Fiction / October 2017 (Issue 37)


A Hunger Strike During A Famine

by Sagnik Datta

On a cloudy night in June, Dukhu Miya stared at the sky and announced that there were only seven stars in the whole universe.

Anadi Roy, his cellmate, immediately looked up and counted.

"You're right," he said, "and what's strange is that one of them is a lightning bug."

They were on the roof of their asylum, the third largest in the Midnapore district. It was a large whitewashed building which had thirty-six damp rooms with tall green windows without curtains.

Their cell was on the second floor, just beside the toilets on the north wing. There were no grilles on their window, and so they could climb out and reach the roof via the rusty spiral staircase on the back of the building reserved for the sweepers. They did this every night their guard took a dose of afeem and then snored with an enormous energy that kept the whole house awake.

They liked the roof because the sky was bigger than their ceiling, and it was, in general, better to look at. Sometimes it even rained, and on those nights, they lay flat on their backs, mouths open, drinking raindrops.

Both men were thin and old, and they had balding heads and lush white beards which kept their throats warm. They frequently argued over whose beard was better, with Dukhu claiming it was Anadi's, and Anadi claiming it was certainly not. Both of them looked so similar that the other inmates often had trouble knowing who was who, and sometimes, in the dark, they themselves could not tell themselves apart.

Before coming to the asylum, Anadi Roy had been a school teacher in a village somewhere not very far away. He turned insane after his wife drowned in the village pond. Two weeks later, he was found swimming in the pond, trying to evaporate it using a magnifying glass.

"I had calculated. It would have only taken me two months," he had explained to Dukhu.

Dukhu Miya, on the other hand, had no recollection of his past, except a marriage ceremony he had attended as a child on a winter night, where he had eaten a rosogolla the size of his fist.

"How sweet it was! And how soft and spongy!" he told Anadi. "I can still taste the syrup on my cheeks!"

Earlier that month, it had been announced that the cost of rice was rising, and from then on, the inmates would be receiving only one meal per day, late in the afternoon. They could either think of it as a late lunch or an extremely early dinner.

"You people are lucky," the kitchen attendant said while dropping the rice on their plates from a ladle, "for in the villages around you they are getting no rice at all."

Dukhu was confused. Anadi, who read the old newspapers that were kept stacked outside the superintendent's room, explained to him what was happening. There were several reasons for the shortage. The major one was that there was a war going on. Japan was fighting Britain. The British government feared that Japan would attack India, and so they had removed rice from the Indian villages along the coast.

"Now, if my calculations are correct," Anadi said, "the price of rice will rise beyond reason. And then rice will disappear completely from the villages. There will be a famine, if there is not one already, and more than three million people will die. But Dukhu, a big war is going on nowadays in Europe, and so all of this is apparently justified."

Since they were talking of hunger, Anadi Roy also happened to mention Gandhi and was surprised to find that Dukhu had not heard of him. He told Dukhu he was a giant of a man without hair who was fighting the British. What was unique about his method was that he was fighting without fighting at all, thus ensuring that no one, not even the enemy, was harmed. This he did by peaceful protests, marches from one part of India to the other, and hunger strikes.

"Can anyone go on a hunger strike?" Dukhu asked.

"It is one of our fundamental rights," Anadi said. "One should be able to starve whenever one likes."

On Sunday, the day they were given a boiled egg along with the rice and daal, Dukhu, who in his excitement did not notice the floor had been recently mopped and was wet, slipped and fell and spilled his meal all over the floor. The kitchen attendant went after Dukhu with a ladle and gave him two solid hits on his back for messing up the floor and told him to lick it all clean. Dukhu was about to do so, but Anadi stopped him. He offered to share his meal. Dukhu wanted the egg, but Anadi said it was not possible since he had already eaten it.

That night, on the roof, both of them lay awake hungry.

"We can't let this carry on," Dukhu said.

Anadi said nothing, but popped a knuckle.

It was just then that both of them simultaneously arrived at the idea of starting a hunger strike. As soon as they thought it, both knew that the other was thinking the same thing as well, and they sat up and nodded three times, as a cool wind came in from the south and ruffled their leftover hair.

The next day, both Dukhu and Anadi did not go to the kitchen to collect their meals. They refused to eat and stayed hungry the entire day. No one, however, knew about this, since they had not told anyone about their plan, and no one was actually offering them any food to refuse.

