Rajan arched his neck to stare out the window for a better view. The humongous clouds that had swirled around the airplane for the last two hours receded to show him the welling body of water down below. That meant that the plane was descending.
The blue-green hue of pristine water made him draw a sharp breath. It shimmered and seemed to be swaying just like he had seen in pictures before. He heard shutter clicks in rows all around him and saw that many of them were clicking pictures.
The view was exhilarating. He took his own smartphone out of his pocket and held it to his face. He saw the camera icon and slid a finger over the screen – the way his friends had taught him.
Rajan was an old soul. Technology never interested him, and he never got much out of it. He still tied an old HMT watch with its faded brown leather strap, one that he maintained and wound judiciously all by himself. This smartphone was a gift from his friends, not one he had particularly wanted. He treasured a basic Nokia phone he had with all of its buttons that he had bought for himself only to answer calls from the primary school where he taught history.
He licked his lips as he waited for the camera to focus and clicked the icon he knew would capture the photo.
He stared at it for a brief moment, as though making sure it was an all too real experience. Keeping the phone away, he glanced in wonder at the scintillating scene below until he was interrupted by the captain’s call.
His heart beat rapidly in his chest as the flight descended to the ground in a flourish. He took a minute to compose himself while all the other passengers filed out. When he was the last one left, he removed his seat belt and got his faded cloth bag- the only thing he carried with him on the trip. Clutching the bag close to him, he walked out of the plane.
The humid air tingled with the hot warm sun brushed his face. He realised that he was sweating profusely and wiped the beads on his forehead with a little handkerchief he always carried.
Port Blair had a relatively small airport. All around, he saw buildings in shades of blue and red with beautiful thatched roofs. The greenery spread throughout the cusp of the island, sticking out in odd places from amidst the buildings.
He beamed in delight as he made his way out of the airport to a cacophony of shouts. He was bombarded with “Cab, sir?”, “Auto, sir?” from at least five people. For once, it made him feel quite important as he ignored them and hurried to catch a rickshaw that was speeding by.
“Central jail”, he said curtly. The driver looked at him in surprise.
“No hotel, sir?”, he asked, gesturing to the insignificant bag which he assumed contained clothes and personal effects.
Rajan shook his head vigorously. “No, no. Central Jail”, he said again, this time pointing to a nondescript faded photograph he pulled out of his pocket. It was an old monochrome picture of one of the wings of the historic monument.
“Okay, okay”, said the driver and nodded for him to get in.
“First time in Andaman, sir?”, the driver asked, looking at him through the tiny rear view mirror.
“Yes, it is. Beautiful place”
The driver beamed as though it was him that had personally received a compliment.
“Where are you from, sir?”
There was silence. The driver glanced at Rajan who was now staring off into the distance, and shrugged.
“Someplace far”, said Rajan after a minute, slumping down on the seat and closing his eyes. So long ago, it seemed…
“It was the time of British imperialism. All those that strived for freedom were herded together at the magnificent Port Blair prison”, crooned Rajan’s grandmother from the ornate rocking chair she always sat in. 10 year old Rajan sat cross-legged on the floor, listening to her intently. “Your great-grandfather was one of them”
Amama, as he lovingly called her, had a distant look in her eyes. “What a handsome man he was! Many women fancied him. He was the catch of his time. Alas, all he fancied was my traitor of a mother. Headstrong, stubborn and greedy- that’s what she was, and he found those traits so amusing. That vile creature abandoned me just as soon as I was born. But my father! He brought me up with such devotion, one worthy of worldly queens”, she said. Amama sat up straight and sighed. “That is, until his love for the nation superseded all attachments he ever held”
She glanced at Rajan looking at her with awe and smiled. “He was labelled a political prisoner soon after he joined the revolution. He was held captive at an enormous prison the British had just refurbished. Central Jail, they called it, nestled in the lush, scarcely inhabited Andaman islands. He slogged there for those angrezi bastards until his death”
She was suddenly overcast with a dome of grief. “Go on, go and play”, she said quietly to Rajan, staring into the horizon as tears welled up.
