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>>



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

A few days in Bombay jail

We always thought that jail life in Bengal was the worst. We wished to compare it with jails in other provinces. Many years later I got a chance to do that. In 1943 while in Bombay I was arrested for Civil Disobedience , and was taken to the Matunga King's Circle police station. There behind the building were a row of rooms with a narrow verandah running in front, and a high wall bordering it. As in the cells of Presidency jail there were no windows , only grilled iron doors in front. There we had a little courtyard in front , but here we could only see a high wall.

No light entered the rooms so I could see nothing inside. Sometime later I heard a sound and turning around saw a young girl sitting near a wall and killing bedbugs. She was arrested for stealing. The walls were painted red, not black as in Lal Bazar police station. The walls were cracked with broken cement slabs and bedbugs were sitting in a row in the cracks. The girl said that if you don't kill them in the daytime, they will attack in hordes at night and not let you sleep.

I soon felt suffocated in the airless room. A horrible smell overcame me and I had to put my nose through the iron grill door to breathe. The girl had been arrested three or four days ago and she had not left the cell even once. She said she had called out to the keepers but no one had paid any heed to her. In despair I started shouting and after sometime a policeman appeared. I begged him to get this cell cleaned up, for otherwise we would die of suffocation. He took his time but eventually got the place cleaned.

After some time we were given few chapattis and some vegetables on a "sal leaf". As I sat wondering how I could eat with my dirty fingers, I saw a dozen political prisoners being taken out from a nearby cell. They also got their food on "sal leaves". After washing their hands they were being sent back to their cell, and as they entered one by one , the policeman gave each of them a push from behind. This was quite unnecessary.

Some of them almost stumbled down at the push. I was disgusted at this scene. The prisoners could have easily overpowered the policeman and taken their revenge, but being non-violent political workers they had to bear this in silence. Learning from the United Press he { Mr. Bhattacharya} rushed from his office. He was in tears. He complained over and over again why I had come without letting him know. I could not convince him that you cannot inform your dear ones before going to jail.

In the evening they took us to the jail on Arthur Road. There I met two young Gujrati girls. They were arrested for having a proscribed book in their possession. I remembered how in many jails in Bombay leper women were brought in to frighten young girls and stop them from coming to jail. I got friendly with these two young girls. They wished to learn the Bengali language and Bengali songs. So every evening I started teaching them the alphabets and also some songs.

A few days later Mrs. Alice Alvarez was brought in. She was arrested nine months ago , but she had escaped from prison. All this time she absconded and lived underground. , and again she was arrested. She is an educated Christian lady and was a research scholar before her arrest. Three months after their marriage , husband and wife had plunged in the 1942 movement.

Her husband had an attack of typhoid fever so he was released after a month. But she could not visit him for the police were on the look out for her , and there was a strong guard posted at the gate of their home. One day I asked her who had inspired her to join the national movement. She had studied in an European convent from her childhood where the environment was different. In reply she told me how when a student of Matric class , she had read the statement given by Bina Das at her trial, and had heard about the courage of Bengali girls Then she had decided that she would join the National struggle after completing her education. In 1942 the chance came when she and her husband joined the movement. They considered themselves fortunate for getting this opportunity.

The condition in this jail was just as heartless as in the previous one. The food was just as bad - thick coarse chapattis and boiled vegetables. The matron was comparatively good-natured so we had a friendly atmosphere. Most afternoons common convicts came to us to learn the alphabets.

On our first day we heard someone crying in the women convicts' room. Night long she kept on crying Later in the morning we found out one of them was slightly abnormal and it was this girl who cried all the time. A wicked man had tempted her with false promises and had allured her out of her home, and after ruining her in all ways had deserted her. Her step-mother refused to take her back.

I spoke to her and asked her if she would like to sleep in my room. Gladly she agreed and immediately she brought her bedding into my room. Matron readily gave her permission to sleep in my room, and after that she never cried at night. She used to sing to me in the evenings. I was eager to make an experiment on her and change her 'criminal nature'.

As long as she was with me , she was quiet and gentle. She would do all my chores, make my bed, wash my clothes; she would sit on my bed and comb my hair. She would share her food with me. I noticed she had sores all over her body. But as soon as she moved away from my sight she was a changed person. She would climb trees and talk to Anglo-Indian convicts in the next ward across a wall, and was all the time upto some mischief or the other. I gave up hope of changing her nature.

A few days later she was taken to the hospital. I learned from other girls that she was suffering from a severe type of infectious disease, and they were alarmed for I had allowed her to sit on my bed , wash my clothes. The matron knew about her disease but had never warned me about her. There were some other girls too , suffering from the safe disease but they were never segregated. I thought other healthy girls would be infected and return home suffering from this disease. In their poverty-stricken homes what medical treatment will they receive?

I remember another girl I found there. The first time I saw her all the other girls exclaimed, "She is here again." She was young and quite faultlessly dressed. She had no family When out of jail ,she walked the streets and sold herself. The British and American soldiers were her friends. Prostitution on the streets being illegal , she was picked up by the police and brought to jail. I felt very sorry for her. The government should have sent her to a re-habilitation home where she could have been trained for some work. What good was periodic imprisonment doing to her? Proper training in a home could have made her independent , and also saved the jail some money, and also save a young girl from a shameful existence.