Earlier this year, social activist Arun Ferreirawas acquitted of all charges -from murder and criminal conspiracy to Naxalism -after having spent five years in Nagpur Central Jail.

Despite the beatings and hardships, Ferreira, now 42, never lost his sense of humour.
His memoir `Colours of the Cage’ gives us insights into the prison system…

On prison bhais

An important aspect…involved knowing your place in the jail pecking order determined by how long you’d been inside, the number of trips you’d made there, the severity of your crime and, above all, proximity to the bhai.

Each barrack had its bhai to whom all lesser mortals claimed (or aspired to) proximity . Those who managed to get close to the bhai could hope for some alleviation of discomfort in the form of a cleaner or full set of bistar (bedding). Though the Prison Manual prescribed that the bistar allocated to each prisoner should include a dhurrie, a bedsheet, two cotton-wool blankets in winter and a pillow with pillow-case, the naya aamad (newcomer) could consider himself lucky if he managed to get a single tattered, filthy blanket or dhurrie. And even if he did obtain a dhurrie, this did not ensure that the dhurrie-possessor would find the 2 ft x 6 ft floor space needed to lay it out on-because the barracks, designed for 75 prisoners, were occupied by more than 200. This was another thing that a bhai could fix.

On sleep

With each inmate living through his own private nightmare, moans, groans and sobs from adjoining sleepers were frequent. The awakened neighbour usually slapped the offender into silence. But not all troubled souls were so easily subdued. There were those who pierced the night with shrill screams and shrieks and were usually beaten up before they quietened. The screamer, who actually needed psychiatric help, didn’t even get sympathy . As the whole barrack was roused, the more vicious types joined the watchmen in beating and kicking him. Many believed it to be the only possible therapy to exorcise the devil which had taken possession of the troubled man. In a while, he was silenced and relative calm descended once more. But sleep was elusive as each prisoner strained silently to hide from his own demons.

A sketch that Ferreria made in jail

Speedy snans

Morning brings a mad rush to the tanki or haus, as the bathing tank is known. Four hundred prospective bathers laying claim to a 60 by 3 foot trough means a hurried bath even at the best of times. In summer, when the water being pumped out of the well is likely to run dry , the pace is bound to be frantic. Jail lore tells of the guy who’s not fast enough and has to rinse off the soap by catching the drops dripping off his neighbour’s body. The ones who don’t learn to brush teeth, take a bath and rinse out their underwear in 10 minutes flat are destined to scrape the bottom of the haus.

Meat treat

Practices that would seem bizarre in the outside world became routine behind the walls. For instance, the trapping and hunting of squirrels, birds, bandicoots and other types of small game was a serious occupation because the Maharashtra government had imposed a neartotal ban on non-vegetarian food in prison. Even locusts and other insects that occasionally swarmed the prison were collected, to be sun dried, roasted and relished. Cloth traps sometimes managed to snare a bird. Others were brought down with makeshift catapults. Traps in drainpipes and other passages could be made to yield bandicoots. But the more popular method for both squirrels and rats was hunting by hand and stick.

If one was sighted, the cry went up and the hunters gathered to corner their prey… A well-fed bandicoot–which tastes a lot like pork–was a sizeable feast for a meat-starved group. It was quickly skinned and cooked in a corner, away from the prying eyes of jail staff and their informants. The spot behind the la trines was considered safe. This was done on the watch of the latrine-cleaning dandakamaan, who are usually low-castes or tribals.

They were omnivorous and enthusiastic participants in both the chase and the feast. As the band sat around for the treat, the conversation would drift back to better times.

One person would talk of wild boars, an other remembered rabbits. The high walls and iron bars would fade away. Things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

Meeting games

At the mulakaat, my parents could only see my silhouette behind the wire mesh. I too could barely make out the colour of the clothes they were wearing. They could recognize me only by my voice. The wire mesh ensured that only voices could be exchanged. No reassuring hugs.

`Were you beaten badly?’ my mother asked.Dad sat silently beside her, avoiding direct eye contact. If I were to answer truthfully, it would only cause them more pain.

`No. It’s all part of the struggle,’ I said, trying to change the flow of the conversation. But even through the mesh, I knew that they’d seen the emotions my smile was attempting to hide.My mom easily understood the language of struggle… Through my years in jail, my son Akshay never got to see me. We decided against telling him that I was in prison. If he had come, he’d have to see a silhouette with fettered hands for a father. We felt that this would be too much for a 2-year-old child to understand… Only five hours each day are allotted for mulakaats, so if a large number of families show up, each gets a shorter visit. Sometimes, just five minutes into meeting with my family, the jail official at the mulakaat desk would start hammering his gavel to signal that time was up…A wailing child who had been longing for a touch from his father would barely have managed a glimpse of him. A weeping spouse yearning to pour out her heart would barely have got past the initial greetings. A protesting prisoner would not have managed to run through his long list of errands and messages to pass on.All had to be torn away from the windows as the next batch of prisoners rushed in to take their place.

(Excerpted from ‘Colours of the Cage’)