Dec 09, 2023
Dec 09, 2023
That House That Age – Chapter 2
After twelve years of deportation and imprisonment in Andaman jails, after twelve years of inhuman torture and rigorous service to the colonial Government, Upendranath Banerjee and Hemchandra Kanungo were freed and allowed to embark on a ship going towards Calcutta. Along with 24 other convicts they were sailing for three days in the vast black ocean; back from the famous Kalapani. Two nights before the embarkment their eyelids did not touch in worries and expectations. Even in the ship they were always awake, doubting that something untoward might happen, loudly talking among themselves, singing and shouting out of tune, unable to think that they were really going back for such convicts usually die, almost never come back after transportation beyond the black waters, as it happened to all Sepoys who were sent there as convicts after their defeat in the mutiny of 1857 or as it happened to all Burmese convicts too after defeat in the Thevar War.
During the nights when most of the inmates were either dozing or whispering among themselves while the ship was in progress with a vast wintry sky overhead, illumined by innumerable stars and almost a full round big moon, with less air and more calm, Upendranath inwardly felt himself a poet. What great Nature can be and in contrast what mean man can be as they witnessed in the dungeon of the Andaman cells! Remembering a line from Wordsworth he silently uttered under such a sky, inaudible, “What man has made of man.” While he was so immersed in his thoughts, doubt and frustration assailed many of their shipmates. As he was attentively observing the receding waves of the sea, blackish- whitish wavy foams dazzling in the flash from the moon, as if dancing and going back giving place to the others coming to take their places, there was a constant monotonous sound of the motors and the other machineries in operation in the ship. Suddenly there was distinct thud, twice, one after the other, with some splashing of water which seemed white in moon light. Upendra saw diving bodies and then two turbans swimming in black water. It was in the dead of night. The ship moved, very few noticed. They were left behind. The ship authorities perhaps felt less urgency then to detect and chase the fugitives as their fate was decided; they were not to remain convicts any longer or they wished not to notice willfully, come what may. The jail authorities must account for the lost men suitably after reaching, he thought. But many perished in their prison life whose account was given and taken with same indifference. What does it matter? They would make up the loss of human lives by figures embellished by false reasons. However, defeating all doubts and hesitations the ship moved past the Sagar islands igniting candle lights of hopes in their hearts burning like fireflies, past the confluence of Rupnarayanpur River, finally to reach the Kidderpore docks. Day and night to them was almost the same. Yes, it reached after all at day break!
From Kidderpore police escorted them to Alipur Jail, their home before embarking for Andaman. In the afternoon after all formalities were over they were released to walk free without any more escorts or obstructions. “Do you have place of stay here?” asked the Jail Superintendant.
“Yes Sir, plenty of them,” they replied without any hesitation and began walking towards the house of the leader, the famous C. R. Das, at South Calcutta. But he was not in the city. So they moved to barrister Satkari Pati Roy’s house where Hemchandra stayed with his friend for the night but Upendranath decided to go home at Chandan Nagar.
Finding himself unaccustomed to the Calcutta roads, groping for the right way moving backward and forward when he reached Howrah station the last train at 10.30 pm, meant for his destination as he knew, had left. Hesitating whether to go back to where he came from, he walked towards Shyambazar, wishing to reach his in-law’s house. But it was past midnight and he felt embarrassed failing to get a response even after knocking harder than usual at midnight. It seemed that the whole house was asleep. Deciding to go to the railway station at Sealdah he moved along the upper circular road with his new pair of shoes remaining in his armpit, kept secured by the hand clasped to his side. They pinched him hard as he tried them on Calcutta roads in feet unaccustomed to wear them during his long exile. Heal and toes were badly damaged giving him pains. Prison life kept him naked, almost under naked servitude. His bedding with all belongings inside was on his head. The starry night was deeper with stray barking dogs below. There were very few walkers and the police guards were here and there. Footpaths were strewn with shrunk sleeping figures, almost bare or somehow covered.
He was suddenly asked to halt by a police constable who appeared from nowhere and asked his identity and other whereabouts. Stunned, gulping sputum, he said that he was coming from Kalighat, going to Sealdah railway station. The constable checking realized that this odd looking pilgrim was giving wrong direction of his coming, but by minute observation when asked if he was Odiya to which he instantly agreed and was immediately allowed to proceed as a member of that community, one of the daily labourers working in the city, was usually considered innocent.
