15th August 1942

Food is an overrated subject. One realises this most forcibly in jail. It is all right if one is in pleasant surroundings with the right people and the food is well cooked and well served. It is certainly possible to enjoy a meal in such a setting. But when one has to cook in the most primitive fashion and the heat is making one ill and the rations are mildewed, it is really a doubtful pleasure. I have decided to give it up and shall try to confine myself to bread and tea.

Prison tea has to be seen to be believed! My experience of tea is fairly varied, ranging from the exquisitely perfumed and delicate varieties that Madam Chiang sends me to the nondescript syrupy stuff one is obliged to swallow during election campaigns – but never have I seen or tasted anything like jail tea. I am convinced it is some special and very deadly variety of leaf grown for the poor unfortunates who are in prison. Not having any tea of my own I took this decoction once and nearly passed out. It would give me a tremendous thrill if I could make all jail officials live for one week on jail rations. We should not have quite so much talk about the “well-balanced and wholesome diet”. I wonder why we are always able to plan well-balanced diets for others, but for ourselves we generally try to get the most tasty, forgetting the balance part entirely.

I am going to read a fascinating book Indu has lent me – an anthology of “The World’s Great Letters”. I am looking forward to an interesting evening.

I like to keep myself occupied at this hour because, above all others it is the hour when I grow reminiscent and a little homesick. I have no idea how long this term of imprisonment is going to last. I had better shake off such weakness and settle down!

16th August 1942

The first thing I learnt this morning was that there had been firing in the city twice yesterday. The information is not from a source I consider reliable, but nevertheless it has disturbed me. It is terrible to be shut up here when others are exposed to daily dangers. I was interrupted by the matron who seemed to be in a mood for a chat. Having nothing to say to her I sat silent while she told me the story of her life. There was also a running commentary on the various Superintendents under whom she had served and the Inspector Generals of Prisons she had seen and spoken to. It is amusing to compare notes about jail administration as seen by different matrons. Some day I shall write a book about “Jails and Matrons I Have Known”. It should make amusing reading. If my term of imprisonment is long enough I should be well acquainted with prison politics – though I seem to have more than a passing knowledge of them already. They are not intricate to anyone who tries to understand a little the workings of the human mind.

I spent an hour last night reading “The Letters”. Some of them are really beautiful. “Letters are always interesting – specially if they are other people’s,” Voltaire has said. “The post is the consolation of life,” and some one else has added, “As long as there are postmen life will have zest.” There must be very few people who have not at some period of their lives recognised the truth of the above sayings. Most of us have waited in breathless suspense for the post which was to bring the one letter we wanted most – maybe it was news of a child far away from us – a friend from whom we have been parted – money on which many things depended – or just a love letter – one of those silly epistles which all lovers write, full of the pleasant nothings which the beloved waits for with so much eagerness and which she imagines are hers alone – forgetting that the same words and sentiments have been shared by all lovers since the beginning of time.

Today the matron has permitted one of the convict girls to come over and help me with my cleaning and cooking etc. Her name is Durgi and she belongs to the potter class. From her history-ticket I see she is twenty-six years old and is serving a sentence for the murder of her husband. She has already done eight years. She is very dark but has good features and pleasing manners. Like all other convicts she wears a pair of tiny drawers and an upper garment which has no special name. The regular jail uniform – skirt and bodice – is too heavy and hot for use in the summer and is only worn on inspection days. Durgi has nice limbs and they are seen to good advantage in her abbreviated costume. I think she and I will be good friends.

There has been a hard shower of rain today and it is cooler at last. The sky is dark with clouds so there will be more rain tonight. The barrack is leaking so badly that there is no spot where my bed can entirely escape. I have chosen a place where my head is safe but where my feet will get a bath! The insects have increased and it is almost impossible to keep the light on – but I do not intend to be beaten so easily. It is only 7.30 pm and I cannot possibly go to bed yet – so I shall seek forgetfulness in my book and read Heloise’s beautiful letters to Abelard.

There are as rigid social conventions in prison as outside. The woman who is in for abduction is on the lowest rank of the social ladder, then come the counterfeiters of coins, thieves and finally the women who are serving a sentence for murder.

These are the leaders and they are tremendously proud of their position. It is usual when a quarrel takes place for a woman to say – “Don’t dare to treat me as if I were a common thief – won’t stand for it – I am in for murder.” During my first term of imprisonment in 1932 I was a little afraid of this type in the beginning. But soon one recognised how after all any one of us might commit an act of violence in a moment of anger or through sheer force of temper – it wouldn’t necessarily degrade us to the level of the human being who commits daily in cold blood acts such as theft, abduction and the like.

Excerpted with permission from Prison Days, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Speaking Tiger.