Widespread unemployment, black-marketing, bribery, scarcity, food adulteration… A description of these finds place in ‘The uneasy vigil (September 1947-February 1952),’ a chapter in ‘Crises and Creativities’ by Amit Kumar Gupta (www.orientblackswan.com).

“Women noisily demonstrated before the Writers’ Building (Secretariat) demanding an increase in the inadequate rationing of food (8 ounces of cereal per head per day, or 3.5 pounds per week) which did not last for even three full days in a week. They forced the premier to meet them and promise 15 ounces of cereal per day,” he narrates.

With the rising of prices of all food items (as currently?), the situation was ‘grim,’ as the then food minister acknowledged. “Black-marketing continued to flourish in such circumstances, and adulteration of food became rampant. Whenever a loaded lorry moved on the streets of Calcutta, the common man and woman perceived it as a carrier of adulterated food items.”

Sample these ‘formulae’ that Gupta mentions: Ground soap stone was known to be mixed with flour, and argemone seeds were mixed with mustard seeds. “The All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Medicine, Calcutta, attributed the dropsy epidemic in West Bengal about this time to adulterated cooking medium – the mustard oil.”

Adding to the woes of people were the ‘cloth famine’ of the late 1940, and ‘fish famine’ of 1949. A phenomenal shortage of fish resulted in West Bengal when its import from East Pakistan was subjected to heavy customs duties, leading to a drop in supply from 2,000 maunds to 500 maunds per day, the book recounts.

“The drudgery of the day to day life, and the strain of living by borrowing, especially among the nimna bhadralok families, appeared appalling to them when their children had to suffer unemployment on the completion of their studies.”

The gratuitous advice to opt for technical education and training rather than for graduation did not help matters much, Gupta chronicles. “The accumulated frustration of the educated unemployed could explode at any point as it seemed to have done on October 18, 1949…”

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