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At the Feet of The Mother

IX. 1. TALES OF PRISON LIFE. Tales of Prison Life (I)


On Friday, May 1, 1908, I was sitting in the Bande Mataram office, when Shrijut Shyamsundar Chakravarty handed over a telegram from Muzaffarpur. On reading it I learned of a bomb outrage in which two European ladies had been killed. In that day’s issue of the “Empire” I read another news item that the Police Commissioner had said that he knew the people involved in the murder and that they would soon be put under arrest. At that time I had no idea that I happened to be the main target of suspicion and that according to the police I was the chief killer, the instigator and secret leader of the young terrorists and revolutionaries. I did not know that that day would mean the end of a chapter of my life, and that there stretched before me a year’s imprisonment during which period all my human relations would cease, that for a whole year I would have to live, beyond the pale of society, like an animal in a cage. And when I would re-enter the world of activity it would not be the old familiar Aurobindo Ghose. Rather it would be a new being, a new character, intellect, life, mind, embarking upon a new course of action that would come out of the ashram at Alipore. I have spoken of a year’s imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year’s living in a forest, in an ashram, hermitage. For long I had made great efforts for a direct vision (sakshat darshan) of the Lord of my Heart; had entertained the immense hope of knowing the Preserver of the world, the Supreme Person (Purushottam) as friend and master. But due to the pull of a thousand worldly desires, attachment towards numerous activities, the deep darkness of ignorance I did not succeed in that effort. At long last the most merciful all-good Lord (Shiv Hari) destroyed all these enemies at one stroke and helped me in my path, pointed to the yogashram, Himself staying as guru and companion in my little abode of retirement and spiritual discipline. The British prison was that ashram. I have also watched this strange contradiction in my life that however much good my well-intentioned friends might do for me, it is those who have harmed me — whom shall I call an enemy, since enemy I have none? — my opponents have helped me even more. They wanted to do me an ill turn, the result was I got what I wanted. The only result of the wrath of the British Government was that I found God. It is not the aim of these essays to provide an intimate journal of my life in the prison. I wish to mention only a few external details, but I have thought it better to mention, at least once, in the beginning, the main theme of the prison life. Else readers may think that suffering is the only fact of prison life. I can’t say there were no inconveniences, but on the whole the time passed quite happily.

On Friday night I was sleeping without a worry. At about five in the morning my sister rushed to my room in an agitated manner and called me out by name. I got up. The next moment the small room was filled with armed policemen; Superintendent Cregan, Mr. Clark of 24-Parganas, the charming and delightful visage of familiar Sriman Benod Kumar Gupta, a few Inspectors, red turbans, spies and search witnesses. They all came running like heroes, pistols in hand, as though they were besieging, with guns and cannon, a well-armed fort. I heard that a white hero had aimed a pistol at my sister’s breast, but I did not see it. I was sitting on my bed, still half-asleep, when Cregan inquired, “Who is Aurobindo Ghose, is that you?” I answered, “Yes. I am Aurobindo Ghose.” Immediately he ordered a policeman to put me under arrest. Then, because of an extremely objectionable expression used by Cregan, there was a little exchange of words between the two. I asked for the search warrant, read and signed it. Finding a mention of bombs in the warrant I understood that the presence of these soldiers and policemen was connected with the Muzaffarpur killing. The one thing I did not understand was why, even before any bombs or explosives had been discovered in my house, I was arrested in the absence of a body warrant. But I did not raise any useless objections. Afterwards, under instructions from Cregan, my arms were handcuffed, and a rope tied round my middle. An upcountry constable stood behind me holding the rope end. Just then the police brought in Shrijut Abinash Bhattacharya and Shrijut Sailen Bose, hand-cuffed and rope round the midriff. Nearly half an hour after, I do not know at whose bidding, they removed the rope and the handcuff. From Cregan’s words it seemed as if he had entered into the lair of some ferocious animal, as if we were uneducated, wild, lawbreakers, and that it was unnecessary to speak or behave courteously towards us. But after the sharp exchange the sahib grew a little milder. Benodbabu tried to explain something about me to him. After which Cregan asked me: “It seems you are a B. A. Is it not a matter of shame for an educated person like you to be sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished room and in a house like this?” “I am a poor man, and I live like one,” I said. “Then have you worked up all this mischief with the idea of becoming a rich man?” Cregan replied in a loud voice. Knowing how impossible it was to explain the love of motherland, sacrifice or the sublimity of a vow of poverty to this thick-skulled Briton I did not make the attempt.

