It was six in the morning. There was no watch or clock to tell the time, but the jingle of the jailor’s keys indicated it was time to rise. The barracks door was in severe need of oiling, but the inmates welcomed the grating sound they made—it meant freedom, though brief, from the claustrophobic 100ft by 100ft cell.

Mohammed was still in bed. Winter was almost over, but he covered himself with a thin blanket as there was still a nip in the air. Maybe bed is not the exact word. What the inmates get are a blanket and an equally thin mattress. 

His eyes closed, Mohammed could tell which door was being opened from the sound it made and which one would be next. He’d spent eight years in Sabarmati jail. When he was first brought here, he’d spend days waiting to get out. He’d cry for days. Now, his tears had run out and so too had his hope for release.

Many of his fellow inmates approached the iron grills as the guard came to open their barracks. Yusuf, who slept next to Mohammed, was still in bed, too, eyes open and staring at the 30ft-high ceiling, seemingly lost in thought. He seemed calm and as if he’d had a good night’s sleep.

Yusuf, who was brought to the jail a couple of months after Mohammed, also spent his initial nights crying. Lying in bed, he’d hear his family calling out to him. These days, he seems to have made peace with his loneliness. He doesn’t hear them calling him anymore.

All the inmates were Muslim, a fact that Yusuf hated. He questioned the segregation, but the jail authorities said housing them with Hindus would lead to rioting.

Running his eyes across the barracks, he saw a few inmates preparing for their daily morning chores. The Sabarmati jail authorities had named their large quarters “200 Kholi.” Yusuf often wondered why, since there were no open corners as the name suggested. He’d asked the guards a few times, but they too had idea why. He says the British had chosen the name. When the jail was constructed in 1895, most of the inmates were Satyagrahis. Yusuf had heard that Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were once imprisoned here, but he’s not seen the cells as his jailors won’t let him explore much.

The barracks are relatively spacious, with barred windows on its four sides. A 10ft-high door right in the middle of the entrance has been locked since British times. On the right side of the barracks are four bathrooms and toilets in disrepair. The top and bottom of each bathroom door are broken off, as are the tops of the toilet doors. Again, since British times. None sleep close by as the stench remains despite the toilets being cleaned daily.

The light bulbs, at a distance of 15ft from each other, and three fans are high enough that no inmate can hang himself. Though the weather is cool now, the summers see frequent fights for space below the only source of breeze. The inmates keep their belongings beside them, though there’s not much to account for—a couple of changes of clothes, toothbrushes, combs.

As Yusuf looked around the quarters, he heard the door open and sat up. He reached out to tap Mohammad, who was still lying in bed with his back towards him. Startled by the touch, his fellow inmate turned towards him with a questioning look.

With a faint smile, Yusuf asked, “Major saab, don’t you have to wake up? Didn’t sleep at night?”

“Arrey batke, I had very good sleep last night. I was just waiting for the door to open,” Mohammed replied as he sat up and turned to look at the barracks door being opened.

Mohammed didn’t speak much, but every word had a hidden meaning. “Waiting for the door to open” seemed like a normal enough phrase, but there seemed to be a deeper meaning to what he said.

The barracks had 47 inmates, who had unanimously accepted Mohammed as their leader—he was a lawyer by profession and spoke English well. They called him Major on account of his serious personality. Yusuf, only 4ft 5, was called Batke.

Mohammed offered a faint smile to Yusuf and, as was his ritual, went and stood right in the middle of the barracks door and looked at the sky. A child was flying a kite early in the morning, and it had gotten Mohammed’s attention.


To be continued…

This is the first part of the serialized novel 'Deewal' based on the Sabarmati jailbreak attempt, written by Prashant Dayal, the editor of MeraNews.com.

Read next: Part 2Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7