“What did that dabba fellow want?” asks Fakii as Archana walks back into her cell block.

Very briefly, Archana tells Fakii about the mobile phone assistance required by the superintendent and the tea on the terrace.

“Waah, Archana. He must really like you,” Fakii says in a mocking sing-song voice, poking her in the ribs conspiratorially.

“Oh, come on now, Fakii. I am over fifty years old. An old hag. Waiting to die or get out in another ten years. That’s my only goal. That, and to see Shalu.”

“I’ve heard that this superintendent is not as bad as the previous fellow. That kedi was corrupt and violent. And no one could say anything. You may have met him on your first day. This chap is much better. Very strict and wants everything to happen by the rules. He is not very popular with his bosses, but I think he has some protectors,” says Fakii. “I am told he’s due to retire in two or three years.”

While the beatings are in the past and the two are as friendly as could be, Archana is still a little afraid of Fakii. She has seen her temper and the violence she is capable of. So she takes nothing for granted.

On most days, the two women manage to grab five minutes together. And every few days Fakii has a new story about Nanjundaswamy, about something horrible he has done and got away with. Each time, Archana feels a bit of her heart hardening. There is so much injustice in the world and so few people fighting the evil in the system. But if this is what God wants his world to be, then it’s up to Him to fix it as well. Anyway, what can she do on her own?

“You heard? Nanjundaswamy is going to become the next chief minister,” Fakii says, interrupting Archana’s thoughts.

“What? Chief minister? How?” says Archana, surprised.

“What did you expect? He has killed or destroyed all his opponents and made so much money for the party. This time next month, he will have been elected chief minister.”

“How does he get so much money? Do you know?” Archana has spent ten years in prison with convicted criminals. But she still knows nothing of their ways.

“How do you think? Nothing moves in the government without a bribe. Nothing. Roads, buildings, contracts, everything happens only if money is paid. To get a good job in any government department, you have to pay money. They also get money from every restaurant, bar and shop that is allowed to remain open, otherwise there are mysterious fires or other kinds of damage. Real-estate deals are big too. Of course, the biggest source of money is criminals. We all have to pay to be allowed to break the law and not get into trouble with the police. From top to bottom, everyone gets a share. Nanjundaswamy is an expert at this.”

“Do you have to pay him too?” asks Archana.

“What kind of idiotic question is that? I pay him several lakhs every year. Not directly, but through his network. Finally, everything is managed by his right-hand man, that bewarsi Ajay.”

“Ajay,” repeats Archana softly.

“Do you know that bastard?” Fakii looks searchingly at Archana.

“Yes. He was the one who came home that last night, offering us cash to withdraw the case.”

“He’s very smooth, but the most dangerous of them all, and he has Nanjundaswamy’s full trust.” Fakii shakes her head in disgust.

“I think people are more afraid of him than of Nanjundaswamy. Cannot trust anything coming out of his mouth.”

“Oh, also, your friend,” Fakii says, “IG Bhaskar, he is retiring this month.”

“That is some good news, I guess,” mutters Archana. “It’s good news only if you plan to do something with it. Otherwise, it’s just something that happened in the world, with no connection to you.” Fakii is at it again, urging her to react.

With her mind in turmoil, Archana turns to physical activity to tire herself out and get some sleep at night. The regular yoga sessions that the jail organises have helped her maintain a sense of balance and ensured that she is not a wreck despite all this time in jail. But of late, even that isn’t sufficient to bring her peace of mind. These days, she doesn’t want to see anyone or eat anything. Just lie in bed and cry.

But she keeps at it, walking as much as she can every day. She has even started doing push-ups at the end of the walk. She can do as many as three at a stretch, to the amusement of her cell mates. But a lifetime of no exercise cannot be changed in days. She isn’t trying to be a muscle-bound woman, which would be quite impossible for a fifty-year-old woman in her state. She just wants to be fit enough for whatever awaits her in the world outside, whenever that time comes.

The infrequently sent photographs of Shalu continue to give her pleasure, but not like before. They make her miss her daughter even more. And Raju. Sometimes, without warning, a memory from the past makes her catch her breath, but she keeps her feelings firmly locked away. Prison is too dirty for those precious memories to be aired.

She is now nearly fifty-three, and has been inside for far too many years.

Through it all, the one thing that has kept her sane is her growing reputation as a tech expert. Her knowledge of mobile phones, although she hasn’t even owned one for years, gives her an unspoken immunity in prison: everyone knows not to cross her. She often has to repair old, clunky handsets that are smuggled in and passed around; sometimes she ends up helping someone in the men’s side of the prison via the guards’ network. Yet, there is only one person she can call a friend, and that’s Fakii. The very person who caused her the most grief in the beginning has become her most trusted ally; one whose fear-inducing presence keeps everyone else from troubling her. And she cannot help but thank God for this.

Excerpted with permission from Redemption, Harish Vasudevan, Westland Books.