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)

Presidency Jail of Calcutta

In December of 1931 I was imprisoned for eight months for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement.The trial took place in a room in jail. We were not told why, instead of being tried in open court, we were tried in such secrecy. As under-trial prisoners we were taken to the Presidency jail.

It was winter when I entered prison for the first time. As under-trial prisoners we were allowed to carry our own beddings. After walking some distance and passing many gates, we finally reached the Female Prisoner's ward where an Anglo- Indian matron took charge of our belongings and welcomed us with a smile. She seemed to be a nice person. A little later we were placed in a big room and the iron doors were locked for the night... It was already night according to the jail timetable, though there was bright daylight outside. This was the first shock we received as prisoners. In the midst of light we were locked into darkness. We could imagine all the activities that were going on in the outer world. Groups of young boys and girls walking along the streets, some to the playground, others may be to the park for some fresh air or to the movies with friends. This twilight hour in the evening throws a pall of sadness on the prisoners. In silence we stood as the doors were locked. Then gradually the mellow shades of evening calmed us as we sang,
 

"You have come in glory in the evening, I bow to thee!"

On our first evening in prison, when we were sitting in the dark, two aged ladies entered our room. We learned that one of them had crossed sixty, while the other was in her fifties. Being cast away from the loving embrace of parents and family we were hungry for some tenderness. We felt comforted in their presence. We were curious to know the history of their incarceration. The former lady we addressed as grandmother. She was a widow from a Brahmin family. She had courted imprisonment at the request of her grandson. Her young grandson was jailed for participating in the Civil disobedience movement; before his departure he had asked his old grandmother to take his place in the struggle. He had placed his demand on the person nearest to his heart. The old grandmother had no conception of independence; there was no ideological inspiration behind her action. It was just an act of love. We could visualize the beautiful bond that knit their souls together, and had drawn this old woman away from her life-long homely habits into the unknown world of strife. Her companion had come through political motivation. It was the call of "Bande Mataram" that had brought her out of her home.

Later that night two more girls of fifteen and sixteen were arrested from Howrah and brought to our room. Their names were Sushama and Surama.Their brother was a Congress worker. He had convinced his parents and had made arrangements for his sisters participation in the movement that led to their imprisonment. We were impressed by his spirit that had inspired him to break the bonds of convention and protectiveness and brought his sisters into the struggle. We thought how wonderful it would be if their were more brothers like him, then more girls would fill our prison wards, thereby advancing our war for independence.

Next morning we found our seemingly nice matron pushing around old grandmother and her companion. Shantidi, her mother, and a few other women workers were already in the Presidency Jail when we had arrived. We all ran together to see what was the matter, and found out that the matron was forcing the aged ladies to wear the prison uniform for class three prisoners, which was a short frock of very coarse material. After some "tug of war" where we tried in vain to save the grandma and her companion from the grip of the matron, we gave up, for we were told that if they refused to wear this dress, then wrapped in jute cloth, they would be thrown into a dark cell. Everyone had to conform to prison regulations. The flicker of smile that we had seen on their faces last night had disappeared altogether in daylight.

After the shock of wearing the dress, they faced another one when they were taken to the room for grinding lentils. Grandma was completely out of breath after a short while at the grinding wheel. We learned from her companion that a few years ago she had had an attack of tuberculosis and she was panting for breath in the grinding room. When we rushed to the matron, she told me, ?you Kamalani, I thought you were a good girl. But I see now that you are dangerous! We will treat you well only if you don't interfere with the other prisoners." Finding ourselves helpless here, we went to the Bengali doctor and told him everything. Doctors could change the workload of prisoners if they found legitimate reasons of health. He was about to change the order on the ticket, when the matron walked up and told him that there was nothing wrong with the old lady; she was quite fit for the work assigned to her. The doctor immediately changed his mind and told us?yes, yes she is quite fit for the work" It was obvious why the doctor had changed his mind.

