Fourteen-year-old Abadan finds a one-hundred-year-old Mauser Construktion 96 semi-automatic broom-handle pistol encased in its legendary walnut holster cum detachable shoulder-butt, wrapped in a disintegrating rag with the faded tag – Messrs Rodda & Company, buried under a rock in the garden inside the Zoroastrian fire temple of Anjuman Atash Adran.
The year was 2014, and the boy was helping his hundred-and-six-year-old grandfather Adarban remove weeds from the small garden of this Parsi temple located on Kolkata’s Metcalfe Street colloquially referred to as Bandook Gali meaning the Gun Lane.
Adarban was the caretaker of this temple of one of the oldest continuously practised religions of the world founded in the 6th century BC, based on the spiritual teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster. This Temple was built in 1912 by Ervad Dhunjeebhoy Byramjee Mehta, four years before Adarban’s birth in the caretaker’s quarter where his parents lived, as his father just like him was entrusted with the temple’s maintenance.
The Parsis arrived in India well before the birth of Christ and settled in the west coast of the subcontinent. They, however, came to Calcutta much later, and their first fire temple built by Rustomjee Cowasjee Banajee on Ezra street in 1839, is an abandoned, dying, and dilapidated facade today. The temple at Bandook Gali though continues to actively cater to the religious needs of the dwindling Parsi community in Kolkata even today.
The centenarian looked at the rag covered C96 German pistol with a fixated stone gaze, which slowly turned into a watery haze till drops of tears rolled down his wrinkled cheeks that had witnessed a century of history in the region.
“What is it pedarbozorg (grandfather), why are you crying,” enquired young Abadan. Putting down his hoe, the old man took the decaying relic from the boy. Gently removing the disintegrating cloth, with his shrivelled and shaky hands, he took out the Mauser from its walnut case and placed it on his lap.
He sobbed like a child; tears kept rolling down his face, till his eyes became dry, and he could cry no more. The boy clearly understood that the quondam weapon had awakened an old and forgotten memory lying buried like the pistol somewhere deep inside his grandfather’s ancient mind.
Going back a century to a wet and windy night on the 24th of August in 1914, a group of young men met in a small unplastered damp room on Bipin Bihari Ganguly street in the suburbs of Bowbazar, not very far from Bandook Gali or Gun Lane.
Young and energetic Anukul Mukherjee, leader of the group stood in the centre of the shoddy room with arms akimbo. He banged his fist on the round antique mahogany centre-table. The rickety piece of wobbly furniture nearly broke, braced to safety just in time by Shrish Chandra Mitra alias Habu, another key member of this secret sect.
“Dada (big brother), there is no other way. We need to do this; freedom can only be attained through a revolution painted in blood,” shouted Anakul in a flustered state.
“Lower your voice Goddammit, it’s too risky,” replied Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, a well-known Indian revolutionary, radical activist and political theorist, who would later go on to form the Mexican Communist Party in 1917 and the Communist Party of India in Tashkent, Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on the 17th October in 1920 and also become a noted philosopher of the 20th century from Bengal region.
“I will not be a part of this, it’s too risky, you guys can do it, but against my advice and without my consent,” said Narendra Nath. “You guys have further divided the organisation,” reflected Naren da (big brother) with much sadness as he stood up and walked out of the room into the streets, vanishing in the dead of night in a most conspicuous way.
The Anushilan Samiti was an Indian organisation in the first quarter of the twentieth century, that wanted to end British rule in India through revolutionary violence. The body arose in 1902 from a conglomeration of local youth groups and Akharas (gyms) from the Bengal region.
The young men gathered in the small dingy room on Bipin Bihari Ganguly street on that historic night of 24th August 1914, belonged to Jugantar a much-radicalised faction of this revolutionary Anushilan Samiti, and they were about to do something big, much against the Samiti leaders’ will and say.
“Habu, you are the key to our success, though we do not have Naren’das blessings, he will support once we succeed. You are a trusted employee of Rodda, that’s our biggest advantage in this game,” said Anukul in a much calmer voice this time. “All of us have the zeal and spirit to fight, but what good is a person’s intention without the right tool for the job,” he continued to reflect.
