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)

Hijli Jail

Many of us came together to the Hijli jail. From Kharagpur station we had to reach Hijli by bus or taxi. The men's prison camp was a short distance from the women's jail. From our jail we could see at night the light burning at the top of their tower. As I entered the jail, I remembered the day when political prisoners had been shot down over there. This shooting of helpless political prisoners was unprecedented in political history. There was countrywide protest against this inhuman action. Learning about this incident we had come to Hijli with Bimaldi. We were not allowed to see the wounded prisoners, but the whole day long we tried to gather information about them. One prisoner had his arm amputated, but still there was a smile on his face. Many were wounded by baton charge. After the shooting when prisoners fell on the ground other prisoners came forward to help them, but they were also wounded by the bayonet charge. I remembered how the dead bodies of martyrs, Santosh Mitra and Tarakeswar Sen Gupta, were taken to the burning ghat in a torch lit procession at night. The stillness of the night was broken as the pallbearers cried out "We want the blood of tyrants!" And the darkness was shattered by the flames of the burning pyre at Keoratala on the banks of the Ganga.

Later, at a large gathering around the Monument the great patriot Rabindranath, had uttered these sonorous lines,
 

"Jahara tomar bisayeche bayu, nivaeyche tobo aalo,
"Tumi ki taader koriacho khama ,besecho taader bhaalo?"

"They who have poisoned your air, and darkened your light, Have you forgiven them? Are you able to love them?"

We used to feel suffocated in the small courtyard at Presidency Jail. At Hijli Jail the wards were spacious, in the midst of rolling green grounds. In this large cage we hoped to spread our wings. But I think its not my luck to have a peaceful life in prison. The matron who accompanied us from Calcutta jail was a friend of the former matron. She advised me when I left Presidency Jail, "If you are kind to her, she will be kind to you."

From the second day a conflict started over a young convict. Ten or twelve ordinary convicts had come with us from Presidency Jail to work for us .On the morning of the second day we heard some one crying in their room, and we went there to find out what was wrong. One of the girls was writhing in pain. She had suffered throughout the night. We thought that she should be taken to the Doctor. She was allotted the task of cleaning the wards. For this dirty work convicts got more days off, so Brahmin girls also often chose this task over others.

The matron came and declared that nothing was wrong with her; she was only pretending to be ill. So she must go back to work. She shouted at us to get out from there, and when we refused she proclaimed that these convicts were her property. "I can kill them if I want. So you keep out of it." Finding us adamant she went off to complain against us to the officers.

Matron's room was just adjacent to our wards. There was a common wall and we soon found a hole running under it from our rooms. Cats used to move along this secret path. Later we found a hand coming through it and from our wards jamadarnis passing bread and butter along this route. Needless to say what happened to our quota of bread and butter. We however, never made any complaints.

Matron had a big notebook full of complaints against us - but she could never get us punished. One day she requested the superintending Officer to make me clean the jail. She could not control us by stopping our interviews, or by canceling our days of leave. I learned this from the jailor. One day, I do not know why, she resigned and left her job. I found no chance to be kind to her, nor was it possible for her to be kind to me. The world runs on 'give' and 'take'.

A few days' later more political prisoners were brought here from Presidency Jail. They told us they had heard people on the train talking about a young student named Bina, who was arrested for trying to shoot the Governor at the Convocation Hall. Shanti, Suniti had not been hanged for being below eighteen. But according to the new ordinance Bina would surely be hanged. Bina is my sister.

Next day the police inspector started interrogating me, and searched my belongings. All contacts with home were cut off. Letters from home, and interviews with family members were prohibited. I woke up early every morning, and lay awake in bed beside my friends Sulata or Ava. They knew what a storm of anxiety was blowing in my heart. In silence, they tried to comfort me. In the darkness of early dawn, I would recall scenes from Bina's early life. As a young girl of seven or eight she would work on the 'charka', and wore hand-spun clothes - she would not touch foreign goods .One day she went with mother and sisters to the house of Late Deshabandhu to meet Gandhiji. Learning that Bina worked on the 'charka', Gandhiji took little Bina on his lap and patted her. Again, at a women's meeting Gandhiji had called upon all women to donate something to his fund. Young Bina came forward and taking off her golden bangle gave it to Gandhiji.

