Book Review: Colours of the Cage and The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail

Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Anyone interested in knowing, how civilized are we, must read these books to begin with.  

By Mahtab Alam,

The real purpose of prisons, as we are told, is to transform criminals (read convicts) into honest and law abiding citizens by inculcating in them a distaste for crime and criminality. But in reality, this is far from actual practices as those who have spent time in jails, whether as under-trials or convicts, have altogether different stories to tell. “We watch and read many things about prison life, but nothing prepares you for the ways in which inmates and cops run them,” says Chetan Mahajan, author of The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail. “It was worse than what I had heard or ever imagined. I would be surprised if a young man were to go to prison for some reason and not return a seasoned criminal,” says Ajay T.G. Ajay, a documentary filmmaker and human rights activist, had to spend nearly one and half year in jail and he is still facing false charges under draconian laws like Sedition and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA 2006).

Noted documentary film maker Anand Patwardhan, in his classic documentary on the plight of political dissidents and prisoners during emergency, “Prisoners of Conscience” (1978) says, “If the walls of the jails could speak, they would speak of terror, but they would speak also of courage.” Unfortunately, walls cannot speak and hence, often, we don’t know what happens inside the walls of jails. And this is possible because there is hardly any means of information except the official ones. Media, often, if not always, portrays a rosy picture of jails, unless there is a serious case leading to custodial death, which also goes mostly underreported, if not always unreported. Senior journalist and the author of My Days in Prison (2005), Iftikhar Gilani describes it vividly, “I was beaten up many times while inside the prison. For 41 days, I worked as a labourer… (but) recently some of my journalist friends visited Tihar jail and wrote reports about the life inside the prison, but it’s an entirely different experience through the eyes of a prisoner.”

The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, Author: Chetan Mahajan, Publisher: Blue Salt/Penguin Booksm, Pages: 213, Price: Rs.250/-  Colours of the Cage; A Prison Memoir, Author: Arun Ferreira, Publisher: Aleph, Pages: ix+164  Price: Rs 295/-
The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, Author: Chetan Mahajan, Publisher: Blue Salt/Penguin Booksm, Pages: 213, Price: Rs.250/-
Colours of the Cage; A Prison Memoir, Author: Arun Ferreira, Publisher: Aleph, Pages: ix+164 Price: Rs 295/-

Two books under review present detailed explanation of the above observations and claims convincingly. Based on first-hand experience, while Chetan Mahajan’s “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” is essentially a prisoner’s diary, Arun Farreira’s “Colours of the Cage” is in the form of a memoir. Mahajan until recently was the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. In December 2012, he was booked under sections of Indian Penal Code pertaining to economic offence, which he never committed. Hence, his case was quashed later. He was lodged at Bokaro Chas Mandal Karawas, the Bokaro Jail in Jharkhand, hoping to be released the next day. But, given the apathy of our criminal justice system, he ended up spending one month in jail. Ferreira is a political activist who has worked with different people’s movements across Maharashtra, including anti-displacement struggles, Dalit and Adivasi movements. In May 2007, he was arrested for allegedly being a naxalite and was incarcerated in Nagpur Central Prison for nearly five years. He has been subsequently acquitted in all the 13 cases that were filed against him.

But these books are not just about two individuals as these are detailed, empathetic and comprehensive accounts of what happen in jails not only in extra-ordinary circumstances but on day to day basis. It’s more of storytelling than anything. And both the writers have consciously presented their respective work in a very simple and straight forward manner without making it filmy. This is not to say that books are not interesting and one needs to make lot of efforts to read it. Mahajan’s work is indeed a page turner and you can finish it in few sittings. It details his life and life of his co-inmates in the jail of Bokaro, a small city of Jharkhand better known for Coal Mining. Ferreira’s work is more intense, dense and taxing as it contains gory details of his custodial torture and his comrades. It is nothing short of spine chilling and heart wrenching. You are filled with disbelief and anger while reading it.

“Both my legs would be forced wide apart and a cop would stand on my thighs so that I couldn’t bend them. Sometimes my interrogators would pinch my or pull my hair or pierce the skin under my nails with pins,” writes Ferreira. “…I was afraid they’d kill me…I feared that the police could murder me and pretend that I’d been killed in an encounter. I’d read about many situations in which the police claimed to have had no option but to open fire when suspects they were attempting to arrest had resisted. I knew that the National Human Rights Commission had noted thirty-one cases of fake encounter killings in Maharashtra alone in the previous five years. The physical torture, though painful, was relatively tame compared to this prospect.” But, despite all this he don’t seek any form of sympathy because, as he writes in a letter to his wife, “”For someone like me, coming from a privileged family, the treatment I was forced to go through is an ‘exception’, but for the poor this is the ‘rule’.”  In a recent interview he said, “I don’t want to make my prison experience sentimental — I want to be the rallying point to fight for the cause.”

Fortunately, Mahajan doesn’t have to go through all this. However, after reading Ferreira’s account of torture, Mahajan told this reviewer, “This is crazy!” Like Ferreira, Mahajan also considers himself privileged in the sense that he was freed in one month. “Today I wonder if it wasn’t for the support I had, whether my fate would be different,” he said in July this year while addressing the Under Trial Prisoners’ release campaign launching event organized by Amnesty International India in Bangalore. Ever since his release, Mahajan is actively involved with prison rights campaigns and currently the face of Amnesty India’s campaign on release of under-trials, “Take Injustice Personally”.

According to Mahajan jail life is a sort of life changing experience, it’s about realization, it’s about learning many lessons you can hardly learn outside jail, especially when you belong to a privileged class. “As I start to think about what could be the cosmic meaning of my experience. I realize that there isn’t any. The lessons for me are simple, and very, very human,” he writes in the epilogue exactly one year after his arrest and eleventh months after his release, after revisiting the jail where he had to spend a month for no crime. “The first is that the world is full of people who may have made grievous mistakes in their lives, but that does not necessarily make them evil. They are still humans, and in many cases very decent human beings,” he adds noting “I am not saying they should not be punished for their misdeeds. But they should not all be branded—like they were, at least in my own mind, before my time in jail.”

This is a very important point made by the author. Because most of us consciously or sub consciously, at least at some point of time, suffer from the prejudice outlined above. Principle like “Innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt” has no practical meaning and we go on to brand people just because they are accused of some crime without giving a thought. Moreover, even if someone has really committed a crime then what we are often interested in is revenge not justice, without realizing the fact that, as someone rightly said, ‘revenge is like biting a dog because the dog bit you’. And fall out of this thinking is, there is hardly any real process of reform and correctness both on behalf of the state as well as society. What is most striking and saddening is that not much has changed over a period of time, and nothing changes across geographical location of prisons.

First published in Hardnews Magazine, November 2014.