I had made strenuous personal efforts for a sakshat darshan (a direct vision) of Narayana, the Lord of my heart and nurtured an intense aspiration to realize Purushottam (the Supreme Person), the Preserver of the world, as friend and master. But due to the the pull of worldly desires, attachment to various activities, and the thick veil of ignorance, I had not been able to make sufficient progress. Finally the Compassionate, Sarva-Mangalamaya Shri Hari (All-Good Lord) removed, at one stroke, all obstacles on my path towards him, brought me to a yogashram and Himself stayed as Guru and companion in that tiny Sadhan-kutir (seat of spiritual discipline). This yogashram happened to be the British prison. I have often noted this strange contradiction in my life that my 'enemies' - I still refer to them as 'enemies' although it is no longer possible for me to consider anyone as such - have ended up helping me far more than even my well-wishers. Their intention is to cause harm but the actual result is its very opposite. The British Government's wrath had but one significant outcome: I found God.
I had gone to sleep in a peaceful state on Friday night. I woke up abruptly at about five in the morning when my niece anxiously rushed into the room and called me by name. The very next moment, armed policemen entered the room. The party comprised of Superintendent Cregan, Clark Saheb of 24-Parganas, Sriman Benod Kumar Gupta, who was well-known to us, several other Inspectors, "red-turbans", spies and 'search-witnesses'. They all came charging in, pistols in hand, as if an all-conquering army charging forward to overrun a secure fort with guns and cannon. I learnt that a heroic white man had pointed a pistol at my niece's breast, although I did not see this with my own eyes. As I sat up on my bed, not yet fully-awake, Cregan inquired, "Who is Aurobindo Ghose, is that you?" I answered, "Yes. I am Aurobindo Ghose." He immediately ordered a policeman to put me under arrest. This was followed by a brief but sharp verbal exchange between Cregan and myself caused by his utterance of an extremely offensive expression. I asked to be shown the search warrant. I read through it and then signed it. I gathered from the reference to bombs in the warrant that the sudden arrival of this army of policemen was connected to the 'Muzaffarpur Bomb-throwing incident'. However I could not understand their haste in arresting me, without first gathering any incriminating evidence and obtaining a body warrant on that basis. I desisted from raising any objections on this account though. I was handcuffed, as per Cregan's instructions, and a rope was tied around my waist. A North-Indian constable stood behind me holding the rope-end. At that point the police brought Shrijut Abinash Bhattacharya and Shrijut Sailen Bose upstairs to my room, similarly handcuffed and with ropes tied around their waists. About half an hour later, they removed the rope and the handcuffs - I do not know who gave the orders for this. Initially Cregan behaved as if he had entered a lair of some wild ferocious beast and we were uncivilized, violent, hardened criminals who deserved neither basic courtesy nor decency in speech. Subsequent to our verbal duel mentioned earlier, the sahib appeared to soften a little. Benod babu apparently provided some information about me to Cregan. Subsequently, Cregan asked me: "It seems you are a B. A. Yet you sleep on the floor of an unfurnished room. Are you not ashamed that despite your educational qualifications, you dwell in such conditions?". I said, "I am a poor man, and I live like one." Cregan immediately responded in a loud voice, "So have you worked up all this mischief with the aim of becoming rich?". It seemed impossible to me that this thick-headed Briton could be made to understand the import of patriotism, selflessness or a vow of poverty and hence I did not make any such attempt.
The house-search had continued all this while. It had started at five-thirty and eventually ended at about eleven-thirty. The all-encompassing house-search had included exercise books, letters, documents, scraps of paper, poems, plays, prose, essays - nothing had been excluded. Mr. Rakshit, a search-witness, seemed ill-at-ease; later, bemoaning his lot, he informed me that the police had dragged him along, without any prior intimation that he would have to be a party to such a distasteful activity. He narrated, in a most pitiable manner, the story of his kidnapping. The attitude of the other witness, Samarnath, was quite the opposite; he played out his part in the house-search as a true loyalist with great enthusiasm, as if to the manner born. There was no other mention-worthy event during the course of the search. But I recollect Mr. Clark examining the lump of earth from Dakshineshwar, preserved in a small cardboard box, with great suspicion; he suspected it might be some new and powerful explosive. In one sense, Mr. Clark's suspicions were not unfounded. Eventually it was concluded that the specimen was no different from normal earth and hence there was no need to send it for chemical analysis. I did not participate in the search except to open a few boxes. No documents or letters were shown or read out to me, except for one letter from Alakdhari, which Mr. Cregan read aloud as if for his own entertainment. Our friend, Benod Gupta, went marching around, shaking the room with each gentle foot-fall; he would bring out a document or letter from a shelf or some other place, and from time to time, exclaim "Very important, very important" and make an offering of it to Cregan. I was not made aware of what these "important" documents were. Nor did I have any curiosity in this regard, since I knew that it was impossible for any kind of formula for the manufacture of explosives or documents relating to conspiracy to be found in my house.
After turning my room inside-out the police moved on to the adjoining room. Cregan opened a box belonging to my youngest aunt, and after glancing at a couple of letters, promptly concluded that there was no need of carrying away the women's correspondence. Then the police mahatmas descended to the ground floor. Cregan had his tea there. I had a cup of cocoa and toast. Cregan took this opportunity to impress his political views upon me along with supporting arguments - I remained unmoved and bore this mental torture without a word. Physical torture may be a long-standing police tradition, but may I ask if such inhuman mental torture too is within the ambit of its unwritten law? I hope our highly respectable well-wisher Srijut Jogeshchandra Ghose will take up this question in the Legislative Assembly.
After completing their search of the rooms on the ground floor and the office of "Navashakti", the police came up to the first floor again to open an iron safe belonging to "Navashakti". After struggling with the safe for half-an-hour, they decided to carry it away to the police station. At this point a police officer discovered a bicycle with a railway label bearing the name of "Kushtia". The police immediately jumped to the conclusion that the bicycle must belong to the man who had earlier shot a sahib at "Kushtia" and gleefully took it away as a critical piece of evidence.
At about eleven-thirty we left our house. My maternal uncle and Srijut Bhupendranath Basu were waiting in a car just outside the gate. "On what charges have you been arrested?" my uncle asked. "I know nothing about it," I answered. "They forced their way into my room and arrested and handcuffed me without producing a 'body-warrant'." When uncle inquired about the necessity of handcuffs, Benod babu replied, "Sir, it was not my fault. Ask Aurobindo babu, it was me who spoke to the Sahib to have the handcuffs removed." Bhupen babu wanted to know about the nature of the charges. When Mr. Gupta mentioned that it was under the Indian Penal Code Section for murder, Bhupen babu fell into stunned silence. Later on I came to know that my solicitor, Shri Hirendranath Datta, had expressed a desire to be present on my behalf during the house-search. But the police had turned down his request.
Benod babu was entrusted with the task of taking the three of us to the police station. His behaviour with us at the station was remarkably decent. We had our bath and lunch there and then proceeded towards Lal Bazar. We were made to wait there for a couple of hours and then moved to Royd Street; it was at this auspicious location that we spent the time till evening.
At Lal Bazar, the two of us were confined to a spacious room on the first floor. We were provided only light refreshments for sustenance. After a while two Englishmen entered the room. I was told later on that one of them had been the Police Commissioner, Mr. Halliday, himself. Halliday had become upset with the sergeant on finding both of us in the same room. He had pointed towards me and said, "Take care that nobody stays with this man or speaks to him." Sailen was taken away at once and locked up in another room. When all others had left, Halliday had asked me: "Are you not ashamed of your involvement in this cowardly, dastardly act?". I had asked him in turn: "What right have you to assume that I was involved?". To this Halliday had replied: "This is not my assumption; I know everything." I had replied: "What you know or do not know is your concern. I completely deny having any connection whatsoever with this murderous act." Halliday had kept quiet after that.
That night I had other visitors. They were all members of the police force. This visit was part of a mystery that I have not been able to solve till date. A month and a half before my arrest, an unknown person had met me and the following conversation had ensued. He said: "Sir, we have not met earlier, but owing to the great respect I have for you, I come to warn you of impending danger. I wish to know if you are acquainted with anyone at Konnagar. Have you ever visited the place or do you own a house there?" "No, I do not own any house there," I said. "But I have been there once and am known to some people there." "I will say nothing more," said the stranger, "but you should avoid meeting anyone from Konnagar after today. Some wicked people are conspiring against you and your brother, Barindra. Soon they will try to get you both into trouble. Please do not ask me anything more than this." I told him: "Sir, I am unable to understand how this information alone, without the full details, can be of help to me, but since you come with friendly intentions, I thank you. I do not wish to know anything more. I have complete faith in God. His protection is with me which renders any action or precaution from my side unnecessary." I heard no more of this matter. But tonight it was proven that this unknown well-wisher had not been imagining things. An inspector and a few police officers came to elicit information regarding my connection with Konnagar. "Are you originally from Konnagar?" they asked. "Have you ever visited the place? When was this? What was the purpose of the visit? Does Barindra own any property there?" - they asked many such questions. I tried to provide answers to all of them with the hope of getting to the bottom of this matter. But the attempt was not successful. However the nature of questions as well as the manner of the police inquiry indicated an attempt to verify information that had come into their possession. It was my guess that this matter was similar to the 'Tai-Maharaj' case, where there had been an attempt to portray Tilak as a hypocrite, liar, cheat and tyrant, and the Bombay Government had misutilized public money by participating in the attempt. There appeared to be a deliberate plot to falsely implicate me in a similar fashion.
The entire day on Sunday was spent in the lock-up. There was a staircase in front of my room. In the morning I saw a few young lads coming down the stairs. Their faces were unfamiliar, but I guessed that they must have been arrested in the same case. Later I came to know that these were the lads from the Manicktola Gardens. A month later, I made their acquaintance in jail. A little later I too was taken downstairs for a wash - since there was no arrangement for a bath, I went without it. Pulses and boiled rice were on offer for lunch that day. I forced myself to swallow a few morsels and then abandoned the effort. In the evening we had puffed rice. This was our diet for three days. But I must also add that on Monday, the sergeant, on his own, allowed me to have tea and toast.
Later I learnt that my lawyer had sought permission from the Commissioner to have my food sent from home. But Mr. Halliday had not agreed to it. I also heard that the accused were not allowed to consult their lawyers or attorneys. It is not known to me if this restriction was legally valid. In my case, a lawyer's advice was not necessary though it may have been useful; but for many of the accused, lack of access to legal advice had an adverse impact on their defence. On Monday we were presented before the Commissioner. Abinash and Sailen were with me. We were taken in different groups. All three of us had prior experience of being arrested and had some familiarity with the system and its legal complexities. Therefore we refused to make any statements before the Commissioner.
The next day we were taken to the magistrate, Mr. Thornhill's court. It was there that I met Shrijut Kumar Krishna Datta, Mr. Manuel, and one of my relatives for the first time. Mr. Manuel asked me, "The police claims that a great deal of written material - documents and letters - has been recovered from your house that provides ground for suspicion. Is that true?" I told him, "I can say without doubt that nothing of this kind could have been found; for it is not possible." Of course, at that point, I did not know of the "sweets letter" or of the "scribblings". I told my relative: "Please tell everyone back home that there is no cause for fear or worry; my complete innocence will be proven." A firm belief had taken birth in me right then that it would indeed be so. During solitary imprisonment the mind did become restless at first. But after three days of prayer and meditation, an immobile peace and unshakable faith was again established in the being.
