Dusk of the First War Of Independence
Raje Shirke House
The golden rays of the sun were no longer filtering into the sterile household of the Raje Shirke family. Dark nimbus clouds hung from the sky like a widow’s veil. Shivaprabha Raje Shirke, condemned to the colourless life of a widow with a living husband, was breathing heavily, alone, wondering if a white saree would have been better than the cursed life her husband had just been sentenced to.
Conflicted over whether she should feel relieved that her husband, Ambajee Raje Shirke’s life had been spared, or whether she should mourn his kaala-pani life imprisonment, Shivaprabha vowed to never let her only son follow in his father’s footsteps, those that perhaps begot more pain than honour.
“When is Baba going to come back?” Swarang’s anxious voice filled the room. He had ruffled hair and big, limpid eyes filled with innocence. His eight-year-old voice rang with a volatile, butterfly-like restlessness.
“He’s…uh…he’s…”, the words got shackled at her lips.
Guilt would not let them battle; motherly shields would not liberate them.
Duty warred against duty in her eyes, and finally, she found herself saying, “Soon, dear….in a few years”.
“But my friends say he has been served with transportation for life. Is that true, Aai?”
Shivaprabha Devi could no longer lie. A deep sigh preceded, “Yes, my son. He’s not going to come back.”
“YOU LIED TO ME!!” His big eyes suddenly filled with water, clouded with shock and anger. “No one is bothered about me! If we can’t ever meet him, can’t exchange letters, isn’t Baba as good as dead?”
“Swarang, you mustn’t say something like…”,
“I am never going to talk to him! I am never going to talk to you! I’m going to go away!”
“Swarang!”, but he’d already stormed out of the room in a childish outrage.
“Aai! Aai!....look…. I got a letter! Addressed to me!” Swarang’s excited squeals filled the household and his smiling eyes sparkled with wonder. Shivaprabha came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her once-bright cotton saree, annoyed at the shouting. Her dark wavy hair spilled out of her hurriedly tied bun. She frowned in surprise and confusion, seeing that it was without a return address, probably left in their letterbox by someone from the neighbourhood.
Hurriedly, they tore open the envelope and Swarang started reading with an elder cousin’s help - he’d just learnt.
Andaman & Nicobar Isl,
Snehashish. Accept my blessings.
I know all is not well at home, I gauge that your Aai would be very disturbed over my sentence. Take care of her. Spend time with Ajji, let her not feel my absence.
I am well, do not worry on my account. Tell the women of the household that their son is not in pain, he is resilient. They should be proud. No tear must be shed for me – it will be a drop of blood oozing from our holy land’s chest. Let my head never hang.
The stories that you have heard about this Cellular Jail are all false – we’re not beaten, we’re given tasty food, we have decent chambers, and are well taken care of. I share my cell with three other men from Satara and we spend our days laughing and singing. I even figured out a secret way to communicate with my son.
Pay attention to your studies. Grow up to be a strong, educated and smart sahib. Let Ma Saraswati’s blessings shine on you.
Let Shivaprabha know that I am reminded of her often.
Convey my pranam to Ajji.
P.S.: Do not post your reply; hand it over personally to the postman Mahesh Dada, he knows the secret corridor.
In anticipation of your reply,
Shivaprabha’s eyes welled up with longing, if only the letter were really from him… One of the older brothers of Swarang’s friends had probably written it out of concern for Swarang. Her heart filled with maternal love and blessing for the sender.
She didn’t tell Swarang - he was jumping up and down in mirth at having received a letter from Baba. He immediately started pestering his cousin to help him write a letter back.
Raje Shirke House,
Shirasaashtanga namaskar. I ask for your blessings.
I’m so hapy happy you were able to write to us!
I pray that you are in good helth health and spirit. We were a little disturbed and fearful, as you had thought, but after getting your letter, everyone at home has a peaceful smile pasted on their face throughout the day!
But everyone still misses you. Aai has stopped singing. Ajji just can’t stop repeating your childhood stories. Ajoba doesn’t say it, but I think he thinks about you too. Please come back.
Yesterday, Atmaram Kaka left for Poona to meet an old friend. Savitri Tai was saying she might get marid married soon! I am going to wear my new yellow kurta and Aai says I will look better than all my friends!
I met Manu Dada at the temple the day before yesterday. He said that his Pintu Dada lives in ‘Bombay’ and he studies English in his ‘ischool’ and he wants to grow up and become an ‘English clerk!’ I am also going to go to Bombay and learn all that and become a big man one day so that when you come back, I will bring you home on an English train with curtains.
Do not worry about us. I have now become a man. I will take care of Aai. We miss you. Please come back fast-fast.
In anticipation of your reply,
Shivaprabha was, at first, very sceptical about deceiving her son this way, but looking at how excited the boy was, she gave in and let him send his reply back. About two weeks later, Swarang received a reply.
Things slowly started settling down and the family started getting used to a new life without Baba. Shivaprabha had asked all the women of the neighbourhood about whether their sons were the ones writing the letters, but no one had any idea. Eventually, she stopped asking, leaving it as an affectionate affair between two friends.
Monsoon petrichor filtered into cooler winds, neonatal leaves that used to glisten in the rain now maternally shielded newer leaves. They heard back from Poona, and everyone got busy with arrangements for Savitri’s wedding. Many letters were exchanged in these months.
Many people came over for the wedding. It would be a beautiful affair, to the best of the family’s capacity. After all, the little bride was the apple of everyone’s eye.
The house was lively and bubbly and noisy after a long time. With a constant flurry of activities throughout the celebrations, the clinking of rainbow-tinted bangles and the tinkling of the moon-hued anklets would echo in the house all day. All the girls were gathered in the courtyard with the bride, and were dancing to the beats of the dholak. The cousins were having a gala time and the mothers were breaking their backs trying to keep home civil.
Krushnadas, however, was sitting alone in one of the rooms, reading the same letters that he had written to Swarang, wondering if, perhaps, playing with his innocence was cruel on his part.
Suddenly Swarang burst into the room – he must have been playing something – but when he saw his cousin reading the letters with a melancholic countenance, he said softly, “Krushu Dada, it is you who writes these letters, isn’t it? At first, I really thought that it was Baba who was writing those letters, but then you called me Swaru in a few letters, and Baba never liked that name. Slowly I understood that smuggling letters from that cursed place was impossible. Baba is probably not as happy as you have painted him to be.”
“Still, I continued writing the letters as if I didn’t know, so that when I grow up and become a hero like Baba, if I am also sentenced to kaala-pani, then Aai should not think that it’s a bad place. She should think that all the inmates are happy and healthy, so that she doesn’t become as sad as Ajji. You also continue writing letters like this forever, so that Aai never gets to know...”
Writer: Shashmita Sanyal
Editor: Riya Pote