From then on, each day for Rajan was resplendent with stories of heroic grandeur of his great grandfather as his Amama narrated. Rajan Damodar Sukhna, a great revolutionary had no place or mention in history. His antics were only confined to the memories of his only daughter, who hoped the story would carry on through Rajan, who was named after her great father. She regaled him with stories of British brutality, the various tactics they employed to isolate political prisoners in a scantily populated geographical area and torture them in inhuman ways to break their spirit. Perhaps her father’s spirit did break after such endurance. She was quite so young when he was taken away from her. She had later read autobiographies of famous fighters that had been imprisoned there. She treasured Sri Savarkar’s book, one of the very first editions she had acquired, with all her heart.
The narratives were all the same- men shipped off overseas to a big prison and forced into excruciating manual labour for the Crown’s development; men who had to endure watching fellow compatriots being flogged and executed with no regard, knowing that that could be them someday. The images were so vivid in their minds, as many took the effort to pen down every little detail. Amama had over 30 books written by all those that had spent a part of their lives at Central Jail. And she intended to give every story, every ode, every piece of text she could get her hands on to Rajan.
As Rajan grew up, his interest in history burgeoned. He had always had his nose buried in one history book after another, and by the time he graduated, he had a job waiting for him in a government primary school as a teacher. Although the general notion was that history was all about dates and events that were so insignificant now, Rajan truly enjoyed teaching his students the importance of each event, its great impact that changed and set courses for the future. History was what he lived and breathed, which made it difficult for him to socialise. His colleagues were the only thing closest to friends that he had. They tried including him in little coffee breaks they had every three hours or so, but Rajan always kept to himself, poring over history books in all his free time.
Like every quaint school struggling to secure funds from the government, Rajan’s school soon found its way into the under-developed window. The decades old building was falling apart, while staff and students thought of innovative ways to curb the growing need of effective infrastructure. While elections had just conceded a year before, the thought of renewal of funds by the education department was a distant dream.
The Principal of the school, Mr. Shyam G Rao however, was an insightful man. He lacked bureaucratic hold in the village but over the course of his days as a neophyte in education, had managed to develop contacts. He was a social pariah, and had managed to stem a proliferate network through association. It was through one of those several education meets that he had chanced upon Julliette, a young, passionate social worker from England. Working closely with UNICEF, her NGO Changes Through Chances (CTC) had had the credit of resurrecting a little over 130 schools in impoverished districts. While her enthusiastic team preened on expanding their repertoire of services, Shyam Rao had long dropped hints to Julliette about the pathetic condition of the school. He had been subtle, careful not to let his predicament compromise the integrity of the Government, but Julliette had failed to pick up on it.
With hardly over two classrooms holding up with the surrounding debris, Shyam Rao realised he had no choice. Skimming through his contact book until he found the elegantly designed card, he hurriedly placed a call.
Julliette was warm and seemed to recognise him from the one time they had met. After exchanging pleasantries, Shyam Rao cleared his throat and braced himself.
“The thing is, Ms. Julliette, the Government is lacking on funds as it is, what with the minister’s decision to waive off farmer loans. With the onset of the monsoon season, the lack of proper classrooms is taking a toll on students. We’re a proud school housing a little less than 200 precocious students from several districts. At the rate of degeneration, I fear it is the students that stand to lose education for who knows how long”, he said, enunciating pauses for more effect.
“And I understand your school is located in a village?”, she asked.
He licked his lips slightly. “Ah, yes. You see, it is a small, but pretty town nestled about 100 miles off the main city…”, he trailed.
There was silence on the other end. “Very well then. I shall see what I can do”, came the reply after a while. A month later, Shyam Rao received an email by Julliette, who mentioned that she would be arriving to peruse at the school and its prospects in two days.
The day that Ms. Julliette had to arrive was a pandemonium. Fearing that any semblance of decoration to welcome her would foil the purpose, the school was not touched at all and kept in its entire dilapidated glory. It seemed to Rajan that there was effort to make it look like the school was more of a pig-sty than it had been two weeks ago.
Ms. Julliette was a charming lady, effacing all others with her snobbish demeanour. It was quite evident that she had qualms about being there, mostly due to her vested interests. She had been to places far downtrodden than Rajan’s school, and the further under-developed it seemed, the better the school’s prospects looked. Nevertheless, she was taken in by the old, worn down spectacle and agreed to contribute to renovating the infrastructure. She planned to knock down the existing structure to better visualise the space, and her team bustled about clicking pictures as she chatted excitedly about all the plans she envisaged.
