It was pleasant December of 1997.
Just by being part of the laid-back city of Port Blair,
nobody could have grasped the reason why the unexciting place suddenly buzzed
with activity...why the sleepy little place amid the indigo waters of the Bay of Bengal so frantically woke to a frenzy of
excitement. One thing was certain: India was at the moment in her
golden jubilee year of independence, but that was too official to excite
anybody at all. Then what was in the air that made everybody feel so different?
The ambience, nevertheless, had
its historical overtones. Now all those terribly old people who had once
created the history visiting the Cellular Jail in the island as the
patriot-convicts in their fiery youth would be invited and honoured. The island
folks knew it very well—if it were not for those historical souls, the tiny
island would not have secured a niche for itself in the annals of patriotism.
But still they kept wondering if that was the right way to honour them, as the
old were just right for their sickbed, and not for a crowded public function!
Given that most of the patriots were dead by now, the question remained:
whither should they go to invite them?
It was open to
anybody’s guess if the invitation was also extended officially to the daemons
of the preternatural realm. But Milkha, a ghost being, came to know about the
pageantry-in-progress when a blast in a quarry catapulted him, making him
afloat in the ether of free India.
A grand feeling of liberation seized him. Now he was all out for
action—something he must do that would help him achieve his life’s ambition,
justify his posthumous existence, and above all, secure him peace and heavenly
The poor apparition had
been dwelling restfully in a cave near the pristine beach of Wandoor
ever since he attained his ghosthood. But then a disaster was to strike his
abode on that fateful day of 26th June 1941. It was a double ravage
by the combined force of a powerful earthquake and a tsunami that blocked the
cave’s exit by a huge rock, and plunged the poor little soul into an agony of
confinement. Finding everything dark and dungeon-like all around, Milkha
abandoned all his hope of liberation. He was resigned to never seeing the light
again, for it was improbable that somebody would ever come to his rescue and
extricate him from the sealed cave.
Many a time thereafter
Milkha had thought of forcing his exit all alone, but something seemed to have
prevented him always. His boundless supernatural might had proved to be of
little use. He used to fear his incautious attempt might uproot the Banmohua
tree standing down the slope. It was a tree, a very special one to him indeed,
where his mentor Lal Bawa used to live, and Milkha could not have dreamt of
destroying it. It would have been an act of sheer ungratefulness on his part to
despoil the abode of somebody that had once accommodated him so affably. He and
his mentor, the two surreal beings, had spent countless hours of conviviality
there. When in due course of his spectral maturation Milkha came to realise
that his salvation would take years to eventuate and when such realisation in
him plunged him into the quicksand of depression, he had desperately needed
somebody to look to for his solace. Lal Bawa was his companion-in-need then,
who had consoled him, encouraged him, and given him the mantra that proved to
be the ultimate raison d’etre of his surreal existence. Now that Milkha was in
trouble he could not have behaved insensibly and rolled the huge rock onto his
mentor’s abode to damage it. He decided he had better remain trapped in the
cave, listen to all the developments around from his mentor, and wait for the
opportune moment for his release and salvation. He was prepared to wait for
aeons even, if his luck was not to make it happen any earlier.
Finally the detonation
of dynamite played the symphony of liberation to the ghost being. It ripped
apart the huge rock and ejected him out to show the light of free India.
Milkha was overwhelmed. He wanted to thank the quarry owner, even for his
unintentional help. The latter was standing at a distance, safe enough to keep
him away from hitting the splinters.
‘Thanks a lot,
brother, I’m really, really grateful to you,’ Milkha approached the contractor
with a woodcutter’s axe resting on his shoulder.
me…and for what?’ the dumbstruck contractor had no clue how a person could
still be left so near the detonation spot and return so luckily unhurt!
‘I thank you for
saving me,’ Milkha told something as an explanation that failed to convince the
‘Then go and thank God for keeping you alive and I’m thanking
Him for saving me from a murder case,’ the contractor had this much to mumble
before trying to forget the shock. But then he could not be so abrupt in his
communication with a person who had just returned from the doorstep of the lord
of death. ‘Aren’t you heading for Port Blair? A band is putting on a gala
concert this evening at the stadium, you know—Netaji Stadium.’
