This is a story set in Bengal of 1773, immediately after a famine [Link to Wikipedia article]. While the basis of the story is in fact, a lot of fiction has been added to the same to make it more interesting. I take no responsibility for the accuracy or the authenticity of the story and all resemblances to any characters factual or fictional is purely co-incidental.
It was 1773. After 4 long years of famine in Bengal, finally the East India Company succumbing to public pressure from the rest of the country ordered the Governor General of Bengal to start issuing “Food Passes” to the genuinely poor and needy people of Bengal.
As is the case with most public distribution systems in the country, the East India Company too had its share of internal corruption and nepotism. Instead of actually distributing the Food Passes to the really needy and poor people, the Company officials starting selling these clandestinely. And who were buying them? The wealthy landowners and zamindars. Why? So that their tenants and laborers who belonged to the poorest of the poor would end up groveling at their feet for these Passes and could also be forced to work on their lands for free for a long time in return for these Passes.
Subroto hadn’t always been a poor tenant farmer. In fact, just 6 yrs ago he actually had 6 acres of land that was his own. He used to grow rice there and was just about able to make his ends meet. He had enough rice for his family of 6, and still enough left behind to sell and make a modest profit. Everything was going fine for Subroto until the East India Company mandated that his 6 acres along with the adjoining 145+ acres of land were earmarked for Indigo cultivation and that the land would have to be written off to the Company.
When Subroto protested, the Company ‘enforcers’ ensured that he met with an ‘accident’ which left him with a permanent limp and the inability to stand up without the help of a stick. With such a handicap, walking itself was a big challenge for Subroto, let alone farming his land. In this situation, Subroto had no option but to give up the land to the Company for a paltry sum.
The famine had taken its toll on his family. Only his last son, Munna and he were alive of his family of 6 members. So when Subroto heard the news about the Food Passes, he made the long trip to Calcutta to the Company offices. There he was informed that the Passes for the people of Birbhum, his region, had exhausted and that there were no more Passes available.
The fact that Subroto was educated enough and could clearly see the Food Passes kept on the table in front of him was lost out on the Company official. Despite being angered by the falsehood, Subroto had learnt enough about the Company and its deceitful ways from his earlier encounters with them. This time around, he decided to play his cards differently. He just nodded and went outside the office.
Once outside, he went around the office to the side of the building where the officer’s chamber with the Passes were. He then inconspicuously sat down near the window waiting for the right time to make his move. Around noon, when he heard the officer leave his chambers for lunch, he lifted his 4 yr old son up and asked him to squeeze himself through the bars of the window, which was quite easy considering that his son was skeleton thin following the famine. Once his son got into the chamber, Subroto asked him to pick up as many of the Food Passes that he could and hand them over. Once this was done, his son squeezed back into his father’s waiting hands.
Subroto was determined not to let the Company have its way with the Food Passes, at least with the 100 odd ones that he had stolen. He went back to Birbhum and started distributing these among the poorest of the poor and ensured that the local granaries supplied the allocated quota of food grains to the recipients without any shortage thereof. This campaign of his endeared him greatly to the locals who started considering him a sort of a ‘local Robin Hood’.
The Food Pass, this was the one piece of paper which enabled Subroto to change his life completely and devote himself to fighting the evils that the East India Company had brought down upon India.
This story was inspired by this Daily Prompt. All comments, criticisms, suggestions for improvement are welcome.
Image courtesy: Google images search for ‘bengal famine of 1770’
This story has also been published as a Guest Post at 1 Hundred Works [Link to post]