The Bengal Phantom
Summary: Rudrashish Bose is an Indian nationalist working to undermine the British Empire in 1914. He travels to the heart of London to settle a score with a corrupt British official.
The sun never set on the British Empire, because God did not trust the English in the dark. I was proud of the part I played in extinguishing the light. I was once a helpless boy after my father's death, but dharma saw fit to make me its agent in another way, on the other side of the world.
It was a decade and a half before the Bengal Volunteers were founded, and a year before the British Empire mortally wounded itself in the Great War. The newly formed Irish Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers still remembered the Lockout of 1913, but they had not yet launched the ambush at Soloheadbeg. It was fortunate that I befriended an Irish veteran traveling through West Bengal, which was how I came to know of the troubles brewing on the British Isles.
In my foolish younger years, I believed we were the only land blighted by the Union Jack. I remember the trial of Khudiram Bose in my youth, and how my parents and brother shouted for his freedom. I remember my father vanishing in a cloud of rifle-smoke from the policemen's rifles. I remember my brother being beaten to death by a fat policeman's lathi, his club caving in Jagadish's swollen skull. Above the battered corpse, I remember that leering face.
He was younger back then, a mountain of muscle in the uniform of the Indian Civil Service. He had blond hair, golden like the plundered treasures of our past. His mustache was like some venomous tropical insect crawling above his mouth. His fat tongue came out, licking those scarred lips like a probing predator. His rough hands ripped the golden necklace from a dead woman's neck. He turned his eyes from the blood-specked ground towards me. "Run along, little boy, before I take you home with me," he said, turning to the policeman. "Once he finishes, we can finally be alone."
Terror overcame my young mind, and my legs involuntarily carried me away from Henry Wilberforce, sadistic sycophant of Douglas Kingsford. I will not bore you with the innumerable crimes of the Raj and its cruelties, but it was clear to see why these men were sent here. They could not function in a proper society, so Britain forcefully exported its human detritus to my homeland. They often discussed civilizing India, but they dared not civilize themselves.
To my father's credit, he knew our struggle for independence would be a long, bloody one. My brothers, sisters, and I were educated in English, as well as the history of the Empire and its subjects. We could not fight what we did not know, as he calmly explained. Just as they rendered unto us, we would render unto them. Such was dharma, for they would reap as they sowed. As I finished my education, I traveled to London, to directly see the maul of the beast. There was irony there, with two men who loathed England now traveled to its heart.
Smoke rose from a thousand chimneys in London, like the funeral pyre of millions. My companion at the time was James O'Malley, an Irish veteran of the Boer Wars that I'd met in the University of Calcutta's library. His interest in history brought him to wander the world, and into my life. Like when I first met him, he was reading a biography of Ram Mohan Roy, the father of the Bengali rebirth. We bonded quickly over our dislike of Englishmen, and I found myself intrigued by the Fenian cause. He was going through it again, after exhausting the Greek, Roman, and Italian classics on our ship over.
From that steamboat in the River Thames, I saw marble statues like those of the Greeks and Romans. In typically British fashion, they were stained black from the soot in the air, derivative and second-rate imitations of their originals. It took only a quick comparison of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron to see how truly droll and uninspired English literature truly was. Even though the Kingdom of Italy was a bungling Great Power, they had cultural superiority the English could never hope to match. I mentally debated as to if London was a city or urban cancer, a filthy medieval town that metastasized into this industrial aberration of poverty and filth.
After we disembarked, James brought me into a small dockside townhouse he shared with a half-dozen other Irish migrants. The redheaded woman who greeted us, Agnes O'Neill, was quick to inquire about me. James was quick to vouch for me, and she said she'd got something to show me. She led me downstairs, where she kept a stash of Webley revolvers and shotguns. I asked why she had so many, and she said she was in the Cumann na mBan, an Irish women's auxiliary of the independence movement. As their unofficial quartermaster, she offered me my pick of weapons.
I considered the firearms, knives, clubs, and swords for a moment, but I kept looking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small walking stick. I noticed a trigger beneath the handle, and a small aperture beneath its tip. Agnes' eyes lit up like braziers, and she unscrewed the top. Inside the handle was a reservoir for compressed air, and a projectile was inserted beneath it. I took the air cane and leaned on it, and it felt just right in my hand. I aimed the air-gun at a nearby wall and fired, and a dart impaled itself in the wood. That was how I found my weapon of choice. What she made me promise, though, was a mission I immediately agreed to. Looking back, such youthful recklessness was ill-advised for a man in that position.
I grew used to London and its boroughs over the following weeks, where I faked a limp and wore glasses. Such things were mere affectations, but they were sufficient to get the locals to ignore me. I saw many other people from around the world there: Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Europeans, Americans, and even other Indians. The first Indian I met was a lascar who spoke only Tamil, whom I was lamentably unable to comprehend. I dressed in a modest suit jacket and trousers, I shaved my face clean, and I cut my hair short. I changed my accent as best I could, casting myself as the lead role in a one-man play. With any luck, it would be more than one act.
