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Flash story

The Revolutionaries

Alternative history. If the political-historical relations of two nations were reversed, would the characters of the nation’s peoples be reversed too?

[Image credit]

This piece of speculative flash fiction was published in Bewildering Stories, Issue #979.

***

We knew the speech would be somewhere in Derby – sorry, Dharabi – but the Raj has ears everywhere, so our people kept shifting the venue, and until the last moment we didn’t know where. I got entangled with streams of natives. Scurrying here and there, following the latest news, eyes silently interrogating each other: ‘Do you know where it is?’ Finally we blundered into the venue just as the party-leaders had settled on it.

Funny how that happens. As if this ‘telepathy’ the Rulers lecture about were real. Of course it’s just Oriental rubbish: sneaked into our children’s textbooks to brainwash them. Derby Coal-Mine: that was the venue. Fitting! This is where it began.

We thronged in, watching the leaders hustle across the makeshift stage. Of course we had to have a stage, and an inauguration and speeches before getting down to work on the revolution. Revolution’s very well, but ritual’s sacrosanct. No big deal: we were just four hours behind schedule.

The Raj claims unpunctuality runs in Britons’ blood. It doesn’t. Subject peoples are always unpunctual. It’s someone else’s work we’re showing up for: why hurry? Even now, on Revolution’s eve, when we were dodging the rulers and it was life and death, we took time out to light the inaugural candles. The aroma of refreshments wafted in.

Finally the Freedom Party’s leader was ready to speak. Raymond Chandler: or, as they called him – Ravichandran.

“Brothers!” he began. “We’re gathered at a historic site. Our grandmothers told us the story. It was pirates who discovered the Derbyshire coal-mines in 1745. Small-time British pirates had been poaching a living off the ships of the Raj, which were already scouting these waters seeking new territory. Our hardworking ancestors had discovered iron: rich deposits, richer than France’s. That’s what first drew them. So now, when our pirates found these coal-mines, they knew: Mum’s the word! They mustn’t suspect we had iron and coal so close together – while their own steel production was stalled from rising transport costs… But they did find out. They landed a reconnaissance party. But their scientists couldn’t read the signs of iron deposits in our temperate terrain. So they arrested our pirates and made them talk and then they knew: England has both coal and steel! Our own natural resources, brothers – that’s what doomed us. Within months, shiploads of Indian soldiers descended on us with guns and cannon. The rest is history.”

We cheered, outraged afresh by subjugation to an inferior race. India is thrice as large as Britain, and ten times more populous: of course they’d found iron and coal at home before we did, kickstarting their Industrial Revolution back when we were still pilfering coal, by the pitiful bagful, from France. But accidents can only take you so far: now we’ll reclaim our rightful place in history.

“Brothers!” said Raymond Chandler. “Why is our beloved Britain a backwater of slums? Tenements sick and stunted rising, from these once-green meadows, into gray-black skies? Why are our skies, the subject of Classical travellers’ odes, gray-black with smog from coal-powered steel factories running around-the-clock?” 

“It was me,” whispered my neighbour, “Wrote him that bit! At adda last week, over tea, I mean. What d’you think of it?”

“Good image,” I commended.

“…Why is the average Briton today six inches shorter than he was 150 years ago? Why do Britons die in stampedes near slaughterhouses when an Indian proprietor is flinging out hides and feathers red with morsels of meat? Why, brothers?”

“The Raj!” we roared.

It was then that I detected the delicious fragrance.

It invaded the coal-mine and found, through coal-dust and the sweat of 17,000 bodies, my nostrils. The snack-bearer was coming!

“Why do British peasants toil for starvation wages, growing rice and legumes on state-owned farms? England’s rolling meadows, Scotland’s heather-pink hills: where are they? Why do we break our backs growing crops we can’t stomach? Why have our legendary British hills been carved up into rice-terraces?”

“The Raj!” we roared, hypnotised. By Ravichandran’s booming bass. By the coal-dust in our throats. By the feeling that here, in this coal-mine where it all began, the end of the Indian Raj was dawning. Hypnotised, above all, by that smell creeping up our nostrils, down into our empty stomachs, up into our brains. We Britons starve on workdays but, when there’s a Revolution meeting, we do it right.

“Brothers! Where are our silks and velvets of yesteryear! Peasants used to till their oat-fields wearing smocks of purple lace – did you know that? No! Because the Raj has falsified our history-books. Their history-books claim that we were a race of starving savages before they came to civilise us. The gall! Why, brothers, do we scurry around in gray smocks of imported cotton! Clothes that cost us a fortune but disintegrate in weeks! Meanwhile we’re forbidden to grow our own flax and weave our own cloth! Why, brothers?”

“The Raj!” The roar echoed off the cave’s roof and clattered back down over our heads like slow-breaking thunder.

“Make way!” The snack-bearer had arrived. I watched him snake through the crowd. Hands reached from left and right to lift food off the tray.

“Good, eh?” I remarked to my neighbour. “You must admit those firangs can cook.”

“Ha!” he snorted. “These are Jersey chickens, grown in Shropshire, marinated in Welsh spices and Irish yoghourt, cooked by British line-cooks at The Grand Oriental. Chicken tikka masala, brother, is about as ‘Indian’ as Ravichandran: Indian only in name.” He wiped the juice of perfectly-roasted chicken off his chin.

“Meanwhile,” said Ravichandran, “India has re-greened herself. She’s repaired the damage to her forests from her Industrial Revolution. Green and thick her forests rise again into blue skies. Tall and sturdy, mutton-reared, her administrators sail over to govern us – until our homegrown smallpox and cholera get them! Those clean-living pampered brats don’t stay healthy long, here in Old Blighty!”

“Down with the Raj!” we cheered, fingers sticky with deliciousness, warmth rising from stomachs into brains.

“I say!” Ravichandran scanned the crowd. “Where’s that snack-bearer? He should’ve served me first. I’m the one making the speech: don’t I deserve a nosh? All day we’ve been running around, burgling the materials for the stage, kidnapping a crack team of line-cooks…” “Down with the Raj!” we roared, stampeding to offer Ravichandran our own morsels of chicken tikka masala. All 17,000 of us.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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