Catching the train at 2 am after walking some 18, 20 km on the dirty city roads, he felt dead or half conscious when in the empty compartment alone and relaxed without any one to pose a question. The train reached Shyamnagar in half an hour or less time. Then luckily he got a country boatman up on his feet so early, smoking a bidi. Entering into the boat he pleaded urgency and requested to take him to the other side of river Hooghly, a local name of the Ganga there. The boatman was perhaps planning to cross the river so without any bargain he sat in his place taking the oars in two hands. When Upendranath reached his house it was 3 am. All were in deep slumber and all the windows in a wintry night were closed tight.
Calling his brothers by name twice and then after thrice raising his voice, a window was half-opened and a half- forgotten cherished female voice asked, “Who are you?” Instantly another upper window opened and his mother too asked, “Who are you?” And then, as if hearing an unexpected voice after long, his brothers, their wives, the children, the cousins and relatives; the whole house woke up, all windows opened and the house came down to its threshold. The new comer dropped his shoes and bedding inside and stood smiling before the dawn came to greet them.
“What, what happened? How are you? We did not know anything of you for long . . . you seldom write to us”, and so many such coherent and incoherent words like “When did you reach Kolkata?” followed.
“Let’s go inside,” he said and his mother asked all to disperse for her to see her son. She began sobbing and sobbing holding his big head in her thin hands and breasts and his brothers and all wives and children stood witness. His wife came running with a napkin and soap asking him to go to the bathroom first. But his brothers would not hear. Soon, as their mother somehow managed to control herself, they took him by the hand to the upper floor and made him sit with pressure on his shoulder while shedding joy of tears. Many of the children who never saw him now guessed who he was, remembering talks about him from time to time by their uncles and father and someone’s grandfather. They looked at him with awe; a dangerous armed rebel against the mighty British Government, as he was considered to be.
All were apparently happy with love and sort of pride for him; pity oozed from their hearts observing his present figure and lost debonair. They all sat around him, he sat in the middle of the big reception room or open verandah with windows all around. All the lights were on by now though faint skylight with cool air trickling in. They questioned and he began answering by and by. He was already a great storyteller and no less now, caring little for discomforts as he was accustomed to them, already having undergone unthinkable hardship. He found his nephews and nieces grown enough, saw his son whom he had left a child of one and a half year was then in the middle of 13 years, as identified by someone among them. He found his brothers and mother and his wife were grown older.
He started telling his stories while the moon and stars were still fulfilling their duties though faded; waiting for the Sun to appear to hand over the charge of the sky. The news of the unexpected arrival of the great revolutionary of Chandan nagar spread by air and whisper and they gathered from the neighborhood and the house was filled in with unexpected guests. All possible corners and gaps of the house were crowded beyond the gate; peeping enthusiasts at the windows and balconies of the houses adjacent waiting. Some clever persons whispered of the possible presence of police spies taking notice of them; some left but more of the other enthusiasts filled in their places.
“No no, it will not do without telling us how you reached Kolkata and how here. We really do not know much of your life as you left us, a sannyasin. Tell us from the beginning”, requested his eldest brother. Bit astonished, Upendranath began,
“Dada, I admit that I became a sannyasin as I could not fix myself in family life though you all married me by force”, staring at his wife he found a faint smile on her lips and his mother kept a posture of stony silence. He continued, “Many in India are moving round in fields and jungles, in caves and temples, in search of something like God and I must say that many of them are lazy fellows who do not want to share responsibilities and move round smoking ganja and afeem; begging from door to door or sitting under a banyan tree trying to look inside to find if there was any urge towards the other life. This must be the main cause why our body politic is never strong helping our enslavement to foreigners at our own home, in our own country. But the real patriots and educated people have now woken up; they have been working hard to rouse the heart of the fellow countrymen. Aurobindo Ghose came from Baroda, Tagore joined a movement against Bengal’s partition, Gandhi Maharaj, doing movement with fellow Indians in South Africa against injustices of the British, has now come back with renewed zeal. Smell of revolt is in the air. I came back to join the Jugantar group with Barindra Kumar Ghose, brother of Aurobindo Ghose, and joined the Manicktola garden group; you know why, I won’t explain here. Yes we do not accept Surendranath Banerjee and others for we believe that by supplication freedom cannot be won. Gradually more than 20 boys joined our group to work, dedicating their lives. While this was going on Debabrata was ever eager to move round places meeting sadhus and he rightly found me as his companion. Barindra failed to establish any ashram of revolutionaries in the light of Aurobindo Babu’s Bhavani Mandir plan in tune with Bankim Cnandra’s Ananda Math anywhere, so asked us to go out in search of a suitable place, seeking the presence of some patriotic sadhus. He got one who came to our garden also but was dissatisfied finding our violent plans and programmes for the country, you know. He was Lele who asked us to give up the dangerous life and join him in yoga. Even Aurobindo Babu could not follow him exactly as Lele-ji wanted, for he stubbornly wanted his country’s emancipation first. However, keeping the new recruits in the charge of Barindra we two came out. We set out in search of new places, new persons for our revolutionary work.
