The unbearable cries of men being force-fed through rubber tubes inserted in their throats surpassed the sounds of the roaring waves of the mighty Bay of Bengal lashing on the rocky northern shores of Port Blair, the capital city of Andaman and Nicobar Islands on a summer night in 1933.
The screams came from within the walls of a massive penitentiary, an institution of torture, a symbol of the oppression of the mighty British Empire, a place to break the mind and body of any Indian caught revolting against the Raj to make their nation free.
Right after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 or the Sepoy Mutiny, the Britishers executed many rebels and those who survived were exiled to the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago to punish them in the most inhumane way and break their spirits.
Not only were the prisoners isolated from the mainland, but also faced social exclusion as many Hindu’s in those days believed that one would lose his caste if he went to a foreign land crossing a sea. This was known as ‘Kala Pani’ hence the deportation and imprisonment in the Andamans came to be known as ‘Sazae Kala Pani.’
Over the next forty years, thousands of Indian freedom fighters were deported to the island. These prisoners were extensively used to construct prisons, buildings, and harbours.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indian Freedom Movement gained major momentum, as a result of which the number of prisoners sent to the Andamans greatly increased. Due to this the need for a high-security prison was greatly felt.
Following this, it took the British a decade from 1896 to 1906 to build the mighty puce-coloured prison made of twenty thousand cubic feet of local stones and three million Burmese bricks. With a massive watchtower in the middle, seven rectangular building wings, like spokes of a bicycle wheel, fanned outwards to form the entire penitentiary.
Each of the seven blocks had three storeys housing a total of 696 cells of 13.5 x 7 feet and in each cell, there was a ventilator located at a height of 9.8 feet. The buildings were designed in such a way that the face of a cell in a spoke faced the back of cells in another spoke. This prevented any prisoner from communicating with another in a perfect solitary confinement system. The lack of any dormitory and only the presence of these individual solitary cells gave the penitentiary its name, the ‘Cellular Jail.’
During its functional life, more than 80,000 political prisoners termed by the Britishers as ‘dissidents and mutineers’ were brought to this penal colony, tortured, medically experimented upon, and executed. Very few of these men ever survived their ‘Sazae Kala Pani’ prison sentence. Tarok Poramanik was one such individual who survived his days at the black water prison from hell.
Tarok was just twenty years old when he was deported to Kala Pani and was there when the thirty-three prisoners went on a hunger strike in May 1933. Though he wanted to be a part of the protest, senior prisoners did not allow him to join the strike. They said he was too young to die, and that he should live to tell the world what happened inside.
Three of the thirty-three men force-fed – prisoner 68 Mahavir Singh an associate of the famous Indian Freedom fighter and martyr Bhagat Singh of the Lahore conspiracy case, prisoner 89 Mohan Kishore Namadas, and prisoner 93 Mohit Mitra both convicted in the Arms Act case, died due to force-feeding. Their death certificates said, ‘drowned in milk.’
Though not a part of the hunger strike, Tarok experienced his fair share of torture at ‘Kala Pani.’ From being flogged on the infamous triangular iron frame to months of solitary and shackled confinement, Tarok faced it all every night and day of his stay in the prison from hell.
He like many wanted to escape but was never successful in doing so and saw other prisoners lose their lives in the attempt. Escaping prisoners usually drowned in the sea, or were shot dead trying to escape, or on recapture faced the firing squad only to be executed. Tarok’s strong desire to escape the Cellular Jail never happened.
Then in the years following 1933, after many prisoners died due to torture, execution, and suicide, finally in 1939 after thirty-three years of brutality, through the efforts of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi the political prisoners were repatriated from the penitentiary and the Cellular Jail was for the first time emptied.
Following this, during the Second World War, the Empire of Japan invaded the Andamans in March of 1942 and captured the small British garrison stationed there. Notionally during this period control of the island was passed on to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who hoisted the Indian National Flag for the first time on the archipelago. At the end of World War II on 7th October 1945, the British, however, regained control of the island once again.
Post-independence, the Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital was set up in the premises of the Cellular Jail in 1963, which continues to serve the local population through its five hundred beds and forty doctors to date. Then finally on the 11th of February in 1979, the Cellular Jail was declared a National Memorial by the fourth Prime Minister of India Morarji Ranchhodji Desai.
On his return to Calcutta after suffering for more than five years in Kala Pani Tarok had become a changed man. The unbearable torture that he endured had made him both physically and mentally hardcore, and it also made him a loner not interested in the world anymore.
Then over the years following independence, he witnessed how the newer generations did not value or realise the contributions of their seniors in making the nation free through unfathomable sacrifices made in blood and gore. He became indifferent and cranky with hardly any desire or reason to live for.