As far as customary introductions went, she briefly met Rajan, who smirked at her in disdain. While the others fawned all around her, calling her their messiah, he saw her for what she really was. The school was just another project to her, one that would add to catapulting her reputation to glory. It was just another symbol of conquest for her, one that was oddly familiar to him with all the colonial propaganda that his ancestors were subjected to. He had never been on board with a foreign organisation lending a hand with such condescension.
After several scoffs and smirks thrown her way, Julliette had had enough. She marched right up to Rajan and gave him a piece of her mind. Rajan let her storm off without saying a word. Two weeks later, burdened with the frustration that these ‘evil enslavers’, as he called them, had taken over the school, he handed in his resignation, hastily packed a cloth or two and took off on the next flight to Andaman.
The stop jolted Rajan from his thoughts. He had arrived at Central Jail. Without a moment’s haste, he climbed out of the rickshaw, paid the driver a generous amount and bought his ticket. His heart pounded wildly in his chest as he waited outside, glancing at the gates and the huge sign that said ‘Cellular Jail’. Just as he was about to enter, his tiny phone chimed loudly. He hurriedly took it out of his pocket, and without glancing at the screen, cut the call.
He entered the tiny museum on his right that had portraits of famous freedom fighters and excerpts from their autobiographies. There were several glass-case displays of jail artefacts. He perused over each text and slid his fingers lightly on each artefact, trying to etch it all in his mind. Being there was reminiscent to him of a conversation he had had with Julliette. He had narrated every instance of colonial cruelty while she had listened with amused passivity. She had then attacked his country’s misguided notions of caste and communal vicissitudes as her justified arguments.
The courtyard where the main wing of the cellular jail was located, was magnificent. To the left, there were figures of prisoners as they once lived with brief details about the kind of work they were forced to do. To the right were the gallows. Rajan nodded to himself silently and headed toward the gallows. Two nooses hung there solemnly, having snapped one too many necks of brave men. A pang of disconcertion washed over him as he imagined men writhing in pain, their bodies twirling in deathly dance for minutes until it was all over. It was the same pang he had felt on that fated night when he had met Julliette. He had wanted to make her suffer for all the suffering her ancestors had inflicted on his.
He finally braced himself and walked towards the jail. The magnificent wing, an elongated structure, a canopy of symmetric bars and maroon bricks stood before him, taking his breath away. Without stopping at any of the jail cells, he walked straight up the stairs to the level above as though he had some mission to serve, some purpose to conquer. He slowly made his way down the corridor, measuring each step.
The chatter of people around him faded into faint fervour.
“You’re a hypocrite”, yelled Julliette. “You deride my nation, and yet grovel for help. You spit in the hand that feeds you, but not before snatching all that the hand offers. Where does your integrity stand in all this?”
The jail cell he wanted was fast approaching and his footsteps were all that echoed in his ears.
“You’re a hypocrite, that’s what you are. It is sickening to be helping the likes of you, who bark like savage dogs at one that deigns to throw you bones.” That was what she had said.
His stride was interrupted by yet another call. He quietly took his phone out, dismantled each part and smashed all of it carefully under his feet. Sweeping away the broken pieces to a corner, he continued walking until he reached the cell he wanted. Rajan Damodar Sukhna, he whispered.
Back in his tiny Principal’s room office, Shyam Rao, in the company of two policemen, frantically called Rajan’s number again, only to find out that it was out of service. He shook his head and exhaled slowly, as the two nodded and filed out. He glanced at the newspaper that was kept neatly folded on his table.
The headlines screamed: British social worker found dead near school site; development of school undertaken by NGO just two weeks before tragic incident.
Rao sighed and wondered what the next course of action would be.
In the tiny cell, amidst the slanting shadow across one corner and the light streaming in slivers across the other, Rajan stood with his eyes closed, as though he was soaking it all in. He took a deep breath and opened his arms wide.
“I’m home”, he breathed.
Aryashree is a 22 year old Bengalurean doing her Masters in English Literature from Acharya Institute of Graduate Studies. She dabbles in writing when she’s not reading, and sings a note or two at odd times when she thinks nobody is watching.
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