In their quest for colonisation, the British faced many tenacious races all over the so-called third world colonies; men and women of varied colour, creed, ethnicity, and metal. Stories of whose bravery and strength are etched in the annals of human history. Of all the people they dealt with, perhaps they found the Bengalis to be the most intelligent of the human species. This intelligence scared them so greatly that from the very early days of their seat in Bengal, the Anglos ensured strict dominance of the race of Bengalis. More through strategised reward and lure and at times also through torture and sheer tyranny.
In 1867, Dadabhai Naoroji put forward the ‘Drain of Wealth’ or ‘Drain Theory.’ The ‘Father of Indian Nationalism’ expostulated that the Empire of Great Britain was annually draining a revenue of two to three hundred million pounds from the country. One hundred and forty-six years later, in 2013, the office of the Comptroller General of the Receipt and Issue of Her Majesty’s Exchequer and Auditor General of Public Accounts or in short, the British CAG would put forward an estimation of one trillion rupees as the total value of exploitation over three hundred years of reign from its Indian colony.
The year is 1945. Second World War is at its peak, and the passion of the Indian independence movement is at its height. The men and women of the subcontinent are hellbent to throw the British out of their bleeding motherland. The population is divided into two schools of thought. One followed Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent approach while the other led by more extreme leaders such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose sought to gain independence through armed conflict.
Twenty-seven-year-old Boshonto sat along with his three younger brothers Shefali, Habu and Kochkey on one end of an under-construction concrete seating platform colloquially known as the Rock under the protruding verandah of a red-brick palatial residential building.
The Rock was just being built. Workers were laying and cementing the brick wall of this one-hundred-feet long and four-feet high concrete bench. Mortar would be filled in the next few days and final touches given to complete it. Young Boshonto was given the contract for constructing this Rock, by the owner of the building.
The massive and posh gothic-styled villa belonged to a particular Sur family, liquor merchants, part of the Bengali bourgeois class who benefitted from the exploitation of the working and lower classes and by oiling the British. The house stood on Duff Street behind Scottish Church College in the heart of North Calcutta, in the Hedua Talab area, the birthplace of Bengal renaissance and many legendary Bengalis.
“I don’t believe in the ways of the non-violent-naked-baldy,” shouted out Kochkey, the youngest of the brothers, a giant of a man known as the ‘Rod’ for his stubbornness and legendary physical strength. “Be respectful, you imbecile, the Mahatma may be non-violent, and we may not agree to his passive ways, but he is no less brave,” scolded Habu, slapping his younger sibling on the head. The third brother, a master firework maker, was the most balanced and levelheaded. No one in the entire city of Calcutta could bring out such brilliant and dazzling colours in the light and smoke of a firework, like he did.
“We need to pick up weapons and join the underground armed resistance,” added second brother Shefali, a speed-demon behind the wheels, who drove the 8B red-double decker bus between Jadhavpur and the Howrah Railway Station. “We have enough non-violence and a steadily growing armed resistance. What we need now is to put an economic dent,” added Boshont, the oldest and the wisest.
That evening’s discussions carried late into the night till the brothers had made up their minds about the part they were about to play in India’s freedom movement. They had to do something, after all their name was quite famous in the region as strong, fearless, and intelligent dogooders who always did things for the benefit of the people. Their plan was all set. They would execute it in two days, on the day before the final cementing of the Rock was executed.
The concept of banking in India can be traced back to the five-thousand-year-old Vedas. Here we find the first mention of the term kusindi or ‘usury,’ the practice of lending money at abusive interest rates, enriching the lender. The wise sages of the time such as Vashista forbade the Brahmin priest class and the Kshatriya warriors from engaging in the evils of usury. The practise, however, became more common by the second century CE.
