Sunday, 23 February 2020

How to Skin a Crocodile—part 2

At dawn on June 23, 1757, as the world’s first global conflict raged across Europe, North and South America and West Africa, Robert Clive, a factor for the East India Company and a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, stood thoughtfully on the banks of the Bhagirathi River some 150 kilometres north of Calcutta. On the face of it, Clive was doomed. His 3,000 British and Indian troops, 8 cannons and 2 howitzers were ranged against 50,000 infantry and cavalry and 300 pieces of artillery belonging to Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. The Nawab was confident that morning, but what he didn’t know was that Clive had bribed the leader of a large portion of his forces to stand idle and not take part in the coming battle in exchange for becoming the new Nawab. The Battle of Plassey was a confused affair that lasted all day. It resulted in a victory for Clive and the British and marked the end of French colonial and commercial interest in India and the beginning of almost 200 years of British rule.
One hundred years to the day after Plassey and almost 1,000 kilometres to the northwest, another battle took place. This was part of a much smaller war, the Indian Rebellion or as it’s known in India the First War for Independence, but it was the turning point in the history of British rule in India. Prior to the mid-nineteenth  century India was administered as a commercial enterprise by the East India Company who maintained order and put down revolts using their own private army consisting of Indian soldiers under British officers. In the Bengal Army, disaffection over several political and religious issues boiled over into open rebellion in the spring of 1857. All across northern India, soldiers killed their officers and any British civilians they could find. They captured Delhi and proclaimed the aged Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last descendant of the Mughal dynasty, emperor. Many other smaller towns were overrun and the British residents fled, were killed or took refuge and were besieged. 
In Cawnpore (now Kanpur), the British officer in charge, General Wheeler, relied on his cordial relations with the local Indian leader, Nana Sahib, to protect the Europeans in the city, after all, he had lived in India for fifty years, was married to the daughter of a Hindu woman, spoke the local language fluently and was popular with his troops. Unfortunately, he miscalculated and Wheeler and around 1,000 Europeans and loyal Indians were forced to take refuge in a couple of hastily fortified buildings outside the city. 
General Wheeler's entrenchment after the siege.
Despite the unsuitability of the defensive position, shortages of food, water and ammunition, continuous shelling and attacks, and little chance of rescue, the dwindling number of defenders held out for three weeks. On June 23, encouraged by a prophecy that said British rule in India would end exactly 100 years after Plassey, Nana Sahib launched a series of major attacks on the entrenchment. The attacks were repelled, but it was obvious that the end was near. Two days after the attack, Nana Sahib sent a note to General Wheeler offering safe passage for the survivors downriver to Allahabad.
On the morning of June 27, General Wheeler led the 700 or so pitiful survivors of the siege, including many women and children, down to the Ganges River. On the way, the wounded who fell behind and the Indian soldiers who had remained loyal, were killed. 
The pathetic column reached the river at Sati Chaura Ghat where, inauspiciously, Indian widows had, as recently as thirty years before, been expected to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. As promised, the boats to take them downriver had been provided, but they were stranded on the wide sandbanks exposed by the low water. As the survivors of the entrenchment struggled to clamber aboard, firing broke out from soldiers along the banks and several of the boats burst into flames. In the ensuing massacre, every man from the entrenchment was killed, with the exception of four who managed to escape down the river.
The massacre at the river.
After the massacre at Sati Chaura Ghat, about 120 women and children were taken into Cawnpore where they were joined by captives from nearby Fatehgarh. Around 200 women and children were imprisoned in a house called the Bibighar. Two and a half weeks later, on July 15, as the British relief force eventually fought its way to Cawnpore, butchers armed with cleavers and swords were ordered into the Bibighar where they slaughtered all the prisoners. The following day the bodies were dumped down a nearby well.
The atrocities at Cawnpore shocked British public opinion and triggered brutal reprisals that cost many thousands of Indian lives. It also meant the end of East India Company power and in 1858 jurisdiction was transferred to the British crown and the Raj (a Hindi word meaning rule), was created. It also gave me my favourite story.