After a discussion that night in their room, they realised that their strike would only be successful if it was visible. Therefore, the next day, they went to the kitchen and sat in its centre and announced that both of them were undertaking a hunger strike. They were protesting the fact that they were given just one meal a day, and from that too the portion of rice was steadily decreasing, and this was insufficient for the well-being and maintenance of a normal human body.

Anadi stood up and encouraged the other inmates to ditch their plates and join them in their hunger strike, and Dukhu stood up and warned them that very soon they'd be given nothing to eat and this was the perfect opportunity for them to make their voices heard before it was too late.

"You can't protest when you're dead," he added.

The inmates lampooned their idea. "Who do you think you are?" they asked. "If you want to die by not eating, go ahead, but don't drag us into this."

By this point, the kitchen attendants had called the guards to take care of Anadi and Dukhu. They, along with the two kitchen attendants and the cook, grabbed them both and tried to force them to eat, and even tried keeping their mouths open with tongs. Since both men struggled very hard and spilled food everywhere, the guards devised a simple plan. They made Dukhu eat by threatening to strike Anadi if he did not, and they made Anadi eat by threatening to strike Dukhu if he did not.

Having seen this treatment, several other inmates went on hunger strikes the next day, hoping the attendants would forcefully give them larger meals as well, but the attendants saw through this easily and gave three of them a good beating.

Dukhu and Anadi could not look each other in the eyes for the next few days for having failed in their strike and disappointed each other, until Saturday night, when Anadi sprang up from his cot and shook Dukhu up from his sleep.

"What? Is it raining?" Dukhu asked.

Anadi informed him that he had been thinking and thinking and had just then realised that they had been wrong about the outcome of their hunger strike. Theirs was not a defeat, for their treatment showed just how powerful a form of protest it was and how powerless the authorities were before it.

Dukhu sat up.

"Just imagine," Anadi whispered, "what if all the hungry people of Bengal, or at least the Midnapore district, rose up in a hunger strike. The government would be forced to feed them all. There would be no more famine."

Dukhu quickly saw the infallible logic. They needed to spread their movement to all the villages, and they had to leave as soon as possible. And so, ten minutes later, amidst the cries of crickets and the snores of their guard, Dukhu Miya and Anadi Roy helped each other over the mossgreen wall and escaped into the world.

***

It was only after walking for twelve days and twelve nights that they realised something was wrong in their method.

They had been walking in and out of villages, wherever their legs took them. When the sun grew too hot on their faces, they had even tried walking backwards, but that didn't help either.

Over the first days, they kept track of how many corpses they saw, mostly lying at the roadside or under shadows of trees, but had to give up after the number grew too large for them to remember. They crossed numerous villages that lay completely empty; villages where there were only emaciated women and children; villages where there was a deathly smell of cholera and even one village where everyone was suffering from dysentery from having eaten too many mangoes, the only food they could find. In one village, they found the men and women furiously digging in a field, trying to find the sacks of rice they had buried months back for fear that the British would take them. They had upturned almost the entire field but hadn't found anything, and now the grass was growing downwards.

In the villages where they were able to present their case, the villagers refused to believe that they were on a hunger strike, and not just normal victims of the famine. In the few villages where they believed them, they refused to join them in their strike because they felt it was ridiculous, for if the government did not do anything for people dying in a famine, they would definitely not do anything for people willing to suffer voluntarily in a hunger strike. They had only managed to convince one young man in a village, who had recently lost his wife and son and said he had nothing to live for. He saw the point in their struggle and agreed to join them, but once he came to know that the two of them had just escaped from an asylum, he chased them out of the village with a sickle, and uttered such abuses that Dukhu and Anadi did not understand half of what he meant.

They spent the twelfth night inside an abandoned hut in an abandoned village. The eleven previous nights they had slept under the sky, but that night both of them were feeling weak and cold. Dukhu was sleeping like a corpse, but Anadi's hunger kept him awake. Thoughts of food came into his head. He remembered the hilsa fish in mustard sauce his wife had made on his birthday many decades ago, but soon her bloated body came floating up in his memories. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes and tightened the gamchha over his belly which he had tied to keep his stomach constricted so that there was no space for hunger.

