Before 1947, if one had a distinctly Indian name, which 99% Indians did, one could literally die of a name.
In 1943, a British Naval Officer, who was from Indian roots but had been born and brought up as a pure Brit in Sussex, was assigned to a mission at the Bombay port. He had never sympathised with the Indian cause and had taken every step he could to make it known to people that despite his roots, he was very thoroughly a Brit.
But Bombay was a new place and new places come with their new prejudices. When the Master-of-Port at Bombay saw that someone by the name of Rustomji Jahajwalah was asking permission to dock his rowing boat, he assumed almost immediately that the line saying “Boatswain in His Highness’s Royal British Navy” must have been clearly a mistake.
So, he sent back a note saying that on all Indian seafarers they were imposing a quarantine period until the port’s medical team could determine with certainty from where the person was coming and what disease they might potentially carry.
Rustomji was infuriated and returned the letter with some harsh words clarifying how he was with a sorty of 9 other British Officers who had been sent as an advance troop from their mother ship, which was having navigational issues. He emphasized he needed to urgently send a radio message to the ship to share the route they had taken to find the port.
But the Master-of-Port took this message as an insultuous letter from an Indian who couldn’t possibly be who he claims to be. As a result, the rowing boat was asked to wait out the two days of quarantine. To reply appropriately to the insult, the Master-of-Port did not send in the medical team to the boat till about three days. When the doctor finally reached, he realised that the commanding officer on the boat had passed away.
The doctor pronounced Rustomji Jahajwalah to have died of dehydration caused by diarrhoea. But everyone knew that the man had died of his name.
Today, we are thankful that an Indian name won’t kill us. If independence means nothing else, it at least means this much.
Happy Independence Day
The above story is purely fiction. None of this happened. But go back a few moments to when you knew in your heart that this incident could actually have happened under British Raj. You knew in your hearts that it sounded true.
If you had that moment, you would know how deeply set the 200 years of British rule are in us that two generations later we are still capable of feeling the same fear and helpless acceptance that had been in the hearts of our grandparents. Fortunately, we only feel the emotions, but don’t share the same conditions. For that, if for nothing else, Happy Independence Day.