Saradindu, the Meri and Raktha Sandhya - Maddy's Ramblings

Dec 3, 2017

Saradindu, the Meri and Raktha Sandhya

Many years ago, I wrote about the fate of the ship Meri, its plunder and the massacre of its occupants by Vasco Da Gama. I had also mentioned briefly about a short story written by the late Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, on the very same subject. Anyway, of recent, I have been in the process of devouring a number of Saradindu’s works, notably his stories featuring the Byomkesh Bakshi (as well as some others). I read Rakhtha Sandhya again, in fact I read both the translations on print, which Malobika Chaudhuri calls The Scarlet Dusk and Monimala Dhar, The Blood Stained Sunset. After I finished reading these versions, I got lost in thought and decided to revisit the topic of Meri for a few reasons which will become clear as you read on….

First I need to provide a little background on Saradindu for those who have not heard of this great writer of yesteryears. Saradindu Bandhopadhay is more famous for his Byomkesh Bakshi stories and the book Tungabhadrar Teere. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes aficionados will note a close parallel between the characters of Bakshi and Holmes as well as Ajith and Watson (and there is Holmes’s neighbor, sometime housekeeper and landlady Mrs Hudson who cooks for him versus Byomkesh’s servant Puntiram). But here the comparison stops since the stories and situations narrated by Saradindu and the methods used are completely Indian. Another notable exception is that Holmes remained a bachelor whereas Byomkesh gets married to Satyaboti, whereas in Doyle’s stories Watson is the one who gets married.

Saradindu who had graduated in law lived in a mess/boarding house on Harrison road for a while and did have a close friend Ajith and in 1926 started to work for his father, a lawyer. Not liking his job, he took to writing and publishing his stories in magazines for a while, and it was in 1938 that he moved on to Bombay to work as a script writer (Bombay Talkies) for films. By 1952, he left the film world and moved to Pune where he passed away in 1970 after authoring several works. People of course remember him for his Byomkesh Bakshi stories and many Bengalis simple revere him for his lucid Bangla prose. Saradindu’s favorite method in some of his non Byomkesh works was to introduce the past into the present, he considered himself a history enthusiast and stated that he always wrote historic fiction (Saradindu himself emphasized – ‘my stories are not fictionalized history, they are historical fiction.’).

And that led me to write this topic. Was Saradindu’s Rakhtha Sandhya fictionalized history or historic fiction? Now the former (Fictionalized history) is usually a story that happens against a historical backdrop, where the main story remains completely fictional while the latter - Fictionalized history can be based on facts (to a certain extent) or be completely made up. Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past and where the author has to balance his/her material between history and fiction, with accuracy remaining a primary obligation. Fictionalized history on the other hand is history (made up) using the technique of fiction, i.e. the feeling and meaning of events are concretely realized using the technical resources of prose fiction (David Norton). In fictionalized history, the story itself purports to be history due to the use of adept prose, so much so that some people could feel them to be serious historic nuggets. On deeper analysis one can surmise that Rakhtha Sandhya was indeed a work historic fiction where the overall story frame is somewhat accurate though the characterization of Calicut and the key characters is not (I doubt if Saradindu ever visited Calicut).

Let us get back to Saradindu. His first published work dating back to 1930, interestingly is Rakhtha Sandya, which was serialized in a magazine. So deeply etched was the event in his mind, that Saradindu became a writer starting with this story of the massacre and plunder of the Dhow Meri, near Calicut. That got me thinking. How on earth did he get a hold of this story? Portuguese works were not easy to come by, and it was just in 1929 that KM Panikkar published his Malabar and the Portuguese but in that book he neither mentions the characters of the incident, nor the ships name. Portuguese (translated) resources would have been available in the Calcutta libraries, and they may have been Saradindu’s primary resource. Castaneda’s account as witnessed by Thome Lopes, translated into English by Nicholas Litchfield and printed in 1582 is the oft quoted and detailed version. Then there was Varthema’s travels translated by Winter Jones in 1863 and of course Kerr’s Voyages. But to get to that singular (of the many) event in distant Malabar, Saradindu must have been prodded along by somebody, especially somebody from Malabar. There was K Ramunni Nair’s account of the Portuguese in Malabar (CR 115 1902) and I am tempted to think that somebody like Ramunni would have collaborated with Saradindu on his first short story. But with due credit Saradindu did venture courageously beyond Bengal in later years, in the locales he chose and his masterpiece Tungabhadrar Teere covers intrigues at the distant kingdom of Vijayanagara. Now let’s get to the story itself. I had covered the account of the misfortunes which befell the passengers on Meri, some years ago. 

