One evening, as we sat gazing at the clouds and the big kites in the sky outside our prison ward, L, an insanely adorable three-year-old child, asked perplexed, ‘Aasman kahan se aata hai? Aasman ghar se aata hai kya?’ (Where does the sky come from? Does the sky come from its home?) An innocent, inquisitive question which, in any other context, would have made us laugh; in the space that we found ourselves in, it rattled and broke our hearts. L had been in prison with his mother for almost two years. We got to meet him while we spent nearly thirteen months (from May 2020 to June 2021) in Tihar Jail in Delhi under ‘terror’ charges for participating in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

L’s question shook us like no question from the harrowing police interrogation could. The universe and the home – two places that the children imprisoned with their mothers had never known. How does one explain to a kid who has never seen the outside world, who has never seen a starry night sky, that there is a whole universe out there; that there are homes we love and hate outside these prison walls?

The prison, inherently linked to all structures of oppression and exploitation that we find in our societies, is exceptional in the impunity with which it incarcerates primarily the marginalised and takes away all autonomy and dignity. As activists from Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), a women’s collective that has struggled against various forms of oppression that imprison women, the irony of being literally put in a cage was not lost on us. In those thirteen months of prison time, the bonds that gradually developed with our fellow women prisoners and their children helped us survive the brutal incarceration.

It was a deeply humbling experience to learn from our fellow inmates, even while struggling everyday against a deeply dehumanising and violent space, how it is possible to retain our humanity and dignity, to create spaces of joy and laughter, to nurture relationships of love and caring created by this collective experience of helplessness and waiting – an affirmation that life happens and can survive in the most brutal situations and places.

In the context of the pandemic, the basic minimal contact with the outside world that was earlier allowed to prisoners in the form of court visits, family interviews (mulaqaats), access to letters and newspapers was suspended for several months. The prisoners only had each other to hold through moments of extreme despair and uncertainty, through what had become an even more intensified form of confinement. With any movement inside the prison premises severely curtailed, ‘intermixing’ between wards completely barred, and most recreational activities stopped, inmates who had been in prison for years often remarked, ‘Ab jail jail lagne laga hai’ (Now jail really feels like jail).

Another practice that was instituted inside the prison in response to the pandemic was to put every new prisoner, any prisoner returning from outside (court/hospital visit), and any prisoner who showed symptoms of illness (cough, cold, fever, etc.) into quarantine inside a cell, which meant that they would be locked in, mostly alone, 24/7 for fourteen whole days and no one would be allowed to talk to them even from afar, while they were kept in isolation. In fact, for some inmates with medical issues that required frequent hospital visits, it meant being in a permanent state of quarantine confinement.

The days and nights in the isolation cells were immensely terrifying for all of us, the kind of mental trauma and fear it produced led to multiple suicide attempts by different prisoners inside these cells. Little children too would be locked in like this with their mothers, and the children would relentlessly scream ‘kholo, kholo’ (open, open) and cry so loud that sometimes you felt the walls would explode.

Encountering and befriending the children inside the prison made the brutality of the incarceration even more stark. Their cries, their questions and attempts at understanding their confinement and ways of being in it, as well as their curiosity about the world outside those walls, one being an everyday lived reality, the other an enigma, but both incomprehensible to them. What does incarceration do to these children’s psyches? How do they even make sense of it? What scars does it leave? These are questions still with us and we grapple with them everyday as we struggle to cope with, and understand, our own prison and post-prison lives.

At some point, L realised that there is a world ‘outside’ to which he must find his way out. There was an urgency to his quest: he began crying a lot more, often for what seemed like no reason at all. Mimicking the male construction workers who would every now and then break down some structure inside prison for repair work, L began to hit the walls, grilles, gates and locks that surrounded our prison ward with anything he could find: sometimes it was a badminton racket, sometimes a plastic cricket bat, sometimes an empty shampoo bottle, sometimes a stone, sometimes just his bare hands. On being asked what he was up to, bang would come a non-nonchalant response: ‘Mai jail tod raha hoon’ (I am breaking the prison).

But L, like all the other kids, was also mortally scared of the figure of the ‘uncle’, which for the kids was embodied in the male policemen who would accompany the workers inside the women’s prison for work related to maintenance. This fear was also mixed with an intense curiosity. They would bug us to take them to see the uncle, yet would be mortified as soon as an uncle appeared close by. Rather dramatically, they would start screaming and howling, desperately running around to hide behind any inmate they could find, each time they encountered an uncle. Was it just the fear evoked by a figure they were not familiar with, or was it a fearof ‘authority’? Such behaviour intensified after the children witnessed an incident of violence that took place during our initial days in prison, while we were in quarantine.

