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The great escape: How books got me through my stint in jail

Mahmood Farooqui | Updated on: 27 December 2017, 20:45 IST

On my second day in jail, even as news of my arrest flashed on television, several jail officials called me to have a dekko at me. As in all such cases, they were motivated by a number of feelings. For some it was a schadenfreude – looking at a man when he is down and out, some like to assess whether he is a paying customer, so to say, some like to put him in his place now that he is under their watch, and some genuinely want to empathise. All want to have a good look.

I looked miserable; terrified and ready to cry. I was invariably asked about the problems I was facing. I said I wanted some books. The then Welfare Officer of the jail told me to read the Gita. The Deputy Superintendent’s ardali readily brought it to me. When I casually opened it, he got upset and loudly admonished me in everybody’s presence.

Pranam karo pahle.’ (Show some respect)

I immediately put the Gita to my forehead, and thereby satisfied the collective conscience of the room. I took the copy of the Gita back to my cell. Copies of the Gita are most readily available in jail. One can also get copies of the Quran and the Bible. I began to read the Gita in earnest, finding in it parallels with faint rememberings of the Quran.

I was, by then, in a Roza barrack full of Muslims. To protect their sensibility and to satisfy their collective conscience, I wrapped the Gita in a newspaper. Then I saw a schoolboy’s copybook and a pen in somebody’s hand. I thought he must have smuggled it, but why was he displaying it so openly? I made inquiries, and was told one could buy it in the canteen, openly.

I didn’t have any money, so I begged someone, a Bhai, to buy me a copybook and a pen

I couldn’t believe it. I asked a few others, who all told me I could buy notebooks and pens aplenty. I began to grow excited. This meant I could record my thoughts, my impressions, my fears. I had maintained a diary in my youth. In a place where it was not possible to have a conversation with anyone, the diary would become a conversation with myself.

I didn’t have any money, so I begged someone, a Bhai, to buy me a copybook and a pen. The canteen was closed for the day. I spent the entire night in feverish excitement, would I get that register? Would I start writing right away? Will it be censored? Will it be checked?

The next day, I was summoned by the Superintendent and told him I wanted to get some books from home. He asked me to write an application, and then asked me to add the names of books as they had to ensure the suitability of their content. I knew what I wanted to read. I wanted to read grand nineteenth century novels. I wanted to read humanistic epics which contained stories of great transformations in human destiny. I wanted to read Dickens and Tolstoy and Chekhov, and I wanted to work on the Arabian Nights, a project I had begun to take up just before I was incarcerated.

I made a list, got his signature, and, on the next
mulaqat, gave it to my family and then waited with bated breath. Meanwhile, I had a thin schoolboy register in which I began to write. I recounted every humiliation, every fear, every insult that had come my way till then. But when my family came, they came without the books. The security wanted a stamp from the Superintendent’s office. I was bitterly disappointed.

A refuge from reality

Almost a week after arrest, I was called to the Chakkar by another Assistant Superintendent. Again, I was asked whether I wanted anything. Again, I said I wanted some books. He then asked the ward Munshi who was accompanying me to take me to the jail library. I had heard of it before, but I had dismissed the notion of the jail having a library which might contain the kind of books I liked to read. But still I went.

I had expected a small room with a handful of shelves. What I was taken to was a large barrack with row upon row of books. There were chairs to sit on, there were tables to lean your hands on. You could sit and read or write like normal human beings. To sit on a chair, even a plastic chair, in jail is an incredible political act. It is a seat reserved for the officials, no ordinary prisoner can rest on it. Yet, here was a place where you could openly, with full authority and claim, plonk yourself down.

I looked at the first shelf, I looked at the second shelf, I began to almost dance down the alley. There was a whole shelf of Urdu books, there was a whole shelf of Hindi books, there were rows of books in English. There was a catalogue, the books had numbers, there was a row of books on history, on agriculture, on economics, and on the environment.

There was the familiar sight of a Penguin Classics black spine. I was overjoyed. I moved feverishly, dancing from shelf to shelf. There was Manto and Bedi and Hyder and Krishan Chander. There was a book by my uncle, S.R. Faruqi. There were some books from my father’s former employer, the Publication Division of the Government of India.

To my famished soul, this was a cornucopia, a heavenly delight. This was a safety zone, a security cover, an insurance that could get me through this hell. There were enough books there to last me a year or two. At that time, of course, a year seemed as far away as the end of the universe.

I borrowed a collection of Urdu afsanas. I discovered a copy of Vanity Fair. I had read it in my first year of college, on a visit to my home town of Gorakhpur. On this second reading, I cried for the misfortune which settled on Amelia’s family, most of all for her father.

Everyday I would count these treasures, and feel assured that there was still more to get through.

This library would become my refuge. It allowed me to feel civilised again. Every week, I would survey the same books, and would often discover little gems here and there. Everyday I would count these treasures, and feel assured that there was still more to get through.

I would come to the library on most days I was allowed, when the hours matched. It opened at fixed hours, 9:30 AM-11.30 AM and 3.30 PM-5:00 PM, and was shut on the second Saturday of each month. I went when I didn’t have
mulaqat or a court date.