From Mr. Thornhill's court we were taken in a carriage to Alipore. This group included Nirapada, Dindayal, Hemchandra Das amongst others. I had prior acquaintance with Hemchandra Das having put up at his place in Midnapore once. It would have been difficult to imagine then that our next meeting would be under such circumstances - as prisoners on way to the jail. We made a brief stop-over at the Alipore magistrate's court with the purpose of obtaining a signed order. We again got into the carriage; a gentleman came near me and said, "I have information that they are planning solitary confinement for you and orders are being passed to that effect. They will probably not allow any one to see or meet you. If you wish to share anything with your family, I can convey your message to them." I thanked him, but since I had already conveyed my message through a relative, I did not have anything more to say to him. I mention this event merely as an example of my countrymen's sympathy and unsought kindness towards me. There-after we were taken to the jail and put under the supervision of the Jail staff. Before entering the jail precincts we were given a bath and made to put on the prison uniform, whilst our clothes - shirts, dhotis and kurtas - were taken away for laundry. The bath, after a gap of four days, felt like heavenly bliss. After the bath, they took us to our respective cells. I entered my bare cell, and the barred-door closed behind me. My prison life at Alipore began thus on May 5th. Next year, on May 6th, I was acquitted.
My prison-cell was nine feet long and about five or six feet wide. This windowless cage, fronted by a large iron barred-door, was assigned to me as my abode. The cell opened into a very small courtyard, paved with stones and surrounded by a high brick wall. A wooden door led outside. The door had a small peep-hole at eye-level, for sentries to keep a periodic watch on the convicts when the door was closed. The door to the courtyard of my cell was generally kept open. There were six such contiguous cells known as the 'six decrees'. The word 'decree' was a reference to the special punishment prescribed either by the Judge or the Jail Superintendent in the form of solitary confinement within these tiny, cramped cells.
There were varying degrees of severity even in solitary confinement though. The first degree of severity consisted of keeping the courtyard doors shut to deprive the prisoner of all human contact. The tenuous link with the outside world was then preserved through the eyes of the vigilant sentries and the visits of fellow-convicts, who came twice a day to deliver meals. It appears that Hemchandra Das was a notch higher than me on the scale of the CID's (Criminal Investigation Department) affections, as evidenced by him being singled out to undergo this form of punishment.
A still higher degree of severity consisted of having a prisoner's hands bound in handcuffs and feet in shackles. One might assume that prescription of such a severe form of punishment would require a suitably grave offense like physical violence or disrupting the peace in jail. But that assumption would be incorrect. Even slackness in prison labour or repetition of mistakes in one's assigned work would often be adequate cause to invite such harsh punishment.
The legal system disallowed under-trial prisoners to be subjected to solitary confinement or to be held under such torturous conditions. But such niceties of law were dispensed with when dealing with those accused in affairs related to the Swadeshi movement or 'Bande Mataram' and hence arrangements were promptly made for them as desired by the Police.
The arrangements for our accommodation had given us the first taste of prison hospitality. The furnishing bore witness to the same high standards. A plate and bowl were singular adornments of an otherwise bare courtyard. This representative sum of my material possessions in prison, once scoured with suitable care, would shine ever-so brightly that the heart would simply melt at their sight. The faultless, glowing radiance appeared as a symbol of the celestial perfection of the British Monarchy and I could experience the pure bliss of loyal subjethood.
The only downside of this blissful condition was its effect on the plate. It would swell-up, as if absorbing my bliss in a silent communion. In this bloated form, the slightest pressure of the fingers, would send it spinning like the Whirling Dervishes of Arabia. The only option then was to use one hand to hold the plate in position and the other for eating; otherwise the plate would continue its revolutions and depart with my portion of the incomparable prison-food.
The bowl turned out be even more precious as it served many different uses. The bowl's versatility in the world of inanimate objects was similar to that demonstrated by a British civilian in the capability to transform himself into a judge or a magistrate or a police officer or a revenue officer or a chairman of municipality or a professor or a preacher or anything else that was asked of him. Such was the inborn expertise possessed by Britishers in India. The prosecution counsel was perhaps the best example of this kind of versatility. He would simultaneously perform the role of an investigator, a prosecutor, a police magistrate and sometimes even a defence counsel, as if these multiple personalities co-existed happily in his single body. My adorable bowl was just as versatile.
The bowl bore no distinction of caste or creed. In the prison cell, it was used during bowel-movement and then for washing and bathing. Later, during meal-time, lentil soup or cooked vegetable was served in it. It was also used as a receptacle for water to drink or rinse my mouth. Such a range of diverse uses for a single object could have been conceived and realized only in a British prison.
The bowl did serve numerous worldly needs in the prison. But its most significant function was as an instrument of my Yoga-sadhana (spiritual discipline). The bowl proved to be a most effective catalyst and a material means for overcoming the sense of repulsion.
When we were all moved into larger cells after the first phase of solitary imprisonment, the authorities arranged for a separate receptacle to aid in the act of excretion. The imposed practice with the bowl in the preceding period though had provided an unsought lesson in mastering the sense of repulsion. The arrangement for excretion in prison was as if designed with the very purpose of imparting this invaluable education.
The concept of Solitary imprisonment as punishment is based on additional restrictions on fundamental human needs by depriving one of human company or denying free access to the open skies. How could such sacred principles be violated by allowing for excretion outside the cell. Hence two tar-coated baskets were provided in the cell itself. The sweepers (mehtar) would clean the baskets in the mornings and evenings. One could get them to clean the baskets at other times too either with suitably intense exhortations or with soul-melting entreaties. Sometimes one had to yield to nature's call outside this routine. Such transgressions would necessarily be accompanied by a corresponding period of intense repentance as one had to suffer the noxious smell until the next round of cleaning.
In the second phase of solitary confinement, there were some reforms in this respect. But British reforms are in the nature of mere tweaking of the administrative aspects whilst the principles of the original system are preserved in entirety. The nature of suffering induced by such arrangements in a cramped cell especially during meals and at night hardly needs elaboration. The concept of attached toilets may be an integral part of western culture in many parts of the world. But to have one tiny cell serve as bedroom, dining-room and toilet was 'too much of a good thing'! We unfortunate Indians, with our primitive practices, are ill-at-ease in ascending to such higher realms of civilisation.
The other household items included a small-sized bucket for bathing, a tin-container with a spout for drinking water and a pair of prison-issued blankets. The bucket was kept in the courtyard, which was the assigned place for my bath. Initially I did not experience any shortage of water but that changed later on. In the initial period, the convict in the adjacent cowshed would fill up the bucket as many times as I wanted him to, during my bath. Hence bathing-time provided a break in the prison austerities with the daily opportunity to indulge in a householder's simple pleasures. The other convicts were not so fortunate though. A single bucketful of water was all that was provided and they had to manange their daily needs like cleaning of utensils, bathing and toilet with that. However, this in itself was a luxury permitted only to the under-trial prisoners. The normal convicts had no more than a few bowls of water for their daily use. The British apparently held the belief that Bhagwat Prem (love for God) and personal hygiene were equivalent and equally rare virtues. The prison regulations were perhaps designed to reinforce this National slander. Or the authorities may have been apprehensive that a surfeit of bathing pleasures would disrupt the joyous rhythm of imposed austerities in prison. It was difficult to conclude either way on the exact motivation. The disaffected convicts remained unmoved by the official magnanimity in this matter and disparagingly described the arrangement as 'kaak-snan' (crow-bath).
Two thick, prison-made blankets served as my bed in the cell. In the absence of a pillow, I would fold a blanket and use it for the purpose. The other blanket would be spread on the ground. Sometimes the heat in the cell became unbearable. Then I would roll on the ground to try and cool the body and get some relief. This is how I discovered the joy of contact with Mother Earth. The touch did have a cooling effect but as the ground was hard, I would spread my blanket over it. A spell of rain was an occasion for joy in spite of the inconveniences it entailed. The tandava nritya (violent dance) of the tempest would often be followed by a small-scale flood in my cell. This left me with no choice but to retreat to a corner with the wet blanket and wait for the cell-floor to dry. All hope of sleep had to be abandoned during this period and refuge had to be sought in one's memories. Some patches of dry area existed but I was disinclined to make my bed there because of the proximity to the tar-coated baskets. Notwithstanding the inconveniences, the rain and storm were welcome events as they brought much-needed relief from the furnace-like conditions in the cell.
The description of the 'Alipore Government Hotel' provided so far (with more to follow in the future) was not intended to be a commentary on my personal hardships but an exposé of the brilliant systems in the 'civilised British Raj' for under-trial prisoners and the prolongation of the agony they cause to the innocent. There was indeed cause for personal suffering, but the Divine Grace ensured that I was affected only for the first few days. Thereafter - by what means I shall mention later - the mind transcended these sufferings and grew incapable of feeling any hardship. Hence, recollections of prison life do not evoke any rancour or sorrow. I just smile to myself when reminded of those days. I had felt the same way, back when I was first ushered into a cage whilst dressed in the ridiculous prison uniform, and given to observe the conditions of our prison-stay. An earlier study of the history of the English people and their conduct in modern times had given me a deep insight into their strange and mysterious ways. So their behaviour and attitude towards me did not cause any surprise or disconcertment.
To the normal vision however, the British conduct would qualify as mean and reprehensible. After all, the accused were gentlemen; many were scions of Zamindars; some were, in terms of their lineage, education, qualities and character, the equal of the highest classes in England. The charges too were not ordinary. We stood accused of insurrection to liberate the country from foreign rulers and conspiracy for armed revolution. As for evidence or proof, there was none against many of the accused and arrests had been made merely on the basis of suspicion. Hence it was most unbecoming of the British Imperial officers to treat us like ordinary criminals in a prison, nay, like animals in a cage, to serve us food unfit even for animals, to make us endure scarcity of water, thirst, hunger and to keep us exposed to the sun, the rain and the cold. This was indeed an inherent defect in the national character of the British race. Though the British possessed some physical traits of a Kshatriya, their treatment of enemies and opponents betrayed a distinct shop-keeper mentality.
At the time, I had felt no aversion to the conditions. Instead I had felt rather glad that no distinction was being made between me and the common uneducated masses of my country. The entire arrangement essentially served as a sacrificial offering at the altar of Matribhakti (love of the Motherland). It also provided the apt means and a conducive setting for transcending the sense of duality and my yoga-siksha.
As a Nationalist, I subscribed to the belief that democracy and equality between the rich and the poor were essential constituents of the spirit of Nationalism. I recalled how we had tried to apply these principles in practical life by ensuring that everyone travelled in the third-class compartments on our way to the Surat Conference. In the camp, we did not make separate arrangements as leaders but shared accommodations with the rest. The distinctions between the rich and the poor, the Brahmins, the Vaishya, the Shudra, the Bengali, the Maratha, the Punjabi, the Gujarati were dissolved in a divine sense of brotherhood, with everyone sharing the same food and accommodations. The highest form of Swadeshi found expression in all things whether it was making beds on the ground or having meals consisting of rice-pulses-curd. The 'foreign-returned' from Bombay and Calcutta and the Brahmin from Madras with his tilak (sandal-mark on forehead) became part of one unified collectivity. During my stay in the Alipore Jail, when I received the same treatment in matters of food, accommodation and prison regulations as my fellow convicts and countrymen - the farmers, the iron-mongers, the potters, the doms and the bagdis, I felt as if the in-dwelling Narayana had accepted our practice of equality, unity, and nation-wide brotherhood and put His seal of sanction on my jivan brata (the guiding principle of life).
