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Tales of Prison Life >>Part III ...


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 mАyА.
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 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.


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 diferent 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's 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.


Just as in the other jail departments Jogenbabu, a Bengali, was the chief, similarly in the hospital, the Bengali doctor, Baidyanathbabu, was all-in-all. His superior officer, Doctor Daly, though not as charitable as Mr. Emerson, was out and out a gentleman and a most judicious person. He had high praise for the quiet demeanour, cheerfulness and obedience of the boys, and loved to exchange pleasantries with younger people and discuss with the other accused problems of religion, politics and philosophy. The doctor was of Irish stock and he inherited many of the qualities of that liberal and sentimental race. There was no meanness or duplicity about him, once in a while when angry he might use a rough word or behave harshly, but on the whole he loved to help people. He was familiar with the trickeries and the got-up diseases resorted to by the prisoners, but sometimes, suspecting trickery, he would neglect even genuine sufferers. But once sure of the disease he would prescribe with great care and kindness. Once I had a little temperature. It was then the rainy season, in the hospital's many-windowed huge verandahs the moisture-laden winds played about freely, and yet I was unwilling either to go to the hospital or take medicine. My views on illness and cure had undergone change and I did not have much faith in medicines.
Unless the disease was severe, nature herself would cure it in her own way, such was my belief. The harm done by the humid air, by controlling
that yogically I wished to verify and prove to the logical mind the success of my yogic training and methods. But the doctor was extremely anxious on my account, he explained to me with much eagerness the need to go to the hospital. And when I had gone there he kept me with impressment and saw that I had meals such as I might get at home. Fearing that by staying in the prison-wards my health might suffer during the rains he desired that I should be comfortably lodged in the hospital. But I refused to stay longer in the hospital and insisted on going back to the ward. He was not equally considerate to everybody, especially those who were strong and healthy, he was afraid of keeping such people in the hospital even when they were sick. He had a false notion that if ever any incident took place it would be because of these strong and restless lads. What happened in the end was its exact opposite, the incident in the hospital was due to the ailing, emaciated Satyendranath Bose and the sick, quiet-natured Kanailal, a man of few words. Though Dr. Daly had his qualities, most of his good deeds were inspired and set into motion by Baidyanathbabu. I had never seen such a sympathetic soul before, nor do I expect to see it after, it was as if he had been born to help and do good to others. Whenever he heard of a case of suffering to try to lessen it had become for him almost a natural and inevitable act. To the residents of this abode of misery, full of suffering, it was as if he would distribute the carefully preserved heavenly waters to the creatures of hell. The best way to remove any want, injustice or needless suffering was to reach a report of it to the doctor's ears. If its removal lay within his powers he would never rest without doing it. Baidyanathbabu harboured in his heart a deep love of the motherland, but as a government servant he was unable to express that emotion. His only failing was his excessive sympathy. Though in a prison administrator this may be looked upon as a defect, in terms of higher ethics this may be described as the finest expression of one's humanity and the quality most beloved of God. He did not discriminate between the ordinary prisoners and the `Bandemataram' convicts; whoever was sick, or ailing, he kept them in the hospital with the same care and would be unwilling to let them go till they had wholly come round.This fault of his was the real reason for his loss of job. After the killing of Gossain the authorities suspected this attitude of his and wrongfully dismissed him.

There is a special need to speak of the kindness and human conduct of these officers. The prison arrangements made for our detention I have been obliged to describe earlier, and afterwards too I shall try to show the inhuman cruelty of the British prison system. Lest some readers may look upon this as an evil effect of these officers, I have described the qualities of some of the chief of the staff. In the description of the early stages of prison life there will be found further evidence of these qualities.

I have described my mental state on the first day of solitary confinement. For a few days I had to be without books or any other aid to spend the period of forced isolation. Later on Mr. Emerson came and handed over to me the permission to get some clothes and reading material from home. After procuring from the prison authorities pen and ink and their official stationery I wrote to my respected maternal uncle, the well-known editor of Sanjibani, to send my dhoti and kurta,
among books I asked for the Gita and the Upanishads. It took a couple of days for the books to reach me. Before that I had enough leisure to realise the enormity or dangerous potentiality of solitary confinement. I could understand why even firm and well-developed intellects crack up in such a state of confinement and readily turn towards insanity. At the same time, I could realise God's infinite mercy and the rare advantage offered by these same conditions. Before imprisonment I was in the habit of sitting down for meditation for an hour in the morning and evening. In this solitary prison, not having anything else to do, I tried to meditate for a longer period. But for those unaccustomed it is not easy to control and steady the mind pulled in a thousand directions. Somehow I was able to concentrate for an hour and half or two, later the mind rebelled while the body too was fatigued. At first the mind was full of thoughts of many kinds. Afterwards devoid of human conversation and an insufferable listlessness due to absence of any subject of thought the mind gradually grew devoid of the capacity to think. There was a condition when it seemed a thousand indistinct ideas were hovering round the doors of the mind but with gates closed; one or two that were able to get through were frightened by the silence of these mental states and quietly running away. In this uncertain dull state I suffered intense mental agony. In the hope of mental solace and resting the overheated brain I looked at the beauties of nature outside, but with that solitary tree, a sliced sky and the cheerless prospects in the prison how long can the mind in such a state find any consolation? I looked towards the blank wall. Gazing at the lifeless white surface the mind seemed to grow even more hopeless, realising the agony of the imprisoned condition the brain was restless in the cage. I again sat down to meditate. It was impossible. The intense baffled attempt made the mind only more tired, useless, made it burn and boil.

