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At the Feet of The Mother

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


I would rarely meet the co-accused. They had been kept elsewhere. Behind the “six decrees” there were two rows of cells, forty-four in all, the reason why it was known as forty-four decrees. Most of the accused were placed in one of these lines. Confined to the cells as they were, they did not suffer from solitary imprisonment, since there were three in each room. On the other side of the prison there was another decree, with a few large rooms, these could accommodate even up to twelve persons. Those who were fortunate enough to be placed in this decree lived more happily. Many were confined to a room in this decree, with leisure to talk day and night and spend their time happily in human companionship. But there was one who was deprived of this pleasure. This was Hemchandra Das. I do not know why the authorities were especially afraid or angry with him, out of so many people he had been singled out for solitary confinement. Hemchandra himself believed that since, in spite of much effort, the police had failed to make him admit his guilt explained their wrath. He was confined to a small room in the decree of which even the door would be closed from outside. I have said that this was the extreme form of this type of punishment. From time to time the police would bring forward witnesses of different kind, colour and shape and enact the farce of an identification parade. On these occasions we would be made to line up, a long row, in front of the office. The prison authorities would mix up those accused on other charges along with us. But this was only in name. For among these other accused there was none that was either educated or from gentlemanly stock, and when we stood by their side there was such obvious disparity between the two types of accused, on the one hand the sharp, intelligent features of those accused in the bomb conspiracy, on the other hand, the soiled dress and lustreless visage of the average accused, that if looking at them one could not make out the difference, that could only mean that one was a big fool, bereft of the lowest human intelligence. The prisoners were not however averse to the identification parade. It brought a kind of variety in prison life and provided a chance to exchange a few words. After our arrest it was during one of the parades that I could first meet my brother, Barindra, though we did not speak at that time. It was Narendranath Goswami who would often stand by my side, so I had a little more exchange with him. Extremely handsome, tall, strong, plump, but his eyes spoke of evil propensities, nor did his words reveal any signs of intelligence. In this respect he was quite different from the other young people. On their lips were often expressed high and pure ideas and their speech showed keen intelligence, a love of knowledge and noble selfless aspirations. For though Gossain’s1) words were those of a fool and a light-hearted person, they expressed vigour and boldness. At that time he fully believed that he would be acquitted. He would say: “My father is an expert in litigations, the police can never beat him. My evidence too will not go against me, for it will be proved that the police had got those statements by torturing me.” I asked him, “You had been with the police. Where are your witnesses?” Gossain answered unabashed: “My father has conducted hundreds of cases, he knows all this very well. There will be no lack of witnesses.” Of such stuff are approvers made.

Earlier we have referred to many of the needless sufferings and difficulties of the accused, but it should also be added that these were all part of prison administration; the sufferings were not due to any one’s personal cruelty or lack of human qualities. Indeed, the persons on whom rested the administration of the Alipore Jail, they were all of them exceedingly polite, kindly and conscientious. If in any prison the prisoner’s suffering has been lessened, the inhuman barbarity of the western prison lightened through kindness and conscientiousness, then that good out of evil has happened in the Alipore Jail under Mr. Emerson. This has happened due to two main reasons, the extraordinary qualities of its Superintendent, Mr. Emerson, and the assistant doctor, Baidyanath Chatterji. One of them was an embodiment of Europe’s nearly vanished Christian ideals, the other was a personification of the charity and philanthropy that form the essence of Hinduism. Men like Mr. Emerson do not come to this country often, they are getting rarer even in the West. In him could be found all the virtues of a Christian gentleman. Peace-loving, just, incomparably generous, full of rectitude, simple, straight and disciplined even towards inferiors, he was by nature incapable of anything but polite conduct. Among his short-comings were lack of energy and administrative efficiency, he would leave all the responsibility on the jailor, himself remaining a roi faineant. I do not think this caused much harm. The jailor, Jogendrababu, was a capable and efficient person, in spite of being seriously handicapped by diabetes he would himself look after all the activities and since he was familiar with the boss’s nature, he would respect justice and the absence of cruelty in the administration. But he was not a great soul like Emerson, but only a minor Bengali officer, he knew how to keep the Sahib in humour, would do his job efficiently and dutifully, treat others quietly and with natural politeness. Other than these I did not observe in him any other special quality. He had a great weakness for the service. More so since it was then the month of May and the time for his pension had drawn near, he was looking forward to well-earned rest from January next. The sudden appearance of the accused in the Alipore Bomb Conspiracy had caused in our jailor much fear and cogitation. There was no knowing what these violent energetic Bengali boys might be up to one of these days, the thought gave him no rest. He would say, there was only an inch and half left for him to climb to the top of the palm tree. But he had succeeded in negotiating only half of that distance. Towards the end of August Mr. Buchanan was pleased with his prison inspection. The jailor said gleefully, “This is Sahib’s last visit during my term of office, there is nothing to worry about the pension now.” Alas, for human blindness! The poet has truly said, God has given two great aids to the suffering race of man. First, he has covered the future with darkness; secondly, as his sole support and consolation, he has endowed him with blind hope. Within five days of this statement by the jailor Naren Gossain fell a victim at the hands of Kanai, and Buchanan’s visits to the prison grew increasingly frequent. The result was that Jogenbabu lost his job before time, and, because of the combined attack of sorrow and disease, he soon breathed his last. If instead of delegating all the work to such a subordinate, Emerson had looked after the administration, there would have been the possibility of greater improvement and reform during his regime. The little that he himself looked after he no doubt did that properly, it was due to his character that the prison had become a place only for severe punishment and not turned into a veritable hell. Even after he had been transferred, the effect of his goodness did not wholly disappear. Even now his successors have been obliged to keep sixty per cent of his good measures intact.

to be continued.

  1. ( A short, familiar form for Goswami. []

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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.