A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.
- Walter Winchell
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They ‘correct’ whatever is ‘incorrect’ in us.
They ‘incorrect’ whatever is too ‘correct’ in us for them to handle, or to accept.
“The wall is as high as I thought it would be,” I whispered.
“Nope. I expected it to be higher. Really formidable kind,” my brother whispered more.
I looked at him askance to see if he was joking. I was not very sure, for although I did need a companion for this afternoon trip and had no one suitable enough, I had not been too assured about he accompanying me, given his record of saying wrong things at wrong places. Just in case we would be required to say something in explanation, maybe, to a sentry or whoever, I had specifically told him that I would speak and he must keep quiet.
Here, standing in front of the widely spread out outer boundary wall of a ceremoniously titled correctional home in a nondescript almost-unnamed village, Taalchira, in a remote district of Birbhum, my younger brother, a new entrant in a media house in Bombay, and I, a school teacher in a reputed school in Calcutta, instinctively whispered and looked tense and pretended to be calm.
There was no sentry, or gateman, or anyone at all. In fact the entire expanse of the wall bore no signs of sheltering human lives inside. With a locked gate and a small half-door in one part of the gate, for people to lower their head and walk in and out, provided they did not require to be corrected, or were done with it, the red wall went straight for some time and then took a semi-circular turn and went further straight and then away from our view. Just outside the place where it took a turn the field was swampy even though it had not rained, and a dog’s family consisting of a few adventurous puppies sprinted around biting each other’s hind legs while their aged and tired mother rested. The setting sun peeping out from behind a huge tree at a distance, whose name I could not care to know, more than adequately lit up the part of the wall which we could see vanishing beyond our view. The wall however appeared to be a resolute one. I am certain that the golden hues marking a day’s departure could not make their way in. You could stare at the wall for hours and yet no sight, or sound, from inside would push its way out through an imaginary crevice. As a plumber unclogs a suddenly-dry pipeline and water gushes out, first narrowly and then fully, bringing immediate relief to a family, I too felt like chiselling out a razor-thin line in the wall through which a narrow strip of sunlight will squeeze itself in and will fall near the feet of a dozing prisoner.
This unremarkable village Taalchira was truly a non-happening place, it seemed. So much so that not even any local political strongman considered it worthwhile to invest his men, money, and armed power either. Life was as placid as a pond in which a twig from a nearby tree might fall noiselessly and not even create a ripple worth noticing. Its only claim to faint recognition in the minds of urban upwardly mobile people with more than sufficiently disposable income lay in the fact that Taalchira was half an hour’s drive from Bulbuldaanga, a weekend getaway for such people, for people like us. So although Taalchira remained too insignificant for political squabbles, its more known counterpart Bulbuldaanga came to be rapidly developed by stakeholders in the hospitality industry. Hotels and resorts came up, theme parks got constructed, rent-a-car services became available, souvenir shops were set up which had no souvenir items at all and were loaded with shabby junk jewellery and faded oversized unisex clothes. Poor drunk villagers who till some time back had given up on life and lay curled up, like dogs, on the roadside without any hope of any earning from anywhere, sleeping for most of the day, everyday, day after day, now woke up to try their luck with the city-bred tourists, offering entertainment services of various kinds, from massage parlours, invariably spelt wrongly on the signboards, to mobile phone recharge stores, from sale of packaged drinking water to the mouth-watering but deadly samosas and aloo chaats in the roadside stalls. The compulsive glitter of Bulbuldaanga however had no effect on the placidity of life in Taalchira. Twigs continued to fall silently, cows continued to graze lazily, hens and their chicks continued to take their time to cross the unpaved roads, recipes for jalebis, aloo chaats, and samosas continued to be ignored, as a staple meal at a poor Bengali rural home would never consist of any of these.
Our tourist group consisted of two of my colleagues and two of my brother’s colleagues, and of course the two of us. My brother in his mid-twenties, I in my late twenties. All of us young, over-confident, over-optimistic.
When our weekend trip had been planned, around a month ago, I had let out a deep sigh secretly when I was alone. Walking up to my brother working on his laptop on his short visit home, I had drawn his attention to the names of nearby places around Bulbuldaanga.
“Taalchira…”, I had looked at him meaningfully.
He had taken a few seconds to grasp the significance and had then nodded in understanding, in pain.
Our uncle, our father’s elder brother, had spent seventy eight nights at Taalchira. Inside the correctional home.
That was a long time ago. Fourteen years.
What had been in need of ‘correction’ in him was the fact that as the administrative head of the only college in the entire region, our uncle had not been able to ‘catch’ a fraudulent photocopy of an applicant’s mark-sheet. In the eyes of law he had been clearly at fault, an offender, in urgent need of being corrected.
