An excerpt from INDRANI RAIMEDHI’s latest book “Crime, Justice and Women”
“I will got to jail today”, I say to my mother on the phone as I gather my notebooks and pens to thrust into my large bag. I am wearing black trousers, a dark green kurta, a sweater and shawl.
“Please don’t say it like that!”, she said timidly. For her, as for most people, that is an inauspicious utterance, and it is the worst thing that can happen to anybody, especially a woman.
Guwahati Central Jail is fourteen kilometers away from my home. I am a bit vague about the address and so is the driver, but we have been told it is just off Highway No 37, beyond Lokhra Chariali. The mercury has dipped further and a thick bag obscures the sun. Since it is a Sunday, traffic is thin and we are able to speed our way there. Sure enough, there is a large white concrete gateway with Guwahati Central Jail inscribed on it with black paint. We move over a nondescript road with houses and shops and stop outside the iron gates manned by three policemen. I get down from the car, producing my identity card. A policemen walks me across a bare front yard to the enormous jail gates painted a screaming red. As the gate is unlocked, I enter a large, rather gloomy hall flanked by two parallel gates. Three guards, a table and chair, a rather worn out register – my eyes quickly take in the scene before I am swept into Jailer Arup Patangia’s office room. Beyond the cursory introduction and stating the purpose of my visit, there is little I am able to do because he is deep into the logistics of arranging guard duty. Consulting three guards, he runs his finger over a list which appears to be a kind of duty roster. They completely disregard my presence and I am happy to be as inconspicuous as possible and soak. in the atmosphere. From what I understand, posting two guards hailing from the same area or professing the same faith is avoided. As Patangia thrashes out the matter with the other men in uniform, I glance quickly around and notice the pretty little girl on a calendar and lace curtains on the windows. They add a soft, feminine touch to what is clearly a very macho set-up. A burly man with a long stick swaggers into the room. He looks tough and you can be sure he means business. He gives me the once over, and proceeds to ignore me, to my relief. More orders and telephone calls later, Patangia orders cups of tea and speaks.
The Guwahati Central Jail shifted from Fancy Bazar to this campus on 1st April 2012. The entire area of the jail is 85 bighas, out of which 34 bighas are enclosed. There is less than a bigha for the women inmates. He consults a register and says “ As of now we have 211 male convicts facing life imprisonment. Among the females, two are serving life sentence, three have been booked under Narcotic, drugs and psychotropic substances acts. We have a total of 37 women inmates. Many are undertrials and are waiting for the court hearing.
A plump, well-dressed gentleman with a pleasant smile smoothly joins our conversation. He is introduced to me as Muhibur Husain (name changed), one of the names that had made the headlines in a scam involving crores. He …ruefully…………… admits that it is his bad fortune that has landed him here. Having come to know the purpose of my visit, he requests me to write a book on male inmates too, as they too suffer greatly from having to stay apart from their loved ones.
“What are the challenges of running a Central Jail?” I change the subject and ask Patangia.
“I joined the jail in November and have tried my best to tackle various problems. There were many large depressions in the campus, which I got filled up with earth. Then we have large rocks which have to be chipped down. We are still doing that. We have built mandir, masjid and gurudwara for the inmates. Prayers and worship help them get relief from their agony. We need to have a proper dining hall for the inmates and the kitchen is not in a good shape. The women’s prison should actually be totally separate from the men’s block, but now it is near the prison hospital which is frequented by males. Water scarcity is a major problem and when our pump broke down recently, we had to spend several thousand rupees to purchase water for the inmates.
My headache is not the inmates housed here, but the jail staff who must be managed with a firm hand. They often make excuses to stay away from work. We have a staff of sixty, of which 46 are on active duty at present. There is a Head Warden, three wardens of which one has been suspended due to a prisoners escape and another for a different reason. We have 43 guards, out of which two guards have been assigned to accompany inmates to Guwahati Medical College Hospital and back. Heading the jail administration is Sri Madhav Chandra Saikia ,whom I had talked on the telephone several times. Next to him is Jailer Patangia, and five assistant jailers including a lady. The rest are prison guards.
“I have worked in prisons for twenty four years ..” stated Patangia. “People only have sympathy for the victims of crime. There is no concern that the offenders too suffer, sometimes for the rest of their lives. I had in my custody an eighty year old man, nearly blind, suffering from …parkinsons disease. He had been jailed for defrauding someone. It was up to us to take care of this poor man as best as we could.”
I am now ushered into Madhav Saikia’s office room across the front hall. As today was my first day of this enterprise, I was careful to be well-briefed. The bespectacled Saikia was soft-spoken and cordial. I explained to him the purpose of my book – to explore the circumstances that compel women to commit crime, the experiences of their incarceration and their life after prison.
