in blood. The blood is red and fresh. Had someone seen him even a few moments back, they wouldn’t have believed that there could have been so much blood in that skin-on-skeleton frame of one human body.

Within ten minutes, a car filled with soldiers arrive. The soldiers have guns in their hands. They get down the car briskly. On their sergeant’s order, they arrest everyone who is there near that site. Even the sergeants are bustling around, throwing words in Hindi and smoking cigars.

Soon, their white faces had begun to turn red. Some people were approaching that place to get their fill of jail-rice. They were stopped by hand-gestures and with the words –

– “Udhar mat jaiye, baboo, mat jaiye.”

In a short while, almost one half of Ward No. 3 gets barricaded in. Armed policemen stand with their bayonets hoisted in front of every road, street and alleyway. No one can go in. No one can come out. The ‘secured-perimeter’ soon turns into a chained-up military-prison.

But struggles are often borne of bondage. Even here, a great struggle began. Everyone within the perimeter began to run hither and tither – from 14-year-old boys to septuagenarians. Such a sight is a novelty in urban life.

But some had their houses adjacent to the lines. Some of them were frightened. Some, motivated by Hindutva, began to come out like veer-heroes.

One particular Bhadralok – a retired government officer, did something unique! He took out an age-old pantaloon from his boxes. He took out an even older coat. He tried to deck up like a fashionable young man. Then he came down and out of his house. His body-language was oozing an era-old swagger of the past. There was a time when he would even scold so many Englishmen to get his professional work done! Alas, those days are long gone! Alas.

So, this gentleman comes down and out of his house. His hands are on the pockets of his pantaloon. He stands with his legs spread like a V. He sees a blood-complexioned sergeant is coming towards where he is standing. That specimen of a Bhadralok-gentleman had soon begun to talk the sergeant in ‘gentlemanly’ English.

The case with teacher Suprava Sen is even more curious. She is a teacher at a girls-school. Ever since the riots had engulfed the city, she was quite enjoying her holidays.

Even today, since noon, she had sat with her radio on. She is chewing a Paan because it is her holiday. Her younger brother will appear for the Matriculation exams this year. She had called him a dunce and scolded him earlier on, – rather early in the morning.

Next up, she had pondered over things with a sombre countenance for quite some time during the day. And now, she switches her radio on and sits down, listening to songs.

She wears spectacles. Her hair is like a bale of straw, and they are tied up neatly. Her fingers are skeletal. She does not seem to be in need to taking much care of her form, feature or physique. Suddenly, bayonets of the Gorkha-regiment soldiers flash out in the blazing sun from outside. She can also see the proudly upright head of their Caucasian captain. She can hear the marching sound of their boots. Without wasting a moment, she comes out of her house, after taking special care of her attire and manners.

This story, too, had spread like wildfire – bringing to Suprava Sen both fame and infamy.

Not a single house adjoining the line was exempted from the search operation. But this was not like those search operations that are conducted when they are looking for political prisoners. This time, only the people were searched and questioned.

More towards the inside, along the concierge lanes, the chaos, the panic and the disorder could be felt more acutely. Some were running this way and some were running that way. Strangely, everyone seemed to have a hint of smile on their faces. None of their countenances bore any sign of annoyance or anger.

Witnessing this, anger swells in Ashok! He feels that all these daily arrests and barricading that are happening far and wide have become like another of those ‘Sports’ to the people. If this not degradation, if this isn’t decadence, then what is? Ashok wishes to scream out and ask –

– ‘Why are you smiling? Why would you smile?’

Some people gather alright.  But soon, that crowd disperses. Before long, their faces cannot contain their laughter. It is as if they are utterly incapable of being serious. Ashok wonders how deep must this affliction of theirs must be!

A hawker is going down the street carrying a heavy bundle of old newspapers. One of his legs is draped with a big dirty bandage made of soiled cloth. Suddenly, he stops.

And then, this Ferrywallah speaks thus:

– ‘You baboo-s are laughing. Your days have come. As have the governments! It is only us whose days have not come. We will die and die!’

In slow steps, Ashok walks back to his house. Another news about another incidence has just arrived. An old-man was crossing the long-distance railway signal of Dolaigunj – the details of such narratives are unpleasant. Ashok feels so helpless and all alone.

Ashok’s mother is sleeping on the bare floor. She hears her son calling her and wakes up. In an instant she blurts out –

– ‘Get out! Go away! Haven’t I told you a hundred times: go stay in your uncle’s, my parents’ place for a few days, until this fighting blows over? But no, you must stick around here! Why? Not a single child listens to their mother anymore! They will just bite down on the soil and stay on! Is the city’s soil so sweet?’

Ashok smiles, laughs a bit, and replies: –

– ‘There is so much to do here! How can I leave all that and just go away?’

