It is a truism that if you’re impoverished and incarcerated then you’re as good as forgotten, because life behind bars replicates existing inequalities, and those without resources are also the most unequal in jail. In this context, Sudha Bharadwaj’s From Phansi Yard is a timely book as its 76 brief portraits, “impressionistic snapshots” as she calls them, offer many shades of exiled and forgotten women who remain shackled to the everyday grind and to the systemic abuses of Pune’s Yerawada Central Jail.

From her jottings made from behind the bars of the death row Phansi Yard where she and her co-accused, Shoma Sen, were lodged in solitary cells for almost fifteen months, Bharadwaj notes that despite oppression and exploitation, the meagre jail facilities are still means for survival for those who never got anything in their lives as “free” citizens in the world outsid. Yet she avers, “It is an equally great irony that despite this [prison health facilities], if you ask the sickest woman here whether she prefers treatment to being released, she will choose freedom.”

Captivity and freedom

The promise of Bharadwaj’s book lies not only in its documentation of life behind bars, but also in its exploration of captivity and freedom, and in its examination of the conundrum between the failure of the state and the compensation that the prison is compelled to provide to those in its custody. But there is more to the book than its realism or even its realisation that prisons are not alike, as Yerawada’s captive farm produce or health facilities are not replicated in Byculla a fact that Bharadwaj discovers later.

Prison writings share rich overlaps with autobiographies and ethnographies as they “narrate” self-experiences and “document” life behind bars. However, irrespective of the time of writing, the “I” of prison writing is different: it is a self under detention, a self under siege. And since the writer is a fellow detainee, the carceral self is never wholly private or completely impersonal. Given the social orientation of the prison “I”, it is interesting to reflect on why Bharadwaj chose to write about Yerawada’s inmates, but not about Byculla where she shared a common barrack. According to her, because she became, in Byculla, a “de facto unofficial lawyer for many prisoners”, she felt “it would not be ethical” to “betray their trust”. While we may agree with Sudha’s legal burden in Byculla, the question is what helped her in Yerawada to make jottings and publish them? Undoubtedly, as the author, she has the right to decide what to write, but that she puts her decision in writing, is important.

Is there a special burden that prison writers carry while writing? As a researcher on women’s prison writings in India, I have examined the carceral self in writing, and its historically evolving nature. From the 1930s onward, when the first self-contained women’s prison writings began to appear, the “I” of prison narratives also began taking shape; a socialised “I”, in dialogue, silent or otherwise, with others in captivity. This fact is evident even in writings of elite political prisoners of the Nehru family such as Krishna Hutheesing or Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. Clearly, despite segregation, nationalist women prisoners were fascinated by the lives of impoverished inmates, by their tales of social oppression and of vengeful female crimes. However, such fascination didn’t always lead to greater understanding, a point acknowledged by the Gandhian Rani Chanda who notes her difficulty in comprehending the complex rural world of crimes surrounding common inmates.

The carceral ‘collective self’

The dilemma about self and others is an endemic part of women’s prison writings, and it is a burden that writers resolve through their writings. The post-independence communist writings of Surama Ghatak and Manikuntala Sen show greater camaraderie with common prisoners, but it is only in the seventies that the growth of the carceral “collective self” takes shape. The writings by women Naxalite prisoners in Bengal show active engagement with common inmates while fighting repression and striving for better jail conditions. However, either because of their post-release anxieties or because of their gendered hesitation, Naxalite prison authors show reticence in sharing details about themselves. Obviously, the 70s posed newer challenges and responsibilities for prison writers regarding the perils and promises of sharing, both about themselves and about others.

From Phansi Yard draws on this legacy and Bharadwaj innovates on the carceral “I” as she distinguishes her position as a detainee-writer of Yerawada from that of a de-facto lawyer in Byculla. This decision isn’t personal; it’s an outcome of her professional and political self. Likewise, regarding Yerawada’s inmates, the subjects of her accounts, she says that she likes to put herself in “someone else’s shoes”, and that her writing evolved once the little details gathered over chance meetings, “fell into place, like a jigsaw puzzle”.

Consequently, her use of the carceral “I” is pronounced and confident as she inserts herself in the account, by way of solving the puzzle. Her judicious use of observation and imagination holds the account, though the epigrammatic style of narration, can, at times, impede a deeper engagement with the subject. For instance, midway in account no 28, she writes: “A prisoner shares a slice of her life in a way that is very relatable….and then comes the dark story of which the contours are not clear. How does one respond? It is a dilemma. The way I resolve it is that I’m not going to sit on judgment on her. She is suffering enough”. True, but since the story has many layers and the style is brief and cryptic, the reader is left wanting to know more.

In today’s times, prisons are here to stay as they exemplify the state’s repressive power of incarceration and punishment. In such a context, we need voices from within. Bharadwaj’s book is an important contribution to the nascent but growing genre of prison literature. And like those before her be it B Anuradha, Seema Azad and countless others who have written about their carceral experiences in regional languages From Phansi Yard raises important questions and issues related to the nature of prison writings.

From Phansi Yard: My Year with the Women of Yerawada, Sudha Bharadwaj, Juggernaut.