During our stay in the Presidency jail, we used to organize functions and theatrical shows. This time there were fewer restrictions. The jail authorities helped us in setting up the stage, and we rented dresses and wigs from dressers outside. Consequently, our performances reached quite a high standard of excellence.
Besides, the political prisoners decided to observe all the functions organised by parties outside on political issues. This kept us in close touch with the political world outside and this was instructive for the common prisoners. Still, at times we got bored with everything. One evening I had a strange experience, bordering on reality and illusion. Friends had decided to organise Lenin’s Day. I was usually an observer on such occasions, but this time I decided to participate and resolved to prepare an essay on the subject. So, in the evening I shut myself up in my room and with a wrapper around my feet and a lantern by my side. I reclined with a pen and paper.
There was a chill in the air and I was feeling sleepy. With a firm resolution, I set myself up to the task of preparing a homage to Lenin. I had just penned a few lines when I heard a masculine voice ask me laughingly, “What are you writing?”
I looked up in surprise, and there, beside my bed, I saw Lenin. My body was paralysed. Was I dreaming? But it was more real than any dream. Removing the jumble of books on my table, he said again, “Well, you did not tell me what you were writing.” Nervously, I handed him the paper. After reading it, he returned the paper with a smile on his face.
Finding my tongue, I asked, “Is it too bad?”
“No. Why should it be bad? You Bengalis are never amiss at writing. Creating beautiful nothings with useless words. Even your detractors will agree on this.”
This sudden attack on my people angered me, and in a heated manner I rejoined, “Oh, is that all you know about Bengalis?”
Lenin’s smile became gentle. “No, I did not mean to hurt you. I know how passionately dedicated you are to a cause. But that is not enough.” After a pause he continued, “It’s true, you are always ready to sacrifice everything on a moment’s impulse; but you are totally unfit for the backbreaking and laborious task of pulling up a dying nation. Unless you are ready to lose yourselves with the millions of poverty-stricken destitute…
I spoke up cheerfully, “Oh, don’t you know? We have also started to think along those lines.”
“Who are these ‘we’?”
“Well, we the workers. Today almost all political parties are thinking of mass awakening, mass movement.”
I was interrupted, “You too think in the same way?”
Quite annoyed, I replied, ‘Of course, how could you even ask?”
“Well there is such a world of difference between your thoughts and your actions. With my Russian intelligence, I fail to understand you.”
“What difference do you find?”
“What difference you ask? Your beliefs may be all right, but as a worker, you are a complete failure.”
Disconnected, I stammered, “It’s true, I didn’t do much when I was outside, but I tried. I formed unions in some mills. I led the workers through a successful strike. I visited some villages. I know I did not achieve much, but you know how difficult this kind of work is.”
With a gentle smile he said. “Don’t be downhearted. I am not judging you by your success. I think you don’t understand the nature of the work. Or, realizing the difficulty of the task, you delude yourself. You do not have the forbearance for such self-sacrifice.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You are spending years in jail, side by side with the downtrodden, poverty-stricken people of your country. But how close do you get to them. What effect do you have on their minds? Do you ever try to teach them anything?”
“You know how difficult it is to reach out to them in jail?’
“Difficult,” he roared with his eyes flashing. “The word difficult does not exist in a rebel’s dictionary. If I were in your place…”
“I would have broken down all barriers and shown them how absurd it is to try and keep people apart.”
Unconvinced, I said, “ Then they would have taken you away and locked you up in a solitary cell.”
‘Well that would have given me the honour of defeat. But what are you doing? You speak of equality, but here in jail you have formed a group of elite intellectuals and are spending your days in luxury. You treat the common prisoners as your servants and have no concern at all for their well-being.”
“What can we do?”
“You can do everything. You can share all your privileges with them; may be it won’t be much, but it will make them think of you as their own. If you think you don’t have enough to share, you can refuse preferential treatment.”
Lots of arguments came piling up: that would only allow the government to save money. Would we able to share such hardship? We were not used to it; our health would break down under the strain. What about our studies? Realising that all these arguments were mere excuses, I remained silent. Lenin continued to look at me, and after a while he asked, “ What are you thinking. It is too difficult, isn’t it? It is easier to put your head in the hangman’s noose than to bear such affliction from day to day, isn’t it so?
I bowed my head in silence. Lenin stood up, “I was right. I knew it. And not only you, I know about all the jails in India. Down from Jawaharlal and Jaiprakash to the communist students and workers of today, the problem is the same. You cannot forget your superior position; you cannot forego the privileges and comforts of your class. You just cannot come close to the destitute millions of your country. Your idea of mass uprising is mostly academic; you accept it with your intellect but you not feel it with your heart. Who knows when, after how many years, a batch of true workers will emerge in this country. I had hoped that it would be India after Russia—but with such workers…
“Binadi” You are sleeping with the light on? Shall I make your bed?” I sat up hurriedly. The exercise book with my half-finished essay lay on the ground. The pencil was still in my hand! At the Lenin Day meeting, I was again a silent observer with nothing to contribute. Someone asked me at the end of the meeting, “What did you think of my speech?”
“It’s useless,” I replied unthinkingly. Seeing her surprised look, I quickly corrected myself, “No, no I didn’t mean it. Your speech was wonderful, as it always is.”
from Bina Das, A Memoir (translation: Dhira Dhar), Zubaan, 2010.
Bina Das was a member of Chhatri Sangha, a semi-revolutionary organisation for women in Kolkata. On 6 February 1932, she attempted to assassinate the Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson, a former England cricket captain, in the Convocation Hall of the University of Calcutta. She fired five shots but failed and was sentenced to nine years of rigorous imprisonment. After her early release in 1939, Das joined the Congress party. In 1942, she participated in the Quit India movement and was imprisoned again from 1942-45. From 1946-47, she was a member of the Bengal Provincial Legislative Assembly and, from 1947–51, of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.