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At the Feet of The Mother

IX. 1. TALES OF PRISON LIFE. Tales of Prison Life (IV)


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

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

I have described my mental state on the first day of solitary confinement. For a few days I had to be without books or any other aid to spend the period of forced isolation. Later on Mr. Emerson came and handed over to me the permission to get some clothes and reading material from home. After procuring from the prison authorities pen and ink and their official stationery I wrote to my respected maternal uncle, the well-known editor of Sanjibani, to send my dhoti and kurta, among books I asked for the Gita and the Upanishads. It took a couple of days for the books to reach me. Before that I had enough leisure to realise the enormity or dangerous potentiality of solitary confinement. I could understand why even firm and well-developed intellects crack up in such a state of confinement and readily turn towards insanity. At the same time, I could realise God’s infinite mercy and the rare advantage offered by these same conditions. Before imprisonment I was in the habit of sitting down for meditation for an hour in the morning and evening. In this solitary prison, not having anything else to do, I tried to meditate for a longer period. But for those unaccustomed it is not easy to control and steady the mind pulled in a thousand directions. Somehow I was able to concentrate for an hour and half or two, later the mind rebelled while the body too was fatigued. At first the mind was full of thoughts of many kinds. Afterwards devoid of human conversation and an insufferable listlessness due to absence of any subject of thought the mind gradually grew devoid of the capacity to think. There was a condition when it seemed a thousand indistinct ideas were hovering round the doors of the mind but with gates closed; one or two that were able to get through were frightened by the silence of these mental states and quietly running away. In this uncertain dull state I suffered intense mental agony. In the hope of mental solace and resting the overheated brain I looked at the beauties of nature outside, but with that solitary tree, a sliced sky and the cheerless prospects in the prison how long can the mind in such a state find any consolation? I looked towards the blank wall. Gazing at the lifeless white surface the mind seemed to grow even more hopeless, realising the agony of the imprisoned condition the brain was restless in the cage. I again sat down to meditate. It was impossible. The intense baffled attempt made the mind only more tired, useless, made it burn and boil. I looked around, at last I found some large black ants moving about a hole in the ground, and I spent sometime watching their efforts and movements. Later I noticed some tiny red ants. Soon there was a big battle between the black and the red, the black ants began to bite and kill the red ants. I felt an intense charity and sympathy for these unjustly treated red ants and tried to save them from the black killers. This gave me an occupation and something to think about. Thanks to the ants I passed a few days like this. Still there was no way to spend the long days ahead. I tried to argue with myself, did some deliberate reflection, but day after day the mind rebelled and felt increasingly desolate. It was as though time weighed heavy, an unbearable torture, broken by that pressure it did not have leisure even to breathe freely, it was like being throttled by an enemy in a dream and yet without the strength to move one’s limbs. I was amazed at this condition! True, while outside, I never wished to stay idle or without any activity, still I had spent long periods in solitary musings. Had and mind now become so weak that the solitude of a few days could make me so restless? Perhaps, I thought, there is a world of difference between voluntary and compulsory solitude. It is one thing to stay alone in one’s home, but to have to stay, forced by others, in a solitary prison cell is quite another. There one can turn at will to men for refuge, find shelter in book knowledge and its stylistic elegance, in the dear voice of friends, the noise on the roadside, in the varied shows of the world, one can find joy of mind and feel at ease. But here, bound to the wheels of iron law, subservient to the whim of others, one had to live deprived of every other contact. According to the proverb, one who can stand solitude is either a god or a brute, it is a discipline quite beyond the power of men. Previously I was unable to believe in what the proverb said, now I could feel that even for one accustomed to the yogic life this discipline is not easy to acquire. I remember the terrifying end of the Italian regicide, Breci. His cruel judges, instead of ordering him to be hanged, had given him seven years’ solitary imprisonment. Within a year Breci had gone mad. But he had endured for some time! Was my mental strength so poor? Then I did not know that God was having a game with me, through which He was giving me a few necessary lessons. First, He showed me the state of mind in which prisoners condemned to solitary cells move towards insanity, and turned me wholly against the inhuman cruelty of western prison administration, so that I might, to the best of my ability, turn my countrymen and the world from these barbarous ways to the path of more humane prison organisation. This was the first lesson. I remembered, fifteen years back, after returning home from England, I had written some bitterly critical articles in the Induprakash, of Bombay, against the petitionary ethics of the then Congress. Seeing that these articles were influencing the mind of the young, the late Mahadeo Govind Ranade had told me, when I met him, for nearly half an hour, that I should give up writing these articles, and advised me to take up some other Congress work. He was desirous of my taking up the work of prison reform. I was astonished and unhappy at his unexpected suggestion and had refused to undertake that work. I did not know then that this was a prelude to the distant future and that one day God himself would keep me in prison for a year and make me see the cruelty and futility of the system and the need for reform. Now I understood that in the present political atmosphere there was no possibility of any reform of the prison system, but I resolved before my conscience to propagate and argue in its favour so that these hellish remnants of an alien civilisation were not perpetuated in a self-determining India. I also understood His second purpose: it was to reveal and expose before my mind its own weakness so that I might get rid of it for ever. For one who seeks the yogic state crowd and solitude should mean the same. Indeed, the weakness dropped off within a very few days, and now it seems that the mental poise would not be disturbed even by twenty years of solitude. In the dispensation of the All-Good (maṅgalamaya) even out of evil cometh good. The third purpose was to give me this lesson that my yoga practices would not be done by my personal effort, but that a spirit of reverence (śraddhā) and complete self-surrender (ātma-samarpana) were the road to attain perfection in yoga, and whatever power or realisation the Lord would give out of His benignity, to accept and utilise these should be the only aim of my yogic endeavour. The day from which the deep darkness of Ignorance began to lessen, I started to see the true nature of the All-Good Lord’s amazing infinite goodness as I watched the different events in the ward. There is no event — great or small or even the smallest — from which some good has not accrued. He often fulfils three or four aims through a single event. We frequently see the working of a blind force in the world, accepting waste as part of nature’s method we ignore God’s omniscience and find fault with the divine Intelligence. The charge is unfounded. The divine Intelligence never works blindly, there cannot be the slightest waste of His power, rather the restrained manner in which, through the minimum of means, He achieves a variety of results is beyond the human intelligence.

