Starving

broken fan

© Yarnspinnerr

“Raven, where am I?

“Jonathan, there’s a terrible famine here. You must save these people.”

“With what? All I have is an old-fashioned camera.”

“The person who was supposed to photograph this tragedy is ill. By the time he recovers, the opportunity to show the world the horrors here in Bengal will be gone. You must take his place.”

Jonathan Cypher, a man out of time, turned away from the bent fan and stepped off the hotel porch. Seeing the three starving and dying children, he raised the camera to his face, focused, and pressed the shutter release.

bengal famine 1943

Victims of the Bengal famine of 1943. Copyright is or was held by The Statesman newspaper of Kolkata, India. According to that country’s Copyright Act of 1957, the image is now in the public domain (photographs are protected for 60 years from the date of publication), but it may still be under copyright in the United States.

I wrote this for the Rochelle Wisoff-Fields flash fiction writing challenge. The idea is to take the image above and use it as the inspiration for crafting a piece of flash fiction no more than 100 words long. My word count is 98.

To the best of my knowledge, the person who provided the photo is from India, so I wanted to start from there. The yellowish cast of the photo made me think of pollution or chemical warfare, so I decided to see about India’s history during World War Two, and if I could devise a fictional Nazi plot in 100 words. What I discovered was much worse.

You can read all about the Bengal Famine of 1943 by clicking the link, but the black and white pimage just above was part of a photo spread published in the Indian English-language newspaper “The Statesman” on 22 August 1943, and those photos, which made world headlines, spurred government action, saving many lives.

I decided to bring back Jonathan Cypher and Raven to illustrate that sometimes you just have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills or tools in order to be a hero.

To read other stories based on the prompt, go to InLinkz.com.

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71 thoughts on “Starving

  1. Good story. I’m sure you found that the famine in India was not caused by the Nazis, but rather by Churchill. He ordered that food shipments be withheld for more than a year despite the surplus in England. His exact motivations for this are unclear, but the results are incontrovertible: millions starved. This is why the recent regurgitation of “Churchill the Hero” is particularly galling to Indians. He is as much as a mass murderer as Stalin, Mao, or Hitler.

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    • “[S]urplus in England”?! In 1943? At the height of rationing and German bombardment? Are you mad?! If it is accurate that Churchill withheld English food supplies previously offered to southeast Asia at that time, it cannot be attributed to “mass murder”, but to British efforts to survive against overwhelming onslaught. At such times, charity begins at home; and foreign fields must fend for themselves as best they can, just as England was doing with its own belt tightened and its upper lip stiffened. Tragedy? No doubt. Deliberate atrocity? Absolutely NOT! Whose drivelous, libelous accusations were you reading?

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      • I suggest, patriot, that you retain a civil tone. This is not a place for impolite screed, nor for jingoism. It might be helpful for you to retain awareness that historical perspectives differ in the telling. There are other historical sources aside from Newt Gingerich’s and Bill O’Reilly’s ghostwritten books. This is from a BBC article that first reported these new (and exceedingly well-researched) findings. India was not a “foreign land” in 1943. It was a colony that supplied many thousands of troops for the British armed forces. Britain indeed had hoarded surpluses of grain and rice in 1943, as even cursory research will show.
        “Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country,” writes Sir Wavell in his account of the meetings. Mr Amery is more direct. “Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country,” he writes.

        Some three million Indians died in the famine of 1943. The majority of the deaths were in Bengal. In a shocking new book, Churchill’s Secret War, journalist Madhusree Mukherjee blames Mr Churchill’s policies for being largely responsible for one of the worst famines in India’s history. It is a gripping and scholarly investigation into what must count as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the Empire.

        The scarcity, Mukherjee writes, was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain – India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This would have kept nearly 400,000 people alive for a full year. Mr Churchill turned down fervent pleas to export food to India citing a shortage of ships – this when shiploads of Australian wheat, for example, would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. As imports dropped, prices shot up and hoarders made a killing. Mr Churchill also pushed a scorched earth policy – which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy – in coastal Bengal where the colonisers feared the Japanese would land. So authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks.