“We needed little, as you know, only lota in hand and a small baggage with kambal on our back. Thus we started and reached Allahabad. At Prayag there are caves on the banks of Ganga where live sadhus like jackals. We met some of them and heard that deep down the river there are underground chambers of naked sadhus who live in darkness doing their sadhana, away from the locality. On hearing about some of their odd practices Debabrata decided not to linger there anymore.
“Leaving Prayag we moved to Vindhyachal hill ranges. There lived a sadhu with huge matted hair in a hut in the middle of the field. We met him. Oh, how emaciated, how he gasps like an asthma patient; never moves round anywhere leaving the tree and his cave. Whatever the begging coins or pranami he earns as offered by his devotees, is taken out by a milkman who prepares in exchange of what he gets, a porridge of sago with milk and serves the sadhu who lives on that only. More he talks more sputum he spreads in the air. We were obliged for a few days to sit with him and receive his advices with sputum.”
At this there was a roar of laughter. “What’s his name?” someone asked. The answer of secrecy came out instantly, “That I don’t remember, however,” he continued, “once as we came back to the inn for the pilgrims in the evening from outings, we found that a Bhairavi, woman tantric, with strident in hand was sitting on the blanket of Debabrata.
“He is a celibate, a brahmachari who never sits with a woman. He asked why she occupied his place. She said that she wanted to live in the company of sadhus. ‘But we are not sadhus, you see, we are bespectacled dhoti clad babus,’ he argued but she would not hear, telling that she knew that we were sadhus in disguise. Even after long debates she did not relent. So Debabrata left to arrange his bed under a tree outside for the night.
“In the morning she prepared nice dishes of khichri with rice and dal as she could get begging. Well, this Debabrata could not refuse from a woman as we were almost half starved and this nice food was rare in such places. We three partook of it sitting side by side. But Debabrata could not indulge in anything more. We left politely leaving the place to her and traveled to Chitrakut hills area.
“As we alighted from the train we were surrounded by the pandas who immediately took care of us and offered to lead us to the temple and arrange everything required worthy of a good pilgrimage, to satisfy us. But we fled to a dilapidated house on the Narmada river bank, away from the divine brokers urging and debating with bitter words. They followed us and sat surrounding us for 5, 6 hours wondering how could we abandon them having come for pilgrimage. After long waiting and many talks all but one boy left and we had to give him one paisa to finally get rid of him. Then we took shelter in a guest house made by the king of Rewa for the Vaishnavites. Once sitting there we were favoured by the presence of a sadhu as he walked in, a worshipper of Hanumanji. While he was ready to sacrifice his life, as he said, for not being able to achieve sufficient success in sadhana, Lord Hanuman appeared in person and assured him of many things. One of the things this sadhu professed was that people are getting ready to free the mother land and that God has already taken birth anew to emancipate those who are subjugated for he would establish the rule of law.
“After a few days we went to Amarkantak where Narmada began flowing from the Vindhya hills. Going by train we walked miles after miles as was our wont. I don’t remember where we stopped, which station we entrained, but this I
remember that on the way we rested in the house of a gentleman from Assam living there for a long time. We were under his and his wife’s care. There we ate like kings and slept like vegetables. But the hill range was bare and barren. Thorny jungle spread for miles after miles. Even the small temple of Devi Narmada was quite dilapidated. This area was once the stronghold of the Buddhists. Many ruins of pagodas were seen. In any case, this was far from an area where we could settle for the foundation of our cherished temple for the Swadeshis.
“Whatever it is, it is a great place for pilgrimage. Large numbers of sadhus have been circumambulating the river from its source to Gujarat near the sea. It takes some four to five years to cover the whole length of the river. They do it with such patience, perseverance and pain that I think even a bit of that sincerity would take us a long way. I have seen even women doing it on vow by prostrating successively. Whatever the outcome, the strength of their devotion and faith is astounding. We moved round the forest of Amarkantak which covered some 15, 20 miles and more. There are tigers too in the jungle which often prey upon cattle and children from the surrounding villages. Once while running chased by the dogs, we saw pug mark and trail of blood. We moved from there. Had we known that Andaman was waiting for us we would have stayed put there for the tiger to come and fix our fate.”
