Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be an inmate in prison? Most people I ask that question of, automatically think of either Hollywood's The Shawshank Redemption or Bollywood's Do Aankhen Bara Haath. The reality of life in prison, is, however, a lot more nuanced and complex, as I learned, working as a volunteer teacher in Tihar Jail, New Delhi, over a period of 20 years.
Over those two decades, I had a number of unforgettable and fascinating encounters with Tihar's inmates. Many of these found their way into my memoirs, Tales from the Jail –Christmas in Tihar & Other Stories.
As I explain in the introduction to the book:
This is not a book about the prison reform programme. Nor is it an exposition on crime, justice and punishment. It is not a preachment on human rights and it most certainly is not an attempt to romanticise life in jail.
It is simply a collection of short stories and unforgettable moments gleaned from two decades of experiences at the prison.
Here, for your reading pleasure is an excerpt from the book...
Chapter 3. Munda Ward
You never forget the first time you meet humans in captivity. Ask anyone who has. They will remember it with surprising clarity.
Our first major interaction with a whole lot of prisoners happened on an oppressively humid August afternoon in 1993. Two wards in Jail No. 3 had been officially designated the new mundakhanas, or the place where the adolescent population of the prison was to kept. They were christened 'Sachin Ward' and 'Kambli Ward'. No one had done anything with these teenagers before. We were the first.
"If you ever need anyone bumped off, do let us know. We won't charge you anything..."
We walked into the ward and found ourselves in a very large courtyard. It was flanked on all four sides by barracks which actually looked like giant cages. Two hundred young prisoners sat on grey blankets on the floor in the middle of the courtyard waiting for something to happen. I had no cognitive category for what I was seeing, so I started setting up the mikes, mixer and amp.
Our show troupe consisted of a guitarist, a singer, and a conga player (me). We were friends and had performed together before for college audiences. As we set up our equipment under the gaze of 200 teenagers, I suddenly began to wonder if this was actually going to work.
Our assumption had been that music and theatre communicate better than a talk or a lecture. It turned out we were right. The moment the music began, 200 teens began clapping and singing. It was as if we had flipped a switch. We couldn't have asked for a better audience (or a more captive one, for that matter). We rounded off the show with "Yeh Dosti" from Sholay and a little skit on resolving conflict. The boys surrounded us, asking us to please come back again soon. The programme had been a hit! Even the warders asked us to come back.
And return we did, the following week. This time with new songs and a new skit on a new theme. Topics included hope, hygiene and the importance of education. Without actually realising it, we were starting to put together a character education curriculum of sorts. The reception was enthusiastic. They looked forward to our visits and we looked forward to visiting them.
After our second or third visit, a group of boys came around and offered to pick up our equipment and take it to the chakkar*. They said, "Sahb, aapka programme badaa pasand aaya (We really enjoy your programme)."
We smiled and said thank you.
"Hamare layak koi seva, zaroor bataana (Please let us know if we can ever be of service)."
Again, we thanked them.
"Kabhi kisee kaa mudder vudder karvana ho, hamay bataana. Aapke liye free (If you ever need anyone bumped off, do let us know. We won't charge you anything)."
Our smiles froze, then vanished. No one had ever offered that before. It was a genuine and heartfelt offer. We politely declined and said we would rather remember them for other things.
Our programmes went on there for nearly six months. For an hour each week, everyone seemed to forget the reality of their captivity. For that one hour I, too, forgot my woes. Self-forgetfulness was addictive and I was hooked.
We love the entertainment but if you think any of these chaps are actually going to actually change because of your programmes, you are wrong.
I noticed, however, that there was one chap who never sat in the audience. He just stood to the side each week and watched. He did not clap, sing or participate. He looked affluent and spoke perfect English. I honestly do not remember his name. Maybe that's just as well. For the sake of this story, I'll call him Jai.
After one particular show, I went up to chat with Jai. He did not return my greeting. A bit awkwardly I asked him, "Enjoyed the show?"
"Sure," he said and then snickered, "We love the entertainment but if you think any of these chaps are actually going to actually change because of your programmes, you are wrong."
"Why do you say that?" I asked him, not quite sure if I really wanted an answer. Jai started telling me his story. He was the son of a wealthy businessman from a posh South Delhi colony. He spoke disparagingly of his family, especially his father, and how he cared for none of them except his little sister. I listened.
We had made it a point not to ask any of the inmates why they were there. But Jai wanted to tell me anyway. He was in jail because he had become a contract killer and had gotten caught. He introduced us to his "friends" in the ward, unsmiling sidekicks who had gotten caught with him.
You see, a hierarchy existed in the ward. Those who had committed the worst crimes were at the top and those who travelled ticketless, at the bottom. He was obviously on top and the others were afraid of him.
His anger at his family, and God knows what else had hardened into an igneous cynicism. It was disturbing to see someone shut off the feeling valve at age 19. But every week he would come up to chat and we would talk.
About two months into our programmes, Jai asked us, "Are you getting paid for coming here? Why do you keep coming back?" I burst out laughing. We most certainly were not getting paid for visiting Tihar and I told him so. "Then why the hell do you keep coming?"
"Well..." I began, not quite sure what to say next.
"Because you matter." said my guitarist friend who was standing next to me, very quietly.
Jai stared at him, shaking his head. He muttered a profanity under his breath and started walking away.
Jai started walking back to me very, very slowly. I suddenly regretted having said anything... I actually thought he was going to hit me.
"Just one thing," I said, as I suddenly remembered something I had read. He paused and turned around. "They say anger is like acid. It does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to the object on which it is poured."
Jai started walking back to me very, very slowly. I suddenly regretted having said anything because for a few seconds I actually thought he was going to hit me. He stopped a foot and a half away from me. I braced myself. Then his eyes went red and filled up. He sat down, put his face in his hands and sobbed.
We didn't say anything for a really long time. Neither did his cronies.
"Yeah." He finally said. "That's true. Thanks."
I don't remember what else we spoke about that day but what I do remember is walking out of the prison thinking how the hardest and most cynical hearts may not actually be so.
Jai asked for books to read. We brought him many. His favourites were Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. He also read The Idiot by Dostoevsky. We had long conversations in the weeks that followed. He spoke. We mainly listened.
And then one Thursday when we visited the prison, he was gone. I asked about him. "Chala gaya," the others said.
I never heard from him again. Did he go back to a life of crime? Did he go straight? I have no idea. I probably never will.
For a long time afterwards the person I thought about the most wasn't even Jai.
It was his father.
(* The common area used for cultural events in a jail)
Visit www.talesfromthejail.com for fascinating photos from inside the prison and also for information on how to get your copies of the book.