All the while the search continued. Beginning at five-thirty, it was over at about eleven-thirty. Inside or outside the boxes, all the exercise books, letters, papers, scraps, poems, plays, prose, essays, translations, nothing escaped the clutches of the all-engrossing search. Among the witnesses to the search Mr. Rakshit seemed a little put out; later, bemoaning his lot, he informed me that the police had dragged him along, and that he had no idea that he would have to be a party to such a nefarious activity. He described, most pathetically, how he had been kidnapped for the purpose. The attitude of the other witness, Samarnath, was of quite another kind, he discharged his part of the job with considerable gusto, like a true loyalist and to the manner born. Nothing remarkable transpired in the course of the search. But I recollect Mr. Clark looking long and suspiciously at the sacred earth from Dakshineshwar that had been kept in a small cardboard box; he suspected it might be some new and terribly powerful explosive. In a sense Mr. Clark’s suspicions were not ungrounded. In the end the decision was reached that it was a piece of earth which it was unnecessary to send to the chemical analyst. I did not join in the search except to open a few boxes. No papers or letters were shown or read out to me. Mr. Cregan, for his own delectation, read out loudly a letter from Alakdhari. The friendly Benod Gupta in his natural and delightful style marched round the room, raising echoes everywhere and brought out from the shelf or some other corner papers or letters, and now and then, muttering “Very important, very important” handed these over to Cregan. I was never told what these important documents might be. Nor was I at all curious, since I knew it was impossible that there might be in my house any formula for the manufacture of explosives or documents relating to conspiracy.

After rummaging through my room the police led us to the adjoining room. Cregan opened a box belonging to my youngest aunt, he once or twice glanced at the letters, then saying that it was no use carrying these women’s correspondence, left them behind. Then the police mahatmas appeared on the ground floor. Cregan had his tea there. I had a cup of cocoa and toast. During this period Cregan tried to argue and convince me about his political views — this mental torture I had to suffer coolly. But may I ask, one knows physical tortures to be part of the traditional police strategy, but does such inhuman mental torture also fall within the purview of its unwritten law? I hope our highly respectable, friend-of-the-country Srijut Jogeshchandra Ghose will raise this question in the Legislative Assembly.

After searching the rooms on the ground floor and the office of “Navashakti” the police again came up to the first floor to open an iron safe belonging to “Navashakti”. Unable to open it after a half-hour battle, they decided to remove it bodily to the police station. This time a police officer discovered a bicycle, with a railway lable bearing the mark of Kushtia. Immediately they took it as an important proof that the vehicle belonged to the man who had earlier shot a sahib there and they gladly took it away with them. At about eleven-thirty we left our house. Outside the gates stood, in a car, my maternal uncle and Srijut Bhupendranath Basu. “On what charges have you been arrested?” asked uncle. “I know nothing,” I answered, “they arrested and handcuffed me soon after getting into my room; they didn’t show any body warrant.” When uncle inquired why the handcuffs were thought necessary, Benodbabu said, “Sir, it’s not my fault. Ask Aurobindababu, I told the sahib and had the handcuffs removed.” On Bhupenbabu’s asking about my offence, Mr. Gupta mentioned the I.P.C. article on murder. Bhupenbabu was stunned and did not say another word. Later on I came to know that my solicitor, Sri Hirendranath Datta, had expressed a desire to be present on my behalf during the search. The police had turned down the request.

