CHANNILLO

Hooghly's Child (1)
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December 3, 1876
Rajabazaar, Calcutta, India

 

  Aaishah Arjumand sat placidly on her charpoy with a large silver platter of rice balanced on her lap. Four little children sat around her, listening closely to the climax of another story. Her round, attentive eyes reflected the dance of her fingers on the silver, separating the rice from the dirt and the plethora of ants that had made themselves comfortable in the grain. At eighty-four, Ammijoo, as she was fondly called by everyone, had excellent vision and all around good health but for the gout that afflicted her for no good reason.

  Every day after the afternoon prayer, she was a fixture in the verandah of the bungalow. Her great-grandchildren clustered about her, often with friends from the neighborhood.  How they loved to sit about and listen to her stories, their eyes going wide at each unexpected twist, their lips parting in smiles and giggles at the timing of her comedic delivery. She never ran out of stories to tell whether it was the unexpected rise of a peasant to kingship, the silly acts of a heedless cobbler, or the tragic end of a steadfast warrior as he defended his king in battle. So compelling were her words and the characters in her tales, that even the grown-ups would pretend at their chores and inch as close as they could to Ammijoo on her charpoy without drawing too much attention to themselves. The comedies made only a few of the grownups laugh, but the tragedies – the tragedies made everyone weep, for Ammijoo openly wept as she narrated them.

  But now she was in the middle of another hour-long tale of a prince who retreated into the jungles of Mysore only to return years later and take back his kingdom. And the children listened with rapt attention.

***

    Three pairs of eyes followed him closely, their owners spread out in a grand triangle that kept him at a continually shifting circumcenter. Azad Mahmud Hassan waved to his son in the arms of his sister-in-law who stood by the doorway of her house surrounded by her own daughters clamoring for the baby in her arms. She shouted to him not to hurry back as he closed the gate and disappeared up the alley toward the main road.

  At the young age of thirty-three, he was immensely popular throughout the Rajabazaar area. Philosopher, orator, poet, and a graduate of the University of Calcutta, Azad went on to serve as a lecturer at the University before leaving it in 1871 to dedicate all his time to serving the poor and underprivileged. What few knew was that he was also an active member of a clandestine group, one that had not only drawn inspiration from the great revolt, but had also learned from its errors, thereby committing to engineer a stronger and more sustained resistance to the British Raj. Possessed of a tall, lean frame and a booming voice of authority in a strikingly handsome disposition, Azad’s fluency in English, Urdu and Bengali made him adept at garnering public interest in as little as two minutes on any given street corner of Rajabazaar.

  And now as he strode south on Canal Road in white trousers and a sky blue jubbah, his brow was knit in contemplation. It was Wednesday afternoon and time for him to deliver another short and powerful talk at the Sealdah market square. Azad had fixed upon an oratorical technique whereby he repeated his opening line three times in the market square as a means of gathering attention. The real challenge was to find the right opening line, the rest would be extemporaneous. So he crafted it meticulously, balancing it with words and pause so it would have just the right cadence demanded of such talks.

  It all came together as he reached his usual spot and nodded at an eager vendor who immediately set his cart down upon a rock so it would serve as a makeshift platform. Azad put his hands on the shoulders of two other bystanders and hoisted himself onto the cart. He wiped his hands over his face and hair and looked around the market place. His mere presence atop the cart stopped people in their tracks, some familiar with his routine, others keen on a first-hand experience of witnessing an upcoming stalwart figure of Bengali pride, a young symbol of British resistance. Azad turned around in a circle and waited for the smallest dip in the market din. He breathed softly, and when he detected it, drew in a deep breath and delivered the opening line in a powerful burst of chaste Bengali that turned heads and silenced sections of the crowd.

  He repeated it two more times to complete the arrest of his audience, then began.

***

    Six miles south and west of Azad’s stand in the sealdah market, the Darling Downs gradually turned as it left the pier to make its way northbound on the winding Hooghly. She was a large side-wheeler paddle steamboat that had seen only four years on the Hooghly. However, unlike the two other steamboats that ferried local and European passengers alike across the river, the Darling Downs was available exclusively to an elite class of British officers who could choose to charter her for their own recreation and enjoyment. In the center of the ship, a large closed housing held three small cabins fronted by a spacious common lounge on the main deck below and behind the furnace room that sat butted up against and slightly below a teeny pilot house. Rows of benches sat just outside the lounge and in front of it. The crew worked diligently but quietly to afford whatever quietude could be afforded despite the obscene noise of the engine driving the enormous paddle wheel.

  Anders Feldssen sat silently on the foremost bench, his hand resting on that of his wife of six years, who sat close beside him. Agda Feldssen had become silent again. She rested her head on her husband’s shoulder, her eyes taking in a covey of partridges sitting on the swampy shores of the western river bank. She gradually turned her palm upward and squeezed the hand of her husband to get his attention.

  “See how they feed their young.” Agda pointed with her right hand, raising her head excitedly for a moment before lowering it back against Anders’ shoulder.

  Anders turned his attention to the partridge family on the shore and blinked. He knew what his wife was thinking about, but could not think of anything helpful to respond with. So he gave her a peck on her brow and squeezed her hand back consolingly.

  Anders Feldssen hailed from a wealthy Swedish family. Botany was his passion, and he pursued it as a research fellow in the Department of Systematic Botany at Uppsala University. His correspondence a year earlier with an apprentice of the famed English Botanist, Robert Bentley, had led to an opportunity for him to travel to India. He had spent the last three months in the Gangetic plains of north-eastern India studying native vegetation and collecting plant samples to help his ongoing efforts at producing a treatise on Linnaeus’ system of classification. He was pleased with the progress he had made. And Agda had been patient through it all. He had convinced her to accompany him on his travels in the hope it would help take her mind

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