‘Of course, I’m
going there now,’ Milkha the ghost being sped up and vanished in a trice. The
contractor went back to his work.
Before he attained his
ghosthood, let’s say, more than a century ago, Milkha was a deported convict at
the Andamans. He had come there on being sentenced to deportation by the
session’s judge of Balasore. The charge against him was one of sedition, for
the simple reason that he did not pull on well with the royal scion of
Rajnilgir. The British resident commissioner of that princely state had
instituted the case on behalf of the ruler. One of the frivolous charges
brought against Milkha was he had drugged the horse meant for the lady Resident
Commissioner to induce a wayward behaviour in the animal and cause injury to
the white lady. It was taken to be an attempt of an inferior black to murder a
lady of a superior race. The other charge was rather complicated. The
allegation said that Milkha staged the folk drama in the open-air theatres and
composed some anti-white lyrics for its musical sequences. “Lily-white skin
upon a chilly-hot heart, hound them first oh-ho hound them first...” The
lyrics were considered potentially dangerous, intended to incite a rebellion
against the princely state and its British protectors. In fact, after the play
was staged, people started reciting them everywhere—on the road, in the field,
aboard the bullock carts, at the bathing ghats—parodying
the colonialists and their stooge in the ruler of the princely state. It was
the evidence they were looking for and, what was more it was easy for the
prosecution to bring in witnesses from tribals who could recite the lyric
before the judge at an unbroken pace.
But the main motive of
the young prince was to eliminate Milkha who was the sole witness to his
passionate affair with the lady Resident Commissioner. As the coachman of the
carriage, Milkha had been the witness to numerous instances of those unseemly
sessions that took place between the paramours. Somehow the adulterous duo felt
increasingly insecure about the trustworthiness of Milkha. Then followed a
secret report to the residency: Milkha with the active help from the tribals of
the area was going to organise a rebellion against the British authorities and
their protectorate, the princely state of Rajnilgir. A search and seizure
operation was conducted at Milkha’s place that resulted in recovery of
firearms, bows and arrows, and swords and spikes.
conspiring to kill white people—is that true?’ the judge had asked Milkha at
the end of the proceeding.
‘No my lord, I’m incapable of killing even a rodent. I can’t
kill my masters, I’m not so ungrateful,’ Milkha had insisted in response.
‘But we’ve evidence
before us. Weapons have been seized from your house. Can you disprove that?’
the judge had dared.
Milkha could not explain properly that the seized objects were the
accessories for staging open-air plays, and that they were only the fake ones
meant for the mock fighting onstage. The trial constituted a mockery of
justice. The European lady testified that Milkha was often careless in managing
the horse carriage and that he was spiteful of the British race in his talk and
manners. That was all. Now Milkha was dubbed a seditious fellow in the guise of
a servant of the British. Justice saw the truth shown to it: the rustic
scoundrel was not to be taken for what he looked; he was definitely preparing
to kill the officers posted there and usurp the kingship of Rajnilgir.
While it was time to
award punishment, the judge had banked on his pet colonial prejudice. That
crime was the natural tendency with the natives was his belief, and that a
punishment was no punishment if not exemplary was his conviction. Such was the
notion, more or less, with all the white people in the subcontinent and there
had been no change in their attitudes ever since the Sepoy Mutiny had nearly
uprooted them. The case against Milkha did not involve a murder. It was the
only extenuating factor before the dispenser of justice. As such, awarding a
punishment of hanging was out of consideration. Finally, the judge had decided
to order deportation of Milkha to Kālāpāni
or the penal settlement of the Andamans for a life-term to meet what he
called the end of justice. The ruler of Rajnilgir could not have been happier.
