Fiction Historical Fiction Inspirational

It was the night of 8th August 1942. Bombay was tense. Streets were deserted and an eerie gloom descended over the city. At 9 PM, on any other day, Rajitha would be playing on the street with Bhano, her classmate and neighbor, while waiting for her father who worked in a garment factory. She was waiting that day too, not on the street though, but inside her house, a single room tenement, and with a fear of uncertainty. Rajitha’s mother, Kashibai, was making rotis for her. Usually, the rotis she made were perfectly round and fluffy. But on that day, they were either shapeless or undercooked or overcooked. Every couple of minutes Kashibai would get up from the kerosine stove, walk across to the door, open it slightly, peer into the streets and come back with a gloomier face and resume cooking. 

After her dinner, Rajitha went to sleep only to be woken up soon after by the sounds of the door shutting and voices speaking in hushed tones. Kashibai was wiping her tears. And Kishen, Rajitha’s father, gentler than usual, patted her on her shoulder and asked her to make rotis. That was the only moment of expression of affection that Rajitha saw in her father. It was not that he was not affectionate towards his wife, but it was only that far he would venture to express it. 

‘Appa, why are you so late?’, Rajitha asked sitting up. The four corners of the one room house had four purposes. One corner had the entry door. The corner opposite the door had the stove, the diagonal corner had a trunk box and shelves for clothes and books, and the adjacent corner had the mattresses laid on the floor to sleep. 

‘Sleep now, it is already midnight’, her father got up from the chair near the stove, came to her, and sat down beside her as Rajitha lay down again when there was a knock on the door. 

‘Open the door, it is Karimullah.’ Kishen said assuaging the fears of Kashibai. 

It was in fact Karimullah. He was too excited to even sit down. 

‘Is it true? All of them were arrested? Even Bapuji?’ 

‘Yes. In fact, there is no one to even hoist the flag.’ Rajitha’s father replied. 

The Indian National Congress, the front spearheading the Indian Independence movement had met at Gowalia Tank Maidan that day to ratify the ‘Quit India’ resolution. Bapuji, as Gandhi was called fondly, gave the clarion call to ‘Do or Die’ to secure Indian Independence. The call ignited the agitated hearts of the thousands assembled that day at the Maidan and the patriotic fervor overwhelmed the hearts and spilled over to the streets. With the war raging in Europe, the British government was in no mood to relent and came down heavily on the protestors, even opening fire to quell the movement and arrested all the leaders of the Indian National Congress. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code was brought into force in Bombay prohibiting unlawful assembly. The Congress Committee was to meet the next day, that is on 9th of August 1942 to hoist the flag and formally launch the ‘Quit India’ Movement. 

Kishen was one of those in attendance at the Maidan that day. He was the one responsible for preparing the flag for hoisting. 

‘Curfew is imposed. Is the meeting abandoned?’ Karimullah asked. 

‘I don’t know. Nobody knows. But I will go. I will keep the flag ready.’ 

Rajitha remembered that more her mother wanted her not to play with Bhano, the more defiant she would become to play with her. She saw the same thing with her father. The more the force outside on the roads, the more defiance it bred in his heart. 

‘But how will you go?’ Karimullah asked. 

‘The curfew will be relaxed in the morning from 4 to 8. I will be taking Ramlal’s cycle and his milk cans. I want you to weld a small compartment under the can to hold the flag.’ 

Karimullah agreed to it. 

On the pleasant summer morning of the 9th of August, Kishen had set off on Ramlal’s bicycle with his milk cans, with the flag embedded, across the police checkpoints to the Maidan. It was 4 AM when Kishen left and within an hour he was back home limping, with the support of Karimullah. He slumped on the bed when Kashibai rushed to his side and looked at his leg. There was a blunt injury on his leg, probably a fracture. 

‘Oh God, I could not reach the maidan.’ He groaned. The police at the check-post did not allow him to go ahead towards the Maidan. When he insisted, they dealt with him the way they knew the best. 

The broken shin was painful, but his heart bled and pained more for not having gotten the flag ready at the Maidan. 

‘You tried your best, Kishen.’ Karimullah comforted him. 

Kashibai was brought a wet cloth and was nursing the wound when from the corner, they heard a low but firm voice. 