“Not only Anushilan Samity but all its other factions need what we plan to acquire, to carry out their various missions,” spoke Haridas Dutta with much confidence, agreeing to what Anukul’da just said. He was a member of another branch of Jugantar called the Mukti Sangha, and like the rest of the men, too strongly believed that freedom, could only be attained through violence.
In those days of revolution against the British Raj, it was common for a major revolutionary organisation to have many subgroups. With slightly tweaked ideas from the mother organisation’s main ideology and with perhaps slightly different approaches, subgroups as small as having just four members were a common occurrence. Hence Mukti Sangha had fractioned out of Jugantar, as Jugantar had offshoot-ed from the Anushilan Samity, both in the same way.
All the famous Indian revolutionary groups of the time such as Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, Abhinav Bharat Secret Society, Kotwal Dasta, India House, Gadar Party, Berlin Committee, and Anushilan Samiti had further innumerable subgroups. This is what fuelled the engine of mass-movement, which pulled and kept the Indian freedom revolution on track, and it was common for these groups to join forces to fight against the British oppressors every now and then.
“Anukul’da it is final then, we will do it in broad daylight, day after tomorrow on the 26th of August 1914,” expressed overexcited Habu. “It’s final we all agree,” said everyone and revised the plan they had been cooking for three months now, one last time before the group disbursed. One by one they left in different directions from that small historical room on Bipin Bihari Ganguli Street in central Calcutta’s Bowbazar region, very close to Bandoook Gali or Gun Lane.
“Pedarbozorg, pedarbozorg, tell me about this gun. Who does it belong to? Why was it buried under this rock? I have seen filmstar Kamal Hassan use it in the movie Hey Ram. Does it still fire? Can I shoot it,” nagged Abadan pulling on his grandfather’s sacred undershirt with continuous pestilence?
Regaining his composure and bringing his mind back to the present, from the ancient memories of the past where it was lost for a moment, Adarban looked at the boy, ready to answer perhaps some of his questions.
“This is a marvel of German engineering, the Mauser Model 96 or C96, patented in 1895, one of the earliest self-loading pistols to enter military service, naveh (grandson),” said the old man to Abadan. Then he went on to explain how the gun, though originally designed for the German military was initially refused, however, went on to gain much popularity with civilian hunters due to its ability to transform into a carbine or automatic firing weapon.
With its long barrel spitting out the 7.63×25mm highest-velocity commercially manufactured pistol cartridge until the advent of the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935, it was one of the most iconic sidearms in history that could turn into a machinegun just by attaching its walnut holster to the broom-handle converting it into a shoulder weapon.
The Italian navy, Sultan of Constantinople’s bodyguards, and then the British officers during the second South African War, were the first users of this firearm. The German army seriously adopted it in the middle of the First World War in 1917, due to a lack of their preferred Luger pistols. Soon the Mauser’s fast stripper-clip top-loading system proved more effective than other sidearms in the European trenches.
The weapon even went on to be manufactured and replicated in Spain and China. Gaining much popularity in the Far East, it was nicknamed the ‘Box Cannon’ by Chinese men. Gradually over time, it rose in demand and was shipped to various ports of the world.
Even the British army started ordering it, and the guns reached the empire’s diverse colonies building a gradual global presence. Only seventy thousand of these were ever made and back in those days even at the pinnacle of its production, it was still hard to get and a highly sought after weapon. Over time the wooden walnut holster was spotted, girdled by select top-ranking British officers subduing revolutions and spreading fear to maintain their annexed domains.
At the break of dawn on the slightly chilly morning of 26th August 1914, D-day for the Jugantar men, seven bullock carts lugged on from Posta in North Calcutta, to pick up a consignment from the customs house at 15, 1, Strand Rd, Fairley Place in today’s BBD Bag area of central Kolkata, the heart of business activity and Government presence back then and even today.
Shrish Chandra Mitra alias Habu, the key factor of Jugantar’s plan, was in charge of the bovine caravan. Being a trusted employee of the British Rodda & Company, famous gun dealers in Calcutta during the time, he was entrusted with picking up a huge shipment of two hundred and twenty crates of Mausers of various models from the Calcutta customs. He was responsible for safely delivering it to Rodda’s godown at Vansittart Row without any disturbance.