He never got married and over time all his known relatives also died. Now in the year 2000, at the age of eighty-seven, Tarok had become a sort of prisoner once again, cooped up in a 15 x 10 feet room of an old age home in a city, which hardly knew his name or about his contribution to the Indian freedom movement.
The old age home was not the cellular jail, though to Tarok it seemed very similar only without the physical torture to face. Though the home did not have brutal wardens, it had caretakers who were rude, abusive and quite ruthless.
Lying in his bed at night he remembered how for years he had laid on the stone-cold floor of the prison. Brushing his teeth in the morning in the small loo attached to his room he recollected that in the jail there were no washrooms and he had to relieve himself every day at a corner of his cell. Looking out of the window he reminisced how he would hang and pull himself up the bars of the small ventilator in his cell to just have a fleeting glimpse of the sky and smell the fresh air.
Thinking about these little things he adjusted and accepted staying at the home, without creating any ruckus about the indifference faced by him and the other old men. Further, he knew that no protest or human cry would work, after all the nation was free, they were free men trapped in a democratic system and a new world order of the modern-day.
Most of the time Tarok, however, felt that history was repeating in his old age, he felt imprisoned at the home and cursed himself for agreeing to come here and spend the remainder of his days. The food and supplies were bad and stringently rationed, they were not allowed to leave the premises, none of the caretakers listened to anything the old men said. Yes, the old age home was not the Cellular Jail, but it was a prison, nevertheless.
The home was mostly for freedom fighters and war veterans, a noble initiative by the Government initially, unfortunately, had gone under the control of individuals only interested in syphoning money from the system. Now those who were in charge of the home at different levels from the topmost person to the bottommost sweeper only thought about making money and their vested interests.
None of them cared about the thirty old men with sad stories of abandonment who lived there, wanting to spend the remainder of their days in peace and little happiness. Some had families who did not care about them and some like Tarok had no one else.
Then one day the visiting doctor and a few of the caretakers pinned down one of his friends, another resident and forcefully injected him with medicine, for he had protested about the soup being unconsumable. This was a trigger point for Tarok and he willed his mind to escape this old age home, which felt as inhumane as the Cellular Jail, not to that intensity but certainly a reflection and reminder of its oppressive image.
Over the next few months, Tarok spoke with the other residents and managed to convince six of them to agree to escape from this prison for free old men. The seven wrinkled and wobbly oldtimers now dedicated all their time and efforts to figure out a way to escape and after a lot of thinking and discussing they put a plan in place.
They would escape during the only event that happened in the home, an annual function on the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day, which was just a month away.
The day of escape had finally arrived, it started with a flag hoisting ceremony followed by a small function, speeches by few dignitaries and some cultural performance by children of a nearby school, who visited the old men once every month to spend some time with them.
At the gifting ceremony during the function when the children usually handed over gifts to the thirty old men, it was discovered that seven of them were missing. A great commotion now spread all over the premises. The caretakers and everyone present frantically searched every corner of the home but alas, the missing old men could not be traced.
It was a matter of great shame for the authorities of the home. The incident could not be kept hidden, there were too many visitors present. The chief guest was furious and said that the matter would be thoroughly investigated, and necessary actions taken if any misdeeds were found at play.
After all this, it was time for the guests to go. The children and their supervising teacher boarded their bus and left the old age home.
On the next day, the news of the missing old men was all over the newspapers and local tv channels. The police and court had to step in. The case was thoroughly investigated, and through the witness of the other residents, legal actions were taken on all the caretakers and the superintendents. The home underwent a full change of personnel. New staff and management under strict court supervision were appointed and the life of the other old men living there positively changed.
Going back to the day of escape on the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day, after dropping the children at their respective stops the school bus finally halted in front of a tea stall and the driver and the helper got down for a cup of tea. Then slowly the back door, the emergency exit of the bus opened and from inside, seven old men came out one by one and disappeared into the crowd.
An hour before when the children boarded the bus and took their seats, it seemed they were hiding the seven amongst them and their supervising teacher, driver and helper of the bus were unable to see them from the front of the vehicle amidst all the commotion and excitement that children in a bus usually made.
It seemed that Tarok and the oldtimers had hatched a brilliant plan. They had convinced the children to help them escape when they came to meet the old men on their usual monthly visit a month back. On the day of the escape on their arrival at the old age home before coming down from the bus, the children unlocked the back emergency door of the vehicle, through which the seven entered and hid to escape.
Gradually over time, many came to know how the old men escaped. After all, it was children who helped them, and they would eventually speak of their heroic achievement in saving the lives of seven old men. No one, however, did anything to the kids, their role in the escape became an open secret.
All ended well, except for no one ever heard again from the escaped men. It seemed that Tarok a prisoner in an island penitentiary of a once colonised nation escaped another prison in a different era of the same democratic state.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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