There will be a time when all classes of my countrymen, united as one living mass, would stand before the world, with heads held high, on the sacred mandapa (platform) of the World-Mother, represented here by our Motherland. The love of my fellow accused and convicts and the British administrator's practice of equality towards us seemed to indicate the arrival of that auspicious time. This prevision sent a thrill of joy running through me on many an occasion.
I noticed the other day, that the Indian Social Reformer, from Poona, had mocked my simple, comprehensible submission in the following manner: "It seems that bhagvat-sannidhya (nearness of God) has become commonplace in prison!". Alas, the 'reformist' human ego and pride in its meagre knowledge and virtues that begets such pettiness and arrogance! Is one to suppose then that the revelation of God should be possible in the luxurious palaces of the rich or the comfortable beds of pleasure-seeking, ego-blinded worldly folk, instead of prisons, huts, ashrams and the hearts of the miserable? God does not care for one's scholarly-learning, social standing, prestige, popularity, outward show and sophistication. It is the needy to whom He reveals Himself as the Compassionate Mother. It is in the hearts of those who are able to envision Narayana in all things - in men of all races, in the mother-land, in the miserable, the poor, the fallen and the sinners - and dedicate their lives in the service of the Narayana thus envisioned, that He dwells. And amidst a fallen race that is attempting to rise again, it is indeed the solitary-confinement prison-cell of a self-less servant of the motherland, where bhagvat-sannidhya (nearness of God) becomes commonplace.
Once the jailor had left, after supervising the provision of the blankets, a plate and a bowl, I sat myself on the blankets and scanned the prison-scene. The prison cell seemed preferable to the lock-up at Lal Bazar. At Lal Bazar, the largeness of the hall-like room deepened the sense of being alone. In the tiny cell, one felt as if the brahmamaya (identified with Brahman) walls were drawing closer to gather me in an embrace. At Lal Bazar, the high windows of the second storey room did not allow a view of the sky. It was left to one's imagination to visualize the vegetation, the birds, the animals, the people and their homes outside and even that became difficult sometimes. In the prison, the door to my courtyard was kept open. Hence I could sit beside the bars and observe the open spaces and the passage of prisoners outside. A solitary tree stood alongside the courtyard wall. Its eye-soothing verdancy was a source of great comfort and joy to me. A sentry did his daily rounds of the 'six decree' rooms. The sight of his face and the sound of his footsteps would often appear as dear and comforting as if they belonged to a close friend. The prisoners in the neighbouring cowshed would pass in front of my cell when taking their cows out for grazing. The sight of the cow and cowherd was a daily source of unending joy. I received a unique lesson in love during my solitary confinement at Alipore. Earlier, my personal affections were confined, even amongst people, to a rather small circle and any emotion, especially love, for birds and animals was practically non-existent. In this context, I recall a poem by Rabi babu about a village boy's deep love for a buffalo. The description, though beautiful, seemed to suffer from exaggeration and artificiality and hence I could not appreciate it at the time. However I would see the poem in a completely different light now. The experience at Alipore Jail had made me realize that it was possible for a man's heart to nourish a profound love for all living beings, so much so that even the sight of a cow or a bird or an ant could move him to the core of his being and set him throbbing with an intense delight.
The first day in prison was uneventful. The change in settings had provided stimulation to the mind. Hence I preferred the present arrangements to the lock-up at Lal Bazar. My faith in God protected me from any sense of loneliness. The unappetizing look of the prison food could not disturb my equanimity either. The coarse-grained rice, seasoned variously with husk, foreign particles, insects, hair, dirt amongst other things, the tasteless dal (pulses) that was more parts water to dal and vegetables in the form of leafy greens or shak (herbs) - it was a revelation for me that edible food can at once be so insipid and devoid of nutritive value. The dark, repulsive appearance of shak had made me quite apprehensive and it took just a couple of morsels for me to bid it a respectful namaskar and shun it completely thereafter.
The prisoners were served a single vegetable without exception. And any vegetable, once introduced in the menu, stayed on it as if forever. We were currently witness to the 'Reign of shak'. As the days turned into fortnights and the fortnights turned into months, the same fare comprising shak, lentils and rice was served twice daily, everyday. Whilst any change in the menu was out of the question, even the appearance of the food did not vary in the least. The everlasting, eternal, immutable, incomparable form led to a rapid growth of conviction amongst prisoners that this mortal, Maya-jagat (illusory world) may be permanent after all.
I was more fortunate than the other prisoners in this matter too. Due to the doctor's kind intervention, I was provided with a supply of milk from the hospital. Hence, I enjoyed, for some time at least, a respite from the daily encounter with shak.
That night I went to bed early. However unbroken sleep was not permissible in solitary imprisonment, lest it awaken within prisoners a desire for other such pleasures. The rule therefore was to interrupt the prisoner’s sleep every time there was a change in sentry-duty. The sentries were expected to create any kind of disturbance and persist with it until the prisoners were demonstrably awake. Amongst the sentries assigned to the 'six decree' cells, many were remiss in the application of this rule. In fact, a feeling of kindness and sympathy was far more common amongst the sentries, than a cold or rigid sense of duty. This was particularly true of the Hindustani sentries. Of course, some amongst the sentries were not so considerate. They would interrupt our sleep with polite inquiries about our well-being: "Sir, are you alright?". This untimely concern for our health did not always inspire affection. But I realized that these guileless sentries were simply adhering to the rule in this matter. Initially I put up with it in spite of it being an annoyance. Eventually I resorted to scolding the sentries to safeguard my sleep and very soon after that, I noticed that the custom of making health-enquiries in the night, was discontinued of itself.
Next morning, the prison bell was rung at 4:15 am. This was the first bell for waking up the prisoners. After a few minutes the bell was rung again. Then the prisoners came out in single file. After cleaning-up, they swallowed the lufsi (prison gruel) and commenced the day's labour. I woke up too as further sleep did not seem possible with the prison bell being rung every now and again. The barred-door to my cell was opened at five. I returned to my cell after cleaning up. A little later, lufsi appeared at my door. I was content with only a visual introduction that day and made no attempt to partake of it. It was only after a few days that I indulged in this highest form of delicacy for the first time.
Lufsi is actually boiled rice along with its starch. It constituted the prisoner's meagre breakfast. Lufsi was a 'trinity', in that it had three primary forms. On the first day, Lufsi was presented in its Prajna aspect: unmixed original elements, pure, holy, Shiva-like. On the second day, it was presented in its Hiranyagarbha aspect: rice and lentils were boiled together to produce a yellowish admixture called khichuri. On the third day, lufsi appeared in its Virat aspect: this form, with a touch of jaggery, had a 'greyish' hue and was somewhat fit for human consumption. I considered it beyond the capacity of mere mortals to consume the Prajna and Hiranyagarbha forms and hence kept my distance from them. However, I did swallow minuscule portions of the Virat form once in a while, if only to lose myself in wonderment and joyful reflection of the many-splendoured virtues of British rule and the high level of humanitarianism manifest in Western culture. It is mention-worthy that lufsi was the only source of nutrition for the Bengali prisoners as the other items had no food-value - not that it made any practical difference, for such was the taste, that one could consume it only out of sheer hunger and even then, it took a lot of coaxing to force oneself to swallow it.
That day I took my bath at half past eleven. For the first four or five days, I had to wear the same clothes in which I had left home. An old prisoner-warder from the cowshed, who had been appointed to look after me at the time of bathing, managed to procure a piece of coarse cloth about a yard and half long. I covered myself with this cloth whilst my only set of clothes was washed and dried. I did not have to wash my clothes or clean my dishes as another prisoner from the cowshed did that for me.
Lunch was at eleven. I would generally prefer to eat outside in the courtyard, in spite of the intense summer heat. This was primarily to avoid the proximity of the baskets provided for excretion. The sentries did not object to it. The time for the evening meal was from five to five-thirty pm. It was mandatory to keep the cage-door closed after this time. The evening bell rang at seven. The chief supervisor would gather the prisoner-warders together and call out the names of the inmates in a loud voice. After this, they would return to their respective posts. The tired prisoners would then seek refuge in sleep - the only source of pleasure or respite in the prison. This was the time when the weak-hearted wept over either their present misfortunes or anticipated hardships in the future. The lover of God though felt the nearness of his deity and experienced joy through prayer or meditation in the silence of the night. When night fell, three thousand unfortunate, fallen, victimized beings of God's creation, now imprisoned in this massive torture-chamber, known as Alipore Jail, were immersed in a vast silence.
I would rarely meet the other co-accused in prison as they had been confined in a separate area. There were two rows of tiny cells behind the 'six decrees'. As there were forty-four cells in these two rows, the place was known as the 'forty-four decrees'. A majority of the co-accused were held in these cells. They were saved from the suffering of solitary imprisonment since three persons stayed together in each cell. On the other side of the prison there was another decree, with a few large rooms that could accommodate as many as twelve persons. The ones amongst my co-accused who were held in this decree were better-off, as they could enjoy human companionship and the freedom to engage in conversation. However there was one amongst them who was deprived of this pleasure. This person was Hemchandra Das. The authorities seemed to be either afraid of him or antagonistic towards him. Hence they had singled him out, amongst all of the others, for solitary confinement. Hemchandra himself believed that since the police had failed to extract a confession from him, in spite of persistent efforts, their frustration had changed into wrath. He was confined to a tiny cell in the decree and the courtyard door was kept closed. I have already mentioned that this was the severest form of this type of punishment.
The police would from time to time, produce witnesses of various hues, shapes and sizes and then conduct an identification parade, that was no more than a charade. On such occasions we would be lined up in front of the office. The prison authorities would make us mingle with other convicts and present the mixed lot for identification. But this was only in theory. The other convicts were neither educated nor gentlemanly, and when we stood side by side, there was a visible difference between the two kinds. The bright faces and sharp features of the young men accused in the bomb conspiracy, exuded intelligence and personality. This was in stark contrast with the soiled clothes and lustreless visage of the ordinary convicts. Only a person bereft of human intelligence could miss this glaring difference.
The prisoners were not averse to the identification parade as it provided a welcome break from the monotonous routine of prison life and allowed them to exchange a few words amongst themselves. After our arrest, it was during one such identification parade that I first met my brother, Barindra, though we did not speak at that time. It was Narendranath Goswami who often stood by my side. Hence I got better acquainted with him than the others. Goswami was extremely handsome, tall, fair, strong and well-built, but his eyes betrayed ill-intentions and his words too were not indicative of intelligence. In this respect, he presented a contrast to the other young men, whose faces reflected pure and high thoughts and whose words expressed a keen intelligence, a love of knowledge and noble selfless aspirations. But though Gossain came across as a foolish and light-minded person, his words expressed vigour and boldness. At the time he was convinced about his own acquittal. He would say: "My father is an expert in litigation. The police will not be able to thwart him. My confession too will not go against me, for it will be proven that the police had used physical torture to forcibly extract the confession from me." I asked him, "Where will you find witnesses to support your claim?" Gossain answered unabashed: "My father has conducted hundreds of such cases; he knows this game very well. There will be no lack of witnesses". These are the kind of people who turn into 'approvers'.
