Years ago, I appeared in court for a minor (I assure you) transgression. What happened in my case was interesting enough. What I saw around me in court was much more so.
Several boys -- none more than 15, I'm sure -- shuffle in, roped together by their ankles. One by one, their names are called. In turn, each stands, accompanied by a cuff from the attending constable. Not even glancing at them, the judge calls out a date sometime in the future. The boy squats again. Next name. Then they all shuffle out.
The perverse futility of the exercise thoroughly depressed me. What goes on with our jailed fellow-citizens?
In fuller measure, Nandini Oza's little book brought back the memory of that futility. Because she was herself arrested during various activist demonstrations, she spent chunks of time in jail. She used that time to learn the stories of her fellow-inmates. This book is the result.
Oza says she "fictionalized" what she heard, I suspect by changing names and locations. But the sense of hopelessness and tragedy that these stories are suffused with remains. You begin reading one and things roll inexorably, gathering ever-more ominous weight, to a desperate climax. You start on the next, and it's the same.
Really, what goes on with our jailed fellow-citizens?
There's Rehana, married off to the good-for-nothing son of a local liquor baroness. Good-for-nothing, but "the unmarried girls ... considered him an eligible bachelor" because of his mother's wealth and power. Rehana becomes very close to her Ammijan, but her husband only goes from bad to worse, drinking and gambling his life away. After some years of this, she decides to go home. The drunken husband is incensed. He threatens Rehana's family, slaps a false case of theft on her, eventually thrashes her brothers and mother, nearly killing them.
With this, Rehana "lost my mental balance ... what followed is something beyond my understanding even today." She buys a dagger and stabs her beloved Ammijan to death. She gets life in prison. Her own family disowns her.
The irony is that this ghastly mess both reforms her husband and brings them back together. In her early 30s, Rehana now looks forward to a life with him outside, because her good prison behaviour and the bribes he has paid will get her out early.
That note of optimism, but it doesn't paper over the way tragedy overtakes and overwhelms an ordinary young woman.
There's Shakuntala, married at 16 to a caring young man with a good factory job. Two kids come along, they put them in good schools, "things were moving according to Shakuntala's wishes." But the factory suddenly shuts down. No more job. Husband grows desperate, turns from caring to nasty; life quickly empties of hope. One particularly hopeless night, Shakuntala takes the two kids and leaps into a nearby tank.
Kids die, but Shakuntala is rescued and imprisoned for murdering them. Nine years pass. Shakuntala is waiting "serenely" for this much: to be released so she can go straight back to that tank and finish what she could not finish that night. "The yearning for death alone," writes Oza, "gave her reason to live."
Oza writes with a direct, no-frills frankness that gives the book its haunting power. And that's why these stories add up, more than reports or inquiries might, to a subtle commentary on justice in this country.
There's a complacency to that word, "justice". We applaud when some dreaded terrorist, for example, is sentenced to death. "Justice is done," we'll say, nodding sagely.
Nandini Oza shows us what lies beyond that complacency. It's no pretty picture. Yet if justice is to mean something at all, I suspect more of us will have to find the quiet courage that she found: to look squarely at that picture and understand.
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