Time present & time past

The fortressed Shillong district jail sits in one of the busiest localities in the city, a few meters away from Police Bazar, an economic nerve point. When the Jail Road market and the shops on the footpath rolling down to Polo wake up with all vigour, one might not even notice the prison’s entrance gate. Or, it could be deliberate. In any case, it does not alter the history of the establishment that came up before independence.
Shillong jail may not share the elite history of some of the oldest prisons in the country but it has stories of its own and those who languished in its dark cells. Though most of these stories are lost in oblivion, some still survive, like anecdotes from days and years which are read about in classrooms.
Surama Ghatak, a Communist party member from Shillong, was incarcerated in Shillong jail in the then capital city of undivided Assam. It was during her stay in the jail for more than a year from October 31, 1949, that she encountered some of the poorest and helpless people. Shillong jail-er diary, or Shillong jail diaries, is Surama’s attempt to tell those stories which never made it to the pages of history.
Surama was from a progressive Bengali family from Sylhet that later settled in Shillong. Though not many Bengali readers know her as an author, a large number of them know her as the wife of versatile and temperamental Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak. But Surama had an identity of her own, in the beginning as a young political worker and later as a writer and teacher.
Shillong jail diaries chronicles the life of prisoners, especially women, and their struggles. It also reflects on the socio-political situation right after independence. Surama documents the deplorable condition of the jail, one of the oldest in the North East, and the inmates’ fight for rights. Her jail diaries tell the stories of those people who are forgotten over time. This is probably the reason why there are no written documents in the state about the prison establishment.

Women’s cell

The Shillong jail was not only a place for punishment for myriad crimes but also an asylum and a place for treatment of diseased prostitutes. So when Surama and other political prisoners were lodged in the jail, the women’s cell was already crowded. There were Khasi, Jaintia, Nepali and Bengali inmates from different strata of the society. There were women from Cherrapunjee, Dawki and Mawsynram. Their felonies varied from murder, peddling, sex trade to petty crime like theft.
There was Kong Fi from Sohryngkham whose toddler son Tansing lived with his mother in the jail. There was ‘Mawsynram’, whose real name nobody knew but presumed from her demented mumblings that she was from a village in Mawsynram. There were Dilmaya, Fulmati, Khusboo, Mon and many more who lived in the hope of justice but died without getting it.

The author — she was called Jing kieng Wah Surama, or the bridge on the river Surama, by a prisoner — describes the abject poverty that forced many women to steal, murder or choose drug business. “Rosemary’s mother is from Cherrapunjee. Her husband was a Madrasi. One day, he left her and little Rosemary. The woman’s meagre earning was not enough to take care of the child. So one day, she stole some clothes. Days have gone by but Rosemary’s mother does not get justice,” writes Surama.
There were many women inmates who never heard of communism but had read articles in newspapers by missionaries which denounced communists for being atheists. Surama writes about Kong Corin from an obscure village and how she was falsely charged in a crime; about the Khasi wife of a Chinese man who lived in the jail with her 10-month-old son; and many sex workers who could not find a way out of the labyrinth.
The prison was a microcosm of the nationwide agony of thousands of citizens owing to the fledgling economy and social discrimination. The political and social struggle that Surama and her comrades had become a part of found a new dimension inside the prison where they educated women about their rights as citizens and humans. “A woman who was pure and wanted a happy life is now a victim and why? Our society did not castigate the ones who dragged this woman to a life of humiliation and pain and why? Because those who are at the helm have money and money can buy everything. They have no ideology,” she writes.
These are history too, albeit dreary and better left out.

Strikes for rights

Hunger strikes and protests, led by a handful of educated women and political prisoners, were common inside the Shillong jail where inmates were denied basic facilities. Surama writes how Khasi, Nepali and Bengali prisoners boycotted dinner in jail on Christmas Day because the authorities refused to serve syiar or chicken on the special occasion. Not only inside the prison but there were uprisings in Khasi villages too.
The morbid cells at times reverberated with songs and laughter. Inside the prison, illiterate rural women and educated liberal comrades participated in all celebrations with equal enthusiasm. The lives of all prisoners from different social background were strewn in a single thread and the fight was for rights as citizens of a newly-formed nation.
The stories inside the prison transcend the high walls and give a broader picture of Shillong and the undivided state, its politics, the Congress regime and local leaders, its poor tribal populace and the global fight against imperialism and fascism. As Surama narrates local lives, she also weaves in the historical events unfolding outside the prison and undivided Assam and beyond Indian boundaries.

Fading history

When scholars and researchers write history and document events and incidents, they seldom consider the stories of the downtrodden. Over time, the latter’s daily struggles become part of a monotony that we are tutored to ignore. As a result, history is reflected through a monochrome devoid of the essence of existence, adaptation and survival. Surama’s book is a jing kieng ksiar, or a golden bridge, that connects the present with the forgotten.
The fate of the prison has not been better than those who stayed in it. Most of its history has disappeared. There are no written documents with the government. Even after repeatedly writing to the concerned authorities for months, no information could be obtained. According to an official, the prison has undergone a structural overhaul over the years but certain things, like a few doors and locks, have remained the same.
Shillong now has a separate mental health hospital and the prison is no more a place to confine patients. However, the problem of crowding persists and nothing much is reported about human rights violation inside the high walls. And for the stories which are still untold, these remain in the sighs and despair of the prisoners in the pages of Surama’s diary.

~ NM

Photo: ST File

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