He however might not have needed this ‘correction’ had he not distinguished himself for many years by then as an unassuming but vocal critic of the regime in power in our state. In other words, he would be immersed in his work and seemingly ignore a lot many shows of blatant power and its inevitable allies, arrogance and corruption, but then when he would be least expected, he would publicly, in television interviews and in newspaper columns, castigate the powerholders, very often with a wide smile on his face. His smile in fact, we had felt as teenagers, had been probably more offensive than his words.
He was too correct to be left alone. He needed, no doubt, some ‘incorrection’.
Taalchira had been for the last fourteen years a damned name in our family. A symbol of injustice, anger, helplessness, and above all, the evilness of power. That the law never takes its own course, that it always takes the course charted out for it by the seats of power, Taalchira had shown us all too clearly. Seventy eight nights gone from his life. Spent in the company of petty thieves, habitual drunkards, rapists, defaulters, wife-beaters, accidental murderers.
Everyone who needed to be corrected. All of them. No discrimination, no privileges.
Prisoner number 124 too, our father-figure uncle, a reputed educationist and a well-known public figure.
Standing next to my brother that evening as we planned making this visit to the site of insult and disgrace for our family, I had felt my face turning blazing hot in anger and in insult.
Once large-hearted and jovial, our uncle had since then been irritable, prone to suspicion, erratic, and seldom spoke to anyone.
Standing next to my brother this afternoon I could feel the pain of injustice all over again.
“Come in, come inside. Yes, yes, you, you two, come in!”
Startled at the sound of a human voice so close to us we turned our faces and saw an insignificant stunted man signalling us to walk in through the narrow half-gate which created a small opening in the wall, outside which we were standing for over fifteen minutes, recollecting in hushed voice our bitterness and shame at what had happened to our family.
Gathering ourselves, both of us said at once, “No, no! No need. We were just watching, just very generally.” Then looking at each other, we added, “We are getting late in fact. Let’s go.”
We made a move.
The unimpressive man changed his tone to one of semi-command. “No. You can’t go away like that! Sir wants to meet you. Inside.” He signalled with his hand again.
“Yes, our jailer Sir. He wants to meet you. Come in. No problem. Come!”
We exchanged glances. We had certainly not been aware that we were being watched. Sir? Jailer? If he is inside, how does he know we are outside? A prison is definitely not a hotel lobby! Then?
“But we don’t want to meet him! Why should we go inside?” My brother, forgetting my earlier words of prohibition on his right to free speech, shrugged and made a gesture with his hands.
The man looked at us with a frown.
“No, er, I mean, we were just watching. We don’t have any work.” I forced a smile at the man and pulling my brother, said a hurried way, “Come. They are waiting for us at the hotel. Come quickly.”
“No. Go inside first. Sir will talk to you.” Even a sub-staff at a correctional home seemed to have enough authority.
As dark clouds suddenly float in from nowhere on a hot summer afternoon and wrap up the sky in darkness and a sense of impending gloom, our bitter but hitherto un-endangered faces suddenly bore a cover of uncertainty, insecurity, threat, suspicion and foreboding.
We looked at each other helplessly. Running away from the spot would be neither feasible nor prudent. Our vehicle was at some distance. And it would be immensely foolish to imagine that we would not be pursued. By our foolishness we could provoke them into suspecting us.
“I…Actually I…My research work is on prisons…Prisons are…” I fumbled in my attempt to manage the situation one last time.
“We weren’t trying to help a jailbreak attempt.” My brother’s words made me grind my teeth at him. I felt like slapping him.
“Tell all that to Sir. He will listen to you.” The man was plainly disinterested in overstepping his limits.
Led by him we crossed in through the narrow door with our heads lowered.
In front of us now was a large iron door with a similar small opening in it.
We went in the same way.
Immediately inside was a man sitting on a chair who looked so similar to the one talking to us that I stole a glance around to ensure that our instructor was still standing beside us and seated at this table was a second man. This man pushed a fat soiled register towards us.
“Your names. Here.” His dirty fingers showed us the place.
“Why?” My uncontrolled brother again.
“Will you be quiet?” I hissed at him.
It was not clear if they had heard him. They did not bother to reply in any case.
We wrote our names and addresses.
As soon as we had finished that part the man at the table got busy with a newspaper and did not look at us again.
The other one, the man who had brought us in, guided us through a covered entrance way, turned right, walked through a corridor and stopped at a door with a cheap curtain.
“Sir!” He announced the success of the task assigned to him.
