Tales of Prison Life


An account of Sri Aurobindo’s challenges and experiences as an undertrial prisoner in Alipore Jail, Calcutta. Surprisingly full of wry humour.

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Sri Aurobindo’s account of his experiences as an undertrial prisoner in Alipore Jail, Calcutta. Arrested for conspiracy in May 1908, Sri Aurobindo spent one full year in jail while the British Government, in a protracted trial, tried to implicate him in various revolutionary activities. Acquitted and released in May 1909, he wrote a series of articles in Bengali in the journal Suprabhat describing his life in prison and the courtroom. Translated by late professor Sisir Kumar Ghosh of Santiniketan, these articles form the main text of this book.

Several briefer pieces are also included in the book: three essays in which Sri Aurobindo discusses the noble character of the young revolutionaries imprisoned with him: a poem, “Invitation”, which he wrote in Alipore Jail, and a speech at Uttarpara in which he disclosed for the first time some of the spiritual experiences he had in jail.

“My solitary cell was nine feet long and five or six feet in width; it had no windows, in front stood strong iron bars, this cage was my appointed abode. Outside was a small courtyard, with stony grounds, a high brick wall with a small wooden door. On top of that door, at eye level, there was a small hole or opening. After the door had been bolted the sentry, from time to time, peeped through it to find out what the convict was doing. But my courtyard door remained open for most of the time. There were six contiguous rooms like that, in prison parlance these were known as the “six decrees”. “Decrees” stood for rooms for special punishment – those who are condemned to solitary imprisonment by the orders of either the judge or the jail superintendent have to stay in these mini-caves. Even in such solitary confinement there is the rule of caste or hierarchy. Those who are heavily punished have their courtyard doors permanently closed; deprived of contacts with the rest of the human world their only point of relation with the outside world is restricted to the vigilant eyes of the sentry and the fellow-convict who brings his food twice a day. Since Hemchandra Das was looked upon as being a greater terror for the criminal investigation department than I, he had been given this strict regimen. But in the solitary cell too there are refinements – handcuffs and iron rings round one’s hand and foot. This highest punishment is meted out not only for disturbing the peace of the prison or playing rough but also if one is found frequently slack in prison labour. To harass those convicted in cases of solitary confinement is against the spirit of law, but the Swadeshi or “Bande Mataram” convicts were beyond the pale and according as the police desired benign arrangements were made for these.”

– Sri Aurobindo, Tales of Prison Life

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