Benodbabu was entrusted with taking us to the police station. There he behaved with us in a remarkably decent manner. We had our bath and lunch there and then proceeded towards Lal Bazar. After being made to wait there for a couple of hours we were removed to Royd Street, in which auspicious locality we stayed all evening. It was there that I first came to know the sly detective Maulvi Sams-ulAlam and had the pleasure of entering with him into a cordial relation. Till then the great Maulvi had not acquired either enough influence or energy, he was not yet the chief researcher in the bomb outrage or functioning as Mr. Norton’s prompter and unfailing aide-memoire. Till that time Ramsadayababu was acting as the chief protagonist. The Maulvi made me listen to a most entertaining sermon on religion. That Hinduism and Islam have the same basic principles: in the Omkara of the Hindus we have the three syllables, A, U, M; the first three letters of the Holy Koran are A, L, M. According to philological laws, U is used for L; ergo, Hindus and Mussulmans have the same mantra or sacred syllables. Yet one has to maintain the uniqueness of one’s faith, so a Hindu considers it wrong to eat with Mussulmans. To be truthful is part of the religious life. The Sahibs say Aurobindo Ghose is the leader of the terrorist party, this is a matter of shame and sorrow for India. But by keeping to the path of rectitude the situation can yet be saved. The Maulvi was fully convinced, that distinguished persons, men of high character, like Bepin Pal and Aurobindo Ghose, whatever they might have done, they would openly confess these. Shrijut Purnachandra Shastri, who happened to be present there, expressed his doubt in this respect. But the Maulvi did not give up his views. I was charmed and delighted with his knowledge, intelligence and religious fervour. Thinking that it would be impertinent to speak much I listened politely to his priceless sermon and cherished it in my heart. But in spite of so much religious enthusiasm the Maulvi did not give up his profession of a ‘tec’. Once he said: “You made a great mistake in handing over the garden to your younger brother to manufacture bombs. It was not very intelligent on your part.” Understanding the implication of his words I smiled a little, and said: “Sir, the garden is as much mine as my brother’s. Where did you learn that I had given it up to him, or given it up to him for the purpose of manufacturing bombs?” A little abashed, the Maulvi answered: “No, no, I was saying in case you have done it.” Then the great souled Maulvi opened a chapter of his life before me, and said, “All the moral or economic progress that I have made in life can be traced back to a single sufficing moral adage of my father. He would always say, «Never give up an immediate gain. This great word is the sacred formula of my life, all this advancement is owing to the fact that I have always remembered that sage advice.»” At the time of this pronunciamento the Maulvi stared at me so closely that it seemed as though I was his meat and food, which, following the parental advice, he would be loath to give up. In the evening, the redoubtable Ramasadaya Mukhopadhyaya appeared on the scene. He expressed words of unusual kindness and sympathy, told everyone present to be careful about my food and bed. Immediately afterwards some fellows came and took Sailendra and me, through rain and storm, to the lock-up at Lal Bazar. This was the only occasion when I met Ramasadaya. I could see the man was both intelligent and active, but his words and demeanour, his tone, his gait, all seemed fake and unnatural, as if he was for ever acting on a stage. There are men like that whose words, bodies, efforts are an embodiment of untruth. They are expert in imposing on immature minds, but those who know men and their ways, find them out at once.

At Lal Bazar on the ground floor in a spacious room we two were kept together. Some snacks were served. After a while two Englishmen entered the room, later I was told that one of them was the Police Commissioner, Mr. Halliday himself. Finding us both together Halliday was wrathful with the sergeant, and pointing towards me he said, “Take care that nobody stays or speaks with this man.” Sailen was at once removed and locked up in another room. When others had left, Halliday asked me: “Aren’t you ashamed for being involved in this cowardly, dastardly activity?” “What right have you to assume that I was involved?” To this Halliday replied: “I am not assuming, I know everything.” At this I said: “What you know or do not know is your concern. I wholly deny having any connection with these murderous acts.”

