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At the Feet of The Mother

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


My solitary cell was nine feet long and five or six feet in width; it had no windows, in front stood strong iron bars, this cage was my appointed abode. Outside was a small courtyard, with stony grounds, a high brick wall with a small wooden door. On top of that door, at eye level, there was a small hole or opening. After the door had been bolted the sentry, from time to time, peeped through it to find out what the convict was doing. But my courtyard door remained open for most of the time. There were six contiguous rooms like that, in prison parlance these were known as the ‘six decrees’. ‘Decrees’ stood for rooms for special punishment — those who are condemned to solitary imprisonment by the orders of either the judge or the jail superintendent have to stay in these mini-caves. Even in such solitary confinement there is the rule of caste or hierarchy. Those who are heavily punished have their courtyard doors permanently closed; deprived of contacts with the rest of the human world their only point of relation with the outside world is restricted to the vigilant eyes of the sentry and the fellow-convict who brings his food twice a day. Since Hemchandra Das was looked upon as being a greater terror for the criminal investigation department than I, he had been given this strict regimen. But in the solitary cell too there are refinements — handcuffs and iron rings round one’s hand and foot. This highest punishment is meted out not only for disturbing the peace of the prison or playing rough but also if one is found frequently slack in prison labour. To harass those convicted in cases of solitary confinement is against the spirit of law, but the Swadeshi or ‘Bande Mataram’ convicts were beyond the pale and according as the police desired benign arrangements were made for these.

Such was the place where we were lodged. As for fittings our generous authorities had left nothing to be desired so far as our hospitable reception was concerned. One plate and bowl used to adorn the courtyard. Properly washed and cleansed my self-sufficing plate and bowl shone like silver, was the solace of my life. In its impeccable, glowing radiance in the ‘heavenly kingdom’ in that symbol of immaculate British imperialism, I used to enjoy the pure bliss of loyalty to the Crown. Unfortunately the plate too shared in the bliss, and if one pressed one’s fingers a little hard on its surface it would start flying in a circle, like the whirling dervishes of Arabia. And then one had to use one hand for eating while the other held the plate in position. Else, while whirling, it would attempt to slip away with the incomparable grub provided by the prison authorities. But more dear and useful than the plate was the bowl. Among inert objects it was like the British civilian. Just as the civilian, ipso facto, is fit and able to undertake any administrative duty, be it as judge, magistrate, police, revenue officer, chairman of municipality, professor, preacher, whatever you ask him to do he can become at your merest saying, — just as for him to be an investigator, complainant, police magistrate, even at times to be the counsel for defence, all these roles hold a friendly concourse in the same hospitable body, my dear bowl was equally multipurpose. The bowl was free from all caste restrictions, beyond discrimination, in the prison cell it helped in the act of ablution, later with the same bowl I gargled, bathed, a little later when I had to take my food, lentil soup or vegetable was poured into the same container, I drank water out of it and washed my mouth. Such an all — purpose priceless object can be had only in a British prison. Serving all my worldly needs the bowl became an aid in my spiritual discipline too. Where else could I find such an aid and preceptor to get rid of the sense of disgust? After the first spell of solitary imprisonment was over, when we are allowed to stay together my civilian’s rights were bifurcated, and the authorities arranged for another receptacle for the privy. But for one month I acquired an unsought lesson in controlling my disgust. The entire procedure for defecation seems to have been oriented towards the art of self-control. Solitary imprisonment, it has been said, must be counted among a special form of punishment and its guiding principle the avoidance of human company and the open sky. To arrange this ablution in the open or outside would mean a violation of the principle, hence two baskets, with tar coating, would be kept in the room itself. The sweeper, mehtar, would clean it up in the morning and afternoons. In case of intense agitation and heart-warming speeches from our side the cleaning would be done at other times too. But if one went to the privy at odd hours as penance one had to put up with the noxious and fetid smell. In the second chapter of our solitary confinement there were some reforms in this respect, but British reforms keep the old principles intact while making minor changes in administration. Needless to say, because of all this arrangement, in a small room, one had throughout to undergo considerable inconvenience, especially at meal times and during night. Attached bathrooms are, I know, often times a part of western culture, but to have in a small cell a bedroom, dining room and w.c. rolled into one — that is what is called too much of a good thing! We Indians are full of regrettable customs, it is painful for us to be so highly civilised.

