From Nehru to Sanjay Dutt: How jails make authors out of prisoners

Romanian law shaves 30 days off a convict’s sentence for every book published while in prison. This has created a raft of prison literature there.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2016 12:29 IST
Suveen Sinha
Suveen Sinha
Hindustan Times
Prison literature,Jail,Sanjay Dutt
Indian Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt waves as he is escorted by officials from Yerwada Jail in Pune.(AFP Photo)

Romanian law shaves 30 days off a convict’s sentence for every book published while in prison. This has created a raft of prison literature there.

You may be misled into thinking India has a similar law. For prison literature – let’s call it Pris Lit, in the finest tradition of Chick Lit – has begun to flourish here. Every other day you hear of someone talking about publishing a book they wrote, or thought of, while in prison. But do not expect an Indian Orange is the New Black, the prison memoir made into a gripping series on Netflix, any time soon.

Pris Lit is not new to the country. Mahatma Gandhi wrote My Experiments with Truth in Pune’s Yerwada jail. The Discovery of India was the result of four years that Pandit Nehru spent in Ahmednagar prison. Jayaprakash Narayan wrote Prison Diary while, well, in prison.

They were part of a glorious global tradition. Miguel de Cervantes writes in his prologue to Don Quixote that the book was “begotten in a prison”. John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, narrating Christian’s journey to the holy city, while incarcerated. Oscar Wilde, while spending two years in prison for “gross indecency”, wrote De Profundis.

It may have something to do with the solitude in prison releasing the creative juices. None of the luminaries above were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. The non-rigorous one, though it engages prisoners in various tasks -- say cooking, or cleaning – leaves them with time to reflect and introspect. However, the likes of Wilde and Gandhi may feel a bit disconcerted to know who all are churning out Pris Lit in India these days.

The latest best seller is Life Mantras, written by Subrata Roy in Delhi’s Tihar jail. It is the first part of a Thoughts from Tihar trilogy. Roy, the chief of Sahara Group, has just started his third year at Tihar for his company’s failure to return investors’ money.

Sanjay Dutt, who has just come out of the same Yerwada jail where Gandhi wrote My Experiments, found the time to write about his life’s experiences while making cane items and paper bags during his time there. It seems he wrote 500 couplets, all in Hindi, with the help of two other inmates, and wants to publish them in a book called Salaakhen.

The fastest fingers, though, seem to be on Kanhaiya Kumar (oh, he should have gone to KBC), the JNU students union president charged with sedition. The buzz is that he gathered enough during his brief stay in jail before being released on bail to think up a book.

Should we, then, do something to facilitated writing by prisoners? At present, all they get is some paper and pen. No computers for them. That won’t do at a time publishers accept only soft copies.

But will it be worthwhile to spend on computers to promote Pris Lit? On the evidence of Romania, no. The Pris Lit there has been utter crap. The latest Indian output may not redeem the genre any time soon.

First Published: Mar 08, 2016 12:29 IST