He recognised the footsteps. Head Jail Warden Charat Singh was shuffling feebly along. A stint in the army and a long service with the police had told on his health. His white beard made him look older than his age.
Handcuffed and shackled, Bhagat Singh would sense his approach. Sentenced to death by a British tribunal on October 7, 1930, nearly six months before, he was still waiting for the hanging behind the high walls of Lahore Central Jail. He had seen the daylight creeping out in his cell No 14, lingering and receding in the twilight of the evening. He had listened to silence endlessly, interrupted by the hourly sound of the jail-gong and the clang of the iron door, whenever it was opened or closed.
When the sun was down, the darkness was really thick, with no electric bulb, no lantern, not even an earthen lamp to brighten his cell. Somewhere, in the distance, the searchlight revolved to give a semblance of illumination to the area where he, along with his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, awaited the hanging. The cell was a dungeon, grass on the floor and a smelly hole in a corner...the very name given to the cell, Phansi ki Kothi, blighted every pleasant thought.
Circumscribed in space and time, he could not see the change in weather. Yet he was impatient, not because he was isolated but because it had been a long, purposeless wait. He wished they would carry out the sentence quickly. To a comrade, Vijay Kumar Sinha, who met him a fortnight before, he said: "It would be a calamity if I am spared. If I die, wreathed in smiles, India's mothers would wish their children to emulate Bhagat Singh and thus, the number of formidable freedom fighters would increase so much that it would be impossible for the satanic powers to stop the march of revolution."
Charat Singh stood outside the cell, fumbling for the right key from the clutch he took out from the long pocket of the fatigues he wore. Both had developed a fondness for each other. They talked in Punjabi, their mother tongue.
Life is a strange experience: the shorter it is, the more poignant it is in intensity. Both knew that their contact would snap soon. But both had come very close to each other. Charat Singh, a deeply religious person, would advise him to chant the name of Waheguru now that his end was near. Bhagat Singh would say in reply: "Don't you think it is too late?" Was the meeting of today, March 3, akhri mulaqat with his close relations, a legal obligation before the hanging?
Charat Singh had been kind to him. He had allowed Bhagat Singh to smuggle in all the books he wanted to read. It was all Marxist literature, strictly banned by the government. Still that was what he read or literally devoured. Hardly would a book on Marx, Lenin or Russia arrive when he would put in a demand for more. The secret supply by the local Dwarka Dass Library, founded by progressive nationalists, could not keep pace with his speed of reading. So keen was he about books that he once wrote to his schoolmate, Jaidev, to draw from the library, Militarism by Karl Liebknecht, Left-Wing Communism, Why Men Fight by Bertrand Russell, Land Revolution in Russia and Spy by Upton Sinclair, and send them to him through Kulbir, his brother.
'Study' was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of Bhagat Singh's mind, study to enable himself to face the arguments advanced by the opposition, study to arm himself with reasons in favour of his cult of revolution and study methods to change the system in India. Indeed, Bhagat Singh's passion from his childhood was books. He taught himself Marxism, communism and revolutionary philosophy.
Coming from a clan of freedom fighters as he did, the urge to participate in the struggle for independence was natural. But his was a landed family. Awakening to the socialistic ideas was something new. How could political freedom mean anything without economic freedom? What would be the point of freedom if the poor remained poor? And how would disparities go? Books made him realise that social disparities were created by man and perpetuated by man.
He regarded Karl Marx as his guru, who said that a change in the balance of economic power was the rationale upon which depended all the other changes of human history. Political history, the history of thought, of religions and the rest - were born from the womb of economic circumstances. Never before had he appreciated Dialectical Materialism, that political theory was not prior but posterior to political fact, Marx made him feel that political actions were not the cause, they were the products of economic forces.
The struggle for independence in India was basically a struggle for economic betterment. Freedom would give the opportunity for betterment. An independent India, without ousting poverty, would be free only in name. Bhagat Singh did not want to substitute the status quo with another status quo.
He had once written to his mother: "Ma, I have no doubt that my country will be one day free. But I am afraid that the brown sahibs are going to sit in the chairs the white sahibs will vacate." Peoples plight would remain the same if it meant only a change of masters. He was convinced that no change was possible without the destruction of the antiquated system and revolution alone could do so.
Sukhdev and Rajguru stood behind the iron bars as Bhagat Singh passed by, following the measured steps of Charat Singh. No one had come to meet them. Rajguru had told Bhagat Singh that he had no close relation and expected none. Sukhdev had said his uncle had promised to come. Apparently, he had not turned up either. Bhagat Singh felt sad. He could not imagine anyones family members staying away when there was an opportunity - probably the last one - to meet their own blood before death.
The family was Bhagat Singhs refuge. He had spent only a few years at home. Still he felt close to his relations. All were there. He was overwhelmed to see his mother although he had written to his father not to bring her along. She did not stop weeping at the last meeting. Deputy superintendent Khan Bahadur Akbar Khan went on extending time, contrary to instructions from above.
Bhagat Singh found his grandfather, Arjun Singh, who had given him his name, Bhagat and called him Bhagatu, was unusually sad. The long white beard of his father, Kishen Singh, was glistening with tears. Kulbir, his younger brother, was wiping his cheeks. Kultar, the youngest, 10 years old, was sobbing. His mothers dupatta was wet. She was trying to push back her tears. The three sisters, Amar Kaur, Sumitra Kaur and Shakuntala Kaur, were on the verge of breaking down.
Bhagat Singh had sent them a message not to bid him a tearful farewell. He wanted his last meeting to be full of happy moments, which he would recall when he walked towards the scaffold. Finding them drowned in sorrow, he got worried. He could understand that they would feel the loss. But they should have known that death was inevitable on the path he had chosen. He implored them to stay together and bear the loss bravely.
He was particularly worried about his mother who, unlike his father, kept grief to herself. It showed on her face, which had wrinkled before time. She touched his long hair rolled on the top of his head. She was unhappy when he had cut it off. Caressing him, she said: "Everyone has to die one day. But the best death was the one which the world would cherish." She told him to shout inquilab zindabad when he stood at the gallows.