Society

Inside outside

Besides exchange of news, the missives reflect his thoughts, expectations and hopes.   | Photo Credit: 02dmc Arun Sketch aazadi

The reading of Arun Ferreira’s debut book “Colours Of The Cage” (Aleph) is bound to remind the reader of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The stark difference is that the latter was a piece of fiction and the former is a true story –– “a prison memoir”.

The author, a human rights activist, was arrested in May 2007 on charges of being a Naxalite and over the next few months was charged with criminal conspiracy, murder, possession of arms and rioting among others, a total of 11 cases – and incarcerated in Nagpur Central Jail. The book is a detailed account of the nearly five years he spent in prison encapsulating the torture; the corrupt system; the code of behaviour among inmates, the protests against brutality; the helplessness and what keeps the hope alive among prisoners. He was acquitted in all cases.

“My experience in jail made me see and view things which I had never seen before,” says the author. He describes the prison as “a 100-year-old set-up frozen in time”, citing old rules and regulations governing the system. “The classic example is of a normal jail day which begins at sunrise and ends with sunset. In modern times, it is absurd as life extends much beyond that.” Arun continues, “Dinner is served between 3 and 4 p.m. because the jail mess has to close down after finishing the post-dinner work.”

“The absurdity of jail life was my inspiration to write this book,” he sums up.

During his stay, the author drew 35 sketches to depict jail life. “My initial thought was to publish the drawings to portray the real picture of jails which no one has shown. Even when cameras are allowed inside prisons, the photos invariably depict prisoners busy in carpentry, women inmates making rangolis or the well maintained prison gardens. Also, there were already many books on Indian prisons like Mary Tyler’s ‘My Years In An Indian Prison’,” says the writer.

On his release, Arun’s friend Naresh Fernandes, who has written the foreword after listening to the stories behind each drawing, thought his experience was too vast to be confined to a booklet and egged him on to expand the scope of the text. Comments the author, “Through my cartoons and narrative I wanted to tell the world at large about the human rights’ violation, treatment of political prisoners, the condition of jails, etc.” In fact, the chapter-wise division of the narrative starts with the arrest and release of the author. “It is a travel through the jail, including its worst corners,” adds the author.

Arun did not jot down his experiences in a diary as he was apprehensive that it could be used against him, though the letters he exchanged with his family members and wife were preserved. These are included in the beginning of many chapters and also in between the narrative.

“I used the letters as the talking points and markers for the different events in my jail life as mentioned in the book which I started in January 2012 and finished the next year. I could build my story around the events, happenings and situations contained in the letters,” explains Arun. Besides exchange of news, the missives reflect his thoughts, expectations and hopes.

That the narrator does not harbour any malice or bitterness towards any individual is evident from the fact that pseudonyms have been used for all government personnel in the account. “I am bitter about the system and want it changed for the better,” Arun explains and adds that “corruption and suppression is not confined to the lower staff. I did not want to paint them as villains whereas the real villains were the higher-ups in the ranks with whom I never interacted. It is they who are more to be blamed for the condition of the prisons.” He goes on to clarify that “if I had mentioned names it would have been branded as allegations, which was not my intention.”

The writer categorically defines that “Indian jails are not reform centres. Society views prisoners as offenders who have to be dumped in jails. If a person is tortured at a police station there is an uproar, but when it comes to prison inmates, people are unaware about it. And even when they come to know about it, they ignore it as they treat prisoners as garbage. In fact, this attitude of society is the biggest stumbling block.” Elaborating further, he points to the Supreme Court ruling which stressed that except for the right to freedom of movement all the other rights are applicable to prisoners. “I feel there is much more to imprisonment. We need to bring back the prisoners to society and I emphasise that they too have human rights.”

Some pertinent court rulings and statistics about prison are mentioned in the story. “The statements in the book are not without basis and the opinions are based on rulings and data. My narrative is based on my experience, statistics and rulings of the court –– the three pillars of my book,” states the author.

One could not help asking him about his comment at the conclusion of the book i.e. about freedom and democracy. “The touchstone of democracy is allowing an alternative view, for e.g. allowing agitation against a nuclear plant or a challenge to the existing development model. If this is allowed then it is true democracy. The present system does not allow it. I do cherish the freedom than a caged existence, but it needs to work upon to allow dissent.” He sums up with Voltaire’s quote: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Though free, the author admits that he is weighed down with fear of further action by the State and that he is being watched constantly. There is also a feeling of confusion on how to live life and yet follow the ideals he believes in.

This mathematics graduate from St. Xavier's College is at present a final year law student. He completed his post-graduation diploma in human rights while in prison to pass his time as he knew that imprisonment was bound to be a prolonged affair.


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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 12:16:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/inside-outside/article6465171.ece

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