As dawn broke and the day brightened the turtle-paced bullock carts squeaked and halted in front of the customs house. Over the next hour, Habu strictly monitored loading of the crates and completed all the necessary formalities and paperwork with utmost vigilance.
Then the Mausers left Strand Road on the bullock carts headed towards the Rodda Godown, to be issued to British officers in the coming days or perhaps destined to end their lives wielded by the revolutionary youth of Bengal hellbent against British tyranny in patriotic defiance.
The seventh bullock cart at the tail of the caravan was the trophy in this game. Habu had made sure that the most prized C96, were loaded on it. While Habu walked at the head of the trail, Haridas Dutta disguised as a Bihari bullocky steered the seventh cart at the end. The four men pushing the end cart were not labourers but cloaked members of Jugantar who were present for the secret meeting in the damp room of Bipin Bihari Ganguly street two nights prior to this day.
As the party progressed and while the six bullock carts in the front moved on, the seventh one at the end sneakily turned and vanished into a small lane. Unaware of its absence, the other carts moved along, while Habu made sure that everyone was focussed ahead and did not have a reason to look back to check on the seventh cart of the caravan. Just before the party reached the Rodda godown, Habu too cleverly slipped away.
Four days later, on the morning of 30th August in 1914, ‘The Statesman’ news daily broke the news to the general public reporting the heist as ‘The Greatest Daylight Robbery’ of the time. The news of this sensational incident spread like wildfire, appearing as a tight slap on the face of the oppressive British regime not only in the Bengal region but all over the subcontinent.
In the following years till 1917, the pistols and ammunition of bullock cart number seven were linked to almost all incidents of nationalist struggles in Bengal. Guns from this lot were even used by the famous freedom fighter Bagha Jatin (Jatindranath Mukherjee) and his five revolutionary friends during a seventy-five-minute long battle, their last stand on the banks of the Budhabalanga River in the district of Balasore in the Orissa region.
On 26th September, within a month of the heist, Haridas Dutta was arrested. He went on to serve a prison sentence along with Kalidas Basu, Bhujanga Dhar and Girindranath Banerjee, all of whom had taken part in the ‘The Greatest Daylight Robbery’ of the day.
“What a story pedarbozorg, does that mean this very gun belonged to that shipment,” asked a young and anxious Abadan to the old and composed Adarban, who he felt had certainly much more to say.
“Well Naveh, you see by 1922 the police had recovered most of the stolen weapons, from here and there from individuals using them for revolutionary violence,” said the old-timer to his attentive grandson. “They were, however, unable to discover the whole shipment at a single location. They failed to find out where it was taken and hidden in the first place,” revealed the old man with a broad satisfactory smile stretching across his ancient face.
“You see, I always suspected my father had something to do with the revolution but could never find out his role in the freedom movement. He took the secret to his grave,” said Adarban with much sadness, lost in a memory of his father’s loving embrace.
“Finding this gun and vaguely remembering my father’s anxious, mysterious and absent lifestyle for the next few years after the heist in 1914, now I am certain that he hid the guns right here in this very garden of our fire temple.” Said the centenarian with much confidence.
The old man went on to explain his theory, how he thought that the men of Jugantar must have planned to hide the weapons close to the lion’s den, right under the nose of the British soldiers where it would never be searched for or least expected. Further, it being hidden inside a sacred Parsi temple was out of the question. They must have convinced his father to help them.
Bandook Gali was situated in an area with a strong army presence. With the advent of World war I, a month before the ‘Rodda company arms heist’ a garrison mess was built beside the gun lane, designed by famous British architect Halsey Ricardo who also designed Calcutta’s icon Howrah Station. This garrison mess is what we know as the Bow Barracks today.
Over the next eight years from the heist, the old man said his father must have gradually passed on the Mausers to different individuals fueling the Indian revolution of freedom in the Bengal region.
The one-hundred-year-old Mauser Construktion 96 semi-automatic broom-handle pistol was perhaps the only tangible proof that connected a century-old gun heist to many historical acts of revolution from Bengal in the early 1900s and a Parsi fire temple.
They say that the names of many places in this world were born out of secret events and lost folklores, of forgotten sagas and hidden tales, which might make one wonder why the narrow street in front of the Zoroastrian fire temple of Anjuman Atash Adran in Kolkata is called Bandook Gali or gun lane.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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