At this some laughed, some felt remorse. Someone from the household kitchen brought tea and snacks without waiting for the formal breakfast to take place. People in the gathering started taking them then and there without washing or even going to the latrines as usual, so entranced they were at the unexpected appearance of this middle aged man, as if from nowhere. All expectations of his coming back was remote and they almost gave up. Upendranath too relished the food and tea without any ado as he was accustomed to manifold hardship and troubles; living without food, without attending to nature’s call for long hours, even days.
As they were so enjoying, the 13 year old boy of him came near as pushed by his mother and Upendranath took him on his lap, caressed his head and kissed him. The boy’s face was crimsoned at this and his mother rejoiced it in a corner of the hall. As they were ending their impromptu breakfast and looking at each other in the hope of hearing more such stories, someone from the elder’s bench asked, “And then?”
”What then? Our long search for the ashram and suitable sadhu abruptly ended as we received a post card long after it was written from Barin, asking us to return forthwith. We walked back, came to the railway station and entrained for Kolkata. Manicktola Garden, our main secret head quarter was agog with activities. Our centre at Deoghar was closed abruptly due to accidental death of a practitioner. Some of the boys from Manicktola was transferred to a centre at Bhowanipur. Jugantar was being published with full vigour but was under the surveillance of the police and many were arrested from all such newspaper establishments run by the swadeshi groups. After some abortive actions to derail trains and kill representatives of the rulers repression was set in full swing. Myself with Ullaskar and a few more again went out to Bankipore to move round and take a stock of the situation. This time we took vow as in vogue with a Punjabi religions community called Udasi founded by Srichand, the first son of Guru Nanak. Tall figures almost naked, smeared with ashes, a piece of blanket tied to the waist with a brass clip, each holding a chillum full of tobacco leaves; ganja was their mainstay for walking miles after miles. After some time we returned moving round some other places than before; enough tortured on walking through untoward places like jungles, hills and fallow lands.
“The story of our garden house was no longer a secret. In spite of all outward precautions we were not much disciplined and our movements were disorganized so much that we could not guess what would happen next. Casualness in attitude made us victim of spy network of the Government. Our only base was courage and sincerity. One summer evening we returned dog-tired and our efforts to prepare dinner was abortive; it is applicable specially for me. I was still a novice.”
At this there was some laughter from the quarter of sis-in- laws. Upendranath continued without paying any heed other than throwing a glace at them. “Somehow something was cooked by Barin,” he continued, “We ate very late and retired after the midnight. In the meantime someone came and warned us, perhaps from the sympathetic body of the cops comprising our own countrymen, that there would be search and arrest. Thereby he hinted at our leaving the place. This was just after the failed attempt to kill magistrate Kingsford at Muzaffarpur. That night we were so tired that though with some hesitation I proposed to leave, others did not agree.
“We postponed the work till the next morning. Someone was sent to Aurobindo babu’s house at Grey Street, who was taken care of by Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya, and brought back two, three revolvers. Some rifles were dug deep in a corner of the garden. To be frank, all those were dug out later by the police with papers we could not burn that night.
“It was at dawn, about four in the early morning, we suddenly heard squeaking noise all around, some ones were strutting and then the sound was nearer, they climbed the stairs, sure of the catch. A big focus of light was on Barin’s face. And hear what happened then:
“You are arrested. Your name?” “Barindra Kumar Ghose” “Arabinda Ghose?”
“No Barindra Kumar Ghose.” “Well, we’ll see.”
“This was a pure European voice. And the arrest continued. Then came the other brave boys, our comrades, one after the other, and surrendered very easily. I thought of escaping but could not, even jumping from the kitchen without window would be their catch as they were there down below, everywhere. Running here and there I entered a very small room on the outer verandah, full of cobweb nets, infested by cockroaches, spiders, rats and mouses. In a broken window there was a rug hung as curtain. Through the gap I surveyed the whole scene. It was a sea of red-turbaned police heads, big police boys were roaming with whips in hand. Our boys were thrown under a big tree. The pond was being searched. Digging here and there as there were clues, they found out our secret arrows. There was no doubt that crows were cawing but there might be a cuckoo too that cooed. Hours passed like that. Finally they came near the forlorn room and as if like a sniper, a retriever dog torched my face, then came lanterns and all of them. I was the last catch, unexpected. Someone cried, “Hurrah!” and then they caught me, some pulled at my legs, some held my head some held my hands and thus carried me down and threw me among our comrades.
