Thursday, 19 July 2012

"See"-ing the past...

The clouds were parting, letting some rays of sunshine touch the streets of Aberdeen, Port Blair, as our car pulled up at the top of the hill.

“The sunshine through the clouds is a beautiful sight, Seema. If only in those olden days, the people who were here had that little sunshine in their life,” I told her as she gently got out.

“I still can’t imagine how you can say your most favorite place is a jail, Ruchi,” she told me, managing a wan smile.

“This isn’t just any jail; this is the most infamous one in Indian history. Right now, we’re standing at the main gate to Kala Paani.”

I could tell she recognized the name. My otherwise calm friend gave a sudden shudder.

Cellular Jail, Port Blair (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

“Through these wrought iron gates, between two majestic towers, we are walking free today. When we fought for our freedom a hundred years back, Indians were pushed in, handcuffed,” I told her, as we entered. I held her hand, and I could feel that she was shaking. I felt the same way whenever I came.
It was a beautiful compound with lush green lawns that housed the big old prison building. The garden did little to soothe our fast beating hearts, but the little that it did helped us.

Garden Inside the Jail
One of the Wings of Cellular Jail

We went toward one of the seven buildings there. On black marble, outside it, was the history very few would know.

“Why are you silent?” she asked, once we had passed it, and we were walking toward a massive central tower. “What’s the matter?”
“To silence our cries for freedom, contain our struggle against the British, they built this massive prison. They made us build it. Two hundred of our freedom fighters made this high security jail to hold even more of us. Nearly seven hundred cells are there here, spread across seven buildings. Each one of them could be monitored by one person standing right here,” I told her as we stood at the top of the tower. The whole compound could be seen, and the city as well. “Those poor souls, no one to talk to either… look out the cell gate, and see the wall of the other wing, not your comrades’ faces…”
I saw her looking down from the tower, and wondered if she could picture it. Her face was pale, and we went back down.

“In these courtyards, our freedom fighters toiled in the sun. When they didn’t work hard, they were punished, whipped in front of the others, made an example of,” I told Seema as we entered one of the wings. We entered one of the cells, and it was very small. “Barely enough for a tall man to lie down properly on a mat on the floor,” I spoke out loud. I looked up at the ceiling. “How the hell did they breathe? There’s only a small opening there. This was torture. Even now you feel suffocated.”  

Cells in Cellular Jail

“These two pots here... near your feet. From one they ate their food, and in the other, they peed and shat. They cleaned it themselves every morning. I can't even tell the two apart. They slept in this hell with the stench of their own blood, sweat and tears as they plotted useless schemes to escape.” I felt her shift from where she stood.

As we were leaving, Seema’s fingers touched the wrought iron grill of the cell, and she stood still for a moment, her face expressionless. “I see them, Ruchi. Those prisoners, their fingers wrapped around this grill, trying to break it open and escape. I can see their hands being hit at with a baton, and blood dripping on to this floor,” she said, a tear in her eye, which I wiped off gently. 

Corridors of Jail

A photo hung in the next cell that we entered, the one of the great Vir Savarkar. As we stood there, an elderly couple entered the room. They were emotional when they saw the photo, and requested me to take a photo as they stood next to it. As Seema walked near the walls, feeling its soul, I talked with them.

“Thank you,” the man said, as I gave his camera back. “I can’t imagine how Baba would’ve stayed here so long.”

Seema stopped in her tracks, and looked toward his voice. “Yes, my father was a freedom fighter. He was imprisoned here for four years for transporting arms to the revolutionaries in Bengal,” he said.

“Can we meet him?”

He shook his head sadly. “Alas, he passed away in 1991.” He thanked us again and we went along with them, heavy hearted but proud for meeting the family of a freedom fighter. We went to the museum in the compound, where pictures of the freedom fighters, whatever could be found, hung. Uncle proudly went toward one picture and pointed. “That’s my father,” and that got tears to our eyes. “No one had an easy life here, but no one surrendered to the pain that was meted out. Their bodies gave in, but not their spirit.”

“Can you tell us more?” we asked him, and he nodded.
As we walked around the compound, he talked. His voice was grieving but remained steady.

“Those who were put here were tortured one way or another; not by them but by the hands of their own countrymen. The British didn’t want to get their hands dirty by touching our filthy bodies. The prisoners were strapped to a frame and whipped, so there was no escape, no ease in the pain.”

Punishments Given to the Prisoners

He was tearful suddenly, and we didn’t ask him to continue further.

“We better leave now. We’ve to go a long way. Perhaps we shall meet some other day, young friends,” he said, and gave a small smile. When they left, we headed toward a light and sound show that narrated the life of the prisoners. Its power brought to life the struggle, the inhuman conditions of the prison in those days, and the hunger strike of the prisoners in protest against that. The show bore testimony to the songs of the prisoners in their struggle for freedom. It showed that hope, the one thing the prisoners hung on to, was the most powerful emotion in life.

It was with heavy steps and heart that we walked toward the car in the evening.

“Ruchi…” she called, and we stopped under the majestic archway entrance.

“Thank you for bringing me here. The narrative at the end, the show… it wasn’t needed. I could see it all as I walked with you today. It will remain in my mind forever.”

“But how could you see?”

“I didn’t need my eyes to imagine the events. I may be blind, but your words touched my heart, and I could feel every moment of it. After today, I’ll walk with hope, imagining a day when I might be able to see your face again, and come back to ‘see’ this place again. Will you get me back here?”

I just nodded, my words lost once again, this time to the hopeful struggle of my dear friend.



  1. Beautiful post on the Cellular Jail. When I was still in school, decades ago, I happened to be there. I was very much scared to enter. Now lot of improvements have come up.

  2. What a wonderful story for this genre and topic! I see a sort of symbolism in it. Prison is a place where darkness engulfs both in the space and in the mind. Emotions and aspirations are suppressed behind the iron cage. But these are invisible to others. Rather, all get used to the darkness. Outsiders are literally blind to this unpleasant reality. In a way, all of us are blind!!And the struggle for freedom continues! Well written article!

  3. awesomely written. I could sense myself travelling to those places with you guys :-) All the Best.

  4. That's a beautiful story on Jail! Liked it a lot..

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  6. Beautiful! :D
    I guess you'd be happy to have a glance here! :-)

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