Book Title: The Rickshaw Coolie Murder
Author: Atul Lal
A power-drunk British officer kicked a hapless rickshaw puller to death in Simla (now Shimla), the summer capital of British India, on a September night in 1925. The murder of a native, particularly one belonging to the lowest rung of the social and the economic ladder, by a British official would not have been a big deal then, as is evident from the indifference and callousness of the offender.
“Good riddance,” thought Harry Mansel-Pleydell, head of the Army Canteen Board, when he learnt that the rickshaw-puller (Jagesar) had succumbed to the injuries he had inflicted on him for merely dozing off on the stairs of his porch. Remorseless, he betrays no fear of the law either, convinced that none would be bothered enough by the death of a coolie to take note and cause him any trouble. His confidence is not without valid grounds — The Tribune, the author tells us, had mentioned in one of the articles published on the murder that only three Britishers had been convicted for similar crimes in 100-odd years leading up to that fateful September night.
To Harry’s utter disbelief, not only was he charged for murder but was also convicted and jailed, thanks to the steely resolve of fellow rickshaw-pullers and Lala Mohan Lal, the feisty legislator-cum-businessman, to get justice for the deceased. Lal’s firmness, influence and the ability to pull strings, as and when required, along with rickshaw-pullers standing up to all sorts of pressure, ensured the murderer went to jail, giving the natives a rare and surprising legal victory against a British offender.
Almost a century later, Lala Mohan Lal’s grandson has penned down the murder and the subsequent events in ‘The Rickshaw Coolie Murder Case’. While the events, locations and several characters are real, he has imagined up some characters and conversations to come up with a “fictional adaptation” of the incident. Having used hard facts and real characters for the story’s framework, the imagined behind-the-scenes conversations, conspiracies by the British administration to save one of their own, and the resolve of the natives to take the case to its logical conclusion sound convincing. The author spent long hours in The Tribune library looking for relevant information about the case.
The thrilling courtroom drama that unfolds once a case is registered against Harry keeps the reader on tenterhooks. The fate of the accused swings like a pendulum as the witnesses are grilled and evidence examined, both by the prosecution and the defence. And even as the British painstakingly keep up the pretense of law being fair and impartial, they do everything — from putting pressure on the police to go easy on the case, watering down medical evidence, giving veiled threats to Lala Mohan Lal, and seeking favour from the judge — to save Harry from going to jail.
Nevertheless, the author refrains from tarring all British characters with the same brush. Most of them are shown to be in Harry’s corner not because they condone his brutality but because of the compulsion to save one of their own. Not everyone, though, is comfortable with the burden on their conscience, notably Superintendent of Police Hugh Whistler, who refuses to compromise the investigation and eventually resigns. Judge Robert Walker Edmund Knollys ignores directions for cooperation from the top administrator and the unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict of the assessors (instead of a jury, an accused European could opt for assessors; they were experts, essentially Europeans, assisting a judge in understanding the facts and evidence in a case) and finally pronounces Harry guilty of the murder and sends him to jail.
It was an astounding victory for Lal and the rickshaw pullers, considering the odds they were up against.