A prison memoir that exposes our broken judicial and legal systems, and highlights the strength of the human spirit

As our democracy ages, its legal fangs are getting more lethal. Human rights are all too frequently thwarted in our country as the State becomes Big Brother. And instead of hard evidence, mere suspicion is enough for the State to put anyone ‘inconvenient’ behind bars. Among the suspected ‘Naxalites’ who were thrown into jail, Binayak Sen and Soni Sori were fortunate enough (though Sori’s trials are far from over) to have sections of the media and human rights groups up in arms. But for every Sen and Sori, there are thousands of others who still languish in jail.

One such person was Arun Ferreira. As a young man in Bombay, he was shaken by the riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Disgusted by religious fundamentalism, disturbed by the inequality in our society and agitated by the corruption, he gravitated towards a revolutionary students’ organisation called Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana (VPS). With his VPS comrades, he hoped to transform a class- and caste-ridden country into a more just and equitable one.

But the State would have none of this, as their motto is ‘Status Quo Jayate’ after all! A pen drive in Ferreira’s possession was enough for the police to accuse him of being a member of the banned CPI (Maoist) party, usually known as Naxalites. He was accused of being a criminal mastermind who had committed murders, possessed arms and rioted. He thus found himself in the ‘anda’ — a section for solitary confinement in the notorious Nagpur Jail. Ferreira spent 2007 to 2011 in the jail, before he was cleared by the courts of all nine cases filed against him. Colours of the Cage is his prison memoir.

Many prison memoirs have already been published in India, Nagari Babaiah’s Ninety Days in Prison (in English) and Kumar Samatala’s Jailemba Lokadalli (The Prison World — in Kannada). But what makes Ferreira’s ‘cage’ different is its varied colours. It has shades of optimism, broad strokes of physical violence, streaks of desperation and lines of humour and irony. But underlying it all is the tragedy of our police and legal system.

The police system has the time to be friendly with the underworld, but cannot tolerate those of a different political ideology, especially those with extreme left ideals. Ferreira, who is branded an extreme left-winger is spared no quarter, and is tortured. He writes, “My arms were tied to a window grill high above the ground while two policemen stood on my outstretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor. This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving visible injuries.” The memoir goes on to describe other bone-chilling accounts of police brutality, such as the use of ‘bajirao’ — an interrogation instrument — or an instance when a police officer injected petrol into the rectums of two prisoners.

While prisons are supposed to be centres of reformation for the prisoner, in India they are another form of hell. But Ferreira tries to grow accustomed to the “luxury of contemplating the myriad rhythms of prison life”. He dwells on life’s trials from a spot where he can see a few leaves. Along with other prisoners, he hunts birds, squirrels and bandicoots using an improvised trap. He pores over books — including the Indian Constitution — organises hunger strikes, makes balls using the elastic band of old underwear and repairs torn slippers using pen refills. Nothing is wasted, all is improvised, and everything is unlearned and learned anew in the prison wards.

Maharashtra not only has more prisoners than any other Indian state, it also has a high number of custodial deaths. Despite the physical torture and the mental torment of awaiting trial dates, what keeps Ferreira’s sprits up is his sense of optimism. He writes; “Nights out here are always the time for contemplation. The loneliness compels me to recollect the yesteryears and doze off with those memories. That is the beauty of one’s imagination and dreams. No four prison walls can ever contain them.’’

Ferreira’s case shows that prison life does not end with the clearing of all charges and one’s release. This book ends on a sad note. He finds that life after prison is still haunted, on one hand, by the fear of further action by the State and, on the other, the struggle to build a life again in accordance with one’s ideals.

Any review of a prison memoir can, at best, be only an introduction. It can never be a lived experience. However, if one wants to understand how the State and the system in our democracy work, Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage is much more than a good primer. It is a recommended read.

(Gauri Lankesh is a journalist and activist for communal harmony and human rights)