Wish you a Merry Christmas and I pray May God bless you. I hope to spend my Christmas holiday with you. I will depart in a week once I meet my promises here, expect a present from me.
I know I won’t be reaching before New Year. But I want you to believe that it is my Christmas holiday, for I have quit my job and will stay a long time like a retired gentleman. I was rather discharged from my duty.
However, I have a request. Could you arrange a room for me? I have sent you some money along with this letter. Let it not be a financial burden on you to arrange a room for your uncle.
I know you must be puzzled and wish to know what has befallen me and why is it that I am discharged… In my last letter I had told you of my promotion to the rank of Chief Officer. The pay was excellent; the job was easy for a person of my experience. All I had to do was take rounds of the jail and be in my best attire. I had to see that all my juniors did their job, I had to supervise jail activities and perform duties as mentioned by the book. I was also a favourite among the inmates. I think they liked me, though they were anti English. All this doesn’t reveal why I was dismissed from my post. Why only a nut would lose such a job. But beware Cecile, I do have a particular reason. And if I have to be honest it is quite disturbing.
Oh Cecile your uncle is quite disturbed. And may not be quite the gentleman anymore you saw when you were just a kid.
I was well off being a supervisor at the Police Academy, cursed be the moment I was assigned to supervise the Indian jail. The moment I got the letter of my movement, I went to the church, prayed to almighty and thanked God for the promotion. I was aware of the conditions these Indian jails were in. But I was prepared to build a model for all the other jails by my service. So I set off to the jail with my movement order, boarded a train among the other English gentlemen.
When I first reported to active duty, I was greeted by the former Chief. He personally directed my first jail tour. He showed me all the places and he looked quite relived to have me there. By the evening he handed over all the duties to me and I waved him good bye as he left with a guard. That was the last time I saw him. Probably he might be smoking his cigarettes in his retirement home right now.
Next day I called up a meeting of the workers and assigned different chores to them. They were all about the new blood in them and accepted all the changes willingly. I still think their behaviour had something to do with the departure of the jailor. They looked happy to be rid of him and have me instead, this mustered in me fresh confidence that I was looking for.
My jail was particularly filled with freedom activists of all kind. Within weeks I made my impression on them and the model jail began to take shape. The jail had everything, different rooms for different purposes. A kitchen, dining mess hall for the officers and a lower rank mess hall, prison cells, armory and one room in the corner, far away from all the other rooms, particularly from the prison cells, the room which held the gallows.
I have always believed that jails are not meant to punish the inmates, but should be used more like a correctional facility, where the jail authorities have the duty to bring the inmates to the right track. So that, once they are let out of the jail they do not end up in those wrong paths again. To fulfill this task I had to meet the inmates and talk to them. I had to teach them what it meant to be a civilized person and what it actually was to live in a civilized world. I believe I had gained a lot of success in doing so.
There was however an inmate named Hari, who was always upset. I summoned my assistant Havildar Ramdas at once and learnt that Hari was upset with his trials. I went to meet him after lunch one day. He was lonely in his cell, no other inmate was allowed anywhere near his cell. He was let out only to attend his trials. His crime however was that he was the leader of revolutionaries which had burnt a government vehicle, during the anti government protest. The vehicle was of the postal department and was said to carry mail and certain important papers. Of course, Hari was not aware of this and in the spirit of the protest he had done so, before eventually being caught. He showed quite some resistance when the officers turned up to arrest him and injured an English officer.
When I went to meet him he was seated at the center of his cell facing the wall at the other end, aimlessly looking at the light coming in from the tiny opening at the top of the wall. There was a putrid smell and that of fresh rains. I enquired the guard and learnt that he hadn’t eaten at all that day. When I had asked him, he politely replied ‘sahebji, I am fasting today’. I did not question him further on that matter. I asked him what occupied his thoughts. He said that he was a guest at the jail only for a couple of weeks, after which his trail lead to the gallows. I felt a sharp grief, a sense of guilt or some feeling that I am not unable to recreate in my mind; but it was not a glorious one.
Only surviving kin he had was a mother in her old age. He had not received any communication about what had happened to her after he was arrested, for no neighbour had shown up in his support. He had however created a strange story to comfort himself, he told me his village must have been targeted by communal violence and his mother must be dead. He had thought about this scenario so many times that he appeared to believe it and if you would ask him he would give you exact details of the riots and the event that would follow leading to his mother’s death. These were clear signs of a person who had quit and didn’t have any hope of walking free again.
I asked him the details of the riots he was in and the vehicle he had burnt. He cried and told that it was a big mistake to be a part of that angry mob. Although, initially the protest was peaceful, they resolved to pelting stones once the police started using force and beating the mob with lati. Five people started to burn the vehicle and he too had joined them. He was caught by the police and he hit the policeman with the stone in his hand. Once he was caught, the other five had testified against him. In return for a minimal punishment, Hari was named as the leader of the rebel organisation he had never heard of.
