In his book Lock-Up, first published in Tamil in 2006, auto driver and now human rights activist M Chandrakumar writes about the atrocities the marginalised are subjected to by the police.
The next morning I awoke only a good while after sunrise. Nelson was still asleep. We were let out to relieve ourselves and locked back in once we’d received the morning maamool.
It was well after ten when the door opened. ‘Dei, you four — come,’ ordered the voice. My heart lurched, thudding erratically with nervousness; I stepped outside, unable to refuse.
We were taken straight to a room at the back where the Inspector awaited us with another man who held a notebook and pen.
‘Vaanga, come along,’ he said. ‘Now, confess — go on, confess, all of you. Nelson has admitted to everything; you cannot keep fooling us. Go on,’ he shouted. ‘Hmm, tell us everything!’
His very voice made my heart quake; the way he picked up his lathi — every movement was threatening, meant to beat us into submission.
‘We don’t know anything; we don’t know, Saar,’ we could only mumble variations of this each time.
Nelson was stumbling, trying very hard to avoid discrepancies between the accounts of yesterday and today — which gave the impression that there had been a confession. The occasional, long, hard strokes were steadily conditioning him for some purpose; he was being taught a lesson — a lesson that made him keen to confess, admit and accept what he’d learnt, in our presence.
I refused to confess; I was holding out my arms and getting beaten in rhythmic fashion. Then, a policeman took hold of the lathi. ‘I am a sportsman,’ he announced; ‘I like it best when I can run after thieves and catch them as they are gasping for breath,’ and changed his grip to suit his convenience.
Swiftly — without raising the lathi — he gave more than ten rapid taps in the space between my shoulder and elbow. ‘This flesh won’t exist.’
‘I don’t know anything,’ I repeated.
He set about striking my shoulder, back and flank — hard; fast.
‘Sh … Shhh … Saar, Saar,’ I puffed.
Ravi and Moideen were being thrashed by another policeman; Moideen was howling — long, loud screeches for every hit. We were all being beaten mercilessly, the blows falling everywhere; we writhed under this torture.
‘This is not going to be enough for these ruffians,’ the Inspector rose. ‘Only the sammatti, a sledgehammer, will serve. Now, you see to them; I will be back after a break,’ and he kicked Moideen, who lay by the door. Despite shifting away, Moideen shrieked as though he were dying; the Inspector stomped upon his hips for good measure before leaving.
The two policemen conferred; one left and returned in a short while with three stout white ropes the thickness of a little finger; each was at least ten feet long.
‘Dei,’ they barked at us. ‘Each of you sit apart, backs against the wall.’
We did so, taking care to keep within eyesight, with at least five feet between us.
Sportsman skipped eagerly towards me; I, unaware of what I had to do, stretched out my legs. ‘Dei,’ he chided, sliding one of my legs parallel to the other with his own. I co-operated, sitting in place and watching as he bound my ankles together, winding the rope around twice or thrice.
Then, he twined the rope once between my legs, making sure they lay in the midst of the two ends, and checked to see if the lengths were right.
Ravi and Moideen were subjected to the same treatment, while Nelson watched.
One end of the rope was raised and tied to the window grill, seven feet above. My feet had risen until only my back rested on the floor. The other end of the rope was pulled taut above my head and tied to the roof. Now, the two ends of the rope were split like a V; my legs were raised and my feet spread out, like a flower.
All three of us were bound at the same time; our bonds inspected; the ropes checked and rechecked, as though it was the start of an important mission, before our jailers considered themselves finally satisfied.
Our heads and backs lay on the floor while our legs, from our hips downwards, were raised, turning our bodies into an L shape.
The men hefted their lathis. ‘Dei, tell us now; confess,’ they growled in an attempt to whip up the required resolution and rage, swinging the clubs a little to measure their weight and force; to ensure clean strokes; no obstacles; they made mock charges, a prelude to the interrogation.
Sportsman advanced enthusiastically, taking care to arrange his face into an expression of severity, as though to ensure no lapse in attention — and put to me a question with his eyes.
‘Don’t know, Saar,’ I said.
My face must have revealed my panic; my hands scrabbled around for purchase — but there was nothing to hold on to. Terrified that those boots might crush my fingers, I stilled my hands against the floor.
The old policeman, sporting a large, luxurious moustache, was by Ravi’s side now and began with a long account of all the burglars he had interrogated, and how every single confession had been wrung out of them.
Without the slightest hitch, like a sledgehammer pounding upon a rivet, came the blow — exploding perfectly on the feet. ‘Amma!’ screamed Ravi, drawing in his legs involuntarily — only to be yanked by the ropes, twisting and falling back on the floor.
Even as I saw this, my head spun. I’ve no idea exactly what happened, but the back of my head crashed upon the floor; I was tied in such a way that I couldn’t protect, or shift myself from blows.
I must have screamed, shrieked and babbled every word I ever knew, that I could ever utter; my body throbbed, leapt and bounced without pause, as though in the grip of something beyond its control.