James and Agnes needed money to procure armaments and supplies with, and the source of the money would be a man I complained about many times: Henry Wilberforce. He'd retired from the colonies to a comfortable manor, where he dealt with importing products from India. If I could treat England like he treated India, I would ensure all of its assets were owned by foreigners, its industries sent overseas, the locals' desires ignored, and a class of venal, servile elites left to manage the mess on behalf of those foreign interests. For now, though, the opposite was true.
I walked past Wilberforce's estate, and I saw just how powerful his wealth was. It was the largest of the mansions on a street of them, with a cadre of servants housed at the edge of each property. Behind each was a large garden in a city where space was a premium. Beneath the shadow of Big Ben and Westminister Abbey, I could almost imagine this man having tea with nobility and royalty. For all I knew, he did. I hoped he did not discard the letter I sent him.
In the time I waited for a response, I worked as a courier and translator for the Indian community in the city. I learned of the business back home, and of news abroad. It was with mixed feelings I learned that Britain's empire was not unique, nor was it the most egregious example of such excesses. France, Germany, America, Russia, Japan, Italy, Turkey, and even Belgium had their empires, and the brutality of Belgium cruelties in the Congo were enough to warrant commentary from even the British elite. Nevertheless, I reminded myself of my father and brother, and what I needed to do. Ten days after I sent it, my response came.
I posed as a representative of an Indian jeweler, whom I'd help translate for. I stated that I could offer Wilberforce a better deal than other competitors, one uniquely suited to his background and interests. That part was not entirely a lie. It was simply the context I had in mind was different than what I hoped Wilberforce read. I simply requested to meet with him, and he was considerate enough to invite me into his home. One trip is all I would need to accomplish my two objectives: reclaiming some treasures from my homeland, and avenging my brother. All else was secondary.
After cleaning myself and my clothes, I arrived at his manner on a foggy morning. I was pleasantly surprised to find Wilberforce had Irish servants. The brown-haired manservant who greeted me at the door had a charming Irish brogue, and I made it a point to mention this to James and Agnes when I met them next. I noticed a bell and loose thread near the door, a device I'd seen used as an alarm before. He escorted me into a hall covered with furnishings pilfered from a dozen parts of India, where my nemesis awaited. I saw ornate tulwar sabers, stylized torador muskets, well-worn howdah pistols, Nepalese kukris, Sikh chaka, Rajput blades, hand-woven rugs, and tapestries likely removed from the subcontinent's royalty. I hoped this would be rectified soon.
I was tempted to simply attack him, to launch the poison dart into his chest and bludgeon him with my cane. The man I saw was not the towering bully from my youth, but an older man nearing the end of his life. He wasn't even dressed in a suit, only his night robes. I wondered if he'd been remorseful or regretful, or perhaps he'd changed. He gestured for me to sit down, and he offered me tea. I waited for him to sip some, fearful he'd seen through me and was trying to poison me. Instead, he simply spoke. "Ah, Mr. Bose, a pleasure to meet you," he said, extending his hand. I extended mine, and I felt only flab where there had once been muscle.
"Likewise," I replied. "But I would like to cut to business. I am here solely for my employer."
He scanned me up and down, as though staring up a stake. I feigned a jab of pain in my leg, so I'd have excuse to look around. My heart began beating, so I clung closer to the edge of the table. Wilberforce was in his night-robes, but they still might easily conceal a blade or revolver. He, however, was fixated on something else.
"How young can he send them?" Wilberforce asked.
"Excuse me, sir?" I asked. "My employer deals with antiquities and jewels, not livestock."
"Ah, excuse me," he said, laughing to himself. "I confused you another sort of business."
I did not want to know the details. I pulled out records of sales of gems, gold, and other commodities, and I asked if they interested him.
"I care for only the young ones, in my old age," he said. "I thought your letter said you can send them."
The manservant from earlier entered, and he gestured to me.
"Read those and tell me if these products are the type you are interested in," I said. "Excuse me for a moment."
I left the room behind me, and I followed the servant around the corner. He spoke to me in a hushed voice, as though he was impersonating a church-mouse. He looked left and right, and he then spoke to me. "I fear, good sir, that in his old age, he confused your business with that of another sort," he said. "One he once had a reputation for, I fear."
I recalled my brother's body once more, lying in that ditch beside an emptied vendor's stall. I recalled the way he looked at it, as though it was a piece of meat. I recalled his mentions of young ones. Something darker was afoot here, and I knew this was the tip of it. I did not know how much this servant did, nor did I care. Instead, I faked a forward fumble with my cane, brushing up against his pocket. That was all I needed to pocket the key he unlocked the front with. "Then perhaps I should take my leave."
The manservant gathered my papers, and he escorted me out the door. I suppose it was fortunate my meeting was over that quickly, for I didn't know if I could restrain myself. It was likewise fortunate he did not recognize me, but I suppose he had no reason to. Atrocities for him were a daily job, not unlike my translation and courier work. Either way, I had what I needed. The rest would require help.
