No Indian can murder a Britisher, A short story by Jitendra Kumar Sharma

We grew up in this town but feel so very alien during this short visit.

My brother Trevor and I had come back to Karnal to sell our bunglow, next to Liaqat Ali Khan [now Pakistan’s Prime Minister]’s sprawling Estate. How soon the scene has changed!  The Liaqat estate has been converted into Dayal Singh College. No white Angrez can be seen here now. Yet, only a decade ago, a score of them dominated this mofussil town.

 Both Liaqat Ali and my father Lawrence Sanders practiced in the District Cou

No Indian can murder a Britisher

BY  Jitendra Kumar Sharma 

It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had got puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back….

and ruminated: We grew up in this town but feel so very alien during this short visit.

My brother Trevor and I had come back to Karnal to sell our bunglow, next to Liaqat Ali Khan [now Pakistan’s Prime Minister]’s sprawling Estate. How soon the scene has changed!  The Liaqat estate has been converted into Dayal Singh College. No white Angrez can be seen here now. Yet, only a decade ago, a score of them dominated this mofussil town.

 Both Liaqat Ali and my father Lawrence Sanders practiced in the District Courts at Karnal and were frequent visitors to each other’s house. The Four o’clock tea and game of tennis was a daily ritual that brought them together. In the club, they drank and played cards. And, of course, in the courts they often faced each other.

Liaqat Ali was a typical Indian zamindar[landlord] and kept the plebeians at bay. My father did not consider all locals as vulgar. He argued their cases and mixed with them socially, though seldom concealed from them his sense of racial superiority.

Among his favorites was Wazir Ali. My father called him Wazi. Sometimes, he intentionally called him Baji. Many Indians were unable to say Wazi, including the Magistrate Gokul Dass, who called Wazir, Bajeer. My father would, at times when he was in a more jovial mood, hail Wazi as Bajeer imitating Gokul Dass’s accent and pronunciation and both laughed in guffaws.

My father always spoke Urdu with his local acquaintances and was popular among them. He often appeared before Gokul Dass and won cases for his native clients. Gokul Dass was known for showing servile deference toward my father and seldom gave a verdict against him. Was it because my father belonged to the British ruling class? Greater the notoriety of Gokul Dass for his  servility toward my father, higher the demand for my father as a surefire winner of cases in the Magistrate Gokul Dass’ court!

During the Monsoon, Wazir came wearing a two-and-half maund  bori [a jute bag that can hold 100 ser of grain], an improvised rain coat to protect himself and his modest kameez pyjama and waistcoat against the raining clouds. He would walk laggardly all the way but from the outer phatak gate he would rush at full speed to our verandah and pretend shivering. He would get a hot cup of tea, English style, as a reward for his sprint.

After the tea, he would invariably ask my father, “Sahib, which is the best season of Hindostan?” Even before my father answered “The Monsoon season”, Wazi would put his next question, “And Sahib, which is the worst season of Hindostan”? Both he and my father would together say it in unison, “The rainy season!”

Why did we choose to come during the rains, if the purpose was to sell the house? It was not the best time to find customers.  In fact, the house had already been sold. Before handing it over to the buyer, we wanted to relive a few days of childhood and remember our father in his house. Rains he loved and mangoes and the koel. He used to mimic the koel’s voice and throw mango parties. We remembered and we wept as we recalled the past. Again and again.

Trevor had not returned. It was thundering and raining cats and dogs. The muddy stream of rainy water was rising, swelling and freely entering the neglected vast garden from all sides.  What was a puddle a while ago, now looked like a veritable pond. The boundary wall was already falling in several place. Flooding water was attacking it like a hungry tiger attacks and gnaws at a gentle cow!

 And then this soft knock at the door. From the knock I knew it was not my brother. Trevor’s door knocking is rhythmic. There was subdued rudeness in this soft knock. I did not open the door. The knock became persistent and I heard a familiar native voice. “Kholo, baby, main hoon” [Open, baby, it’s me].The voice sounded familiar yet it had a far and fearful tone. As the knock became louder and ruder, bolder became   my resolve to ignore it. Now the knocking stopped. And, also the rain.

