Savitri hummed the ancient Bengali lullaby – “Khoka ghumalo, para juralo, Bargi elo deshe. Bulbulite dhan kheyechhe, khazna debo kishe? (My boy has fallen asleep, silence has set in the locality, the Bargis have come to our state. Passerine songbirds have eaten the rice grains, how shall I pay my taxes?)
She was trying to make her two-year-old son fall asleep at the backseat of their 1950 Ambassador Landmaster, a family heirloom of a car that her husband Umesh would not ditch for anything in the world.
From the mid-1700s, nearly every Bengali mother has sung this cradlesong to make her child asleep, and Savitri had a habit of doing the same wherever it may be, at home, in a hotel, or even in the back seat of the family car.
It was 3:00 AM on a cold winter December night in 1990, a few days before Christmas. A time before the full-blown onslaught of mobile phones, internet connectivity and the convenience of 24×7 call-a-taxi.
The trusted Landmaster had a breakdown in front of the Lower Circular Road Cemetery in the Mullick Bazar area at the intersection of the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road and Park Street of Eastern India’s beloved Kolkata city.
Umesh was under the bonnet of the sixty-year-old Hindustan Motors family mobile tinkering with its nuts and bolts. Being an IIT Kharagpur pass out mechanical engineer it did not take him long to realise that his precious, British Morris Oxford lineage automobile, was done for the night. The only solution to the problem seemed to be a tow truck.
Savitri rolled down the left side window of the car to allow a bit of ventilation. Giving up all hope Umesh brought his head out of the hood of the vehicle and lit a Filter Wills Navy Cut cigarette leaning on the back door. Savitri’s humming increased, and the sound of her lullaby, escaped through the window opening, travelling into the surrounding chilly night.
Bargi’ra Elo naki? (Has the Bargi’s come?), approached a frail and old voice from the shadow under the main gate of the cemetery. Umesh turned his head towards the sound and saw the silhouette of an ancient whitebeard gradually emerge from the darkness. The rickety man walked very slowly towards the car leaning on a crooked and antique beechwood walking stick.
Khoka ghumalo naki? (Has the boy fallen asleep?) enquired the oldtimer as he came and stood beside Umesh, looking at Savitri and the child through the clear glass window of the Landmaster. The antediluvial looked ancient beyond words. There seemed to be a story hidden in every fold of the archaic wrinkles on the visible portion of the skin on his face that was not covered with his dazzling silver beard.
Bargi’ra ashbe na baba? (Will the Bargi’s not come son?) enquired the old man with a sad and expectant voice. Umesh the typical story-seeking and extra-chatty Bong could not let go of the opportunity to interact with this antique crazy-looking intriguing greybeard.
The area was, unusually deserted that night, and with no way of getting any help, Umesh decided to wait for assistance, which would be easily available in the next two hours with the break of daylight.
This breakdown though a great inconvenience could turn interesting because of the sudden appearance of this mysterious old man, thought Umesh. A conversation started between the ancient geyser and the chatty Bengali, while Savitri continued humming from inside the Ambassador, “Khoka ghumalo, para juralo, Bargi elo deshe.”
Going back to around 250 years in 1742 on a very similar cold winter night in December, a few days before Christmas, at the very same spot stood a handsome Muslim man in his early forties. There was much anxiety in Rafique Miyan’s face like he was on the lookout for something terrible that might emerge at any moment from the darkness.
In front of him stretched around one-hundred-feet of land that had been recently cleared of trees and vegetation. The clearing snaked like a road to around a mile on both his sides. Shifting his gaze from the darkness, Rafique Miyan looked at the piles of Sal, Mahogany, Beech, and many other kinds of precious wood scattered along the tract. Until a few days back, they were tall trees planted by Rafique and his ancestors on their family’s estate, which he had willingly sacrificed to save the people and the land.
