In the year 1930 during in the Civil Disobedience Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi millions of Indians bought and publically set British goods on fire. Among them was the author of the book 'My Days in Prison', Urmila Shastri, who joined the movement as a volunteer for the Congress. She was arrested on the grounds of both picketing and instigating university students against the Government with the words- 'Who knows whom the shining rays of tomorrow's sun will awaken with the golden chains of imprisonment and the sacrifices demanded of mother-love?' The British magistrate asked her to apologise so that he could acquit her under a facade of justice. Instead, she chose to go to jail for six months.
Shastri soon comes to know about the atrocities faced by prisoners in other jails, especially the women. Mohmadi, a transfer from Fatehgarh Central Jail tells her about how conditions were there, about how 'they were hit at the drop of a hat' and some of her revelations were so shocking that they've not even been included in the book. Mohmadi's words- 'there is nothing in this world more powerful than bribe' are felt poignantly by the author.
Regular fights, the obscene forms of entertainment, the beatings, the blatant abuse of authority, the constant need to escape reality, Shastri describes her personal experience and observations in the prison. The naked face of cruelty and barbarism which is revealed through the treatment of prisoners has a far reaching effect on the author and her heartfelt anguish is revealed through each and every chapter. Her faith in the Mahatma's message also piques with each day spent in prison witnessing the loss of humanity.
The fetid smells, the unhygienic conditions, the inadequate and more often inedible food, the multitude of vectors leading to illnesses - all these circumstances describe the oppressiveness faced by the prisoners. The apathy shown by the warden and other persons in authority stir feelings of anger and help one understand the reasons behind the author's conviction of loss of humanity with the stronghold of the British causing psychological trauma. The inhumane treatment meted out is truly disturbing in nature which resonate in one's mind.
The piquant manner in which she is attached to Meerut, the effects of solitude and isolation on the author touch the reader in an inexplicable manner. Her powerful words laced with pain and determination strikes a chord with the reader.
The bird's eye view of life in prison of pre-independent India are like snapshots which capture all the colours and emotions felt by Shastri. An unflinching portrait, this prison diary helps the reader not only understand but also value freedom as we have it. One cannot help but commend the freedom fighters for not only holding on but also fiercely defending their beliefs in the face of adversity. A chilling read, the book is nevertheless an enjoyable experience.
Title:My Days in Prison; Author:Urmila Shastri;Publisher:Harper Collins; Price: Rs 150