“It is a very good idea”, he said approvingly. “I have long wanted to do a book like that myself. As you are aware, nobody is born a criminal. There are many social and family issues that push a person to this path. We see inmates, especially the women, with sympathy. There have many circumstances working against them – poverty, lack of education, abusive spouses, ignorance, ill-health. It is especially sad to see women having to live here with their young children in tow. We try to provide children with, milk, fruits, clothes. When a woman comes here pregnant, I feel she is my own daughter and I have to ensure she gives birth safely. We often go beyond the call of today. There is no issue ill-treatment whatsoever.
However, I am sad to say that the women in jail are not concerned about passing their time usefully here. We have tailoring, weaving, knitting and embroidery classes but they are reluctant to join. They prefer to sit idle and talk among themselves. They often have loud arguments and pull each others hair. We have a teacher but no one is interested in being literate. We often have to intervene and break up their fights. In places like West Bengal jails are called Sudhagrihas and every inmate is equipped with skills to face life after prison. For this I think we need correctional services. At present we are simply housing and guarding them.
Saikia has indeed teached a valued point. Corrections encompasses secure detention facilities like jails and prisons, but it also includes programmes and personnel. Probation and parole rehabilitation training, counseling, restoratives justice and drug and alcohol therapy programme are all contained within the broad meaning of corrections.
Just then, sister Asha, whom I had struck up a friendship just the other day, arrived puttering in her Kinetic Honda. She had free rein to the entire prison and her purpose today was to counsel and conduct prayers.
Then arrived the moment I had been waiting for. Saikia assigned me to accompany Dipti, one of the prison staff, a pretty girl in a neat bun and khaki sari, to the women’s section. Dipti tapped on another giant red gate. It was unlocked by a guard on the other side. We walked along an open area which had a slope of jagged white rocks. In the flat level there were a few trees covered with white thermocol and tinsel decorations, evoking the Christmas spirit. High on a rocky boulder were two busts of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Crows cawed in the foggy winter sky and FM radio music floated from the men’s quarters. The front gate of the women quarters was also painted red but it was far smaller, as if it was the gate to a modest home. The guard who opened it for us was a silver haired granny like warder in a khaki sari, wearing glasses, who smiled in welcome but spoke little. There was a small Shiva temple in the inner courtyard and a couple of women were sitting on the steps, sipping cups of steaming black tea. They promptly dispersed when I went in. One of them, a plump woman in a loose salwar kameez, her hair piled on top of her head and a white shawl draped carelessly around her shoulders took me into a large hall. It had three looms, a couple of sewing machines, a chair, table and a large bench. I tell Dipti, the guard, that I want to speak to all the inmates. They troop in, a motley bunch of women ranging from eighteen to sixty perhaps. Their movements are lethargic, their faces wary. One or two of them smile tentatively. They are curious but silent. Dipti asks them to sit down on the floor. Some do so, other stand, a little defiantly. I rise from my chair and move closer to them. Folding my hands in greeting, I tell them “My name is Indrani and you can call me Indrani Baideo. I work in a newspaper and am a wife and mother. I have two sons. I write books which are stories about people. I want to write a book about all of you – where you come from, the families you have left behind. You are here for a reason. I will not blame you for what you did. I only want to understand your sadness, your pain and anger. I want you to tell me about your lives before and after coming here. I hope to be like a friend, a sister, who will listen to you. Perhaps you will feel happy to tell me what has been in your mind so long. You may tell me your names but I would understand if you choose not to.
I can see hope flicker in a couple of faces. I decide to end it there, and avoid making it like a rehearsed speech, which it is not.
A slender woman, perhaps in her early forties, pushes her way from the rear. Against the deep lavender of her coarse woollen shawl, the pallor of her skin is startling. As she comes closer I see the fine crows feet around her eyes. Her face is contorted with barely controlled emotion. She seems ravaged by sorrow. “If I tell you my story, baideu, will you believe me? Please, baideu, will you?” Her voice is hoarse, as if she does not use it often. Her eyes beseech me as they meet mine.
This is more, much more than I had hoped for. In a spontaneous gesture, I touch her arm. “Of course I will”, I said gently. “You can tell me when I come next Sunday, Ok?”
A dark elderly woman comes close to me. “Baideu, what if I want to talk to you on the phone? I may not be here next week. I have got bail. What can I do?”
For a split second, I hesitate. These are offenders. As a civilian, was I authorized to give them my mobile number.? But more than thirty pairs of eyes are watching me closely. I have to win their trust at any cost. I open my notebook, tear out a page, scribble my name and number and press it into her grateful hands.
The ragtag group disperse slowly.
“Who is Rumi Chowdhury? I ask. “I would like to speak with Rumi, Please.
“I am Rumi,” says the plump woman who has been sitting on the steps of the Shiva temple with a cup of tea. Rumi (not her real name) is a life timer, convicted of murdering her husband. It had been a grisly affair. I had been told by Sister Asha that Rumi was a natural leader, keeping the other inmates in their place.
Rumi sits down by my side. Her thick hair is piled. up on her head. Her deep-set eyes look at me amiably. There are dark patches on her cheeks. She seems poised and self-assured. Slowly, she begins to speak.