The preceding sections described the imposed difficulties and various hardships that the prisoners in Alipore jail were subjected to. It is necessary to clarify that these conditions owed their origin neither to individual acts of cruelty nor general lack of humanism but to inherent defects in the Prison System itself. As a matter of fact, the administrative staff of Alipore Jail was exceedingly decent, kind and conscientious. It can be confidently asserted that if there is any jail where the prisoner's suffering has been reduced and the inhuman barbarity of the European prison system ameliorated through kindness and conscientiousness, then Alipore Jail is that jail, where the 'best from the worst' has emerged during Mr. Emerson's tenure. This emergence was primarily catalyzed by two extraordinary characters: Mr. Emerson, the jail Superintendent and Baidyanath Chatterji, the assistant doctor. One of them was an embodiment of Europe's almost-extinct Christian ideals and the other was a personification of the charity and philanthropy that form the essence of Hinduism. The likes of Mr. Emerson no longer frequent this country; they are getting rarer even in the West. He was the quintessential Christian gentleman: peace-loving, just, incomparably generous and charitable, simple, self-restrained, a model of rectitude and fundamentally incapable of anything but polite conduct towards one and all. Lack of energy and administrative efficiency were his shortcomings; he would let the jailor manage the entire workload, himself remaining a roi faineant. No great harm came about from this though.
The jailor, Jogendra babu, was a capable and efficient person. In spite of being seriously handicapped by diabetes, he would personally supervise all activities in jail to ensure justice and prevention of cruelty in the manner that Mr Emerson would have wanted. However one could not equate him to a mahatma like Emerson on this account. Rather, he was cast in the mould of the average government servant, who kept the Sahib in humour, performed his job efficiently and dutifully and treated others with a natural politeness and decency. I did not observe any other special quality in him. He had a great weakness for his job and his pension, in particular. In the month of May, his hope of enjoying a long, well-earned rest as a pensioner from January was very much alive. But the sudden appearance of the accused in the Alipore Bomb Conspiracy had made him nervous and fearful. The apprehension that some calamitous event could be precipitated by these irrepressible and energetic Bengali boys made him restless. He would say that a mere inch and a half separated him from the top of the palm tree but he had succeeded, as yet, in negotiating only half that distance. Towards the end of August, when Mr. Buchanan completed a satisfactory inspection of the prison, the jailor exulted, "This was the Sahib's last visit during my term of office. Now my pension is safe." Alas, human vision is so limited! The poet has aptly described the two acts of Grace that protect men from misery. First, Providence keeps our future shrouded in mystery and second, it endows men with a capacity for blind hope as their single source of sustenance. Barely four or five days after the Jailor's reasoned assessment, Naren Goswami lost his life at Kanai's hands, and Buchanan's visits to the prison grew increasingly frequent. The result was that Jogen babu lost his job before time, and, because of the combined attack of sorrow and disease, he soon breathed his last.
If Emerson had not delegated his entire responsibility to a subordinate like Jogendra babu, but involved himself fully in the prison administration, a far greater progress and systemic reform might have been achieved during his tenure. He accomplished whatever little work he took up personally. And it was on the strength of his character that Alipore Jail functioned as a prison and did not become a veritable hell for prisoners. Even after his transfer, the effects of his goodness did not disappear completely as his successors were obliged to preserve at least sixty percent of his legacy.
While Jogen babu, the Bengali Jailor, was in-charge of various jail departments, Baidyanath babu, the Bengali doctor, was all-in-all at the hospital. Doctor Daly, his superior officer, though not as magnanimous as Mr. Emerson, was a true gentleman and a learned person. He was extremely appreciative of the quiet demeanour, cheerfulness and obedience of the young revolutionaries. He would exchange pleasantries with the younger lot and engage in discussions on matters related to religion, politics and philosophy with the others. The doctor was of Irish descent and possessed many qualities of that liberal and emotional race. There was no meanness about him. Though he might utter a harsh word or be strict in occasional fits of anger, under normal circumstances, he loved to help people. He was habituated to various ruses and false symptoms reported by prisoners and sometimes, his suspicions led him to overlook even genuine cases. However once convinced of the genuineness of an ailment, he would treat the patients with great care and kindness.
Once I had a slight fever. It was then the rainy season and the moisture-laden winds had free play in the huge verandahs. Yet I was willing neither to stay in the hospital nor take medicines. My views on illness and cure had undergone a change and I no longer put much faith in medicines. It was my belief that good health could be regained naturally, unless it was a particularly severe illness. It was my intention to use yogic powers to contain the ill-effects of contact with the moist air and thus verify and prove to the logical mind the truth of yogic processes and their effectiveness. But the doctor was extremely anxious on my account and he convinced me to go to the hospital. Once I was there, he took great care of me and made all possible arrangements to make me feel at home. He wanted me to be comfortably lodged in the hospital for a long time, to avoid the possible ill-effects of the rainy season on my health, if I were to return to the prison-wards. However I refused to stay and insisted on going back to my cell. He was not equally considerate towards all, 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 any major incident were to take place in the jail, it would be caused by these strong and restless lads. What happened eventually though was the exact opposite; the incident in the hospital was caused by the ailing, emaciated Satyendranath Bose and the disease-afflicted, gentle-natured, reticent Kanailal.
I have described earlier my mental state on the first day of solitary confinement. In that initial period, I did not have books or any other external aids to keep myself occupied. Then Mr. Emerson gave permission for me to get articles of clothing and reading material from home. I borrowed a pen, some ink and wrote a letter on Prison stationery to my respected maternal uncle, the well-known editor of Sanjibani, requesting him to send my dhoti-kurta and the Gita and the Upanishads amongst books. It took a few days for the books to arrive. There was ample opportunity in the interim period to build a deep appreciation of the effects of solitary confinement on the human mind and its rapid degeneration, irrespective of the inherent stability or strength, and the ensuing loss of sanity, when subjected to these conditions. I was also able to realize God's Infinite Compassion that such a state invokes and experience the rare opening, created by these very conditions, for an union with Him.
Prior to my imprisonment, I would meditate for an hour each in the mornings and evenings. I attempted to increase the period of meditation in the absence of any other activity in Prison. But to master the restless human mind, that is pulled so constantly and so easily in a hundred different directions, and to hold it in a meditative, controlled and focused state for long, especially without previous practice, was no easy task. I could manage to concentrate for an hour and a half or sometimes for two hours at a stretch but eventually the mind would rebel and the body would experience numbness. Initially I remained preoccupied with a multitude of thoughts. Later on, the thoughts arising in a void of human interaction seemed so futile and purposeless that the mind gradually ceased to entertain them. This led to a condition in which hundreds of indistinct thoughts seemed to circle the mind as they were denied entry to it. A few that were able to gain access, swiftly sank without a trace in the utter silence of a thoughtless mind. This state of uncertainty and helplessness caused intense mental agony.
I looked outside in the hope that nature and its beauty may soothe the nerves and provide some respite to the distressed brain. But the solitary tree, the tiny blue slice of visible sky and the joyless prison-scenes were not able to provide any lasting relief. I then directed my attention to the prison-wall but the blank, lifeless surface only served to reinforce the hopelessness of the situation and the mind felt even more acutely the agony of being bound in fetters. I tried to meditate but could not; instead the intense but failed attempt worsened matters further as the mind felt yet more exhausted, useless, and miserable. I looked around for distractions; at last the movement of large black ants around a hole caught my attention and I followed their activities and movements for quite a long while. A line of tiny red ants also entered the scene. Soon a fight broke out between the black and the red ants; the black ants began to bite and kill the red ones. I felt a great sympathy for the red ants at their predicament. So I attempted to save them by driving away the black ants. This gave me something to do as well as think about. In this manner, the ants helped me pass some time for the next few days. However I still lacked the means to fill the long vacant hours. I tried to reason and argue with myself and even forced myself to reflect; but with every passing day the mind grew more and more rebellious and its cry for succour became desperate. It felt pinned-down and crushed under the unbearable weight of Time but was powerless to break free even for a moment, as in a nightmare where a person feels himself being strangulated by an enemy but is not able to move his limbs in defence. I was amazed at this condition!
It is true that I was not one inclined to remain idle or without activity; still I have spent long hours in solitary musings. I was unable to reconcile myself to this weakness, which permitted only a few days of solitude to cause such mental agitation. One plausible explanation could be the difference between voluntary solitude and solitary confinement: it was one thing to enjoy solitude at home, but to be held forcibly in solitary confinement in a prison, was quite another matter. At home one was free to seek the company of men and indulge in conversation with friends, listen to various sounds emanating from the street or observe the multifarious scenes of life to stimulate the mind and thus feel at ease. In Prison, there were only constraints and impositions and one was even deprived of outside human contact. A proverb states that the one who can bear solitude must be either a god or a brute, as it is beyond the capability of mere mortals to do so. I was not convinced about the veracity of this statement earlier. I now realized that even yogic aspirants were found wanting in this aspect. I recalled the dreadful fate of the Italian regicide, Bresci. His pitiless judges had given him seven years of solitary imprisonment instead of passing the death-sentence. Bresci became insane even before a year had passed. But he endured for a year, which is quite a long time in itself! My own swift capitulation seemed inexplicable in this context. The essential reality of the matter dawned on me later that God was merely toying with my mind to educate and elighten it in the guise of this play.
The first lesson consisted of an insight into the mental process that impels a prisoner towards insanity when subjected to solitary confinement and a realization of the inhuman cruelty inherent in this manner of punishment. Thus God not only made of me a staunch critic of the European prison-system but as if entrusted me with a mission to educate my countrymen and the world so that they would also turn against such barbarous practices and favour the creation of a humane and sympathetic prison system.
Some time after my return to India from England, fifteen years ago, I had started contributing articles to Induprakash, a daily paper published from Bombay. These articles contained a strong rebuttal of the 'prayer-and-petition' policies of the Congress. The late Mahadeo Govind Ranade was wary of their impact on the youth of the day. When I met him, he tried to dissuade me from writing such articles and instead asked me to take up prison reforms as a worker in the Congress. I was astonished at this unexpected contrivance and refused the opportunity as I did not find it appealing. At the time, I neither knew that this would prove to be a clairvoyant indication to the distant future nor did I have a clue that one day God would Himself keep me in a prison for a year to give me direct experience of the inherent cruelty and futility of the Prison-system and enlighten me on the urgent need for reforming it. Of course, there was no immediate possibility of reforms in the prevalent political dispensation. But I took an inner resolution to create public awareness so that the present Prison system is discarded as a hellish legacy of a foreign civilization, whenever India is possessed once again of the right to self-determination.
Secondly, God wanted my mind to become aware of its shortcoming in order for a self-rectification to take place. A yogic state demands that both the company of men and solitude should be accepted with equanimity. And indeed, it was only a matter of days before the weakness was replaced by an imperturbable mental poise and one felt confident of staying unaffected even if subjected to ten continuous years of solitary confinement. The Mangalamaya (All-Good) Lord had yet again made apparent evil into a passage to a greater good.
God's third lesson to me was that personal effort in sadhana would not lead far but rather an absolute faith and complete self-surrender would be the means to attain perfection in yoga. The Supreme Grace would grant of itself whatever power, realisation or joy it deems fit and to assimilate and utilise these for God's work should be the sole aim of my yogic endeavours.
