“Rama! Come out! You cannot run anymore. This is it. Come out. Now!”
Huddled in the stall of a ramshackle cowshed, Rama heard the nasal voice of Sub-Inspector Harold Williams, taunting her. She also heard the clatter of boots as police constables surrounded the decrepit building. He was right; she had nowhere to go. Running away from the Degri Club, she had reached Mominpura, the poorest neighborhood in Degri. She had ducked into the cowshed and found a hiding spot behind the brown cows, all chewing their cud in unison. Behind her was a steep rocky slope that ended in the gurgling waters of the River Godavari, Degri’s lifeline. This was the end of the road. Six months ago, if someone had told her that she, Rama Gokhale, BA Honors (English Literature), the darling of her family and friends and almost a pukka memsahib, would become a fugitive hunted by His Majesty’s police, hiding in a barn, ankle-deep in mud and cow manure, smelling of kerosene, she would have thrown back her head and laughed.
Rain fell in a light drizzle, mixing the smell of wet earth with the sweet smell of the cows. She heard the temple bells, faint and far away, signaling the night aarti, the last prayer of the day. This was usually the time when Baba came home from work, when they would talk about their day and plan for the next.
“Baba,” Rama said, closing her eyes, “I am so sorry.”
10 July, 1919
“I like me,” Rama Gokhale said to the young woman smiling back at her in the ornate mirror decorating the hallway of the Degri Club. She tucked a few errant strands of curly black hair behind her ears and straightened the pendant on the delicate gold chain that hung around her neck. She had picked her favorite sari for the lunch—a cotton-silk blend in bright cream with a cheery orange border. Her arms, the least favorite part of her body, were encircled in the puffed sleeves of a matching orange blouse, adorned with tiny frills along the neckline. She had recently learnt to put on makeup from Cora and had bought her very first lipstick in a shade of brownish red called “Burnt Sienna.” She liked the way it brightened her light-brown skin without calling too much attention to her round lips.
Suddenly she noticed two men staring at her in the mirror. Flustered, she walked out onto the covered verandah, where a jolt of hot air hit her. A small dark-skinned boy sat huddled in a corner, pulling a thick rope attached to a punkha, a cloth fan. The wide strip of cloth hung on bamboo poles that ran along the verandah’s ceiling, swinging in tandem with the cord. But neither the feeble breeze from that fan nor the soothing scent of khus coming from the straw curtains gave her respite from the heat, and Rama returned to the dining room to wait for Cora.
Rama had met Coraline Rose Harrington through a mutual friend a few months ago. Even though Cora was three years older and had grown up in a world separated from Rama’s by multiple oceans, the two young women had taken to each other immediately, and their friendship had blossomed. Cora’s mild-mannered and cheerful personality made her the personification of all that Rama admired in her favorite Victorian novels. Cora, on the other hand, found Rama’s spontaneity endearing, a stark contrast to her quiet and collected self. She was also glad to have a friend who could show her the real India, outside the cantonment and the Club. She wanted to learn all she could about her new home—the language, the culture, even the food.
They were meeting for lunch at the Degri Club to celebrate Rama’s recent graduation from Elphinstone College. Rama walked into the sunlit dining room, looking for a suitable table. As she surveyed the high wooden ceiling and tall windows, she remembered the first time she had visited the Club, almost a year ago. Then she had accompanied her father, Dr G. B. Gokhale, who was being felicitated by the Governor of the Bombay Presidency after he had been appointed the Assistant Medical Officer of J. J. Hospital in Bombay. The event had come right after her nineteenth birthday and had felt like an extended celebration. Since then, the Club had become her favorite spot in the small town of Degri. But she found it tedious that she couldn’t visit whenever she liked: although the Degri Club was one of a handful of social clubs in the country that admitted Indians, they could visit only as invited guests of its European members.