Released from the dark
depth of his hellish cave, Milkha remembered his days of agony on the island. Now
he had only a bundle of experience with him that made him feel different from
other ordinary spectral figures. He loved to ruminate over them, reconstruct
them and feel inspired by the righteous satisfaction that emanated from them.
It appeared to him as if events had happened only the previous night, and his
agonies were like those distant nightmares that no longer scared him to
It was vivid before
Milkha how he had bid a teary adieu to his motherland in that sombre autumn
evening, and how he was taken by a steamer to the Andamans via Rangoon. He had reached
the island a broken man, with a feeling of helplessness compounded by despair
and revolt. In a flash, everything about his native place had just receded into
the domain of distant memory; it was finally lost for him far behind the black
waters of the Bay of Bengal. Situation had
demanded that he should quickly begin to like the place or perish. But what was
there for him to like? Swamp and centipede, mosquito and insomnia, physical
pain and famishment—with living conditions so brutal and an environment so full
of malevolence, the whole environment was only too infernal.
When he had reached at Viper Island,
a place every deportee was brought for inculcating discipline, terrible things
were waiting to happen. His unfortunate body was yet another one to be fettered
with a chain gang. Already he had the shackles on his legs and waist; now a
chain joined him to a group of four persons. All the four convicts were
likewise in shackles, each chained with a neck ring, and their number-badges
dangling from such rings made them look like animals on their way to butchery.
Everyday a promoted convict used to come to them to supervise. The label “promoted”
gave them each a sadistic halo and those dangerous ex-convicts took their job too
seriously on being promoted as the supervisors of the chain gangs. They would
give unprovoked canning to the new deportees—as if they were the softest
possible targets for their unending wrath, and as if it were their turn to take
revenge for the punishment meted out to them by the jail officers before their
so-called good behaviour brought them the promotion. Such emancipating merit of
theirs, recognised as the ‘good behaviour’, was only a euphemism for their
shameful acquiescence; it was nothing but their passive role in sodomy that the
petty officers used to rightfully practise on them!
co-convicts in the gang, it seemed to Milkha, had no great difficulty in
putting up with the physical punishments. At times they used to ridicule,
snorting the barbaric punishment away by their contemptuous whimpers. But
Milkha found them agonising; his body and soul used to rattle with every swish
of can that ruptured his skin. There was always a back-breaking load of work to
perform if one were to avoid punishment, earn subsistence and keep the
supervisors “happy” for an elusive promotion to a status of a reformed
convict! His chain gang was asked to clear the jungle in and around Viper Island
while the rings around their necks and waists, and in some cases fetters around
their feet, made them struggle for steps. The convict Jamadar used to guard
them from a distance, his watchful gaze fixed on every single movement of
Milkha. The ancient trees were stubborn enough to disregard the thud of an axe.
The cutting implements were deliberately made small just to prevent their
misuse by the convicts against the guarding Jamadars. When authorities found Milkha
not skilled enough for felling the trees, they confined him to the refractory
ward to slog moulding bricks and grinding lime mortar paste for catering to the
construction activities. The food was horrible, less than a working fellow
would require for sustaining him through the hard days’ labour under scorching
tropical sun. The wretched Rangoon
rice with coarse salt and the nominal brown liquid called dal were the items meant
for those hungry unfortunate humans. And they were the ones kept alive just for
cutting down the jungle!
The agonising moments thus slogged past the wasteland of Milkha’s life
through the ten long suffering years. He was transformed, as it were, into a
worthless mound of pessimism. There was none with whom he could have shared his
anguish; no spot nearby was safe enough for risking an escape. Many a time his
desperation made him contemplate all sorts of reckless adventures. Sometimes it
appeared to him as though everything was within his reach, and what was required
of him was only a gutsy step out of the barrack. He was ready to run away from
Viper Island and go anywhere his fate would lead him to—no matter whether it
were the hell. Too desperate to be circumspect, he was not bothered by the
consequence that lay ahead. His absent-mindedness, his slip in daily drudgery,
and above all his physical incapacity to give an impressive outturn earned him
additional physical punishments day after day.