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 again

The vast expanse of sky over the Hijli jail gave us much happiness. We would ask each other if the sky was equally beautiful everywhere. The much-scarred mind of suffering humanity is soothed by the beauty of nature. Our depression disappeared when we beheld the brightness of a glorious sunrise , and we sang with the poet, "How can I describe the precious wealth my heart has gathered." When the dull evening hours became too much for us , we walked on the green grass of the open fields singing, "how happily we step on the green grass of the forest path".

The autumnal clouds with their wealth of beauty ,the play of lightning on the monsoon skies, and the mellow charm of the starlit sky overwhelmed us with endless joy. We were often reminded of the small window-less cells of Presidency jail, where we spent sleepless nights listening to the groans of mad convicts. The light of the lantern would die out , and as the convict stopped shouting , I would doze off for a short while, but soon the mosquitoes would wake me up . A small sliver of the starry sky was visible through a corner window, but on a no moon night there was total darkness. The nights were endless. Those days have disappeared from my memory as a bad dream . But those prisoners who have to stay there , year after year , and those condemned prisoners who stay there counting the days to their death, how do they survive? The sky does not exist for them.

The rainy season brought great joy into the lives of the children. No one could keep them inside during a hail-storm. They would rush out to gather hail stones, and would jump about in the rain. At first we would scold them , but very soon we would join them in the fun. Shanti Niyogi said she felt like a dancing peacock when thunder roared in the clouds. There were others who felt an unknown sadness on a cloudy day. Strange are the ways of the human mind! It was almost like a festival when new prisoners were brought to our ward. I have heard of countries where parents cry when babies are born, thinking of the sad life ahead of them. Again there are people who make merry when old ones die. It would have been natural for us to grieve when new prisoners came to our 'house of sorrow'. Maybe there was a streak of selfishness in our joy at the arrival of newcomers. I do not know why , but we were very happy when new prisoners came. We would run around them asking all sorts of silly questions, like "Are there still buses and trams on the streets of the city "? We wondered how the city was faring in our absence.

Again it was a special day when a prisoner was released. Our joy at her release was tinged with the sorrow of parting. We knew how her near and dear ones were waiting for her outside.. We rejoiced with her in this thought.. But still there was a touch of sorrow. We lived in a narrow ,limited world in jail. So we were very important to each other.. So parting was such sweet sorrow for all of us The departing prisoner from this 'house of sorrow' also shed tears for us as she left.

Life in prison was minimal and bound on all sides by barriers. So, the departure of comrades touched us deeply as we were all tied to each other by our sensibilities. We have seen friends shedding tears at the time of leaving jail. They had spent countless days waiting for this day of release and on this final day the prison walls had opened up to send then out into the free world.

So why should they shed tears? The jail yard was like a desert to them. Then every moment they were driven by the desire for liberty. But at the time of release their minds were fraught with sorrow as they thought of the friends who would remain behind within the stone walls that had also become a second home for them. There was fear in their minds about facing the unknown world outside. They were not sure about their welcome. Would they welcome them with flower and garlands? Or, would they thrust them into a more sorrowful future? The unknown future kept them from enjoying wholeheartedly this moment of release.

We had grown close to the common convicts in prison. Our hearts were filled with compassion for these unfortunate helpful creatures. We missed them when they left us. We became closely acquainted with their narrow minded selfish nature, with their everyday joys and sorrows. We were often baffled when we tried to work for their good. Once we all contributed to buy them mosquito nets, but they stubbornly refused our help and would not sleep under nets. We tried to teach them the hazards of mosquito bites and malaria but to no avail. Some just threw their mosquito nets aside to spite us ; others wailed, "Didi, we want to die as soon as we can. You will all go home to warm welcoming families. But, we have lost all our shelters. Our parents are no more and out husbands have started new families. We will be beggars when we leave prison." We had nothing to say in reply. They had some free time. The superintendent grudgingly gave us permission to teach them. We sent for books and slates. But most of them were not willing to study. Among them two or three were eager to learn. Others would refuse saying that 'jamadarni's did not want them to study. We wished that education could be made compulsory like work in prison.

