July 11, 1944. PEARL NECKLACE STOLEN FROM GOVERNMENT HOUSE,
It was a hot and still afternoon, with the sun beckoning forth steam from moist pockets of the muggy air. It was the kind of stillness that craved sudden disturbance, surprising no one when it came.
In the residential wing of Government House a door burst open and a woman emerged. She was pale and frantic, with dishevelled hair, bulging eyes, her bosom heaving with huge undulating heaves.
“It’s gone!” she shrieked.
The lower staff discretely materialized. “What, what has gone?’
“It, it,” was all she could manage.
They wait, holding their breath in suspense. Can she… can she…. name the object?
She lifts her face to heaven. The stately columns of the Calcutta mansion quiver as her gaze pierces them on its way.
With her heart in her voice, her soul hanging on the syllables, she utters the words, “My necklace.”
They knew of course which one. They had seen it the night before hanging in lustrous double strands around her neck, each pearl separated by a tiny knot, isolating and enhancing its exquisite nature.
Can this woman be blamed for the state she was in, even though she was Lady Blake, and the Governor’s wife? Poor thing, stress had wiped out time and place, causing her to forget she was not an ordinary person and could not behave as ordinary people did. Ignoring this, her husband, unreasonable man, later accused her of allowing the white man’s burden to slip from her shoulders.
“This kind of thing creates a bad impression. All those tears and loss of control. You’re not cracking up, are you darling?”
“No, no,” she sobbed. “But my necklace. Your wedding present to me, George.”
“I’ll make them return it, if I have to horsewhip every man in the province.”
“Have to make an example. Let one thing slide and soon the whole Empire will be gone.”
“But it’s going anyway.”
“What?” he thundered.
“But that’s what you say…after the war…you know you do, George.”
“If you want your necklace you better not think like that. Give them an inch…”
“I know, George.”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. They’ll start squealing soon enough. They have no backbone, these bastards.”
There was no response Lady Blake could make to this well known fact, and she continued dabbing her eyes with her daintily embroidered lace handkerchief, her face damp and flushed. Sir George stared at her. “What is more,” he continued, “you were crying so much you didn’t notice your buttons were undone. These blacks can’t stand too much white skin. Drives them mad. I could see… I could see….” Words failed him and he moved closer.
Lady Blake blushed. She had been in dishabille for the afternoon. She shouldn’t have shrieked and rushed out like that. How could she have forgotten the code? She was his brave soldier marching by his side, his helpmeet, his better half, his stiff upper lip, his source of comfort and joy in this barren heathen godforsaken land, where palatial buildings and hundreds of servants were not compensation enough for the pressures experienced in carrying The Burden. She looked at George. Could he forgive her? Tears filled her eyes and her nipples grew taut under the thin white material of her gown. George reacted like the man he was.
Many men were interrogated. However it was wartime and despite the Governor’s promise to his wife, physical coercion had to kept at a minimum. Brutality might interfere with war collections and HMG would have something to say to that.
Indirect methods were resorted to, rewards offered. The Hindus were told the Government had inside information that the thief was a Muslim, the Muslims were told the thief was a Hindu, and individually they were told that even if the necklace was found with one of their own, it had probably been planted by the opposite kind. This would discredit them so much that in the coming elections the opponent would win hands down and become an M.L.A, helping either the Congress or the Muslim League Alliance in Bengal. In these troubled times a shift in the balance of power had to be watched out for. Their country’s future was at stake.
When the necklace was found [with one who claimed total innocence], Muslims and Hindus blamed each another. Sticks and stones were thrown, so were soda bottles. Blood began to flow, at first tentatively, and then in fuller course. Women were dug out from their hiding places and raped. Each side had their sacred books torn and desecrated. Shit was wrapped in their pages and delivered to holy men of the opposite side. Riot and mayhem screamed the newspapers. Curfew was imposed.
Sir George was unsure of what to do. True to his expectations, a series of betrayals by back stabbing natives had lead to the recovery of the necklace. It had been restored to his wife, and her expressions of love and gratitude had made every interrogative method worth while. However the breakdown in law and order did not resolve itself with the same gratifying immediacy. The government had to control the situation without alienating their subjects.
The Governor sighed. He deeply regretted the fact that the war in Europe demanded a close identification in the minds of the natives between themselves and Britain. Arresting the Muslims might hamper the war effort, arresting the Hindus would make it appear the Muslims were favoured, arresting an equal number might make both gang up against HMG, and doing nothing would make it look as though they were out of control and they weren’t yet ready for that. A bureaucratic move seemed the safest tactic.
A committee was set up to investigate the causes of the disturbance and to recommend solutions. Various objections were put forth to the suitability of its members. Everybody knew so and so was a toady bachcha, a disgrace to his community, ready to sell his soul to any passer by who offered to buy it. How could they get a fair deal with such people? A committee was set up to constitute the committee. Recommendations were invited that would be publicly evaluated to ensure transparency. In this way months passed.
On the European front the Allies were winning. Soon the war would be over, and the India question decided. Talk of self rule was in the air. Sir George Blake was recalled to London to give a report on communal disturbances. His experience of Hindu Muslim unity was considered invaluable. After all he had been their man on the spot when that terrible riot had taken place, and when had it not been for HMG, God knows what would have happened to those poor unprotected natives.
* Headline in The Tribune, published from Lahore.
Published in a HarperCollins collection of short stories