Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

A STUDY OF LIFE

KALYANI BHATTACHARJEE

Translated from the original Bengali JEEBON ADHYAYAN, by Dhira Dhar. Reproduced with permission of Jay Bhattacharjee (son of Kalyani Bhattacharjee)

Midnapore Jail

We were traveling by car , without any idea about where we were going. We were journeying into the unknown. At times we wondered, were they taking us home ? But Kharagpur station was not so far. After a few hours our car stopped in front of Medinipur jail. I learnt they had brought me by car for my weak health. The matron came and took us inside. We knew all the steps ; the novelty had gone. We were no longer curious about jail life. The joy of entering a new world had disappeared.

There we found Liladi and Suhashini.

We heard that Bina and others and Kamala had been taken to Rajsahi. Ujjala, Saroj and others were already there. Ujjala was sentenced for fourteen years for her involvement in the Lebong murder case. After some days Suhasini was sent to a village. Entering the prison we found many Santal girls had come as prisoners. They were all put in one room. They were eighty in number , whereas only forty were supposed to sleep in that room. The people of Medinipur and Bankura are very poor. They earned their living by distilling illicit liquor from 'mahua' flowers or waste rice. For this offence they were arrested and brought to jail. Soon after release ,they would again sell illicit liquor and again come back to jail.

We noticed that these prisoners were quiet and disciplined, even though they were so many in number. Maybe 'santals'are calm by nature. Or maybe it was the gentle nature of the Christian 'santal' matron, that had a good effect on others.The 'jamadarnis'were also better in their behaviour, not as heartless as in other jails. They did not spend their time creating trouble by pitting prisoners against each other.

A few days later we discovered that the most terrible 'jamadarni'of Hijli camp had been promoted to Medinipur jail for her good activities. She used to terrorise the prisoners at Hijli camp with red hot pincers ,and her shouts had resounded through the cell walls. Everyday we had registered complaints against her. With her arrival the peace and quiet of Medinipur jail was lost.

When we went round the wards on the day after our arrival, we noticed some people lying on the courtyard. Coming closer we found them to be lepers. Seven or eight girls with acute leprosy were lying there, with their bodies covered with sores and flies hovering over them. As no special arrangement had been made for them, they were kept in the same room with seventy or eighty other girls. In the day time they were put out in the sun. There were also about fifteen young children in the ward with their mothers. We were shocked to learn that they were all kept in the same room at night. We wondered how this was possible in these modern days of advanced scientific knowledge. This was possible only because our country was being ruled by heartless and callous foreign rulers. The Superintendent was an experienced doctor. We brought the case to his notice and asked him to protest. His reply was, "When the government does not care , what can I do." We wondered how a doctor could allow such a thing to go on. We felt terribly depressed seeing these leprous persons day after day. What terrible degeneration of the beautiful human body! In a room behind the wall men lepers were kept, and the milk with which their wounds were washed would often seep into our room.

Few days later we were removed to another room,and Kalpana and Shanti were brought in this room.They were youngsters and were terrorized by the terrible appearance of the lepers. The room was festered with flies, and they had to sit under mosquito nets even in the day time. We heard how they had to beg for slippers ,even though they were entitled to have them as second class prisoners.

At Medinipur our sleep was terribly disturbed at night. We could not sleep without blocking our ears. Throughout the night the guards were on duty and would continuously call out to each other checking on the inmates. At the top of their voices they would call out the number of prisoners, the number of utensils et cetera, and all night long this went on. We wondered how the guards could stand this strain, and we were told that one of them had died recently with a bleeding throat. We were sure it was the result of continuous shouting. He was a prisoner for twenty years ,and his time was almost over.

We were counted once in the evening before we entered our cells. Again before lock up the jailor would count us going from room to room, after which he would put a big lock on the door and depart. There were four jamdarnis and four convicts on special duty as guards. From outside the walls a sepoy would call out at intervals,"thik hai?" and the jamdarnis would reply,"hai, do swadeshi, char kayedi." To our relief they did not call out the number of chairs, tables, locks, plates and tumblers! After such rigid vigilance throughout the night, again very early in the morning, while still dark the jailor would come to check on us. We had to sit up and the jamdarnis would bring the lantern in front of our faces for the jailors inspection. Like bashful brides we would look op for a moment and then bend our heads. One morning due to weakness I could not sit up, but the jamadarni shouted at me and I had to comply. Later the jamadarni explained, that throughout the night we were guarded, but the jailor must check in the morning that we were still alive."Jinda hai ya margiya, dekhna hai."