Mother: –

– ‘Work or hogwash! As if there is no end to your work! Who is there to listen to what you people say? Nobody! I tell you – I have understood now. Words, words and nothing but tall words – we’ll do this, we’ll do that – hyan karenga, tyan karenga!’

Ashok: –

– ‘Do you know what had occurred during the Kanpur Session of the Congress? We had singlehandedly stopped riots that time ‘round!’

Mother, raising her hands on both sides of her head in exasperation: –

– ‘Enough! Enough! Enough of those tall words! Tell me what happened to your Russia. Could they survive Germany? Can they?’

Ashok, looking out of the window: –

– ‘Why can’t they, mother? Does the Revolution ever die?’

The mother stares at the son. She keeps on staring – agape, speechless for a few seconds as she fumbles in silence to find her voice again. Then she asks, in a hushed tone: –

– ‘Is this true?’

Ashok: –

– ‘What is, Ma?’

– ‘You father was saying, Germany has taken everything from Russia. Now they have come close to India!’

Ashok, bursting out in peals of laughter: –

– ‘These people sure do jump faster than Hitler does!’

At this point, Aju arrives. Aju is Ajay. He is Ashok’s younger brother. He is panting when he says: –

– ‘Even the Nawabs’ house got searched.’

Ashok looks at his brother,countenance of mock surprise at him, rolls his eyes and asked his younger Aju: –

– ‘Now where did this come from?’

Ajay: –

– ‘What? I just heard!’


– ‘Your Big-Brother Dada-s must have said this to you?’

Aju is a Hindu Socialist. This concept is a recent arrival – it has spread during these ongoing riots. Motivated, Ajay roams around madly to educate himself on this subject and quench his thirst on this topic. He quarrels in a loud tone with people. He praises Hitler to no end and speaks for his victory. He feels great joy when he learns of people killing and getting killed in these riots. His diffident reply to his elder brother is as follows: –

– ‘What? I have heard with my own ears. A solider was telling me.’

Ashok: –

– ‘What you have heard is a pile of nonsense.’

Aju speaks out in a gruff tone:

– ‘Yes, you people will of course say things like this!’

and then, lowering his voice, he adds:

– ‘You people are neither Hindu nor Mussalman

Aju keeps adding on: –

– ‘And you think we were sired by those Yehudi-s, eh?’

Ashok chokes his younger brother’s flow by bursting out in a fresh peal of laughter. He says: –

– ‘Search or no search, there is no reason to either rejoice or feel dejected about. The real thing is different. One has to see who has how much interest in things like these’

Ajay stays silent for a while. Now he begins go smirk and snigger. The afternoon slowly makes its way towards the hours of dusk.

Ashok hits the streets once again. The police have been redeployed elsewhere just now. The people have heaved sighs of relief. But the faces of those residents who were outside the area when all these were happening all day have begun to turn pale.

Nonetheless, the smiles have yet not dried off the faces of most of the people. All the people have begun share their daylong experiences among themselves. This includes those who were inside the perimeter and those who were out. Meanwhile, some people were rounded off and taken away in two motor-cars. Another Bhadralok, sitting inside his house, bursts into tears.

Later on, when Ashok returned, his eager, younger brother was still keen on continuing with their earlier conversation: –

– ‘You were asking me whose interests all these serve? Who else? It is the Hindus and the Mussalmans.’

Having said this, Ajay turned his head away and had begun to hum a tune.

The mother asked: –

– ‘Tell me, why do you brothers quarrel so much? During our times, we would not dare to look up at the faces of our elder brothers, leaving alone talking back! But my brother would love me so much! We had spent so many winter nights below the same quilt!’

Ashok rested his cheek on his palms and says: –

– ‘Now begins the stories of the brother. Now is our time to leave again…’

After that, slowly, one deep evening descended. Now was the time to return home. The evening-curfew was all set begin in some time. The big rush, the one that precedes before the streets become empty had begun. The policemen are doing a body-search of the people.

During this body-search process, the older among the gentlemen would raise their hands and stand as if they are under arrest. One Bhadralok was caught with a pencil-sharpening knife. Everyone blamed him for this foolishness.

On the other hand, all the shops were shutting down fast. One side of the street was a bit crowded a while ago. People were buying and selling in hordes and bulks. It had looked like a motley little carnival of sorts. But by now, even there, the hawkers had shouted out their last loud round of calls on offers and invitations to offer. And then, they have all gone away.

The retired officers are looking down from their balconies, porticos and verandas with utmost fondness towards those Hindu shopkeepers who are busy shutting off their temporary shacks of daily business. To these retired officers, those shopkeepers seem like those countless refugees of the bomb-ravaged London!

