D. D. Kosambi

Exasperating Essays

The Kanpur Road

He sat there in his doorway like some great idol. A sad, benign smile-a smile of pleasure, not necessity-on that strong brown face heightened the impression. But his stiff white beard, parted and curled away from the middle, wide shoulders that bore their years lightly, the shining medals strung across a mighty chest, all showed a fighter.

"Sardar", for I saw that such was his rank, "do you know the Kanpur Road?"

"Aye, baba (my son). I have a scar for every mile of the way."

"You fought in the Mutiny?"

"A little".

"No, I know better. Tell me about it. Please!"

"Nay, there is nothing to tell. We held the enemy while the main body retreated. Yes, even as you say, it was there I earned this star. How? There was little to do. The heart ached more than the arm after it was done. A rebel cut down the brigadier as he and I were reconnoitring one night. I fought and killed that rebel with this same worn sword. I carried the brigadier to his own men. It was not very hard. What has the heart to do with it? It was my own brother that I killed. It could not have been otherwise. Had I not eaten British salt? Had I not given my word to defend them against whatsoever enemy? Were they not, at least then, out- numbered, without hope? Then could I, a Sikh, have done otherwise? But I buried my brother first with his sword in his hand. And I would not dress the wound that he gave me on the cheek. So, it festered. Now the left side of my face cannot smile, nor show any emotion at all. The star I wear, not to show others my glory, but to remind myself of my grief. But I digress..."

He never did show me the Kanpur Road. But he did tell a great deal about himself to the wide-eyed youngster before him. He had campaigned in Abyssinia with Napier, entered Kabul and Kandahar with Roberts, fought in almost every outpost of the desert, mountains, swamp, and wilderness that mark India's savage frontier. His choice was ever the desperate enterprise, the forlorn hope, the lonely task. When, at the end of each campaign, the inevitable medal came to be pinned upon his chest, his thoughts always went back to his first decoration, the award for fratricidal loyalty. Then the great, livid scar began to hurt again, his face tightened up more than ever into a frozen bronze mask. The coldness with which his extraordinary commissions were carried out, the lack of warmth with which he received the medals, the chill stare with which he met all praise, caused acute discomfort to his officers which made them transfer him from division to division. Thus it was that his sword opened the first secure path for the grimy civilisation of Birmingham, Manchester, and Sheffield in many an unhappy comer of the world. When, finally, the time came for retirement, he accepted from the Government, as a reward for the loyalty that he had ever shown to the salt that he had eaten, a gift of land near Kanpur; far away from his native Punjab, but as near as possible to his brother's unmarked grave.

As I listened to him, I forgot the parched earth, the dull haze that seemed the smoke of an all-consuming fire. I forgot the pain of hunger, the terror in my green young soul at the unknown future that was in store for me even if I managed to reach the city of Kanpur. The dispirited peasantry, drifting aimlessly in the background between the repellent poles of a countryside squeezed out by famine and the newly opened factories at Kanpur glutted with cheap labour, no longer numbed me with the fright that came from the sharp consciousness that I, too, was one of them. After all, I thought, I can always find the road to Kanpur, but where could I meet another such as Sardar Govind Singh, as honourable a man as ever obeyed his code? He was worthy to have gazed upon those pure-souled heros and demi-gods of our mythological antiquity who fought their superhuman battles with mysterious weapons to turn back the forces of darkness from the rule of this world. He was worthy to have stood with King Pauravas on that fateful day when the tricky manoeuvres of Yavana invaders prevailed against simple bravery. Our village school teacher, now dead of starvation and cholera, had told me the story. The invaders did not fight man to man; one could not come to grips with them. A sudden Hank attack by their cavalry wiped out the Indian chariots, upset the elephants. Before order could be restored, there appeared on the plain a fearful engine of destruction, the Macedonian phalanx: sixteen thousand men locked into a precise, compact formation by their enormous twenty-one-foot spears. The shattering impact of their charge swept away the rabble. Yet dauntless king Pauravas held out with a loyal handful on a lonely knoll by the riverside till it became clear that all was indeed lost. The bravery of his defence, the matchless dignity of his surrender, wrung words of admiration from the youthful conqueror; Alexander converted a noble foe into a loyal friend by restoring his lands and adding to them. Even, so, thought I, had Govind Singh come by tokens of appreciation and a gift of land from our modern conquerors.

But it was not he who showed me the road to Kanpur.

I repassed this scene of a childhood memory in 1938 and thought it symbolic that the Sardar never did guide me to my destination. The way I had travelled through the intervening years would never have been his way. My struggles, too, had been in many lands, but chiefly in classrooms, laboratories, factories. I did volunteer for the Republican army in Spain) only to reach Franco's prison without being able to fire a single effective round on the actual field of battle. I had neither medals nor land. My scars had been seared into my mind by the turmoil of social upheavals. The first of these scars was earned on Boston Common the night they electrocuted Sacco and Vanzetti. In fact, what had brought me again to Kanpur was a gigantic strike, and I knew that it was not our leadership, nor the heroic efforts of the workers that had been the decisive factor in our victory. We won primarily because the capital and capitalists ranged against us were foreign, not Indian. [My reward, which came soon afterwards when leading a strike against our own millowners at Ahmedabad, turned out to be jail and tuberculosis.]

The peasants of that region recalled the grim Sardar only as a master more oppressive than the usual run of landlords. They brushed aside my queries as to the declining years and manner of death of such a person. Something of my reputation must have spread out from Kanpur, because I was asked again and again, "You have helped the mill-hands obtain I higher wages; but what of a better deal for the farm labourer? Your speeches foretold the day when the mazdur would take over his factory; when will the kisan own the land he cultivates?" And the light of hope that shone from within upon toil-worn faces made it clear that Govind Singh had not only killed a brother, but had dealt mortal wounds to his own historic period, cutting at long centuries of stagnant agricultural production. The regions he had helped to open up were now held not by armies of occupation but by the far deadlier grip of banks and factories. To me, his memory was like a beacon pointing out a deserted road, the road of abstract loyalty and unthinking courage. We had to follow another path, in order to free both worker and peasant from slavery to human masters, to the machine, and to the soil.

Govind Singh had never eaten British salt; only Indian salt taxed by the British. The lands that Alexander bestowed upon King Pauravas were Indian lands that could never have been garrisoned by the conqueror's mutinous soldiers.

[My place was not with the heroes, but with the rabble, with the men who had been pressed into the ranks by force of arms, or force of hunger, with nothing to fight or work for and little to gain; whose function in the epics was to be slaughtered by the heroes; whose role, according to the historians, was to provide a mere background for the deeds of great men. The heroes of a money-making society rose from the people, at the expense of 'the people; I could rise only with the common people.]

Fergusson & Willingdon College Magazine, Poona, 1939, pp.10-12 The initial two-thirds of this story was written as an English At theme at Harvard in 1924.

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