But the part being beaten — for some strange reason, it never twitched or moved, and blows landed upon it again and again. I lost count of the blows at some point. My brain had frozen. Not a spark of life in it to keep track of anything.
My forehead, the whole of my skull throbbed from springing up, leaping about and falling back so often. They didn’t question us much. Merely called upon their mothers: Amma! Like ironsmiths before crashing down their hammers — or perhaps they used the cry to muster strength for their tremendous blows — Amma, amma, again and again — I’d no idea if they were calling on their mothers or mine. My hands beat and hammered against the floor helplessly.
How many hours had flown? What time was it? I had no idea. Chest expanded; palms pressing down on the floor, neck craning forward and then snapping back, back as my head banged upon the floor; my mouth huffing, puffing with the pain: sshh, sshh as my hips thrust up and down, like a piston.
Sometimes when my back bent, hands stretched forwards involuntarily, trying to grab my ankles, the blows changed direction, falling on my hands, flanks and then my thighs. This actually felt better: when the hits changed location instead of hammering just one spot, I could actually ignore the pain somewhat.
Sportsman’s hands and brain switched off after a while and he stopped at one point to stare at the moustache-policeman as if to ask, Now what, Sir?
‘Let the beasts be,’ counselled that other. ‘We will return after a while and resume business.’ And they moved away; one policeman assumed position by our side, settling in a chair.
I lay still for a while, bereft of all thought, word and movement, lost. At first, I wasn’t sure of where it ached. Then and even now, when I replay those days and the blows I received, it seems to me that this treatment was less to inflict pain and more to paralyze, to terrorize the mind.
For a while I simply stared at a corner. As the minutes passed, bit by bit, shock released its hold on me. My body still lay in place — just a little apart from the wall. My ankles — where the ropes had rubbed my skin raw as I jerked from pain — were beginning to burn furiously. Feeling was returning to my feet; I felt the need to massage them. I could still feel the brute force of the stick pounding my legs, past the flesh and right against the bone.
I let my thoughts run over what had just happened, revisiting the events. What was the fate of the others? I didn’t know. I lay still, eyes closed, trying to relax my body and my bound legs as much as I could — for there was no way I could rest them fully, strung up as they were, above me.
Had I fallen asleep, or fainted? I didn’t know.
I snapped awake to my feet crashing to the floor as though the ropes had been cut — and thrashed about in unbelievable agony. Even if I was now in a position of comfort, compared to my earlier one of torture, my body spasmed like in the throes of death. I squirmed like a worm, bending, rolling and seeking to rub against the floor, massaging the hurt, swollen parts of my body, trying to relieve the pain without the help of others.
I groaned and whimpered; I made no effort to dry the tears pouring from my eyes — not crying — but heaved myself into a sitting position, clamping my thighs to relieve the excruciating pain in my back.
I drew breath, slow, shallow breaths, and raised my head a little. Sportsman and the moustachioed policeman were standing in front of me. How kind of them to have let me rest all these minutes. The fear pumping through my heart throbbed in my eyes; I couldn’t see anymore for sheer terror, and closed them.
‘Hmm, feet on the ground,’ ordered Sportsman, as though expecting something of me. ‘And get up.’
That was when I noticed something: so far, I’d been sitting with the back of my heels on the ground, my feet in the air, almost without my knowledge.
Only now did I consider the possibility of placing my soles on the ground. As for the police, they were prodding me with impatient grunts: ‘Mm, come on now, get up,’ they insisted. ‘Get up, now, come on—’ And one of them reached for my hair.
I snapped back my head to escape his grip, leaned my hands on the ground and had almost risen halfway when my feet touched the ground — ‘Ayyo!’ The scream was torn out of my throat as I collapsed; Ov, ov, I whimpered, my mouth working; throat making strange sounds; sounds I couldn’t even control as I lay gasping on the floor.
It felt as though a hand was pressed on the wound. Terror seized me: how was I going to get up? Wouldn’t I ever be able to walk? And suddenly, panic swamped me and I was scrabbling around, moaning, hands pressing on the floor as I tried to rise again. I was screaming now, terrorized by fear; fear of death even, that I may never be able to get up or walk, and I tried again, leaning my palms on the ground, feeling a spurt of energy, needing to know that I would walk; needing to find out if I could, and I stumbled, falling against the wall from the blinding pain, raising a foot involuntarily —and then the entire weight of my body descended on my other foot, through the beaten, pounded, pulped flesh and right through so that I felt as though I was standing on the very bone, and as my knees crashed to the floor, I crumpled to the ground in a heap. The very nerves of my brain felt paralyzed.
Sportsman cackled, eyes glinting with delight at the way everything had turned out — just as he’d expected. ‘Mm, get up and walk, you dog,’ he grinned. ‘See who I am, now? No more of this nonsense; confess everything to the Inspector —once or twice more of this sledgehammer treatment and your legs will rot,’ he warned. ‘Careful.
Lock-Up: Jottings of an Ordinary Man
By M Chandrakumar
Translated by Pavithra Srinivasan
Price: Rs 195
Follow @htlifeandstyle for more.