The merciless midday sun blazed on, the heat becoming oppressive because of the stifling humidity. Rama watched the three palm-shaped blades of a large ceiling fan turning languorously and wished that the extended Bombay summer would come to an end. She wondered if she should wait in the walled rose garden instead, but her thoughts were interrupted by Cora’s cheerful greeting, as she walked up to the table with a basketful of apologies.
“Rama! I’m so sorry you had to wait. It was quite an ordeal getting here today.” Cora hugged her friend, and Rama smiled as she felt Cora’s arm tighten around her—Cora always embraced her friend as if it were the last time they would ever meet.
Then she flopped into a wicker chair and fanned herself with her straw hat. As if on cue, a waiter appeared with two glasses of lemonade.
“Is everything all right?” Rama asked, helping herself to a glass.
“Yes, yes, it’s all right now,” Cora said with a sigh. “But as I was coming here, we ran into a large gathering outside the market. There were probably a hundred people holding signs and banners and flags, right on the main street. They held up all the traffic. And it was so hot in the car!” Cora shook her head and took a gulp of lemonade. “I wonder who organized the work stoppage this time. Do you think it was the Congress party? Do you know what’s going on?”
“There is something or other like this all the time nowadays.” Rama shrugged. “Now that you’re here, can we please eat? I’m famished!”
“Certainly.” Cora chuckled and motioned for the waiter. “Do you have any mulli-ga-tawny today?” she asked him.
“Yes, memsahib,” he answered, with a vigorous roll of his head.
“Good, then that’s what I will have. And some more nimbupani please.”
Rama smiled at her friend’s insistence on using Hindustani words whenever she could. “Vegetable curry puffs for me please, with cucumbers on the side. Are you sure you want that soup?” she added, when the waiter had left. “I hear it is quite the rage at the Walthair Club, but it’s so spicy! Doesn’t that bother you?”
“I love the spice, Rama! That’s one of the best things about India. Our food is so boring compared to yours. Anyway”—Cora waved that subject away—“how does it feel to be a BA in English literature, Miss Rama Gokhale?”
“It feels wonderful!” Rama answered in a singsong voice, and the two friends broke into giggles. “I’m so happy that my father agreed to let me go to Elphinstone. Do you know that there were only three girls in the entire batch of fifty-four students? Most of the professors weren’t happy about us being there, and some were not shy about showing their displeasure!”
“I can imagine. But good for you for sticking to it.” Cora raised her glass. “Here’s to an exciting future!”
“Hear, hear,” Rama joined in.
“So what will you do next?” Cora asked.
“Become a memsahib, of course,” Rama replied, without missing a beat.
Cora knew that the peak of Rama’s obsession with all things English was becoming a proper Englishwoman, a memsahib, even though she herself found most of the mannerisms of English society stuffy and out of date. “Well, we’ll have to get you married to a pukka sahib then,” she said.
Rama laughed heartily as Cora mimed a stiff and serious English gentleman, nodding at Rama with barely half a smile.
Marriage was a constant subject of conversation between the two friends. Rama had told Cora about her grandmother’s mission to find a “good Hindu boy” and get Rama married as soon as possible. The only reason this mission was still only in the planning stage was that her father hadn’t given it his approval yet. Rama had decided that she would protest vehemently whenever the topic came up. Cora told her that she had faced a similar situation with her mother after she had finished university; it was one of the reasons why she had decided to join her brother at his military posting in the Bombay Presidency. When Rama asked her to describe her life in Surrey, Cora laughed and tried to convince Rama that her country didn’t look anything like the England of Rama’s favorite Jane Austen novels. But Rama wanted to know everything about England—the royals, the gardens, the buildings, the people. She even wanted to get her accent right and insisted that Cora correct her if she missed anything.
They were almost finished with the pudding when Cora called out, “Stephen!” She got up, rushed towards the entrance of the dining room, and, much to Rama’s horror, threw her arms around a tall, handsome military officer. His thick blond hair, though cut short in regimental style, had a bounce that looked hard to tame, and Rama thought his strong jaw and stern mouth might have belonged to Austen’s Mr. Knightley. His eyes, hooded and deep, were a shade of green that Rama had never seen before.