This state of suffering, induced by mental inactivity, lasted for a brief period. One afternoon, I was barraged by an endless stream of thoughts. Suddenly the thoughts became incoherent as if the mind had lost its control over them. I realized only after the balance had been restored that even though the mental control had ceased, the intellect itself had remained unaffected as a detached, silent witness to the extraordinary experience. However at the time of this event, I was so terrified of losing my mental balance that I did not pay any attention to the phenomenon but called upon God with intensity and prayed fervently for Him to protect me from such a fate. Immediately, a great peace descended upon my mind and heart. A cooling sensation spread over my entire body. The restless mind became relaxed and joyful. I experienced a state of indescribable bliss. I felt as if I was lying on the lap of the World-Mother just as a child does, with a sense of complete security and utter ease. From that very moment, my suffering in prison evaporated. Such was the power that God had poured into my inner being in that one moment that subsequent hardships in prison like restlessness or mental unease caused by lack of activity in solitary confinement or physical suffering or illness or despair in the process of yoga sadhana, were met with an imperturbable poise. The intelligence was able to derive strength and joy from the sorrow itself and annul the suffering of the mind. Therefore hardships seemed as if drops of water on a lily. Due to this change, my need for books had decreased considerably by the time I actually received them. In fact I could have managed even without them.
I had no intention of providing a historical record of my inner life during imprisonment through these writings. Yet I could not help but mention this particular event as an explanation for my blissful state during the long period of solitary confinement that followed. It was with this very purpose that God had arranged for the gradual process leading up to insanity in solitary confinement, to be enacted like a drama in my mind but with the intelligence itself remaining a silent, detached witness. This experience strengthened my mind, created empathy for all victims of human cruelty and helped me realise the extraordinary power and efficacy of sincere prayers.
During the period of my solitary confinement, Dr. Daly and the Assistant Superintendent would visit me in my cell almost daily for a chat. I had been a recipient of their special favour and sympathy from the very beginning for reasons I could never fathom. I hardly spoke during such visits except to answer their questions. In conversations too, I remained for the most part, a silent listener or contributed at best, a few words. Yet they continued their daily visits. One day, Daly Sahib spoke to me, "I have taken the Assistant Superintendent's help to obtain permission from the senior Saheb for you to take a walk in front of the decree in the mornings and evenings. I do not like that you remain confined in a small cell all through the day, as it is harmful for both body and mind." Thus began my daily stroll in the open space before the decree. The duration of my evening walks varied from ten to twenty minutes whereas in the mornings, it was about an hour. Sometimes I would stay out for as long as two hours since there was no restriction on the time. I found these walks quite pleasant. The boundaries of my transient kingdom were marked by the jail factory on one side and the cowshed on the other. Whilst walking back and forth between these two boundaries, I would recite mantras from the Upanishads - mantras that were at once solemn, deeply-moving, eternal and potent. Or I would try to experience the presence of Narayana (God) in all that existed around me. I would silently repeat the mantra - Sarvam khalvidam Brahma (All this is the Brahman)- and seek to realize its essence in all objects, animate or inanimate. In this manner, I would attain a state where the perception of reality was no longer defined by the prison and its commonplace objects. The high enclosure, the iron bars, the blank surface of the wall, the tree with its green leaves shining in the sunlight - all seemed to come alive as if animated by a universal consciousness. A vibration of pure love seemed to radiate from them towards me. All of creation seemed to be just Nature's elaborate play, whilst a vast, pure, detached spirit, rapt in a serene delight, looked out from within. Sometimes one could as if see the Lord standing under the tree, playing upon his Flute of Delight and drawing out my very soul with His sweetness. I was accompanied by a constant sense of being in the Divine embrace or on the lap of the Divine Mother. These experiences overwhelmed my body and mind. A pure and wide peace reigned everywhere; it was an indescribable state. The hard crust of my exterior personality was removed, thus enabling a free outflow of love for all creatures from within. Other Sattwic elements such as charity, kindness and Ahimsa began to now dominate the Rajasic bent of my nature. As the Sattwic aspects gained more prominence in the personality, the sense of delight intensified and the peace too deepened. The anxiety over the case had dissipated in the beginning itself. Now an unshakeable faith grew in me that God being Mangalamaya, has brought me to this prison for my own mangala and therefore my acquittal and the quashing of charges were foregone conclusions. This faith made me immune to hardships and all suffering in Prison ceased hereafter.
The deepening of these experiences took some time. Meanwhile, our case came up for hearing in the magistrate's court. Initially the mind was perturbed on being thrust into the commotion of the external world. The new situation was in complete contrast to the silence of solitary imprisonment and disrupted the flow of Sadhana (spiritual discipline). The mind refused to be an audience to the dull and uninteresting proceedings of the court, that went on for up to five hours at a stretch. My attempt to continue the Sadhana in the courtroom did not succeed at first since the unconditioned mind was easily distracted by any aural or visual stimulus. The capacity of dhyana-dharana was acquired in the later phase when it became possible for me to draw the mind inwards, thus ensuring that it was unaffected by external events. As this capacity was absent in the first phase of court-proceedings, I discontinued my failed attempts at Sadhana in the courtroom and contented myself with occasional visions of the omnipresent Divine. For the remaining time I turned my attention to my co-accused and their activities and conversations or simply reflected on other things. Sometimes I would even listen in to Mr. Norton's invaluable expositions and the revelatory evidence presented by witnesses. I discovered that while the passage of time in solitary imprisonment was a simple and pleasant affair, it was not so easy to be in the midst of so many people and watch a serious court-case where so many lives hung in the balance, unfold like a play before one’s eyes. The banter of the young revolutionaries, their pranks and carefree laughter did gladden the heart. The court proceeding, on the other hand, was a bothersome affair and when it ceased for the day at four-thirty, I was all too happy to return to the prison in the carriage.
The contact with the free world outside and the opportunity to be in each other's company, after a fifteen or sixteen day spell of prison-life, made the accused extremely happy and excitable. They made every moment of the ten odd minutes, that we spent in the carriage, count with an incessant flow of laughter and conversation.
The authorities made elaborate arrangements in our honour for the first trip to the Court. A small platoon of European sergeants with loaded pistols formed our armed escort. A band of armed policemen surrounded us from all sides as we boarded the carriage and then marched behind it. This ritual was repeated when we alighted from the carriage. All this fanfare would surely have led uninformed bystanders to imagine this bunch of young, fun-loving lads as intrepid warriors of some notorious gang, who were endowed with such strength and courage that even in this unarmed state, they were capable of breaching the impregnable human-wall formed by hundreds of policemen and 'tommies' and effecting their escape. That possibility alone could explain and justify the security arrangements on display.
This pomp and pageantry was kept up for a few days. There was a gradual decline after that. Eventually, the numbers in our escort-party dwindled to not more than two or four sergeants. Our escorts did not enforce any protocol on our return to the prison. So we would just casually walk in as if we were free men returning home from a stroll. The Police Commissioner and some Superintendents were incensed and commented on the slackness and negligence of their officers: "We had arranged for twenty-five to thirty sergeants on the first day. It is now observed that not more than four or five turn up." They would thus rebuke the sergeants and demand strict arrangements for the desired level of security. A slight increase in the number of sergeants would be seen as a consequence of this pressure. However the change was shortlived and soon there would be a relapse into the previous state of laxity! The sergeants had actually found the “devotees of the bomb” to be a remarkably harmless and peaceful lot. They had not detected any discernible intention or plan to effect an escape or kill or attack anyone. For these reasons, the sergeants had perhaps started to consider the elaborate security measures to be unnecessary and a waste of their time and energy. Initially a body-search was conducted both before entering and leaving the court. This was a futile exercise if one were to disregard the dubious joy of feeling the soft touch of the sergeants’ rough hands. It became evident that the Police too was not fully convinced of the practical utility of such a procedure since they discontinued the practice after a few days. We were then left free to carry books, bread, sugar or any item of our choosing to the courtroom. At first this was done covertly. Later on we did it openly. The Police soon ruled out the possibility of us hurling a bomb or firing a pistol in the courtroom. However the Sergeants had one apprehension that they could never overcome and that was the calamitous possibility of some mischievous prisoner throwing his footwear at the glorious pate of the magistrate! Therefore footwear was strictly forbidden in the court and the sergeants never let their guard down in this matter. They did not display a similar keenness to implement any other security measure.
The court trial had an air of unreality about it. The Magistrate, the prosecution counsel, the witnesses, the evidence, the exhibits, the accused and practically everything else associated with the trial had an oddness about it. Day after day, as we were subjected to an endless stream of witnesses and exhibits, the play-acting of the prosecution counsel, the magistrate's childish behaviour and his fickleness and levity, there were times when we felt as if we were not in a British Court of Justice but on a stage of a theatre or within a fictional world out of some novel.
Mr. Norton, the government counsel, was not only the leading actor of this theatrical production but also its author, Sutradhar and a prompter for court-witnesses - such wondrous talent in one man is a rare phenomenon indeed. Mr. Norton seemed to be neither aware of nor accustomed to the code of conduct and ethics prevalent amongst the circle of barristers in Bengal, probably because he was himself based in Madras. Mr. Norton had also been a neta (leader) of the National Organisation at one time. This could explain his constitutional aversion to dissent or opposition of any kind and his habitual intimidation of those who dared to stand up to him. People likened Mr. Norton's aggression in this regard to that of a lion in the jungle. It is not known whether Mr. Norton revealed his leonine temperament at the Madras Corporation. However it was most certainly in evidence at Alipore court. His legal expertise, if one could call it that, was like snow in summer. Nevertheless it was difficult not to be charmed by Mr Norton's verbal dexterity and unceasing flow of commentary, his amazing ability to make inconsequential evidence appear important, the audacity of his baseless deductions, his bullying of witnesses and junior barristers and his hypnotic powers of persuasion to make white appear black.
The leading barristers may be broadly classified into three categories. The first kind are the ones who inspire confidence and conviction in the judge's mind by dint of their legal expertise, logical exposition of facts and detailed analysis. The second kind are those who uncover the truth through skillful cross-questioning of witnesses and achieve resonance with the judge or the jury by dexterous presentation of the facts of the case and the related circumstances. The third kind comprises those whose strategy is to disorient the witness through a play of words or intimidation or by subjecting them to a verbal barrage, in order to splendidly confuse the entire issue and to deliberately mislead or confuse the judge or the jury to win the case. Mr. Norton was amongst the foremost practitioners of the third kind.
However this should not be held against him. After all a barrister is a paid professional. Hence he is duty-bound to serve his client's interests. As it is, in this day and age neither the complainant nor the defendant are interested in the truth. All they care about is winning the legal case by any possible means. Therefore the counsel too must focus only on winning the case or else he would be remiss in his duties towards his client. Unfortunately for Mr Norton, God had not endowed him with the requisite qualities to win a case on merit. So he had no choice but to follow his own nature in trying to win the case and in doing so he was merely performing his swadharma.
Mr. Norton was paid a sum of thousand rupees by the Government daily as his fees. If this expenditure did not yield the desired results, it would be considered a loss. Hence Mr. Norton was doing his utmost only to prevent any loss to the Government. However for political cases such as this, the British Legal system specifically allowed for special leniency to the accused in the matter of basic conveniences and also discouraged undue emphasis on suspect or unverified evidence. I believe that adherence to these legal provisions would not have weakened Mr. Norton's case in any manner. On the other hand, if he had played by the rules, the innocent would have been spared the torture of solitary imprisonment and the harmless Ashok Nandi may not have lost his life. The counsel's aggressive personality was probably the principal cause for this shortcoming in his approach.
