Cell No: 22 – Vivek Muralidharan, Tamilnadu

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Andaman Pillai, that’s how everyone call him. A tall, manly, old man about 90. His thick white moustache would prove that he believes in showing off his masculinity, may be bringing the old ripen fruit preserved in vinegar, sour in taste but palatable for eyes. He wore light Khadi shirts with fine cotton dhoti mixing patriotism and tradition together. His eyes were still sharp like those of eagles so he can have the texts as far as he can from his eyes. The white silky hair that would fall till his chin if combed towards the forehead would be taken as a sample for the nutrition he would have had in his prime years. His voice is hard and rough that would give people who are at the other end a jerk and a clear clue that Andaman Pillaicould have been a military man in the past.

Andaman Pillai, as called, was an independence movement veteran who served most of his younger days in the Andaman Cellular Jail. He is a man who doesn’t boast of his past heroics and a man who doesn’t want to tell stories about his past. Rather he is taken for an old timer who is ultra-patriotic and an old timer who regard the current developments in 1997 as unnecessary for India.On the whole, he is an old timer for the old times sake. But he is a man of practice, he follows the routines of Sir Emmanuel Kant that one can say it is 5 AM when he is awake and it is 2 PM when he snores for an afternoon sleep. By his sheer discipline, like the British, he is now highly regarded in his neighbourhood.

In the routine of things, about 2 PM in the afternoon when Sundar, Andaman Pillai‘s grandson, an educated man of 30 who seldom has the nutrition like the past and a lad entrenched in the current consumerist world, came up with a letter along with an excitement calling up his Grandfather to get up. It was a letter from the Government of India addressing Andaman Pillai. Due to age and the drowsiness of the afternoon meal,Andaman Pillai got up slowly from the bed reacting to Sundar’s excitement in a weird way.

“What happened? Why are you so excited”?

“Grandpa, you have got a letter from the Government of India. They have addressed the letter to you directly. May be they are going to give you some medal or so. Shall I open the letter and read it to you?” asked Sundar being pseudo mannered.

“Yes, read it to me”, replied Andaman Pillaiin a feeble voice without any excitement probably with a feeling of stone in his throat.

After a rattling sound of the letter getting opened, Sundar read in his voice that resembles his grandfather , hard and echoing ,”Dear Shri Subramanian Pillai, …………………………………………………………………………………… as we are nearing the 50th anniversary of our Independence , we are arranging a visit for the veterans of Cellular jail like you to the Andaman followed by a ceremony in which you will rewarded for your endeavours of Indian Independence. Shri Honourable Prime Minister will be attending the function to distribute the rewards. We are attaching the travel itineraries with this letter and there is nothing to be done from your side, as for the incredible contributions you have done for the independence of this great nation…………….. Thank you.”

There was a silence for some time in the room with Andaman Pillaigazing at Sundar, emotionless. Sundar was overwhelmed by the gratitude shown by the Government to his grandfather for his great sacrifice.

Sundar even more excited said, “It is a great recognition grandpa, I will come with you for Andaman, and we should for sure attend the function held at the Cellular jail. What a great honour!!! I am proud to be your grandson.”

But still Andaman Pillaiwas not sure on how he should react. He was happy that he is going to be felicitated by the Government but on the other side, the words “Cellular Jail’” haunted him.

He said, “I don’t know Sundar, I am very fragile and I cannot walk too. I am not sure whether I can take flight trips and all to attend the function. Is it fine to send a reply conveying my thanks to the government and apologizing for not attending the function? I think you better do it. Travelling to Andaman and all is very difficult for me.”

Sundar was disappointed by the stand taken by his grandfather but not bowing down to his aged laziness he said, “Grandpa, this is ridiculous. You have served the country and the country is recognizing you. At least for the sake of your country and for the sake of me, we should go to Andaman for the function. I know it is difficult to forget the bad memories but I think this should stand as an example for the generations to come. Please grandpa, let us go to the function. It is a great honour for us. What do you say? Please.” With this kind of a request and a firm stand, Andaman Pillaigave in.

“Ok Sundar. Your wish.”

