Review: Behind Bars by Sunetra Choudhury
In jail, if you have money you can be comfortable. You can wear expensive clothes, eat whatever you want, and keep personal servants. If you don’t have money, you can still buy favours using your body. And if even that is not possible, prison life will be an unimaginable hell.
As Indians, we may have been dimly aware of these simple truths, and this book puts them on the table. Sunetra Choudhury got the idea for it when a high-profile prisoner, Anca Verma, contacted her to tell her story. What she learnt was fascinating, and she decided to look for more people like Anca: people so extraordinarily influential that they knew they were never going to get into trouble for telling the truth about what happens inside an Indian jail. While some of the stories are anonymous, most are well known. We are also treated to snippets of information about jail legends such as Charles Sobhraj (apparently he quietly killed off a cellmate to get more jail space for himself.) In clean and engaging language, rich with detail and well-chosen adjectives, the book presents interesting facts about jail food, extraordinarily sincere jail employees as well as corrupt and perverted ones, rituals such as mulakat – and more. Says an un-named prisoner whose imprisonment suddenly and unexpectedly turned his life into a nightmare: “The toilet was full of goo, so much so that when I was lifting my feet off the ground, the black peanut butter lifted off my feet.” Some stories extraordinary, with a fable-like quality: Rajesh Ranjan, alias Pappu Yadav, was apprehended at a young age and found protection through a member of his caste. Over a period of nearly 30 years, he completed his entire education in jail, fell in love and got married. All this while he was building institutions in jail such as the ‘VIP’ ward and gym at Tihar. These days, he is a Member of Parliament and his primary occupation is philanthropy.
Prison, this book also shows, can be an opportunity for spiritual cleansing. The Tandoor Murderer has turned to piety. For Peter Mukerjea, it’s like being in a spa: “What can I say? No alcohol, no cigarettes, early to bed, early to rise, exercise for a couple of hours, lots of reading, plenty of time to think, no junk food – all very healthy.” Arushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, were reasonably comfortable in jail because, as doctors, they provided their services to the jail staff and their families.
Many, like the Talwars, are incarcerated by the scheming of an incompetent force trying to make themselves look good. This is most poignantly portrayed in the case of Wahid Sheikh, a teacher, who quietly reported to the police station every single time he was summoned to prove that he wasn’t a terrorist. Despite all the atrocities committed against him, he continued to obey the law and persist in firmly stating his innocence. He was acquitted after years; many who confessed just to stop the torture were put away for good. One young man confessed after his father was brought in, stripped naked and harassed. Torture in Indian prisons is routinely committed by well-known police officers who have been awarded medals for bravery.
In the Indian justice system, if an official doesn’t like an inmate or hasn’t been paid off by them, they would see that the release papers were not signed or simply disappeared. When someone in the court hurled a shoe, the judge ruled that no prisoner would be brought inside the courtroom with shoes on. Worst of all is that every inmate knows who is innocent and who is guilty of the crime they are accused of.
This book kept me up at night. It made me feel so terrible that I wondered whether life was worth living at all. It made me remember that, less than 80 years ago, Indian prisons were filled with people protesting against British rule. Prison authorities were harsh and dictatorial but never stooped to the ghastly perversions of cruelty this book documents. Prisoners knew their rights and were placidly confident that the law would prevail. What happened, how did things go so badly wrong?