Our fellow inmates told us how male policemen and prison officials had mercilessly beaten up many African inmates for demanding their right to interim bail during the pandemic, which certain Indian inmates had been granted. The little beings had seen blood from cracked skulls, broken arms and limbs, blood that their mothers had been brought in to wipe clean. When his mother got interim bail and L developed some understanding that he would be leaving soon, he came to our barrack, and grasping our hands pleaded, ‘Aap mere saath chaloge?’ (Will you come with me?) When we asked him why, he replied pensively, ‘Mujhe dar lagta hai. Uncle honge wahan’ (I feel scared. Uncles will be there).

The figures of authority that they so feared were also what they sought to mimic, internalising the everyday life they observed and, of course, lived. One of their favourite games was ‘searching’. When a metal detector was installed in the common area, it was the most exciting object in their lives for quite a while – they would press the buttons around it, and walk through it with objects that would make the machine beep. Then there was the ‘injection’ game, where they would pretend to be the medical assistants who came to collect prisoners’ blood samples or give them various vaccines.

The first words the children learnt to scream aloud were ‘Andar chalo’ (Go inside) and ‘Ginti bandh ho rahi hai’ (time for lock up) as they walked around pretending to be either matrons or munshis (convict-warder) of the wards. They would be fascinated by all the locks in the barracks and on the gates and would run behind matrons, wanting to play with their bundles of keys. M, the two-year-old kid of a Brazilian woman prisoner, would repeatedly yell, ‘Maarunga danda se’ (I will hit you with a stick) at whoever would not listen to him or whenever he was upset about something.

These children had committed no ‘crime’, but found themselves in prison because their mothers, often abandoned by their families, had no one in the outside world to whom they could entrust the responsibility of caring for their children while they served prison time. Their mothers were very
young, primarily coming from the most marginalised communities in the country, as much prisoners of various forms of structural oppression and exploitation as of situations that may or may not have led them to commit the ‘crimes’ they stood accused of. They, with other women prisoners, collectively brought up the children, slogging for hours doing various odd jobs inside the prison that did not even pay the basic minimum wage. The money they earned was used for buying a few clothes, milk, food and other supplies for their children from the jail shop.

Most of these women languish in jails for painfully long periods of time, sometimes with no knowledge of the charges against them, the excruciatingly slow and overburdened government legal-aid system being their only access to any remote possibility of justice. Again, the most astounding and heartbreaking demonstration of this criminal justice system where justice is ever-elusive, was provided by the children.

A, a two-year-old girl, had gone to court for the first time with her mother. When she returned to the prison, we asked her what she had seen and done. She named many things, and one of them was the judge. When we asked her, ‘What does the judge do?’, she thought deeply for a minute and responded, ‘Kuch bhi nahi karta hai’ (He doesn’t do anything).

It was quite common to hear the slightly older kids very matter-of-factly ask each other, ‘Did your mother get bail? What case is she in?’ They packed their bags stitched from old clothes and pretended to leave for court or exclaimed that their ‘rihai’ (release) had arrived, that they were going home that night. But release was nowhere in sight. Especially for children like M, whose Brazilian mother, not understanding the language or the court proceedings, ended up pleading guilty to charges on the promise of being sent back to her home country. That promise, however, remains stuck in endless bureaucratic files in different government offices and embassies. The first time M sees the world outside the prison walls will be when he is taken in an aircraft or ship with his mother when the bilateral agreement that permits a transfer of prisoners between the two countries finally comes through.

These children, who had completely captured our very beings, defining our prison time in the most incredible and painful ways, have been an enduring presence in our dreams ever since we got out on bail. Coming to terms with the separation from them, with no possibility of any contact in the near future, has been a deeply destabilising and difficult experience. In one such dream, one of us met M. He had finally been reunited with his grandmother and his other siblings in Rio de Janeiro after many, many years. Older and wiser, standing in front of the sea for the first time, he lets out a shattering scream.

That scream should haunt us all.

Excerpted with permission from For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: Encounters with Prison, edited by Shilpa Gupta and Salil Tripathi, Westland Books.