They would often make false complains about us to the officers just to embarrass us. One day they reported that we were doing something with leaves of a plant in the courtyard. Immediately it was ordered that the plant should be dug out and taken to the office. It was discovered to be a plant commonly called 'Touch-me-not", the leaves of which as soon as anyone touched them. The girls were just having some fun touching the leaves. On another occasion fire broke out in a straw thatched hut in Hijli Jail. We were not yet locked up in our barracks. Bina and Shanti were already locked up. We were allowed to speak to them in the day time, but we were forbidden to go towards their room in the evening. When the fire broke out we ran around shouting to have their room opened. Soon the alarm siren was sounded and the fire was put out. But a long time elapsed before the deputy jailer came with keys to unlock their rooms. At this time a complaint was made to the officers that we had started the fire to find an opportunity for escape. On this occasion it was totally untrue, but at other times prisoners had tried this ruse to escape from jail. But in most cases they had failed.

There were reasons for trying to escape from prison. Firstly, it brought some excitement in out otherwise dull, monotonous life although there were grave hazards on the way. Again we had a feeling that we were forgotten by the outside world. The general public seemed to have lost their interest in the activities of revolutionaries. So we wanted to go out among them and start new actions to arouse their sympathies for the cause of freedom.

Inspite of their hostile attitude we still loved the common convicts. Those we did not bring charges against us had a hard time with the authorities. We had a twenty year old muslim girl Zohra with us in Hijli Jail. She was childlike in her simplicity and was married off early when she lost her parents. Something had gone wrong with her marriage but one day she was forcibly taken to her in laws home and beaten up by relatives. She fell asleep in tears, but woke up at night to find her mother in law sitting by her husbands dead body. Next morning the police came and arrested her accusing her of poisoning her husband. This charge was brought about against her by her mother in law. Ever since she was in prison, and no one ever came to visit her, and there was no appeal by anyone to plead her innocence. After the day's hard labour she would come and sit by our side and tell us her sad tale. She would ask us , "Why is God punishing me like this ? I have not committed any crime." We did not know the answer and had no means of consoling her. She dreaded the future ,too, and did not know where she would go if she was ever released. She never brought false charges against us. We loved her and taught her how to read and write. For this reason the jail officers were annoyed with her and would often find out reasons for punishing her.

She shed endless tears on the day of our departure from jail. While in jail we often heard of the 'jamadarni's enticing young convicts into immoral activities outside prison. We feared that young Zohra may be tempted to live such a life of dishonour. If she did ,who would be responsible for her actions? The young girl or society ? When Bina left jail after her prison term in 1942 we learnt from her that Zohra did not endure jail life for long , for her life was extinguished while she was in prison. We were sad to learn of her death, but we also heaved a sigh of relief.

Many of us were allowed to sit for examinations while in jail. Profulla passed Matriculation. Bonolata and Protibha graduated. Renu and I sat for the M. A. examination. Kamala Chatterji cleared her first part in law. Indudi started learning English in jail and gradually passed her Matric. and Intermediate. Almost all the examinees were helped in their studies by Bina and Liladi. As I have mentioned before, most of us started to suffer from ill-health. We no longer enjoyed the songs and games of our early days. We spent most of our time sitting around listening to gramophone records sent by Boudi.

Suhashini lost a lot of weight.She used to be so full of health and fun- now it seemed as if her shadow was moving around. Kamala suffered from daily fever with a pain on her back. It hurt her to sit ,but the doctors said that her complaint was mental. One day the jail staff took her home and left her on the ground. Later, on x-ray examination it was found that a serious bone disease had taken root in her body.

Kamala Das Gupta-- I had opportunity to work with her outside prison. She was a rare worker with great sympathy and devotion for the cause. She performed all her duties with total dedication of spirit. We were terribly worried to find such a wonderful person languishing in jail.. Indusudha was a student from Shantiniketan. She was an ardent devotee of art , and no one knew how one day she diverted into the revolutionary path. When we met her she was marching with us along the dangerous path. But again in jail we found her finding solace in the pursuit of art. She would spend days drawing pictures and teaching us songs. Our performance of "Barsha Mangal" ,a festival of rain, was such a success ,because of her tireless efforts. Bonolata was sent to the hospital when her condition deteriorated. At the day's end we would find comrades lying down on the ground or walking towards their dark cells in deep depression. We could no bear such scenes of misery.

