The Town Hall: Deepak Sharma

Deepak Sharma
Hindi fiction

Translated by: Madhu B. Joshi and Deepak Sharma

The High Court of the state has delivered its verdict on my PIL filed two years ago: the Municipal Corporation of our Kasbapur will have to cancel its agreement with the tourism department of the state under which our town hall would have been declared a 'heritage hotel’. 

The press asks me how at this age of eighty-five I could muster courage to challenge as powerful an institution as the Municipal Corporation.

By way of an answer, I repeat the incident when my father was ready to lay down his life to save this very town hall.

The year was 1942. And days of the August Revolution.

Madhu B Joshi
It is a known fact that in March 1942, a British delegation led by Sir Stafford Cripps arrived in India to elicit cooperation from the Indian National Congress for the Second World War. There was widespread unrest against the proposal. And on 8 August 1942, when the Congress Committee sent a call for the 'Quit India Movement' and the very next day when Gandhiji was taken into custody in Pune, the country rose in protest. The streets reverberated with slogans of 'Quit India'and 'Do or Die'! At some places people got carried away and set government buildings on fire. Electricity lines were disrupted, trains and vehicles were burnt.

As in other cities of the country, residents of Kasbapur too took to the streets carrying Congress flags. The protesters were quite a mixed bag.

Some set out for the Collectorate, most marched towards the town hall.

Named the Victoria Memorial Hall, the town hall was a greater symbol of British hegemony. A huge red sandstone statue of Queen Victoria stood right at its center, both hands resting on a moneybag. This town hall had been planned in the year 1897 to commemorate 60 years of the coronation of the queen of England. By 1911, when its construction was finally completed, Victoria had already died in 1901. 

On that day, the procession had planned to pelt stones at the statue of Queen Victoria.

Sitting in his office in the town hall, the Mayor immediately ordered his police guards to lathi-charge the protesters. 

Instead of deterring the protesters the charge had quite the opposite effect. The stones were now aimed directly at the windows of the town hall. 

Those days my father used to work in the town hall in the library on the second floor. One of the balconies of the library sat right on top of the main entrance of the town hall.

Sensing the frightful intentions of the restive crowd he came and stood on that balcony. He intended to address the agitated crowd pelting stones at the building using the public address system of the town hall. That system was used to make public speeches and state felicitations and announcements of public interest. Let me also add here that at that time our town hall was not only home to the various city offices, it was also the site of the city's elections and important examinations were held here. It also announced disasters and information about public vaccinations and other health related measures. And also the lists of casualties during World War I.

These announcements were often made by my father. He had an impressive voice, effective and rotund. And he knew how to use it.

“This is a brother of yours speaking”, as his voice reverberated unexpectedly everyone listened to him wonderstruck, the policemen and the protesters stopped what they were doing. “Just as you are, I too am a devotee of Gandhiji. His chosen path is one of non-violence, not of anarchy; of civil disobedience, not of aggressive action. We must not repeat 'Chaurichara' here. It must be remembered that on February 5, 1922, when our brothers resorted to violence at the police station there, our Bapu had to observe a fast for 5 days. Would you want Bapu to commence a fast again? Today he is much older, physically more frail! And also consider this my brothers and sisters-this town hall is a public body, the center of public utility services for our public life. This is ours. Its round domes, bright urns, cupolas, the clock tower and all its four clocks are ours. It's all ours. Why should we destroy these? The British have no stake in these. They have to leave India. If not today, tomorrow. Or the day after …”

And then the microphone in my father's hand got disconnected from the P.A. system.
But my father did not panic. Not at all. Knowing that the British government would now dismiss him from service.

Calmly, he placed the microphone on the parapet and raised his hand, 'Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai.'
The protesters siezed his fiery ovation instantly, threw away the stones their hands held and raised their hands in unison to repeat 'Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai.' “Please leave now,’ signalled my father.
The policemen held their sticks and watched the crowd leaving the town hall.

My father smiled. As if he had found a treasure. His town hall was intact, the museum which housed pictures and descriptions of historical monuments and eminent personalities of the city had remained unharmed. The rare books in the library, which held all the scholarship of the world, were safe. The very books he had been savouring for the last fifteen years.

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