I delighted myself with the joy of spending an entire day in front of the gates of the Central Jail in Bengaluru along with a friend. On retrospection, it sounds like a stupid idea to wait in front of the gates of a prison for whatever reason. However even the stupidest of ideas leave you with an experience worthy of writing. So here is my recollection of how the day unfolded.
Scene 1: Police Service Vs Police servant
We got down from the cab and started walking towards the prison gate. As we were walking on this stretch of road towards the gate we spotted a prison guard in his uniform standing beside a vendor selling bhel with raw mangoes. My friend walked up to the guard and enquired him for some details. Meanwhile the vendor prepared a fresh mix of bhel, filled it in a paper cone, carefully covered it with another piece of paper and handed it over to the police guard. My friend was still talking to the guard and the guard seemed to be patiently answering his questions. But the vendor grew impatient and he urged the guard to leave. To my surprise, the police guard left almost immediately as if he has been given an order. That is when I realized there was no payment made and the parcel of bhel was not for the guard himself but for his senior officer. The vendor was urging the guard to leave to ensure his bhel reaches his patron in the best condition. I was suddenly filled with pity for this police guard. Had he known that he would be serving bhel to his senior officers would he still have worked hard to clear those physical fitness examinations? Does he still feel proud to be in police service?
Scene 2: A literary discussion outside Prison
We reached the first entrance of the prison. Here was another police constable guarding the gates. A gun in hand, he listened to us patiently and then asked, “An event in prison? What is in it for you? “. We smiled and then he instantly seemed to know that we must be one of those hopeless people hoping for better things for the world. This time it was our turn to be pitied. He let my friend walk in through the gates, to handover the written request to the prison officer. Only one could go in and I had to wait outside the entrance. Hardly a minute had gone by and I began to wonder how this guy stands the entire day outside a prison under the scorching sun. As if that was not enough every second minute one or the other kept coming to the gate. He either had to check their credentials to let them in or had to redirect them to the other gate. Yet, whenever someone walked in with crisp white clothes or with a group of sturdily-built men, indicating a plausible connection with someone powerful in the political or administrative circles, I watched him go weak. These men ignored his “only one person, sir” and he surely did not have the courage to insist this mandate to them. He could hardly raise his voice or hold them back.
I could say from his look that he was still pitying me and probably because I heeded to his “only one person”, he decided to make the waiting bearable for me. He started a conversation and I readily indulged. In the next few minutes, I learned that he had a Master’s degree in Kannada literature. He said he loved books too but only read Kannada books. I had recently read S.L. Bhyrappa’s Avarana and U.R.AnantaMurthy’s Bara and that helped me further the conversation. He introduced me to Kuvempu and suggested few more books to read. At the end of our twenty minutes long conversation my respect for him only grew. But I was sorry when he remarked – “I too was like you. I loved literature. I tried my hands at teaching, but it didn’t pay well. I had to take this job. I now have money to provide for the family but this job has no respect even though I am part of the state police service and my Master’s means nothing today”. I asked him if he would like to write in Kannada for us. He smiled and before he could answer we were interrupted by some more white-clad men. Few minutes later, he let me in through the gates and asked me to join my friend. I was hoping to continue the conversation later when I come out, but our wait ended up being too long. When I came out, he was nowhere to be seen. A lady guard had taken his spot and was hush-talking to someone over cellphone. I decided not to bother her with questions about her colleague. However, I was filled with regret for not having stayed back and completed that conversation.