Among household utilities there were also a small bucket, a tin water container and two prison blankets. The small bucket would be kept in the courtyard, where I used to have my bath. In the beginning I did not suffer from water scarcity, though that happened later on. At first the convict in the neighbouring cowshed would supply water as and when I wanted it, hence during the bathing recess amidst the austerities of prison life I enjoyed every day a few moments of the householder’s luxury and love of pleasure. The other convicts were not so fortunate, the same tub or pail did for the w.c., cleaning of utensils and bath. As undertrial prisoners this extraordinary luxury was allowed to them, the convicts had to take their bath in a bowlful or two of water. According to the British the love of God and physical well-being are almost equal and rare virtues, whether the prison regulations were made in order to prove the point of such a proverb or to prevent the unwilling austerity of the convicts spoilt by excessive bathing facilities, it was not easy to decide. This liberality of the authorities was made light of by the convicts as “crow bathing”. Men are by nature discontented. The arrangements for drinking water were even better than bathing facilities. It was then hot summer, in my little room the wind was almost forbidden to enter. But the fierce and blazing sunlight of May had free access to it. The entire room would burn like a hot oven. While being locked thus the only way to lessen one’s irresistible thirst was the tepid water in the small tin enclosure. I would drink that water often and often, but this would not quench the thirst, rather there would be heavy sweating and soon after the thirst would be renewed. But one or two had earthen pots placed in their courtyard, for which, remembering the austerities of a past incarnation, they would count themselves lucky. This compelled even the strongest believers in personal effort to admit the role of fate; some had cold water, some remained thirsty for ever, it was as the stars decreed. But in their distribution of tin-cans or water-pots, the authorities acted with complete impartiality. Whether I was pleased or not with such erratic arrangements the generous jail doctor found my water trouble unbearable. He made efforts to get an earthen pot for my use, but since the distribution was not in his hands he did not succeed for long, at last at his bidding the head sweeper managed to discover an earthen pot from somewhere. Before that in course of my long battle with thirst I had achieved a thirst-free state. In this blazing room two prison blankets served for my bed. There was no pillow, I would spread one of these as mattress and fold the other as a pillow, and I slept like that. When the heart became unbearable I would roll on the ground and enjoy it. Then did I know the joy of the cool touch of Mother Earth. But the floor’s contact in the prison was not always pleasing, it prevented the coming of sleep and so I had to take recourse to the blanket. The days on which it rained were particularly delightful. But there was this difficulty that during rain and thunder, thanks to the danse macabre (tandava nritya) of the strong wind, full of dust, leaf and grass, a small-scale flood would take place inside my little room. After which there was no alternative but to rush to a corner with a wet blanket. Even after this game of nature was over, till the earth dried one had to seek refuge in reflection leaving aside all hope of sleep. The only dry areas were near the w.c., but one did not feel like placing the blankets near that area. But in spite of such difficulties on windy days a lot of air also blew in and since that took away the furnace-like heat of the room I welcomed the storm and the shower.

