‘My father’s cell was a cheerless place with vermin-infested food’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

IN MAY 1974, a young woman with an infant in her arms boarded a crowded train at Jabalpur, along with an older man who seated her and deboarded, losing himself quickly in the jostling crowd. When the train started moving, her husband was nowhere to be seen. The woman was faint with fear and thirst but fought it off because she was struggling to keep the baby in her arms comfortable and safe.

That young woman was my mother and the man who ‘deserted’ her and her six-month-old-baby in the middle of the train journey, to appear after more than a month, my father, Achhan. They recently completed 50 years of marriage. Achhan was one of the leaders of the National Railway Mazdoor Union, which represented the interests of thousands of railwaymen. That day, the authorities were on the lookout to nab him as a nationwide railway strike was to take off soon.

After the railway strike collapsed, one of his colleagues came to see amma, who wept in mortification when she realised her husband was in jail. But she collected herself, cooked a meal for him, and we all trundled along to meet our father. Once there, the police made us taste everything beforehand. Amma said later that the police were scared someone would try to poison him and fix the blame on them, for Achhan was a well respected trade union leader.

I have vague memories of visiting him at the Arthur Road jail. It was only last year that my 80-year-old father opened up about that experience. Since he was not a convict, he was kept in a temporary cell along with others awaiting conviction or release. It was a cheerless place, with open holes for toilets and unwashed plates, and where vermin-infested rice and dal was served twice a day. My heart broke when he said he went without eating for three days, drinking water straight from the tap, because the food was unimaginably filthy. “There was a young man in my cell who sang Mukesh’s ‘jis gali mein tera ghar na ho balma’ all day and night in remembrance of his lost lover,” my father told me.

When Achhan escaped from the station in Jabalpur, he made it to Byculla where his friends offered him shelter and the wherewithal to campaign for the strike without being caught. He got a stick and a BEST bus conductor’s uniform, which allowed him to hop on and off buses without being asked for a ticket. Sounds adventurous, right? Ask my mother. She did not think it funny at all.

Acchan was dismissed from work for steering the strike and for three years, while he fought the case in court (he would eventually win it categorically, with his tenure, his reputation, and his salary in back wages intact), we lived almost hand to mouth. When there was money to be paid for a school picnic, shoes, or our annual fees, amma pawned her jewellery, piece by piece, till finally, one day, there was not a piece of jewellery left on her body. Her father, an executive at a multinational company, sneered at her trade unionist husband and so she decided she would manage her life without her father’s charity. She was, and continues to be, a fiercely proud woman till date.

But life had its blessings for us children. We had proud moments when we would stand by the railway track cheering lustily when Acchan, in his guard’s uniform, waved to us from the last coach on various goods trains and got rides in the motorman’s cabin on Mumbai’s locals.

Acchan continues to be a consultant for the union and is easily one of the most disciplined men I have ever known. Amma still does not have a roof of her own over her head but she has made peace with that.

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