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The Militant, 9 March 1946

John Frederick Muehl

I Saw Them Die in Calcutta’s Streets

(January 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 10, 9 March 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Editorial Note: The following article is a condensed version of an eyewitness account of the 1943–44 famine in India. Estimated deaths were near 3,000,000. Another British-sponsored famine how threatens the lives of 10,000,000. The author is an American soldier, John Frederick Muehl. The complete article is printed in the January 1946 Asia and the Americas. It was distributed by the India League of America.

* * *

No one will ever really know how many died in the Bengal famine. Calcutta was the center, but it was certainly not the entirety. All over the province rice was dear and life was cheap. There was never a count, seldom even an estimate of the numbers that were burned in the city alone.

For the dogs of Calcutta this was not a famine but a time of feasting. They roamed the streets bloated and glassy-eyed, picking at human flesh and carrying human bones. They fell upon the bodies most freshly dead, attacking them as soon as resistance ceased. Occasionally a family sat crowded together, guarding its own and beating off the scavengers. More than once I saw a dog fighting with a hysterical woman for possession of a husband’s body.

Streets Glutted with Dead

Though the dead were burned in great rotten heaps, the fires could never consume them fast enough. Though the air of the city was white and acrid, the streets were glutted with the dead and the dying, sprawled indiscriminately and overlapping, together on the street and in the gutter. But there was seldom a death on Chowringhee Road, for when a beggar appeared weak or dangerously emaciated, he was driven back into the native sections, to die out of sight among his own people.

That evening as I walked from the Grand Hotel, the worst of the misery was blotted out by the darkness. But as my boot treads echoed on the quiet walk, I could hear a continual stirring about me. An occasional hand would grasp at my passing leg; a voice would whisper, “Sahib! Sahib!” When I approached the entrance to Firpo’s Restaurant, I was caught up sharply in horror and disgust. There in the doorway lay two nude bodies, still glistening with sweat in the semicircle of light. I tried to avoid them as I mounted the step, but a young captain who was following close behind me was more considerate. Excusing himself from the girl he was escorting, he rolled them out into the darkness and entered after me, continuing his conversation ...

* * *

The human mind can adjust to almost anything: I learned that by rote in my undergraduate years. But I never realized the significance of that axiom till the day in Calcutta when I found myself eating a candy-bar, disinterestedly watching a woman die ... The tell-tale marks of chronic famine are plainly seen throughout Bengal. The beggars and untouchables have been stunted and withered, and half the population seems crippled or diseased. But the well-fed sahib bears the worst mark of all in his brutalized outlook and his bitter inhumanity. The cost of the famine, like the cost of our war, has been even greater than the lives that are lost. There is something that happens to all who live through it which leaves a stamp on the body or mind. Surely this is one of the costs of imperialism, this subtle contamination that enters the blood stream.

I learned next morning that the railroads were crowded and that I could not leave Calcutta for at least a week. But at breakfast I met a young lieutenant who suggested that I spend some time with him, promising that it would be “well spent, if a bit unpleasant.” He was working, at the moment, with the Government of Bengal, evacuating bodies from the streets of Calcutta ...

But instead I spent the day at the Calcutta Boat Club ... While most of the men were out on the lagoons, I retired to a sitting room where the women were talking. Seizing the conversation when the opportunity presented itself, I directed it toward the subject of most immediate interest to me, the famine. I questioned the women about conditions in the city, and, more tactfully I thought, about their own opinions. But I advanced too far and a charter member of the circle exploded in my face.

“Look here, young man! This famine is causing us enough trouble already. On the streets we’re clawed at and jabbered to, and in our homes we’re virtually besieged. My garbage cans have been rifled twice within the week, and just last Monday the Club discovered that nearly half its ducks had been stolen right off the lagoons. You are apparently a stranger, so we can forgive you for not realizing it, but this subject is a very tiresome and unwelcome one to us all.”

The others nodded their calm approval and the speaker continued in a quieter, more friendly tone.

“These Indians have been having their famines since the beginning of time. If they’re not dying of malnutrition or starvation, why they’re killing each other or dying of horrible Asiatic diseases. There have always been too many of them anyway. A few millions less would be no loss, least of all to you and me.”