Working up to eleven 'O' clock we heard the lunch bell and then sat down on the ground in a row. We were given coarse red rice with boiled cabbage leaves, bringal and mixed with raw oil and lentil soup with sauteed onion bits. Onion is taboo for hindu widows, so old grandmother and her companion sat quietly. Matron hearing that they were not eating came to us with a whip in her hand and threatened the old ladies with dire consequences if they did not eat .T ears rolled down their cheeks as they forced themselves to partake of this fare.

Our trial was over a few days later. The court had not assigned any class for us, so the jail authorities took us in as class three prisoners. As we returned to our jail wards, the matron came rushing to us with the order that we must immediately cast off our home clothes and put on the jail uniforms. Our clothes and the few ornaments we had with us were taken away and we were made to don the strange prison attire.

There was a smile of revenge on the matron's face, though outwardly she pretended to be very sorry for us .As long as we were under trial prisoners the matron could not harass us; she could only complain about us to the Superintendent. But now we were completely under her control, and now she would show us all her powers. I think this desire for misusing ones powers is a part of our human nature.

I recall a sad picture of this time. A fifty-year-old married lady was arrested with us. We addressed her as 'aunt'. She accepted the jail dress without any protest. She was married at ten, and all these years she was proudly wearing the gold-coated iron bangle along with the Vermillion mark on her hair. She took off all her other ornaments, but prayed for permission to keep the iron bangle on .The matron was most insistent to take it off her hand, but even after a lot of struggle it would not come off, for the had outgrown the bangle she wore when she was only ten. When finally the matron got a pair of clippers and cut through the iron bangle, the lady broke down in tears for she believed she wore the bangles for her husband's welfare. She had come to prison prepared to give up everything, but she had not expected to be deprived of her iron bangle and vermilion mark. We took her away with us and tried to console her,? Aunty do not despair. We are sure this sacrifice of yours will not harm your husband in any way. Rather it will come as a help for him ." After quite a few years I met her outside adorned in a new iron bangle and a bright vermilion mark. If she has to go through the sad experience once again, I am sure she will not be fearful for her husband's welfare.

A few days later Bibha came to jail; she was only fifteen or sixteen. With ease she adjusted herself cheerfully to her new prison environment. Love of her parents, brothers and sisters could not keep her in her home."She said,"Love and tenderness are not for me; so I have left home." She could recite beautifully. She played the part of Raghupati in "Bisarjan"which was staged for the benefit of "Sarala Punyasram"established by my mother. Learning that girls were going to jail, she decided to join them in the Civil Disobedience movement. She addressed a citizen's meeting at Hazra Park urging them to act against the government. On the first occasion she was warned by the police, and on the second day she was arrested and sent to Presidency Jail for ten months. When like us she was made to wear a frock , she laughed and said ,This is wonderful! I don't think I'll ever wear a sari again !" Matron was charmed by her gaiety and love of dance and music. She told me , she loved her for she reminded her of her daughter. But a few months later ,when we had left for another jail ,we came to know that matron had punished her by making her clean the wards. She had forced her into a solitary cell on false charges of attacking the matron. So much for a matron's love !

After a few days in jail we found some rules for convicts put upon the walls of their wards. One such rule was that a prisoner's punishment would be reduced if she brought charges against other inmates. In other words they were being incited to spy against each other .For good behaviour in jail , a prisoner's time of imprisonment was normally reduced by twenty-four days for every six months ;and a further reduction would be made if they brought charges against others. A yearning for freedom was uppermost in each convict's mind. It was only natural that they eagerly waited for the day when they would be united with their dear ones at home. So when they realized that they could benefit by harming others they started accusing others of acts, which were totally false or half-true. This was a most concrete example of the 'divide and rule ' policy of the government. Further, when they realized that they could endear themselves most to the matron and other jail authorities by bringing charges against political prisoners , they always tried to put us in trouble. We could not counter this with all the love and help we offered them. By successfully accusing us , common convicts were promoted to the position of guards and mates. With the help of the 'jamadarnis'they brought prohibited articles into the cells ,with which they lured other prisoners to carry out their orders... They would steal food from the common prisoners and offer it to the 'jamadarnis'.. The common prisoners were too frightened to protest or complain. They were not afraid of us ,for they knew the political sufferer 'didis'would never stoop to any action that would harm them in any way .There was corruption all around and we felt suffocated in this vitiated atmosphere.