Another incident I remember. We had gone to Puri for a vacation. Our widowed aunt and her only daughter had accompanied us on this trip. Bina and our cousin, Anu had appeared in the Matriculation that year. One afternoon they had gone out for a swim in the sea. When our aunt went out to look for them, she found them out of their depths in deep water. The 'nulia' was trying to save both of them with great difficulty. Bina suddenly shook off the 'nulia's hand and cried, "You save my cousin. You won't be able to save both of us." Bina was slowly drifting away into deep sea when other 'nulias' jumped in and saved her. I remember another incident in front of our home in Ballygunge . A cart drawn by cows was stalled in front of our home. It was overloaded with bricks and the cart was too heavy for the cows. But the driver of the cart went on beating the cows, forcing them to move. Seeing this Bina ran to the spot and started unloading the bricks. The cart driver drove away easily with half the load, and Bina stood on the wayside guarding the bricks for almost an hour.

Another incident----next to our father's home, in a small cottage lived Kamala, a worker's wife with her mother-in-law. She was harassed and tortured by her husband and mother-in-law. Hearing complaints from his mother the man would start beating her. Bina was terribly moved by Kamala's plight. She would go to her with a primer and tried to educate her. Mother would say, "That ill-tempered husband of hers may insult you." One day we heard that Kamala had gone away leaving her unhappy family behind. A few days later the mother and son also left this hut and went in search of another place.

Bina was never tired of listening to the tales of glorious courage with which the brave young men of Chattagram fought against the powerful British. Like a little child hearing tales of valour , she would cry, "Tell us more Phanidada." Father would say, "Your Phanidada is tired. Let him take some rest.

"Well Father, aren't you proud of your country boys? Does it matter that their fight is violent?" Father would smile and agree that they were indeed brave, and he was proud of them.

We learned how Shanti and Suniti were arrested, and how they were being tortured. At night I would wake up and find her sitting by the window. "Why aren't you sleeping?" I would ask. "What can I do? I cannot sleep when I think about the sufferings of our workers. Such a lot of cruelty and injustice all around-How to overcome them? I feel so helpless. How can I find peace of mind?"

I would recall so many such incidents. She lived surrounded by the deep love of her father, mother ,brothers and sisters. Mother and our sister-in-law would always be there when she took her meals. Early every morning, before we woke up father would gather 'bel'flowers and keep them by our bedside. He wanted us to wake up in the midst of the sweet scent of flowers. To day the same Bina was living such a hard life. Love of home could not hold her back. She found no peace of mind at home. She had to leave. Every morning I woke up thinking that this could be the last day for us two sisters to be together in the loving arms of our parents. When she would be called to the gallows, with what deep satisfaction she would go forward. She wanted to die-she hoped that through her sacrifice the suffering of humanity would be reduced, and our chained nation would move towards freedom.

I thought constantly of my parents. My father used to worry about my arrest. Mother would say,"Why do you worry about your daughter? She is not doing anything wrong. So many young boys and girls are courting arrest by working for their motherland. Why should you be upset if your daughter does the same?" Was she uttering the same words today? Later I came to know that father's hair had turned white overnight.

The night before the incident Bina could not sleep. In the Diocesan hostel she asked a friend to sing to her patriotic songs. She longed to hear such songs. Her friend sang song after song. Later when she woke up she found Bina sitting up watching the sky.

The day after the incident father and mother were taken to the office at Illyseum Road to meet Bina. The officers asked Bina to look at her parent's condition. They would take her home if she would only tell them the name of the person who had given her the revolver. Bina had smiled as she replied, "My father has not taught me to be a traitor." Father said,"No, I will never ask you to do that. You must take full responsibility of your action. Do not do anything to hurt others." Hearing this the police inspector sent them away. Maybe that was why they stopped me from any connection with my family. For many days I heard nothing from home.

I was passing my days in such uncertain worries, when one day a member of the jail staff called me aside and told me, "Your sister has not been condemned to hanging. She has been sent to jail for nine years. She presented a remarkable statement at the Special Tribunal. The Government has banned its publication. But they were afraid to hang your sister." He went away before I could let him know my heartfelt gratitude.

