Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Why didn't they snatch food to eat?
Dying in hordes, they still didn’t snatch the food to eat. You know why, Babu?
Not one, not ten, but hundreds, hundreds of thousands, they went to their deaths. They stretched their hands to beg, tossed in the pain of hunger, they begged for the gruel drained off cooked rice to make it fluffy, they fought with stray dogs pawing through rotting dumps, but they did not put their hands to snatch food. Yet food was within their reach. With stacks of good-to-eat stuff in the shops, they waited on the roadside before those shops to lick the serving leaves for bits of syrup and crumbs. The marketplaces had piles of fruits and vegetables and the grocery shops and warehouses held rice and lentils, salt and oil, the illegal godowns were bursting with rice, the storerooms of rich homes stocking ten to twenty years’ worth of food. The word ‘food’ gained currency thanks to you people, Babu, so that even the stupidest weaver of the remotest village know what the word means. They know that the staples of rice, lentils, oil and salt that disappear through hidden transactions from one godown to another, bypassing the hungry mouths of the poor, are called food. Yes, they do know that fish-and-meat, milk-and-butter, those are also food. You’ve given currency to the word food to save your work of saying and writing down ten different names for ten kinds of food; you’ve shouted slogans demanding that the food problem be solved. Well, as far as they’re concerned, you didn’t need to bother so much. You could just as well use the word rice. Just rice, cleaned or not, bug-infested or not, any kind of rice in any form. The people who died from hunger were, of course, not asking for meat-fish, milk-butter, oil-salt. They could’ve done with just some rice, without your having to worry about ‘food.’ There were leaves on trees, roots in forests, and they wouldn’t have died. One can live even by chewing up and swallowing just a handful of dry, uncooked rice a day. You won’t believe it, Babu, but one can. No matter how weak they’d get on that diet, they could go on barely surviving.
Thus begins the story "chhiniye khaye ni keno?" ("Why didn't they snatch food to eat?"), about the 1943 Bengal famine, written in the mid-forties by the celebrated Bengali writer Manik Bandyopadhyay. This has been translated by Kalpana Bardhan on her website.
Read the story here.