“A week reluctantly followed another agonizingly slow week; strung together, the days made up a span of seemingly endless tedium. There were taunts and insults from some of the guards that came and perched like invisible malevolent birds on the windowsills, their message echoing in the claustrophobic space long after they had concluded their odious song; pieces of offal and stinking rubbish were sometimes flung through the windows as the sepoys tossed and turned through another fitful night; there were gruff orders to immediately desist if their conversations were deemed too loud, as if they were unruly and boisterous children who required a timely scolding to keep them in check. They remained deprived of any news of the outside world except for chance bits of overheard conversations or the occasional whispers from a menial daring to update them on the rebellions breaking out at various places in Punjab, in the east and far beyond. It was unthinkable for any outsider to get through to them now, not even the sundry sadhus or the tall, well-built man known as Danka Shah, who had somehow managed to slip through the lines earlier. Those men had come to warn them that Hindustan was rising. But that was before their disarming.
‘Which salt are you loyal to?’ Danka Shah had glared at them with piercing eyes as he had put his final question. ‘The fine-grained, superior-quality, elaborately wrapped salt of the Company, which fed you and clothed you and gave the impression that you are trained and trusted soldiers, as it asked you to trudge and toil and bleed for it through many a carnage to keep its flag aloft and to make its fortunes grow? Or the rough and coarse salt of your vast and variegated homeland that raised you and gave freely its grain, its fruit, its springs and its rains, the land on which your children played their carefree games, the land made sacred by your dharams and mazhabs, and wherein flow the rivers and lie the tracts that bear the ashes and bones of your beloved ancestors? The homeland that wants nothing in return but that you walk on it with your head held high. The homeland that asks for no more but that you live out your years with dignity and pride—as liege to nobody and as servants to none.’ The men in the barracks often went back to those fiery words and they seemed to ring truer than ever before.
They had done nothing to invite chastisement, provided no cause for punishment and yet, in a matter of a few horrendous hours the Company had stripped them of their weapons, their dignity and all their silly notions of how the sahibs were the mai–bap and they their cherished children. As June drew to a close, the dry heat gave way to the humid and suffocating season of the rains. An impotent rage gripped those who had now firmly decided on their true salt as they received bits and pieces of information about the rebellion sweeping across Hindustan. The men in the barracks were at their tether’s end as July torturously approached August. Whatever semblance of discipline had barely held things together so far was all but gone.
One morning, no different from those that had preceded it, the gora sergeant major cuffed Corporal Dhani Ram because he felt that the man was insolently staring at him during an inspection. Everyone in the barracks knew that the poor man had been down for some days with high fever and simply wore the glazed look of a fading man. There was no way that Sergeant Major John Potter also didn’t know this; over the past few days, the men had been pleading with him to arrange for some medical assistance for the corporal as he raved and ranted all night in his delirium, testing everyone’s nerves. When he was cuffed, Dhani Ram staggered and fell, blood trickling from his broken lip. Few could foresee at the time that the elaborate curse he spat out would turn out to be prophetic, ‘You will die like a dog, firangi! Not in years, not in months, but very soon. Much sooner than you can even imagine. The storm has arrived and there is no escape.’ A Sikh soldier raised his rifle and calmly butted the fallen man in the chest, inducing violent coughing and more blood. ‘This cannot go on! Kill us or free us!’ Corporal Khuda Bux shouted. He was taken away for his pains—for a whipping or solitary confinement or, as it turned out later, both. The men in Prakash Singh’s barracks remained rigidly fixed to their spots and stared emptily as the thick, hardwood door was slammed shut, bolted and locked in their faces. If pure hatred could burn down wood and melt metal, there was enough of that commodity in that space at that moment to destroy a 100 such doors.”
Note on the author:
Osama Siddique is the author of the novel Snuffing Out The Moon published by Penguin Random House, India. Siddique’s debut novel has been acclaimed as earthy, salty, elemental, and a must-read; poignant, compelling and thought-provoking; and, aesthetic and transformative.
Dr.Osama has served as the inaugural Henry J. Steiner Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Harvard Law School. He is also widely published in academic journals and works in the areas of Pakistani constitutional law, South Asian legal history, legal sociology, and international human rights law. Siddique also serves as Senior Faculty for the academic workshops conducted by Institute for Global Law and Policy (IGLP) at Harvard Law School.