At Hijli Jail there were some women prisoners from Gujrat, Maharashtra, and Marwar. An aged Marwari lady slept by my side. Often at night she would sigh as she uttered her daughter's name. She was always worried about her .At night she would be sitting up. I tried to comfort her, "Mataji,your daughter is well; you will find her well when you return home." She loved us and would often offer us the food she prepared for herself. She returned home to her daughter after completing her six months' punishment in jail. We also felt relieved. Later, after many years when we came home from prison we learnt that her daughter had died after some time. We could not meet her. But we often remembered how she would sigh for her daughter during her six-month's stay in prison. We wondered how the mother was bearing this everlasting separation with her daughter.

These ladies learned Bengali from us. They were quite eager to learn this language. All of them were vegetarians. At times there were some unpleasant incidents too. We were all being vaccinated. One aged 'ben' refused to take the vaccination. She said there was cow's blood in the medicine, and Gandhiji would never approve of it. We tried to persuade her, but even after our daylong effort she still refused to take it. We were afraid that the jail officers would punish her. But maybe considering that her time was almost over, they overlooked her insubordination.

Our friend Abha was the strongest among us all. We admired her physique. Mentally, as well as physically, she had an exuberance of energy and spirit. She could not tolerate any injustice; and at the same time she was bursting with energy to help others. No one could beat her in sports of strength like 'tug-of-war' or 'ha-do-do'. After six months she left us on being released. When I came out of jail after six years, I learned that she was very ill, and was living in Madhupur.She had a very hard life, and an unhappy marriage. She did not take her husband's help for quite some time. Single-handed, she took care of her son and mother by private tuition. She also helped many political friends. Lack of proper nourishment was telling upon her health. She used to eat cheap fried food from a small wayside shop, and after some time she succumbed to 'beri beri' and died after much suffering. She did not turn for help to anyone on earth. She loved me so much, but never did she mention her problems in any of her letters. She sold the few ornaments she had. The sad fate of that exceptionally healthy and bright young girl of Hijli jail brought tears to our eyes. I remember so many incidents about Abha.One morning we were locked up in Hijli jail. Often one or the other of the numerous girls would be ailing. In turns we would take charge of their nursing. We found a big scorpion moving about the floor , and on seeing it Abha immediately took off her slippers and smashed it to death. As soon as she killed it she felt a slap on her back. One of our Gujrati inmates registered her protest against killing in this manner. Abha was about to start an argument but we took her away. We joked over the matter and told her it was better to conserve one's energy for some greater action instead of wasting it on trivial things.

Things took a strange turn, when a few nights later a snake entered our ward. The same Gujrati lady started calling,"Abha Devi come here quickly and kill this snake "! Maybe Abha remembered the incident of the other day and said to herself= so now you want me to kill a snake! Won't that be violence? Then with a smile she went to comply with her request. We spent our days in the midst of such diversions. Bright young girls like Abha and Arati filled our dreary days in jail with a happy breath of life. They created an ambience of pure joy. I still cannot help smiling when I remember a funny incident.

During the Civil Disobedience movement many women came as political prisoners to our jail. Among them there were many aged ladies. They often organized meetings on special occasions, and we had to attend those meetings and had to sit through long lectures. Arati and others would often comment,"Who wants to hear these boring lectures in jail?" One day such a meeting was organized and an aged 'Mashima'requested us to attend, and she particularly asked me to bring all the young girls. Arati and her friends asked us to go, and they would soon follow us.

We were listening attentively when we saw them coming in a procession, carrying a flag with them. After hailing us with "Bande mataram"they sat down. A few moments passed when one of them suddenly shouted, "Snake, snake!" and Abha with her slipper in hand rushed forward. I tried to pull her back, for maybe you can kill a scorpion with your slipper-but a snake? One girl said the snake had disappeared over the wall , another described the black and white stripes on its back, and thus they went on. By this time the meeting had broken up .The young girls went back to their room with serious faces. That evening when we sat around singing and chatting, one of them said,"If you promise not to be angry, I'll tell you a secret!" On receiving our assurance she said that the incident was all a hoax! They had planned to break up the meeting! We all laughed and forgave them their childish prank.

