Being neither a Buddhist nor a Mamata supporter, I don’t believe in reincarnation. And yet, each time a year slinks into another — almost like a man slipping under crisp bedsheets after a night of extreme revelry — I imagine how things must have been for me in my previous life. I insist that I was a middle-class Bengali resident of Delhi, who was born in 1912 and died, in the year of my conception, at the age of 58 (either of consumption or of liver failure), forever keen to show his superiors at his workplace (a clerical job that requires proficiency in the English language) his understanding of the world around him.
My ‘pre-incarnation’ (to be referred to from now on as ‘him’) would have been my age on January 1, 1947, that ready reckoning year in our nation’s history. Waking up from uneasy dreams about a violent mob knocking on his door, he starts reading the newspaper. It just happens that it is the Delhi edition of The Hindustan Times.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s rousing address to the 10th session of the All-India Students’ Congress (“I do not know what next few months may bring to us... [sic] but one thing is certain, that we are today in the process of struggle.”) doesn’t terribly enthuse him.
Instead, he reads the other Page 1 report with the headline, ‘Bombay To Go Dry In Four Years’ carefully. “A meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Government of Bombay today approved of the scheme of the Minister of Excise for total prohibition simultaneously throughout Bombay province to be completed within four years beginning from April 1947,” it states. He reads with relief, sitting as he does in Delhi, that among the main features of the plan will be the government giving “a chance to the addicts to change their habits and enough time to improve their way of living” and that the “dealers in intoxicants will not be taken by surprise”, as they, too, will be given “enough time to switch over from their present trade to other undertakings which are more beneficial and healthier from the point of view of society”.
Having a nose for foreign news, he also quickly reads through an item that reports British troops holding “15 Jews for ‘further questioning’ when they made a house-to-house search in Diamond Town of Nathayanya last night for the terrorists, who flogged Major ‘Paddy’ Brett of the Sixth Airborne Division”. Our 1947 newspaper reader makes a mental note about bringing up the subject of spiralling violence in the Middle East during his lunch hour with colleagues the next day.
He also notes with satisfaction that Indians are leaving their mark on the world stage. In today’s newspaper, it happens to be a woman, “Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who led the Indian delegation to the United Nations Organisation” and who has been feted by no less an entity than the New York Sun in an article entitled, ‘Women of Achievement in 1946’. The news report also quoted the New York Sun stating that “this Brahmin lady in her Indian sari was the focal point of attention”. He cannot help but chuckle at these American journalists who seem to think there are also ‘non-Indian’ saris out there.
Turning the page, he goes to the section of the newspaper that he is really interested in. Cecil B De Mille’s The Crusades is playing at the Rivo at 3, 6 and 9 pm. “This most exciting romance of Richard the Lion-heart (Henry Wilkoxon) and his lovely unkissed bride (Loretta Young).” There’s also Notorious being shown at the Plaza, and he does fancy Ingrid Bergman (but not Cary Grant). The Thrill of Brazil (“Spectacular Dancing Gamorous [sic] Girls Brazillian [sic] Rumbas”) at the Odeon, of course, is a no-no. Maybe he’ll settle for the 6.30 pm show of Anmol Ghari (“Best Musical Romance! Directed by Mehboob, Starring Noorjehan, Surendra, Suraiya”) at Novelty.
Even after eight years of marriage, he can’t help but scan the matrimonial column. There’s one right at the top which states crisply: “Wanted — Young issueless widow or a virgin above 20 years, for a handsome Khatri Sikh widower of 35 years in Permanent Government service, now gazetted officer drawing Rs 650 pm 4 children.” As he sips his morning tea, he thanks his lucky stars that his wife, despite being rather frail, is healthy.
He doesn’t have to read the news items to know that there is “Acute Fuel Shortage in Delhi” or “5,000 Delhi Teachers To Go on Strike”. But he does read the report that has “Mr K Koti Reddi Minister for Hindu Religious Endowment Board [sic]” revealing that “dedication of women to temples as Devdasis is sought to be prevented by a Bill which will be introduced in the next session of the Madras Legislative Assembly”.
He turns the page once again to read the full report, ‘Arabs Preparing For Open Resistance: Opposition to Palestine Partition Plan’. More to talk about during lunch.
He goes on to read the first line of the day’s extra-long editorial — “The dawn of a new year is rightly an occasion for taking stock of the past and assessing the chances of the future” — and wonders where he has read this before. With more interest, he reads yesterday’s maximum and minimum temperatures printed just above the ‘unreadable’ editorial: 65.3 Fahrenheit and 37.6 Fahrenheit. Yes, he tells himself as he audibly sips his tea from the saucer, “It was extremely cold last night when I returned from the office party.”
Just before turning to the sports page at the back, he scans the advertisements. Apart from a charming ad that he plans to cut out and keep for the future (“Rheumatism & Backache now known to be caused by BAD KIDNEY ACTION... Cystex, The Guaranteed Remedy), he notices the usual New Year felicitations from Parker (‘Writes dry with wet ink!: For the New Year’). Photophone (‘Greetings to the Film Industry’) and Bata (India’s most popular footwear).
Once on the sports page, there is only one story to read: “Amarnath & Modi Make Cricket History; Unbroken Third Wicket Partnership of 410; India-in-England’s Grand Day in Calcutta.” The match was, of course, against the Rest of India, with Lala Amarnath and Rusi Modi unbeaten on 243 and 156 runs respectively.
A quick glance at the headline, ‘Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes: US Proposal Adopted Despite Soviet Opposition’ and he nods off...... which coincides with me waking up, again, and unfolding a January 1 edition of Hindustan Times. Now where have I read all this before?