By Arnab Ray (@greatbong)

I have never had a guest blogger here at RTDM. But as of today, I am going to make an exception. I present (fanfare)—-my mother. A little context: My father, a professor at IIM Calcutta is going to retire in February. So on his last LTC, Baba and Ma went to Andaman Islands—both for some peace and quiet (they deserve it for having brought me up) as well as to visit Andaman Cellular Jail—-the place where my grandfather (my father’s father) , Jyotirmoy Ray [his picture in the Cellular Jail museum on the left] spent 4 years of his life [his sentence was for 7 years commutted to 4 as part of an amnesty program] as a political prisoner (He was part of the revolutionary movement in Bengal and transported arms to the revolutionaries). He died in 1991.This post is based on a mail my mother wrote to me after coming back from Andamans—-I have added some things to it based on phone conversations I had with her since then. In all, it’s a joint effort between mother and son—in some places the feelings are Ma’s (as conveyed through the telephone) and the words are mine and in some places both of them are Ma’s (being part of her original letter).With January 26 here, I thought of sharing it with you.

Dear Phuchiburo (that’s me) and Mago (my wife),

Our first stop of the day was the Cellular Jail. The weather in Calcutta was cold but Andaman was hot although it was also officially winter there.

There is a museum Jail1inside in the jail where the pictures of freedom fighters who were detained here are kept. We did not know that Dadu’s picture features prominently there. So when I saw Dadu’s photo on the wall with “Armed Action Case” written on the top of it and his name below, I froze– literally and emotionally. You don’t expect to see your own kin as an exhibit in a museum and that too someone who has been around you physically.

All these times we have gone to so many museums and seen so many people’s pictures and their personal effects but I never ever felt any sort of emotional twitch anywhere in my otherwise very emotional mind because all of them were just “people”– mere statistics to me . Yes they were heroes–noble people whom I respect but who are ultimately strangers—the kind that stare back at you from history books and from the walls of museums. You stop, look at them, feel respect and then move on to the next picture.

But this was different. The man in the picture was someone I knew–in flesh and blood. I called him Baba, I touched his feet, I loved him and I got mad at him for certain things that he did or didn’t do. This was Jyotirmoy Ray, my father-in-law, revolutionary, member of a dangerous anti-British secret society and one of the prisoners of Andaman Cellular Jail.

The same man who also lovingly called me khukuma.

After my son’s marriage, I really came to know what emotional value that simple word “ma” conveys because I call my daughter in law “maago” and nobody knows better than me how much I love her. Same relationship, same love, same hate, same agreements, same disgust, same happy moments. The only difference is that I can’t talk to him now but my daughter in law can talk to me and that is a gigantic difference.

I realized that tears were now flowing down my cheeks. I felt terribly breathless — the impact of controlling my emotions in a public place. Now I know what celebrities in the public domain feel like; not that I am a celebrity but my father-in-law is. I shuddered to look at your father because I knew what was going through his mind.

If this is how I felt, then God knows how he was coping . After all he is his youngest son and the most favorite and pampered of all the three brothers. I really did not want to look at him but my impulse took over. God, he was a mess. I wanted to hold his hand but could not bring myself to because instead of being a source of strength to him, I myself would break down and make a fool of myself in a public place.

Plus he seemed to be lost in a world of his own as he looked at the picture—lost in the memories of his father and his own childhood. So intensely personal to your father was this moment of sadness, remembrance and pride that I did not want to impinge on its tear-soaked purity.

So I just pretended to look at other pictures of freedom fighters who are heroes but definitely not my kin —in order to get a grip on myself and attain the demeanor of an objective museum-visitor. Your father did the same thing for the same reason. We did not look at each other on purpose lest the emotions come flooding back again.

Anyway, we took some pictures and moved on to the next section. This is where the exhibits are. I came to learn that the British authorities made Indians torture fellow Indians. According to them if any prisoner needed any punishment, which was pretty often, then they were to be whipped by Indians—the white man did not want to get his hands dirty with the blood and the sweat. The whipping was done while the prisoner was strapped to a frame by hand and feet so that there was no running around or change of position to lighten the torture. Prisoners’ non-cooperation or hunger strike or failing to fulfill the work quota called for various degrees of punishment as Britishers consider themselves to be fair minded!

The Cellular jaijail3l was built by convicts. It had seven wings spread in the form of seven spokes of a wheel, though unequal in length. There were 696 cells specially built for solitary confinement of the prisoners. A three storied central tower was built at the centre of the convergence of the seven wings. A single guard could supervise all the seven wings from this vantage position. Another unique feature was the total absence of communication between the prisoners in the different wings, since the front of one row of cells with verandah running all along, faced the back of the other wing.