Anadi had noticed other changes, too. Both he and Dukhu had been losing hair from their heads. He was now completely bald but had grown more hair in his armpits. And nowadays, they could only walk for five minutes before one of them wanted to rest. Sometimes he would need to support Dukhu on his shoulder as he would drag him to the shade of a tree, or sometimes Dukhu would pull him to the side of a well and pour water on his head.

The next morning, Anadi told Dukhu that their hunger-march would not work since there was a flaw in their methods. However, Dukhu need not worry, for he had already identified the flaw, and not only that, he had also figured out the solution: They had to go to Calcutta.

"The point of any protest lies in its visibility," Anadi explained, "and nowhere would we be more visible than in Calcutta."

Dukhu nodded. "But what if even there they don't believe that we are on a hunger strike and mistake us for famine victims?"

They searched in the village and found a sheet of paper and a pencil, and Anadi wrote on it a certificate certifying that Dukhu Miya and Anadi Roy, former residents of room 26, were undertaking a hunger strike to protest the famine and should not be confused with its victims.

"We need to get it notarised by an important person," he told Dukhu, "for without the signature, this has no value in a court of law, for anybody could have written it."

Dukhu understood. But where would they find an important person?

After much thought, Anadi decided that due to the apparent absence of any qualified important person, they would have to sign the certificate themselves. Dukhu said this was justified, since he thought Anadi Roy was no less important than anyone else in the world, and Anadi said he thought the same of Dukhu Miya. Anadi placed his signature at the bottom, and Dukhu placed his thumbprint.

They set out on their way to Calcutta, but they did not know which way it was. That day they walked in the direction they were facing, and then the next day, they walked in the directions in which the roads were the widest. Before sunset, they reached a water tap and drank from it, and Dukhu realised that they had drunk from the same tap the day before, and thus they must have been walking in circles.

They sat beside the water tap for two hours, with Dukhu massaging his legs and Anadi pulling at his beard to see if it would fall off as well, until a farmer with a red gamchha wrapped around his head happened to pass by. He asked them if there were waiting to steal a cow, for if they were, they would be disappointed since all their cows were dead.

Dukhu told him they were walking to Calcutta and had lost their way. The farmer asked them why they were walking when they could just catch a train. There was a station just five miles away, and if they left then, they might be able to reach it in time to catch the night train which left at eight.

"But make sure to catch the train on the right track, and not the left one," he warned, "for then instead of Calcutta, you would reach Siliguri."

They left immediately. Since they were in a hurry, they paid no mind to the naked men and women they saw in the drying streams with sticks, trying to catch a fish or two for dinner. They did not see the child who, after seeing them, hid behind the thin trunk of a young tree as tall as himself.

Unfortunately, they got lost in a forest of date palms. As night fell, they couldn't see well anymore, and Anadi scraped his left cheek on the thorns. They spent their night there, although both found it difficult to sleep wrapped in the sweet date smell. The next morning, they found their way out of the forest and reached the station to find that they had missed the morning train. The next train was only in the evening, at eight. They found a place under a tin shed, where there was a cool wind, and laid down.

Both woke up to a commotion and saw children on the platform throwing stones at a man, nothing more than a skeleton, who was trying to pick grains which had fallen from the goods trains onto the tracks. A stone struck him on his head, and he fell down. Dukhu shouted at the boys, and the boys looked at them once and continued throwing pebbles. When Dukhu and Anadi ran towards them, they ran away.

They reached the man, but he was already dead. They moved his body off the tracks.

They came back to the shed and laid down. Both slept so deeply and for so long that they missed the train at eight and then waited awake the whole night and boarded the next train at four thirty in the morning without tickets.

***

They arrived at the Howrah station and emerged into a sea of people, and the waves carried them outside. They crossed the Howrah Bridge on foot. They had never seen anything so big. Dukhu asked Anadi if he could tell how many men had built it, and how many bolts had been used. Anadi told him that he did not know the answer, but he knew that if someone was to remove just one of the bolts, the whole bridge would come crumbling down. While Dukhu was pondering this, he received a poke in his back, and a man behind them told him that he could not just stop wherever he liked and talk mumbo-jumbo with his friend, for it was busy time and there were busy people behind him who needed to get somewhere.

