Author, Burning for Freedom

Author, Burning for Freedom
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Monday, August 27, 2012

My Pilgrimage to the Cellular Jail . . .

Hi, Everyone! In July 2011, I was lucky enough to visit Port Blair for a precious two days. Hardly had I checked in into the hotel, and I was hotfooting it to the Cellular Jail.

I was all choked up as I stood in the entrance hall. This was where Savarkar stood. This was what he has described so well in his My Transformation for Life. I had poured over so many youtube videos of the CJ, but it doesn’t prepare you for the reality. As I stepped out into the yard from the entrance hall, the incredible length of the arched wings converging far, far away to almost a point, swamped my senses. And it seemed as if I was walking and walking, but getting no closer to the central tower, gomati.

To call the gomati a tower is a total misnomer! One expects a round building. It was nothing of the kind! At the ground level it is only a space and the above levels, it was a central room with passage around it, into which the walkways from the wings opened. No staircase . . . ! If the gates to the wings are locked, you are stuck in the gomati area.

Every night the warders patrolled on the roofs of all wings—were they marooned there when the wing gates were closed?

Then I noticed that wing 7 had two gates, one on either side of the staircase block. So perhaps the warders used this as the staircase to go up and down?

Savarkar’s cell was lit up; to get a feel for how it had felt to be shut in there, I shut myself in into one toward the staircase. It was so dark, so gloomy. I stood at the barred door just as I described my Keshu doing.

Horrors! There was nothing to be seen! Just the barred arch of the passage and beyond that the brick wall of block 1. I felt crushed by the isolation in the two minutes I was in there.

I stepped out of the cell hurriedly and had to take big, gulping breaths to calm my thumping heart.

I had read and studied so much on the CJ. My mind was crowded with questions. But there were no answers—until I met Dr. Rashida Iqbal, the curator of the CJ, that was. I shamelessly invaded her space and appropriated her time.

Oh she was so knowledgeable! And with the sweetest, friendliest smile. I was so relieved, so grateful.

From her I learnt about the peepal tree in the yard. I had been puzzling over the hospital and she told me that the plinth on which the memorial torch was placed was the actual plinth of the hospital. I asked questions to my heart’s content and she answered so willingly. I had been wondering about the whereabouts of the toilet block in the CJ. She told me where to find one that was extant. I actually walked through tall, tall grass—it was a bit creepy, that! I felt quite like a jungle explorer—to find it!

There was one thing that is unanswerable today—lost in the mist of time. The kitchen, which served all seven blocks, seemed like a tiny little room to me.

How did the two kitchen areas (one for the Muslims and the other for the Hindus) fit in here? Where was the cooking area for the prisoners who were allowed to cook? Where was the area for the vegetable patches they maintained? Mysterious!

Savarkar has described his first view of the CJ. I wanted to experience what he saw the way he saw it. That was easier said than done!!

There are several coconut trees planted in front of the CJ today, making it practically invisible from the jetty. I made my driver take me to all kinds of vantage points, popped out of the car and squinted up at the CJ, but no luck. What to do?

Well, then I just brought my imagination into play and mentally removed all the trees and had a good look in my mind’s eye.

There were one or two things I wanted to experience in Port Blair (though with a nervous, palpitating heart!) and didn’t. I had wanted to see the one foot long centipede and experience the flies and mosquitos. But (perhaps very fortunately) I came across none of these in my stay there.

When I got back, I revised my manuscript by pouring in all that I had absorbed. Months later, one day I just sat down and dashed off a write-up with illustrations to record whatever I saw and felt. I wished I had done it immediately, or that I had had thought of doing this before I went there, so I could do it full justice.

Perhaps someone else will do it in a professional way, one day. Everyone needs to know and realize what a mammoth torture chamber the Cellular Jail was.


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