Each cell measuring 12ft by 7 ft had an iron grill door. A 3 ft by 1 ft ventilation 9 ft above provided some light and air. A verandah about 4 ft ran all along the front of the row of cells from one end to the other end of the wing. Each cell grill was well secured with sturdy iron bolt and lock which ran through a rectangular channel on the outside of the cell wall a few feet away from the entrance door. This way the prisoners could not even touch the lock for tampering. Each wing had a courtyard in front with a workshop where the prisoners toiled during the day. There was only one jail4kitchen for the prisoners of the whole jail. The prisoners ate in their cells. The food was passed through a trap door.

There was a pot (similar to the one in which they ate) which was to be used for urine and stool within the cell that were to be cleaned by the prisoners when they were let outside in the morning for toiling. They ate, slept, wept and plotted for the freedom of their land in those dingy dark rooms with the stench of excreta, blood, tears and sweat and the screams of pain emanating through the walls as their only companions.

In the jail, work in the oil grinding mill was all the more terrible and caused several deaths. The quantity of work they were made to do was not humanly possible. Thus almost every day was a punishment day. The punishment varied from whipping to hand cuffs for a week to bar fetters to solitary confinement. With hand cuffs the prisoners had to eat and drink like an animals. Bar fetters were long iron rods joined from hand cuffs going down to the ankle cuffs. This way the prisoners could not bend any way. If they decided to lie down, they would have to throw themselves on to the ground and thus get hurt in the process. Some of them were fed boiled wild grass and their drinking water was collected rain water with worms in them.

A majority of the prisoners went through these unimaginable indignities and punishments but did not give in. Some committed suicide. Some lost their mind. For some, their body gave way but not their spirit and they went onto a more peaceful place.

Going through all these made me feel absolutely drenched out. Honestly I could hardly move. I did not ask your father about how he was feeling because I knew the answer.

Just like any Indian, I have read about freedom fighters and the freedom struggle. But I never really realized the actual depth of the zeal that drove them even though I knew that it involved my father in law. The incidents were just dates and events you had to memorize and analyze for examinations though it gave you a warm fuzzy feeling to read about the sacrifices of so many. But somehow such emotions only scratched the surface—-it made us feel “patriotic” in the way an Indian victory in a cricket match makes us feel.

However this Andaman visit and the associated experience and emotions touched a chord that ran much deeper. Is this the reason why psychologists refer to the experience of going back to your “roots” as so important a part in the process of self-realization?

If this is the reason they do, then I fully agree with them. Of course I must also add that had it not been for my own association with a freedom fighter whom I loved, I would surely not have this depth of emotion and understanding in spite of my first hand experience.

We went to the ground floor cells. Barring Savarkar’s cells, all cells were unmarked because the prisoners were quite often shifted from cell to cell. This means my father in law was anywhere and everywhere over here.

By this time my brain cells were asking me to stop due to the physical discomfort from the knee problem. (my mother has a debilitating knee condition which has severely hampered her mobility) But my heart was on autopilot—and somehow in this place the consciousness of your own physical discomfort pales in comparison to the realization of what the people here had to endure for years.

I decided to climb up the two floors above. Your father knows my knees’ endurance level so he was surprised at my decision. I told him “I want to show my respect to my father in law in my own way”.

We went two flighjail5ts up looking at those empty dingy cells as if searching for the man who directly and indirectly gave me all I have. The cells were, in a way, frightening—despite the apparent peace and tranquility that reigns today, there is still a brooding sense of pain, suffering and death that hovers over the place like a cloud—invisible yet palpable.

But no there was something else which is even more powerful—a light ethereal wondrous presence that dispels the darkness of suffering.

Hope. The hope that sustained these men (your grandfather among them) despite floggings, torture and subhuman treatment. The hope that one day things would be different, the hope that their sons and daughters would grow up in a land free from foreign oppression. And as your father stared into the dark abyss of a cell reaching out for a part of your grandfather forever lost in these walls, I could not help thinking that somehow your father’s presence here, as a free man and as a professor of a premier institute of higher education of a proud resurgent India, is a vindication of the sacrifices your grandfather and his fellow prisoners made.

It was getting late. We moved away—leaving behind the shadows of your grandfather and his fellow patriots. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness , great pride and a deep sense of understanding of what a hero my father-in-law really is. In a way, it seemed as if I was knowing him all over again—so many years after he passed way.

As we went out of the gates, a bird, catching the last rays of the sun, spread its wings and vanished into the sky. Looking up, I silently thanked your grandfather for everything and I am sure that he heard me all right.

Do visit this place if an opportunity arises. You owe it to him.

God Bless you