The historical material that Shakespeare was able to use as a source for his plays had been compiled by people like Holinshed, Hall and Plutarch. Similarly, the source material for the court-room drama, that was enacted here in the name of a trial, had been compiled by the Police. The Shakespeare of our drama was none other than Mr. Norton. But unlike Shakespeare who would exercise his discretion in choosing from the compiled material, Mr. Norton would seize upon every scrap of the available material without the least consideration if it was true or false, good or bad, cogent or irrelevant, important or inconsequential. He would then embellish these with suggestions, inferences and hypotheses drawn from his fertile imagination to construct a plot so wondrous that even Shakespeare, Defoe and the greatest of poets and novelists were eclipsed by this high priest of literature. Some critics may well point out that just as Falstaff's hotel bill reflected a penny's worth of bread and countless gallons of wine, Mr. Norton's plot too appeared to combine a ratti of admissible evidence with ten maunds of inferences, guesswork and suggestions. Still they could not help but admire the dexterity and skill inherent in the plot's construction.
I was most gratified that Mr. Norton had chosen me as the protagonist of his play. Whilst Milton's Paradise Lost had its Satan, Mr Norton's revolutionary plot had me at its centre as an extraordinarily intelligent, immensely powerful, bold, bad man! It was as if the National Movement began and ended with me; as if I was at once its sole creator and saviour, in trying to bring down the British empire. The moment any elegant or brilliant piece of English writing came into view, Mr. Norton would jump up from his seat and loudly proclaim - Aurobindo Ghose! All legal or illegal acts whether deliberately organised or occurring unexpectedly must necessarily originate from Aurobindo Ghose! And the apparently legal acts, having Aurobindo Ghose at their origin must surely be a cover for hidden intentions that were potentially illegal. Mr Norton seemed to be convinced that were I not apprehended, the British Raj in India would be dismantled within two years. If my name was discovered, even on a scrap of paper, Mr. Norton would be thrilled and respectfully lay this invaluable evidence at the feet of the presiding magistrate. It is a pity that I was not born as an Avatar. Otherwise such devotion and ceaseless meditation upon me would have surely earned him mukti (salvation). This in turn could have reduced both the period of our detention and the government's expenses.
Since I was declared innocent and acquitted of all charges in the Sessions court, Mr Norton's plot lost both its essential validity and glamour. Mr. Beachcroft, the spoilsport, had impoverished the greatest epic of the twentieth century by leaving out Hamlet from Hamlet, the play. If the supposed critics are also allowed editing rights to creative works, can one expect anything other than such a tragedy? Norton held a similar grouse against some witnesses, who too played spoilsports and completely refused to bear evidence in accordance with his fabricated plot. Norton would become furious when faced with such hostile witnesses and roar like a veritable lion to strike fear into their hearts and threaten them. Mr. Norton's anger under such circumstances was similar to the legitimate outburst of a poet aggrieved at an inaccurate representation of his poem or that of a stage manager when the actor's declamation, tone or postures are not in keeping with his specific directions. This sattwic anger also led to a quarrel with barrister Bhuban Chatterji. Now, there could be no greater kill-joy than Mr. Chatterji. He had scant regard for propriety and his sense of timing too was poor indeed. Whenever Mr. Norton tried to present evidence without regard for its relevance but purely for the sake of poetic effect, Mr. Chatterji would invariably object and rise to say "inadmissible" or "irrelevant". He was unable to grasp that the inclusion of such evidence was not based on its relevance or legitimacy but purely for its potential usefulness to Mr Norton's drama. Such impropriety irked not just Mr. Norton but even Mr. Birley. On one such occasion, Mr. Birley addressed him in a pitiable manner: "Mr. Chatterji, we were getting on very nicely before you came." That was indeed so; such frequent objections, regardless of their validity, caused both unnecessary hold-ups in the unfolding of the drama and interruptions in the audience's entertainment.
If Mr Norton were the acknowledged author of this drama, as also its lead-actor and stage manager, then Mr. Birley may well be declared as its patron. Birley may have been the pride of the Scottish race. His appearance was like a reminder of his country of origin. His inordinately white, inordinately tall and inordinately lean body with a disproportionately small head conjured up images of Ochterlony himself perched atop the towering Ochterlony monument or a ripe coconut affixed to the pointed tip of Cleopatra's obelisk! Birley was sandy-haired and his facial expression was as frigid and immobile as the snow and ice in Scotland. One must be endowed with an intelligence proportionate to one's physical size else doubts may arise regarding nature's sense of economy. However, Mother Nature seems to have been distracted or inattentive with regard to this sense of economy while creating Birley. The English poet Marlowe had aptly qualified this sense as 'infinite riches in a little room'. An encounter with Mr. Birley however gave rise to a contrary impression - 'little riches in an infinite room'. Actually, one felt rather sorry for the scanty intelligence at the disposal of Birley. The fact that thirty crores of Indians were being governed by administrators of a similar kind, aroused nothing but profound admiration for the greatness of the English and their system of governance.
Mr. Birley's legal knowledge was exposed during the cross-examination conducted by Shrijut Byomkesh Chakravarty. In spite of having served as a Magistrate for many years, Birley's head had reeled when he was asked about the exact timing and the legal procedure for the case being entrusted to his charge. Unable to provide appropriate answers, he tried to redeem himself by transferring the responsibility back to Mr. Chakravarty. This matter still stands as one of the unresolved complexities of this case. Birley's pitiable appeal to Mr. Chatterji, mentioned earlier, provides some insight into his method of administering justice in the court. From the very outset, Birley had been charmed by Mr. Norton's learning and rhetoric and fallen under his spell. He would humbly follow the path as led by Norton, derive his views from Norton's views, join enthusiastically in Norton's laughter and grow angry in Norton's anger. His simple childlike conduct sometimes made one feel an overwhelming sense of affection and tenderness for him. In fact Birley was indeed childish. I had never been able to accept him in the role of a magistrate. The impression one has of him was of a student, abruptly elevated to the role of teacher and made to occupy the teacher's high seat. And that was indeed how he conducted the affairs of the court. If anyone were to behave contrary to his expectations, Birley would discipline him like a schoolmaster. On occasions, when some of us started chatting amongst ourselves to dispel the boredom brought upon by the farcical proceedings, Mr. Birley would chide us as in the manner of a schoolmaster. If we still did not obey him, he would order us to 'stand up' as punishment. If his order was not complied with immediately, he would ask the sentry to enforce it. We had grown so accustomed to this 'schoolmaster-like' manner, that when Birley and Chatterji began to argue, we expected the 'stand-up' punishment to be delivered upon the barrister imminently. However Mr. Birley adopted a different course of action. He screamed: "Sit down, Mr. Chatterji" and forced this newly-arrived, disobedient pupil at his Alipore School to take a seat. Some teachers when confronted with too many questions or requests for elaborate explanations from their students get annoyed and heckle them. Similarly Mr. Birley would lose his cool and threaten defence counsels, if they dared to raise objections.
Norton, too, on his part, found some witnesses bothersome. For instance, his objective would be to establish that a certain piece of evidence had been written by a particular accused person. But the witness may not be obliging enough with his response: "No sir, this specimen is not exactly like that handwriting. But it could be, one cannot be sure." - and many witnesses did respond like that. Norton would lose his patience at this. He would shout, scold, intimidate and even threaten the witness to elicit the desired response. His final question would invariably be, "What is your belief? Yes or no?". The witness could neither say 'yes' nor could he say 'no'. All he did was to reiterate his original statement and try his best to explain to Norton that he held no 'belief' in the matter and was currently oscillating between the two possibilities in a state of grave doubt. But such a response was unacceptable to Norton. He would repeatedly thunder out his favourite question. Again and again that terrifying question would strike the witness like a lightning bolt: "Come, sir. What is your belief?" Mr. Birley, following Mr. Norton's cue, would add his own thunder: "Tomar biswas ki achay?" (What is your belief in the matter?) The poor witness would now face a horrendous dilemma. He had no 'biswas' (belief) worth speaking of. Yet he found himself trapped between the thunderous magistrate and the menacing prosecution counsel, who, like a veritable tiger, seemed eager to tear out his very internals to extract the priceless, elusive 'biswas' from it. More often than not, the 'biswas' would fail to materialise. Finally the hapless witness, his body soaked in sweat and his brain in a whirl, would escape from this place of torture with his life. Some who held their life dearer than their 'biswas' would make good their escape by offering a made-up 'biswas' at the feet of Mr. Norton, who thus propitiated, would complete his cross-examination in a suitably affectionate manner. The prosecution counsel and the magistrate thus combined to make the proceedings appear more like a drama than a court-trial.
Although there were some amongst the witnesses who did not cooperate with Mr. Norton, the large majority of them provided desirable replies to his questions. The ones whom we recognized, amongst this majority, were very few indeed. Some familiar faces though did turn up from time to time. Devdas Karan Mahashaya was one of them. We shall remain eternally grateful to him for dispelling our boredom and making us laugh in the court-room. He had truthfully recounted an incident at the Midnapore Conference: "Surendra babu appealed to his students for guru-bhakti (devotion to the teacher) and Aurobindo babu remarked: 'What did Drona do?'". Mr. Norton's eagerness and curiosity knew no bounds on hearing this. He must have imagined this 'Drona' to be a devotee of the bomb or a political assassin and if neither, then at least someone associated with the Manicktola Garden or the 'Chhatra Bhandar'. Norton may have even interpreted the sentence to mean that Aurobindo Ghose was advising the students to repay Surendra babu with bombs instead of guru-bhakti. The prosecution case would have certainly been strengthened if this were to be true. Hence Norton repeated his question eagerly: 'What did Drona do?' At first the witness was unable to comprehend the intent of the question and continued the argument in this confused state. Finally he threw up his hands, pointed to the sky and told Norton: 'Drona had performed many many amazing things.' Obviously, Mr. Norton did not find this satisfactory. How could he be satisfied with anything less than the discovery of 'Drona's bomb'? So he asked again: 'What do you mean by 'many amazing things'? Be more specific.' The witness provided varied responses but Dronacharya's secret deeds remained shrouded in mystery. Mr. Norton now lost his temper and started to thunder. The witness too began to shout. An advocate quipped: 'Perhaps the witness does not know what Drona had done'. At this Karan Mahashaya, nursing his wounded pride, flared up. He screamed: 'What? I do not know what Drona had done? Bah, have I read the Mahabharata from cover to cover in vain?' This verbal battle over the departed soul's secret deeds stretched for almost thirty minutes. During this time, every five minutes or so, Alipore Judge's court would be shaken to its very foundations by Norton's thunderous exhortation: 'Out with it, Mr. Editor! What did Drona do?' Mr. Editor now launched into a long-winded story, but alas it provided no reliable clues as to what Drona had done. Peals of laughter reverberated through the courtroom.