The entire walk had been, quite predictably, more and more towards darkness. Away from the natural light, leaving behind the sunlight, the greens outside, the occasional wind sweeping across the field outside, the ever-excited puppies, the unknown bird’s nagging whistle. In short, everything that does not need to be corrected.
“Oh yes! Come in! Come inside!” The man inside the room greeted us quite warmly, much to our relief and confusion both.
He walked towards us at the door and in fact ushered us in.
“Come, come. Please take a seat. Come, madam.”
We followed him inside and took our seats after some hesitation.
“So! From Calcutta?” He asked with a smile. “My sister’s in-laws are also there. Garia side. You are from? Let me guess…Ballygunge?” He plonked himself a little forcefully on his chair. The towel cover on his chair slid down the back of the chair and curled up on the seat underneath his hips under the impact of his movement.
We nodded in agreement. “How did you guess?” My brother asked. I wanted to tell him, “Just let it be! Why do we need to know how he guessed? And anyway, we look like that, the Ballygunge kinds!”
“Experience of seeing people. A lot of people.” Our unsolicited host was evidently pleased with his guesswork going right.
His experience did not help him further though.
“No, no! He is my brother. My younger brother.” I had just started observing the room but with this question, I now focused my attention on the man.
Tall, burly, large so to say, with a moustache, quite muscular, a steel bangle on his right wrist, a slightly protruding waistline visible from across our side of the table, a tight T-shirt, a grey watch on his left wrist, a golden chain around his thick neck. I tried to guess his age. Forties, yes, must be. Quite the perfect prison warden. You could visualise him doing his work well. All kinds of work. Including the ones for which jailors are often infamous.
“What do you do, Madam?” He seemed to be genuinely interested.
“I teach in a school.” Upon his asking I told him which school.
“And he, my brother, he is doing a research on prisons. For his Ph D.” I pre-empted the question and in the process ensured that my brother will not get a chance to speak. Because very clearly we did not want to invite trouble by revealing his connection to the media. He would think we have come for reporting, for a ‘story’, as my brother says.
The jailer looked impressed. My brother looked at me surprised. I looked away at the walls of the room.
A window through which the compound could be seen, a sweeper walking across with a long broom, two steel cupboards with files and papers and records, portraits of Gandhi, Subhas Bose, RabindraNath Tagore, and just behind his chair, one of Jawaharlal Nehru. A half-broken waste bin in one corner. A shut door at one end, the jailer’s washroom, most probably. And a board up on the wall which declared the present number of inmates and their categories. Seventy six. Fourteen years ago, was it more crowded, I wondered. Under-trials, convicted, kept in custody for interrogation, the ones with infectious diseases.
“What will you have? Tea?” The jailer indeed prolonged our suspense by behaving so unpredictably.
“No, no. Nothing. We need to go. We are getting late. We just thought of taking a look at the prison from outside. For his work, his research.” Repeating a lie makes it appear true, so I tried.
“Correctional home.” The jailer corrected me.
“Huh? Oh yes, yes. The correctional home.”
“Madam, we are privileged to have educated people like you visiting us. Here, look at us, we only interact with the scum of society.” He moved his hands in self-sympathy. “See, we have at present twenty eight thieves, fifteen drunkards whom we have picked up from the streets, all neighbouring villages…and now Bulbuldaanga has become a tourist spot…all crimes happening there…here, last week itself a young lady had come from…where was it…German…yes, I think she came from German…her wallet was stolen, we have got the thief! Then two months ago an American had come from New York in England, he also…similar case…his wallet was taken…the police handed over the culprit to us…Here mostly we have…”
“Sir, tea.” The man who had brought us in now reappeared with decorated cups full of milk-tea.
I had a passing thought about how inadequate even his elementary knowledge of Geography was. Wonder how far he had passed, I said to myself.
As the tea cups were placed before us we looked flustered and said the usual things about all this being unnecessary.
After giving a sip I looked at my brother and told him, “We should be making a move now, isn’t it? Why don’t you call the driver and ask him to get ready?” Turning towards the chair in front, I said with a half-smile, “Okay then…” and attempted to push back the chair to get up.
“You can’t call him.” The jailer said without looking at us. He was moving with his finger the milk-crust which covered the upper surface of the tea giving it a creased look. Then he busily wiped his sticky fingers on his trousers.
“Why? Why can’t I call him?” This time I did not stop my brother.
“Huh?” The jailer suddenly seemed absent-minded.
“Why can’t we call him?” I sounded curt.
“Because there are jammers here inside.” He was matter of fact. Pointing at my brother’s hand which held his phone, he gestured, “Can’t use it.” Rings with stones of different kinds on most of his fingers created a dancing pattern before my eyes.
