Wit and Humour in Sri Aurobindo’s Tales of Prison Life (by Kalpana Bidwaikar)- Part 2





Sri Aurobindo’s prison life began on May 5, 1908. During the solitary confinement he was uneasy in the beginning, “but after three days of prayer and meditation an unshakable peace and faith again overwhelmed the being” (p. 11). He was confined to a solitary cell which was nine feet long and five feet in width with no windows, and in front of which there were iron bars. And this cage was his “appointed abode”. The material things which were provided to the prisoners tell their own story. Sri Aurobindo writes:

“One plate and bowl used to adorn the courtyard. Properly washed and cleaned, my self-sufficing plate and bowl shone like silver, it was the solace of my life. In its impeccable, glowing radiance in the ‘heavenly kingdom’, in that symbol of immaculate British imperialism, I used to enjoy the pure bliss of loyalty to the Crown. Unfortunately, the plate too shared in the bliss, and if one pressed one’s fingers a little hard on its surface it would start flying in a circle, like the whirling dervishes of Arabia. … but more dear and useful than the plate was the bowl. Among inert objects it was like the British civilian. Just as the civilian ipso facto is fit and able to undertake any administrative duty, be it as judge, magistrate, police, revenue officer, chairman of municipality, professor, preacher, whatever you ask him to do he can become at your merest bidding- just as for him to be an investigator, complainant, police magistrate, even at times to be the council for defence, all these roles hold a friendly concourse in the same hospitable body, my dear bowl was equally multipurpose. The bowl was free from all caste restrictions, beyond discrimination: in the prison cell it helped in the act of ablution; later with the same bowl I gargled, bathed; a little later when I had to take my food, the lentil soup or vegetable soup was poured into the same container; I drank water out of it and washed my mouth. Such an all-purpose priceless object can be had only in a British prison. Serving all my worldly needs the bowl became an aid in my spiritual discipline too” (p. 16).

In this little book we also find how Sri Aurobindo’s deep insights about the most ordinary things, like the smallness of his cell, got a touch of his remarkable sense of humour that didn’t leave out even a witty reference to deepest spiritual truths. For example, regarding the small room in which he had to stay he writes: “here the walls of the room seemed to come closer, eager to embrace one, like the all-pervading Brahman” (p. 23). Imagine sitting in a small cell where most people would begin to experience claustrophobia, Sri Aurobindo is contemplating on the all-pervading Brahman eager to embrace him!

The description of the food that was given to the prisoners also is fortunate to have a witty touch of Sri Aurobindo. As he had complete faith in God the loneliness and the food and the inconveniences in the prison were unable to disturb him. He writes: 

“Even the strange spectacle of prison diet failed to disturb my attitude – coarse rice, even that spiced with husk, pebbles, insects, hair, dirt and such other stuff; tasteless lentil soup heavily watered; vegetables and greens mixed with grass and leaves. I never knew that food could be so tasteless and without any nutritive value. Looking at its melancholy black visage I was appalled; and after two mouthfuls with a respectful salaam I took leave of it” (p. 24).

A detailed description of the kind of food served to the prisoners provides another remarkable example of Sri Aurobindo’s ‘spiritual’ humour. The breakfast was made up of boiled rice and water called ‘lufsi’. Sri Aurobindo describes:

“A trinity, it takes three forms. On the first day it was lufsi in its Wisdom aspect, unmixed, original element, pure, white Shiva. On the second, it was the Hiranyagarbha aspect, boiled along with lentils, called khichuri, a yellowish medley. On the third day lufsi appeared in its aspect of Virat, a little mixed with jaggery, grey, slightly more fit for human consumption. I had thought the Wisdom and the Hiranyagarbha aspects to be beyond the capacity of average humanity and therefore made no efforts in that direction, but once in a while I had forced some of the Virat stuff within my system and marvelled, in delightful muse, about the many splendoured virtues of British rule and the high level of western humanitarianism” (p. 27).



Have you read part 1?

7 thoughts on “Wit and Humour in Sri Aurobindo’s Tales of Prison Life (by Kalpana Bidwaikar)- Part 2

Add yours

  1. My god!! Beloo, only he can mention all this with a smile and humour. I was disgusted at the criminal attitude of the British but they were like that weren’t they. I wonder how he survived. Andamans is another example.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great man! Indeed to find humour in such inhuman conditions only indicates his spiritual magnificence! Thanks for sharing these beautiful excerpts from the maestro’s life. I wasn’t aware of his prison encounters.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely loved this one! Only someone well on his way on the spiritual path could have seen Shiva, Hiranyagarbha and Virat in an insipid, inedible prison food. Looking forward to the next part.

    Liked by 1 person

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