This description of the Alipore government hotel which I have given here, and will give still more later, is not for the purpose of advertising my own hardship; it is only to show what strange arrangements are made for undertrial prisoners in the civilised British Raj, what prolonged agony for the innocent. The causes of hardship that I have described were no doubt there, but since my faith in divine mercy was strong I had to suffer only for the first few days; thereafter — by what means I shall mention later — the mind had transcended these sufferings and grown incapable of feeling any hardship. That is why when I recollect my prison life instead of anger or sorrow I feel like laughing. When first of all I had to go into my cage dressed in strange prison uniform, and notice the arrangements for our stay, this is what I felt. And I laughed within myself. Having studied the history of the English people and their recent doings I had already found out their strange and mysterious character. So I was not at all astonished or unhappy at their behaviour towards me. Normally this kind of behaviour towards us would be for them extremely illiberal and blameworthy. We all came from gentlemanly stock, many were scions of landlords, some were, in terms of their family, education, quality and character, the equals of the highest classes in England. The charge on which we had been arrested, that too was not ordinary murder, theft or dacoity; it was an attempt at insurrection to liberate the country from foreign rulers or conspiracy towards armed conflict. The main cause of detention was suspicion on the part of the police, though even there in many instances the proof of guilt was wholly wanting. In such cases to be herded together like ordinary thieves and dacoits — and not even as thieves and dacoits, to keep them like animals in a cage, to give them food unfit for animals, to make them endure water scarcity, thirst and hunger, sun, rain and cold, all these do not enhance the glory of the British race and its imperial officers. This is, however, a national defect of their character. The English are possessed of the qualities of the Kshatriya, but in dealing with enemies or opponents they are cent per cent businesslike. But, at the time, I was not annoyed at this. On the contrary, I had felt a little happy that no discrimination had been made between the common uneducated masses and myself, moreover, this arrangement added fuel to the flame of my adoration of the Mother (matribhakti). I took it as a marvellous means and favourable condition for learning yoga and rising above conflicts. I was one of the extremists, in whose view democracy and equality between the rich and the poor formed a chief ingredient of nationalism. I remembered that, thinking it our duty to turn the theory into practice, we had travelled together, on our way to Surat, in the same third class, in the camp the leaders instead of making separate arrangements would sleep in the same room along with the others. Rich, poor, Brahmins, businessmen, Shudra, Bengali, Maratha, Punjabi, Gujarati, we all stayed, slept, ate together in a wonderful feeling of brotherhood. We slept on the ground, ate the normal fare, made of rice-pulse-curd, in every way it was superlatively svadesī. The “foreign-returned” from Bombay and Calcutta and the Brahmin-born Madrassi with his tilak (head-mark) had become one body. During my stay in the Alipore Jail I ate, lived, went through the same hardship and enjoyed the same privileges with the other convicts, my fellow nationals, the peasants, ironmonger, potter, the doms and the bagdis, and I could learn that the Lord who dwells in every body, this socialism and unity, this nation-wide brotherhood had put its stamp on my life’s dedication (jīvan brata). The day when before the sacred altar of the world-Mother in the form of the Motherland, all the orders of the country will stand with proud heads as brothers and of the same mind, the loving-kindness of my fellow convicts and prisoners as well as the impartiality of the British administrators, during the imprisonment I could feel the coming of that happy day and many a time it brought such delight and thrill. The other day I noticed that the Indian Social Reformer, from Poona, has ironically commented on one of my simple easy-to-understand statements by remarking: “We find an excess of Godwardness in the prison!” Alas for the pride and littleness of men, seeking after renown, of little learning, proud of their little virtues! The manifestation of God, should it not be in prison, in huts, ashrams, in the heart of the poor, but rather in the temples of luxury of the rich or the bed of repose of pleasure-seeking-selfish worldly folk? God does not look for learning, honour, leadership, popular acclaim, outward ease and sophistication. To the poor He reveals Himself in the form of the Compassionate Mother. He who sees the Lord in all men, in all nations, in his own land, in the miserable, the poor, the fallen and the sinner and offers his life in the service of the Lord, the Lord comes to such hearts. So it is that in a fallen nation ready to rise, in the solitary prison of the servant of the nation the nearness of God grows.

After the jailor had seen to the blankets and the plates and bowl and left, I began to watch, sitting on the blanket, the scene before me. This solitary confinement seemed to me much better than the lock-up at Lal Bazar. There the silence of the commodious hall with an opportunity to extend its huge body, seems to deepen the silence. Here the walls of the room seemed to come closer, eager to embrace one, like the all-pervading Brahman. There one cannot even look at the sky through the high windows of the second storey room, it becomes hard to imagine that there are in this world trees and plants, men, animals, birds and houses. Here, since the door to the courtyard remains open, by sitting near the bars one could see the open spaces and the movement of the prisoners. Alongside the courtyard wall stood a tree, its green foliage a sight for sore eyes. The sentry that used to parade before the six ‘six decree’ rooms, his face and footsteps often appeared dear like the welcome steps of a friend. The prisoners in the neighbouring cowshed would take out in front of the room the cows for grazing. Both cow and cowherd were daily and delightful sights. The solitary confinement at Alipore was a unique lesson in love. Before coming here even in society my affections were confined to a rather narrow circle, and the closed emotions would rarely include birds and animals. I remember a poem by Rabibabu in which is described, beautifully, a village boy’s deep love for a buffalo. I did not at all understand it when I read it first, I had felt a note of exaggeration and artificiality in that description. Had I read that poem now, I would have seen it with other eyes. At Alipore I could feel how deep could be the love of man for all created things, how thrilled a man could be on seeing a cow, a bird, even an ant.

