We are pleased to present for our readers a very special essay, which reveals a deeply charming side of Sri Aurobindo’s magnificent personality and expression. Written by Dr. Kalpana Bidwaikar, this essay brings to light some of the remarkable wit and humour we come across in Sri Aurobindo’s account of his life in the prison. Dr. Bidwaikar is an Assistant Professor of English in the Government Post Graduate College at Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh. She was awarded a PhD for her work on Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem, Savitri and is the author of a book “Transformation of Consciousness in Savitri.”
The original essay was edited by Beloo Mehra and was first published in April 2008 issue of New Race: A Journal of Integral Studies, published by Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research. It has now been slightly updated for republication here, and is being presented here in three parts. We hope our readers will enjoy witnessing this side of Sri Aurobindo’s personality.
One of the many remarkable aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s personality was his amazing wit and unique sense of wry humour. It was not without reason that Sri Aurobindo has been referred to as the ‘The Smiling Master.’
In the books such as Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, Talks with Sri Aurobindo and Champaklal Speaks, there are innumerable instances of how Sri Aurobindo’s beautiful smile, charming expression and witty one-liners spoken while acknowledging or responding to something from the most mundane to most profound made everyone around him totally at ease and completely fall in love with the outer personality of the Divine Master. Nirodbaran’s book titled Sri Aurobindo’s Humour is an excellent collection of his correspondence with the Master that clearly reveals for the readers this facet of Sri Aurobindo’s expression and personality.
Wit according to The Glossary of Literary Terms is “a kind of verbal expression which is brief, deft, and intentionally contrived to produce a shock of comic surprise…The surprise is usually the connection or distinction between words or concepts which frustrates the listener’s expectation, only to satisfy it in an unexpected way” (M. H. Abrams, 7th edition, Prism Books, 1999, second reprint 2004, p. 330).
This essay presents a short sample of selected excerpts from Sri Aurobindo’s Tales of Prison Life (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, Pondicherry, 1997) to highlight the charming wit of Sri Aurobindo. It demonstrates how his writing even in the most stressful of situations (stressful for the ordinary people) carried his unique and amazing sense of humour that was also marked with a keen sense of observation, insight and compassion.
More than a hundred years ago in May 1908 Sri Aurobindo was imprisoned in the Alipore jail for one year and was acquitted in May 1909. He wrote about his experiences in the jail in ‘Kar-kahini’ in the Bengali journal Suprabhat in 1909-1910. This was later translated into English by Sisir Kumar Ghose as Tales of Prison Life.
Let us begin by stating that what we ordinarily refer to as imprisonment is not at all how Sri Aurobindo regarded that one year period. He writes:
“I have spoken of a year’s imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year’s living in a forest, in an ashram or hermitage. For long I made a great effort for a direct vision (sakshat darshan) of the Lord of my Heart; had entertained the immense hope of knowing the Preserver of the World, the Supreme Person (Purushottam) as friend and master. But due to the pull of thousand worldly desires, the attachment towards numerous activities and the deep darkness of ignorance I did not succeed in that effort. At long last the most merciful all-good Lord (Shivhari) destroyed all these enemies at one stroke and helped me in my path, pointed to the yogashram Himself staying as guru and companion in my little abode of retirement and spiritual discipline. The British prison was that Ashram… the only result of the wrath of the British Government was that I found God” (p.1).
This passage highlights Sri Aurobindo’s attitude towards his prison life, for indeed he found God there. Normally prison life is associated with a lot of suffering on the physical as well as the mental level because typically the physical and the mental torture are very much a part of prison life. With Sri Aurobindo things were not so difficult. It is not that he was given special privileges in the prison but because his attitude towards the suffering was entirely different.
In Tales of Prison Life he has mentioned many of the inconveniences he had to face and has also stated the way in which he was able to overcome them. The external details of his prison life are rather presented with an unfailing wit. The material object, the prisoner, the sentry, the doctors looking after the prisoners, the cleaner, the British officials, the superintendent of police and even the court scene during the trial have been described by Sri Aurobindo in great details but keeping the humour intact.
This humour and wit are obvious at the very outset when Sri Aurobindo writes about the way he was arrested. When the authorities came to his house on May 1st, 1908 early in the morning, “[t]hey all came running like heroes, pistols in hand as though they were besieging, with guns and cannon, a well-armed fort” (p. 3). This was the way the superintendent and his police force came to catch hold of a man who was quietly sleeping in his room unarmed!
While taking him away the superintendent also tried to argue and convince Sri Aurobindo about his own political views. Sri Aurobindo speaks amusingly of how he had to suffer this, “But may I ask, one knows physical torture to be part of the traditional police strategy, but does such inhuman mental torture also fall within the purview of its unwritten laws?” (p. 5).