Rafique lost his beloved land and much more as a butterfly effect of Alivardi Khan becoming the Nawab of Bengal by defeating and killing Sarfraz Khan two years back in 1740. Rustam Jung, the Naib Nizam or Deputy Governor of Orissa, brother-in-law of Sarfraz Khan was quick to challenge Alivardi’s rule but unfortunate to lose against the new Nawab in the battle at Falwaei, near Balasore. Defeating Jung, Alivardi placed his nephew as the new Naib Nizam of Orissa.
Losing everything – kingdom, wealth, power, and pride led Rustam Jung to ask for help from Rajhoji I Bhonsle, the Maratha ruler of Nagpur, through whose assistance he regained control of Orissa. This victory was short-lived as Alivardi returned to Orissa and defeated Jung once again and went back to Murshidabad. This event marked the beginning of one of the bloodiest decade of plundering massacre ever faced by the people of Bengal.
A year later in 1741, Rafique Miyan’s wife Haseena Bibi and his only son Moshe had gone to Murshidabad to spend some time at Haseena’s father’s house. She was pregnant for the second time and two-year-old Moshe was overexcited to have a sibling in a few months.
A slow and gradual rumble felt through the stone floor of her ancestral home broke Haseena’s sleep one night. Rubbing her eyes in the dead of twilight she saw that other members of the house were already awake. There was some kind of commotion. “Didi chate esho shiggiri (Sister come quickly to the terrace), shouted Haseena’s fifteen-year-old sister Munni.
With considerable discomfort, pregnant Haseena climbed to the terrace to look at the wilderness behind their home. Far amidst the distant forest Haseena and her family saw fast approaching lines of burning torches.
“Bargi’ra Aaaassscheyyyy (The Bargi’s are Cooommminggg), screamed Haseena’s mother. Within moments life in the countryside of Murshidabad of 1741 changed like never before. Trampling hordes of armed horseman fanned out of the woods decimating and plundering anything and everything that lay in their way. It was the first of the many bloodstained nights of brutal slaughter that was to come in the course of the next ten years.
As morning broke the rich lands of Murshidabad in the golden plains Bengal lay wasted in fire, smoke, and rubble. Amidst the piles of slaughtered human bodies lay a lifeless Moshe and Haseena Bibi with her stomach split open and the little hand of a listless fetus visible.
While assisting Rustam Jung to regain control of his kingdom, the Marathas had realised, how easy it was to plunder the rich countryside of Bengal. Then, a year after helping Jung regain his Kingdom, in 1741 a faction of the Maratha cavalry started pillaging the golden plains of West Bengal under the command of Bhaskar pandit.
Alivardi Khan’s slow-moving organised army was no match for the Maratha horsemen’s speed and manoeuvrability. The people of Bengal came to call them as the ‘Bargi’, – corrupted Marathi word of Persian origin ‘Bargir’, which meant light cavalry.
These Bargis were extremely skilled horsemen and highly trained warriors. In the 1500s, Malik Ambar, the great Siddi Military leader of India’s Deccan Region, who later went on to be the Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate had instituted the Deccan practice of guerrilla warfare, which at that time took the name Bargir-giri.
These swift hit-and-run guerrilla tactics became a part of the military heritage of the Deccan, being used to great effect by Shivaji against the colonising British and, eventually, by the Bargi Marathas against the peace-loving Bengalis.
In the next ten-years that the Bargis massacred, looted, and plundered in Bengal, caused unprecedented economic privation and unimaginable human hardships. Some contemporary Dutch sources estimate that the Bargi’s killed around 0.4 million Bengalis and many merchants of West Bengal during the bloodstained raids of the 1740s.
Now in 1742, one year after Rafique Miyan lost his wife and son, a year of continuous Bargi raids had scarred and marred the green countrysides of lush Bengal. The city of Calcutta during this time had become a great merchants heaven with the Britishers allowing duty-free private trade. This was due to the East India Company’s arrangement of 1717 with Mughal Emperor Farrukh Siyar to pay a yearly sum of rupees three thousand to stay and conduct business on the soil of Bengal.
The Britishers in Kolkata now feared nothing more than the Bargis. They were extremely scared that the marauding bandits plundering the countryside would enter Kolkata any day.
