Shortly after a trip up to Delhi and back came the great famine of Bengal. The monsoons had not come and with this failure, the rice crop had failed. It was called the Famine of Bengal but, in reality, spread over a large area, several states. All the adjacent areas were affected. Rice was the main source of Hindu food. For the Muslims it didn't matter. They would eat anything except pork. They also ate a large amount of rice. If there was a real shortage of food, the Muslims could always start slaughtering the sacred cows. These cows were considered sacred and protected by the state. They still are. They would get in the way of all traffic, and if they were bumped into and hurt, there was hell to pay, especially if they were killed or severely damaged. This would often be an excuse for a Hindu-Muslim riot. At that time, Hindu and Muslim were all mixed up, as they always had been. They did everything together except copulate, which would be a terrible sin on both sides. In spite of the difference in religion, under the British they managed to live reasonably well together, apart from an occasional riot on some trivial matter. The British were naturally in between and accused of the policy of divide and rule, which was quite ridiculous. The British even had mixed regiments and a mixed civil service. Now, of course, since the British exit, there is more rioting than ever, especially among the Muslims.
The famine started in the countryside and gradually spread to the cities. There was plenty of food about, but the Hindus were conditioned to eating only rice, and their stomachs couldn't take anything else. I know this seems far fetched to us, but that was the fact as it was. They just would not eat meat or fats or other non-vegetable foods. The Muslims, under duress, would eat anything, especially beef, therefore the Hindu sacred cow was the first victim of the famine. The Muslims had no hesitation over catching and eating them. They gradually began to disappear from the streets. In fact, the only well fed people around were Muslims or low caste Indians. Muslim financiers were accused of cornering the rice market. No one knows really how it all started, even now. It was wartime and many things were disorganised. The ordinary people, the Indian peasant, which was most of India, would come to the railway stations for help or to die. People meant hope. They like to die in company. Whole families were hopelessly broken up in the search for food, their type of food, which just wasn't there. The railway stations became clogged with dead and dying people.
As I was travelling by train, the only real transport available most of the time, as motor transport had been mostly claimed by the army, I witnessed the worst of it. In station after station, as I travelled from one town to another, I witnessed the same disaster and tragedy. Whole families would come into the railway stations to die. If you tried to feed one person, you would be instantly mobbed, especially if you had any rice. Then, of course, cholera began to occur. Things began to break down. Sanitation, water supplies and medicines became short, if at all available. The whole civil organisation began to break down for a time in the cities. To me, it was quite a traumatic experience to step out of my railway carriage at Howrah, the Calcutta station, and literally have to step over the dead and dying to get to the railway exit. The whole thing became such a shocking experience that one became immune to it. Once, I made the terrible mistake of trying to give one of the prostrate people some food. It was simply a bread and butter sandwich. There was a sort of rush and then rejection of the sandwich because it wasn't rice. I realised that you could only help the people by doing it in numbers. Individuals weren't safe.
What struck me about the whole scenario, with hundreds of people around, some dead, some dying, most in the last throes of life, was that everyone was carrying on more or less as usual. Stall holders were still giving out papers, chocolate and drinks. Porters were wending their way through the mass of dying people quite nonchalantly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. But there were no sacred cows around. Apparently, there were quite a few people who put staying alive before religious sentiment and the sacred cow was the victim, but how anyone was able to kidnap a sacred cow in those conditions was beyond me. These cows were big Brahman cows. Also the beggars had disappeared, the lepers and the maimed. This scenario went on for weeks. I was travelling, at this time, a few times a week to different RAF camps and stations, and things never seemed to change. More and more people came into Calcutta from the country. They came by ox cart, car, truck, or any transport they could get hold of, but mostly by train. If the scene did change, it was for the worse. Actually, when the inevitable cholera did break out, things became more organised. Cholera affected everyone, not only Hindus. Now the Muslims began giving a helping hand. The situation was that the Japs were now breaking into India via Burma and other northern areas. Even under normal conditions, Britain had only comparatively few troops to control a country as volatile and complex as India. The population wasn't too far off a billion people and now the Japs were breaking in all over the frontiers. Politically, it was getting more and more difficult to control. Famine was just an extra burden. There just wasn't any rice at the moment, and overseas sources were almost impossible to get hold of at that time. This sort of thing could only be controlled slowly. I did see people being carried away on trolleys and stretchers. I assumed they were dead, or sometimes almost dead, although I understand that quite a lot of them were just pushed into the rivers, the holy Ganges or one of its tributaries. Well over a million people died in this famine, but estimates in India are hopelessly inaccurate and seriously under-estimated. One of the most poignant scenes I noted was to see men, women and children dying together as a family. Just dying of starvation: It all seemed too incredible. After a few days of no food, their stomachs wouldn't take anything, even rice. They couldn't be fed intravenously and wouldn't take medicine or any injections, even if there had been such facilities available. They accepted that they were going to die long before death actually came. It was fate and that was all about it. They never produced their own nurses or their own hospitals or medical staff.
Naturally, I did not enjoy travelling at this time and began to wonder about things. Surely this sort of thing could have been avoided somehow, even by using force. But how could you use force against people who had given up trying to stay alive? The carriage I had got into back at my station at Salbani had an American officer in it. He had just arrived in India. Strangely enough, he was going to my camp to check on medical arrangements for a number of American servicemen now receiving tropical experience in using our planes. The Yanks had started to come into India now. I always found them, on the whole, a fantastic people. Very easy to talk to, and generous with what they had, but very critical. He was the equivalent of a Group Captain in rank and told me he didn't think much of the way the British were controlling India. I shouldn't think so, when we had to step over dying men to get to our carriages. I just shut up. What could I say? There was no way to explain to anyone who hadn't been through it the tremendous job that Britain had done already, just to try and keep freedom alive all on her own for so long, trying at the same time to defend an Empire that stretched over half the globe, trying to keep countries like India from breaking out into numerous riots and disturbances, often organised by self-serving politicians, whom America was actually, in some ways, helping in their insubordinations.
These politicians didn't care a damn for India. They wanted power, and in the end, they got it. To the military, Gandhi was no help at all. I often wonder how the Germans, French, Russians and Italians would have reacted to Gandhi's methods of passive resistance. It just wouldn't have worked. They would have just ploughed into the so-called resisters with small and large tanks and shot as many as they could. It was only with the British that this type of `giving way' behaviour worked.
This American officer was given the room next to mine. We had no running water, and what water we had was brought by the bearers and poured into the canvas basin issued to all officers under these conditions. It was part of his kit, a portable canvas basin with a collapsible wooden stand. During the night, big brown bears came down from the adjacent hills and drank the water. One could hear them making a slurping noise as they pinched our water ration. We had been warned to leave the bears alone, as they were extremely aggressive.
At this late time in the war, the Yanks had not yet learned what life in the field was like. They expected all kinds of comforts. Of course, they soon learned, and after some severe losses became superior operators. In fact, they taught us a thing or two. They always wore long sleeves and slacks in the tropics, whereas the British used to walk about half naked. The result was that the incidence of malaria amongst the Yanks was less than half of ours. You could get bitten by the malicious anopholene mosquito any time of the day or night and anywhere whatever.Â