Book Review | Lawyer's ballad of Yerawada Jail reflects on the lives of 76 prisoners

This resident of Phansi Yard has a writer's sensibility, and says in a matter-of-fact way

This is a remarkable document of life observed from the Phansi Yard or Death Row of the Yerawada Women’s Jail in Pune by an extraordinary individual who made a conscious choice to be a trade union worker and human rights lawyer in order to stand with marginalised people, rather than build a career as a mathematician after emerging with a shining degree from IIT, Delhi.

Incarceration has produced some striking texts, and one may think of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, and Antonio Gramsci. These were forces of history whose works from jail brought to the fore original discourses in political thought and action, insights into the past and the present, and great scholarship, and in the case of Gandhi spirituality and a strong moral dimension.

Mahatma Gandhi’s acclaimed autobiography was, in fact, penned from his cell in the Yerawada Central Jail from whose women’s section has emerged Sudha Bharadwaj’s luminous prison diary, a humanist reflection on the lives of 76 prisoners, convicted ones and many who spent long years behind bars as undertrials, like Bharadwaj herself, who is currently out on bail and is not permitted to comment on her case.

She was in the Phansi Yard, along with Prof. Shoma Sen, who was the head of English Literature at Nagpur University when she was picked up and had preceded Bharadwaj to the death row at Yerawada. The two women were in the condemned cell presumably because they were charged under the harsh Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a law meant to be used against terrorists that has widely been denounced as an “unlawful law”.

Bharadwaj was 58 and a visiting professor at the National Law University, Delhi, when the police barged into her apartment in Faridabad near Delhi to apprehend her before she was taken to Pune. Sen, many years her senior, remains in prison. Along with other intellectuals and human rights activists who have given their lives to the service of the poor, including Father Stan Swamy, an octogenarian priest whose health gave way leading to his eventual death when he was still an undertrial, Bhardwaj and Sen were clamped into jail in the infamous Bhima-Koregaon case which reflected the desperate keenness of the regime to throw behind bars upright, well-known champions of poor people’s causes in tribal areas of the country and in the working class movements.

Bharadwaj’s prison diaries are surprisingly free of bitterness. “Ours was a cage with a view,” she writes in an even tenor. This facilitated her acute observation of her women prisoner subjects who came from every conceivable stratum of society, and in unseen ways formed a sorority though they fought and cursed and sometimes snitched on one another.

Their womanliness is the motif that has been captured in these pages with unusual grace, camaraderie, and ease of writing that refuses to veer off to point to the deep pathos in every story the writer captures in her short snippets of women prisoners, some very young and some very old.

If prisoners are a sub-species of society, then Bharadwaj’s work serves as a rich ethnographic document, such is the vivid portrayal in which the mundane is lifted to the realm of the extraordinary. This resident of Phansi Yard has a writer’s sensibility, and says in a matter-of-fact way, “My prison notes are impressionistic snapshots, true to the moment, with no claim to being complete histories….Observing women, listening to them, writing about them, and about life in a women’s jail, helped me. This became my work. It gave me a sense of purpose. It calmed me. It helped me understand where I was, and didn’t leave any scope for self-pity.”

The feminist dimension of this work can be seen throughout the book but most strikingly in the section under the heading of “Work” where small or seemingly minor details of the daily grind in captivity are recorded with a natural sense of commitment, and with elegance.

In following the subjects whose real-life stories tell us so poignantly about living in a state of un-freedom, there can at times be a sense of sameness and loneliness. Perhaps this is unavoidable when the writer cannot freely mix with her real-life characters, cannot talk to them heart to heart, and must develop insights based only on seeing from afar and infrequent physical meetings in tightly supervised situations. Bharadwaj’s work will outlive the present day. That is apparent.

From Phansi Yard: My Year with the Women of Yerawada
By Sudha Bharadwaj
pp. 264; Rs 799

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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