I pushed back my chair.
“In that case, there is no need to call. We shall just walk towards the car and find him out.” Adjusting my shoulder bag I forced myself a formality. “Thank you for your hospitality. We have never had tea in a prison before.” My voice may have been a little sarcastic.
“You mean, a correctional home.”
I gave him a hard look and proceeded towards the door of his room. My brother had also got up.
“Madam! Come back. Sit for a while. You can’t go out now.”
I swung around.
Taking a deep breath I said in a controlled voice, “And why can’t we go out now? Who will stop us?”
The jailer got up, pulled the towel up on the back of the chair, sat down again and said, “The gateman has gone for his afternoon meal. Let him come back. No one will stop you then.” I sensed a smile hidden in his moustache.
A few moments of complete silence elapsed. The ceiling fan filled up the vacuum by singing a strange tune.
“Come back, Madam. No use standing. When he returns, I shall tell you.” The jailer yawned.
I felt petrified but appeared calm. Trapped, we have been trapped, I said to myself. Was this a practical joke, I thought. Trying to bully the ‘Ballygunge-kind’ of people? Surely yes, for is the man not aware of the rights available to us in such a situation? He cannot do this! He just cannot! I looked at my brother. For all his youthful exuberance, he looked a little unnerved now.
We went back towards our chairs in slow steps. In my mind I began calculating, by what time will our friends realise that something is wrong? And even when they do, how will they ever imagine that this is where we are locked up? We had of course not told them before coming. We never discussed our uncle with anyone. In between my thoughts I looked at the jailer slyly. His face was, I think, just as it had been before.
Hoping to control the situation to the best of my abilities, I now deliberately initiated a conversation. Fear grows in situations of silence, uncle used to say.
“You have been here for how long?”
“It’s been over three years. Transferable posting we have. Three years here.” Then he added with a tone of satisfaction, “I have started a lot of new things here.”
“Like, say, medical check-ups every Sunday morning, arranging festivals here in the compound.” He pointed his finger out of the window.
I followed his finger to glance out. It had started becoming dark. The sweeper was gone long back, I think. A blinding flashlight from atop the corner of the building covered a part of the compound with pale yellow light. It fell at an angle. To me suddenly it looked like human urine, pale yellow, involuntarily passed by someone in extreme fear or physical pain.
I shuddered and shut my eyes. I felt I wanted to vomit.
“What happened, Madam? Any problem?”
I nodded my head and faintly said no.
Trying to keep my normalcy I asked him where his home was.
“Joynagar. Famous temple there, Madam! Been there?”
I nodded my head again the same way.
“Are there any…” My next query remained incomplete as a terrifying yell pierced the surroundings followed by silence at first and then a suppressed groaning sound.
I leapt out of my chair. My brother looked scared. We could understand neither the direction nor the distance of the yell.
The jailer was adjusting his finger-rings.
“What was that!?” I asked him, although I think I did not want to know.
“You didn’t hear the scream? Are you hard of hearing?” My brother asked threateningly.
“Oh that. That is a dog. Must be a dog.”
“A dog!? It was a human voice!” I was terrified but I did not show it.
“Huh? Oh. Some human beings are like dogs.” The jailer’s face had no expression.
I took a deep breath again. It was completely dark outside now. My brother had been trying to use his phone but in vain.
Something told me that I must confront him. Concentrating my sight on his face I said, “Listen, jailer Sir, what exactly do you want? What is going on here? Why have you kept us locked here? Do you realize that you can’t get away with this? Do you know that there are laws in the country? Laws, you have heard of them, right? On what ground have you kept two innocent persons locked in your damn prison?”
“Madam, correctional home.”
“Oh shut up! Just shut up. Tell me, tell us, what do you want? Money? How much?” I patted my shoulder bag instinctively.
“Madam, you are getting angry for no reason.” He turned to my brother. “Make your sister understand. Why is she getting angry?” Looking at me again he said, “Have some tea, Madam.”
“Look, I am telling you one last time. The gateman can go to hell. Where are the keys? Are you trying to tell us that he goes for his meals with the keys?” I leaned forward on the table. “And…and he goes for hours, is it? He goes for his meals for two hours? That’s how this prison runs. Is it?” Tapping my fingers on the table I said, “You wait. Just wait. Once we go out from here you will see what happens to you. If not anything else, you, reverend jailer, you let your gateman vanish for hours. That’s how this prison works. You wait. Just wait.”
“Madam, you are an educated person…” His sentence remained incomplete as someone appeared at the door and said something that we did not comprehend.