“The stories after it are mostly known to you. We were taken to two, three or more police stations and finally taken to magistrate Birley at Alipore court. They arrested many others like Aurobindo Babu, Naren Goswami, Hemchandra Kanungo from different places at Kolkata and mofussil. The stories of the jail too must be known to you. You came and saw me there sometimes.”
“But that was that, we lamented and were in suspense. How much could we know of the actual situation throughout the year, more of you as you were there?” One of the brothers quipped.
“What to say of it, it was a torture beyond our imagination but gradually we were accustomed to all that, whether living together in a hall or living separately in groups of rooms, sometimes in 44 degree, as they called a feature of severe punishment. We were usually given kanji, water remaining from the boiled rice or big red boiled rice and a mixed vegetable made of the stuff usually householders do not eat and when under punishment, they pounded boiled rice only with nothing else. Sometimes we remained without food. Aurobindo Babu so remained continuously, at the beginning at least. But even in those situations I must admit that human sympathy peeps out of the unexpected regions. A European guard brought bananas in his pocket with abundant risk and gave us for eating and carried the covers in his pocket. This expression of human sympathy I have witnessed from Hindu and Muslim, from even otherwise rude persons, whether in Alipur jail or Andaman. When living together many prisoners sang, many had shown rare philosophic capacity, stoic endurance and rare courage. We convicts were brought to the court with chains on our legs and were put in a cage. While the court proceedings would continue there would be separate sessions of debates, writings and even songs in our world. This was a big noisy adda. Sometimes the counsels and pleaders would request the most silent man among us, Aurobindo Ghose, to ask boys to keep silence but remaining quiet like stone he would not ask anyone to do or undo anything.
“You heard the story of killing Naren Gosain, the convict- turned-government-approver, considered traitor by the revolutionaries. This was something of a record. Suddenly we heard sound of shots from the hospital side. Everyone was running helter-skelter. Guards were bewildered, a compounder from the hospital came running to give some information but he fainted on the way, near our cell. A veteran thief came shouting that Naren Gosain became cold. On asking he said that Kanai Dutta shot him dead with multiple shots and Satyen Bose, both prisoner patients, also fired from his revolver. He said that Naren lay stretched within the jail compound. When arrested and questioned, Kanai said that he received the revolver from the ghost of Khudiram (who attempted to kill Kingsford and was hanged). It was a matter of grave consequence as to how two revolvers were sneaked into the prison in spite of so much strictness. However, we were given separate cells under 44 degree punishment. Kanai’s face as we were allowed to see before he was to be hanged was calm and quiet, without an iota of worry or fear. He became yogi of rare capacity during the days of his arrest and hanging. He gained 16 pounds of weight in between as tested by the jail authorities and it is on record that he smiled before actual hanging took place. They offered their lives at the altar of Mother India.
“Barindra Kumar Ghose was born in British ship which was sailing to England. His name carries that incident. Technically he was a British citizen. He was asked if he preferred to be judged in the High Court which was his privilege as a British citizen. He declined. Our trial continued in the same fashion in Alipur sessions court.
“There were men and boys of tremendous capacity, I have already said. Many were great sadhaks, some of their lives got transformed during the trial. I am witness to one such great example. It was my experience about Aurobindo Ghose, a co- prisoner with us.
“There were people of different nature among us. We remained divided in groups, living side by side with Aurobindo Babu who was apart from us, remaining alone and aloof from all hullabaloo. From the jail guards who kept vigil on our existence, we heard stories of his strange way of living. Some said that he did not sleep at night; some said that he had already become mad. While eating he gave shares to cockroaches, ants and lizards from his food, whatever he was given. Others confirmed that he never took bath, never washed or changed his clothes, never washed his mouth. Some saw him in a position of levitation. He was becoming a legend living among us. We never got a drop of oil from the jail authorities to rub on our head but his head was always oily. Everyone talked about it but none dared to ask him. Once gathering courage I asked him, ‘Do you put oil on your head while taking bath?’
“He was surprised, ‘I don’t take bath,’ he said.
“I could not but put my second question, ‘How then your hairs are so glazy?’
“He said, ‘With the sadhana changes occur in my body.
My hairs draw sap from my body.’
“I observed such condition of a few sadhus though I did not then understand it properly. Once while in our cage in the court as the proceedings were going on, I observed his eyes were fixed without a blink. They were indifferent and glazy. I asked the ones nearby to look at them and they confirmed but none again dared to question him. Then Sachin, that teenager, advanced and asked coming near him, ‘What did you get by sadhana?’
