In a prison in Calcutta, Mimlu Sen learns the meaning of ‘bhadu’, the season of scarcity. But Bhadu is also a deity of hope, one that gives uneducated, imprisoned women the strength to carry on. And one that her rebel comrades could not comprehend
In a prison in Calcutta, Mimlu Sen learns the meaning of ‘bhadu’, the season of scarcity.
After the shock of my arrest from my home in Park Circus plus the crushing fatigue of three weeks of interrogation by the Special Branch Police in Calcutta, jail, with its monotonous rhythm, brought intense if temporary relief. The slam of rain on the paved courtyard outside my cell, the rushing and gurgling of water along the water evacuation drainage system along the lintel overhead, pouring on to the open drain in a crashing roar, cut off all other sounds. I was in a state of withdrawal, cradled by the sound of water, sleeping incessantly for two months and waking up only for meals.
Sharp feminine voices in a haunting bhadu song finally woke me up.
Twin tangra fish whistle a tune, / A black bee playing the flute / I saw in Kolkata / Three Bhadus step down, / And the one with kajal in her eyes / Is the one who is ours. / I saw in Kolkata / A catfish jumping / But when I tried to catch it / It tossed and turned / And stared at me.
Bijoya, the hefty chief warder, passed by with her keys jingling at her great hips, face inscrutable as she unlocked the door of my cell.
Maya and Meena, common law offenders, slipped in through the laundry shed which connected the political ward to the main courtyard and general ward. Maya carried a large container of chickpeas and Meena carried an aluminium kettle of tea. The chickpeas were worm-ridden. The tea tasted of stale dish cloth. I was longing for a cup of Assam tea with a pinch of Darjeeling for flavour.
“Wake up Memsaab! Come and see our Bhadu doll!”
Maya hissed at me through the cell window. She was a pretty roly poly pie of a girl with a built-in giggle, cracking endless and colourful smutty jokes at which she laughed harder than anyone else. Everyone was under her charm, even the most dour of political prisoners. She had told me she was Maya the Magician , with a talent for transformation of numbers. I can make Five into Ten, she gurgled.
I found out that she was a Chal Black. The food department had cordoned off rice zones in West Bengal to control the market. She was from a gang of women who smuggled rice from a cordoned off area into Calcutta. She would tie a sack of rice around her waist, pretending to be pregnant, fooling the railway guards, jumping off the train before Sealdah Station, selling rice in the suburbs of the city, tampering with weights, passing off five kilos of rice as ten.
Meena, introduced to me as the Queen of the Pickpockets, was androgynous, dressed in a powder blue velvet bell-bottom suit which it seems even the jail authorities had no power to take off. She stood clutching a bar of my cell window after she’d poured tea in my glass, staring right and left, up and down. Her yellow grey cat’s eyes had X-ray vision as they surveyed me and the things lying around my blanket, my glasses, a packet of cigarettes and a tin of Milkmaid, gifts from my father. She swooped down at a safety pin on the floor close to the cell window and then showed me an empty palm, grinning menacingly. “Hath saphai! (sleight of hand) Memsaab!” Her voice was gruff, humorous.
Memsaab! I shrank at being called Memsaab, the code name satirically given to me by the Bangla Bihar Orissa Ancholik Committee which seemed to stick to me like chewing gum.
It was beginning to dawn on me that my own zidd (stubbornness) in getting some kind of truth across to Maoist leaders had finally created the situation which led to my arrest. I’d been hoist on my own petard.
Not wanting to be left to myself and my thoughts, I accepted Maya’s invitation to escape into the main courtyard. I dodged Bijoya when her back was turned and slipped into it. I was curious to put faces to the voices that had awoken me in the morning. But the chorus had evaporated into thin air. Maya looked evasive when I asked about the Bhadu doll. She chattered non-stop instead.
Bhadu songs, Maya told me, are sung in the month of bhadro which straddles mid-August and mid-September, the poorest month of the year in the villages of Bengal. Clouds curdle in the sky, showing only patches of blue. Bursts of sunshine are followed by sudden showers. Granaries are empty and the harvest is still to come. Bhadu was a forest deity whose marriage to a shepherd prince never took place. In this season, young girls leave their houses and go out in a singing and dancing procession with a wooden Bhadu doll in exchange of alms… This way, they have a little pocket money. It’s also a season when girls run away from home.
I began to explore the Female Ward with the help of Maya and Meena. On the extreme right was the Pagol Bari or mad-house where the lunatics were segregated into four halls, depending on their degree of lunacy. A Pagol Reviewing Committee met every six months and switched them from one hall to another.
Aaduri was in charge here and led me in, gripping my hand. She was convicted to life imprisonment and had the status of a prison mate or ‘matine’ as the female of the species was called.
Women lived here in the nude. Keeping lengths of cloth was a danger, explained Aaduri. Lunatics could commit suicide or strangle each other.
The lunatics were often lined up in the hospital ward which was contiguous to the section for political prisoners. The matines used their sticks freely to keep them in line. The jail doctor prescribed them tranquillisers and A class diets: boiled egg, banana, bread-butter for breakfast, a large piece of fried fish at lunch, and meat once a month. But neither food nor medicine ever got to them as these were trafficked to the black market outside jail by the prison mafia.
Most of them lived on a diet of rice and salt and gruel. Naked and emaciated, they looked like a pack of forlorn, overgrown children, like the victims of Auschwitz.