Other written works such as the Dharmashastras of the first millennium BC, the Buddhist Jatakas from three hundred years before the birth of Christ, and Chanakya’s Kautilya Shastra between the fourth and third century CE, all mention the existence of rnapatra, a kind of loan deed. These monetary instruments continued into the Moghul era recoined in Urdu as dastawez between 1500 to the mid-1800 Anno Domini. The use of payment orders by royal treasuries called barattes, the evolution of credit instruments called hundis, and Indian bankers issuing bills of exchange on foreign countries, were all practised during the medieval period of Indian history.
Modern banking in the true sense was first established in the subcontinent by the British merchants in Calcutta through the amalgamation of the earlier Commercial Bank and the Calcutta Bank to the newly formed Union Bank in 1829. It started as a private joint-stock association and later became a partnership.
At about the same time, the British were at the height of their opium trade with the Chinese. They got the Chinese addicted to opium, and the successful opium trade operations in China helped Britain improve her silver reserve in the treasury. Incidentally, the state of Bihar in India was the largest producer of opium, followed by the state of Maharashtra in all of the British colonies. So, in reality, opium was exported to China from India illegally in exchange for Gold and Silver going into the coffers of the East India Company.
Now, to manage this massive flow of wealth, the Empire of Great Britain needed reliable banking establishments in the heart of its operations in the Indian colonies. This led The Chartered Bank of India, Australia & China founded by the granting of its Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in 1853, to open its branches in the Indian cities of Bombay and Calcutta in 1857 and a little later in Shanghai. Then in 1969, today’s Standard Chartered Bank was formed through the merger of the Standard Bank of British South Africa with The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China.
Now in the year 1945, at the peak of the Second World War, at the height of the Indian freedom movement, this Chartered Bank of the number 19 corner building on the intersection of Fairley Place and Netaji Subhash Road (named so, much later in history) in the Dalhousie Square area (later renamed as BBD Bagh) was the ideal target in young Boshonto’s head to make the perfect financial dent in the British economy.
Standing on the opposite side of this colossal Byzantine-style building, toward the Eastern banks of the River Ganges, the four brothers could not help but admire this massive marvel of architectural engineering. While a theme of round arches crowned its octagonal minarets, a hundred-and-ten-feet tall central clock tower stood on the China Bazar Street side of this gargantuan financial palace. A hundred-and-thirty-five-feet tall entrance turret on the Clive Street (today’s NS street) facade welcomed spellbound customers to the central banking hall through the mammoth main entrance.
During the Second World War, India was in a strange and in-between position. As aptly described by historian Yasmin Khan in an article in 2012, “not quite a home front, nor quite a war zone, India was nevertheless critical to the war effort as a source of military power and industrial production.” The country found itself caught in the frontline of the Pacific War between the imperial powers of Britain and Japan. After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese aggression in 1942, Calcutta became most vulnerable to further advancements of troops from the ‘Empire of the Rising Sun.’
Following this, the city turned into a simmering cauldron of global war, with its streets, hotels, guests houses and military establishments teeming with soldiers from Britain, China, Africa, and America. The predominantly white-skinned American soldier though looked very much like the Brits had a more tolerant oriental outlook.
Being asked not to get involved politically, the average American G.I. was more friendly and shared books, culture, food, and drinks brought back from the States with the locals quite benevolently. It is during this era, that Coca-Coal, canned food, and Jazz music got woven into the fabric of the ‘City of Joy.’
The American soldiers’ pre-framed notion of India as the exotic land of the lavish Maharajas, as portrayed by Hollywood, was shattered when they saw Calcutta engulfed in devastating war-driven famines. Though they could not claim openly, many of them were sympathetic to the revolutionary efforts of the Bengalis.
Now the Duff Lane, besides today’s Holy Child school and three houses from the red-brick palatial house and the Rock of the Liquour merchants Sur’s, was one of the spots used by the American soldiers to park their supply trucks filled with different kinds of goods. The Americans were extremely friendly and mixed with the locals, sharing whatever they could. The four brothers had managed to befriend the American Captain in charge of this supply platoon.
“I have managed to acquire two loaded rattlers for you. Hope you know what you’re about to do. I do not even want to know,” said the American Captain as he handed over something wrapped in a jute gunny bag to the brothers in the dead of a dimly lit night with a blurry crescent moon.