He replied smilingly touching him fondly, ‘I have got what I wanted.’
“Then we all came round to hear from him the strange and unheard of tales of the other world. We did not comprehend what all he said, but this became clear that his life in jail was undergoing a sea change. There he did Vedantic sadhana and completing it he did tantrik sadhana. We never heard him discussing on tantra, either inside or outside of the court. When asked, he said that some one of great power coming from the subtle world was advising him on these issues. They were beyond our ken. When asked about the judgment, he said that he would be released free.
“After a year of our arrest the judgment was delivered. Aurobindo Babu was set free. Ullaskar and Barindra were ordered to be hanged and ten of us were to be sent for lifelong deportation to Andamans with rigorous imprisonment. Some got five to seven years’ imprisonment or deportation. Ullaskar laughed at his fate and came back to jail laughing, saying, “Oh, freed from a great burden.”
“An European guard said to his friend, ‘Look, look! The man is going to be hanged and he laughs!’ His Irish friend said, ‘Yes, I know, they all laugh at death.’
“A year after our imprisonment the judgment was delivered by Beachcroft on May 6, 1909. Some 15 or 16 of us remained. The rest took leave of us laughing. We too gave them farewell, laughing. But truly speaking, it was as if my heart was being wrenched. Life seemed baseless. Pundit Hrishikesh Kanjilal said like a philosopher, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. It’ll pass like a bad dream.’ Hem-da said with courage, ‘Never mind! This too will pass.’ Barindra, hearing the order of his hanging said, “Sejda said that I will not be hanged.’ His Sejda, you know, is Aurobindo Babu.
“What was my mental agony at that point of time I cannot explain now.” He said and kept silent for some time, perhaps recapitulating the moments past, a past among the pasts.
“And then you were sent to the Andamans finally”, said the brother. Suddenly all eyes were diverted to the mother sitting at a distance. She was crying and crying bending and straightening. Tears rolled by, consoled by other ladies. Another lady was crying too, silently. She was the wife of Upendranath. After some time as the air was clear they realised that that was a past and the present was that he was sitting among them.
“The great thing is that you are now among us!” A nephew ventured to say this. Upendra looked at him but could not recollect having seen his face. The boy laughed and all joined. Even their mothers were laughing.
“The position was vacuous. Once at this time while a dull calm was prevailing all around, I still hear his song. A boy in the next room suddenly sang a song loudly without any tune or rhythm. And all the guards, everyone as if panicky, came running to his room while in my room I rollicked on the floor by which my severe headache was gone. The boy was judged guilty by the jail superintendent and was punished with penal diet for four days, meaning living on boiled rice dust only. Another time a boy wrote on the wooden door ‘Long live Kanailal!’ using whitewash from the wall. He too was punished similarly. Wonderful judgment by wonderful men, I thought then, Who they were? What was their capacity?”
“But you know . . .” someone began but the speaker distanced himself by gesture of hand. Again there was a silence. Then he began. “After the session court our appeal was resting with the High Court. In November 1909 came the final judgment. Barindra and Ullaskar’s order for hanging was converted to deportation for life. Some received lesser punishment. But there was no change in the verdict of the session court in respect of Hemchandra and myself. We were then forbidden to work as before, the shearing of jute, lest we might use it for hanging. Those like us who were given the punishment of deportation remained in rooms. The others were sent to different jails.”
After sometime he again started as he saw his audience swelled though bit changed in variety and colour, with more women in numbers. “Oh, what a horrible place this Andaman jail! Firstly we failed to communicate with each other; the Burmese, the Madrasi and we the Bengalis, pushed in the same room. Here it was a physical-vital life in full force. Blow and kicks mixed with different types of punishments were the daily bribes we received. And the food? Hear it, O gentle ladies!
“The coarse Rangoon rice and thick roti somehow manageable but with them the most palatable curry is prepared with esculent edible roots (the wasteful kochu, considered inedible by many), its leaves and stalks, generally wild vegetables which once-in-a-while one may taste on occasion like Viswakarma Puja, kind of local grown potato, raw banana with skin, puin sak, small round stones mixed with pellet; this wonderful mix is boiled and given to eat compulsorily. I bet that even during usual famine no gentleman would touch that stuff.”
There was a smile of shame in many faces and remorse in mother’s face. His wife was wiping her tears.