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“Grandpa, its time! Car has come to take us to the function”, said Sundar in a nervous voice. “Yeah, I am almost ready. Come lets go”, said Andaman Pillai. There was an excitement in the voice and at the same time there was a curiosity within him on how he is going to confront the situation, he was always weak in confronting situations, he felt. As he slowly walked towards the reception of the hotel where they stayed in, there was a significant number of media people ready to reach him when he comes out. Ironically, Pillai felt a strong flapping in his stomach rather than taking up the chance to speak with them and explain his hardship, or giving a politician like speech to the crowd. He was avoiding all of them who came up to him to speak. When Sundar asked him why he is avoiding the media people, he simply replied that there is nothing to be told and he is being allergic to the crowd and their questions.

A white coloured Ambassador was waiting to take him in and the driver came out to open the door for him. Andaman Pillaisilently got into the car without even thanking him and was quiet for most of the time.

The Car stealth steadily through roads and reached the destination. The atmosphere at the venue was so electric with all the media, government diplomats, black cats and the fellow freedom fighters with national flag tied to almost the entire route to the venue. Andaman Pillaiwas so calm and composed without any emotions in his face. Sundar helped Andaman Pillaito get down from the car. Dressed in traditional wear pyjama, kurta, Andaman Pillaiwalked with taking centimetre steps towards the sitting area. Being helped by Sundar to reach the sitting area, Andaman Pillai purposefully resorted not to look at the place around.

For a second, Andaman Pillai stopped walking. There was a huge sigh, deep breathing sounds from him and he slowly rose his face to see the place around him. It was the entrance of the Andaman Cellular Jail. In continuance to his seeing around, straightened by now, he saw the entrance till the top of its tower. He was standing still, with Sundar and the other helper being spellbound by the passion that emanated from Andaman Pillai.Andaman Pillaislowly lowered his head and in a voice that can be hardly heard, he whispered, “Can I get into the prison complex?” Sundar said, “Sure grandpa, let us go in. I will speak to the authorities”. “No Sundar, I wanted to get in alone. Ask them whether it is possible”, said Andaman Pillai. Sundar was disappointed again of the sturdiness of this man and told him to wait so that he can get the permission from the authorities. Andaman Pillai was waiting at the entrance without entering the premises and it was as if he was going to enter the jail as a prisoner again.

Sundar came back and said that Andaman Pillai can see around the place but as the function is going to start in 2 hours, there is no one inside the premises except the function ground. Andaman Pillai, just nodded his head and started to walk on. Before clearing the entrance, Andaman Pillai looked at the sun which was hot, tropicalin nature, with high humidity at 10 in the morning.

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“What is it? Wet, in my eyes? On, its tears. Yes…Hmmm… My heart is pounding in sorrow, with all the memories I have of this place. Do the people outside; media, diplomats, and politicians really know what people went through here? Not really. It is unfathomable to them. Without any hardships, all are breathing the air of independence. Fine. It’s all about time and fate. Those are not fictitious, those are real.”

Andaman Pillai was speaking with his inner self in the atmosphere of solitude and reminiscence. He was slowly but steadily nearing the Panopticon tower. The Panopticon tower is a philosophical child of Sir Jeremy Bentham where one tower will be built connecting it which the wings will be built as spokes of the wheel attached to the axle. This type of structure was thought about for prisons especially where from the Panopticon, all the wings can be monitored, controlled. It was designed in such a way that there will be absolute visibility on all the cells in a wing. Initially there were 7 wings attached to the Panopticon but now there are only 2 wings whereas the rest of them were demolished by the British in 1938 to 1947.

Fortunately or unfortunately, cell no 22, where Andaman Pillai was imprisoned, which stood the test of times was in the front of him. He stood motionless; he felt like a lightning of fear has struck his heart which has left a jolt throughout the body. He was sweating and shivering. He saw that 13 ft. to 5 ft. cell where cuffs were attached to side walls with ventilation at 10 ft. above the ground. Even the breathing air was restricted inside the cell making the prisoner to experience the maximum punishment.

Hands trembling, legs shivering, losing balance, Andaman Pillai entered Cell No: 22 and sat on the ground going into the state of remembrance with losing the sense of his surroundings.