The Scarlet Dusk or the Bloody twilight or Blood stained dusk, tells the story of a butcher in Kolkata, named Ghulam Kader, who brutally murders a foreigner he met for the first time in his shop. The court sentences him for death, and the man wants to meet the author (Saradindu – who he was acquainted with) before his death to disclose the greater tale. And then he narrates the story of Mirza Daud, who lived in Calicut during the time Vasco da Gama landed there in the fifteenth century. The author is amazed since the butcher is an illiterate and uninformed person otherwise, and there was no chance that he would have gleaned historical details such Vasco da Gama's arrival, the Meri incident and its aftermath.

Prelude to the Meri incident

Vasco Da gama
But before we get to Meri, let’s go to Calicut of 1500, during Cabral’s times and get to know of another massacre which took place on the shores of Calicut. Cabral had reached an agreement with the Zamorin and after he had established a trading post, things were looking up for the franks. Ayres Correia was deputed ashore to set up a factoria and arrange for the sourcing of spices from the hinterland with his team of some 50-70 Portuguese. He did not do well in convincing the suppliers to provide enough goods and complained to Cabral that the Pardesi Arab Muslims at the port were hindering his efforts (of course they wanted to limit competition). Perhaps there were other factors at play, but what happened was that Cabral formally complained to the Zamorin, who did nothing about it, but naturally. Goaded by Correia, Cabral decided to use force and captured a fully loaded Arab vessel, bound for Jeddah. Furious at this, the Pardesi Muslim traders of Calicut ganged up and sacked the Portuguese outpost. During this attack, the factor Ayres Correia, his secretary Pêro Vaz de Caminha, three to five Franciscan friars were slaughtered amongst the other Portuguese (Gonçalo Peixoto was sheltered by Koya Pakki) and some of them managed to swim towards the anchored Portuguese ships to tell Cabral the sorry tale. The survivors also reported that the Zamorin's guards did not intervene. The furious Cabral not getting a redress from the Zamroin, sails off to Cochin where he finds a friendly ally in the Perumbadappu Swaroopam king and sets up what turns out to become a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the kingdom of Cochin.

Gama is deputed next to Malabar in 1500 and revenge against the Pardesi Muslims is prime on his mind. Perhaps he was tasked to put the fear of Franks into the hearts of the people of Malabar by Manuel, perhaps it was his own idea. AR Disney in his paper, argues more generally that selective violence against Muslims of Middle Eastern origin was part of the messianic dream of King Manuel who seems to have believed he had been chosen by God to free Jerusalem from Muslim control and become the new emperor of the Holy Land. Anyway, most of the finer details of the event concerning Meri had been discussed earlier. A sorry tale indeed.

Rakhtha Sandhya

Let us see now see how Saradindu recounted it, circa 1929, bereft of all the search tools and books we now use as resources in our own studies. He starts with a murder at a butcher’s shop on Durgacharan St, Calcutta. Ghulam Kader the butcher is well known and is a quiet Bengali Muslim. On the ill-fated day, at 930AM, an Anglo Indian (actually a Portuguese East Indian from Goa named Gabriel De Rosa) man came to buy meat. Before anybody could understand what was going on, the quiet butcher flies into a rage, calling the newcomer Vasco Da Gama and proceeded to stab him to death, 57 times. As he stabbed the poor man, the butcher cried out that it was revenge exacted for the death of his wife and daughter by Vasco da Gama.

Saradindu, who knew Kader and was a regular customer of his, wonders how this illiterate butcher knew about Vasco Da Gama. The trial starts and consensus is that this quiet simple butcher Kader was seized by a bout of insanity which led to the unfortunate event. The defense establishes that Kader had no clue who Gabriel was, before the event. But Kader inexplicably stands up and states that he had indeed seen Vasco da Gama many times, at the port of Calicut and knew him. Saradindu is surprised, this illiterate butcher was now mentioning the distant port of Calicut! The case goes to the high court where Kader despite advice to the contrary from his lawyer, freely admits that he murdered the man and that he was not in the least repentant about it and that he would do the same if another chance came up. The judge sentences Kader to death. Kader has just one final request - that he be allowed to talk to Saradindu. After this discussion, Kader is hanged to death on the courts orders.

During their meeting which takes place in the prison, Kader tells Saradindu the story of the Meri and that he was in his previous life (incarnation) a well-respected Moroccan trader named Mirza Daud Bin Ghulam Siddique living and trading at Calicut. Kader while retelling the tale admits that he has no idea how he knows all this, but he goes on to recount his final days of a previous lifetime at Calicut.