‘Appa, I will take the flag’. 

Rajitha’s mother shouted at her to shut her mouth and go outside. But Kishen thought it was in fact a good idea. There road to Babulnath Temple passes by the Maidan. Being a twelve year old, she will neither be frisked, nor will she raise any suspicion if she said that she was going to the temple. A lot of devotees go to Babulnath temple in the mornings. After passing the police, she can enter the squatter settlements and come into the Maidan without much difficulty. 

‘It is dangerous for a girl, Rajji.’ Kishen said. 

‘Appa, I am not afraid.’ 

The voice was firm but was louder than before. This time, nobody rebutted her. At that moment, Kishen felt a change in his relationship with his daughter. She was there standing tall in front of him and was no longer a doting little one, but a strong willed woman claiming her space and presence, while he was there lying on the ground, beaten. 

‘How will you take it?’ He asked. 

‘I will wear it.’ She replied. 

A curtain was drawn across the room for Rajitha to get ready. Rajitha took off her clothes and wore a full length petticoat. Over the petticoat, she draped the tri-color flag of the Indian National Congress, and her mother secured it with a safety pin. Over the drape, she wore the new salwar that she got for her twelfth birthday. Her mother plaited her hair, gave Jhumka earrings to wear. When she was ready, she was as good as a bride. 

Karimullah was to escort her till she was close to the barricade and once she crossed it. She had to find her way to the Maidan and hand over the flag to anyone on the stage. 

Karimullah took her in his bicycle to the main road with the police barricade and stayed back to watch if she would make it across. As she approached the police, holding a plate with coconut and flowers, the sentry, an Indian stopped her. 

‘Girl, you cannot go. Go back.’ He said. 

‘I have to go to the temple.’ She replied. 

‘You better leave now.’ He retorted angrily. 

‘I have to go to the temple.’ She said again. 

The sentry lifted the butt of the rifle and gestured to hit her, when she dropped the plate in her hand deliberately. The noise attracted the attention of the sergeant there, an Englishman. Rajitha started crying and knelt down to collect the plate and the flowers. The coconut rolled across the barricade. The girl’s crying was attracting attention of other people nearby and the English sergeant did not want trivial things to bother him. He yelled at the sentry to let her go and to start focusing on what was important. 

 Rajitha knelt down to pick up the coconut, glanced across to where Karimullah was lurking and quietly walked across the barrier. Karimullah jumped into the air and walked back. 

It took her another half an hour to reach the maidan. There were some people at the Maidan already and people were trickling in slowly. She realized that there was no way that police could stop everyone from coming to the Maidan. She also saw that the police were also coming in. She quickly scanned the place and found a person on the stage wearing a turban. Everyone seemed to be approaching him and he was answering them politely. She also noticed that the flag pole did not have any flag. So, she hastened to meet him. 

‘Sir, I have a flag with me to put on the pole.’ She told him. 

The person seemed shocked. 

‘I was actually waiting for it. The person who is supposed to have brought it has not come’. He said. 

‘But, Sir, I am wearing it. So, I need a place where I can take it out.’ 

He understood and at once took her to a tree far behind the stage where no one was around. Rajitha went behind the tree and came back in a while with a neatly folded flag in her hand. 

Tears welled up in his eyes as he touched the flag and said, ‘You do not realize what your place in history is.’ He then introduced himself as Mr. Desai. 

He took her back to the stage and they both fastened the flag to prepare it to be hoisted. 

‘But you know what the irony is? There is no one to hoist the flag.’ He said with a weary smile. 

It took some time, but soon, the crowd swelled and was becoming restless. Sloganeering and chaos were setting in, when the police arrived, and a sergeant gave a warning shot and announced that they would be given two minutes to disperse. 

‘Rajitha, it is time that you leave this place. Come with me, I will show you out of this place.’ Mr Desai said. 

Rajitha followed him. 

They just stepped down from the stage when a frail but beautiful lady walked up the steps and unfurled the tri-color flag, formally launching the ‘Quit India Movement’. 

Rajitha saw tears in Mr. Desai’s eyes as he looked up at the unfurled flag and shouted with both hands raised, ‘Azadi!! Quit India’. The crowd went into raptures.

September 17, 2022 03:49

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