We were kept in the room from where Dinesh babu and Sushil babu had escaped. We often wondered how they had managed to escape through such well guarded rooms and walls. According to some they must have stayed outside hiding on treetops and escaped in the night. When we met them later we asked them how they had escaped - but they only smiled at our query and gave no answer.

Every evening Liladi and I played Ludo with the 'jamadarnis'. Liladi would be the loser everyday. But I was not sure if she really lost the games , or just pretended to do so to please her young ailing sister. On other days she would read out stories by famous writers. After listening to her for some time we would retire for the night.

One night we heard a prisoner crying in the next room. We learnt she was suffering from acute stomach ache. The 'jamadarnis' also joined us in calling out for the doctor, but neither the doctor nor anyone else came throughout the night to find out what was wrong. Next morning we found her lying dead on the ground. After nightlong suffering she had found peace in the morning. The 'jamadarnis' covered her body with a blanket. Looking at her we recognized her as the girl who was sweeping the courtyard last evening. Two days ago she had asked me to read her ticket, "Didimoni you know how to read. Will you read my ticket and tell me when my time in prison will be up ?" I read on the ticket that she had three more days in prison. She smiled when I told her. But there was a mistake, for she was released a day in advance and had left for her eternal home. She was a Muslim and after her death they said she must have reserved her piece of earth in jail, and that was why her life ended here just a day before her date of release.

Daylong her dead body lay on the floor. In the evening the doctor came and reported that she had died of chronic dysentery. When we asked him how he diagnosed her disease without examining her , he replied that most people were dying of that these days. Again when I charged him for not giving her any relief, he retorted ,"So many birds and beasts are perishing every day, so do these people. Do you think they would have had any medicine at home?" I moved away thinking that maybe she would have died at home without any medicine , but surely there would have been near ones to shed a few tears for her. When the doctor left, her dead body was carried away by guards. When little ones died in jail , their bodies were buried in the garden around the walls. In the case of older people they were handed over to different religious organizations. We pondered how only yesterday she was moving around with her heart full of hope for the day she would return to her home and dear ones. But alas! Fate had planned otherwise. We recalled a few lines from the poet's works -
 

They blame neither fate nor god,
Nor mankind. They accuse none,
Nor do they cherish any hope of justice.
Praying to the god of the poor,
' They die with a silent sigh.

In Medinipur jail, too Shanti's song would come to us through the silence of the night.'

"I have set afloat my boat of songs from the shore, It sails across the waters of the sea

Some one said she heard every night a mother's wailing sound. All the class three convicts who were imprisoned for political reasons were compelled to say"sarkar salaam" everyday. There was a young boy in jail who refused to obey the rules of jail. He was a healthy boy of eighteen. From the first day he stubbornly refused to say "sarkar salaam". As a result most of the days he had to spend in a dark solitary cell. Deprived of sunlight and proper food he soon succumbed to tuberculosis. He was transferred to jail hospital and his mother was allowed to visit him. A few days before his death he begged his mother to take him to their village home. "I wish to die there", he said.

His mother a helpless prisoner could not comply. She wrote letters to her people at home requesting them to take charge of her son and take him home. There was no reply to her letters.

One day she was informed about her son's death. "You can come and see your son's dead body", came the heartless order. Time passes and soon the mother's time in prison was over , and she returned to her lonely home. It was her wailing sound that echoed through our prison walls in the silence of the night. "Come back to my heart. We shall go home together," came the mother's cry.

While passing through the wards on my way to the jail office where I had to go at times, I used to notice some young boys sitting on the ground and doing something. They were as old as my young brother. On enquiry I learned that they were separating pebbles and chaff from rice For hours together they had to sit around doing this monotonous work. At home these boys had led sheltered lives, protected and cared for by their mothers and aunts..Here they had to do back-breaking jobs like breaking stones and turning the heavy grinding wheel. They had to clean their rooms and wash their own clothes. Bina and her mates had to wash their heavy bed sheets and clothes every Sunday. When our mother came to visit us she would ask with deep concern , if there was a washerwoman to wash our clothes. Bina would reply with a blank face that they had to do nothing ,the jail authorities took care of all our needs!

In Medinipur jail visitors were allowed to sit while visiting prisoners. In Hijli jail our parents had to stand under the scorching sun , with damp towels covering their heads ,while talking to us through the bars. The iron bars were so closely set that mother could hardly put her fingers through them to touch our hands and faces.