“I am forty-one years old. I have spent eight years in jail, I am from Rupohi, in Morigaon district. At home now there is my mother and a younger brother. I am the eldest, and my father’s pet. I had a happy childhood. I sang, acted in dramas, did well in my studies. I played the role of Krishna at a Raas performance. My eyes were painted, forehead dotted with sandal paste. I had a peacock feather on my top-knot. I wore a silk dhoti and a velvet tunic. That was a special moment in my life. I am really an ordinary girl. I read my books, went on to college, took up economics as my major subject. My father then chose my groom and we got married in 1994. He was a bank employee. No, I cannot tell you the name of his bank because it will give me away. We got married four years after seeing each other. I wanted to be an ACS officer and on the day this happened, I was preparing for the exam. You must believe me when I say that there was nothing wrong in our marriage. We loved and cared for each other.”
She pauses and wraps the shawl tightly. Her tone is even, conversational, almost flat. It must be because she has told this story numberless times – to the police, the lawyers, the judge, other inmates. She resumes speaking.
“Mrinal had taken a month’s leave to help me study”, she went on. “That night, at about nine O’clock, just as we were to have an early dinner – remember, I had the exam the next day – the door bell rang. Four or five men came in. I was in an inner room. My husband was a bank manager and I heard raised voices over some loan matters. I went out and told them to leave, saying they could settle matters in the office. But things got worse. My husband mentioned a file he had and there was a fierce argument. I was walking towards the kitchen to warm the dinner when some of the men grabbed me from behind and pushed me into the kitchen. I began to scream and shout. I ran out of the house, seeing the men leave in a hurry. I was sure they had kidnapped my husband. I shouted to alert the neighbours and fainted. People gathered around me. My husband was found in the house, murdered. They took him to the hospital I did not see him. I was sedated by the doctor. My husband was dead. My parents arrived in the morning. We filed an FIR at the nearest police station and went to Lakhimpur. I was now a widowed daughter-in-law, I would have to be there and carry out the rites and rituals. But my father-in-law filed an FIR saying I had murdered his son that I had hired goons to do it. I had only one thing to say – what about the FIR I had filed? Why was no action taken on that?
All at once,one of the sentry guards marched into the room and said the jailer wanted to see me. I was to go at once. I craned my note books, capped my pen, and followed him back, past the scattered boulders, the trees festooned with tinsel, the busts of Bapu and Nehru. I was filled with dread. Why was I being summoned so urgently, that too when my interactions with the women had only begun? Had I broken prison rules by giving my telephone number to an inmate? Would I be ticked off, like an errant schoolgirl, or, worst case scenario, have my permission to visit prison revoked sine die? Instead of the jailers chamber, which I had visited earlier, I was briskly escorted upstairs. Loud male voices reached me on the lauding. Was an inquisition being readied? I entered a hall and was jovially greated by the Jail Superintendent and the Jailer. Seated on three tables were jail officials and sister Asha, eagerly demolishing a sumptuous lunch. A plate was ready for me, I sank down, deeply relieved and smiling. Soon I was tracking into a meal of fried bean, dal, salad, fresh fish cooked in a gravy and tender mutton curry. Jailer Patangia introduced me to the very youthful and good looking young man with sharp features as the gentleman hosting this feast. It was in honour of his daughter who had attained puberty. I congratulated him and he bowed in acknowledgement, smiling.
Later, in the chamber downstairs, Madhav Saikia tuned to me. “Do you know, he is a convict. He is unable to attend his daughters ceremony. If he is guilty of murder, it is certainly a tragedy. If he is innocent and wrongly convicted, it is a greater tragedy.
I was eager to get back to Rumi Chowdhury and listen to her story. But in the late afternoon the sky was already turning dark. I told Patangia that I ought to go back and tell her that we would resume our conversation the following Sunday.
“We cannot let you go back there without an escort:, he said. “We have to make sure that no one attacks you.”
I felt a little prickle of fear, replaced by a feeling that not a single woman I had met there meant to harm me.
Patangia sent a guard to fetch Rumi. A good half an hour later she arrived. Her transformation was remarkable. Instead of the loose, untidy salwar ……kameez and white shawl she was wearing a pale purple sari with a white pattern. Her hair was neatly coiffed . At that moment, she seemed an attractive normal middle class woman dressed to go shopping. I smiled warmly at her, complimented her on the sari and promised to be back the following Sunday. She nodded politely and walked back the way she came. Watching her retreating back, a number of questions churned in my mind. Was this woman, so pleasant and composed, a cold blooded murderer? If she was innocent, why was there no rage against the system that had wronged her?
Driving home in the gathering darkness, I felt a deep gratitude for the days experience. It had gone better than I had expected. I was eager to go back to my study, sit at my cluttered table and note down the days happenings. At the fag end of the year, when people around me were lighting bonfires, feasting, tying gifts, singing and dancing at parties, I had been among people that the outside world had forgotten. I couldn’t wait to get back among them the following Sunday.