If I had not understood at that moment how they felt, I would shortly have learned. About an hour after lunch there was an outbreak of laughter which seemed to emanate from the group that was seated outside on the lawn. When the merriment continued for several minutes, I went outside to discover the cause. On the grass near the lagoon, an emaciated little Indian girl was chasing a crow with a broken wing. She had apparently hit the bird with a well aimed rock, but had failed to kill it immediately. Though the crow could not fly, it had managed to escape by fluttering and hopping across the grass.

The girl was aware that she might be punished for trespassing, but the crow was food and food was life. Alternately hesitating and pursuing, she looked to her audience for encouragement or disapproval. Though signs of both were evident, they were bewilderingly contradictory and deliberately meant to torment and confuse. The struggle within the child between hunger and fear was goaded to the utmost and laughed at uproariously. But the show ended prematurely with the capture of the crow and its subsequent killing by a twist of the neck. This last brought a groan from the women in the audience, who found it offensive and an ill-fitting conclusion for so humorous an episode.

I arose the next morning hours before dawn, driving to the burning yards in Crawford’s staff car. When I approached the gate it was still very dark, and though I could not see, I smelled the horror within. The air was choking with dust and smoke, smelling of kerosene and burning flesh ...

The grisly plot, seen by daylight, extended for hundreds of feet in every direction. From boundary to boundary, it was crammed with flesh, most of it too entirely decomposed ever to be denominated human bodies. Enormous rats dragged bony remains that as often as not fell apart at the touch. Snakes and dung-beetles crawled back and forth, fighting with each other and tearing at loose members. Though the bodies were dead, they quivered with life.

A load of logs was brought in in a bullock cart and was spread on the ground in parallel patterns. The coolies arose from mats where they slept and began loading bodies on top of the logs. The process was repeated again and again, till the alternating layers stood shoulder high. Then kerosene was poured liberally over the pile, precipitating a nauseating and unbelievable exodus of the insects and vermin which infested the bodies. Blow torches were applied at the bottom of the piles, and the coolies moved on to other pyres ...

A dispatch rider went out ahead of our trucks to determine the sections that most needed evacuation, and to report what streets would afford the “best pickings.” When he returned he carried, in addition to that information, a sheaf of complaints from prominent citizens whose yards and driveways had not been cleared. In Calcutta, the surest sign of influence is property free from the remains of the dead. Among the complaints was one from a Christian mission, promising court action if its grounds were not cleared. The one which interested me most, however, read:

“I have lived in Calcutta through, several famines when the bodies were removed with commendable expedition. The inefficiency of the present administration taxes my faith in the existing instrumentalities.”

As we drove up before a Famine Relief Station, a bag of rice was being distributed to the lucky few who stood nearest the shelter. The queue pushed forward, those at the head anxious to get their share before the supply was exhausted. But the majority of the line moved slowly and skeptically, obviously aware of the tragic limitations of a single bag of rice among thousands of people. While the living were fed in front of the basha, the dead were being counted in a yard to the rear.

A Man-Made Famine

That evening, when Crawford introduced me to his Major, I asked about the Famine Relief Stations. I was anxious to know just what they were doing and how many lives they were able to save. My questions were direct and his answers were frank.

“You can’t stop a famine with a few bags of rice, you know. And you can’t save a great many lives with what little there is. But the Stations serve a double purpose; otherwise they’d hardly be worth maintaining. Just the chance of a handful of rice will attract those who are close to collapse, and even if we’re unable to feed them. It makes the bodies much easier to collect.”

Accepted long ago as a member of the Raj, since I had been serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Burma, I was not surprised by this frankness. I was much too close for the patent explanations, and had come to be considered “one of the family.” A Lieutenant Colonel in a Rifles regiment, with whom I traveled from Calcutta to Nagpur, was equally candid in his discussion, and was particularly bitter with reference to the cause of the famine. “It’s not just the result of a drought, you know. In part, it’s a man-made famine.”

At this last I sat bolt upright in my seat, for I had suspected as much but had feared to believe it.

“The British Army has encouraged and subsidized the local black market so that it can buy its food rather than ship it in. It’s more expensive to pay profiteers’ prices, but it’s not hard to outbid the natives of Calcutta. It’s costly and it’s brutal, but we continue to do it because it saves our damned valuable shipping space.”

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