Show Hide image

From the NS archive: Famine in Bengal

2 October 1943: The terrible reality of starvation and death witnessed first-hand in British India.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

In 1943 famine struck Bengal in British India. Events were exacerbated by the conditions of war, with much of the province’s agricultural production being diverted to help the war effort. Inflation was rife, humanitarian aid was slow in coming, land was appropriated. It is estimated that between two and three million people died as a result of starvation or associated diseases. Some historians have argued that the famine was man-made and have laid much of the blame at Winston Churchill’s door. This powerful article, however, by a British Army officer travelling through the region, is not concerned with the big picture but the terrible reality of starvation and death witnessed first-hand.

***

“There’s a famine down there,” they told me. Probably people dying and so forth. I knew that, of course – had read about it in the paper – but on the eve of my move I pigeonholed and forgot the information; the famine would, no doubt, be noticeable if it were real. Anyway, poverty is so ever present in India that forgetting is a protective armour. I left with no more than that half-warning in my head. On the journey I had too much to do to think of the people or the country. This was a Company move, and I was responsible for 150 Indian troops from the hills, in land as foreign to them as it was to me. They could not speak this language; they had never seen quite this sort of landscape before. Yet, quickly they were bored with it all – the long travelling hours, the awkward changes, the carrying of kit and stores, the rain and the general discomfort.

After a couple of days of slow journeying, we changed trains at a fair-sized junction. Fires were started and food prepared on the platform. I had to make some arrangements, and when I returned the men were all eating. This was the first time I saw the beggars. They were not like other Indian beggars, calling for an anna from a passing train. These people did not ask for money. They wanted food, and they stood there watching the men of their own nation cooking and eating. I counted about 30 of these beggars as they clustered on the railway line between the two platforms; they were of all ages and in one condition; the majority were women; some were blind and all were ill. One old man, tall, with a fine head and straggly beard, was being led by a woman; his sightless eyes looked up high over the heads of those squatting on the platform. Some of the beggars were silent and a very few were still; most were watching closely, for occasionally, as a man finished his food, he would walk to the edge and sweep the scraps on to the line. The watchers, who had drawn closer, rushed forward then and scraped in the dirt for the few grains of rice, until they were driven back by a couple of railwaymen.

The blind old man, at these times, hearing the movement and the shouts, made a low noise rather like a whine, perhaps an echo of days when he had been a prosperous beggar. For the more romantic of my readers I say with reluctance that this old man had no more dignity than the others. His head was lifted and twisted on a scraggy neck; he was very dirty and his rags revealed no suspicion of former beauty. He was hungry. Like the other beggars he had a small cloth and a tin which he held out for scraps.

The men of my Company were rather embarrassed and when I arrived were giving the remains of their food in a hurried way, as though the giving were distasteful. I watched this scene for a short while and then, as more men finished their food and the crowd began to fight among themselves, I stopped this indiscriminate scattering of food and had the scraps placed in a box to be distributed later. But I had forgotten one member of the Company – the goat. He had been given his ration separately on a small plate. But that day, he was fussy. He had a few mouthfuls, nibbled the rest, turned away, thought again and managed a little more. Then with a rather distant look, deploring the standard of wartime rations, he stalked away. Within ten seconds, a small crowd of men and women were fighting over the remnants of his meal.

We left that place with few regrets and soon after approached our destination. All along the line we met these train beggars – railway stations seem to be the hope of those who can walk from their village. The children were the most pitiful; naked boys and girls with no flesh or large pot-bellies lined the train. Yet they were the least worried, the least intense about their begging. Whether it is the ignorance or the optimism of youth I cannot tell, but it was easy to raise a smile. What they most wanted was the army “bishcoot”.

Arriving at our destination, we settled in, the Company being split up. My main job was travelling from one platoon to another, making sure they understood their new duties, and fixing quarters and ration arrangements.

One day I went into a stationmaster’s office to borrow his timetable. I sat facing him, my back to the door, when I heard someone come in and stand beside me. I looked up. He was a tall Indian, not very well dressed, rather the ordinary type of matriculate in the middle twenties that abounds in India. But he spoke excellent English. He stood still and straight and over my shoulder spoke to the station master. “Excuse me” – courteously, not apologetically – “there is a man on the platform out there in a dying condition. I thought he was dead, but there is some movement. Is there anything you can do? I will gladly pay the cost.”

The stationmaster did not appear to have heard, and continued to make entries in a large book spread out in front of him. The other waited. After about a minute the stationmaster finished writing, blotted the last words and reached for a small scrap of paper, on which he scribbled a sentence. Without turning his head he shouted: “Oh, Chowkidar!” An old man appeared. “Take this,” the stationmaster said in his language, “and give it to the policeman on duty.” Then he turned to the stranger. “The police will take care of him,” he said. The other turned to go and then stopped. “Will he be taken to the hospital?” he asked. The stationmaster grew angry. “The police know what to do,” he said shortly. The tall Indian, still obviously dubious, left the room. “Do you get many of them?” I asked the stationmaster. “Two or three a day,” he answered in the same tone, “We can do nothing.” About ten minutes later I left and had lunch in the station refreshment room – a plate heaped high with eggs, fish, bread, bacon and beans, costing Rs.1.8. An hour later, I strolled on to the platform to look for my train.

The dead man was still there. He was lying half in a pool of water, near the edge of the platform form on his back, his face uncovered, except for the flies. He was not old, in rags, the skin stretched over his bones. What movement his discoverer had seen had most certainly ceased. I spoke to a naked little boy on the platform – which was full, though no one was paying any attention to the body. “Is he dead?” I asked. The child’s face lit up and he smiled. “Oh, yes,” he said, “he’s dead.” Two days later I came through the same station and stopped again to change trains. About five yards from where the dead man had lain was another body – this time the face was covered. I went to see the stationmaster. “There’s another dead man there,” I told him. “I know,” he answered as before, “the sweepers will take it away.” I suppose I looked what I felt, for suddenly his reserve went and he talked rapidly, his English suffering a little.

“What can we do?” he said. “We can do nothing. Every day they come here and die. Two and three of them. For us there is nothing to do. They get no food in the village that used to support them. Mostly they are people with no land and no family. They suffer the first. The other day, let me tell you something. I was there, sitting in my office when an old man and a little girl came right inside, the little girl begging for food. I was about to turn them out, when the old man dropped dead at my feet. Right at my feet. Just dropped dead. What could I do? I gave the little girl some money for food. Before night she was dead also.

“And I will tell you something,” he added, “that little girl was the same age as my little girl. That’s what I thought. She’s the same age as my little girl.”

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)