“And the work? Here is grown coconut aplenty. Taking out its husk, preparing coir rope, grinding the kernel of the fruit to get oil, yoked in a grinding tree, and making hookah out of the outer cover of the fruit are the main works done there by the prisoners. And our dress? A bare body with jangia, what you call brief in a language of etiquette, without any further loincloth when at work; the only dress allowed to extract maximum labour, otherwise a half sleeved shirt to adorn our mortal bodies. The language? Punjabi, Baluchi, Hindi, Madrasi, Bengali mixed palatable tongue gave me the taste of beauty in the ugly (Beauty and the Beast). Two hours of such work make a healthy man half dead but the quota compels one to get engaged for more than 10/12 hours with hardly any time for gulping some food during what you call,
the lunch hour. And the system is full-proof, no one can escape; you are surrounded by different officials like warder, tindel, zamadar, petty officer and some other kinds of supervisors engaged as and when warranted. And both judgment and punishment comes out of the brute’s brain activated by rough hands and legs. All such officers are employed by the jail authorities from out of the prisoners after some five to seven years of imprisonment; their posting is dependent on their capacity to torture, extract work and perhaps their aptness towards sadism.”
The audience was silent with reluctance to hear abhorrent actions. But the speaker could not hold his tongue to vomit out what was held inside him for so long, to get some relief, making joke of all things serious as was his wont.
“Like you know, he started, “Ramlal has sat on a file without understanding what importance it carried in one’s life, so he was given some strokes on the nape of his neck. He bent down sufficiently to remember the sin. Mustafa has not stood up as soon as called so his mustache was pulled out. Bakaullah has come out very late from the latrine so he was kicked thrice on his buttock to make his lower-back sufficiently lose to feel at ease next time when he goes there. So these were kinds of disciplined offerings from the petty things belonging to the jail. Barindra was lean and thin so authorities sanctioned 12 ounce of milk for him daily but for fear of punishment he offered the whole milk in the open mouth of a robust supervisor, Khoedad Mian, daily who uttered satisfaction of tasting the milk each morning with the words, ‘Oh what great thing Allah has created! Are wah wah!’ Barindra was shown some temporary kindness out of his angular staring sight.
“The first day we joined the oil crushing work, two big bodied Pathan supervisors greeted us with big fists on our nose, telling that any mistake in work or indiscipline or short fall in output will be rewarded with big blows as compensation so that the wounded nose becomes a witness to such acts in future. The first day was a crucial day of test whether we should endure. At the lunch bell we got up to find our hands crushed, heads twirling, eyes dazed. And again we would have to begin as soon as possible to complete the quota. Some thought desperately, I thought of committing suicide but could not take the risk and older Hemchandra with one of the strongest minds, always remained resolute to come out of all hazards, after all. In the struggle to prove themselves efficient to get further promotions the supervisors and petty officers tried to always take advantage of our position, in punishing and ridiculing us. Even communalism and nepotism played their roles in the game; a system invented by the clever men.
“Any disobedience to work as demanded or to abide by their decisions would meet with serious punishment which was usually eating kanji, made of rice put in boiling water without anything else for days together, with hanging from the ceiling by the hands tied to rings. Under normal condition of surplus labourers we were given relief from oil crushing job and were asked to do other jobs like making coir rope or shearing husk from coconut, etc. There were push and pull, anger and revenge. There were strikes and rigorous punishments, sometimes they relented temporarily sometimes strike broke out on our own disagreements and deception. Sometimes we were asked to work in outside fields, like brick making, wooden work in factory or some such labourer’s job which we never did in our life.
“Ullaskar Dutta was unable to work in the brick field under the scorching sun. The doctor certified that he should be put to some other work on grounds of health. But he was a native doctor. His certificate, to the detriment of English prestige, was not accepted. Ullaskar left the field and came back to jail on his own. He was ordered feeding on kanji and hanging by hands for seven days but at the end of the first day when in the afternoon someone went to get him freed for the day he was found unconscious with 106 degree fever. He was sent to hospital. The next morning his fever was gone but he got changed entirely in his mental makeup and behaviour. He was declared mad and mad he is, still living. He was later sent to a lunatic ward of a hospital in Madras.
“Nanigopal, a boy of tender age, could not work continuously in oil crushing mill so he struck work and was punished accordingly. After some time as very tenaciously he resisted all punitive actions by the authorities he was sent alone to a distant ‘Viper’ island. There he gave up food altogether. He was brought back and was fed milk by pipe but that too he refused and was living without food for one and a half month. Even in that emaciated condition of his health he was hanged by hands. When on strike they kept us separate in distant rooms. Not being able to talk we raised our voice and talked. When we went to latrine the guards would be waiting outside to prevent us from talking or taking some drastic steps on our lives. This revolt, strike, punishment and relaxation continued for years. Gradually they released some prisoners. Myself with Barindra and Hemchandra from Alipur case, Pulinbehari Das and Sureshchandra from Dacca and Veer Savarkar, his brother and Joshi from Nasik remained.