A policeman also testified against him. Hari said that he could understand the testimony of the policeman as he was English and could give a testimony for the sake of a promotion at catching the rebel leader. But he was disappointed at the fellow Indians, who for the sake of saving their skin had testified against him. He had no opportunity to prove his innocence. Of course he had done a mistake, but he was not the leader and burning a government vehicle and making an officer bleed was not worth the gallows. But Cecile, I am not thorough with the courts proceedings and believe that the court had tried and formed the opinion about Hari after reviewing the individual witnesses and the valid proof against him.
Hari said that a couple of days earlier one of the rebel leaders had sent him a message, that the leader wanted him to sacrifice his life for the sake of a free India and he would be called a martyr, his name would be remembered for ages to come. I told him to have confidence on the British legal system, but I knew within that there was no escape meant for him. I felt quite divine to be a sympathiser, being a jailor I had to be a guardian, a father figure to all inmates, the one who was there to forgive all their sins and if Hari was to be hanged till death he should feel forgiven for all the sins he had committed.
I regret it now as I feel that it was my personal greed to do so. I did not feel any compassion for him as person. Oh Cecile, be so good and forgive your uncle who is an absolute sinner. For I pity no one and am indulged in my greed oh so often. I could not be so good to Hari when I could. May be I thought that the execution would take a lot of time and the trail would just be kept running under the numerous appeals which were going to follow, but for Hari, there was no one who would appeal before the higher court…
Hari was ready to be a sacrificial goat; he had begun to have belief in martyrdom. He must have imagined it so many times that he believed him to be the saviour of the freedom struggle and he did not try to get an appeal or beg for mercy. He simply did not understand what was at stake…
As days passed I received the orders for the sanctioned execution. I was pretty upset while reading those orders. The execution was stated three days later. I had to convey the orders to the prisoner. He looked sad. The executioner was ordered to mark his attendance at the rehearsal. A doctor was asked to come and a priest performed daily prayers for Hari. A day before the execution, Hari looked very much scared and the rehearsal of the hanging was due that day. Though the gallows were far from the prison cells the distinctive cling and bang of the metal trap doors was heard far enough till Hari’s cell. When this sound was heard the entire prison would be silent. There would absolutely be no sound than that of the trap door and the occasional laughter of the executioner.
I could not sleep that night. Next day I woke up early and went to the altar and prayed. I imagined the trauma Hari would be in. When I reached the prison the first thing I did was ask my assistant if Hari had his breakfast and after noting his affirmation I ran off to Hari’s cell. To my surprise, Hari was smiling and was ready for his final journey. He had taken his last bath and was delighted to see me at last. It was not a state I had expected to see a person who was scheduled to be executed, murdered in cold blood a mere three hours from then. When I asked for his last wish, he said that he would want to eat roasted corn. But I couldn’t fulfill his request as we were not supplied with corn that month and I had to deny his request and he politely accepted it. When I had asked if he had any other wish, he told me he didn’t want to be chained when he would be taken to the gallows. This I could provide.
As the time ran away swiftly Hari began to grow paler and paler. I checked my pocket watch and time simply flew. I am sure Hari could see the fear in my eye as I could see in his. He knew it was time and got up. My assistant made the chains and cuffs ready. I told my assistant not to tie him up and make Hari walk freely to the gallows. I saw that Hari had sweat on his forehead and he began to chant ‘Ram Ram’. As we neared the gallows his chanting grew stronger. I knew his entire life was flashing right before his eyes. He climbed the platform without resisting even a little bit and kissed the noose. A black cloth masked Hari’s face. The executioner fastened the rope around his neck. My job was to hold a hand kerchief, look at the time piece and wave the kerchief when it was time. The executioner’s duty was to look at my kerchief and pull the lever when it was waved. The doctor was present to certify the death. My assistant had the simplest job of just looking at the procedure and Hari had the duty of standing still. I waited for a miracle, but the clock ticked and I waved the kerchief. The cling and bang was heard loud and clear. The executioner didn’t laugh this time, he didn’t even smile. There was however a bit of a struggle and then Hari gave way. The doctor declared him dead and his body was given the honour of last rites at the prison graveyard. I went to the church and prayed for his soul and had a confession before the altar.
My assistant wrote a full report of the execution and submitted it to the authority. I was criticised for letting a convict walk freely to the gallows without any cuffs or chains. There was a court hearing, I was called an incompetent who would give away to emotional pressure and risk the safety of the prison and was unceremoniously discharged of my duties. I am happy that I am discharged as I would have quit my job anyway. I don’t have the courage to supervise another execution. I hope Cecile you will receive me with a smile and forgive me for my foolishness.
The Police dept.
By Billford Monteiro