Ashok reaches closer to his house. He sees his mother standing in the street, outside their home. As he goes nearer, she says: –

– ‘Baba Ashu, your father has not returned yet’

and then, she hushes her voice and speaks in a whisper: –

– ‘and besides, today is his pay-day’

Ashok’s countenance does not betray any signs of worrying. In an instant, he says: –

– ‘Aha, why so worried? There’s still a lot of time left!’

The mother replies: –

– ‘Not that much time. It’s even less than half an hour till seven’

Ashok goes out again, – this time even before entering his house. Behind him, his mother stands in front of their home. Beside his mother, holding the fringe of her saree, stands his youngest brother Neelu. Even sister Bela has come out and is standing behind their mother.

The streets are getting deserted fast. As for those who are still at some distance from their homes– their frantic dashes have begun. Small detachments of troops are marching up and down at an interval of every handful few minutes. The skies are greying. Long shadows are descending across the forms of the buildings and the streets. Bats are flying around – cloud after cloud.

The clock strikes seven. Ashok returns home. The mother is still standing there, perching on to the door-sill. The lids of their door remain ajar. Her eyes are sad like the morning star. :-

– ‘Ashu, what should we do now?’

– she asks – her voice quivering, tears swelling in those eyes.

Ashok does not say a word. He enters his room in silence. He down down on his back in the bare bedstead. His face has puckered up. Signs of an intense anxiety appear. Worry-engulfed thoughts of some unknown, terrible happenstance begin to shape up before his eyes. Probably, he is going to face harsh difficulties in the coming days. Forbearing through those is his duty.

Ashok feels his little brother Neelu tugging his palm.

-‘Borda, Big Brother, Borda Go! – O big brother! Why aren’t you talking to me? Why? Why?’

Neelu burst into tears :-

-‘Baba Go! O father!’ –

He begins to cry.

On that side, mother, too, had begun to cry. Little Bela was sitting beside her. She, too, had stuck her head between her knees and was swelling in whimpers.

Other than this, a dreadful gloom had spread throughout the rest of their house. Darkness has descended on the street. The darkness on the room has even more ghastly. Who will switch the lights on?

Inside their room, a morbid atmosphere pervades. Outside, the buses can be heard honking frequently. Soldiers can be heard marching. As if, this is a country at war. Or maybe, imperialism is blowing out its final conch-shells. Or perhaps, it is mumbling out its last few senility-ravaged gasps.

Next door, quite a few of them have gathered. They are playing cards. Quite an Adda-gathering. Their loud words can be heard. After some time, one of those card-players – Bimal, arrives – torch in hand.

It seems like the Bimal is a nice young chap. But his words often reveal his yet immature mind. At times, he does seem a tad bit of a cocky and precocious chap – bordering perhaps a shade on the inveterate side.

Bimal says –

– ‘Ashok-Baboo, let’s go!’

Ashok is ready for this. He stands up and walks down close to where Bimal is standing. Ashok is barefoot. Bimal switches his torch on and begins to walk briskly ahead of Ashok.

At times Bimal would turn his head and look around, with discerning care – to check if the police are coming from any side. The house they are going towards was not very far away. It is safe to reach if you know the right route through the interconnected alleyways. Bimal stands outside the door and calls out: –

-‘Shurjo-Baboo, Shurjo-Baboo, are you home?’

Someone replies from inside: –

– ‘Ke? Who is it?’

– ‘It is us, please open your door’

Shurjo-Baboo comes down and opens the door himself. He smiles at the lads and asks:

– ‘What has happened?’

– ‘We want to use your phone for an urgent call. May we please?’

Bimal requested.

– ‘Of course! Of course!’

Shurjo-Baboo welcomed them in and showed them to the phone, displaying polite courtesy all the while.

Bimal dialled up the steamer (waterways navigation) company office. After sometime, someone picked up the phone and said:

– ‘Suresh-Baboo who? Who is Suresh-Baboo? No one named Suresh-Baboo works here – oh – oh wait – oh no wait, wait – there has been a mistake. Please get back to us after a few hours. Let me go around and find him by then.’

The persons from the steamer company’s end disconnects the call. Bimal tries to get back to them quite a few times. But there is no reply from the other end. He puts the receiver down, looks at Ashok and says: –

– ‘Let’s go, Ashok-Baboo, we will come back again sometimes later’

Ashok returns home. His mother is still standing by their doorstep. Her eyes are moist. She looks at her son – urgent, thirsty questions fill her eyes. Ashok says:

– ‘They told us to get back to them later on’

Hearing this, Ashok’s mother breaks down once again. Her voice is cracked and hoarse with crying. She keeps on weeping. Ashok has his gaze fixed firmly on the floor. His thoughts of these moments are like this: –

They, who are the seeds of tomorrow’s civilization, I have joined forces with them in their direct and face-to-face struggle. Now, their joys and sorrows are all mine too. I shall remain a soldier for tomorrow like I am a solider of today. For this, my pride is boundless. I know that, one day, these conspiracies of today will fail. The reactionaries of today will fade like smoke. From today, I become doubly dutiful. I have nothing to be afraid of anymore.