        Mukherjee tracks down some of the survivors of the famine and paints a chilling tale of the effects of hunger and deprivation. Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones. “No one had the strength to perform rites,” a survivor tells Mukherjee. Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages. The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. “Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,” writes Mukherjee.

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      • Just to let the both of you know, I’ll allow a limited amount of “spirited debate” for the sake of presenting different sides of the issue, but please avoid personalizing conflict. That is, no name calling. It’s arrogant to presume that no one will ever disagree with you, so differences of opinion are understandable. The all too common practice of slicing and dicing someone else’s character in social media however is not acceptable.

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      • Agreed. My point is that there is ample history to back up my perspective, and I dislike being accused of insanity by somebody who clearly has not done the reading. 1943 was not the height of British peril. That was in July 1940. By 1943, the British were on the offensive (as were the Soviets and Americans). Though Britain did not have full air superiority, it was getting close. Anyway, I don’t want to argue because what I assert is factual. One is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not to one’s own facts.
        An old aphorism states that when washing a donkey one wastes both his time and his soap.

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      • @J Hardy Carroll and @James — Allow me to clarify to the both of you that I engaged no name-calling nor character aspersion when I employed a characteristically British question addressed to Mr.Carroll who had suggested the absolute falsehood that there were surpluses in England in 1943. By that year all consumable commodities were in short supply and many were simply unobtainable, because draconian rationing had been employed for more than three years already. Ignoring that fact does justifiably beg the question of some sort of madness. None of the factoids cited in response addressed actual conditions in England, though some addressed in detail conditions in India. The accusation of British hoarding is not justified; and criticism or second-guessing of the allocation of strategic materials, including foodstuffs, in the conduct of a war in which Britain’s continued existence was by no means assured is not properly the province of armchair strategists such as the Mr.Wavell and Mr.Amery whose opinions were cited.

        I say this not to minimize in any degree the Bengali tragedy and suffering, but only to insist that a sense of perspective and proportion should not minimize the very real suffering occurring also in England and elsewhere — regardless of whether the degree of British peril had ever been greater or if it was beginning even to wane. It might be argued that the worst was yet to come, as the advent of the V1 and V2 rockets did not occur until 1944. So perhaps you will grant me some justification for outrage at the blame assigned to Winston Churchill when his strategic wartime decisions to protect England and pursue victory also produced horrific consequences in one place or another, such as in India. The hellish consequences of warfare are hardly unrecognized; and there were certainly more than enough of them spread around during the conduct of the second world war. The blame for them also may be distributed, particularly to the Axis Powers who made the war necessary and who had unquestionably to be defeated thoroughly.

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      • Now here, anuragbakhshi, you demonstrate an example of what I must decry. You apply a broad brush to tar “Churchill and those like him”; accusing all of them, whomever they may be, of harbouring some misanthropic belief as the cause of deliberate atrocity against a racially-characterized target. Therefore I must ask if you have any basis for such a charge from actual writings or public statements which indicate such views. If we consider Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, we do have such actual indications of their motivations and beliefs. There do exist also sufficient writings to indicate Churchill’s motivations; and there is certainly historical record of British xenophobia, haughtiness and demeaning of other nationalities that they deemed inferior under their supposedly-“enlightened” imperial sense of “noblesse oblige” — which could be challenged as having failed to be applied to the Bengalis. But what is your basis for attributing the Bengali tragedy to some deliberate British or Churchillian intention to harm them or dismiss them as mere inferiors? That seems to me to be a failure to consider other motivations and demands during a time of desperation under war conditions, when many of the “niceties” that should guide human interactions are set aside.

