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The Tale of My Exile

the tale of my exile

Book: The Tale of My Exile (Twelve Years in the Andamans)

Author: Barindra Kumar Ghose

Barindra Ghose’s The Tale of My Exile describes his prison experience as a revolutionary who plotted to overthrow British rule in India. Barin was one of the chief accused in the Alipore Bomb Case, the 1908 cause célèbre which marked both the peak and the collapse of the first and most radical wave of the Indian freedom struggle. This phase lasted from 1905 to 1908 and was a most fecund seedtime in the growth of the sense of a national identity in the Indian people. It was during this period that the Indian elephant first roused itself to face the British lion and trumpeted abroad its claim to freedom and self-determination. Also at this time, the methods of non-cooperation, boycott and swadeshi, later used so successfully to dynamise the Indian masses and accelerate the freedom process, were first introduced and put into practice. The book sheds light on the sacrifices made by these young revolutionaries, and our thanks are due to Sachidananda Mohanty, who wrote the introduction, for unearthing this book and getting it reprinted.

The tale begins at Alipore Jail. After a whole year as an undertrial prisoner Barin had been convicted and given the death penalty. He chose to appeal and the sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The curtain rises on 11 December 1909, the day on which Barin and six fellow-offenders began their journey from the Alipore Jail in Calcutta to the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. The unfailing optimism of youth, ignorance of the terrors awaiting them, relief at being united with their friends and the excitement of novel circumstances make for a heady mix: the mood of the prisoners is extraordinarily upbeat. The prospect of leaving their homeland for an unknown island from which they may never return does not deflate them. To see them carry on, laughing, singing and chatting, anybody would think they were off on a pleasure jaunt.

The second chapter is a physical description of the Andamans. This is possibly to share with us their wild beauty, but mainly gives a concrete feel of the place, which was important in Barin’s context. For most people, the Andamans were a remote, almost mythical spot beyond the Black Waters, of which nothing was known apart from sinister rumours which circulated periodically.

The next chapter introduces us to the prison and the typical sequences in a convict’s life. After fifteen days in quarantine the prisoners enter the prison and are allotted work, varying in difficulty depending on each one’s physical condition. Once the prison part of their sentence is served, they are sent out to the different settlements on the island and given work there. They are assigned responsibilities and positions in the prison if the officials consider them fit.

In the fourth chapter, the description of the idyllic surroundings of Port Blair Harbour as Barin’s ship comes into port charms us, and we are lulled into forgetting the cruel circumstances, until he pulls us back into reality by describing the grim Cellular Jail. The building and the security arrangements are described in some detail, as also the process of becoming an inmate. Chapter Five deals with incidents in the jail and the eccentricities and perversions of convict officials, particularly those of Khoyedad Khan, who was the Petty Officer put in charge of Barin’s group.

Chapters Six, Seven and Eight describe a strike by the prisoners to protest against the inhuman treatment meted out to them by the authorities. These three chapters and the eleventh are described as “Upen’s story” by Barin, in a footnote on page 68. At this point one wonders how the original book was put together, as there are many overlaps between the material presented in Upen’s story and the rest of the book. The similarities between Chapter Nine and Chapter Eleven are striking. Both of them present lists of grievances that detail how the prisoners got a particularly bad deal in the Andamans. The style of the chapters forming Upen’s story is noticeably different. Has The Tale of My Exile been compiled from two distinct sources with no attempt at making the work seamless? The publisher’s note, preface and introduction are silent about this. They only say that the book first appeared in Bengali, and then this translation was published in 1922.

Barin acknowledges his debt to Upendranath Bannerjee in the opening chapter, saying he will be guided by him when his own memory falters, and his readers are “requested to consider this tale of the Andamans as the joint utterance of two tongues”.  But this statement and the footnote mentioned above are not sufficient to explain why Chapters Six, Seven and Eight are written from Upen’s point of view rather than Barin’s. Indeed, the style of these chapters is so different as to stand apart even in translation. This naturally brings us to the question of whether the translations were done separately, possibly by different translators. For one thing, this would explain the mystery of why Jagannath is spelt correctly in Chapter Six but in an anglicized version in Chapter One.  In the circumstances, one can only hope that future editions will carry more information regarding its compilation.

Chapters Nine and Ten carry the social message. Here Barin describes and analyses the prison system and points out its flaws. According to his observation, fifteen percent of those convicted are innocent, and seventy-five percent are casual criminals, that is to say first-timer offenders, often victims of circumstance. Only ten percent are hardened criminals. To allow these to mix with the rest is disastrous, causing a systematic and inevitable spreading of corruption and degeneracy. Barin enumerates the worst aspects of prison life at the Cellular Jail:

1.     There is the contagion of company and example.

2.     Incapacity to do hard labour makes one dependent on the tougher, more experienced convicts.

3.     Prison rules based on brutality break one’s morale and make one vulnerable.

4.     Addictions compromise one’s position.

5.     Forced celibacy can turn one into a brute.

6.     Want of a religious life makes one desolate.

7.     There is no incentive for healthy habits.

8.     Sometimes the terms of punishment are limitless, thereby becoming meaningless.

9.     The jail officials are heartless.

10.  Port Blair is the home of diseases. Unhygienic surroundings added to unhygienic lifestyles make a deadly combination.

 

The Tale of My Exile is largely impersonal reportage and social commentary laced with doses of satirical humour. But the last chapter is an exception. It is personal, introspective, revelatory. First, Barin shares his feelings at being condemned to death. His intense love for life makes him pray to God to spare him. But at the same time a part of him is utterly calm and quietly content. He describes his own being as one house where a sombre funeral and a joyous festivity are taking place at the same time. The psychological position of ideological prisoners is complex. The suffering is very real and possibly more acutely felt on account of the heightened sensitivity characteristic of this type. But the experience is nuanced by the fact of self-infliction; it is something that the person knew all along to be a possible, even a likely outcome of his course of action, something that promotes his cause. “A pain that we invited on ourselves, however lacerating, could not naturally overwhelm us.”

Of all the privations of prison life, Barin experienced want of company as the greatest. It was indeed a refinement of cruelty to lodge a group of friends close to one another, make them walk together, eat together, work together, and yet order them not to communicate with one another. Letter-writing also was severely controlled. Convicts were allowed to write home and to receive news from home only once a year. Their access to books was limited. In spite of such circumstances, Barin’s soul did not cower, his spirit did not flag. The last paragraph of the book brings out very clearly the firmly rooted poise and deep, calm introspection of this beloved son of Mother India:

“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.”

 

— Sunam Mukherjee

(Sunam reads proof at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press.)

(Publisher: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, Pondicherry. 143 pp, ISBN 978-81-7058-991-4, Rs 95)

(The Tale of My Exile is available at SABDA which also holds the copyright for this review.)