Eventually, Karan Mahashaya, who had utilised the tiffin-break to calm himself down, offered a potential resolution to the matter on resumption of the court proceedings. He clarified the issue by stating that Drona had actually done nothing and hence the earlier heated debate over the past acts of the departed soul had been in vain and it was Arjuna who had killed his guru, Drona. Notwithstanding this false accusation against Arjuna, Dronacharya must have felt greatly relieved and offered his gratitude to Sadashiva at Kailasha for ensuring that he would not be summoned as a witness in the Alipore bomb case, on account of Karan Mahashaya's evidence. After all, a single word from the editor would have been sufficient to establish his relationship with Aurobindo Ghose. But Ashutosh Sadashiva (Lord Shiva) had saved him from such a fate.
The witnesses who gave evidence in the trial could be categorized into one of three discernible types. The police officers and detectives from the CID department formed one such type. The second type comprised people, belonging either to the lower classes or the bhadralok (middle class), whose conduct, it appeared, was inspired by their unbound affection for the Police department. The third category comprised of those unfortunate ones, who were fundamentally incapable of much affection for the Police but were compelled, nevertheless, to give evidence. Each kind had a distinct and characteristic style of giving evidence. The police officers and detectives would cheerfully act out their scripted parts, fluently deliver their given lines and identify those who they were supposed to identify, without the slightest hint of doubt or hesitation or faltering even once. The second kind would also give evidence with considerable eagerness and identify those who they were supposed to identify. Sometimes, they would get carried away in their enthusiasm and even identify those who were not meant to be identified. The third kind of witnesses, who were giving evidence under coercion, shared whatever they knew but it did not amount to much. Norton would be dissatisfied with their evidence under the implicit assumption that the witness was withholding valuable and certain proof. He would then resort to intimidatory cross-examination to elicit the desired evidence from them. This created a terrible crisis for such witnesses. On one side there was the pressure exerted by Mr. Norton's intimidatory roar and Mr. Birley's blood-shot eyes. On the other side, was the thought of committing the great sin of sending their countrymen to the Andaman islands by bearing false evidence. They had to choose between satisfying either Norton and Birley or God. The choice was critical as it could either lead them into transient danger arising from human wrath or create the prospect of hell and misery in the next life as punishment for committing a sin. The witnesses probably reasoned that the prospect of hell and misfortune in the next life were matters of the far-off future whilst the danger of human origin was immediate and could well materialize the very next moment. The fear of being convicted for bearing false evidence, because of unwillingness to do so, must have also played on the minds of many witnesses, since examples of such a consequence in this very place were none too rare. Hence every torturous moment that the third kind of witnesses spent in the witness-box was coloured with fears of untold hues. When the cross-examination finally ended, their half-dead bodies were as if resuscitated and they were able to breathe freely again. Some witnesses, however remained unimpressed and unaffected by Norton's intimidation and boldly gave their evidence without so much as raising their eyebrows. In such cases, the English counsel, in accordance with his national character, would beat a retreat and soften his approach. In this manner, many witnesses were called to the witness-box and made to give evidence of varied nature but none of it really helped in establishing the police case. One witness spoke quite plainly, "I know nothing and I do not understand why the police have dragged me into this!" India is possibly the only place where a case could be set up in this manner with impunity. In any other country, the Judge would have severely censured the Police and taught them a lesson. Therefore putting a large number of people in the dock without conducting a proper investigation and evaluating the probability of guilt, presenting hundreds of witnesses on the basis of guesswork and thus wasting the tax-payer's money and then senselessly detaining the accused in torturous prison conditions over extended periods of time were actions that could add to the glory of India's Police department alone. But the poor police officers did not have any other option. They possessed neither the capabilities nor the competence to justify the label of detectives. Hence their only option was to cast a wide net for witnesses, with little or no consideration to the relevance of their evidence and present as many of them as possible in the witness box, in the hope that at least a few might possess some relevant information and by chance, may even provide useful evidence.
The method employed for identification of the accused was also extremely odd. A question was first posed to the witness: "Do you recognise any of the accused?" In case the witness responded positively, Mr. Norton's joy would know no bounds. He would immediately arrange for an identification parade and demand that the witness demonstrate his powers of recollection then and there. In case the witness was hesitant: "I am not sure but I may be able to recognise", Mr. Norton would get annoyed and say: "All right then, give it a try". In case the witness was resistant : "No, I cannot recognize anyone; I have not seen them earlier", Mr. Norton would still not excuse the witness. He probably thought that the sight of the accused persons might trigger some buried memory of the witness's past life and therefore compelled the witness to undergo a test in this regard. But such yogic powers would be beyond most witnesses. The belief in re-incarnation itself might be missing. The witness would then march gravely between two long rows of accused persons under the watchful eyes of the sergeant, and without so much as a glance at us, shake his head and announce: "No, I cannot recognize anyone". Norton would be crestfallen and sorrowfully take back his living net without a catch.
The trial was a testament to the levels of precision and faultlessness that the human memory is capable of. For instance, a witness who neither knew any of the forty-odd accused by name nor had any acquaintance with them in any life, past or present, was yet able to recollect precisely having seen one particular face two months ago in a specific location or not having seen it in another or having seen it at three specific locations but not in two other places. A mere glimpse of a person while he is brushing his teeth and his face is etched in memory for eternity but there is no memory of the time of meeting a particular person or of his actions at the time or the identity of his companions or whether he had been alone and yet his face too is etched in memory for eternity; it is not possible to forget Hari as one has met him on ten occasions but one has spent merely half a minute with Shyam and yet he too will be remembered till one's dying day, with no possibility of any lapse in memory - such powers of memory are a rare phenomenon indeed in this imperfect human form, in a mortal world of ignorance and error. Yet such amazing, faultless, precise powers of recollection were exhibited by not just one or two police-men but the entire police force. As a consequence, our devotion and reverence for the C.I.D. deepened with every passing day. Unfortunately though, when the case reached the Sessions Court, the respect had to be considerably reduced. This is not to say however that there had been no occasion for doubt in the magistrate's court. When it was clearly established by way of written evidence that Sisir Ghose had been in Bombay in the month of April and yet some eminent police officers claimed to have seen him in Scott's Lane and Harrison Road during that very period, one could not help but feel suspicious. When the occult vision of the C.I.D. saw the subtle body of Birendrachandra Sen of Sylhet at the Muraripukur Garden and Scott's Lane - the very property at Scott's Lane that Birendra had no knowledge of, as proven conclusively by way of written evidence - even though his physical self was present at his father's place at Baniachung at that very time, the suspicion was strengthened. When the Police claimed to have seen some persons, who had never set foot in Scott's Lane, in that very location on more than one occasion, the preponderance of suspicion was but natural. A witness from Midnapore - whom the accused from Midnapore identified as a police detective - claimed to have seen Hemchandra Sen of Sylhet delivering a speech at Tamluk. As Hemchandra had never visited Tamluk physically, it was perhaps his causal body that had rushed there from far-off Sylhet to deliver a powerful and seditionary nationalist speech and thus provided visual and aural stimuli to the detective Mahashaya. An even greater mystery was the sighting of the causal body of Charuchandra Roy of Chandernagore at Manicktola. A couple of police officers declared on oath that on a certain date and time they had seen Charu babu at Shyambazar, from where he had walked down to the Manicktola Gardens, in the company of an important conspirator. The police officers claimed to have followed them all the way and observed them at close quarters, thus ruling out any possibility of mistaken identity. Both witnesses maintained their stand during cross-examination. Vyasasya vacanam satyam (Vyasa speaks the truth); the evidence given by the police has to be accorded a similar reverence. There was no possibility of a mistake in the date or time either, since it was established on the basis of the evidence given by the Principal, Dupleix College, Chandernagore, that Charu babu had indeed taken leave from the College and gone to Calcutta on the said day and during the said time. But amazingly, on that very day and at that very hour, Charu babu had actually been chatting with Mayor Tardival of Chandernagore, Tardival's wife, the Governor of Chandernagore and few other distinguished European gentlemen as they strolled about the platform of Howrah station. Charu babu's companions on the day had readily agreed to stand witness in his favour. Since the police had to release Charu babu at the instance of the French government, this secret was never revealed in the court. But it is my suggestion to Charu babu that he should provide this evidence to the Psychical Research Society and assist in the advancement of human knowledge. Since it is inconceivable that the testimony of the Policemen, more specifically the men from the C.I.D., could be false, one has no option but to seek refuge in Theosophy for explanations.
In short, the British legal system makes it easy for an innocent person to be imprisoned, sent to kalapani (transportation) or even served with the death sentence, as was demonstrated at every step of the trial. Unless one is put in the dock as an accused and gets first-hand experience of this, it is difficult to realize fully the illusory promise and falsehood inherent in the Western Legal system. This European system is just a special form of gambling where one gambles with the freedom and happiness of a human being and consequences like a life-time of pain, humiliation and a life that is worse than death for the accused and his family and friends. There is no count of the guilty who are let-off and the innocent who perish in this gamble. A first insight into the propagation and impact of Socialism and Anarchism in Europe is gained the moment one has a personal stake in this gamble and finds oneself trapped in this heartless, unjust, threshing-machinery devised for protecting society. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that a section of kind-hearted liberals have raised demands for dismantling the social structure. It is questionable whether a society that has to pay such a huge cost by way of injustice and the innocent's pain and suffering, due to a system meant for its protection, deserves to be protected at all.
The one significant event in the magistrate's court was the testimony of Narendranath Goswami. But before we speak of that, let us turn our attention towards the young revolutionaries who happened to be my co-accused in the trial. Their attitude and bearing in court convinced me that a new age had begun in Bengal and a different breed of men were now walking the land. The youth in Bengal of that period could be typified either as the meek kind who were quiet, well-mannered, harmless, of good character but with low self-esteem and bereft of lofty ideas or the kind who were ill-behaved, boisterous, restless, violent, lacking in self-restraint and truthfulness. The other kinds of Bengali youth lay somewhere in between these two extremities. Barring eight to ten exceptionally talented, powerful personalities with leadership qualities, one would rarely come across any illustrious descendants of the Aryan race other than the two types described earlier. Though Bengalis were in possession of intelligence and talent, they lacked in power of action and a humane approach. But this group of young boys made one feel as if that rare breed of large-hearted, puissant, dynamic men of a bygone era had been born again in India. That fearless, ingenuous look in their eyes, that dynamism in their speech, that delight and joy devoid of any sentimentality, that unaffected brightness in the midst of this crisis, that cheerfulness and pleasantness, untouched by irritation, concern or grief, was characteristic, not of the inertia-bound Indians of the time, but of a new race, of a new age and of a new orientation in action. If these were indeed murderers as claimed, then it is strange how their natures seemed remarkably unblemished by the dark shadow of murderous deeds and how their conduct did not betray the slightest hint of cruelty, recklessness or brutishness. These boys did not worry in the least for either their own future or the outcome of the trial but instead spent the period of detention in having boyish-fun, indulging in laughter and games and in studies and critiques. They became friendly very quickly with the Prison-staff, the sentries, the convicts, the European sergeants, the detectives, the court officials and engaged in playful banter with all, without any distinction between friend or foe and high or low. The court-trial was a tiresome period for them since the proceedings were a rather dry affair. They had neither books to read nor did they have permission to talk amongst themselves to pass this time. Those who had started the practice of yoga were not advanced enough to be able to meditate in the midst of commotion. Therefore they found it really difficult to pass the time in court. Soon, the practice of bringing books to the court was started by some of the boys and it was swiftly emulated by the others. This resulted in a strange spectacle after some time: whilst the fate of the forty-odd accused convicts hung in the balance in the ongoing trial and either death by hanging or transportation for life seemed likely, the convicts themselves, without so much as a glance at the proceedings, remained absorbed in perusal of Bankimchandra's novels, Vivekananda's Raja Yoga or Science of Religions, or the Gita, the Puranas, or books on European Philosophy. Neither the English sergeants nor the Indian policemen created any hindrance in this conduct. They probably reasoned that if so many 'caged-tigers' could be kept quiet in this manner, their own jobs would become that much easier. Moreover they did not foresee any potential harm being caused to anyone. However, one day Mr Birley's attention was drawn to this sight. It became intolerable to him. He kept quiet for the first few days. But he could not exercise self-restraint any longer and issued orders banning the access to books. Here he was dispensing justice in the most remarkable fashion and instead of being a good audience and trying to appreciate this, everyone was absorbed in reading books! There was no doubt that such a conduct demonstrated complete disrespect for Birley's personal standing as well as the prestige of the British justice system.