Along the centre of the courtyard, in two large halls, was the Hajatghar for petty criminals. Maya and Meena controlled this area. After lock-up, Vividh Bharati would blare through the microphone and if I hoisted myself up to the level of the ventilator, I’d see them leading the dancing and singing to hit songs from films: Mera nam hai Chameli or Suno Champa suno Tara koi jita koi hara!
Directly opposite, to the left of the main courtyard was the hospital, and next to it the political prisoner’s ward with its back turned to the courtyard but opening out, labyrinthine, towards the hospital through a secluded private courtyard which we shared with the hospital. From here, we political prisoners had a clear view of all that went on in the hospital, but could do nothing to intervene.
It was clear from here how the mafia operated. Mostly brigands with life sentences like Renu and Saraju, a couple of kutney buris or flesh traders. They ran a network of prostitution and narco-trafficking through the hospital. They looked innocuous at first, like nannies, but were ruthless.
They bullied the women, who accepted their authority without a murmur of protest. Even the warders, including the terrifying Bijoya, ceded to their blackmail. They had Sitama knit them a trunk full of white lace, like a marriage trousseau for a Christian bride, which they took with them when they were discharged from prison after completing their life term with remission of fourteen years. Woe to the women of Calcutta, we thought, as we watched them leave.
A battle of attrition was taking place between the common law prisoners and Maoist political prisoners, who shunned the former as ‘reactionary lumpens’.
A couple of weeks after my arrival, when the Naxalite women found out that I was talking to whoever passed by my cell, they stopped talking to me too. I was a bourgeois memsaab, belonging to the rebel section of the party ( the Bengal Bihar Orissa Ancholik Committee). I had dared question the leadership of Mao Tse Tung, and my misconduct, my bidi smoking and my refusal to wear bras, in solidarity with the common law prisoners who barely had a cloth to cover them, was anathema to them. That I’d been a rebel within the rebel faction of the party and had been a militant for feminine power was beyond their comprehension.
When Shikha Bannerjee, a con-woman and extortionist, came to jail, things came to a head. Shikha, a confidence trickster, had entered the life of a young couple in Kharagpur. She cooked them voluptuous feasts and sang them to sleep every night.
One evening, they all went to the latest Bangla movie. Soon after the show began, Shikha sprang up and said that she had forgotten to put out the stove, told the couple to carry on watching the film without her. The unsuspecting couple returned home a couple of hours later to find that they had been stripped of all their possessions. They rushed to the police station and on to the railway station where Shikha was waiting on the platform for a train to Calcutta. Shikha laughed merrily while she told this story. When the police took her away, she said the couple looked as if they were dreaming.
Powerful and voluminous, Shikha soon established herself on top of the hierarchy, making the hospital ward her headquarters. She looked like a pneumatic statue of Durga, with huge eyes heavily blackened, thick arched eyebrows and a sharp aquiline nose and full red lips dripping pan juice. She seemed to have some strange tantric power over everybody, enslaving many of the common prisoners and provoked the political prisoners to helplessly watch the scenes she now created inside the hospital.
The Naxalite women helplessly watched her flunkies make her 12 egg omelettes, made of eggs stolen from the A class diet of the Pagol Bari, which she devoured for breakfast every morning, throwing scraps around her. Shikha’s chief ally was a hefty young woman, Mita, whose duty was to bring lunch to the political prisoners. The fact that she was deaf and dumb shut out the possibility of their winning her over to their political cause. To add to their irritation, the deaf and dumb girl spent hours every morning massaging Shikha’s huge head and massive body with oil.
Late morning, after an omelette episode, I heard excited voices in the courtyard. Mita had just brought lunch to the political ward. Taking advantage of her being alone, the prisoners crowded around her, pulling her hair, pushing and shoving and pinching her, thus wrecking vengeance indirectly on her guru, Shikha.
I was astonished at their cowardice and lack of discernment. Moreover, I was sure they were taking on an enemy far too powerful for them. I ran up to them and asked them to stop, but they accelerated their blows on the deaf and dumb Mita, who bawled out in agony like a cow in labour. Finally, I grabbed and dragged her out towards the laundry shed with the idea of pushing her into the main courtyard. She was heavy and it took all my strength to move her away.
Shikha had sounded the alarm. The Pagli, the prison alarm bell, began to ring. All the common law prisoners, village women, outraged at the aggression on one of their own, mobilised immediately. A crowd of angry women ran up towards me to beat me up. For them, I was the enemy. All hell started breaking loose. Luckily, Tara, an Amazonian prostitute who knew me since we’d been in Alipur Court lock-up together, was standing by the door and threw her large body between myself and the women. Later, I realised that she had stationed herself there just to rescue me. We took a few blows, though.
The guards in the Female Ward and the matines suddenly went into hectic activity, tidying up. Suddenly, birds of prey had become docile pigeons. We were all lined up for inspection. A couple of hours later, the jail superintendent come into the Female Ward. I saw him for the first time, a little man with huge knobbly knees exposed under a starched khaki half pants and solar topee. He came mincing in with a CRPF battalion. It was a show of force.
“Supar khanki! Supar khanki!” shouted Angur who was recuperating from malaria in the hospital, jerking her head à la Turrets syndrome. “Supar Khanki!” shouted Maya and Meena, giggling. “Supar khanki!” shouted many prisoners, echoing Angur.
The Jail Superintendent looked crestfallen and lowered his head.
I was led back to my cell, but I could not stop laughing.