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Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir; Arun Ferreira, Aleph Book Company, Rs.295.

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Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir; Arun Ferreira, Aleph Book Company, Rs.295.

A searing account of nearly five years in prison, Colours of the Cage is both a stirring memoir of extraordinary human resilience and endurance against unspeakable suffering and injustice, and a dispassionate forensic first-hand account of the country’s criminal justice and penal systems.

Ferreira was arrested in the summer of 2007 from a railway station in Nagpur, and charged with a battery of grave crimes of Maoist violence and subversion. He affirms his attraction to radical Marxism, beginning his youthful politicisation with the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, in which the Shiv Sena and other Hindu fundamentalist mobs freely attacked Muslims, even as “the police threatened to fire on any sign of resistance from the victims”. He immersed himself in student, labour union, tribal and slum-dweller struggles. He refuses to condemn the violent militancy of Maoists, because he assesses the state to be the principal tool of organised oppression. I contest his ethical support of violent resistance to oppression, but there is no denying the idealism and compassion which rouses his politics, nor the fact that he never participated in actual violence.

His eloquent, understated and unsentimental descriptions of torture, jail life, a prejudiced and tardy criminal justice system, the loneliness of solitary confinement, and the persisting trauma of his family, are intensely harrowing.

His numbing sketches of torture echo those I have heard from many terror-accused. Being stripped naked, denied sleep for 36 hours at a stretch, the skin under his nails pierced with pins, flogging with belts and batons, kicks, blows and being forced to stay in stretched positions for hours are just a few of the torments he suffered. His grimy blanket and the stench of the hole in the ground serving as a urinal all became insignificant, as he is brutally coerced to admit guilt and sign blank papers.

Even as he endures all of this, he continues to observe and later describe the personalities of each of the men in uniform who inflict torture, and the magistrates and doctors who deliberately choose to look away from obvious signs of torture. The young IPS officer, who repeats that he studied in Delhi’s elite St Stephen’s College to emphasise that he is a class apart, is the most sadistic. A junior inspector resents his seniors, and when they leave, he comes in drunk, wearing jeans, choosing to rant against Maoist attacks on the police rather than raise his hand.

His accounts of everyday jail life are disturbing, as he brings to life the prison’s alternate sub-cultures of hierarchy, corruption, brutality, overcrowding, and solidarities. Some of his most poignant depictions are of the contacts of prisoners with their families through iron meshes, sometimes for not more than five minutes.

Ferreira spends most of his five years of incarceration in solitary confinement, in cells isolated from other cells, greenery and the sky. But more than the “brutal, claustrophobic architecture”, it’s “the absence of human contact which chokes you…you spend fifteen hours or more alone in your cell. The only people you regularly see are the guards.” Most inmates break down in weeks. Ferreira survives with an endless supply of books sent by his family, higher studies, and robust hope. Even after he barely is acquitted in one charge, the state slaps another to endlessly prolong his incarceration.

It is his resilient optimism, his faith in justice, his engagement with and compassion for those who share the prison with him that makes his account even more compelling. We have endured too long the injustice and brutality of our laws and penal systems. Ferreira compels us to reflect on this institutionalised injustice of our justice systems. We would fail him if we still turn our faces away.

Many young men charged with political crimes of Islamist, separatist or Maoist militancy are put away in prison for years like Ferreira, and mostly forgotten. Ferreira’s middle-class origins ensured that his case caught national attention and he had fine legal representation. Even so it took him nearly five years to prove his innocence and walk free.

But there are hundreds like him who spend seven, nine, sometimes 14 years without bail in prisons before they are ultimately acquitted and released, but their stories are rarely told. Ferreira’s tale is not just his own: it is the chronicle of all these men, and it is a story which each of us must heed and weigh upon our conscience.

Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir; Arun Ferreira, Aleph Book Company, Rs.295.


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