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Day One at Yerawada

This afternoon I visited the women's ward of the Yerawada jail to start our project of packing of the Holi colours. The Yerawada Prison is one of the places where Gandhiji had been imprisoned and I was curious to know what life was like for a prisoner. The prison administration had been looking for work for the inmates, to help them earn some savings, and this is what had brought me here. The first time I had been in there was with the Deputy Inspector – the big boss - and so obviously, everyone was at their best. The visit had been brief just to see their set up. But this time around, we started our work.

When I entered, the sight of children playing took me by surprise, it almost softened the impact – seemed to make the place look less like a prison and more like a community. The old buildings and the trees in the compound of the prison give an almost 'pleasant' ambience ( if one is allowed to say it.) The women looked at us curiously, and as I watched their faces I tried to guess what they may have been thinking. 'Who is this now? What is she here to do? Can she help us in some way? What is she thinking of us?' As I attempted to greet some groups with a namaste – I received hesitant replies and attempts of smiles.

We walked upto the workshop where our project was to be conducted, and it was a relief to have something to focus on – count bags, calculate quantities – mundane activities to take my mind off its bewilderment. The women were asked to unload the sacks and this work seemed to amuse them! In minutes they were busy, and broke into giggles as they fumbled around with the heavy sacks. Someone's tied up hair fell loose, and as she casually put it back in place – I finally took a few seconds to look at her. Young faces, intense eyes, it almost seemed like a bunch of college friends. I was surprised at hearing the laughter and was surprised further at being surprised. Of course I was glad to hear them laugh and to know that the imprisonment had not completely taken away the joy from their lives… but, what had I expected?

They bantered away with each other and offered ideas to make the work easier. I felt like gathering them around and introducing myself and why I was here. But I didn't feel free to do it! Who were these women and why were they here? Would I ever get to know their stories? Did I want to know them?

My colleague came back to join me in a few minutes, sober and thoughtful. 'Do you know?' she said, 'the woman who escorted me to the door earlier is in here for murder!' When our work for the day was over we walked back to the entrance discussing what our approach must be. 'Caution and compassion' I said, very knowingly, feeling somewhat wiser than my younger colleague. 'We are here to help, but we also need to take care', even though I did not know very clearly what these unspoken dangers might be.

Just as we reached the door, I saw a woman in trousers and with a trendy hairstyle. Almost automatically I assumed that she was perhaps a social activist who had come to help the prison. Very spontaneously, I said, 'Hi! Are you here for work?' 'No', she replied in fluent English with an unusual accent, 'I live here. I have been a prisoner for six years!' Not knowing what to say I found myself asking, 'Really? Why are you here?' A second later, confronted by her embarrassed silence, I was aghast at the question – obviously not the subject for a casual conversation with a stranger. Not wanting to walk away, I asked her if she was Indian and found out that she wasn't. I bid her goodbye saying that I would see her again as our work progressed and walked out, wondering what just happened.

Obviously, I had assumed that all prisoners would be from a certain class of society, and confronting someone who could have been 'just like me', threw me completely off balance.

That one hour was so intensely packed with such a range of contradictory emotions. I later realised that I was going to and fro between compassion, curiosity and fear. On the one hand I was grateful to help this group and I was happy to be able to do a little something.I was also glad to have this opportunity to leanr more about another aspect of society. On the other, I realised that I had no clue what I was getting into, I didn't know what the code of etiquette was, if one was needed even. I felt like it was obvious that we should be afraid, although it was not evident what we needed to be afraid of. And finally, I was just overwhelmed by how little I understood of human nature and the forces of destiny. An hour later, prison life was still a mystery to me.

As we were waiting to receive our permission to leave, I saw a little kitten, squeeze under the prison gates and find her way out with ease. Having always felt uncomfortable about animals in captivity I found it ironic, that here was a human community that was imprisoned while the animals crossed boundaries with liberty.

On the way back home, watching a destitute woman on the street, starving and alone, I wondered if she knew what it meant to be free, and later, in the comfort of my own home, realised that maybe, neither do we.
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