I looked around, at last I found some large black ants moving about a hole in the ground, and I spent sometime watching their efforts and movements. Later I noticed some tiny red ants. Soon there was a big battle between the black and the red, the black ants began to bite and kill the red ants. I felt an intense charity and sympathy for these unjustly treated red ants and tried to save them from the black killers. This gave me an occupation and something to think about. Thanks to the ants I passed a few days like this. Still there was no way to spend the long days ahead. I tried to argue with myself, did some deliberate reflection, but day after day the mind rebelled and felt increasingly desolate. It was as though time weighed heavy, an unbearable torture, broken by that pressure it did not have leisure even to breathe freely, it was like being throttled by an enemy in a dream and yet without the strength to move one's limbs. I was amazed at this condition! True, while outside, I never wished to stay idle or without any activity, still I had spent long periods in solitary musings. Had and mind now become so weak that the solitude of a few days could make me so restless? Perhaps, I thought, there is a world of difference between voluntary and compulsory solitude. It is one thing to stay alone in one's home, but to have to stay, forced by others, in a solitary prison cell is quite another. There one can turn at will to men for refuge, find shelter in book knowledge and its stylistic elegance, in the dear voice of friends, the noise on the roadside, in the varied shows of the world, one can find joy of mind and feel at ease. But here, bound to the wheels of iron law, subservient to the whim of others, one had to live deprived of every other contact.

According to the proverb, one who can stand solitude is either a god or a brute, it is a discipline quite beyond the power of men. Previously I was unable to believe in what the proverb said, now I could feel that even for one accustomed to the yogic life this discipline is not easy to acquire. I remember the terrifying end of the Italian regicide, Breci. His cruel judges, instead of ordering him to be hanged, had given him seven years' solitary imprisonment. Within a year Breci had gone mad. But he had endured for some time! Was my mental strength so poor? Then I did not know that God was having a game with me, through which He was giving me a few necessary lessons.

First, He showed me the state of mind in which prisoners condemned to solitary cells move towards insanity, and turned me wholly against the inhuman cruelty of western prison administration, so that I might, to the best of my ability, turn my countrymen and the world from these barbarous ways to the path of more humane prison organisation. This was the first lesson. I remembered, fifteen years back, after returning home from England, I had written some bitterly critical articles in the Induprakash, of Bombay, against the petitionary ethics of the then Congress. Seeing that these articles were influencing the mind of the young, the late Mahadeo Govind Ranade had told me, when I met him, for nearly half an hour, that I should give up writing these articles, and advised me to take up some other Congress work. He was desirous of my taking up the work of prison reform. I was astonished and unhappy at his unexpected suggestion and had refused to undertake that work. I did not know then that this was a prelude to the distant future and that one day God himself would keep me in prison for a year and make me see the cruelty and futility of the system and the need for reform. Now I understood that in the present political atmosphere there was no possibility of any reform of the prison system, but I resolved before my conscience to propagate and argue in its favour so that these hellish remnants of an alien civilisation were not perpetuated in a self-determining India. I also understood His second purpose: it was to reveal and expose before my mind its own weakness so that I might get rid of it for ever. For one who seeks the yogic state crowd and solitude should mean the same. Indeed, the weakness dropped off within a very few days, and now it seems that the mental poise would not be disturbed even by twenty years of solitude. In the dispensation of the All-Good (maЪgalamaya) even out of evil cometh good. The third purpose was to give me this lesson that my yoga practices would not be done by my personal effort, but that a spirit of reverence (SraddhА) and complete self-surrender (Аtma-samarpana) were the road to attain perfection in yoga, and whatever power or realisation the Lord would give out of His benignity, to accept and utilise these should be the only aim of my yogic endeavour. The day from which the deep darkness of Ignorance began to lessen, I started to see the true nature of the All-Good Lord's amazing infinite goodness as I watched the different events in the ward. There is no event — great or small or even the smallest — from which some good has not accrued.

He often fulfils three or four aims through a single event. We frequently see the working of a blind force in the world, accepting waste as part of nature's method we ignore God's omniscience and find fault with the divine Intelligence. The charge is unfounded. The divine Intelligence never works blindly, there cannot be the slightest waste of His power, rather the restrained manner in which, through the minimum of means, He achieves a variety of results is beyond the human intelligence.



Sri Aurobindo(in Bengali)

-Translated by Sisir Kumar Ghosh

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