Police Courts are hardly places of sentimentality. Murderers, robbers, fraudsters and petty thieves rather than star-crossed lovers are the usual denizens of these courts. It is the seamier underbelly of a city that leaves its marks on the white-washed walls of its Police Courts. Yet, perhaps only to remind the mute walls that stand silent witness to the daily procession of ugliness and butchery that not all is gore and lucre, chance and circumstance occasionally assemble a brighter, more hopeful image of humanity amidst these very tainted walls.
January 16th 1884 was one such exceptional day at the Calcutta Police Court. The Magistrate Mr Henderson was ready to confront a heartless kidnapper. But the story that unfolded in his courtroom was one of young love and trenchant devotion rather than reckless violence. A local man by the name of Samuel Henry Simms was accused of having kidnapped an underage Jewish girl named Miriam. But the allegation was far from true. In Court, several witnesses as well as the alleged victim, Miriam, herself declared that she had eloped with Henry of her own accord. As one witness put it, Miriam had taken an “ardent fancy to the lad and openly declared that she would follow him anywhere”. What was more was that it was also clear that Henry had repeatedly tried to dissuade her from going with him and even confessed that he did not have the money to support them. Miriam, however, had been adamant and had found the train-fare by which to travel with Henry to the latter’s sister’s house in Barrackpore.
Miriam and Henry were both orphans. Miriam’s mother had, possibly against the wishes of her family, married a Christian man and become estranged from her relatives. At birth, Miriam was named Mary Ann Collins by her parents – perhaps suggesting a wish to raise her as a Christian. But both her parents died young and Miriam was brought to her maternal grandmother’s house at Harinbaree Lane. There, her grandmother, Rachel Moses, and aunt sought to raise her as an orthodox Jewish girl. But Miriam was rebellious and resented her maternal family.
Henry too lived at Harinbaree Lane and was only four years older than Miriam. He had once been a musician in one of the Bengal Native Infantry regiments. But the regiment he belonged to was disbanded and he was left without a job. His only relation seemed to be his married sister at Barrackpore. We do not know how long they had known each other, but when the couple were presented in Court, Miriam was 13 years old and Henry was 17.
Initially, Miriam would stand at her grandmother’s gate and Henry would occasionally stop by and chat. On a couple of occasions, Henry had been seen passing small presents to Miriam and they would frequently chat either at the gate or through a window. At some point this acquaintance grew into love and Miriam, who seemed the more resolute of the two, decided to elope. But Henry kept refusing owing to his penury. Miriam however was not easily dissuaded. She told him that she would take up some handiwork which would provide for the both of them. Eventually Henry relented and took her along to Barrackpore.
As a minor, Miriam had no right to leave her grandmother’s house without her permission and so Mrs Moses filed a police complaint. The police tracked the couple down to Henry’s sister’s house in Barrackpore and arrested Henry. At Court, however, the resolute Miriam declared to the judge that if she was returned to her grandmother’s custody she would run away at the first instance once more and be with Henry wherever he was. The judge was at a loss. He admonished Henry and tried to tell Miriam that running away again would only get Henry into trouble, but it was to no avail. Finally, Mr Henderson decided to acquit Henry and asked him to avoid all contact with Miriam.
Miriam now refused to leave the court. Instead, as her grandmother tried to take her away, she said she was placing herself under the Magistrate’s protection and she did not wish to go with her relations. The Magistrate was now clearly in a quandary. He could not be seen to be permitting the use of force in his court against a young girl seeking his protection, nor could he bend the law and allow Miriam to go with Henry against her grandmother’s wishes. Mr Henderson finally declared that her relatives did not have the right to force her to go with them, though he did advise her to go with them willingly. If they attempted to use force on her, however, she could once more approach the court for her protection. In effect, this meant that she could continue to see Henry against her grandmother’s express wishes and that the latter had no power to stop her.
The case caused quite a stir and was reported in newspapers across the Raj. It was an almost-unbelievable story of how a teenage orphan girl, resolute in her love, had bent the iron law of the British Raj – not to mention her orthodox family – to her will. But alas! We do not know what became of Miriam and Henry after they left the court that day. Like much else of that gaslit world, they retreated once more into the shadows from which they had temporarily stepped out. We can only hope that they lived on in happiness and love somewhere in that shadowy world. But their remarkable love story is a testament not only to the optimism of youth and the power of love, but also to a lost world of subaltern cosmopolitanism in Calcutta: a world beyond the City of Palaces with its opulent Rajahs and Viceroys; a world closer to earth where all kinds of unexpected loves blossomed – not only between Hindus and Muslims, but between Jews, Christians, Armenians, Eurasians and many more who, unfortunately, have almost disappeared from the Calcutta of today.