One evening on entering my room after a long day of futility i found a note left on my table by Bina. On it she had written, "Practice detachment in all your relation with humanity."

Father had often spoken to us about this quotation from the bible. These words had helped Bina also in the past. I often felt hurt and disappointed when friends failed me. Maybe that was why Bina wanted to remind me about these words of wisdom.

Soon order came for transferring Bina and others. Kalpana had already been removed from this jail. We had sent an appeal for saving the lives of Masterda and Tarakeswar Dastidar ,revolutionary leaders of the Chittagong Armoury raid. The jail authorities thought that we were being inspired by Kalpana, a comrade of the revolutionaries. So they had moved her away from us. Shanti was suffering from many ailments. She was not receiving proper medication.. One day Bina asked the doctors about her treatment and she was rudely informed that enough had been done for her.

Now they turned to their last weapon-- hunger strike. Fearing that we would also join them, the authorities hurriedly sent them to another jail. Gradually the government started releasing the prisoners. They detained some of them in their village homes , others they released unconditionally. Bimaldi was sent with her husband to their village home near Burnpur. We all packed our trunks and were ready for the 'jamadar' to come with our order of release. The aged 'jamadar' had grown old working in jail. We would rush to meet him when he entered the gates with a smile on his face carrying our release order. Then we would deck up the person released, in nice clothes, pack up her things and give her a hearty send-off. Most of the prisoners left in this manner. Finally when Liladi and Suhasini were taken out of jail , we went on hoping that the last three of us , Suniti Devi [Maya's mother }, Kamala Chatterji, and I would be called out any day. But days ,weeks, and a month went by , the 'jamadar' did not come.We asked the deputy jailor but received no reply. We could hardly survive in this desperate situation. We would turn to the gate whenever we heard the bell. Throughout the day the bell rang, but it was either the 'jamadarni'or the doctor , but no one carrying our release order. It became difficult for the three of us to pass our days in the large rooms which had resounded to the voices of so many. It seemed we were in a haunted house , living with memories of those who had departed. Memories have a saddening effect. We would go and sit in the room where Bina and others had stayed. Bonolata had written on the wall, "We leave behind our joys and sorrows \ For the new travellers of the new age! \ When freedom's banners will fly \ On the chariots in future,\ We shall smile from the distant stars \ At your joys and sorrows"

Hopes for the future and memories of the past seemed to pull us asunder and we became emotional wrecks. At the same time the jail authorities became harsh in their manner. Prohibition all around seemed to tie us down.We were stopped from entering most of the rooms. We were told not to communicate with the other convicts. We were not to speak to the people who worked for us. We had shared our lives with these convicts ,nursed them in their illness,tried to teach them the letters; now all these activities were totally forbidden. We soon revolted and resorted to hunger strike in protest. As a result we succeeded in regaining some of our rights.

A few days later we learnt that Bonolata had died in a prison hospital. When her suffering increased ,doctors had an operation. She was a beloved daughter of her family, and her mother had appealed to the government to allow her to take her daughter abroad for treatment. The authorities had turned down her appeal. Bonolata had often asked her mother to take her home. "I so wish to go home. Can't you take me home at least once?", she would plead. Her mother could only shed tears helplessly. After her operation she had asked for her mother , but the nurses did not allow her mother to see her. Later her mother could only touch her dead body.When I learned this , I was reminded of what I had heard in the S.B.office, "All right , we shall also see how you ever return home."

We were emotionally shattered at the news of her death. Our jail walls were full of memories of her songs and laughter. Day and night we only thought of her One day we received a letter from our beloved sister-in-law about our father who would soon have a very serious operation. All our sisters who lived away from Kolkata had arrived. We were asked to pray for him .Bonolata had noticed the worry on our faces, and all the time she tried to comfort us. At night she sat on her bed with her eyes closed and her palms joined. After some time she came and sat by my side. When I asked her what she was doing ,she replied, "I was praying to God to save your father. I asked Him to take my mother instead. I know how much you love your father. What if you don't see him when you return?" Saying these words she looked abashed and added, "I prayed to your God." She used to tease us often about our faith in God, and our prayers. We knew how much her mother meant to her , a fatherless girl. So we wondered at her magnanimity that made her offer her mother to save our father.