The silence was even more frightening than the knocking. I turned to go to the balcony and shuffled the window drape to see if the knocker was leaving. Before I could look through the window pane, knocking resumed. It was louder but there was no hint of breaking open the door. I returned to the easy chair my father used to nap in with his long legs stretched over its long arms. I was getting used to the noise and nuisance the knocker was inflicting on me.

I heard two voices now exchanging greetings. “I have come to see you Chhotey Sahib and baby Miss”. Trevor was back. His familiar, rhythmic knocking was reassuring. He gently said, “It’s me, Christine”. I jumped toward the door, and swiftly unbolted it.

I opened the door and looked intently at the strangely familiar face. The man was tall and slender with grey eyes. His build and mustaches were just like my father’s. I found myself resisting from embracing him. Did I not know that my father was dead? Nor was it a ghost because my brother was standing by him. Before I could get puzzled, Trevor said, “The College Principal had detained me for a chat. He wants to go to UK for doing a doctorate and wanted me to suggest the right university he ought to apply, etc……”.

Turning to the familiar stranger and looking at me, he said, “Do you recognize Wazir Ali?” I did and we all three sat talking about the past. He was no longer his former self. Instead of his peculiar gusto, guilt spewed from his voice. Or, did I only sense so?

In the old days, Wazi had engaged my father as a defence lawyer and continued to visit our house even after my father had won his case in Gokul Dass’s court. There was a striking resemblance between Wazi and my father, both in temperament and physique but for Wazir Ali’s slightly less white complexion. Were they drawn together because of their odd resemblance?

My father preferred to discuss politics with Wazir Ali rather than with Liaqat Ali who had become a hard-boiled politician.

Father also played Halma with Wazir Ali and with no one else. My father had taught him this board game. Wazi played Halma excitedly, skillfully and was unrestrained in his elation over winning a game. He forgot all about his racial inferiority   whenever he beat my father in a game of Halma. My father did not like to lose a case in the courts, much less a game of Halma.

My brother and I watched them play under the canopy of the mango tree, a servant in livery swaying a large palm-leaf fan to keep the flies and mosquitoes away from the two dedicated players. Wazi wore a red Turkish fez and, on some festive occasions, a formal black achkan [a buttoned up long coat], and white chooridars. My father at home wore casual clothes, often a sarong and sandals but that did not detract from his superiority.

Indoors, Wazir Ali always took off his shoes and left them outside the drawing room. He was consciously respectful to my father at the beginning of their Halma game but he became less respectful as the game progressed. They argued volubly, loudly and reached moments of equality but never for long. My mother, however, thought Wazir frequently exceeded his social limits and was insolent toward my father. Anyway, game over, they sat relaxed over whiskey and cigareetes. Wazi was a stout Muslim; he neither drank nor smoked.

After the game, Wazi and my father launched into a long, wide ranging discussion. Local affairs, law suits, intrigues, politics, culture, philosophy, religions. Transitions from one topic to another were seamless. Neither of them was committed to any belief or cause and freely changed stance and reversed their positions on any point of argument. Often Wazi would start with his anti-Raj tirade and end up praising it when he saw my father becoming too critical of the British Rule in India.

They conversed in Urdu. Wazi, though not a lawyer, was a munshi, nonetheless and argued with great fervor. He didn’t care for winning or losing his point of argument. He simply and zestfully argued endlessly. My father became jittery, sarcastic, witty, if he felt he was losing. If he was winning, he was cool, grandiose, condescending. Not so much my father’s arguments but his unpredictable show of condescension or hauteur irked and galled Wazi enormously.

To me and my kid brother, our vicarious pleasure at watching Wazir Ali and Lawrence Sanders play and argue seemed never ending and timeless. We hoped it would never end. But, like all things, it did and before our eyes.

