Stories Dwell in Their Bosoms

They are no Malcolm X, who tells a a big story. They are not Alex Haley, who shares a grand saga of chastisements and confinements of Kunta Kinte and his descendants. Nonetheless, they also have their stories to share, some interesting and touching, on occasions cascading with wit and humour. I am talking of whole a generation of medicos, engineers, professionals and senior officers who were students in the sixties and for participating in the 1965 students movement had suffered long years of internment, now a fading generation.

Meet them on any occasion, over a table in a coffee shop, on a manicured lawns of a club, at sumptuous marriage dinners or on in funeral meetings; they rarely talk about their professional achievements and comforts during their long inning in the government but often turn nostalgic about their days behind the high prison walls.

On relating to their dreadful days at the then notorious Red-16 interrogation centre they forgot there ever was a whiff of happiness in their lives, the ‘laughter from their eyes evaporates’, and the reddening eyes manifest   even  five decades after the anger still dwells in their bosoms.  

It was not at a gala get-together but at a sombre function where many student activists of the older generation had gathered that I realized that the stories of pain and agony buried in their chests come to their lips just with a soft scratch.

The natter started in a  lighter vein when a medicos friend  remembered  his internment as a second-year medical college student  said that Er. Anwar Ashai then a senior student at Regional College and general secretary of the Student Youth Leauge as kitchen in-charge in jail behaved like a grandmother and without fail included tomatoes in the little menu. Those days Ka’ani Bata, boiled rice with lots of grains with hulls intact was served to detainees  not to protect prisoners against beriberi diseases but as  a punishment. With cooked tomatoes, one could gulp down unpalatable Ka’ani Bata with a bit ease. The chit-chat over Ka’ani Bata and tomatoes, with a couple more present at the get-together joining the conversations, added episode after episode to the story- the untold story of the mid-sixties that perhaps will never be written.

Most of them with a lot of hatred remembered a superintendent jail. In his hauteur, he haughtily called himself as a progeny of Amr ibn Hisham mostly known as Abu Jahl- one of the most hated characters in the Islamic history. Almost a half-century after they remembered him for his obnoxious behaviour and maltreatment of students- for their deep hate against him none has pardoned him.

Students arrested under the Defense of India Rules (DIR) and Preventive Detention Act (PDA) were paid a daily allowance of one and a half rupee for meeting their food and other expenses. Ten to twelve students pooled their daily allowance and formed a joined kitchen.

Nonetheless, the jail officials took a slice from the little daily allowance. Like a terrible dream the spiteful behaviour of head wardens Makhan Lal, Beg and a horrible looking warden Kabir still lives in their memories. On a mere excuse Makhana, as they call him even today would shift any student from a barrack to six feet by six feet cubicle,  cells meant for prisoners on death row or to Zenana-Khanna, enclavement outside the central jail premises with almost inmates in it-  then there were no women prisoners in jail.

In a dismal scenario, where superintended jail identified himself with the devil incarnate, and his lieutenants grunted and snorted, we are not priests but evil spirits who break you physically and spiritually into submission, there were children of less god, the warden some with noble souls. Mohammad Sadiq, many called him Sidi Mout a short-statured warden always with a smile on his face was still ready to carry a message from the inmate students to his family- for doing this, he never sought favour from them. Some friends have lots of stories about ‘hearing-impaired warden Arjan Nath, the meek and mild fellow, who had mastered the art of smuggling letters outside the jail- sometimes he put these under his cap and on occasions between the folds of his greenish-Khaki turban.

In the mid-sixties, the Daily Aftab and the Daily Hamdard were the only two major Urdu daily newspapers; they published stories and editorials on the basis of the anonymous letters smuggled by the warden.

That the jail authorities were shaken down their spine  when a letter smuggled by Arjan Nath was published in the Indian Express, that opium was cultivated by some criminals inside the jail, and it had caused the  jail minister to visit the prison, was one of the stories that youth of yesterday and oldies of today still remember.

These youth of yesteryears, on a mention of jails and detention forgetting a lot of time, had flashed by, at the drop of a hat share their stores with the vivacity of a storyteller like Dickens.