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)

Baharampore Jail

A new group of prisoners arrived at Hijli jail before the last batch left. They were collected from many jails , and were now put together in Hijli jail. These prisoners had faced no trial ., and were kept in prison for an indefinite period. We felt sad for them. They were away from home for such a long time , and they did not know how much longer they would have to stay. Uncertainty is painful. Lady luck must have smiled , for a few months later I also became their companion.

On our way to Baharampur we had to stop at a station for a long time. There on the platform we saw a number of convicts lying on the ground. Their feet were fettered, so with great difficulty they were either standing up or lying down. They were being transferred from Rajsahi jail. We learned from them that prisoners at Rajsahi jail were being tortured. They were being made to wear jute strips and were being kept in cold isolation rooms. on a diet of rice and water.

They were very young and appeared to be half-fed on the food they were supplied. Their heads of coarse hair were without a touch of oil, and their countenances were marked by pain and suffering. I can still see those sad faces. At Baharampur jail we found a large congregation of women prisoners. They had come from every district of Bengal. Altogether we were more than two hundred in number. Here we had no hard labour. We just had to spend a short while at the spinning wheel.

Whenever we heard "Bandemataram" at the gate we rushed to welcome new comers. We would take them around the jail, and help them in collecting their clothes , blanket and bedding. We would ask them about the state of the movement in the districts from where they had come . Gradually our jail became almost like a boarding school. Every morning we would organize parades on the field around the jail. At first the jail officers objected, but soon they gave up.

After bath and meals we would hold classes in the big rooms of the jail. We , teachers were few in number ,but we had many students. In the afternoon we went out to play on the field. "Ha-do-do" was our favourite game. After lock-up in the evening we held music classes, where national songs were taught. Jail authorities named us the "Subhas Bose's Brigade" and the Superintendent referred to us as leaders of the Subhas Brigade.

Except for a few unpleasant incidents , our days here passed happily. We objected when we saw a 'mashima' sitting on a chair talking with other women squatting on the ground around her .We objected when we learned about a 'mashima' helping the jail authorities in their office work. One day a 'mashima' came and told us that henceforth all prisoners of class three will work for class one and class two prisoners, by fetching water and washing their clothes .She had learned of this order from the Superintendent. We strongly protested against this discrimination between political prisoners. An invisible barrier of misunderstanding was growing up between the different classes of political prisoners , and we could not break it down though we tried very hard . The food given to class three prisoners was terrible . So we decided that we would all sit together and share our food .But this did not please the class three prisoners for they thought that we were being condescending and pitying them . We could never make them understand that this arrangement was giving us mental peace.

Mashima had accepted this arrangement thinking it would be for their good; but we could not accept this discriminatory action of making them work for us. We held meetings in protest. Mashima tried to explain that Gandhiji had also done the work of a sweeper, so there was nothing derogatory in performing such work. We could not understand how the work of class three prisoners working for us compared with Gandhiji's action. An action is not humiliating if it is performed voluntarily. But why should a person be forced to do degrading work? We refused to be a party to it . What other motive could the authorities have besides creating a division in our ranks? Unpleasantness ensued as a result.

We always tried to maintain an attitude of respect towards our elders. But we could not compromise on a difference of opinion. But we always tried to believe that there must be tolerance and mutual respect between different ideologies.

There were about thirty little children with us in Baharampur jail. Mothers would bring their little ones with them , as their husbands were also in prison. There was no one with whom the little children could be left at home. There was a family from Medinipur where the mother, eldest son ,daughter-in-law ,daughter, son-in-law, grandson and granddaughter were all imprisoned in various jails. A friend came to prison with a three month old daughter and when she left the child had crossed her third year. We had celebrated her name-giving ceremony. She was named "Jhanja" or turmoil. A woman came from Gaibandha with a four year old son. We called him "Biplab"and he was the leader of the youngsters.. He would walk with a flag in his hand, and the others would follow him in a procession shouting "Bandemataram". We enjoyed this very much. We had taught them the song,
 

"Karaar ai louha kapaat, bhenge fal kor rey lopat"
"break down the iron gates of prison, and throw them away!"

One day when a Bengali superintendent was doing inspection duty, Biplab brought his followers in front of him, and started singing this song. The superintendent looked on sternly and making some comments to the other officers he walked away We were sure his exalted position would not have been lowered if he had stayed on and appreciated the innocent performance of the little children.

The ever pure and sin-cleansing Ganges flowed along one side of our prison. Whenever we felt tired or depressed we stood near the window from where we could see the Ganga. Even from a distance the soothing waters of the river warmed our hearts . But the hardened jail staff had lost their finer senses and they could not realize how nature's beauty could give solace to the human heart. They thought we were trying to make contacts with people outside. Soon we found them busily fixing up blinds on the windows which gave us a glimpse of the river. We were in tears when we stood in front of the shuttered windows. We realized we were truly prisoners.

In jail we were fortunate to have come close to dedicated and sincere workers from different districts. Many of the prisoners from Dacca bore marks of torture on their bodies. These were inflicted upon them by Bengali officials. Manorama mashima had come from Barisal. She was imprisoned for eight months. She was punished for distributing Bina's statement at the special tribunal, which had been banned. I learned from her that the statement was translated into many languages.

From Medinipur many peasant women, besides middle-class women, had also taken part in the movement. Their huts were burnt down by the police. All their clothes and ornaments were taken away by the police when they came to search their homes. These poor people had given everything for their motherland and were never sorry for it. Their sacrifice was so much greater than ours. We felt so humble in their presence and spoke to them with deep respect.

A friend said jokingly ,"They are from your sister's 'shasur bari' i.e. in-laws home!" ( Bina and others ) ; for I consider them to be my ideals."

In jail we bonded into all kinds of relationship with each other. All the aged ladies were our grandmothers. Middle-aged ones we addressed as aunts. Young married women were our 'boudis' (sister-in-law). We used to teach them English. At first they had no conception of motherland or struggle for Independence. When their husbands went to jail , they asked their wives to follow them. They gladly did so and came to jail. After living close to us for some time ,we hoped they had created an image of 'motherland' in their minds. Maybe today they were willing to suffer for their motherland , not only because their husbands had asked them to do so.

Gradually our happy days in prison were coming to an end. Many of us were completing our days of incarceration. There was no longer any arrival of new prisoners. My companions became sad when they learned that I would be leaving them soon. Grandmothers would sit around braiding my hair after dressing it in oil. The 'boudis' showed their gratitude by writing poems in my honour in their exercise books. I remember the first two lines of one such poem,

"You are going away from jail ,'thakur-jhi' "I have seen no one as good as you ,'thakur-jhi'"

Thus the poem ran on with the word 'thakur-jhi'( sister-in-law) at the end of each line! I had treasured this exercise book , but it was later taken away by the police during a search of my room. I often wish I had that token of love with me.

The girls had planned to sing a farewell song at the time of departure. One of them wrote the words and everyday I heard them rehearsing the song. But at the time of farewell, after garlanding me they broke down in tears and they were not able to sing.

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