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I am Aradhangi  Manickavasagam Subramaniya Pillai. A freedom fighter, revolutionary. I was inspired by the ideals of Bhagat Singh rather than Mahatma Gandhi, resorted to weapons rather than non-violence for freedom of India. I was also inspired by the ideals of Vaanjinadhan, VVS Iyer in Tamilnadu, especially of Vaanji who shot Ash in a train and shot himself to martyrdom. I was a ferocious young lad who was as thirsty as an elephant for freedom of my mother country. Through a colleague,I got trained in pistol handling and once tried to kill an English constable in Madras. I was stamped as a revolutionary and when I was underground for some time in Pondicherry, I was captured in Madras when trying to reach Calcutta for joining the revolutionaries there. As I was dangerous according to the Public Safety Act, I was sent to Andaman Jail for the rest of my life.

The day was 1st May 1933. In addition to the cruelty and repressive treatment of the British officers while I was brought from Madras to Port Blair, Sun was doing its part of burning my skin. I was handcuffed which was tied to individual cuffs around my legs which were in turn inter connected. I was barefoot, wearing my prison trousers and thin shirt which in turn made my body to feel the heat directly. I was standing before the entrance of the Cellular Jail, Andaman known as Kala Pani, the black water. I was one of the prisoners in the line of 25 who reached the Kala Pani that day. Everyone were mostly in their 20s or 30s, probably associated with the Young revolutionary wings in various parts of the country.

Once the names were registered, we were taken in a line to meet the Jailor David Barry who was Yama himself in English skin. We were halted in between an array of cells which was connected to a central tower from where the guards can monitor all the cells without the prisoners noticing them. After that short halt, we were taken to the oil mill where Barry was monitoring the inmates work. Oil Mill was the cruellest of all the punishments given where I saw fellow prisoners moving the wheel for the coconut to be crushed to extract oil. There I saw an English man with a belly and an arrogant face, inhaling a cigar watching on how my fellow prisoners were suffering.

After seeing us, one guard shouted to Barry, “New group sir. For your instructions sir!!! ” . Barry kept going, “Revolutionaries, ha? Look, you have come here as any other ordinary prisoners who have waged war against the Crown. You are not in some jail as there, you are in a real jail….. My jail. I am the God here. If you want mercy, I should give it. Even if you want death…. I should give it.” After hearing these words I could see some faces trembling in fear, some unaffected and some confused. I was unaffected. I came from a place of VO Chidambaram Pillai, Subramaniya Bharathi, Vaanchi, and Subramaniya Siva. If I work in Oil Mill, I will work like VO Chidambaram Pillai. I will die for my country, come what may but will not succumb to these imperial bastards.

After the instructions, we were taken to our respective with mine being cell no 22 where I was stranded. The cell was dark as hell with one ventilation at the height of 10 ft. in the back wall whereas the side walls are connected to other cells. Beyond my front door, I can see only the back of the previous wing such that I cannot see human faces at all. The walls of the cells were thick that no two inmates can communicate with each other. There was 2 mugs one to be used for the water and one for toilet. I got a jolt in my head seeing the conditions of the cell but was unshaken to the least with my focus being only being breathing the air of freedom. The next day, in the morning after a notorious breakfast, I was taken to the place between the 2 wings of the Jail for allocation of work. Fortunately or Unfortunately, I was allocated work at the Oil Mill.

As usual, Barry was ready sitting in a chair with his Cigar to monitor the production. I was relieved of my chains to push the wheel for coconut crashing. I started to push the wheel hard which was like pushing a big stone on a mountain. I wanted to push hard continuously for the extraction which otherwise the coconut would seldom crush, missing my daily quota. If I halt, I would get a kick or a whip from a blue uniform wearing guard with a turban. The kick would be so heavy that it would take 5 minutes to even get up to the original position. By sheer logic of time and work, I didn’t complete the daily quota of oil extraction by evening. Barry furiously said,” You little pig. You are highly unproductive. I will crush you like the coconut in the Oil Wheel.” I replied, “You can crush my body but you cannot crush my soul that breathes independence you British pig.” This probably angered Barry who ordered a guard to take me to the central area for canning.

I was taken by the guard forcefully to the area in between wing 1 and 2 where a canning set up was there. I was slanted on the apparatus, my hands were tied, my legs were tied apart with my full back available for whipping, canning and beating. The guard started hitting me with his stick again and again. He hit me in my back, he hit me in my legs, and he hit me in my hands puncturing my whole body. The beating I don’t know for how much time it lasted, I was drowsy, my energy was sucked by my fatigue and I was almost unconscious. I was removed from the apparatus and was dragged by 2 guards to my cell with my foot scratching the ground. My body pained like hell. Blood was oozing out from the edges of my legs. There were blood clots all over my body. When I was tied to the apparatus, I saw the petrified faces of fellow prisoners who could see me getting beaten. For the next few days, I was given work in other areas which were not as hellish as the Oil Mill.