I still wonder, how did Saradindu choose this tale? He could have zeroed in on similar sordid accounts at Surat or even Konkan ports, but why Calicut? Anyway let’s leave it there, perhaps we will never know how Saradindu got tangled with the Meri incident. As we read through Mirza Daud’s life we can start to separate fiction from history, and romance from fact, but in 1930, it would have been impossible. Calicut according to Saradindu is the jewel of the Malabar Coast, a port accessible only from the sea, with hills behind it and teeming with traders and travelers from all over the world. Calicut, Saradindu narrates, was like the musaferkhana (traveler’s inn) for the shipping community in the entire world! Chinese, Bengalis, Persians, Moors (Arab Muslims), they were all there to profit from trade and take wares to faraway buyers and places both in the east and in the west. The Samorin took a small profit, and the kingdom as well as his coffers were rich, his subjects were happy and contended. Mirza Daud a rich trader, owned 21 ships which plied the South Asian as well as western seas (Arab ships did not ply South Asian seas those days, the Chinese used flat bottomed junks). He had a marble palace in Calicut (in those days everybody had thatched huts and only centuries later did the Zamorin start sanctioning tiled roofs, but that too only for preferred families). Saradindu terms the king as Raja Samari, a little off from the Samuthiri and he mentions sweet smelling breeze wafting in from the Lakshdweep (nothing other than coconut palms grew there, no flowering trees).

The beach port of Calicut (was it Pantalayani?) was stone paved (interesting) with iron rings in order to moor ships, but he was right that the port was the nerve center of Calicut, where everything took place and people hung out. True even today!

It is soon 1498 - Mirza Daud spots three Portuguese ships from the beach and that heralds the arrival of Vasco Da Gama for the very first time (no mention of the monsoon season and heavy rains). Vasco is tall, has long golden hair, a thin moustache and a short beard (Saradindu was off on the color of Vasco’s hair, it was black, I believe). He had a hat and a feather on the cap (hmmm!! Certainly fanciful) and spoke to Mirza in Portuguese (In reality, Gama did not come ashore and sent a degrado Joao Nunes to the shore, and personally alighted only days later). Mirza escorts Gama to meet the Raja Samari and the Gama presents Samari with rich gifts (which he actually did not!). Mirza is suspicious, he distrusts the Gama, rightly, assuming that Gama is there to wrest away their livelihood. Gama and team settle down in Calicut for a few weeks, and the next untoward event happens after another trader from Bengal named Prabhakar Shreshti comes ashore with bales of superfine muslin cloth for trade. Mirza buys it promptly, but Gama steps in and tries to outbid Mirza. Prabhakar refuses to supply the muslin to Gama stating that he had already agreed on a deal with Mirza but Gama loses his temper and abuses Mirza, who does the same in return. Soon they are fighting a duel, swords drawn, both expert swordsmen, only issue being the fact that Gama has a straight blade, whereas Mirza has a curved one, not conducive to this kind of a duel.

The fighting is intense and in the end the canny Gama is backed off to the edge of the pier and loses his balance and sword. Mirza has the Gama at his mercy and demands a promise from Gama that he will never set foot in Calicut again (Yes, Gama never set foot in Calicut on his two subsequent voyages)! Mirza tries to convince the Samari to throw out the Portuguese then and there, but the Samari (whose reign according to Saradindu started only since the 15th century – actually it was 13th or earlier) wants to give all traders an open field. Vasco sails back to Lisbon and Alvarez Keblar (actually Cabral) sails in to and bombards Calicut, then strikes a deal with the Zamorin (as explained previously to set up a factory with Ayres Correia). A relative calm descends on Calicut after that and Mirza visits Morocco with his wife Saleha and daughter Haruna (usually these traders took Muta wives in Calicut, their own family almost always remained in Arabia) and travels thence to Mecca with his father. Convincing his old father to join him to the golden shores of Calicut, which he considers his real home, they set off on his ship the Meri (the leader of the traders in the ship was one Jauhar al-Faquih and the ship was owned perhaps by the Mamluk sultan), to Calicut, wife and daughter in tow, so also many other traders and pilgrims from Mecca, returning to Malabar.

An uneventful voyage ensued until they came close to the shores of North Malabar, near Ezhimala. On a Friday, unannounced and suddenly; they were accosted by five armed Portuguese ships.  Mirza knew that his ship was doomed, and as the Portuguese caravels came closer, he found that the captain was none other than the accursed Vasco Da Gama (When Mirza asks Gama why he had come back, Gama states that they are technically not at Calicut!). Mirza begs Gama to spare the women and children and offers him all the wealth they had onboard. Vasco collects all of it and after harassing the pilgrims for 2-3 days, proceeds to set fire to the ship. In the meanwhile, Haruna, Mirza’s daughter is shot to death by Gama. Many hundreds die as the ship sinks and their frantic wails can be heard one last time (only one person was spared by Gama, the hunchback pilot of the Meri, together with 17 children who were later converted and made apprentice friars of Nossa Senhora de Belem).