“After years of imprisonment we were given to stay on our own like other prisoners, cooking for ourselves, wearing full sleeved shirt with dhoti and topi instead of half sleeve shirt and jangia or kind or short or bare loincloth. Our works became honourable now. Hemchandra become the librarian, Barindra, a supervisor of a cane factory and I was engaged as supervisor of oil crushing mill. We were given some vegetables and we could grow some in our living area so that we needed no more to eat the weeds only. But our time was limited. Within 12 at noon we needed to get ready for going to our respective work fields after doing everything including cooking and eating. So we took dal and rice from the common kitchen. Only curry we cooked.
“Now cooking became the most adventurous work with freedom. All three of us felt ourselves, each as a master cook though I must admit that I was the weakest of the lot, a novice still. Hemchandra had cooking fame but not ordinary day-to-day items, he was considered expert in cooking meat, briyani and such rich foods, suitable for the Nabobs. One of these days we got a banana cone. This was considered a rare item for cooking a special Bengali dish, mochar ghanta. We felt greed for it trying to remember when last we took it. Therefore we had a conference as to how to make best use of the item. But none seemed to know much about it. I kept mum and they fought. Barindra said that his grandmother belonged to the famous Dutta family of Hatkhola, an old and respectable area of Kolkata, and she was a very good housewife cook. So by heredity he should be given the honour to prepare it. But Hemchandra said that he learnt cooking from France so he must be given preference. When everything foreign was given preference we finally agreed to give Hem-da a chance.
“I sat for cooking as Hem-da was sitting by my side advising me what to do. All were serious. I put the kada, a cooking utensil, over the oven and put oil in it. Hem-da advised me to put chopped onion to it. Though I knew that these two items do not fit in as per our cooking culture and now doubted his expertise or the talk of his getting a diploma in French cooking, I could not say anything under the agreement. I did what I was asked to do. Other usual spices were given. I did the other things like singeing and boiling. Finally when we sat for lunch we found it to be a curry black in colour with some taste but absolutely different from the one called mochar ghanta. We had a good laugh that day. I remember, when on another occasion we proposed to prepare another bitter dish, a starter, prepared with bitter gourd or neem leaf or leaf of another creeper, a bitter pot-herb called palta, as you know, with the other vegetables, Hemchandra without a second thought advised us to put one ounce of quinine mixture with some vegetable to make it. At this all, specially the ladies, were laughing. Mother said, ‘In our time we always used palta for this but now I don’t know what boumas are doing.’ The wives were shy to discuss that here but the eldest one replied, ‘We too do it but when that herb is not available we use only bitter gourd for bitterness.’
“But you know quinine to be a medicine for Malaria, so we thought of trying it but could not manage to get it.”
Amid some laughter again he began, “In the meantime there was some reversal of position of the English due to the outbreak of the First World War. Many more Sikhs came to Andaman as prisoners. The authorities feared a meeting between the local Sikhs and other Punjabis in the cops and those revolting Sikhs who were already there with those newcomers. They tried to prohibit some meetings at any cost. Our time was ripe and some commutation of years of imprisonment made us eligible. But none of these arguments can be claimed to be infallible. However, one fine morning we were told that we would be taken to Alipur jail and the other convicts to their respective prisons of origin and would be freed finally. Great news of hope we received with palpitating heart, doubting its final outcome to the last, as you know, none of our predecessors came back from the other side of the black water. But the God helped us and now I am here before you.”
At this dada looked at the big old clock ticking 1-30 in the afternoon and said, “We shall hear the story of the ship another time. Now it is time for all of us to wonder how after so much of trouble of the journey and other harassments at night as it must be, you came back at three in the early hours of the morning, considered dead of night here, and are still talking even without going for nature’s call. Life teaches hard and great lessons to some when others wonder and even fear to think of such a situation. You are, you are exceptional among us. We all feel pride for you. But no more Upen, hurry and be prepared for a joint eating session, a king’s lunch as they must have prepared for you.”
As soon as he finished most of them dispersed leaving Upen, his wife and their son to sit and recompose their relationship anew before coming back to their life with expected relationship before a grand lunch.
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More by : Aju Mukhopadhyay