That night I had other visitors, all members of the police force. There was a mystery behind the visit, which till now I have failed to fathom. A month and a half before my arrest an unknown gentleman came to see me. He said: “Sir, we have not met, but since I have great respect for you I have come to warn you of an impending danger. I would also like to know if you are familiar with anyone at Konnagar. Did you ever visit the place, and do you have a house there?” “No, I do not have any house there,” I said. “But I have been there once and am known to some people there.” “I will say nothing more,” said the stranger, “but now on you should not meet anyone from there. Some wicked people are conspiring against you and your brother, Barindra. Soon they will put you into trouble. Don’t ask me anything more.” I told him: “Gentleman, I am unable to understand how this incomplete information will help me, but since you came with friendly intentions, thank you for coming. I do not wish to know anything more. I have complete faith in God, He will always protect me, and it is for me needless to make any attempt or be careful.” I heard nothing about this afterward. That this stranger and well-wisher did not imagine things, I had proof the same night. An inspector and a few police officers came to pump out my connection with Konnagar. “Is your original home at Konnagar?” they asked. “Did you ever visit the place? When? And Why? Has Barindra any properties there?” — and other questions. I answered these questions in order to get at the root of these. But the attempt was not a success, but from the questions as well as the manner of the police inquiry it appeared that they had come by some information which they were trying to verify. I guessed just as in the Tai-Maharaj case there had been an attempt to prove Tilak as a hypocrite, liar, cheat and tyrant in which the Bombay Government had joined hands and wasted public money, — similarly there were people interested in putting me into trouble.

The whole of Sunday was passed in the lock-up. There was a staircase in front of my room. In the morning I found a few young lads coming down the stairs. Their faces were unfamiliar, but I guessed that they too had been arrested in the same case. Later I came to know that these were the lads from the Manicktola Gardens. A month after in the jail I came to know them. A little later I too was taken downstairs for a wash — since there was no arrangement for a bath, I went without it. For lunch I grabbed, with some effort, a few morsels of pulse and boiled rice, the effort proved too much and had to be given up. In the afternoon we had fried rice. For three days this was our diet. But I must also add that on Monday the sergeant, of himself, gave me tea and toast.

Later I came to learn that my lawyer had sought permission from the Commissioner to have my food sent from home, but to this, Mr. Halliday did not agree. I also heard that the accused were forbidden to consult their lawyer or attorney. I don’t know if this restriction is valid or not. It is true that though lawyer’s advice would have been of help to me, I didn’t quite need it; it has however, harmed some others involved in the case. On Monday we were presented before the Commissioner. Abinash and Sailen were with me. We were taken in different batches. Thanks to our good deeds in our past incarnation we three had been arrested earlier, and, since we had already some experience of legal quibblings, all of us refused to make any declarations before the Commissioner. Next day we were taken to the court of the magistrate, Mr. Thornhill. It was then that I met for the first time Shrijut Kumar Krishna Datta, Mr. Manuel, and one of my relations. Mr. Manuel asked me, “According to the police a good deal of suspicious literature has been recovered from your house. Were these papers or letters really there?” “I can say without a shadow of doubt,” I told him, “that there were no such things, it is quite impossible.” Of course then I did not know of the “sweets letter” or of the “scribblings.” I told my relative: “Tell the people at home not to fear or worry, my innocence will be fully vindicated.” From that period I had a firm belief that it would be so. In the beginning, during solitary imprisonment, the mind was a little uneasy. But after three days of prayer and meditation an unshakable peace and faith again overwhelmed the being.

From Mr. Thornhill’s court we were taken in a carriage to Alipore. The group included Nirapada, Dindayal, Hemchandra Das, and others. Of these I knew Hemchandra Das, once I put up at his place in Midnapore. Who could have known then that I would meet him like this, as a prisoner on the way to the jail? We were detained for a little while at the Alipore magistrate’s court, but we were not presented before the magistrate; they went in only to get an order signed. We again got into the carriage, when a gentleman came near me and said, “I have heard that they are planning solitary confinement for you and orders are being passed to that effect. Probably they will not allow any one to see or meet you. If you wish to convey any information to your people, I shall do that.” I thanked him, but since what I wished to convey I had already done through my relative, I did not tell him anything more. I am mentioning this fact as an example of my countrymen’s sympathy and unsought kindness towards me. Thereafter from the court we went to the jail, and were surrendered to its officers. Before entering the jail precincts we were given a bath, put into prison uniform, while our clothes, shirts, dhotis and kurtas were taken away for laundry. The bath, after four days, was a heavenly bliss. After that they took us to our respective cells. I went into mine and the doors were closed as soon as I got in. My prison life at Alipore began on May 5. Next year, on May 6, I was released.

to be continued.

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