Wit and Humour in Sri Aurobindo’s Tales of Prison Life (by Kalpana Bidwaikar)- Part 3





Sri Aurobindo a great observer as he was, not only of the material arrangements in the prison but also of the people around him, the Britishers and especially the jail authorities could not escape his attention.

The prisoners had to go to the court for trials at regular intervals. This was looked upon by Sri Aurobindo as a play that was enacted on a “stage in some world of fiction”. He elaborates: “the star performer of the show was the government counsel, Mr. Norton. Not only the star performer, but he was also its composer, stage manager and prompter – a versatile genius like him must be rare in the world” (p. 51).

Commenting upon the legal information of Mr. Norton Sri Aurobindo writes: “I cannot say whether Mr. Norton had been the lion of Madras corporation, but he certainly was the king among the beasts at the Alipore court. It was hard to admire his depth of legal acumen – which was as rare as winter in summer” (p. 51).

The way Norton conducted himself in the court was a matter of amusement to the people who could understand what he was up to. Sri Aurobindo was reminded of the greatest of the dramatist while he observed Mr. Norton in the court. He writes:

“Mr. Norton happened to be the Shakespeare of this play. I, however, noticed a difference between Shakespeare and Mr. Norton: Shakespeare would now and then leave out some of the available material, but Mr. Norton never allowed any material true or false, cogent or irrelevant, from the smallest to the largest, to go unused; on top of it he could weave such a wonderful plot by his self-created and abundant suggestion, inference and hypothesis that the great poets and writers of fiction like Shakespeare and Defoe would have to acknowledge defeat before this grand master of the art” (p. 55).

Mr. Norton’s plot, however, hovered around Sri Aurobindo himself. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

“It gave me great happiness that Mr. Norton had chosen me as the protagonist of this play. Like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in Mr. Norton’s plot at the centre of the mighty rebellion stood I, an extraordinarily sharp, intelligent and powerful, bold, bad man! Of the national movement I was the alpha and the omega, its creator and saviour, engaged in undermining the British Empire. As soon as he came across any piece of excellent or vigorous writing in English he would jump and loudly proclaim, Aurobindo Ghose! All the legal and illegal, the organized activities or unexpected consequences of the movement were the doings of Aurobindo Ghose! And when they are the doings of Aurobindo Ghose then, even when lawfully admissible they must contain hidden illegal intentions and potentialities. He probably thought that if I were not caught within two years, it would be all up with the British Empire. If my name ever appeared on any torn sheet of paper, Mr. Norton’s joy knew no bounds. With great cordiality he would present it at the holy feet of the presiding magistrate. It is a pity I was not born as an Avatar; otherwise, thanks to his intense devotion and ceaseless contemplation of me for the nonce, he would surely have earned his release, mukti, then and there and both the period of our detention and the government’s expenses would have been curtailed. Since the session’s court declared me innocent of the charges, Norton’s plot was sadly shorn of its glory and elegance. By leaving the Prince of Denmark out of Hamlet the humourless judge, Beachcroft damaged the greatest poem of the twentieth century” (p. 56).

Mr. Birley was another character in the play at the court who was able to draw Sri Aurobindo’s attention. He described him as the patron of the stagecraft and looked at him as a “symbol or reminder of Scotland”. He was fair, tall, had a small head on his long body “that seemed like little Ochterlonie sitting on the top of the sky-kissing. Ochterlonie monument, or as if a ripe coconut had been put on the crest of Cleopatra’s obelisk!” (p. 57).

Mr. Birley’s personality was such that it was expected of him to be intelligent, “but in this matter of the creation of Birley, probably the Creatrix had been slightly unmindful and inattentive. The English poet Marlow has described this frugality as ‘Infinite riches in a little room’ but encountering Mr. Birley one has an opposite feeling of little riches in an infinite room” (p. 58).

Mr. Birley was like a child and did not appear suitable for the post of a magistrate. He was like a school student who suddenly sat at the teacher’s chair and acted like a teacher. If anybody happened to misbehave with him, he scolded “like a school master”. If the convicts talked among themselves he would immediately scold them and ask them to keep standing. The prisoners were “so much accustomed to the schoolmasterish manner that when Birley and Chatterjee (barrister) had started to quarrel we were expecting every moment that the Barrister would be served with the stand-up order” (p. 59).

Many such examples which beautifully reveal Sri Aurobindo’s amazing wit at its highest are scattered throughout the Tales of Prison Life. A reader finds not only a lot of amusement in reading this little book, but also an important lesson as to how with the right attitude one can turn difficulties into opportunities.

One wonders as to how one is able to keep this attitude while being in the most uncompromising circumstances. When one tends to live in the external consciousness then the shortcomings in the surroundings are able to disturb and even shatter a person. But if there is the inner peace and quietude the outer circumstances in no way can be the cause of disturbance. From the yogic point of view one can definitely learn samata, equality towards everything around.

As a piece of literature the Tales of Prison of Life is a fine specimen of how one can observe and write without complaining and hurting the sentiments of others. By observing all parameters, the definitions of wit and humour fall short when it comes to describing Sri Aurobindo’s wit and humour.

We conclude by recalling these words of Sri Aurobindo:

“Sense of humour? It is the salt of existence. Without it the world would have got utterly out of balance—it is unbalanced enough already—and rushed to blazes long ago.” (CWSA, Vol. 31, Letters on Yoga, p. 174). 

And after reading the Tales of Prison Life one can only admire, adore and love the extraordinary sense of humour of the ‘Smiling Master’ all the more.



Have you read Part 1     Part 2?

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