Dukhu was surprised to see not only the buildings and the cars and the horse carriages, but also that here too were people who did not have anything to eat. In fact their concentration was far higher than in the village areas. Skeletal. Almost ghostly. Begging on the streets for rice starch.

Anadi told him he should not be surprised at all, for this perfectly explained why so many villages were abandoned, since all the villagers had come to Calcutta. However, what surprised him was that life was going on as usual, and people were going to offices and children were going to schools and buyers were haggling with grocers over the price of cauliflowers.

"And could you please keep your eyes on the road," he told Dukhu, "otherwise you will get us both killed and then our hunger strike will be no more."

For the next few minutes, Dukhu did walk carefully, but soon he was so engrossed with the sights that he completely forgot the advice and started walking in the middle of a lane, and Anadi too was so engrossed in the sights that he forgot to scold Dukhu for doing so, and so Dukhu was almost run over by a van rickshaw.

"What old man! Is this your father's road?" the young rickshaw puller shouted, coming to a stop.

Dukhu inspected the back of his van and asked him what he was carrying.

"Bodies," he said.

He was Kalachand, and he had been given the task of collecting bodies by the municipal corporation, since the corpses did not look very good lying on the streets. His job paid well. He was paid a rupee for every corpse he brought, and so he often circled these neighbourhoods. The problems arose after collection, if they weren't able to identify which were the Hindu bodies and which were Muslim, since the Hindus were to be cremated, and the Muslims were to be buried. For men, they could say in most cases by seeing if they were circumcised, but it was difficult for the women.

Anadi told Kalachand that he was an atheist, and he wanted to be neither buried nor cremated after his death. He wanted his body to be consumed by the people, and perhaps they could cook him like a hilsa fish in mustard sauce, or they could stuff him with potatoes and fry him like a shingara.

Since Kalachand found Dukhu inspecting the corpses, he lit a beedi and started telling him their stories. A particularly tragic one was of the woman on the left corner, whose body Kalachand had picked up from the side of the road not far away from there. When he got her body, her baby was still sucking on her dead breast. What was worse, he did not even know if she was Hindu or Muslim.

"What happened to the baby?" Dukhu asked.

Kalachand did not know.

When Anadi told him that they were on a hunger strike to protest the famine, at first he refused to believe them, but then Anadi produced their certificate, and Kalachand was impressed. Anadi told him that they had come to Calcutta for the sole reason of their hunger strike being seen, and of their cause being heard, and so could he tell them where they should sit, so that their strike would have maximum effect?

Following Kalachand's advice, they walked to several of the landmarks, the ghats of the Ganges, the zoo, the Dakkhineshwar Kali Temple, the Victoria Memorial, and sat down on the street outside on hunger strike. All around them were hundreds and hundreds of hungry people, who looked just like them. Not only did those shrunken men and women not join their strike, but they laughed at them, saying that the hunger strike was just an excuse, for in reality they were just two famine victims who had nothing to eat. When Anadi produced the certificate, they said they couldn't read, and so it did not matter to them what it said.

On Saturday morning, Dukhu asked Anadi if he knew for how many days they had been fasting. Anadi said he had not been keeping a count, but he was certain that no matter how long it was, it was not long enough, because the famine was still going strong. He told Dukhu not to worry about it though, since their strike was bound to succeed as they would never give up.

"That's true," Dukhu said, "but I might need a shave before that."

That night, Anadi died of a heart attack. His heart had grown weak because its muscles had been consumed by his own body. Within five minutes, a young boy, who was not Kalachand, came on a van rickshaw to pick up the corpse. Dukhu cried and shouted and would not let Anadi go. He said that it was wrong to take his body away because Anadi did not want his body to be cremated or buried, but had instructed it to be distributed among the hungry people to be eaten. The boy presumed Dukhu was mad and kicked him on his head and loaded Anadi's body in his van and went away whistling in the search of other corpses.

The next morning, Dukhu went to the administrative building, but since it was Sunday, he waited outside the whole day and went in once the doors were opened on Monday. To the first person he met, he said he was there to meet the King of England, and if he was not available, he would meet the Viceroy, and if he wasn't there either, he could make do with the Chief Minister. The person, quite amused, called his friends and the canteen boy, and they sat with him in a room with a large ceiling fan.