One rainy day, we all sat in the veranda. In one corner, Wazi and my father, Halma board between them, looked at each other intently. Suddenly, my father got up and laid himself back in the long chair. He inclined into it as he always did, his back resting at the chair’s enormous back and his long legs spread out over its long arms. Wazi  kept  sitting  on  his  cushioned game chair. He repeatedly spied the winning and defeated Halma men still arrayed on the board. A sly smile danced on his mustaches as he twirled them with ineluctable glee. Wazi abruptly laughed and his laughter became uncontrollable.

My father found himself in a fit of rage. Wazi’s laughter was outrageous and insulting. All the more so, because he had won game after game.

Looking disparagingly at Wazi, he said, “The Rajputs  at Chittor in 1303 gave that damned Allaudin Khillji a run for his Sultanate?”

There was no context for this historical reminder. His intent was simply to insult Wazir Ali, the proud Mussalman who regarded his ancestors as the true predecessors of the British Rulers of India. Even we children understood that and felt that his defeat and aching pride had made my father burst out  with this impertinent  sally.

Wazi laughed derisively and riposted. “The Rajputs burnt their women and perished on the conqueror’s spear”

My father: “Rajputs were chivalrous”

Wazi: “Chivalrous, my foot!” and excitedly and rashly he blurted, “Had I been chivalrous today, you would have won the game”.

Fire descended in my father’s eyes! “You bastard! Get out of here”

No sooner had Wazi  gone a few steps than my father sharply pulled his sandal dangling in his right foot and threw at the departing guest. It hit him on his head.

Wazi turned back, picked the hurled shoe from the ground and surprisingly put it back in my father’s foot. Then he stood and glared at my father. Silently and coolly he pulled out a big knife from inside his deep pocket, and with full force he thrust it into my father’s thorax. My father groaned and was dead. We rushed toward our dying, dead father. We did not see when Wazi slinked away. Later we heard he was absconding and police had registered a case of murder against him. Some said, he had joined the Ahrars or Razakars, anti-British rebel organizations. He remained a fugitive and eluded justice.

My mother had never liked India. She took us to England by the first boat we could get for boarding at Bombay port. We lost track of Wazi and also interest in him. We kept hearing that he was under trial in Gokul Dass’s court who had become  the District and Sessions Judge of Karnal.

India was being ruled by Indians now!

Today, on this rainy day, Wazi was produced before Judge Gokul Dass who was to retire that very afternoon. He pronounced his judgment. Lawyers and some lower staff and lawyers’ munshis had crowded the Gokul Dass’ Court. They talked among themselves of old days when my father, Lawrence Sanders, practiced in these District Courts. “Wazir Ali will surely go to the gallows”, some said it loudly. There were whispers: “Sanders’ ghost must be haunting Gokul Dass”,

“The Judge will break his pen’s nib and write his last judgment- convicted for cold blooded murder of an English man. Hang the guilty by neck until …”.

The above details Wazi himself told me and my brother. He  had walked straight from Gokul Dass’s court  to our house. He said because of rain the civil courts were deserted and several lawyers and munshis told him that we were in Karnal to sell the Sanders Villa.

This is what he told us:

 “In a moment of remorse, I had surrendered to the police. I wanted to be hanged like all murderers should. But strange are the ways of Fate and/or of the Judges. I confessed to murdering Sanders Sahib but Gokul Dass set aside all evidence and my confession too. He who had always felt the lordly presence of Sanders Sahib in the court, took only a few minutes in setting me at liberty.

‘No Indian can murder a Britisher, only the British killed and can kill Indians’. It was so unlike Judge Gokul Dass to write and pronounce such a judgment. He even pronounced my name correctly. He called me WAZIR, NOT BAJEER!”

Wazi  got up from the sofa , spread out his arms, knelt down and put  his right hand on my brother Trevor’s knee and mumbled with a gulp in his throat, “ Gokul Dass has not freed me Sahib, he has condemned me to die every waking moment. Sahib and Baby Miss, Never Forgive Me. I beseech you, never forgive me”.

He prostrated himself, then stood up and silently departed from the scene. 

===The End====

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