During our stay at Presidency jail we observed how prisoners with the slightest self-respect were punished for not satisfying the jamadarnis. One day a prisoner refused to carry out some illegal order of the guard. Immediately a complaint was made against her to the jamadarnis. She was threatened with dire consequences when the matron would come. At the usual time the bell rang at the gate announcing the matron's arrival. Promptly the jamadarni and the mates rushed to the gates to welcome her. They carried the umbrella over her head and brought her to the courtyard when she was seated on a chair .One of the cooled her with a huge fan, while another sat at her feet massaging her legs. Then they started poring out their complaints against the unfortunate prisoner. The matron commanded them to bring her in her presence. As soon as she was brought the matron started beating her with her cane, warning her against repeating her mistakes in the future. The prisoner was completely in the dark about her mistakes, for it was on a false charge she was being punished. Prisoners we saw being punished soon changed into informers who brought punishment onto others. Degeneration of human nature was quick enough in the prison environment. Sakina was w lovable young girl. Whenever she was free she would come and sit by my side relating tales of her sad life. She would say?Allah will never bless me if I try to earn freedom by haring others." Soon after a few days she stopped coming to me and she no longer sat and talked with me.

We were told that she was making many charges against us. At first we refused to believe it. One day I saw her sitting at the jamadarni's feet talking with her most animatedly. When she found me watching her she hung her head in shame. Eventually she became a favourite with the matron and was the cause of much suffering to her "political sufferer" sisters .She would complain against them openly.

In prison,'the feast of the file' was celebrated with much pomp and splendour. Once a week on a fixed day, the ' burra sahib' would come to inspect the jail, and after listening to the complaints of the prisoners would ameliorate their sufferings.? The feast of the file" usually took place on a Monday. On Sunday the convicts had to wash all their clothes with cheap country soap. They had to scrub the whole building and make it shine. I think they had more work on Sunday than on other days. Early on Monday morning they donned their freshly washed clothes and stood in a line with their belongings i.e. two blankets, a dish and bowl, arranged in front of them. They had to fix a tin plaque on their dress. On this plaque was written the story of their convicted life, that is, the 'when' and 'where' and 'why' of their punishment and the date of their release. In the distance the huge umbrella over the 'burra sahib's head would become visible, and he would come accompanied by the jailer, the deputy jailor, the senior doctor, the junior doctor and others. Just before their arrival the matron would run around and rehearse the procedure so that things would be perfect when the prisoners would stand silently after saying "Sarkar Salaam". No prisoner had the courage to speak out and make complaints. They did not have the strength of spirit to face the consequence of complaining, at the hands of the matron and the jamadarnis.

The superintendent, after inspection found everything in perfect order. He would write in the report book that the prisoners had no complaint. He certified that the convicts were all quite happy, physically and mentally. After coming in confrontation with the government we had no inclination to complain about our suffering in prison.

We spent quite some time with the common prisoners in the same room. There for long hours, from dawn to eleven, and again from noon to four in the afternoon we had to work on a heavy iron treadle machine twisting cables. It was back -breaking work and after some time our right hands grew numb with pain But we could not stop work even for a moment. The matron was there sitting on a chair in front of us, watching all the time. We kept water in a tin can with us and whenever the matron left her post for a short while, we would try to soothe our arms and neck with water, and would lie down on the ground for a moment's respite. We sat up as soon as we heard footsteps. We were allowed to take a bath only on Sunday and throughout the week we wore the same clothes. Only on Sunday we could change when our clothes were boiled in the same water with clothes of other convicts. Surreptitiously, we would manage to wash our face and arms before our noon meals.

Attired in short frocks we felt shy to stand in front of the officers. The officers also felt awkward and so they said they could not meet us to hear our grievances. As a result we had no opportunity to let them know about our problems.