Dukhu explained that he was on a hunger strike with his friend Anadi Roy and produced their certificate which proved so. The men laughed at his certificate and passed it around and it went out of the room and never came back.

Dukhu informed them that Anadi Roy had died on Saturday, and thus it was now imperative for them to end the famine, for not only were people dying in the famine, but hunger strikers who were protesting it were dying as well.

The men continued laughing at him, and one of them asked the canteen boy to fetch some tea and biscuits since all this laughter had made him thirsty.

A British officer, who had entered the room on hearing the commotion, heard what Dukhu had to say but refused to believe that there was a famine at all. And if there indeed was a food problem, it had been caused by the Indians themselves, who bred like rabbits. And anyway, when a big war was going on in Europe, one really couldn't expect the British government to look at a small famine in Bengal.

The officer reached in his trousers and drew out a one rupee coin and offered it to Dukhu and told him to buy some rice. Dukhu took the coin and hurled it at the officer's face. He was caught, beaten till he was blue and his beard was red, and thrown out.

He dragged his body to a spot beside a garbage heap and announced that he was now on a hunger strike until death. No one heard him.

***

Years later, on a busy day towards the end of March, someone noticed a bony foot sticking out of a heap of garbage. Such occurrences, in those days, although not very common, were not very unusual either.

Inquisitive and well-meaning volunteers, with handkerchiefs covering their noses and mouths, removed the piles of banana skins, fish scales, oil tins, peanut paper-cones, to expose a man-like thing with his eyes and mouth open. Once they had removed the corpse from the heap, they noticed light movements in the eyes and lips and realised he was alive.

The man had a bald head and a long coarse beard, to which were firmly attached specks of every form of dirt one could imagine. There were scabs and wounds on his shoulders, on his stomach below the ribcage, on his elbows and knees, and on some of them, if one looked closely, one could see small black insects moving around, eating the flesh. There was uneven black hair all over his body, which made him appear apelike. His loincloth was soiled with shit and piss, and there were dried remnants of excrement along his legs. The smell that emanated from him was so terrible that the people who had brought him outside regretted doing so, as earlier his smell had been masked by the garbage heap.

The man was taken to the closest hospital, where the good people took off his rags, shaved his beard, gave him a thorough washing and scrubbing and tended to his wounds, cleaning them and applying thick white ointments. Once this was done, two helpers held him by the hands and took him to a bed, where one of the nurses exclaimed with surprise that it was only his unnatural thinness which made him appear monstrously tall, as he was actually only as tall as the helpers.

On the bed, the man sat upright, and for the first few minutes looked at everything with bright big eyes and sniffed at the ointments over his wounds. Then he buried his face between his knees.

In front of him, one of the ayahs placed a plate of easily digestible gruel, very similar to what was served in the langarkhanas to victims during the famine. Half an hour later, when she returned, she discovered that he had not touched it at all.

"Oh ma," she said, "has he forgotten how to eat?"

She informed the nurse, who came and requested the man to eat, but the man perhaps couldn't hear her, since his ears were covered with his knees. She forcibly moved his legs and made him listen to what she was saying.

The man mumbled something. It was so feeble that the nurse needed to move her ear close to his mouth, always wary of the possibility that he might bite.

"I am on a hunger strike," she heard him say.

The nurse informed the ward doctor, who laughed and said that was the most preposterous thing he had heard that day.

A journalist, who was in the hospital to cover another story, heard of this man from one of the helpers. He visited the man. He asked him about his hunger strike and carefully noted down all he had to say. Once he was done, he casually informed the man that he had missed a lot while under the garbage, for now not only was the famine over, but the British had left the country, and India was not only independent but split in two, and Gandhi was dead.

The man told the journalist that he seemed like a nice fellow, and he believed him. This meant that his cause had been achieved, and he no longer needed to continue his hunger strike. Could he please inform the nurse on his way out that he was ready to eat? And could he, perhaps, have a boiled egg?

When the nurse and her assistant came into the room with his food, they discovered that he had disappeared. No one had seen him leave, and the nurse said she had doubted all along that the man was not a man at all but a ghost from the past, and he must have just evaporated when someone had turned the fan on.

The journalist prepared the article and sent it to his editor by five. However, something very important happened that day, and it hogged so much of the news space that the story was never published.

 

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.