        We ought to be very careful about what we may presume are someone else’s motives, particularly when there are many complex life-threatening forces influencing their decisions. Thus we must distinguish between consequential tragedy and intentional atrocity, lest we diminish our outrage against the latter which was being perpetrated also at that same time by Nazis across Europe in deliberately-constructed concentration camps to commit genocide. This very day in Israel we are commemorating those who perished in those death-camps; and while their deaths were no more horrible than the deaths in the Bengali famine, we must distinguish how different were the inhuman intentions which caused them.

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      • I absolutely agree with your view that this cannot be equated with deliberate, planned genocide. But he was responsible to a great extent for the human disaster due to the famine, and ignored it initially at least because the sufferers were just Indians, ‘beastly people with a beastly religion who breed like rabbits’ as per him. But I take your larger point.

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      • Thank you for the links, and for acknowledging the distinction I felt impelled to emphasize.

        While I do not dismiss the viewpoint expressed in the linked news article about the views promulgated recently by an Indian politician, and the blog essay, I noted a certain tendency to overrate some pithy comments that may very well have been exceptional expressions of “peevishness”, as noted in the one article, and may not have been necessarily generalizable characterizations of outlook. There was no real context provided for these purported quotations, thus it is quite unfair to place a democratically-elected leader like Churchill in the same company with genocidal dictators, merely because one strategic wartime decision resulted in the death of millions. It would be like falsely equating the American president Truman with Adolf Hitler, merely because he authorized the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and neglecting the context of Japanese wartime conduct and the many-times-more lives saved by decisively ending that war. Those who are forced to conduct war in the pursuit of national self-defense, and of even more laudable values, may nonetheless become guilty of causing the deaths of millions, even innocent non-combatant ones, sometimes by agonizingly difficult decisions that later analysts cannot help but question. The questioning is not wrong, unless it ignores important contextual considerations and places blame where it is not truly warranted or distorts the real meaning even of actual errors by over-exaggerating them or their presumed motivations. Did Harry Truman despise the Japanese? Whether he did or not was not the reason for his decision to destroy so many of them with a massively powerful weapon. Did Winston Churchill really disdain all Indians and their culture? Whether or not he did, he certainly had to face many other influences that would have impelled his decision about where ships and their cargoes would or would not be sent at that time. Should he have directed that rice cargo to relieve Bengali starvation? Do we know for certain what might have happened elsewhere in the war effort had he done so? Could he have been preventing a different tragedy in another place at the cost of permitting the Bengali tragedy? Did he do so wittingly? Can we, from our remove, even hope to answer these questions accurately? Merely focusing on horrific results is not sufficient justification to say that alternative decisions should have been made. A serious analysis must consider whether one horror might have been traded for another, when no decision was available to avoid such horrors altogether.

        I seem to recall one or two of James’ other Jonathan Cypher stories, in which the Catch-22 principle was in play, where one choice of action produced one bad result, but another choice produced another bad result, throughout a selection of possible choices, none of which produced a desirable outcome — such that he had to evaluate which was the least undesirable outcome, the lesser of multiple evils. Has not this been the lesson illustrated so often in warfare situations? Must we deconstruct the laudable legacy of Winston Churchill in its entirety because of a narrow focus on one of many wartime tragedies? I recommend a more positive approach more in keeping with James’ story above, which is to recognize where tragedy (or atrocity) is presently occurring, and seek to resolve its causes and mitigate its tragic effects. I suspect that such a course will keep us all quite busy for some time to come.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a powerfully painful write this week. Hate to say I loved it, but it is strong in the best sense of the word… As photographers and writers, I believe part of our duty is to record the world with truth and clarity…even if the subject is painful and beyond horror. I can just imagine this photographer and what he was facing.. Like I said, hate to love it, but have to.

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    • That something is painful doesn’t mean it should always be avoided, Jelli. The real-life photographer who took those pictures must have been deeply moved by what he (I assume it was a “he” given the time period these events occurred) saw, but his work resulted in saving the lives of people who would have otherwise died.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amen to that. I know one of the reasons I didn’t pursue working in journalism wasn’t because I couldn’t do it, it was because I didn’t want to be an ambulance/cruiser chaser. The old mentality of ‘if it bleeds it leads’ really doesn’t appeal to me. Though, there are times when doing so is for the better good, it still turns my stomach.

