IT WAS early morning in Delhi. My fellow musicians and I gave the final touches to band’s LP. One more mix and the LP would be packed off to our mastering engineer in Wales. We raised a toast to the completion of recording and editing. Now I could sit back for a few days and have a well-deserved break. Or so I thought.
The next evening, a few policemen pounded on my door. Acting on a tip-off from a vengeful manager wishing to protect himself from having to pay the artistes who performed at his club, they demanded that I show my passport. A couple of days ago, I had lost my passport and was yet to file an FIR. The policemen dismissed my ‘story’. So began the fascinating and perturbing maelstrom of activity that went from police interrogation, overnight detention to medical exams and court appearance, culminating in an involuntary visit to Tihar Jail.
The late night walk in my shoelace-less boots through the grounds to my cell was an oddly tranquil one. As I entered its premises, what struck me was how neatly tended the lawns were. Pretty enough to give tough competition to the ones I’d seen in hotels in Goa and Kerala. Well aware of the possible advantages of such an association, my guide was the first to ingratiate himself upon this curiously dressed firang. This was a foretaste of what to expect. Every inmate from there on asked me two questions: where are you from and what is your case? After discovering my British nationality, I would be asked if I knew of a distant relative or acquaintance of the enquirer who is now living in Bradford or Slough. My answer to the latter (visa issues) met with disappointment as if a mere irregularity didn’t warrant detention. “Oh, why don’t you go home then?” would be the terse response. Perhaps it was not easy for the inmates (and the authorities) to understand that Delhi was my home.
In the cell, the stone floor was my mattress. The grey blankets provided refuge to other life-forms. The dim light would be turned on only at dusk till the sun rays crept in. If this wasn’t enough, I would be disturbed by disoriented new arrivals every night, coughing, snoring and mumbling. And, of course, the infernal mosquitoes. The prison library, that housed several books, came to my rescue. I borrowed a book on social anthropology and found a more practical use for it. The chapter on hierarchy among Jain communities now preserved between its pages the remains of scores of murdered arthropods.
In Tihar, I also realised that religiosity is rife and is encouraged. Being a pale-faced non-Indian meant that I was the only inmate in my ward not forced to line up for morning prayers. An important benefit of my ethnicity.
I was also treated to several a cappella versions of Bollywood hits by another over-attentive prisoner. He wouldn’t just sing, he insisted on demonstrating his versatility too as he danced and vocalised the instrumental breaks. With careful nurturing, this man could have been a performer instead of doing life as a murderer.
I spent three weeks in Tihar and was let out just before Christmas. I am not a reformed person. I probably ought not to have been there at all. It opened my eyes to many things, one being that there are a lot of innocent people in India’s jails. Perhaps they remain there because it is easier than letting them out. Others have skill sets very useful to the jails; so there is no hurry to let them out either.
During my stay, I came to know that my musical compatriots from a Delhi-based band were running workshops in the next ward as I was giving guitar and drum classes in my ward. Within a few days of being freed, I was able to attend the press launch of the LP I had put the finishing touches to just prior to my unplanned visit.
Anonymous is 35. He is a musician based in New Delhi.