A new book tells a simple but moving story about the community and solitude of the women inmates of Tihar Jail, says Nisha Susan
AMBA BATRA Bakshi came home one day and informed her parents that she had her eyebrows threaded and a pedicure done in the Tihar prison beauty parlour. Her parents looked doubtfully at their journalist daughter and wondered whether she was getting a little too comfortable among jail inmates. At that point Bakshi had been visiting Tihar for a year, and her minor anxieties had long since faded.
For her colleague Renuka Puri, the story had begun seven years earlier. Puri, principal photographer at the New Indian Express, was describing a run-of-the-mill assignment at Tihar to her young son. He expressed surprise that the women’s jail did not sound like the pitch-dark holes that he had seen in Bollywood movies. Much struck by this truth, Renuka returned again and again to shoot. Years later, her piquant study of the women of Tihar was fleshed out in words by Bakshi.
It took a while before Bakshi’s notebook and Puri’s camera could fade into the background, but this unusual community did get used to their presence. The resulting book, In Custody: Women in Tihar, is a combination of compassionate photography and documentation.
Guilt and innocence, the basis of the prison system, were never established neatly for Bakshi or Puri to consider them viable quantities. Many women in Tihar are undertrials whose wait for trial is often longer than eventual sentences (if any). None of the inmates they spoke to admitted to any guilt. One of the first lot of inmates Puri met were the women awaiting trial for dowry-related deaths — popularly known as the saas-bahu ward. The deaths that had led to their being incarcerated were unfortunate, many women acknowledged, but they also asked, “Would I kill someone for a gold chain?”
Puri says, ‘Crime is what you do in a particular moment. It is not who you are. Any of us could be criminals’
Like many of the other inmates (including the white collar criminals), they were struggling with the truth that they may not have a home to go back to. Others were reluctant to leave because their husbands were in the men’s jail.
In this atmosphere of elaborate, tortured narratives, both journalists made a studied decision to step back from their own responses to the individual inmates. Puri says, “Crime is what you do in a particular moment. It is not what you are. Any of us could be criminals. “I had to decide not to think about whether people were telling the truth or not,” says Bakshi. They chose instead to quietly document the bright spaces and dark shadows of prison life. This was a place in which old, frail bodies in winter longed to be home at least once before they die, a place where impoverished women from East Delhi come after committing petty crimes to escape the same winter. A Zambian woman far from home was asked permission from her husband to marry again. She knew that though she hoped to be released, her family had given up hope. It is a place of intense loneliness but some women seemed to find redemption in the solitude. A young Pakistani accused of spying went from extreme bitterness to a quiet acceptance of life and made a space for herself working in the beauty parlour. “You wish the judicial system was quicker, of course, and you don’t want to give a prison undue praise, but Tihar does surprise you,” says Bakshi.
Both Puri and Bakshi watched their own lives change slowly too. A change of jobs, marriage, children apart, Bakshi says it is the daily proximity of suffering which made her own life unfamiliar. “I would get up at 6am to be at Tihar by 7. After three hours, I would go to work and file stories on education and transport. In the evening, I often did not have the heart to go out and enjoy myself as I’d have otherwise.”
“I used to celebrate karva chauth elaborately. One year, I was in Tihar and saw how much happiness they got out of their simple celebrations. I never made a big deal of karva chauth again,” says Puri. She has seen Tihar under several supervisors receive interventions from multiple NGOs as it transformed into the relatively humane place it is today. A place where it is possible for women in the judicial system to find some shreds of hope. Puri says disquietingly, “It is definitely more attractive now as a building, but the walls are much higher.”