The jailer nodded at the figure at the door and looked at us with a smile.
“I told you, Madam, don’t get so angry. There, see! He has come back. The gateman.”
My expression changed in a fraction of a second.
“Get up!” I lightly touched my brother’s shoulder and hurried out of the chair.
“Slowly, Madam, slowly. You had misunderstood me. I had assured you, as soon as he comes back, you can leave.”
Losing my balance, pushing the chair, pulling my brother, I almost ran out without stopping to listen to his last few words.
“Wait, wait, Madam, I shall see you off at the gate. Wait, Madam!” The jailer’s voice came behind us.
The path in between the room and the gate seemed to be longer than what it had been an hour back. Missing a step which I did not even remember taking while going in, hitting against the wall in one place, twisting my ankle at a turning, we finally arrived at the outer gate.
“Here, move.” My brother pushed the gateman to step outside. The gateman seemed unperturbed though.
Standing beneath the dark vast unpolluted mass of emptiness lovingly called the sky we heaved a sigh of relief, quite inevitably. I bent down to run my finger lightly over my twisted ankle. My brother tugged at my arm and asked me to get into the car fast.
A voice coated in laughter said, “Madam, the way you ran, it seemed that the two of you were escaping from a cell!”
Lightly moving away my brother’s hand from my arm, I took time to respond. “Yes, possible. One never knows. The state authorities are particularly delighted if they can catch educated people and harass them.” After a slight pause I added, “One of our acquaintances had in fact been imprisoned here. Here, inside your correctional home.” I gestured with my eyes and said the last words in a tone of plain ridicule.
The lower part of the jailer’s face was shadowed. Below half his nose there seemed to be nothing. His eyes may have had a smile.
“I know. Shyamal Chatterjee. Ummm, two months or so?”
I wondered if his moustache was smiling. I wanted to see if his nostrils were curved in laughter.
Concealing my amazement I said in as plain a voice as possible, “Yes, Shyamal Chatterjee. But that was many years ago. You weren’t the jailer then. Then?”
“Ummm ummm, around ten-twelve years ago, isn’t it? Yes, I wasn’t the jailer then. You are right, Madam.”
By postponing answers, by replying in installments, the jailer appeared to be good at cat and mouse games. As good outside his office as inside.
I was also not going to give up so easily. Conscious that I now stood outside the boundary wall of the prison I repeated in an uncompromising voice, “Then? How do you know?”
Now he clearly smiled. As a strand of lightning dangles a silver sword amidst the darkness of a stormy sky, his teeth appeared from the shadow on his face.
“Inmates like him are rare here. Very rare. Soon after joining office here as the warden I was one day turning over old files stacked in my office. It’s there that I saw his photograph. It was some occasion, I think it was the independence day, and all the inmates were queued up at the courtyard at the time of flag-hoisting. His picture was very prominent. I clearly remembered his face. Not even a correctional home could mar the brightness of his face. A man among dogs. I knew in an instant that he was wrongly kept detained here. I enquired with the other staff, the cook, the sweeper, the accountant, and they all knew his case. Some fraud that someone else did, isn’t it, Madam? And today as soon as I saw you, you and your brother, I knew you must be his children. The same kind, the educated, cultured Calcutta-kind of people. I wanted to talk to you in peace, listen to you at length. I knew you had to be a teacher! If your words of wisdom can bring any improvement in my life, I thought. When my subordinate described you two to me, I said to myself, here is my chance today! I must meet them! Not a thief, not a drunkard, not a hooligan, not a murderer. But unfortunately, Madam, you got angry for no fault of mine.” After a slight pause he added, “That person, your father, wasn’t he, I am sure he was a proper correct man. He couldn’t have needed to be in a correctional home.” His last words tapered off as the tail-end of a flying kite does.
His half-visible face had a sad look.
I wondered if it was too sad to be genuine.
The evening sky expanded its arms to embrace us into freedom as we treaded the uneven path to reach our car. Except for the dizzying noise of crickets it was only our shoes which softly crumpled the earth below.
We returned to our hotel in silence.
“Where had you been? We were so very worried. What happened to your phones? Why didn’t you call? Where were you?” Our anxious friends were genuinely very disturbed by our sudden long disappearance.
“We had been to a correctional home.” I stretched my legs on the sofa and drew imaginary lines with my toes on the cushion at the other end. Then, yawning loudly, I said, “Hey! Urvi, when will our chicken steak come? I am so hungry.” I picked up my phone and yawned again.
“A what home? You mean, you mean, a prison?” Urvi’s bewildered face had little impact on my excited and tired mind.