'In a way, I was relieved to be in prison'

Excerpts from Indrani Mukerjea's 'Unbroken'

And then I stepped into the main prison complex.

Byculla Jail is a two-floor complex. It has two units―Circle-1 and Circle-2. In September 2015, when I went in, the prison wasn’t very crowded. Circle-2 housed pregnant women and women with young children―it is colloquially called the ‘bachcha barrack’. Women are allowed to keep their children with them till they are seven years old. There are two barracks within Circle-2. Contrary to what one assumes about prison, the Byculla Jail is actually very well maintained. It has a beautiful garden, with flowers and beautiful plants.

I still remember the first time when I walked into the bathroom. I used the western toilet and realized there was no flush. No jet spray either.

I was put in Circle-1. This unit is where they keep regular female prisoners, and is much bigger―it has six barracks. On the first floor of the prison are four big barracks that function as common dorms. I was assigned to a barrack on the ground floor. The barracks are airy, with lots of fans to keep the inside cool. There are clean bathrooms that are washed by the inmates on duty, twice a day.

On the day I entered prison, the barracks downstairs were almost empty. Other than me, there were only two more people. I hadn’t eaten anything that day. The prison constable, Wasima, was on duty that evening. She came to me and asked, ‘Aapne khana khaya? Aap thoda doodh piyengi? (Have you eaten? Will you have some milk?)’

I remember, I foolishly blurted out, ‘Main raat ko doodh nahin peeti hoon. (I don’t have milk at night.)’

I was offered roti sabzi and some watery dal. When I was at Khar station, home-cooked meals stopped coming to me after the second day itself. My food came from restaurants, from biryanis to sandwiches to dosas. Even though I was not used to this food, by the time it arrived, I was somehow resigned to my fate. Or perhaps, I was really hungry. I didn’t care what was in front of me. I simply ate. In a way, I was relieved to be in prison. At least, I was no longer cooped up in a tiny guard room. I liked the space. A strange sense of freedom took over me, even though the fear of what was going to happen to me stayed in my system.

For the uninitiated, prison is what they show in the movies. And so, I was fearful of what fate had in store for me. I didn’t get much sleep that night. The tossing and turning continued through the night. Wasima was placed at the gate of the barrack. I was later given to understand that officials were instructed to keep a suicide watch on me. For inmates like me, the shift from a posh Worli apartment to prison is what rock bottom feels like. Add to it the high-profile nature of the case, along with the media attention―prison officials worry about the toll this may take on an inmate’s mind.

I still remember the first time when I walked into the bathroom. I used the western toilet and realized there was no flush. No jet spray either. I came out and asked another inmate, Savitri [name changed], who was the designated kaamwali of that barrack, ‘Flush kahan hai? (Where is the flush?)’

She smiled kindly and told me, ‘Nahin, didi. Aapko bucket se paani daalna padega. (No, didi. You will have to use a bucket of water.)’

It might seem minor, but these things do add to the shock. In my life before prison, even as a toddler, I knew that when one turns on a tap water will flow out, and that this was something one does not have to think about as such. The concept of filling the bucket with water and using it was alien to me. I didn’t even have buckets at home. As these thoughts swirled in my mind, I took the bucket, filled water in it, and used it to flush the toilet.

I spoke to Savitri at one point in the night, when we were both not getting any sleep. She, too, was being tried for a murder case― the murder of her stepmother―and had been in prison for four years at that time. Her father and husband were in prison, too. After serving so much time, she was eventually acquitted in 2017. It is a sad truth of the Indian legal system that people suffer for years in undertrial prisons only to get acquitted in the end. Savitri had two little girls who were with her in-laws. After she came to prison, her family simply abandoned her. They didn’t send her money, so she had to work in prison to cover her basic needs. She was paid 1600 rupees a month for working as a kaamwali. Her grouse was the same as most women in that prison―her husband had a steady flow of cash coming from the family while she was simply left to fend for herself. The world is harsher for women in every strata of society even inside a jail.

After much tossing and turning, I slept for a couple of hours. By the time I had got to my assigned barrack on the first day, it was evening. Next morning, I got a better view of the prison. As I looked around, I saw a team of officers waiting to talk to me. I was handed a bottle-green saree to wear.

When a female prisoner is accused of murder under Section 302 of the IPC, she has to drape a green saree over her regular clothing on the occasions when she has to step out of the jail circle for mulaqats, which are meetings with family or lawyers, or to go to the canteen or the dispensary, a practice that has continued since the British era. I later understood that the colour coding was perhaps designed to allow prisoners to get a sense of the severity of the charges. The chances of a murder-accused getting bail are very low. In a way, the saree signifies that the inmate has to stay for much longer, a symbol that the prison has given them shelter. The spirit of it might come from a pure place but my immediate thought was: Everyone will think I am a murderer. Of course, I hadn’t realized then that everyone in the world outside the prison walls had already labelled me as one.

At first, I was nervous and anxious when I was told that I had to wear that saree. The guard sympathetically said, ‘Aapko aadat par jayegi (You will get used to it).’ I draped the saree on top of what I was wearing. Every time I had to go for Monday morning inspection, office visits or mulaqats, I would wrap that green saree around me.

Superintendent Chandramani Indulkar met me in the office. It was my first time meeting him.

Aap kab aaye (When did you arrive)?’ he asked me.

Kal raat (Last night),’ I said.

Kya kalam hain aap pe? (What are the charges against you?)’ he asked.

Of course, he knew the criminal sections I was charged under. The whole country did. But it is a part of the procedure, where prisoners give their details. I was asked for contact numbers, and I gave Peter’s.

With these formalities out of the way, I was formally entered into the prison system of the Byculla Undertrial Jail as prisoner number 1468.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.


By Indrani Mukerjea

Published by HarperCollins India

Pages 400 Price Rs599