There’s a certain monotonous sameness to prison memoirs – the venal and sadistic prison officials, the deranged, often loathsome fellow prisoners, the leeching out of hope, the filth and the awful food, the stories of smuggling in little luxuries in bodily orifices, the beatings and torture, the gruesome tales of anal rape, and the sudden unexpected acts of kindness amidst the pervasive cruelty have been written about extensively and aspects have been presented on screen in films as far apart as Shawshank Redemption and Sanju. From Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist published in 1912 and set in the US to James Tooley’s Comeuppance and Arun Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage that expose the Indian prison system, literature about incarceration tends to confirm our worst nightmares about what goes on behind those barred windows and high walls. And so it is with Ramchandra Singh’s 13 Years; A Naxalite’s Prison Diary.
What sets it apart, however, is that the writer is a genuine subaltern belonging to the backward arak community from Bangarmau in UP, who persisted with his education and, as a student in 1967, around the time of Naxalbari, became “active in the Unnao district unit of CPI-M.” The interview with the author conducted in 2017 that’s appended to the book reveals that, following Charu Mazumdar’s call to “annihilate class enemies”, the young Ramchandra Singh and his comrades began targeting zamindars: “There is a village called Bakhaura… there was a terrible landlord there. We annihilated him.” Singh’s persistent use of the word ‘annihilate’ instead of the more mundane ‘killing’ seems to hint at the distance he travelled from his original position. The escape of the naxals was thwarted by the zamindar’s labourers, ironically the very people they intended to liberate, and so began Singh’s sojourn within the prison system.
Some of the most affecting writing – always taut and unadorned by superfluous adjectives – is about his intense feelings for his family and for the girl he loved, and the camaraderie among political prisoners. There’s some unexpected humour too especially in his account of eccentric prisoners. Here’s the brawler Gourishankar:
“Being anti-brahmin was his greatest merit or demerit, which he expressed not through any argument but by his curses…Sometimes, lying on his back in the evenings, he would suddenly start cursing, “Damn these thread wearers! These goddamn tilak wearers!” But when Pandey-ji, the teacher and jail’s writer, lying on the neighbouring berth, scolded him he would lie down quietly.”
The memoir then becomes a document that captures both the outer and inner worlds, and the ideological struggles of a bright and articulate, politically aware young man attempting to arrive at a nuanced understanding of how to drive change within a complex inherently violent society riven by caste and class at a particular point in modern India’s recent history.
It is fitting that Navayana has chosen to publish the English translation of Thehre Hue Terah Saal (1970-83), that was first serialised in now-defunct Hindi weekly Shaan-e-Sahara in the early 1980s and republished in 1991 in another now-defunct journal Samkaleen Dastavez, in 2018 when once again India seems caught in an impenetrable ideological fog and when terms like “urban naxal” are thrown around to vilify whole categories of people and to gain favour with the mighty, whose own stand on a range of issues is unknowable and shifting.
Singh’s pronouncement on resistance during the Emergency is particularly trenchant:
“On the evening of 26 June 1975… I saw the bold headline of the Emergency on its front page, and the whole newspaper was full of related news. Curiously, the editorial column was blank with only the sign of a question mark that said a lot without saying anything… As far as I can recollect this was the Dainik Jagaran, a Hindi newspaper with a big circulation… I was shocked to learn later that when Indira Gandhi visited Kanpur during the Emergency… the editor of this very newspaper was at the forefront to welcome her. (Later, he became close with the BJP leader LK Advani…) As far as I can tell, to these followers of the Jan Sangh and RSS, the act of putting a question mark in the editorial was only a commercial strategy to increase circulation during these troubled times; apprehending future oppression, they found other ways to surrender before the Emergency.” The true power of Ramchandra Singh’s slim book emanates not from its description of imprisonment – the chapter entitled ‘Of Pimps, sexual abuse and honoured dacoits’ written, like most of the book, in spare prose shocks with its description of how “timid and goodlooking boys” are violated – but from its recalling of the battles of an earlier time whose distorted echoes boom in our own. The reader learns of long forgotten arguments that persist in a different context and avatar:
“Tyagi took one of my essays to be published in Yuvanak, in which I had tried… to make a reassessment of the roles of Gandhi and the Congress during the period of the nationalist struggle. Part of my argument was that the demolition of public statues of Gandhi and other nationalist figures by leftist protesters in West Bengal was not faithful to the values of the Cultural Revolution, and that political and ideological criticism be kept separate from personal insult.”
The same Tyagi, the reader soon learns, was later instrumental in the publication of pictures of Jagjivan Ram’s son having sex with a DU student in Surya, a magazine published by Maneka Gandhi. Clearly, plus ca change; plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The flap announces that the author died while the book was in press. He lives on in this exemplary work.