This fear in the heart of the men of the East India Company and the leading Bengali merchants of the time led the Britishers to seek permission from Alivardi Khan to dig a seven-mile-long entrenchment in the northern and eastern part of the city to form a moat on the land side to dither the Maratha raiders from attacking.
Rafique Miya’s ancestral land lay on the route of the ditch. Filled with an unbearable shock and sorrow of losing his wife and child in the most barbaric and ghastly way, Rafique donated his lands in a single instance for the moat to be made. He thought this could be his small contribution to stop the Maratha’s from ever killing anyone in his beloved city.
From January of 1742 to June, in six months of time, three-mile of the mighty trench was dug from today’s Bagbazar to Entally area of the city, christened by the Britishers and the people of Calcutta as the Maratha Ditch.
As time passed for some reason the Bargis never came to Calcutta, which gradually led to abandoning further excavation of the moat and the Maratha Ditch remained incomplete at three-mile, never reaching its originally planned length of seven miles. Then finally in May 1751, the Bargi invasion came to an end through an agreement between the Nawab and the Marathas.
Rafique Miyan, however, could not accept that he had donated his land to a lost cause. He kept on believing that the Bargis would come one day to invade Calcutta, and the Maratha Ditch cutting across his beloved ancestral land would stop and drown those marauding bandits. He believed in this way he could avenge the deaths of Haseena and Moseh.
Though the Marathas never came to Calcutta, the ditch, however, failed when in 1756 Nawab Alivardi’s successor Siraj ud-Daulah decided to attack the city. Thirty-thousand soldiers of Siraj’s army along with artillery easily crossed the ditch near the present-day Sealdah railway station on 18th June 1756 and captured Fort William by winning the decisive Battle of Lal Dighi against the British East India Company.
Rafique saw this historical event unfold in front of his eyes. Though he was happy that Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah had crossed the ditch and defeated the oppressive East India Company, in a way he was sad as the Maratha Bargis did not come to his city.
The city was, however, recaptured in January 1757 by Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson and Siraj was defeated shortly afterwards in the first Battle of Plassey. This assured the genesis of British rule in Bengal for the next two centuries.
As time passed Rafique Miyan saw the Maratha Ditch turn into a useless canal to a garbage heap, a trashcan to an ever-growing city. The ditch though failed to serve its initial purpose, did serve to provide the citizens with the nickname ‘ditchers’ referring to all those living on the southern side of it.
Then in 1799 at one-hundred-years of age Rafique saw his beloved ditch being filled up to build the Circular Road, whose upper part was later renamed as Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road and the lower part as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road.
Later in 1892, whatever was remaining of the ditch was filled with rubbles to construct the Harrison road, which was further renamed as the present-day Mahatma Gandhi Road.
Today the only surviving reference of the mighty moat is a narrow street in the Baghbazar area of North Kolkata connecting Nandalal Bose Lane and Akhoy Bose Lane, running parallel to Bagbazar Street and Galiff Street/ Mahatma Sisir Kumar Sarani called the Maratha Ditch Lane. No other trace of this fascinating part of the three-hundred-year-old city’s history survives to remind Calcuttans that why they were known as Ditchers in the mid-1700s.
After nearly one-and-a-half hours of chatting with the old man outside the cemetery, as the first rays of light broke to announce the arrival of a new day, Umesh saw an approaching taxi from far away. Savitri had stopped humming the lullaby ‘Borgi elo deshe’. Both she and her son were fast asleep at the backseat of the Ambassador Landmaster.
“Well, oldtimer, it was fascinating to chat with you, I shall take your leave as I see a taxi coming,” said Umesh to the old man in a bid to farewell and turned away from him walking towards the oncoming taxi. After walking a few steps Umesh stopped and turned around to ask, “by the way sorry sir, I did not catch your name.” To which the greybeard answered, “I am Rafique Miyan, waiting for the Bargis to cross the Maratha Ditch,” and turned and vanished in the morning mist.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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