The other side of the Wall
Scanning the large landscape painted on the wall, I marvelled at its symmetry and detail painted by the artist. It required discipline and patience besides a love for the act of painting. There was no ceremony of preparing the surface with lime and plaster. No special paint or brushes provided, yet the artist painted. It was not an original scene but copied from a picture of a far away land, most likely cradled in the alps. A picture of peace, beauty and hope. I admired the painting, took its photograph and appreciated the effort loudly to the ones standing next to me. They pushed a diminutive , soft spoken man from the shadows and introduced him as the artist. He looked like an artist. I held his hand. It was one of the gentlest hand I had ever held. Indeed it was the hand of an artist. In dismay I wondered, what else have these hands done for him to land up at a place like this.
It wasn’t the only painting on the wall. There is a labyrinth of walls, spotlessly clean and adorning scenes of joy, tranquility and a love for nature.
Lakes span their width,trees fill their spaces, birds chirp, ducks roam and in a few Buddha has overcome evil of this world. In one we have captured a peak at Kargil and the tricolour flies proudly.
Mother India in a pink silk sari rides a ferocious lion and a huge tiger emerges from within a deep forest in yet another. They are paintings by different artists, but each executed meticulously with perfect proportions and lovely compositions. I was not in a crafts museum, or a model village, I was on a brief visit to south east Asia’s largest prison, the Tihar Jail.
An NGO had organised a havan for the inmates of jail no 4 to bring a perspective to their lives. The jail is overcrowded. Sixty inmates share one toilet. Seventy seven percent being first time offenders, have to deal with a situation which they never anticipated before committing the crime. It is stressful. It is a Jail.
My first impression of the inmates reminded me of my school days. If you have ever attended a lecture in a school or college you will remember the noisy buzz before the event. However it was quite the opposite here. Shy eyes, many in shame, tried to understand my motive as I roamed at the periphery of their existence with a camera in hand. Sitting tight, shoulder to shoulder, hardly whispering , well behaved, they waited patiently in that hot afternoon for the function to start. I was upset. Many were young men, probably in their twenties and besides three, none looked like criminals. What is their innocent faces hiding? What was the misdeed, what was that moment of madness? Was it compulsion or an accident? Do they have friends? What is time to them? Is there hope in their lives? How long will they be here?
None of the police was armed. Just two bored constables with sticks looked about from a corner in shade. Higher officers mingled easily with those inmates who were a part of the organizational effort. These were the guides, ushers, water bearers, sound system operators. Some managed the direction of fans and air coolers. Apparently none is forced to do anything at the Tihar. All volunteer.
During the ritual itself, the participation was staggeringly innocent. Eyes closed they repeated the mantras and hailed Ganesha and Shiva when summoned to do so. They perspired, creaked in cramps, wavered to life which was better and then came back to the reality of their existence.When asked to anoint each others forehead with a sandal paste ’tilak’, they did so enthusiastically. Then like little children, tied the holy thread on each others wrists.
It was stunning. Children in school and colleges are nowhere near well behaved as these men were.
Later, at the end, the director general of the prison Ms Vimla Mehra graced the occasion. Everyone clapped as she entered. I saw genuine respect and reverence for her.
The function was held at a basketball court which doubled as an auditorium. For the occasion it was covered with an orange tarpaulin which lent a warm red glow to all who sat underneath. For a photographer it was a white balance nightmare. Fiddling with the camera, I realised, it was better to shoot the circumstance as it was than create some image out of it. I was a bit scared to go closer to them. I did not know whether the police would object or if they would either, but still, they gave me good pictures.
Later we were invited for lunch. One can easily take the sylvan surroundings for some tropical paradise. Cassias, Banyans, Neems and Saptparnis were in abundance. So was the lush grass. Amidst the clatter of cutlery, jail No 4s ‘own’ musical group, the ‘Music Nest’ played Spanish instrumental on electric guitars and drums. Young men, whom you would expect to play in a concert or at a high bar strummed quietly for our pleasure. Most of the musicians were of foreign origin. Lead guitarist, I was told, is from Canada. Drummer appeared to be from Africa, another guitarist looked like a West Indian and yet another from either Nepal or could be from the far east. Mind you, I have not cross checked. Other than the man from Canada, I do not know the origins of any other. What the hell were they doing here? It is a greater crime to play for those who were only interested in the sourness of their yogurt or the crispness of their poppadoms. It was frustrating to see talent go a waste like this. I hope their sentences are short and they have learned their lesson.
A bigger picture emerged here. Kiran Bedi transformed the prison into an Ashram. Reformation is the philosophy. Here the individual is not shunned. Society reaches out to his mind and heart through various means. Camps, events and classes are held to remind the inmates that they are not forgotten. It is easy to get judgemental and assume that murderers, rapists, child killers or terrorists don’t deserve any better. When I read the news, I feel the same. But they are a product of the same society. They were us, before their actions caught up with them. Maybe some cannot be reformed. They are broken, but those, whom a moment of madness overcame, do deserve to look out a window which opens to a different existence. And those, who are heinous might, it is hoped, get wet with some sprinkle of kindness or introspection. After all even Kasab’s last words were that,”I swear to God, I’ll never do it again.”
The prison is overcrowded. With a capacity of around 6250, it houses over 12000. But then this is India. Nothing here is underpopulated. People are used to stacked platforms, railways coaches or cricket stadiums. I’m sure the Tihar is no different. The difference being, unlike most other overcrowded areas, this one appears to be managed better. It is clean and its insistence of being an ashram, has given it a lot of greenery and open spaces. An officer claimed that the kitchen is cleaner than most kitchens one has ever seen. He offered to show us , but since we were in a hurry to leave, had to give the tour a pass. Food served for our lunch was simple, vegetarian and reasonably tasty. All cooked and served by inmates. Again, we were told that the food is same for everyone. These are the days of Ramadan, so the kitchen works from three in the morning for those who observe the fast.
The jail bid us adieu with a gift of their products. It was a hand bag neatly packed with biscuits and namkeen. I tell you, it matches in taste with a popular brand which one gets in the market.The ‘nan khatai’ is especially delicious.
All around us are walls. When we cross the invisible walls of the law, we might just land up behind a visible one. However painted, a wall is a wall. One cannot extend one’s freedom beyond the limits of tolerance.So after visiting the jail, I realised, it is absolutely important for me to overcome any feeling of madness to prove a point, or to overcome a fool. If I don’t, I’ll have a lot of time feeling foolish behind the walls of a jail. And mind you, not all jails are like Tihar.