Three memorials, a few books on the Great War, and a forgotten nickname live on to remind Bengalis of World War I, writes Soumitra Das
The Glorious Dead may as well have been forgotten. Nobody can miss the Cenotaph opposite the All India Radio building and adjacent to the Netaji statue. Across the road, in an island has been erected of late a shoddier monument to policemen. This column in the Maidan unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VIII, is simple, dignified and massive, and has often been compared with a Lutyens design. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall in London. Made of blocks of stone, it resembles dun-coloured exposed brick. It has no ornamentation apart from the two wreaths on either side. Two bronze soldiers with lowered heads stand guard at its approach. They are painted black.
Calcutta Police is in charge of this monument built with public subscription. Saplings have sprouted on top of the monument. Cream groove lines are painted across the wreaths as on the rest of the shaft. It is one of the three monuments erected in three different locations of the city in the first half of the last century in the memory of the thousands of Indians who were killed in the Great War which erupted on July 28.
Bengalis were not among the “martial races” favoured by the British when they recruited sepoys for the battle. Yet, at one time, many middle-class Bengali boys used to be named Palton. Some of them may have been born long after World War I was over, but memories of the Bengal Regiment formed at that time lingered, and even more vivid were the photographs of Kabi Nazrul Islam looking gallant and smart in full military uniform. The “warrior poet” never saw action, but like many young men of his time with romantic notions about war, Nazrul joined the regiment attracted by the posters exhorting youths to join the army.
He was in Class X at the time, and was sent for training for three months to Nowshera in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Nazrul was in the regiment for three years when he started writing both verse and prose and some of his popular songs and ghazals, which were among his first works to be published. He also started taking lessons in Persian and Urdu from a Punjabi maulvi, who was his senior in the regiment. After this perfervid literary, if not martial activity, Nazrul returned home.