The first day in prison passed off peacefully. It was all so new that it was almost gay. Comparing it with the Lal Bazar lock-up I felt happy with my present circumstances, and since I had faith in God the loneliness did not weigh heavily on me. Even the strange spectacle of prison diet failed to disturb my attitude. Coarse rice, even that spiced with husk, pebbles, insects, hair, dirt and such other stuff — the tasteless lentil soup was heavily watered, among vegetables and greens mixed with grass and leaves. I never knew before that food could be so tasteless and without any nutritive value. Looking at its melancholy black visage I was struck with fear, after two mouthfuls with a respectful salaam I took leave of it. All prisoners receive the same diet, and once a course gets going it goes on for ever. Then it was the Reign of Herbs. Days, fortnights and months pass by, but the same herbs, or Shak, lentils and rice went on unchanged. What to speak of changing the menu, the preparation was not changed a jot or tittle, it was the same immutable, eternal from beginning to end, a stable unique thing-in-itself. Within two evenings it was calculated to impress the prisoner with the fragility of this world of maya. But even here I was luckier than the other prisoners because of the doctor’s kindness. He had arranged supply of milk from the hospital, thanks to which I had been spared on certain days from the vision of Shak.

That night I went to bed early, but it was no part of the prison regulations to be allowed to enjoy undisturbed sleep, since this might encourage a love of luxury among the prisoners. Hence there is a rule that every time sentries are changed, the prisoner has to be noisily disturbed and till he responds to their cries there is no respite. Among those who were engaged in this kind of patrolling the ‘six decree’ cells there were a few who would be no doubt remiss in their duty in this respect — among the police there was as a rule more of kindness and sympathy than strict sense of responsibility — this was especially so with the Hindustani policemen. Some of course remained obstinate. Waking us up at odd hours they would inquire about our well-being thus: “How do you do, Sir?” This untimely humour was not always pleasant or welcome, but I could see that those who were behaving like this were but carrying out orders. For a few days in spite of the annoyance I put up with this. In the end to preserve my sleep I had to scold them. After repeating this process for a few times I noticed that this custom of seeking news about my well-being stopped of itself.

Next morning at four-fifteen the prison bell rang, this was the first bell to wake up the prisoners. There is a bell again after sometime, when the prisoners have to come out in file, after washing they have to swallow the prison gruel (lufsi) before starting the days’ work. Knowing that it was impossible to sleep with the bells ringing every now and then, I also got up. The bars were removed at five, and after washing I sat inside the room once again. A little later lufsi was served at my door step, that day I did not take it but had only a vision of what it looked like. It was after a few days that I had the first taste of the ‘great dish’. Lufsi, boiled rice, along with water, is the prisoner’s little breakfast. A trinity, it takes three forms. On the first day it was Lufsi in its Wisdom aspect, unmixed original element, pure, white, Shiva. On the second, it was the Hiranyagarbha aspect, boiled along with lentils, called kedgeree, yellowish, a medley. On the third day lufsi appeared in its aspect of Virat, a little mixed with jaggery, grey, slightly fit for human consumption. I had thought the Wisdom and the Hiranyagarbha aspects to be beyond the capacity of average humanity and therefore made no efforts in that direction, but once in a while I had forced some of the Virat stuff within my system and marvelled, in delightful muse, about the many-splendoured virtues of British rule and the high level of western humanitarianism. It should be added that lufsi was the only nutritious diet for the Bengali prisoners, the rest were without any food value. But what of that? It had a taste, and one could eat this only out of sheer hunger, even then, one had to force and argue with oneself to be able to consume that stuff.

That day I took my bath at half past eleven. For the first four or five days I had to keep wearing the clothes in which I had come from home. At the time of bathing the old prisoner-warder from the cowshed, who had been appointed to look after me, managed to procure a piece of endi,((( A kind of coarse silk.))) a yard and half long, and till my only clothes did not dry I had to keep wearing this. I did not have to wash my clothes or dishes, a prisoner in the cowshed would do that for me. Lunch was at eleven. To avoid the neighbourhood of the basket and braving the summer heat I would often eat in the courtyard. The sentries did not object to this. The evening meal would be between five and five-thirty. Then on the door was not permitted to be opened. At seven rang the evening bell. The chief supervisor gathered the prisoner-warders together and loudly called out the names of the inmates, after which they would return to their respective posts. The tired prisoner then takes the refuge of sleep and in that has his only pleasure. It is the time when the weak of heart weeps over his misfortune or in anticipation of the hardships of prison life. The lover of God feels the nearness of his deity, and has the joy of his prayer or meditation in the silent night. Then to these three thousand creatures who came from God, victims off a miserable social system, the huge instrument of torture, the Alipore Jail, is lost in a vast silence.

to be continued.

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It is not the personality, the character that is of the first importance in rebirth — it is the psychic being who stands behind the evolution of the nature and evolves with it.