Chetan Mahajan, CEO of HCL Learning, on life in Bokaro prison, and how his daily jottings as an undertrial prisoner are now a book.

On December 22, 2012, Chetan Mahajan reached Bokaro to reason with angry parents of students enrolled in Everonn, the Chennai-based IIT coaching chain. Mahajan had been with the company for just three months. The Bokaro branch of Everonn had begun losing teachers to other institutes that paid a higher salary. Increasingly uneasy, the parents of enrolled students demanded a refund; rumours that the company was shutting down only served to compound the problem.

Mahajan, in Bokaro for what he thought would be a meeting with parents, found himself arrested and jailed. Mahajan spent the next month in Bokaro’s prison. From that experience came Mahajan’s first book, Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail (Penguin), an account of both his prison days and an inside view of the state of Indian prison and justice system. “I always wanted to write, but didn’t know that this would become my impetus,” he says. Completely blind-sided, Mahajan initially expected to be out of jail within days, even hours. “I wasn’t legally liable for what had happened. I hadn’t cheated the parents or taken their money. I was only an employee and I thought the whole thing would clear up soon. It didn’t sink in till I actually found myself being taken to the jail.”

Incarcerated in an under-trial jail, Mahajan met and interacted with people he never thought he’d meet. The book begins with a series of text messages he exchanged before and during the initial procedure that led to his arrest. “I changed my phone recently, but my old phone had all the messages stored, and I wanted to include them.” The frantic worried tone of the messages underline Mahajan’s growing panic that day.

The feeling only worsened in jail, with his phone, laptop and other means of communication taken away. “For the first few days, I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid and confused.” He adds that he remembers the watershed moment when he chose to write his experiences down. “I knew that to survive inside, I’d have to turn this negative, crushing experience into something positive.” On his brother’s next visit, Mahajan asked him for supplies — notebook, pens, to begin documenting his life in prison.

In the acknowledgement, Mahajan thanks the students and the Jharkhand police, admitting that he looks at what happened to him as a sort of blessing in disguise. “I am a different person because of this experience. I look at people differently. I am kinder, more accepting, more understanding of poverty and hardship. I understand that everyone deserves a second chance, and this chance can change their lives.”

Mahajan encountered many different people during his incarceration. Some became friends whom he has returned to the prison to visit. “That place is very familiar now. And some people I wanted to go back and keep in touch with. I want to know what’s happening to them.” Mahajan has changed names to protect identities. “I can’t protect the jailer’s identity, whose sympathy I was grateful for, but there were certain prisoners who helped me in ways that, if their names were revealed, would land them in trouble.”

Mahajan describes the illegal but expertly constructed ways in which prisoners survive the harsh environment, with everything from cell phones to cigarettes coming at an absurdly inflated price.

For his family, “this is more than a book. This is a window into my life and what happened to me when I was separated from them. Each one of my family and friends tell me that they’ve read it in a single sitting.” Mahajan hopes that his book will strike a similar chord with readers too. “Initially, after my release, I was barely functional. I was asocial and had nightmares. It took me very long to snap out of it.”

A lot has changed for Mahajan and he has shed the bitterness and anger. “I was angrier with my employer than with the justice system. It was them I expected help from, but it was too late coming.” In that one month, Mahajan did not once face a judge. His comparatively short stay in an under-trial prison became an example of a much bigger problem facing the country: life as it is for the crores of under-trial prisoners in Indian jails.

While Mahajan doesn’t plan to change the course of his career — education being his chosen path — he wants to help change and improve the lives of those inside prisons. “If there are groups working towards this goal, I’ll be more than happy to do my part.”

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