Catching her staring at him, he smiled, which made Rama blush. She looked away, fiddling with the edge of her sari.
Cora called out to her as she walked up to the table with the man. “Rama! Look who’s here. Meet Stephen Harrington III, a Captain in His Majesty’s Army with the 101st Grenadiers. A brave soldier, a fine polo player, and, of course, my big brother. Stephen, this is my friend, Rama Gokhale.”
The twinkle in his eyes was so genuine that Rama knew even Emma would have approved. It wasn’t often that she found herself tongue-tied, but that is what happened as Stephen took off his hat, extended his hand, and said, “How do you do? Cora has told me a lot about you.”
A warm flush spread over her face. She realized she was still staring at him and, lowering her gaze, composed herself and took his hand. “Nice to meet you as well.”
Thankfully Cora took over the conversation at this point, and Rama sat down, not daring to look up at Stephen, yet finding it impossible not to. He pulled up a chair between her and Cora, and she caught a whiff of citrus laced with a strong earthy smell. She had been in the company of other men before—mostly her classmates or her brother’s friends—but no one had had this effect on her before. He was telling Cora that he had a break from his work at the base and that, instead of spending the afternoon with the bores at the Mess, he had driven up here. Cora told him that they were celebrating Rama’s graduation, and Stephen turned to look at Rama just as she was examining the sharp edge of his sideburn next to his cherry-red ear.
She wished she could summon the punkhawalla to fan her flushed face. “Thanks,” she replied demurely, as Stephen congratulated her.
When the waiter came back with another round of cold lemonade, Rama busied herself with her drink. Over the edge of the glass, she saw Cora smiling at her and knew that her friend had noticed Rama’s discomfort. She wanted to throw her arms around Cora and thank her profusely for what she did next.
“Stephen, didn’t you say you wanted to talk to Mr. Darnley today? Isn’t that him over there?” She nodded towards the verandah.
“I believe it is. Thank you, sister!” He turned to Rama and said, “Pardon me, I have to speak with someone, but I am delighted to have finally met you.”
Rama smiled, nodded, and knew that she would hold this moment in her memory forever. As Stephen walked away, the air in his wake enveloped her, and her skin felt prickly; a gripping sensation twisted deep inside her. Her heart was still beating fast, and she took a deep breath to calm herself.
Cora was looking at her, a smile playing on her lips. “My brother is known to have that effect on women,” she said.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Rama shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant.
“Oh, yes, you do,” Cora chuckled. “The drops of sweat on your brow gave you away. But, Rama…” Cora pulled her chair closer. The smile on her face was replaced by a pensive frown that Rama had never seen before. “Rama, you are my dear friend and I am quite fond of you. So heed this advice, though it may seem strange.” She hesitated, then said quickly, “Be careful about what your heart is telling you. The heart is an unreliable leader. Don’t follow its instructions unless your mind agrees with it.”
“What an odd thing to say, Cora!” Rama laughed uncertainly.
“I’m serious. Remember, I am older than you and have seen more of this world. Nothing good ever comes of getting carried away just because your heart says so.”
Cora let out a long sigh and sat back, satisfied with the warning she had given her friend. But Rama stared at her, speechless. What did Cora mean? And why had she said these things now? Could she have heard Rama’s heart racing while Stephen was sitting next to her?
It didn’t matter. Rama knew that, in spite of Cora’s warning, it would be impossible for her not to think constantly of his smile and gray-green eyes in the days to come.