RAT-A-TAT-TAT-TATA-TAT… PHISHEWW… RAT-A-TAT-TAT-TATA-TAT… PHISHEWW… The distinctive sound of a British STEN MK II submachine gun resonated through the walls of the central hall of the Byzantine-style bank building. 9mm Parabellum brass cartridges few and fell clanging on the Italian marble floor of the economic powerhouse of the Anglos. Red-hot lead loads lodged themselves on the walls and ceilings of the inner sanctum of the Chartered Bank building at 15:00 hours on the first Saturday of July in 1945, a day before the Rock on Duff Street was about to be filled with concrete. For the first time in Indian history, a firearm of such calibre was discharged inside a financial institute.
“We are not bandits, we are revolutionaries,” shouted a man with a handkerchief tied around his face under a pair of dark goggles. Trails of hot and white smoke still spewing from the nozzle of the MK II, which he now pointed at the four men carrying a steel trunk in the middle. They were waiting for an armoured vehicle to arrive at any moment to transport the metal box to a British ship docked at the Khidderpore port scheduled to leave the next morn for Great Britain.
“No one will be harmed, as long as no one makes a move,” cried out another of the three armed bandit-revolutionaries, as he lighted and threw homemade firecrackers that covered the place in a cloak of blinding light and smoke. Amidst the veil of haze created by the master firework maker, the teller at the central cash dispensing window saw a giant of a man the third bandit approach and take away the steel trunk. That which required every ounce of strength by four strong men to carry was lifted like a box of cotton by the masked brute.
The mammoth main door of the Chartered bank at 19 Fairley Place flung open and dazzling arrays of baffling lights and thick clouds of blinding smoke spewed out on the street. The faint silhouette of a man emerged from the Byzantine-style financial institute, lighting and throwing volleys of homemade light-smoke bombs from a leather satchel slinging around his torso.
Within moments the street in front of the bank was covered in a veil of a blinding light and chocking gaseous cloak. Only those who had handkerchiefs covering their nostrils could breathe, and with a special kind of air-tight dark goggles could perhaps see a little bit in the dazzling fire-light and the blinding smoke.
All of this happened in a matter of a hundred and eighty seconds. As blinded and coughing people tried to get a hold of their bearings back inside the bank and outside on the street, a speeding 8B red-double decker bus slowed for a few moments and then passed through the cloud of light and smoke.
As the blinding lights faded and the cloaking gases cleared, a minute later, as the armoured van approached the spot to collect the precious steel trunk, armed British soldiers dismounted the vehicle trying to gauge what had happened to their precious cargo. Guards from the bank joined them, but no one could see the Sten-gun-wielding robbers anywhere on the cobbled road.
The British never revealed what and of how much value was robbed from the Chartered Bank on one Saturday afternoon in July 1945. Some say that the cargo was so precious that they were too ashamed to reveal what was looted. One would never know how deep the economic dent was, but it certainly was a big slap on the face of the oppressive tyrants.
The last of the four brothers passed away in 2010. Boshonto, Shefali, and Habu went on to live and raise families and are survived by kids and grandchildren. Kochkey never married, leading an ascetic life, sleeping every night on the concrete platform out in the open and finally taking his last breath on the Rock itself.
Today if you happen to visit Duff Street behind the Schottish College in the heart of North Kolkata, do check out the concrete seating platform colloquially known as the Rock under the protruding verandah of the red-brick residential building of the Sur Liquor Merchants.
If you closely inspect the platform, at one spot you will see the barely visible alphabets BSHK etched with a finger when the concrete was being laid. The impression has worn over the years, and hardly anyone living today knows what the barely visible letters mean. One may take a guess though, of it being the initials of four legendary brothers that lived in the region and who knows what they sealed in the Rock the night before it was finally cemented.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adventurer, philosopher, writer, painter, photographer, craftsman, innovator, or just a momentary speck in the universe flickering to leave behind a footprint on the sands of time... READ MORE