A few days later we received letters from home.. Our father was better ; the operation had been successful. But her mother was suffering from high blood pressure, causing great anxiety. Bonolata was asked to apply for leave. We felt terrible. Was this the result of her prayer? A few days later we were relieved to learn that she was better. Later I had related this incident to Kamala Das Gupta. On hearing it Kamala commented ,"I do not know about the power of prayer. But only a person with a very noble heart could have offered such a prayer."

We also recalled the dangerous games she used to play. In these games Bonolata always had Binadi as her companion. There was an ant-hill of poisonous red ants in one corner of a store room. They challenged each other and placed their feet near it allowing the ants to bite them They wanted to test their capacity of bearing pain. We pleaded with them to desist but they only laughed at us. They finally withdrew their feet when I threatened to join them. By this time their feet had swollen and become inflamed. Bimaldi tended them with many ointments. One day I was cooking in the kitchen. They decided to put their hands in the burning fire to test their power of endurance. Bina said she was older so she would try first. When she found how painful it was she did not allow Bonolata,who in turn started crying as she complained that Binadi had tricked her ! At times I lost my temper and would tell them that I had no peace because of them.

After some time when Jail life became boring , they decided to escape from prison. We warned them about the terrible punishment they would have to face if they failed. But nothing would stop them ,for they wanted the excitement. They started practising by jumping over a small wall inside the compound. One day the 'jamadarni' found a twisted sari near the wall, and that was the end of all their plans. The guards were alerted and vigilance increased manifold. Where have all those days gone , days packed with hundreds of such memories ? They are gone for ever.

I had read in one of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhya's books, "If you hope to live after the death of a dear one ,you must work hard without any respite. do not look at the past , do not let future hopes come near you. Just wear yourself out with work." But in jail it was so difficult to find work. How were we supposed to spend our endless days?

It was in jail we heard of Prafulla's death. She was taken from jail and detained in a village where she had fallen ill. When a detenue fell ill, the S.D.O was never easily available. When Prafulla's father brought the doctor after getting the S.D.O's permission, she had heaved her last breath. In the span of two years more than eleven hundred political prisoners were released. All of us returned home. On the festive occasion of gaining independence on 15august there was boundless joy and faces were lighted up on all sides, as one and all welcomed free India. In silence we shed tears as we remembered the comrades who were no more. So many young men and women like Bonolata and Prafulla had not returned home. Did their parents find any comfort in the joy abounding all around?

In Hijli jail, like many others I had also suffered from malignant malaria. I was in a stupor all the time with high fever. Whenever I opened my eyes I would see Kamala (Chatterji)sitting by my side putting an ice pack on my head, or trying to comfort me with a fan. I felt her loving presence all the time. Soon my condition improved but a nagging fever continued to bother me. I could not eat anything, and I threw afer ever meal. Kamala insisted upon the Superintendent to call the civil surgeon to examine me. In serious cases this was often done.

In my case the superintendent asked me to sign a bond that I would strictly follow all the rules of jail. Then only would he arrange for better treatment. I refused to sign such a bond and the jail officers felt their prestige was at stake. So I continued to suffer. I could not inform my parents, for the authorities confiscated all my letters. I n this condition, Kamala was transferred to another jail. It was indeed difficult for her to leave me in my helpless condition.

Soon my transfer order also arrived. Prisoners were never told where they were being taken. They took me in a taxi with all my belongings. Accordingly to rules my personal effects were searched before departure. The common convicts had given me some simple gifts as mementoes, simple things like an old pillowcase with flowers or birds embroidered on it, or a garland made with pieces of torn cloth. The guards said these things were prison property so they would not allow me to take them. I pleaded with them for I knew how much love these convicts had put in theses handiworks. The guard finally relented. I still treasure those gifts of love and they are stored in my cupboard.

Before leaving jail my eyes turned towards the mango tree in the courtyard. This tree had grown from a seed in front of our eyes. We would jokingly bless each other , "May you live long and eat the fruit of this tree." None of us finally stayed on to eat its fruits. Bina had written a poem in a prisoner's autograph book ,
 

"We are distant travellers on the road ,
Tirelessly marching thro' long days and nights.
On the way we pause to smile and love,
But why? For what this meaningless act?
It is just for solace and a little bit of love
And hope on the dusty path of life."

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