FORT WILLIAM CALCUTTA WHERE I LIVED-WORKED
By Brigadier Chitranjan Sawant,VSM
Captain Brohier of Royal Engineers was tasked to design and build a fort on the eastern banks of the Hooghly river to defend and protect the interests of the East Indian Company. He demanded and received an advance sum of Rs 20,000-all silver coins, but chose to decamp with that princely sum. He sought and was granted asylum in the Dutch principality of Chinsurah, not far from Calcutta. Unfortunately for him, he lost both his life and the money. The Dutch were the gainers. The British chose not to give a military treatment to their competitors in sea faring. Both parties let the matter rest there.
No less a person than Robert Clive, hero of battle of Plassey, was assigned the job of erecting the new Fort William. Clive worked overtime and efficiently to submit a completion report to the Board of Directors of the East India Company. Clive gained name and fame. Money followed. Clive lived like a White Nabob and the Natives provided the new ruler of Bengal whatever he wanted. His wish was a command. In due course of time Clive was elevated in social and political position and became a Lord. Let us leave Lord Clive at that and proceed further with the Fort.
Fort William, named after King William III of England, is perhaps the only Fort from where no gun shot was ever fired in anger. The Fort was never attacked by an enemy as there was no strong enemy in India to challenge the British supremacy. The trading outfit called the East Indian Company had won the DEEWANY or revenue collection rights in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. They had acquired magisterial powers to arrest and imprison those who denied them their dues. Traders had become Rulers who remained unchallenged from the battle of Plassey in 1757 to the day when India gained independence on 15 August 1947. An unbroken Rule with absolute powers for 190 years made history.
I have had the privilege of entering portals of Fort William in April 1979 on my posting to headquarters Eastern Command of the Indian Army to look after the educational needs of troops spread across many States and touching borders with Bangladesh, Burma and the People’s Republic of China. I travelled far and wide but what attracted me most was the history and People of Fort William over two centuries. Interesting indeed.
Perchance sitting in the National Library, Calcutta I came across a historical reference to Hickey’s Gazette, a newspaper published from Calcutta in the last two decades of the 18th century. Many a time we crib about lack of freedom of thought and expression in region beyond borders of our country but it was quite revealing that the founder editor cum publisher of the aforesaid Gazette was imprisoned by the then Governor, Warren Hastings. The Lord Chief Justice was in no position to offer a soothing relief to the intellectual prisoner.
Finally, Governor Warren Hastings and Editor Hickey fought a duel near the Water Gate of Fort William but it was indecisive. So they carried over their fight to another day until the Editor was penniless due to machinations of Governor Warren Hastings.
I cannot resist the temptation of recounting an advertisement carried by Hickey’s Gazette. A young subaltern billeted in Fort William was non-plussed on finding that his official Sword was missing from his room. He cautioned and cajoled his personal servants including syce of horses, personal valet, waiter, butler of the officers’ Mess but it turned out to be an exercise in futility. So, he took recourse to putting an AD but to no avail. I guess the young subaltern had no option but to buy a new sword out of his pay and miss a charity Ball in Chowringhee, hub of socialites and models from across the world. Ladies who travelled alone from England and sought shelter in Fort William carried a tag, Husband Hunter.
Fort William was the hub of military action in the Eastern Theatre of World War II. Field Marshal Slim wrote his world famous book, DEFEAT INTO VICTORY in this region and perhaps inside the Fort too. He dedicated the book to his wife who made a Home both in a palace and a hut.
In the 1971 war against Pakistan, the Indian Army officers and Jawans acquitted themselves very well. Major military engagements were in the then East Pakistan-directed ably by Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora and then Major General (later Lieutenant General) Jack Jacob. General Jacob lived and worked in Fort William for many years, first as Chief of Staff and later as the Army Commander. It was Jacob who negotiated the surrender of the Pakistan’s Army Commander, Lt Gen AAK Niyazi and convinced him that there was no choice for him but to surrender. It was General Jacob’s self confidence that caused the Indian Army to force Pakistan’s surrender in Ramna Race Course, Dacca on 16 December 1971. Indeed the plan for the magnificent victory of the Indian Army was planned well in the War Room of Fort William.
Much water has flown down the Hooghly river since Fort William came into existence a little over two centuries ago. Men came men went away and faded into oblivion. However, stories of spirits that walk across ramparts are still narrated and listened with great interest. However, before we get down to finer details of ethereal stories, I would like to clarify that ghosts, devils, she-devils, djinns etcetra do not exist in this world except in gossips and tales told by officers waiting for an assignment and bored house wives. However, since ghost stories are told and retold on the premises of Fort William, I cannot bypass them.
9 Ramparts is the spacious house where my wife, children and I lived for a little over three years and enjoyed every day every bit of it. One fine evening when Sudha and I were away in the Command Officers Mess in a farewell party to a dear friend of ours, a message came asking us to return home which we did. On reaching the ramparts we found our cook-cum-maid standing outside and children were inside house reluctant to open doors for her. On a detailed enquiry I was informed that the maid had her heels in the front and toes in the rear of the foot. Obviously she was not a human being but a churail out to harm young ones. It took me sometime to convince our children that ghost stories about rampart houses were spoiling their thinking and capacity to separate grain from chaff.
A teenager next door told me in confidence that a British ma’am walked entire ramparts every night after midnight looking for a British Army Officer who felt like a jilted lover and so beheaded her. Now her headless body roams around seeking both Peace and Justice. None was available. There is no judiciary in such fiction where djinns, spirits and headless bodies of English women have all the freedom to go wherever they wish to.
Fortunately, Fort William is not a tourist destination otherwise guides would spin more yarns to earn extra buck. It is well known that Scotland tourism runs on ghost stories. Even top scientists do not raise their little finger to dissuade educated tourists from buying tickets to hear nothing but fictitious tales of ghosts who never existed.
Be that as it may, Fort William exists today and plans for battles anew to defend and protect the borders of Bharat where reality exists Not fiction.
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