Rama was indeed thinking of Stephen Harrington III as she crossed the raised wooden threshold of her family’s two-story, white-washed house. She took off her sandals, placed them to the side of the door, and stepped onto the cold stone tiles of the verandah that encircled the inside courtyard. A pleasant smell of deep-frying wafted across the courtyard. Given the time, she was sure that Ajji, her maternal grandmother, was busy in the kitchen with the cook. The kitchen was Ajji’s kingdom, and she guarded it with all her Hindu might. One could enter it only after a bath. Meat, garlic, and onions were never allowed. Ajji had staged a silent revolt when Rama’s father suggested that they set up a separate stove in the kitchen to cook fish, after he had taken a liking to fish curry at a colleague’s party. She had refused to talk to anyone for two days, and Baba had eventually given up the idea. Since then, whenever he felt like eating fish, he asked their driver’s daughter to cook it for him. Ajji’s gesture of compromise was to set aside a separate set of dishes and utensils for this “impure” food.
The light was on in Baba’s room, and Rama walked towards it. Her father’s work as a doctor often took him on tours far away from Degri; the most recent one had lasted longer than a week. Rama paused at the door and watched from behind the white cotton curtains. Baba was sitting on a divan against the far wall, leaning on a round bolster pillow, deep in a book that was open on his lap. He was wearing a comfortable kurta pajama. His thinning black hair, with ample streaks of silver, was neatly combed, and round spectacles sat firmly on his nose. He looked tired but content. People often remarked that Rama had inherited his mouth while Shyam, her brother, was the recipient of his prominent nose. The observation pleased her, for she felt that her father’s smile lit up the world around him.
Sensing her gaze on him, Baba looked up. “Rama, where have you been?” He smiled as he got up.
Rama rushed into his outstretched arms. “Baba! You’re back! I missed you.”
“I’ve been back for a while. I was hoping we could eat tiffin together, but”—he smacked his lips playfully—“Kashi’s vadas smelled so good that I couldn’t wait any longer. They were really delicious!”
“She made vadas? I would have hurried home if I’d known. Maybe Ajji can make me some more for dinner!” She picked up a glass of water from her father’s bedside table and took a gulp.
“So where were you?” he asked.
“At the Club. Cora invited me for lunch, to celebrate my graduation.”
“It was a very long lunch, then! How is your friend? What did you girls talk about?”
An innocent question that her father had asked countless times before, but this time Rama felt guilty, as if she could tell him only half the truth. “This and that,” she replied vaguely. She sat down on the divan next to him. “Is Shyam not home yet?”
“I don’t think so. How is he? Has he talked to you about his work? Does he like it? Lately it’s been hard to persuade him to talk to me. He seems distant.”
“He’s all right, Baba. You don’t have to worry about him. He hasn’t said much about his work, but he has been busy, so I guess he likes what he’s doing.” She laid her head on her father’s shoulder. “You know he loves you very much.”
She inhaled her father’s familiar comforting smell. With him nearby, everything seemed to slip into its rightful place. She had never known a world where her father wasn’t around to protect her and take care of her. But now, as he was getting old, she wanted to show him how much she appreciated his love, his strength, his kindness. She wanted him to know that both she and her brother would always take care of him, no matter what.
“Oh, look who’s here,” Baba exclaimed, breaking her reverie.
Rama sat up and saw her twin brother at the door. Although younger than Rama by only seven minutes, Shyam could have passed himself off as a schoolboy if he wanted to. He was fairer than Rama—a sad fact, according to her grandmother, as a darker skin color dampened Rama’s marriage prospects. The twins were both blessed with thick black hair, and Shyam always wore his short, with a sharp part on the right. He had a seemingly permanent crease on his forehead that looked out of place on his youthful face. As he walked into the room, Rama noticed that this furrow was deeper than usual, that his cheeks were puffed, and that his eyes betrayed a mood far from cheerful.
“Ah, young man! You bear a striking resemblance to my son, Shyam.” Baba laughed as he rose to greet him. “And you’re just in time for dinner too.”
“Baba, glad you are home.” The furrowed brow relaxing a little as Shyam embraced his father. “How was your trip?”
“Tiring but successful. Come, sit. Tell me what is going on in your life.”
