Monday, 30th October 2017

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Exile across the waters

Outcome of extreme experience

By Malavika Karlekar
  • Published 3.04.15

If there is a common perception that jail memoirs can be depressing and dire, Barindra Kumar Ghose's The Tale of my Exile is somewhat of an exception. Written originally in Bengali (Dwipantarer Katha), the brief but detailed account was translated by Nolini Kanta Gupta and published in 1922. Out of print for almost a century, a new edition is now available, introduced and edited by the Hyderabad-based academic, Sachidananda Mohanty. The slim volume, written by a man sentenced for life, provides a meticulous account of the minutiae of jail existence, grim moments peppered with a wry turn of phrase as well as musings on the beauty of the Andamans. And of course, the growth of an individual sense of agency, so vital to prisoners in a colonial regime. As David Arnold points out in his work on Indian prison narratives, middle-class prisoners needed to believe that even in jail they were neither powerless nor irrelevant to the political struggle outside.

In May 1908, together with 35 other young men, Barindra was arrested in the Alipore bomb conspiracy case, and was sentenced to death. "Waging war against His Majesty the King-Emperor of India" was the usual charge levied against those involved in the increasing number of revolutionary activities following the partition of Bengal; in this case, it was the abortive attempt to assassinate the notorious magistrate, Charles Kingsford. Barindra wrote about his incarceration as well as about the trial when going to court in a shuttered omnibus meant "we were the government's Zenana, more within the purda and more invisible to the sun than most respectable ladies".

After serving time in Alipur jail's "Forty-four Degree", as the barrack of 44 cells for those sentenced to death was called, Barindra found himself on the SS Maharaja, headed for the Cellular Jail at Port Blair. His sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. The jail had a central point at which stood a minaret, "the Central Tower or Goomti" from which "seven straight lines or radii are drawn in different directions to join the circumference". These were the seven blocks of the prison, each three storeys high. A barred door separated every cell in which there were two items - a low bedstead and an earthen pot painted with tar that served as the water closet whose "delightful company" the prisoner had to "share merrily... during the whole night". A phalanx of warders and sentries kept watch and between the two groups, there was little love lost as one was bound to report on the negligence of the other.

Mr Barry, the pot-bellied "King Yama of the Prison" had a simple message: "If you disobey me, may God help you, at least I will not, that is certain. Remember also that God does not come within three miles of Port Blair." Soon enough, a blacksmith had come and "suspended to our necks what may be compared to the bell of a bullock". This was the neck-ticket, as names became numbers. While ordinary prisoners were allowed to bathe and change before sitting down to be served with their meals, "we had no such liberty". As "the first batch of anarchists... we were dreaded more than a pack of wild wolves" and subjected to "so much flourishing of lock-and-keys and rules and regulations".

Examination by Captain Murray, the jail doctor, led to prisoners being classified according to their fitness for hard or light labour. Barindra and Upendra Nath Banerjee were assigned the job of making coir rope and soon they became quite adept at the task. The 10 "Bomb Prisoners" were not allowed to talk to each other, and order was maintained by the Pathan petty officer, Khoyedad Khan. Under him, "life became simply miserable" as he introduced a military-like routine for the daily body search that involved minor calisthenics such as standing on one leg. Abuse would often follow: "Ramlal sits a little crosswise in the file, give him two blows on the neck" or "Mustapha did not get up immediately [when] he was told to, so pull off his moustache."

Soon things were to get worse with the arrival of a new superintendent when the inmates were put to oil-pressing - either 10 pounds of mustard oil or 30 pounds of coconut oil had to be produced each day by a prisoner. Barindra wrote, "[w]e had to run up to the third storey, each with a 50 lb. sack of coconuts on the back and a bucket in the hand and start immediately the work. It was not work, it was a regular wrestling. Within 10 minutes, our breathing became difficult, our tongues got parched." And after an hour, "all the limbs were almost paralysed". When Nandagopal, the editor of Allahabad's Swaraj, was ordered to step in line, he resisted. Fetters and confinement followed - but the well-built Punjabi remained adamant. He even complained to a visiting senior British bureaucrat; however, as such arbitrary punishments were never noted down, "a convict can never establish his charge against the jailor". Tragedy was around the corner. Ullaskar Dutta lost his mind and Indubhushan Roy hung himself with a torn shirt. The others were soon aware that the inhuman regimen would mean that there would be "no hope for anyone to keep body and soul together and return to his country". Rations were stolen by jail staff, and, in no time, the sultry climate led to malaria and dysentery. The prisoners went on strike when "it was a struggle between the elephant and the tiger". Their demands were for proper food, release from labour and freedom to associate with each other.

Into this scenario arrived Pulin Das of Dacca and Nanigopal, a mere boy, from Chinsura. He went on hunger strike, and a month later, an emaciated Nanigopal was suspended from his handcuffs. The press in India started a vigorous campaign and a Dr Lukis was sent to enquire. As a consequence, Ullaskar was sent to the lunatic asylum in Madras, and though over time he recovered partially, his hallucinatory experiences continued. The situation in the Cellular Jail again became critical when those associated with the Ghadar party arrived. An elderly Sikh prisoner died of phthisis (tuberculosis); prior to falling ill, he had said that he had been severely beaten.

Soon a second hunger strike began and as the number of prison deaths increased, "the authorities seemed to wake up to the gravity of the situation". In 1920, as a part of the general amnesty granted by King George V, Barindra Ghose was released and after twelve interminable years, returned to the mainland. In a few months, he was on his way to Pondicherry to meet his brother, Aurobindo Ghose, whose disciple he soon became. A couple of years later, The Tale of my Exile was published by the Arya Office in Pondicherry. Though under the guidance of his older brother, Barindra founded a Yoga centre in Calcutta's Bhawanipur, he was to return to Pondicherry to work with Aurobindo Ghose and the Mother. After 1929, he returned to Calcutta and to a life of journalism and in 1936 was greatly criticized for suggesting that Britain was to be the country's "mantra guru". In his introduction, Mohanty offers an explanation for this almost inexplicable valorization of a country that had caused Barindra such great suffering; Mohanty writes that the prison experience had only enhanced the erstwhile lifer's inherent spirituality and, strangely enough, the rejection of revolutionary methods. Barindra wrote, "past events have become there [in my memory] shadowy and uncanny images, as it were, parading in a drunken brain". He was helped by Upen Banerjee to think back on those days of torture and anguish. Mohanty feels that if Barindra was in many ways a changed human being when he left behind the verdant Andamans, this was not unusual after an incarceration of this extreme kind: some go under, others develop a strong sense of self. For instance, holocaust survivor narratives bear testimony to transformations in the persona... Nor, writes Mohanty, are "tales of penal colonies... just of antiquarian value". They have an immediacy and relevance in the present discourse around citizenship and the nation and their mired relationship with those who question State power.