In the phase of solitary confinement, when we were detained in separate cells, it was only during the journey in the police van or in the period before the magistrate's arrival or during the break given for tiffin (lunch) that we had the opportunity for brief conversation amongst ourselves. The ones who already knew each other, spent every moment of this time in laughter, banter, pleasantries and discussion of all kinds, trying to make up for the time lost in the forced silence and solitude of the cell. I mostly limited my interaction to either Barindra or Abinash, as it was difficult to get acquainted or strike up a friendship with complete strangers under the given circumstances. Hence I would generally remain a passive participant in the conversation and laughter around me. However there was one person who would sometimes try to strike up a conversation with me - this was none other Narendranath Goswami, who later turned into a State 'approver'. He was neither quiet nor well-behaved like the other boys but impudent, frivolous and unrestrained in character, speech and act. At the time of his arrest his natural courage and boldness came to the fore but later on he found himself incapable of bearing even the slightest suffering and inconvenience of prison life. After all, he was a landlord's son, with a spoilt upbringing amidst luxury, pomp and moral indulgence. The severe austerity and constraints of prison life had driven him to despair and he expressed these feelings freely and openly to all. Gradually, he became possessed by an intense desire to escape the torturous conditions by any means possible. At first he had hoped to retract his confession and prove that the Police had used physical torture to force his confession of guilt. He mentioned that his father was determined to make requisite arrangements for false witnesses. A few days later, a new aspect was revealed to us. His father and a moktar (a pleader's agent) began to visit him frequently in the prison. Eventually detective Shamsul Alam also started holding long conversations with him in secret. During this period, Gossain's inquisitiveness and prying questions led to a preponderance of suspicion in the minds of many amongst us. He would ask many kinds of questions of Barindra and Upendra, regarding their acquaintance with or closeness to important Indian personalities, the identity of those who nourished the secret society with financial assistance, the identity of other members outside India or in other provinces of India, the next rung of leadership who would run the society and the location of other branches of the society. Soon, everyone came to know of Gossain's thirst for information and his trysts with Shamsul Alam and their growing intimacy too became an open secret. All of this was analyzed in detail and it was noticed by some that after every such darshan (visit) by the police, Gossain seemed to find a new set of questions to ask. It is needless to mention that Gossain did not receive satisfactory answers to any of his questions. When this matter first came to light, Gossain confessed that the police were trying to persuade him to turn "King's Witness". He once mentioned this matter to me in the court. I asked him: "What has been your response?" He said: "Am I going to fall for that! And even if I do agree, how much do I really know, to give the kind of evidence they want me to?" After a few days, when he broached the subject once again, I noticed that substantial progress had been made in the matter. He was standing by my side at the identification parade when he said, "The police keep visiting me regularly." I told him jokingly: "Why don't you tell them that Sir Andrew Frazer was the chief patron of the secret society - that should make their persistence worth its while". Gossain responded: "I have indeed said something on these very lines. I have told them that Surendranath Banerji is our head and that I had once shown him a bomb." I was staggered at this disclosure and asked him: "Was there any need of saying such a thing?" Gossain responded: "I will send these ... to an early grave. I have fed them many such things. They will perish in trying to find corroboration. Who knows, the trial might be held up because of this." I only said this in response: "You should give up this kind of mischief. If you try to be too clever with them, you will end up being deceived yourself." I do not know the degree of truth in Gossain's words. The general belief amongst the accused was that Gossain was trying to mislead us by saying all this. My own sense was that Gossain had not yet committed himself to the idea of turning an 'approver'. Although he was leaning more and more in that direction, he also nurtured hopes of damaging the Police case by misleading them. The ones of a wicked disposition are naturally inclined to achieve their ends through deception and dishonesty. It became evident to me that the Police now held sway over Gossain and he would say or do anything under their influence to save his own skin. The degradation of a base nature through successively more ignoble acts was being enacted before our very eyes like the acts of a play. I noticed the changes in Gossain's mental make-up, his appearance, his expression and mannerisms and even in his speech. In order to justify his treachery, he would devise various kinds of economic and political pretexts from time to time. It is not very often that one gets first-hand access to such an interesting psychological study.
At first we did not let Gossain know that his deception lay exposed to us. He too was stupid enough not to realize this for quite some time and imagined that he was helping the police in complete secrecy. But after a few days, orders were passed to keep all of us together instead of keeping some separately in solitary confinement. In this new arrangement, where people could mix and converse freely with each other, it was very difficult to maintain secrecy. During this phase, quarrels broke out between Gossain and a couple of the boys and Gossain was able to infer from their words and the generally unpleasant treatment from everyone around that his deception was no longer a secret. Later on, when he gave his evidence before the court, some English newspapers reported that this unexpected event had caused surprise and excitement amongst the accused. Needless to say, this report was based entirely on the imagination of the reporters. Everyone had realized well in advance the manner and nature of evidence that would be provided in court. In fact, even the date on which the evidence would be given was known to us. During this time, an accused went to Gossain and said - "Look, brother, life here is intolerable. I too would like to turn an 'approver'. Please tell Shamsul Alam to arrange for my release." Gossain agreed to this and after a few days, informed the convict that a favourable consideration of his request was likely and a letter from the government had been issued to that effect. Gossain then asked the convict to eke out some important information related to the location of the branches of the secret society and the identity of its leaders from Upen and the others. The make-believe 'approver' was a mischievous person with a sense of humour. He consulted with Upendra and then provided a set of imaginary names to Gossain as the said leaders of the secret society: Vishambhar Pillay in Madras, Purushottam Natekar at Satara, Professor Bhatt in Bombay and Krishnajirao Bhao of Baroda. Gossain was delighted and conveyed this 'reliable' information to the police. The police on their part searched every nook and cranny of Madras, and found many Pillays, of various shapes and sizes, but none that also answered to the name of Vishambhar or even half of it. As for Satara's Purushottam Natekar, he kept himself shrouded in utmost secrecy. In Bombay, a certain Professor Bhatt was discovered, but he turned out to be a harmless gentleman. Since he was a loyalist to the Crown, it was inconceivable that he could be linked to any secret society. Yet Gossain based his evidence upon this very hearsay from Upen and made a sacrificial offering of Vishambhar Pillay and other fictional leaders of the conspiracy at the holy feet of Norton to strengthen his made-up prosecution case. The police added to the mystery around Bir Krishnajirao Bhao by producing the copy of a telegram sent to Krishnajirao Deshpande of Baroda by some 'Ghose' from the Manicktola Gardens. The people of Baroda were unable to confirm the existence of anyone answering to that name, but since Gossain, the epitome of truthfulness, had spoken of a Krishnajirao Bhao of Baroda, then surely Krishnajirao Bhao and Krishnajirao Deshpande must be the same person. Since the name of our respected friend, Keshavrao Deshpande, had already been discovered in my correspondence, it hardly mattered if Krishnajirao Deshpande even existed in reality or not. Therefore it could not but be that Krishnajirao Bhao, Krishnajirao Deshpande and Keshavrao Deshpande were all names of the same person. This proved that Keshavrao Deshpande was a leader of the secret conspiracy. Such extraordinary inferences formed the basis for Mr. Norton's celebrated prosecution theory.
Gossain claimed that it was at his instance that our solitary confinement was done away with. According to him, the police had made arrangements for us to be together in larger groups so that he could stay amidst us and glean secret information related to the conspiracy. Gossain did not realize that we were aware of his new-found vocation and continued with his probing questions regarding the identity of those engaged in the conspiracy, the locations of other branches of the secret society, the identity of the patrons and financial contributors, the identity of those who would now be in charge of the secret society and other enquiries on the same line. I have already given examples of the kind of responses he received. But a majority of Gossain's assertions turned out to be untrue. Dr. Daly had informed us that it was he who had persuaded Emerson sahib to allow this change in our accommodations. It is possible that Daly's version was correct and on being informed about the change, the police may have sought to benefit from the new arrangement in the manner Gossain had described. Be as it may, everyone welcomed this change except me; I was reluctant to be in the company of other men, as my sadhana was progressing rapidly during that period. I had had a fore-taste of samata (equality), 'desirelessness' and peace, but these states had not yet been fully established in the being. I was apprehensive that the new consciousness may diminish and even be subsumed in the company of other men or if my nascent condition was pre-maturely exposed to thought-waves of other persons. In fact that is exactly what happened. I understood only later that it was necessary to raise the opposing state for the completeness of my realization. Hence the Antaryamin (Inner Guide) suddenly brought me out of solitude and flung me into an overpowering stream of outward activity. The rest of the group however found it difficult to contain their joy at this turn of events. That night everyone gathered in the largest room, in which singers like Hemchandra Das, Sachindra Sen were already resident and no one slept till two or three in the morning. That night, the silent prison reverberated with the ring of laughter, the endless stream of songs and the pent-up stories that were flowing like flooded rivers in the rainy season. We fell asleep but every time we woke up, we heard the laughter, the singing and the conversation continuing unabated. In the early hours of the morning the stream thinned out. The singers too fell asleep and our wards fell silent.
Karakahini (Bengali) by Sri Aurobindo is a series of nine articles published in the Bengali monthly Suprabhat in 1909-10. This series remained incomplete as Sri Aurobindo left Bengal in 1910. Karakahini came out in book-form in 1920. It was later followed by an English translation titled Tales of Prison Life. Both these books are © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust.
Tales of Prison Lifev2 is a newer and alternative English translation of Karakahini. It can be distinguished from the earlier translation by the presence of "v2" in the title.
Sri Aurobindo was arrested for conspiracy on 2nd May 1908 and spent one full year in Alipore jail during the magistrate's investigation and the trial in the Sessions Court at Alipore (Alipore Bomb Case). Although the British Government tried to implicate him in various ways, Sri Aurobindo was acquitted and released from Jail on 6th May 1909.
Subsequently he wrote a series of articles in the Bengali journal Suprabhat describing his life in prison and the courtroom. Sri Aurobindo made a brief mention in these articles of his spiritual experiences in Jail. It was in his speech at Uttarpara that Sri Aurobindo for the first time spoke publicly of his Yoga and his spiritual experiences.
This video is a reading from Karakahini (Bengali), which is Sri Aurobindo's account of his experiences as an under-trial prisoner in Alipore Jail, Calcutta.
Sri Aurobindo's evocative description is brought to life by Supriti Mukhopadhyay's reading, a century after it was first published in the Bengali monthly Suprabhat in 1909-10.
All extracts and quotations from the written works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and the Photographs of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are copyright Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry -605002 India.
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