Editor’s note: Like in the previous part, headings are added by us to make the long text more easily readable in this digital presentation.
CONTINUED FROM PART 1
Another thing which poisons life in the Andamans is the want of freedom. What a joy it was for us, when after a confinement of two years in that huge pile of bricks, called a prison, we found ourselves free one day, outside in the Settlement, on the occasion of the King’s Coronation! I drank in with my insatiate eyes, like a passionate lover, the beautiful vision of a Nature dressed in green and displaying her mountain tresses.
The jail authorities know very well what it is for a man to lose his liberty. It is for this reason that a convict has been deprived of freedom; and again when that freedom is restored to him it is done slowly, gradually, step by step through a long process of fiery ordeal, making him, as it were, pay for each dole.
Stages of Freedom in Prison
In the beginning the man is shut up day and night in separate confinement. Then he is let off in a veranda fenced with iron railings. After that comes a larger freedom in the yard and in the workshop.
And finally when the period of imprisonment is gone through, one is free outside in the settlement. Now there are no walls around, no nightmare of Petty Officers and warders and Sahibs at your heels to terrorise you. Yet even then, on leave days and at night, you have to come back to be shut up in the barrack and present yourself at the roll-calls.
After a life of two years’ strictly guarded confinement, even that partial freedom in the wide bosom of Nature was very sweet to me. It was a balm to my soul, so cruelly deprived of all joy, to be able, on days of leave, to wander about as I pleased in the quiet tranquility of the green woodlands. And yet that delight was not all delight, poisoned as it was with the thought that I must return soon to my daily toils and pains.
Stricter Rules for Political Prisoners
Generally a prisoner when he has worked outside for five years becomes a tindal or petty officer and draws a monthly pay. We had never the fortune of enjoying such a large freedom. Not only that, even after undergoing imprisonment and compulsory labour for 10 years, we were not promoted to the “first class” and had not the joy of being self-supporting on Re. 1 a month.
The self-supporting who are let off on ticket of leave can marry, if they like, from among the female convicts. It is not even illegal for them to choose their partners from the free population, provided the Chief Commissioner grants a permit. Also the free convicts who already have their wives and children at home can call them over here and live with them.
If the sudden miracle of our release did not happen we would have got perhaps the right of self-supporting. As a matter of fact, something was being arranged to that effect.
Books, only companions
Through all this sorrow and suffering and oppression and despair the only companions we dearly cherished were books. Nowadays, I hear, third class convicts can send and receive letters three times a year. But in our time we were allowed to write only once a year and it was also only once a year that we received news of our friends and relatives.
Labourer convicts can get from their homes cloths, shirts, utensils, books, slates and other articles that are not very costly. But we were given books only; if anything else came it was stocked in the godown. Those of us who had the means at home could get some 20 or 25 books per year.
All the books were kept in the Central Tower and every Sunday morning one book was given to each for a week. In the end, however, we exchanged books as often as we liked with the help of the warders and managed even to possess more than one book at a time. It was a regular festive occasion whenever any one of us got a parcel from home. And how we planned and plotted to steal books and what a joy it was for us when we succeeded!
Stealing Salt et al
The struggle for life made us pucca thieves in many other ways. We would steal salt, chili, and tamarind from the kitchen and coconut from Number Seven. What a delicious chutney we made out of these ingredients! Even half-baked bread and mere rice when mixed with that thing could taste like heaven’s ambrosia!
It became almost a second nature to us to steal and eat the tender coconut, and drink its milk. And of course there was no end to the amount of torn rags and coconut oil we stole in order to clean our iron plates and dishes that had the nasty habit of always getting rusted. We got over the trouble only when we, were allowed monthly pay and could buy brass utensils.
Cooking experiments and a vegetable garden
After about six years we got permission to cook our food ourselves. Our kitchen was a hut with tinned roof, about 5 cubits long and 3 cubits wide. Cooked rice, dal and roti were supplied to us from the prison kitchen. We prepared only vegetables, egg or fish that we bought in the market. So gradually our daily meal came to be after all not a bad thing.
We four of us got 12 oz. of milk per head from the Sarcar. That was used for our morning and afternoon tea. The last two years of our stay we prepared even polao, luchi, meat and whatever else we liked on the Durga Puja day and the Christmas day.
Hem Chandra and Upen were star-artists in cookery. So it was they who did the daily cooking. And what surprises they flung on me every day with their novel and unheard of preparations! I cooked only on Sundays. We formed even a vegetable garden round about our kitchen with chili plants, mint and gourd-creeper. Our time for cooking was between 10 and 12.
A New Appreciation for Women’s Toil in Kitchen
There is joy in a picnic, because it is a novelty and a matter of only once on an occasion. But only the dumb toilers of our zenana know and we also knew to a certain extent what it is daily to shed water through your eyes and nose in lighting the oven, to get half cooked yourself in cooking and after that to rub and clean the utensils. Then only we learnt that one and one do not make a couple but that the wife forms the major portion, the husband is only a fraction.
Upen used to heave deep sighs and lament, “Alas, only the Goswamis are happy in Bengal. I once saw a Goswamiji sitting under a tree, in a beatific and ecstatic pose. One sevadasi (a woman devotee) of his was massaging him with oil; for it was time for the master to take his bath. Another was arranging and preparing the materials for cooking and a third was blowing with her beautiful lips at the oven and was busy cooking; for the master should be served with the offerings of the devoted. And yet half a dozen more had gone out into the village singing and begging alms, for the master required ganja, malpo (cakes) and also bhoga for the night.”
I do not know what sociology says about it, but that polygamy is of immense utility in Port Blair would be readily conceded when it is remembered that there after the day’s heavy and crushing toll one has to do one’s own bed, one has to massage one’s own limbs.
Also see our digital exhibit:
Sri Aurobindo and August 15
Delight in the Midst of Sorrows
And yet our delight was not small even in the midst of such sorrows. For it is a thing that belongs to one’s own self. One may gather it as much as one likes from the inexhaustible fund that is within and drink of it to one’s heart’s content. Not that, however, the lashes of sorrow were an illusion to us. Even the Maya of Vedanta did not always explain them away, so often had they a solemn ring of reality about them.
But a tree requires for its growth not only the touch of the gentle spring, but the rude shock of storm and rain and the scalding of the summer heat. Man remains frail and weak and ill developed if he has an easy and even life. The hammer of God that builds up a soul in divine strength and might is one of the supreme realities.
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~ Design: Biswajita Mohapatra and Beloo Mehra