The setting sun in the west bathed the horizon in a reddish hue, testament to the blood bathed massacre of the Meri. That same sun, the author concludes, would rise in the east another day to ensure the return of Mirza’s soul to take revenge. And that was how Kader, the reborn soul of Mirza from Westerly Calicut exacts revenge on Gabriel the reborn soul of Vasco Da Gama, in Easterly Calcutta. The sky color became the title of the story - Rakhtha Sandhya (Saradindu C), Scarlet Dusk (M Chadhuri), Bloodstained Sunset (M Dhar), Bloody twilight (Sanjay S) or Bloody Sunset (Lakshmi Subramanian).

Even if you filter out some of the liberties taken by both translators, the two versions are seemingly close to an original. Saradindu in my opinion was true to fact for a very large extent, but using new and fictional characters. It was a stellar maiden effort from the author, sitting in Calcutta and having only a few dry Portuguese accounts translated by Englishmen.

Gama had incidentally explained to the Zamorin in a letter, that the attack on the Meri and his murder of 250 souls was in revenge for the Moorish attack on the Portuguese factory at Calicut culminating in the murder of Aryes Correia and 40 other Portuguese. He added that the conversion of those 20 Muslim boys was to revenge the conversion of a Portuguese boy who had been taken to Mecca and converted to Islam, by the Moors.

Two historians referenced this story in their books, Lakshmi S and Sanjay S. Let’s see how they reverently referred to it. Sanjay mentions that the 20th century finally brought retrospective condemnations in the form of Panikkar’s book in 1929 and Saradindu’s short story Rakhtha Sandhya. He avers that though Saradindu turned out to be against Islamic invaders in later books, this first work targets the Harmads (Portuguese pirates). Perhaps Saradindu recognized fully that the Muslims of Calicut never belonged to such an invader category. He also puts forth an interesting aside, that in true reincarnation style, the Muslim remained a Muslim and the Christian, a Christian (though a contemptible half caste at that, a Parangi) in Saradindu’s story which in classic fashion depicted the opposition between an honorable East and the evil West. Lakshmi lauds the story’s identification of the military dimensions of the Portuguese entry into the trading world of the Indian Ocean. She explains how Saradindu transports the reader to a trading world with a number of time honored conventions that the invader proceeds to flout and dismantle. Their eventual deployment of force brought about tragedy after bloody tragedy, leaving only a scarlet sunset, as its mute witness. Lakshmi also explains that Saradindu continued the tradition of writers such as Khafi Khan who had previously written about the bloody image of the accursed Harmads and how Saradindu could situate the Meri encounter in a material context that was historically more accurate and in consonance with popular perception.

All in all, it was a stimulating study. My perusal of the rest of his books continue as I have finished only about 6-7 Byomkesh mysteries so far, with another 25 to complete the lot. Perhaps I will watch Rajith Kapoor’s Byomkesh tele-drama next!

When the earth was young – Reincarnation stories – Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, Trans- Monimala Dhar
The Scarlet Dusk - Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, Trans- Malobika Chaudhuri
The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama – Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Medieval Seafarers of India - Lakshmi Subramanian
Vasco Da Gama’s reputation for violence – the alleged atrocities at Calicut in 1502 (from The Portuguese in India and other studies 1500-1700) – A R Disney

Was Santosh Sivan’s Prithviraj starrer ‘Urumi’ close to Saradindu’s Rakhtha Sandhya? Perhaps it is, more so in concept, but regionalized. It starts with the dilemma of the present constituted by a threat from a multinational company, eventually getting dictated by the Meri events of the past. Urumi was an attempt to portray or rather discuss the many realities that could have affected the course of our history, according to its script writer Shankar Ramakrishnan.

Those interested may also peruse the work of a young and promising historian Mahmood Kooriadathodi. His article “Killed the Pilgrims and Persecuted Them”: Portuguese Estado da India’s Encounters with the Hajj in the Sixteenth Century” in the collection ‘The Hajj and Europe in the Age of Empire’ Ed Umar Ryad provides a very good understanding of the trading and religious transport network in the medieval times as well as a discussion on the Meri depiction in Urumi.

Pic Dhow - Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University


Geetha Prabhakaran said...

Interesting history.

Maddy said...

Thanks Geetha
glad you liked it