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At the Feet of The Mother

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


The only worthwhile event in the magistrate’s court was the evidence of Narendranath Goswami. Before describing that event let me first speak about the companions of my days of trouble, the boys who had been accused along with me. Watching their behaviour in the court room I could well guess that a new age had dawned, a new type of children had begun to live on the Mother’s lap. Those days the Bengali boys were of two kinds: either docile, well mannered, harmless, of good character, cowardly, lacking in self-respect and high aims; else they were evil characters, rowdies, restless, cheats, lacking in restraint and honesty. Between these two extremes, creatures of many kinds must have been born on the lap of Mother Bengal, but except for eight or ten extraordinary talented and vigorous pioneers no strong representatives of a superior breed beyond these two groups were usually to be seen. The Bengali had intelligence, talent. but little power of manhood. Looking at these lads, however, one felt as if the liberal, daring, puissant men of an earlier age with a different training had come back to India. That fearless and innocent look in their eyes, the words breathing power, their carefree delighted laughter, even in the midst of great danger the undaunted courage, cheerfulness of mind, absence of despair, or grief, all this was a symptom not of the inert Indians of those days, but of a new age, a new race and a new activity. If these were murderers, then one must say that the bloody shadow of killing had not fallen across their nature, in which there was nothing at all of cruelty, recklessness or bestiality. Without worrying in the least about the future or the outcome of the trial they passed their days in prison with boyish fun, laughter, games, reading and in discussions. Quite early they had made friends with every one, with officers, the sentries, convicts, European sergeants, detectives, court officials and without distinguishing between friends and enemies, high and low, had started to tell stories and jokes. They found the time spent in the court-room quite tiresome, for in that farce of a trial there was very little that was enjoyable. They had no books with which to pass the time, and talking was forbidden. Those of them who had started doing yoga, they hadn’t so far learnt how to concentrate even in a crowd, for them passing the time proved quite difficult. At first some of them began to bring books with them, this was soon followed by others. Later on, one could see a strange spectacle: while the trial was going on, and the fate of thirty or forty accused persons was being wrangled over, whose result might be hanging or transportation for life, some of the accused persons without as much as glancing at what is happening, around them, were absorbed in reading the novels of Bankimchandra, Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga or Science of Religions, or the Gita, the Puranas, or European Philosophy. Neither the English sergeants nor the Indian policemen objected to this. They must have thought, if this keeps the caged tigers peaceful, that only lightens their duty. Further, this arrangement harmed no one. But one day Mr. Birley’s eyes were drawn to it, to the magistrate this was unbearable and unpardonable. For two or three days he kept quiet, then, he could not hold himself any longer and gave orders forbidding the bringing of books to the court room. Really, Birley was dispensing justice so beautifully, but instead of everybody enjoying that and listening to his judgements, here was everybody reading books! There was no doubt that this showed great disrespect for Birley’s dignity and the majesty of British justice.

During the period of our detention in separate cells, it was only in the police van, an hour or half before the magistrate’s arrival and during tiffin time that we had some scope for conversation. Those who were known to each other from before would employ this recess to have a revenge for the forced silence and solitude of the cell and would spend the time in jokes, pleasantries and a variety of discussions. But the leisures were not conducive to conversation with unfamiliar people, hence I did not talk much. I would listen to their stories and laughter but myself did not join any one other than my brother and Abinash. One person would however often edge his way towards my side, this was the future approver, Narendranath Goswami. He was not quiet and well-behaved like the other boys, but looked bold, lighthearted and in character, speech and act, undisciplined. At the time of his arrest he had shown his natural courage and forwardness, but being light-hearted it was impossible for him to put up with the minimum suffering of prison life. A landlord’s son, brought up in luxury and evil ways, the severe restraint and austerity of prison life had proved too much for him, a fact which he did not hesitate to express before others. The grotesque longing to be freed by any means from this agony began to grow upon his mind from day to day. At first he had the hope that by withdrawing his confession he might be able to prove that the police had extorted, by torturing him, a confession of his guilt. He told us that his father was determined to procure these false witnesses. But within a very few days another attitude revealed itself. His father and a moktar, a pleader’s agent, began to visit him frequently in the prison, in the end the detective Sham-sul-Alam also came and started holding long and secret conversations with him. During this period Gossain developed a tendency to be curious and ask questions. At this many felt suspicious about him. He would ask big and small questions, of Barindra and Upendra, if they knew or were close to the ‘big men of India’, and who were the people that helped the secret society with money, and the men belonging to the group outside India and in the different provinces of India, who would run the society now, where are its branches, etc. The news of Gossain’s sudden thirst for learning soon reached everyone and his intimacy with Shams-ul-Alam too, instead of remaining confidential love-talk, became an open secret. There was a good deal of talk over this and it was noticed by some that these ever new questions would sprout in Gossain’s mind after every visit from the police. It is needless to say that he did not receive satisfactory answers to his questions. When these things were being first talked about among the accused, Gossain himself had confessed that the police were trying to persuade him in a number of ways to turn into a “king’s approver”. He had once mentioned this to me in the court. “What did you tell them?” I had asked him. “Do you think I am going to listen to that! And even if I do, what do I know that I could offer evidence in the way they would like to have it?” When after a few days he broached the subject once again, I noticed events had moved a bit too far. While standing by my side at the identification parade he told me, “The police are visiting me all the time.” “Why don’t you tell them that Sir Andrew Frazer((( The Governor of Bengal.))) was the chief patron of the secret society, that would be ample reward for their labour,” I told him jokingly. “I have said something of the sort,” answered Gossain. “I have told them that Surendranath Banerji is our head and that once I had shown him a bomb.” Staggered at this I asked, “What was the need of saying that sort of thing?” In answer Gossain said: “I shall make mincemeat of the. I have told them many other things of that kind. Let the — s die of seeking for corroboration. Who knows because of this the trial may go phut.” In answer I only said: “You should give up this kind of mischief. By trying to be clever with them you will be fooled.” I do not know how far Gossain had spoken the truth. The other accused thought that he had said all this in order to throw dust in our eyes. To me it seemed that till then Gossain had not wholly made up his mind to turn an approver, even if he had proceeded quite far in that direction, but he had also the hope of spoiling the case by misleading the police. To achieve one’s end through trickery and evil ways is the natural inspiration for a wicked disposition. From then on I could make out that, under the thumb of the police, by telling them fact or fiction, just as they needed, Gossain would try to save his own skin. The degradations of an evil nature were being enacted before our very eyes. I noticed how, from day to day, Gossain’s mind was undergoing rapid changes, his face, his movements and manners, his language were not the same as before. He started to adduce economic and political justifications in support of ruining his companions through treachery. One does not often come across such an interesting psychological study.

to be continued.

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