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  3. Good story James. It also highlights the impact that photojournalism used to have, unfortunately a bit of a lost art in the social media world of constant images we have today. We have become immune to the images of war and famine.

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    • The other part if it is that it’s so much easier now to manipulate images with programs such as Photoshop (you could “doctor” images back in the day, but it was harder and more time consuming) that you almost never know if what you’re seeing represents a real event. I agree with digital news and social media being ubiquitous, people have become immune.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan. “Spirited debate” doesn’t happen very often on this blog, but it’s all too common in the world of religious blogging (which I also dip my toe in from time to time on a separate blogspot).

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      • I don’t object to a bit of lively debate, but some of ProclaimLiberty’s remarks crossed the line.
        I’m not religious so I know nothing of the ‘world of religious blogging’ and I think I’ll keep it that way! 🙂

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      • As you wish, Susan. I actually don’t mind disagreement as I mentioned previously and yes, sometimes it gets a little heated, but people on both sides of a debate generally have some basis for their opinions, and we learn nothing by only listening to our own voices.

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  4. How tragic. Not to make light, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s where my mom came up with the “starving children” she warned me about when I wouldn’t eat my dinner.

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  5. You’ve written a powerful story, James, with a strong message. ‘Do the job at hand, no matter how trivial it may seem.’ If we all did that, how much better the world could be!

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    • Well, photographing a starving population so that the world knows about them is hardly trivial, but yes, it does translate into everything the “rest of us” does on a daily basis.

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    • It would be nice if everyone were kind to each other, but given human nature, that’s not going to happen. There are still wars, there are still atrocities (chemical weapons being used against children in Syria), and given social media, people are getting to be more snarky than ever. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to treat other people well, it just means we shouldn’t expect the world to always follow suit. Changing the world and making it a better place begins one person at a time.

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    • Wow. She was amazing. Here’s part of what Wikipedia has to say:

      Chapelle was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon during Operation Black Ferret, a search and destroy operation 16 km south of Chu Lai, Quang Ngai Province, I Corps. The lieutenant in front of her kicked a tripwire boobytrap, consisting of a mortar shell with a hand grenade attached to the top of it. Chapelle was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel which severed her carotid artery; she died soon after. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet. Her body was repatriated with an honor guard consisting of six Marines, and she was given full Marine burial. She became the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action.

      A honor guard and full Marine burial means something special. My son is a former Marine (although from a much later era). Semper Fi.

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  6. James, so powerful. Initially I shared the same sense from the building. For me it was the embassy in “The Killing Fields where Dith Pran was desperately try to get a fake passport made in Saigon.. Lennon’s “Imagine” at the end always gets me.

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  7. James, your story obviously kicked up a firestorm–which shows how powerful the story and the accompanying picture are. As to the debate that followed, I have to admire the passion on both sides. However, I would also point out that you don’t have to allow those comments if you dislike contentious debate on your posts. The gentlemen involved did become more restrained after you asked them to simmer down, which is commendable.

    It is surprising to me that on my other blog (www.lindasbiblestudy.wordpress.com) I have had to deal with only two or three nasty comments in over five years. Religious blogs can become quite ugly in the comment section, which is just as sad as the bombast when the topic is warfare of any kind. I don’t know why I’ve been spared that, but I’m very thankful. One person in particular went on for several pages in a rambling comment that accomplished nothing except to display his anger. I put it in the trash without publishing it. So glad Word Press gives us that option.

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    • I’ve been doing religious blogging far longer than writing about fiction, and yes I agree, it can be very difficult. The comments here, by comparison, have been relatively mild. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t mind a certain amount of spirited debate as long as conflict isn’t personalized. I think you can learn a lot be examining different points of view (I know I have), and I’m not a fan of just listening to your own voice (no matter how comfortable that may be).

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