Shyam sat down next to him. “Things are not well, Baba. In fact, they’re getting worse by the day.”
“What’s wrong?” Rama asked.
“They’ve shut down the Chronicle! There’s a big padlock on the front door, and a notice has been posted that the press will be closed until further notice. And there are rumors that Mr. Horniman is going to be deported! Can you believe that?” Shyam sprang up, shoulders taut, hands balled into fists. “This is what happens when you report the truth, when you refuse to be a mouthpiece for the government!”
Rama was surprised to see her brother so agitated. Even as a child, he had always been the quiet one, the one who’d warned her against foolhardy adventures on the ancient banyan tree in their neighborhood and reckless treasure hunts with their friends. It took a lot to distress him, and Rama felt anxious to see him this way.
“Yes, I read that in the editorial yesterday,” Baba said, nodding. “I know what you mean, Shyam. I’m upset that Horniman may have to leave Bombay.”
“Upset? That’s it? That is your reaction?” Shyam was livid. “How are you not angry? They’re going to use the Rowlatt Act to put us all in chains.” He shook his head vigorously. “How does this not bother you, Baba? Why are you always on their side?”
“I’m not on anyone’s side, Shyam,” said Baba, his voice rising. He got up and put his hand on Shyam’s shoulder to calm him down, but Shyam shrugged it off and started to pace.
“Shyam, you can’t behave like this with Baba,” snapped Rama, horrified by their raised voices.
Shyam turned to her. “You,” he said with a pointed finger, “you and our father have decided to put your heads in the sand while your posh English friends are killing our people. You’re too enamored of them to think for yourself. Do you truly believe they consider you their equal, just because you speak their language and went to their fancy college?”
1919 was a tumultuous year for the world, and colonial India was no different. The Reluctant Rebel is a historical novel set during this year in a small town in British India. With the rapidly expanding freedom movement as a background, it tells the story of twenty-year-old Rama Gokhale, who thinks that having graduated with a BA in English literature and learned the way of life of the English rulers in her country, she is ready to become a memsahib—an English lady. When she meets a handsome English Army officer who turns out to be the brother of her trusted friend, she is certain that this dream will soon become a reality.
However, the might of the British Empire comes crashing down on her in the form of an unscrupulous and ambitious Sub-Inspector and the mighty Governor of the Bombay Presidency. Rama realizes that, in spite of being model citizens of the Empire, she and her family are not safe from the tyranny and unjust actions of the foreign rulers. Faced with this reality, Rama has to re-examine her dreams and rediscover her cultural roots, which eventually help her find the strength she needs to avenge her family’s destruction.
At the heart of The Reluctant Rebel is a young woman discovering herself and her path in life. Rama initially believes that becoming like the “better others” will help her achieve what she has come to view as a successful and desirable life. At the same time, she cannot bring herself to ignore her roots, which have shaped her identity and given her confidence in herself.
As an Asian Indian woman who has lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life, I have experienced a different version of this struggle, and I wanted to explore it in the context of a rich historical setting. Although Mahatma Gandhi is famous all over the world, India’s long and painful fight to attain independence from the British Empire is largely unknown outside the subcontinent. The Reluctant Rebel takes readers to this era, immersing them in the lives of everyday people—those who rebelled against the powerful foreigners, those who grudgingly accepted foreign rule in the hopes of a better life, and those who couldn’t align with either side and found themselves reluctant participants in the turbulent events surrounding them.
Swapna Chakrabarti lives in Lexington, MA, with her family of three humans and one dog. When the first thirty pages of her manuscript were accepted for the Novel Generator program at the GrubStreet Creative Writing Center in Boston, Massachusetts, she felt ready to take her writing seriously, and that led her to complete her first novel. Although she is in love with historical fiction, she also enjoys murder mysteries and watches British cozies like there’s no tomorrow. When she is not writing or planning her next trip, she is usually either cooking or gardening.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021