Suddenly, light can be seen coming from the very next room.

It was not light – it was fire! Before long, the stench of burnings papers had begun to fill the vapid air of the room. In that next room, Ashok could see his brother Ajay.  Ajay had gathered and heaped all those flyers and leaflets of the manifestos that were appealing for Hindu-Muslim unity in the middle of the floor. He had set them ablaze!

Ashok takes prompt action and begins to douse the flames. While doing so, he asks: –

– ‘What are you doing?’

Ajay replies:

– ‘Burning corpses. What else?’

Ashok: –

– ‘Aju, you are misunderstanding all of these. Your eyes have not been blinded yet. So please, at first focus on your studies! After that, you can engage in politics!’

Ajay: –

– ‘Brother, keep you Communism to yourself. We know all of that’

Heated anger swells in Ashok’s voice: His risen temper is evident: –

– ‘So, tell me, what do you know?

-‘Yeah, yeah, we know everything. We also know how you all are enemies of the nation!’

-‘Aju, will you shut up?’

Ashok begins to growl and grumble: –

– ‘You Fascist agent! A Dalal to the rich! Think of this day tomorrow when you people will bray like donkeys – saying: “Hindu-Mussalman bhai bhai!” Who will listen to the calls of all those Big-Brother Dadas of yours on that day? Whose bellies will fatten up? Hey stupid, do you know why riots happen? Do you know what’s happening in Palestine, in Ireland? You ignorant idiot –’

Ashok has to stop at this point. He can hear a sharp wail of agony bursting out of the next room. He over to that next room. Ashok finds his mother even more agitated at this point.

A few days have passed. Ashok is riding a motorbike. He is going to attend a nearby meeting against communalism. The streets on the way are empty. At a place, he sees a patch of blood.

Ashok stops the bike and walks down to that spot where the street was smeared in blood. The sky has been cloudy all day. So, the blood could not dry off quickly and some of it was still there. Who knows whose body this blood must have come out of?

Tears swell. Ashok remembers everything now. It has become misty all around. Ashok wonders –

– ‘When will this conspiracy fail?’


About the author:

Have you heard of Caudwell and Conford?

Of Ralf Fox?

Do you know of Federico Garcia Lorca?

These martyrs had reddened Spain

The green olive forests are red

Mothers lost children, lose children,

Yet I say, good days approach

Come, let’s go touch their blood

And write, with that blood,

a song for the good days.

The original Bangla to the above poem was penned by Somen Chanda (1920-1942). He was a writer and a trade unionist. He joined the Communist Party at a very young age. He was one of the pioneers of the Dhaka Progoti Shawngho, a cultural and literary base of the nascent Communist Party in Dhaka.

He was also one of the initiators of the Progressive Writers’ Union (PWA) in the eastern parts of the subcontinent. Most of his writings were read at the weekly and fortnightly meetings of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Other than his work with the cultural front – for which he wrote a few short stories and poems – he was also an active unionist and had done path-breaking unionizing work with the workers of the East Bengal Railways.

After the Atlantic Charter was signed, a group called Soviet Shuhrid Shawmiti (Friends of the Soviet) was formed with the avowed purpose of fighting Fascism. He was one of the zealous and most active spirits of the group. The group was to have its first meeting in Dhaka on the 8th of March 1942. Being a part of the then underground Communist Party, this group was an avowedly Stalinist one.

Many members of the Anushilan Samiti from the Swadeshi era of early days of the 20th century, had, by then, taken an avowedly anti-Stalinist Trotskyite line. They were unhappy with the activities of the Soviet Shuhrid Shawmiti. This group had also formed a Leftist political faction named Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) which, like its Stalinist counterpart that Somen was a member of, survives till this date. As Somen was rallying with his Comrades from the East Bengal Railways Workers’ Union, members from the rival Trotskyite faction attacked the rally.

Somen Chanda was one of the targets of this attack. He was hacked to death. Thus, fell to reckless partisan warfare (which, sadly, had been glorified as ‘an inevitable form of class struggle’ by Lenin in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back) a bright human-firefly, at the age of 22. A group named Fasci-birodhi Lekhawk Shilpi Shawngho (Collective of anti-Fascist Writers and Artists) was formed under the initial leadership of Jyoti Basu after Somen’s death.

He had left behind many writings – including a full-length novel named Bonya and sever short stories such as INdur, Shawpno, Shawngket, Riot etc. A collection of his works, edited by Ranesh Dasgupta, was published from Calcutta in 1973. It is not in print anymore. The Bangla Akademi of Calcutta used to give a Somen Chanda award. It has since, possibly, been discontinued with.  Today, he stands forgotten.

About the translator: Atindriya is a writer and lawyer based out of Kolkata.

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