Scene 3: The Dear Old Man
An elderly gentleman walked up to the prison guard, while I was still conversing literature with him. He proudly declared to the guard that he had come to visit Madam V.K.Sasikala. Both of us were half-smiling at the pride in his tone. The Guard did not speak the language of the gentleman, but I did. I guided him to get to the counter to register for the visit. I was almost sure he will be denied permission and sent back home from the registration counter. To my surprise almost half an hour later he was there in the waiting area waiting for his turn. He had some apples and oranges packed in a bag as a gift for the inmate. It seemed like it was his first visit to any prison and he was confused about how the process worked. When he asked people around if there was a token system that was being followed, everyone seemed amused with him but no one answered. Then he spotted me and asked me again. This time the curious me had to ask him if he was related to V.K.Sasikala. He said yes, although I wasn’t convinced with his answer. He showed me his request letter and the letter spelled a lot of respect for the convict he had come to meet. He said he had started from Erode in Tamil Nadu early in the morning by bus to Bangalore to meet her and planned to go back home by evening. I wasn’t sure if I should be sorry for him or if I should be laughing at him. Since we were no better at such crazy deeds, I decided to empathize with him and asked him to talk to the officer who was gate-keeping, calling out to visitors when their names came up. The officer said to him that V.K. Sasikala was a high-profile convict and cannot be visited unless the Chief Superintendent of the Jail granted permission. The officer also directed him towards a bunch of men in the waiting area saying they were men from her party and can assist him with the visit. So, the elderly gentlemen walked over to the party men. Some conversation followed. I could hear him say that he was not a member of the party and that he had no specific purpose for the visit. The men said it would be difficult to meet her then. There were already people visiting her and he would not be allowed until they came out. He looked tired and disheartened. Few minutes later I watched him walk out of the gate, the bag of fruits of still in his hand. This time I was certainly sorry for him.
Scene 4: Minimum Service Rate is ₹100
This was the most enlightening experience of all. There were two entrances to the prison. One was the regular entry and they had a separate waiting area. There was nothing special about the crowd in the waiting area there. The men looked like they were daily laborers, the women wore a burdened look and the children seemed underfed. But the special entrance and its waiting area was filled with white-clad men with their own group of sturdily-built men, women adorned with rich clothing and accessories, children in fancy fashion wears and weird hairdo. Some of these sturdily-built man also sported some heavy jewellery and bright-colored clothes giving the women there, a complex. Almost all of them had a lot of bags filled with foods, toiletries, towels and more. One group even had a big carton of Alphonso mangoes. All these luxuries certainly seemed to go to one or other high profile convict in there.
Here too we had a prison guard. This one was young and I figured he was smart too, because he could handle the crowd and its questions better than a senior officer who was gate-keeping. I asked him if so many bags were being sent for just one person. He replied politely, ”I don’t know, Mam”. Now, politeness is a rare virtue in a police officer at his grade. But the gate-keepers who were letting the visitors in, were the most interesting of the lot. I had the chance to observe two different gate-keepers, one in the forenoon and another in the afternoon. I couldn’t tell which one of them was worse. Every single visitor who walked in to the prison through the special entry door paid them a minimum of ₹100. More number of bags meant more notes and extra guests for a single inmate meant notes of different colors and higher denominations. This continued seamlessly throughout the day as if it was no big deal. The transaction looked as if it was a mandatory step of a thoroughly defined process. In fact, you can walk in there any day and you will get to witness it yourself. I am sure there would be no need for a sting operation as such. And then there was this officer who came out in casuals and one of the groups handed him a beautiful pink note thanking him for taking care of their affairs. Something told me, the smart guy outside is just another silent witness to this whole thing just like us and he wouldn’t be getting a share out of these exchanges. I could be wrong too.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to him because at one point the senior gate-keeper had decided to make our documents go missing apparently because we didn’t look like the ones ready to spare a few notes. We were determined not to leave without our documents and the smart young guy seemed to understand the frustration. He promised to search for it once his duty ends. He kept his promise and returned the documents which had earlier vanished on its own from the jail. Eventually as I walked out of the gates of the Central Prison that evening, I was hungry, angry and a little less patriotic.
- V.K.Sasikala is a close aide of former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Miss Jayalalitha. She has been convicted and imprisoned for corruption charges. She is also the Secretary of the political party which was earlier headed by Jayalalitha until her death.
- The Central Prison under discussion is the one in Parappana Agrahara in Bengaluru.