Natvarlal Brahmbhatt on the extreme left; with Bapalal Thakar on his left, and FJH on Bapalal’s left. Counting votes during the critical 1957 General Election, 28 January 1957. Meanwhile, at the Methodist Mission Hospital in Nadiad, NPH was struggling to be born alive.
The Collector of Ahmedabad received an urgent phone call. The expected birth was difficult and a caesarean was not possible. Which should the surgeon save, mother or child? He was sworn at as FJH was never heard to swear. The latter thought of his two small children and finally said, “Save the mother.” No one knew why he looked so grey and grim as counting continued.
As soon as proceedings were wound up, FJH got into his Dodge along with a pattewala in case of need (even in a crisis he never failed to make provision), and drove like a crazed man for Nadiad. The road with no traffic was through Matar, passing over the Shedhi River by a rackety old bridge. When he got there, sure enough, a portion of the bridge had fallen into the river and someone had laid a plank across the gap. To the pattewala’s horror, Saheb backed the car some distance, then drove at maximum speed so that the car almost flew across the river, the plank splitting with a loud crack and falling into the water below.
Until rendered helpless before dying, FJH never failed to pray the Rosary before he slept. And God never forsook him. He got to keep his wife and to hold his baby daughter in his arms.
When his wife was well enough to go out with him, he took her to Mansukhlal’s, the saree shop where the very rich made their purchases. With an overdraft he bought her three sarees of the latest mode – for a new bride, he said – a light pink French glass nylon encrusted with lace and gold thread; a powder-blue of the same material embroidered with mother-of-pearl and silver sequins; and a royal blue Banaras silk patli-pallav, its pleat section and pallav like panels of gold brocade with elephants and peacocks woven into it in red and green. That was FJH of the tender and faithful heart.
There was also the Collector Saheb.
Bapalal was a Mamlatdar in Ahmedabad District. He was good at his job; an upright man. Off duty he was a well-bred, cultured man whose hobby was photography. It was he who took many of the photographs of the Collector on duty. Bapalal gave copies to his boss, writing on the backs: “With best regards to Saheb Bahadur.”
Saheb Bahadur, and Saheb Hoshiyar, he was to many an awestruck citizen of Ahmedabad. How did he know what conspiracies were hatching?
A slim young man who watched keenly and observed shrewdly could have told them. But Natvarlal Brahmbhatt never did. He told no one.
Natubhai came from a bardic clan who were record-keepers, chroniclers to the rulers of their day. For this they required excellent memories. However, they sang their histories in verse. Not so Natubhai. He made notes of secret meetings, notes to be destroyed when it was time. He typed letters that were never to be archived.
Had he spoken, the legends would not have thrived. The truth was so simple: absolutely first class intelligence gathered from watchers of diverse occupations, including the police. The legends grew around a Saheb who, by night, cycled around Ahmedabad, listening in on conversations, spying who went whither. No, said some, he sat in a corner at Diamond Restaurant and eavesdropped. Since the famous eating-house was owned by a Muslim, the Saheb was kitted out by storytellers with a lungi and a skull-cap for disguise.
[Many years later, when FJH was Home Secretary, there was the case of the bunch of conspirators who were planning a disruptive action that would have meant a catastrophe for Ahmedabad than which only one other kind could be more devastating. One night, they all disappeared none knew where to.
All of them except one. He was known to be a babbler, and a dabbler, too. The only one who could plausibly be blamed for betraying the others. He had not. But it was expedient that he be suspected.
Next morning, in all innocence, he awoke to exactly that, when it was openly said to him that he had betrayed his comrades, all whisked away by policemen before they could make a phone call (no cell phones then!) in an operation most artfully planned and meticulously executed. The terrified man hastened to Police Headquarters. “Arrest me!” he screamed. “Why don’t you arrest me?”
“We have no orders about you,” was the reply from a poker-faced officer. “But you must arrest me now,” the man pleaded. “What for?” he was asked. “If you want to be arrested, go and ask the Home Secretary-sahib” And then he knew. That dangerous fellow, who had once been the Collector (Odysseus lay beyond the man’s ken) had best be avoided. He had reason.]
But during the Mahagujarat agitation there was the case of the undermined street protest.
In political agitations there are the manipulators and the manipulated; there is strategy and there are tactics; there is also timing, which application of mind can interpret and turn back on the aggressor.
There was a sit-down protest, fasting, and blocking busy roads. Old women, young men, all took part. The plan was to sit until the mills had their shift change. As workers came away or went to work, there would be some jostling as they pushed their way through. Weapons would appear out of clothing and be used against the policemen lining the roads, with cries of ”the police are attacking us!”
When policemen carrying lathis are assailed, they tend towards excess in their reaction. Therefore, the highest-ranking officers and the Collector himself moved ceaselessly to and fro keeping a look-out for signs of trouble.
Sun and hunger had begun to try the endurance of the crowd. As pre-concerted, at a moment which the Collector had rightly judged, the signal was passed around and officers sent for tea and samosas from nearby tea-stalls to refresh their men. Policemen are human. Some of them slurped tea loudly and remarked to each other on the tasty samosas. Some even offered refreshment to the crowd.
It was all too much for one beldame. She got to her feet, groaning, and stumbled off to the nearest tea-stall, ignoring the entreaties and threats of the provocateurs. Before long, large holes had opened up in the packed mass of humanity. By shift change time no one was left.
Sometimes it isn’t necessary to disperse a crowd with violence when a little wit will serve.
The Collector of Ahmedabad on the look-out.