The saddest thing about prison life was that the jail authorities never believed our illnesses. If anyone fell ill at night we had to shake the iron grills and shout in chorus to attract the attention of the jamadarnis. That was the time when we realized most poignantly that we were prisoners. After much shouting the jamadarnis would wake up and rouse the jamadar, who in his turn would take all his time to wear his clothes and shoes, and then would go to look for the jailor or deputy jailor. Without them the doctor was not permitted to enter the wards. Then a search would go on for the doctor, who usually stayed two or three miles away from the jail. If the jailors were away, then there was no chance to get a doctor's help. Doctors were usually helpful; they tried to come quickly to help us with medicines. But for a common convict medical help was rarely available. In many cases doctors disregarded a prisoner's symptoms and considered them as imaginary. At Baharampur jail we found a prisoner vomiting blood. We requested the doctor ,the Civil Surgeon , to do something to alleviate her suffering; but the doctors turned a deaf ear, and commented that her illness was only mental! We had to call the jamadarni to come and see the blood for the doctors only trusted their words.

There was a young Muslim girl with us in Hijli jail. Inspired by her husband she had joined the movement. Her other relatives, who visited her in prison would request her to ask for the Government's forgiveness and thus get a release order from prison. But she refused to do so. We helped her with her effort to study. She was always in our company, and through laughter and conversation, she became very close to us. One day a friend asked her ,"Do you think you can go to the gallows?" The simple girl replied," I shall surely go if my husband comes with me. I'll be afraid to go alone." There was nothing in her behaviour to remind us that she was a Muslim. When she returned to her village after release she was hit on her head by some miscreants. That was their way of punishing her for taking part in the freedom movement.

Another young girl was brought to jail after being arrested near the Monument on the 26th of January. The mounted police and their lathi charge did not scare her. She told us how she had been married when she was only ten. She did not remember her dead husband. Her elder sister's husband took care of her ,and just to bring some variety in her otherwise dull life he introduced her to the political movement, and encouraged by him she had come to jail . With her other companions she used to study, sing and play. We used to dress her up as we did other girls. At first she did not want to, for she was afraid others might criticize her . She was a widow so she was kept like a nun at home. She was strikingly beautiful, " but how ill-starred for she will never be able to enjoy life"-was the comment of people around her.

After some time she broke down mentally. Her family and society had forced her to suppress all her natural desires. She always thought that she would never be able to wear nice clothes, or enjoy everyday pleasures. When her health failed all her suppressed desires raised their heads, and she lost her mental strength to control them. She would shout and cry for nice clothes. We had to dress her up; otherwise she would go into hysterics and faint. At times she would become violent, and had to be locked up in a room. She had been an enthusiastic member of the young group of prisoners, so we were sad and crest-fallen at her condition.

One night she was in a very bad state, and the doctor came at midnight and took her away. As the doors were unlocked we all came out on the courtyard outside. We quietly went to examine a small room in the corner of the courtyard where the jamadarnis used to tell us that a lady in a red sari working on a spinning wheel , appeared at night. We found no one over there, though there was a sound made by a broken doorframe flapping in the wind. The sound was more like someone weeping, than that of a 'charkha'.

I remember another young girl of Nalini's age. I feel sad whenever I think of her. She was quiet and well-mannered , with a smile on her face. We used to teach her how to read and write.She had a very hard time after her release. She had gone to jail disregarding her parents' wishes, so they were angry with her, and fearing that she would go off again , kept her most of the time under lock and key. After my release, friends asked me to meet her parents and try to change their attitude. At first I felt constrained, then I was arrested again, so I could not do anything to help the unfortunate girl. Maybe she had hoped I would come to help her. I feel so sorry when I think of her. I lost all contact with her in this vast world. I can only pray and hope that she is happy and well.

I had spent some months in Hijli jail, passing days of joy and sorrow, when we were informed about our transfer to Baharampur jail. Only women under trial prisoners would now be kept in Hijli jail.

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