It was May 12, 1933.There was a stir among the inmates regarding the treatment of prisoners at Kala Pani. There was a rumour that there is going to be hunger strike against the British demanding fair treatment. On that day, most of the inmates decided to start on an endless hunger strike to show their resistance to British guards. Revolutionaries such as Sushil Das Gupta, Mahavir Singh, Mohit Moitra and Mohan Kishore Namadas were key leaders in the silent protest. I was so proud of the protest and thought that the British cannot suppress our demand for freedom or cannot really shake our patriotism to the miniscule. I felt in my heart that the day on which the Indian flag is going to be elegantly waving in the air is not far. That was a beautiful moment.

Day by day, the protest became heavier driving the British guards and especially Barry, mad. On May 16th 1933, as I vividly remember, Barry came with a big amplifier to speak with the inmates.

“Inmates of the famous Cellular Jail in Andamans!!!!!! Pigs of India!!!! Enemies of the Great British Crown!!!! Hear this with caution!! Some of the stubborn pigs out of this lot who think themselves as political prisoners are on a hunger strike for the past 5 days. You better note that who has been declared as the enemy to the crown, cannot be deemed as a political prisoner and no special considerations can be bestowed upon them. You are still an ordinary prisoner here, who are deemed to survive in this hell with me being the God. As I said already, it is me who should give you even death. If you are not stopping the strike, the guards would force feed you and you will be put to solitary confinement for the rest of your life. To resist, is to die here. I hereby, warn you for the last time to call by your strike and get to the business as usual. People who resort to business late would have to produce twice as much as the normal routine.”

After I heard that from Barry, I felt a ball rolling in my stomach making me to sweat. That moment, I didn’t understand what force feeding means. For the whole 5 days, I was part of the strike, not taking even a single grain of rice fully with determination and vigour. No business went on as usual at Kala Pani and the guards went on to discuss on how to manage the situation.

It was May 17th 1933. I was sitting on the floor of my cell without taking food, still on a hunger strike. My head was rolling as my blood pressure went low, my mouth was dry as a desert without a single drop of water gotten in the past 5 days. The wounds of the wicked past in the oil mill and canning were giving me extreme discomfort in even moving my legs. I again remembered that the imperials can crush my body but not my soul. I was holding myself to the maximum from not falling on the floor to meet death. My senses were still intact with dignity and in a cautiousness of not letting it go.

There was a sudden howling in the air, probably a human’s. It was like a cry of mercy or a cry of human’s limitation to a physical abuse. The sound struck my heart and I was breathing heavily. My ears tried to penetrate through the thick walls of wing 2 to understand whose foul cry was it and who was doing what to whom. Would it be a suicide? Would it be a snake bite death? Would it be a death cry of a starved brave soul? Or is Barry doing something such as force feeding? Suddenly I felt a fear in my heart making me so sick that I couldn’t breathe or even get up. There was huge sounds I could hear which would possibly be the prisoners hitting the walls with barren hands, thumping the floor with chains or crying out in fear. I was still breathing heavily, terrified, petrified by the curiosity of a probable torture. I was accompanied by fear the whole night and didn’t sleep a bit watching the veranda in front of me for a possible danger.

It was not dawn and there was another cry in the air and this time I understood that something is going on with the comrades who are on hunger strike. Now I know that for sure I will be facing the torture of Barry. I was still breathing heavy but now had the clarity of me going to get punished, at least the confusion is gone.

Thud… Thud… Thud…. What is it? What is it? I tried to move to the front door of my cell. The shadows of Yamas were visible to me and those were nearing me very fast. My eyes dilated , heart pounded , frightened to death, I , at once left my grabbing of the cell’s front iron door, went to the corner of the cell , contracted myself like a frog closing my eyes with my hands.

Some door is getting open. Is it mine? I slowly opened my eyes removing my hands from my face. I saw Barry and 3 guards standing before me.

“You will not call off your hunger strike. Is it? Would you like to starve to death? No… You cannot… I have not decided that yet you pig. Now I will feed you so that you can live to serve me and enjoy Kala Pani.

Tie him and feed him”, shouted Barry to a guard near him.