A prison is truly a heartless place ! We learned from the deputy jailor about our mother's great self control. She would smile when she spoke to us , but as soon as she left us she would cry inconsolably on her way home. Another incident at Medinipur left a deep impress on my mind. I was on my way to the jail office accompanied by a jail guard , when we encountered a batch of about fourteen jail convicts passing by. Suddenly a jail guard rushed at them and kicked them with his heavy boots thus throwing them against each other and on the iron bars of the gate.

This scene reminded me how as a child I had often seen shepherds and goatherds taking out cattle to pasture , and how they would rush at the animals with their sticks to speed them on their way , and in fright the animals would fall on each other. The convicts reminded me of the frightened animals. To this heartless guard the convicts were no better than animals.

I had heard this 'jamadar' was running a flourishing money lending business in jail. He charged a high rate of interest , and was much annoyed if his clients wanted to return the money they had loaned. Just to keep him pleased many inferior 'sepoys' and 'jamadars' would borrow money from him even if they did not need to do so.

Whipping of prisoners was an excruciatingly painful scene in jail. A mock trial was held in prison , where the judges had no means of knowing the truth. Based on the words of the 'jamadars' the judge gave his verdict of lashes. The man who carried out this punishment was never in his proper senses. In most cases he was under the influence of drink. A man in his proper senses could never carry out such a cruel punishment. One day we saw two drunkards lying on the ground near the jail gate. Their very appearances sent shivers through us. The 'jamadarni' told us that some prisoners were to be whipped that day. All punishments in jail are as heartless as the jail itself. No one pays any heed to the accused , and his arguments are never heard. The judge orders "twenty lashes of the whip". Often the victim passed out after a few strokes. He was nursed back to his senses ,and then the punishment was completed. As a result the prisoners were badly wounde with their skins breaking out in sores.

Most probably these men with the whip also acted as hangmen. At the time of hanging the superintendent and the magistrate were also present at the site with the other jail officials. The brave revolutionaries walked up to the gallows calmly , with a smile on their faces.

"With the noose round your neck, with a smile on your lips, "As you depart young traveler , speak of your love"

Their call of "Bandemataram"echoed through the jail walls , and was repeated by all the prisoners in their cells. I wonder if the echo reached the departing souls. When the dwellers of the sleeping city in the distance ,heard of this sacrifice of a young martyr , they too raised their voices in unison and called out "Bandemataram".

But there was a pitiful sight when common prisoners were brought to the gallows. Most of them broke down and cried for their lives. Some begged for opium and there were others who fainted. One condemned revolutionary fell ill before his day of hanging. He was brought back to health with the best of medical treatment, and then taken to the gallows. The authorities were afraid the prisoner might die and thus escape his punishment, and all the effort of the government to punish him would be in vain.

These trials and hangings seem to be relics of a past barbaric age. Often innocent men have died at the gallows , and after a long life imprisonment many were found out to be wrongly punished. In Baharampur jail we had heard that a prisoner would be hanged the next morning. We spent a disturbed night in great mental distress. Our doors were opened later than usual on such mornings. But on this day things seemed to be normal. Rather puzzled we asked the jail officers, and from them we learnt that a telegram had arrived declaring the condemned prisoner as innocent. So he was released and was on his way home.

We had read in the papers about a prisoner who after being hanged was found out to be innocent. His release order had arrived in time but the Superintendent was too busy to read it. Doubtless many innocent persons are often arrested and punished after trial. We had heard from our father about an important case , where the police unable to find the real culprit, had arrested a wandering vagabond from the wayside.

After studying the case history of many women convicts we often felt that they were being wrongly punished. One Brahmin lady came to prison with a one year punishment. From her appearance and behavior it seemed hard to believe that she had committed any serious offence. In course of time we came to know that she had given shelter to her only daughter who had left her cruel husband, who used to torture her. So she was punished for keeping a wife away from her husband.

A young girl worked for us in Hijli jail. She was a good looking healthy girl , with a desire for learning. She told us how one day ,angered by a slight cause , her husband had attacked her with a chopper. When she tried to save herself her husband got hurt in the tussle, and he accused her of trying to kill him. After trial in court , she was sent to jail for twenty years. She refused to meet her husband when he came to see her in jail. She said , "I have nothing to do with a husband who falsely accuses me of murder. I would rather live a lonely life away from him for ever.."

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