Its keepers were dour and reserved. I got my written application signed by the relevant authorities. The wardens in charge of my ward would sometimes let me go, and sometimes they would decline my request. I would show them the permission, but some would just refuse me. Some would wave me on.

It was an everyday cycle of hope and dismay: would I be able to reach the library, or would my hopes be thwarted.

An improbable collection

Still, the library at Jail No.3 is a delightful assemblage. Comprising books mainly from Delhi Public Library and other minor donations built up over the last three decades it throws up great surprises. A Gita translation into Arabic, an early nineteenth century Bhojpuri rendition of Quranic verses, Russian Masters and my eternal favourites like Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Peoples’ Publishing House publications, classics of Indian History such as Dhanagre’s study of peasants in colonial times, Akbar and his India edited by Irfan Habib, The Indian Response to European Technology, a classic by Ahsan Jan Qaisar; Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi classics, a sprinkling of Victorian masters such as Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and Bronte – there was a lot in it to enliven a dead soul.

My parched self feasted at the sight of books by such inaccessible writers as Katherine Mansfield and Cormac McCarthy. I re-read
Bleak House, and found in it new and much needed evidence of the perfidy of law. I was delighted at seeing a French translation of Flaubert’s Parrot, which I had first read when I was struggling to be a film writer in Bombay.

There were eternal favourites such as Joyce’s
Dubliners and that great one book wonder J. K. Toole, whose The Confederacy of Dunces I can read again and again, but sadly they were in French translations. The French books are read by West Africans, Nigerians, Cote-De Ivorians, and occasional Frenchmen who come to Tihar for Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances offences, drug charges or passport fraud.

There are books here which make for very interesting reading after a passage of time, such as Arun Shourie’s collection of essays called
Symptoms of Fascism, published in 1978. There is also a book called Outgrowing Democracy - A History of US in the 20th century by John Lukacs, published in 1984. There is a book published by Indian National Congress in 1993 by Pranab Mukherjee called Challenges Before the Indian Nation, which has three essays: ‘The Tasks Ahead’ by P. V. Narasimha Rao, ‘Development Perspective and Economic Policy’ by Pranab Mukherjee, ‘Foreign Policy and the International Situation’ by K.R. Narayanan. Ah, so the Congress party used to do these things at one time! Then there are the regulars which every Indian public school child grows up on: Mills & Boon, Hardy Boys, Secret Seven, Sidney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson, Danielle Steele, and so on.

An unlikely trio

By jail standards, Kobad Ghandy, Afzal Guru, and I were highly educated people. They also had access to books other than those provided by the jail library. Yet, on my explorations in the library, I came across books which they have read or skimmed through. Former Judge and jurist V. M. Tarkunde’s For Freedom was a book that Afzal Guru liked a lot. He had made notes in it.

There were also copies of books by the early Indian Marxist M.N. Roy.
The Humanist Way, a magazine edited by Roy, had Afzal’s name inscribed in it in his own handwriting (from M. Afzal Guru, Sopore, Kashmir). Ghandy has donated a Tarkunde to the library. Therefor,e when I read about Ghandy and Guru’s friendship in Sunetra Choudhury’s book, Behind Bars, I found it deeply moving.

The Library at Jail no 3, in an incandescent burst of ideas and poetry, briefly knit us together.

As mentioned above, I found in the library the delightful and relatively unknown, Fragments from my Diary by Maxim Gorky translated by Moura Budberg, which contains a wonderful portrait of Chekhov (and of Tolstoy) so it was doubly delightful for me to come across Ghandy quoting Gorky and Chekhov.

The library also contains more than one study of the great Urdu poet Iqbal. Roy, Tarkunde, Rumi, Iqbal, Gorky, there is a strange concatenation of thinkers and books that bound Ghandy, Guru and me. The Library at Jail no 3, in an incandescent burst of ideas and poetry, briefly knit together the arch terrorist, the arch Naxalite and the arch rapist. It is a strange fellowship. None of us confess to the charges against us, all of us universally reviled, and all of us delighting in the written and the spoken word. Even here, where human emotions are almost ineffable and squirrels’ squeals the only pleasant sound.

The wonder of the written word

I am, of course, not the first one to react so to the pleasure and importance of books, especially in a prisoner’s life. While researching Hag-Seed, her retelling of Tempest, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood went through a whole array of writings centered around jail writings and readings; including How Shakespeare Saved my Life, the memoir of Laura Bates who taught Shakespeare to maximum security prisoners in the US.

Avi Steinberg has written a book called
Running the Books, which describes his experience of working as a librarian in a US prison. There is also Andrea Schroder’s Shaking it Rough and a compilation by Stephen Reid called A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden.

I have not read all of these books, and perhaps their quality of discovery is richer than mine because many of them discover books and writers primarily during prison, whereas I have lived with books even before my time in jail. However, what we share in common is the epiphany that books and writers can provide even in this most woebegone of places.

There is much joy and sublimation in books, as there is in music and art. Indeed, the human mind can lift itself out of the deepest morass if it can attach itself to lofty ideas. At least for a little while.

First published: 27 December 2017, 20:45 IST