At first we were told to cover our heads with a small towel when we met the officers; later this order was revoked and we were forbidden to place anything on our heads when we passed the file. Prison is a strange place! Matron tried her utmost to make us stand in a line and say " Sarkar salaam ", but she was never successful .I should mention here that there was much protest in the State Assembly against the dress we were forced to wear. As a result the order was withdrawn and women convicts were allowed to wear saris. Though the saris were coarse and uncouth but the women in prison welcomed them. Seeing the happy smile on their faces we felt that all our suffering had not been in vain.

After the hard labour of the day we felt exhausted in the evening .In winter we slept on the ground on a blanket with another blanket for cover. We shivered as the chill seeped from the damp floor through the thin blanket. When the doors were locked the convicts would start picking up quarrels with each other, which often led to fights resulting in bloodshed. Again on some days they would start singing as the fights ended. We often thought how these long winter evenings could be utilized by teaching these women how to read and write. Also by organizing musical nights we could bring some peace to their unhappy lives. Here they were being forced to lead a sub-human beastlike existence. Later in Hijli jail we worked hard at organizing study classes. Every night as soon as the iron doors were shut, a one -year old boy, named "Jaily" for being born in jail, would start crying. His mother was in prison for twenty years on charge of murdering her husband .I don't remember ever talk or smile. Maybe the child did not like the door to be closed. His mother would just sit with him on her lap. The night guard would shout at the mother and beat her for not stopping the child from crying. The mother would silently take her revenge by beating her son. We could not stand this for long, so we went to her and said,'You sleep, we will look after your son.'immediately the tired mother would lie down and cover herself under the blanket. We knew she would not wake up soon. A little later the child would fall asleep. But soon an asthmatic prisoner would start coughing. Daylong she slept and throughout the night she would go on coughing. No one ever took her to the hospital. The Presidency Jail was infested with mosquitoes and it was a hard task to sleep at night. Further, I could not sleep with my face covered. Our doors were opened at five in the morning. According to prison rules we had to wake up at four-thirty, and after folding our blankets had to sit down for half an hour, when we could either sleep or pray to God, but could never lie down After spending a long sleepless night it was impossible for us to think of God. We remembered how ancient sages spent the 'sacred dawn' in glorious meditation.

As we were growing tired of this exhausting difficult life, two young girls entered our dark stone dungeon. They were condemned to life imprisonment to the cellular jails of Andamans... . They came with music and laughter and brought a surge of new life to our almost deathlike existence. They came singing "Down with tyranny, down with torture!" The tired souls of all prisoners were roused by this music as the bricks and stones of the prison walls resounded to the beat.

They were Shanti Ghose and Suniti Chowdhury. We were sitting around them when a jail staff called me aside, and told me these two prisoners were condemned to twenty-five years in jail. The order was announced after they had left court. They felt downcast when they got the information from me. "Kalyanidi, we had come prepared for death", they said. They were prepared to sacrifice their lives; they're all at the altar of their motherland. I told them that so many years in jail was quite a harsh punishment; they must accept it with bowed heads.

Then the matron came and told us that we were not to talk with them, nor take our meals with them. They were also forbidden to sing any more. A few days later, after 26th January, Independence Day, many young students and women workers came to prison after taking part in the Civil Disobedience movement. Their laughter and conversation cheered us up and we came out of the depression we were suffering a few days ago. No one observed the prison rules and the authorities gave up enforcing them.

We were making every effort to make the new prisoners comfortable. At this time the jail authorities suddenly promoted me to Class two divisions from class three. I felt bad for most of my companions still remained in class three. Gradually Presidency Jail became too crowded with prisoners. Further, there was a complaint that we, the political prisoners, were making the common convicts politically conscious. They were learning to raise their heads in protest. The jail authorities grew alarmed. They trained up a new matron and sent most of us to Hijli Jail. Only the class three prisoners remained in Presidency Jail in a most helpless condition. No one remained to help them fight the cruel treatment, or raise a voice of protest against the heartless system.

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