It was mid-day and the April sun was sharp against my face. I was the last of the prisoners to enter the courtyard. It was hexagonal with a small room near the centre. A big man in a prison uniform looked at me and told everyone to pick up a plate. When my turn came, there were no plates left. I was terrified at the thought of asking him. The inmate looked at me like I was a cockroach. Then he uttered a “$@%8#.. andar se pilate le” (“Get a plate from inside”) and pointed to a small dusty room with an open door. I went inside and found a few bent food plates with dust and dried grime on it. I picked up the least dirty one. This one looked like it was greased with tar.
I took the plate and wandered out of the hexagon into where I saw the last man disappear. It opened into a bigger courtyard with lots of trees and barracks building on the right, with a few men sitting outside and looked at me as if I was a foreign tourist. I probably had that look of a lost boy on my face. I looked around for the least intimidating looking man and approached him with caution. I was not sure if I should talk to him first. He asked me if I had any cigarettes with me. I told him I don’t. He scowled at me as if I had a rabid infection and after a pause, gestured at my plate and told me to clean it near a cemented water tank.
Thus began the longest plate cleaning exercise of my life. In part I was relieved I had something to do. I poured some water on and used some detergent powder that I found next to the tap. It barely even cleaned the caked dust. I picked up some sand and tried to scrub off the tar. I saw it make some progress. I wondered if they had sandpaper supply in prison. That was the engineer in me thinking. I scrubbed and scrubbed till the skin of my hands showed signs of peeling off. The final result still had some black tar in a thin layer. With sweat pouring down my face, I could see lines of metal after my engineering feat. I prepared myself mentally to eat off the plate if I was going to be here forever.
I looked up to see a thin young man looking at me intently. He looked amused at what I was doing. He said “Bhaijaan, usko pheko. Khane ka wakat, mere pilate le lo, baad me accha wala doondh ke dunga” (“Brother, leave that plate, you may use my plate during meal-time, I will find you a better one later”). Something about his gesture was reassuring, because I felt I was going to be here for a long long time. I kept imagining, no, I was sure that my family stopped trying to get me out on bail, though I did not have much understanding of that concept then.
That evening I was sitting on my own, trying to avoid ‘the hardened criminals’, imagining all sort of sordid things that might happen to me. The same boy set up a carrom board game and asked me to play with him along with two others. The second day of prison was spent like this, listening to their life stories.
The next morning I kept listening to the loudspeaker announcements that listed out names for release on bail granted or visitation ‘Rihae or Mulaqat‘. My name or number did not come up, but my new friend came back from somewhere, called me by name and asked me to report to the Superintendent’s office for release procedure and to hurry. He did not even wait for me to thank him.
I had a lot of time to reflect on that in the years to come. I do not remember his name, lost in the hardened faces I tried to remember during the three days of ‘judicial remand’. I have forgotten the names, I have forgotten the faces, but I will remember the kindness and the concern the inmates showed me those three days, something I didn’t find in all the people who pretend to uphold law, justice and fairness in the days that led up to prison and hence.
Today, I commemorate the Prison Experience Day with my thanks to the inmates, their kindness and humanity that is lost in the ‘fair and just outside world’. Today, I wish the humanity in them with my #SelfieInPrison initiative