Troubled by mental listlessness I spent a few days in agony in this manner. One afternoon as I was thinking streams of thought began to flow endlessly and then suddenly these grew so uncontrolled and incoherent that I could feel that the mind’s regulating power was about to cease. Afterwards when I came back to myself, I could recollect that though the power of mental control had ceased, the intelligence was not self-lost or did not deviate for a moment, but it was as if watching quietly this marvellous phenomenon. But at the time, shaking with the terror of being overcome by insanity, I had not been able to notice that. I called upon God with eagerness and intensity and prayed to him to prevent my loss of intelligence. That very moment there spread over my being such a gentle and cooling breeze, the heated brain became relaxed, easy and supremely blissful such as in all my life I had never known before. Just as a child sleeps, secure and fearless, on the lap of his mother, so I remained on the lap of the World-Mother. From that day all my troubles of prison life were over. Afterwards on many occasions, during the period of detention, inquietude, solitary imprisonment, and mental unease because of lack of activity, bodily trouble or disease, in the lean periods of yogic life, these have come, but that day in a single moment God had given my inner being such a strength that these sorrows as they came and went did not leave any trace or touch on the mind, relishing strength and delight in the sorrow itself the mind was able to reject these subjective sufferings. The sufferings seemed as fragile as water drops on a lily leaf. Then when the books came, their need had considerably lessened. I could have stayed on even if the books were not there. Though it is not the purpose of these articles to write a history of my inner life, still I could not but mention this fact. From this one incident it will be clear how it was possible to live happily during long solitary confinement. It was for this reason that God had brought about this situation or experience. Without turning me mad he had enacted in my mind the gradual process towards insanity that takes place in solitary confinement, keeping my intelligence as the unmoved spectator of the entire drama. Out of this came strength, and I had an excess of kindness and sympathy for the victims of human cruelty and torture. I also realised the extraordinary power and efficacy of prayer.

to be continued.

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