I have fond childhood memories of our time spent in Nagpur, whose location in central India or Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh) marked it as the heart of India. Mahatma Gandhi had made it his home – he lived in Wardha, less than 50 miles from Nagpur.
A large majority of Nagpur’s population was Hindu and spoke Marathi. Hindu women wore saris wrapped in the Marathi style, which was similar to the dhotis that men wore, except that one end of the sari went over the shoulder.
The first memories I have of the Hindu-Muslim divide are being welcomed at my Hindu friends’ homes as one of their own – except in the kitchen. Somehow it was conveyed to me that the kitchen was out of bounds for me, as it was for all non-Hindus, and for Hindus of lower castes.
At our home, a Hindu friend would sit with us at the table for a meal and look fleetingly at my mother who would imperceptibly shake her head. This had become the sign to confirm to my Hindu friends that there was no beef.
Nagpur was a medium-sized city, well laid-out and maintained as cities generally were during the British period. Security was not an issue nor was traffic: as a pre-teen I would cycle to school and back on my boys-sized bicycle. We lived in a largely Hindu neighbourhood which had become a close-knit community, where the children would wander in and out of each other’s homes and were treated as family.
Our favourite sport was playing Sikander named after, and inspired by, the eponymous Indian movie about Alexander the Great. The film had scenes of Alexander’s army on horses riding and singing. And so we, too, tried to be like the soldiers, “riding” on bamboos (in lieu of horses) singing “Hum hain Islam ke bachche…” (We are children of Islam…).
I am not sure how this became our theme song but I suspect it was because Muslims were considered to be soldiers and Hindus businessmen. We – mainly Hindus, some Muslims, a few Sikhs and others – would gallop around singing on the top of our voices. Invariably, a door would open in one of the houses and a Hindu mother, with concern in her voice, would yell at us O Islam ke bacho garmi hogayi hai. Ander aao, mene sharbat banaya hai (O children of Islam it is hot outside. Come in, I have chilled juice for you).
We would troop in, have our fill of cold sharbat and would soon be back to galloping and singing the theme song.
Nagpur has a special meaning for us as my sisters and I started our schooling there at the St Joseph’s Convent. Later, I was moved to St Francis De’Sales School for boys.
My school friends and I would play cricket every Sunday in the golf course near our house, where groups of Englishmen would play golf. One Sunday a golfing group, unable to locate its golf ball, walked up to us and asked if we had it. When we said no, the English golfers, being sure that we had it, walked off with our cricket ball.
A few days later, we went to a reception for families at the Governor House with our parents. We stood in a line as the governor, with his aides, greeted us. When he came to me and said “Hello”, I blurted out “You took our cricket ball.”
The governor stopped and said, “Oh, and when did I take your cricket ball?” I told him and he seemed hugely amused. A few days later, six brand new cricket balls were delivered at our house on behalf of the governor.
Then it was time for the “Quit India Movement” to start. Gandhi’s presence in Wardha, near Nagpur, had turned the city into a pressure centre for the British. My father and his colleagues, who were then assistant commissioners in the civil service, were hard-pressed to manage and control the people rallying. The passive nature of the protests precluded the use of force by the authorities. In fact, the only time they did resort to forceful actions was to remove people blocking roads.
The Gandhian demonstrators, however, beat the system by having hordes of women lie on the road, from where the male policemen could not dare to remove them physically. This situation stumped the assistant commissioners until one day a large number of women in a nearby sector suddenly rose from their places and ran screaming, clearing the road.
The cause of the women stampeding was a British assistant commissioner’s instructions to a dozen policemen to lie down on the road next to the women – at an adequate distance from them. This mode of Satyagraha was probably abandoned after the episode.
The Gandhian objective was for the British to “Quit India”. Gandhi’s followers’ ahimsa, satyagraha and their non-cooperation in Britain’s war effort, along with Gandhi’s famous fasts, his salt marches and going in and out of jails, had their beginning in Nagpur. They were timed to exploit the wartime vulnerability of the British rulers.
When the Japanese had occupied Burma and there was a distinct possibility of them advancing towards India, the British turned Nagpur into a “war city”. Blackouts were enforced, street lights were covered, vehicle headlights were painted half-black, and light in homes had to have a special black shade. Patrolling by police and troops was enhanced. All this was as close a taste of the war as the Nagpurites got. It also marked the surfacing of secret Hindu-Muslim differences.
The Muslims were concerned with their status in a country that was dominated and ruled by Hindus. The painful experience of discrimination in several Hindu Congress-ruled provinces from 1937 to 1939 was still remembered by many Muslims. Thus, they did not join Congress’s Quit India Movement without assured equality – which remained illusory, or was flattened by Nehru’s impulsive words. As a result of this, in 1940, the Pakistan Resolution was passed by the Muslim League.