Two strong men came to me to tie my hands to my back and I was trembling with fear with all my body shivering. My lips too were shivering in fear that I was giving a moaning sound rather than words out of my mouth.

My hands were tied to my back and two guards were holding me in still position for something to be inserted into me. One guard brought a big pipe in one hand with some liquid on the other to be injected into my mouth. I was stricken in fear and broke down into tears.

“Sir…… Sir……. Please don’t do this to me…… Sir…. Please show me mercy sir… Please ask him to stop sir ….. Please ask him to stop!!!!!!! Sir I want my life back….. I don’t want death… Sir…. Please ask him to stop!!!!!”

“You called me pig right!!!!! I will show you how a pig dies, you pig. Feed him now”.

“Sir …. Honourable sir…. I am sorry sir…. Please give me mercy….. Sir I was wrong that day… I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I realize my mistake…… British can rule India sir…. I am not against it… I understand sir… I want my life sir….. I want my life!!!!!!!”

“Oh… You little pig… Now you betray your own country… See, I told you know… These guys are pigs… Get me those rods. Will you say Ïnquilab Zindabad like those bastards? You know, Mahavir Singh is dead. He shouted Ïnquilab Zindabad but the milk went into his lungs rather than his stomach. But you, I will purposefully inject milk into your lungs”.

“Aaaaheerh!!!!!!! Aaaaaaaahhhh!!!! Sir….  Don’t beat me… I will be loyal to the British crown and will not say Ïnquilab Zindabad… sir …….. Please…. I will conduct myself well sir… Will not say Ïnquilab Zindabad… I will end my hunger strike now!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The beating stopped. “I will drink the milk to end the strike Lord, with your permission.”

“Oh yes. Then lick my shoes and end your hunger strike. Untie him.”

“Lick … Lick… Oh Maharaj, I will be loyal to the British, Maharaj. I swear this on my mother”.

“If you are still obedient to me, you live here. Else, you die on my orders.”

Door Locked.

—————-

Tears in my eyes. Heaviness still prevails. My eyes are closed. My heart starts pumping fast yet again. Thud… Thud… Thud…. What is it? What is it? Some door is getting open. Is it mine? Whom do I see? Is it Barry? … Yes… With 3 guards.

“You will not call off your hunger strike. Is it? Would you like to starve to death? No… You cannot… I have not decided that yet. Now I will feed you so that you can live to serve me and enjoy Kala Pani.

Tie him and feed him”, Barry orders a guard near him.

Two strong guards are coming to tie my hands to my back. My lips were stiff in angerand replied, “I say again, you can crush my body but not my soul you imperial bastards!!!!!”

“Bastards?? Feed him now!!!!!!!!!”

“You can take my life but you can’t take away my freedom!!!!!!! If I die thousands will flock to this prison out of thirst for independence. By then you will not be able to manage them, crush them, punish them but you will surrender to them.”

“Oh you bastard!!! Feed him now!!!!Will you say Ïnquilab Zindabad like those bastards? You know, Mahavir Singh is dead. He shouted Ïnquilab Zindabad but the milk went into his lungs rather than his stomach. But you, I will purposefully inject milk into your lungs”

On guard is coming with a big pipe in one hand and milk on the other. Yes it is milk.

“Whatever you do, whatever you do to threaten me or my thirst, I will not submit to you… Ïnquilab Zindabad!!!!!! Whatever you do today, my country will be free one day… Ïnquilab Zindabad!!!!!”

Milk is getting poured into my throat. Milk is running through my throat. Milk is going through my oesophagus. Seeps into my lungs. I cannot breathe… I cannot breathe… God save my country… Save my country!!!!!!

“Ïnquilab Zindabad!!!!!!!!”

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“Grandpa!!!! Grandpa!!!!” shouted Sundar on the veranda of wing no 2. “It’s time for the function Grandpa!! Where have you been? “.

Sundar reached Cell no 22, saw Andaman Pillai on the floor motionless.

“Grandpa!!!!!” screamed Sundar out of shock, checked Andaman Pillai’s pulse, found him dead.

Sundar turned his face in sorrow to the diplomat who accompanied him. “Sir, your grandfather was a brave soul sir. He has died in the same place where he sacrificed most of his life in this jail, the black water, for our country.”

Sundar saw the nail scratches were there near the chains on the side walls of Cell No 22.


 

 

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