A few bribes allowed us to find the names of the servants, their information on where the valuables were stored, and convincing them to leave for the night. They informed us such cover was easy, for Henry dismissed them on certain nights of the month. The following weekend, I silenced the alarm and let myself in.
In their place, I led a half-dozen Fenians into the house. They started preparing the objects in the foyer for removal, but I had them wait until I'd dealt with my target. We couldn't have too much noise spoil the surprise, after all. Wilberforce lived alone since his wife's death, and his children had moved out. My battle would be between myself and him, and I had no intention of fighting fair. I strode through that foyer, when I heard an unexpected sound.
To my surprise and terror, there was a scream from the basement stairs. A child's scream. I raised my air-cane and slowly descended, and I heard it again. Another scream echoed up from the dimly lit room, and I prepared myself for the worst. I ran through what was undoubtedly a wine cellar, and I saw light pouring from a stone door in the corner, propped open by wooden wedge. I raised my hand as I entered.
In that accursed room, I saw Henry Wilberforce once more. He was naked, and clearly excited by the sinister activity he was involved in. A naked young boy was tied to a medieval-looking rack, strips of flesh peeled away from his skin. It was honestly amazing the kid was still alive, judging from the fresh blood on the stone floor. On the wall behind him, I saw a rack of smaller skulls, and I wondered exactly how many children had suffered this fate. Wilberforce turned towards me, and he plunged his knife into the boy's neck. I raised my cane and fired.
The poison dart entered his stomach, but Henry charged like a rampaging elephant. I remembered myself as a young boy, paralyzed in fear before him. While age weakened him, he was nevertheless driven by an insane rage. I brought the cane up to parry his mad slashing. He was still taller and larger than me, so I led him around like a mocking matador. As he tired, I saw him step back for a moment. I brought the cane down on his knee, and I spun the handle towards his head. He reeled back for a moment, but he did not stop.
Wilberforce charged at me like a cornered beast, shouting as he raised the knife above his head. I burst forwards like an uncoiled spring, catching the elbow of his knife-hand. I twisted my hips to the side, and I let leverage do the rest. I rotated his elbow and forearm up, compromising his balance. Then, like a great spinning top, I twisted my hips to send him sprawling onto the ground. The poison must've begun to take effect, since I felt his arms go limp. He dropped the knife from his hand, and I quickly removed the bloody implement. After a long second, I dared to check his pulse. He was quite dead, and hopefully would be reincarnated into a cockroach. I smashed his temple with my cane for good measure.
That room was enough to confirm my worst fears about Wilberforce. I removed the poison dart from his neck, so his death might seen the result of some freak accident. His excesses would destroy his family name, just as the British Empire's gluttony would destroy them one day. I quickly ascended the stairs, ensuring the door was opened wide. I rushed back up the stairs, where I found my companions had disregarded my orders to begin the looting. In addition, they'd found his personal ledger and business papers. I briefly searched his upstairs room, where I saw a familiar necklace hanging from the wall. I removed it, so it could be sent back to its rightful place in Bengal.
While it seemed like forever, it was less than ten minutes to clean out the house. My associates were experienced in removal of valuables, and they'd be well-paid for their part in this heist. As we left, we poured lantern oil around the house and cut the wires in the walls. The house went up in flames as we left, with the neighbors none the wiser. The bobbies and fire brigade headed towards Wilberforce's house of horrors, while we headed to a warehouse by the Thames. From there, we went our separate ways.
There was much celebration in the days that followed. The Indian valuables were laundered through my network of contacts, sold to wealthy people on the subcontinent at a fraction of their true values. The rest of Wilberforce's assets were leveraged by the Fenians, and I knew Agnes and James would not lack for supplies in the future. That was but the beginning of our working relationship. The police, predictably, blamed Wilberforce's death on an electrical fire, although his family tried to suppress the story.
When Michael Collins launched the Easter Rising in the years that followed, I was glad to have played a part in helping prepare for that. I traveled around the world as the Great War raged, but I followed the darkness rising back home. The British enforced the Rowlatt Act to curb our few rights, and their troops opened fire on unarmed protestors at Amritsar a few years later. I did my best in that chaos, for they could strip our rights, our wealth, our arts, and our arms, but they would not crush our will.
As I write this, I stand vindicated by history. The Second World War has ended with the retreat of European colonialism, and America and Russia now compete for influence. Their cruelties of their own foreign policies are but child's play compared to the actions of the British, French, and European colonial regimes. India has just become a republic last year, but the British spitefulness continued as they left.
Just as they divided independent Ireland with their treaty, they inflicted untold massacres and mayhem with their partitions of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Churchill's West Bengal famine killed my infant grand-niece, Aadarsha. Nevertheless, life continues. Yet while people stand oppressed, I continue my mission. I am but a phantom, and my work is in the shadows. Jai Hind. Victory to India.