“The Ganges crocodiles can live to be 100 years old,” Jim told me, “and they’re scavengers. They can drag a buffalo into the river, drown it and store it in their den until it rots a bit and is easy to eat, but they’ll take anything that floats along.
“They’re also very difficult to shoot. Most bullets will bounce off their armoured skin and if you only wound one, it goes back into the water and you lose it. You have to hit the brain. Do you know how big a crocodile’s brain is?”
This was not something I was being taught at a Scottish grammar school, so I shook my head and raised a speculative clenched fist.
“No,” my dad said and held up his thumb. “It’s about the size of a walnut, and you can’t shoot it from the front, skull’s too thick. You have shoot from the side or behind, so you need a very powerful gun and good aim.
“First thing you do when you shoot a crocodile is skin it. You do that by making a cut all around behind the head and then peeling the skin back towards the tail. It’s like removing a glove.”
Skinning a crocodile, probably a gharial.
I loved the way my dad told me things as if there was the remotest chance that this information would ever be of use in my late 20th century life. But I was riveted nonetheless.
“Crocodile skin’s tough. It can be made into bags and shoes, so it’s worth money. Do you know what you do next?”
Wide-eyed, I shook my head.
“You cut open the stomach.”
“But the stomach’s not worth anything,” I pointed out, struggling and failing to imagine what the inside of crocodile’s stomach was like.
“No,” my dad agreed, “but what’s inside might be. If a crocodile eats someone with a few rupees in their pocket, after a while there won’t be much left of the person but the rupees will stay in the stomach.”
“Did you find much money?”
“No but I’ll tell you what I did find one day. It was not long after I went to India. A friend took me crocodile hunting on the Ganges. We didn’t have much luck until we found a big old crocodile—it must have been nearly 20 feet long—laying on a sand bar. My friend shot it and we skinned it. It was hard work. Then we cut open the stomach.”
He paused. “What did you find?” I asked, totally absorbed.
“A watch,” he said with a smile. “Not a wrist watch, like the one that you have, but an old-fashioned pocket watch.”
“Did it still work?”
“No. It had been there a long time and the workings were very corroded, but the cover of the watch was gold and gold doesn’t rust. We cleaned it off.”
“There was an engraving on the inside of the cover.‘To subaltern Thomas Atkins on his departure for India. January, 1857.’”
“That’s old,” I said, slightly disappointed that there was no secret code or treasure map. Then my dad said that he had been hunting downriver from Cawnpore and he told me the story of the massacre at the boats.
“His parents probably gave Thomas the watch as a parting gift as he boarded his ship for India. He was probably stationed in Cawnpore, survived the siege and was killed at Sati Chaura Ghat that day. His body floated downstream and a young crocodile found it. It ate him and the watch in his pocket, and the watch stayed there until we shot it all those years later.”
“Do you have the watch?” I asked hopefully.
My dad shook his head. “My friend took it. It was probably lost many years ago.”
I can’t begin to count the number of hours I spent, daydreaming at my school desk or in bed at night, making up stories about what might have happened to Thomas Atkins and how his watch ended up in the crocodile. I never wrote anything down, but I was already an author.
Cover painting by Luc Normandin
Were my Dad’s stories true? I doubt if they were in a strict sense and details were added to keep the flow going. For example, Thomas Atkins is generic slang name for a British soldier, so I very much doubt if that was the name on the watch. But all the tales were probably based on some real event that Jim had experienced or heard about. My dad was a great believer in Mark Twain’s advice to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In any case, I don’t think the literal truth or lack of it is important. What is important to me is how my father’s life in India, or at least his retelling of it, encouraged a love of stories in his son. In fact, the watch-in-the-crocodile story and the historical events around the massacre at Cawnpore became, four decades later, the basis for a novel, Where Soldiers Lie.
So Jim’s tales contributed greatly to the creation of my storytelling life. But what of my mother? She too was born and lived much of her early life in India. She was also alone for many years in wartime and postwar Britain. What contribution did her experiences make to moulding her late-arriving son?

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