How the ‘tandoor murderer’ Sushil Sharma spends his days in Tihar Jail

Sunetra Choudhury’s book examines the lives of high-profile prisoners behind bars.

Sushil has been at Delhi’s Tihar Jail since July 1995, after being accused and then convicted of the murder and disposing the body of his wife Naina Sahni. Sushil’s image of a bearded man staring blankly while being led by police officers is familiar to all, and yet as he sits with me, enjoying his espresso, hardly anyone gives him a second look. He is clean shaven with close cropped hair, and each time I meet him he has an ash teeka on his forehead.

Sushil at no point denies that he killed Naina Sahni. What he does deny is that he chopped her body into pieces so that it could be cooked in the tandoor to become the perfect murder... [He]...cites the 2013 Supreme Court judgement which said “no opinion could be given as to whether the dead body was cut as dislocation could be due to burning of the dead body. There is no recovery of any weapon like chopper which could suggest that the appellant had cut the dead body.” In other words, if he did indeed chop her up, the police didn’t find the weapon that was used and so this wasn’t conclusively proved. Sushil claims that it was the impact of the heat that made her limbs fall apart.

The preoccupation with the concept of time is perhaps expected. Sushil Sharma has spent the last 21 years killing time for killing his wife. He was first sentenced to death by the trial court, a decision that was upheld by the High Court too. That meant, from 1995 to 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned the decision, Sharma stayed in solitary confinement.

“Do I look like someone who has spent so much time in confinement? Do I look depressed in any way? I don’t think you can make out,” he asks me rhetorically.

It’s a rainy afternoon in the capital, and while it’s all dark and gloomy outside, Sharma seems to have retained a degree of cheer. He has an easy smile and he tells me it’s the result of a carefully cultivated strategy – the strategy of breaking time into units that he could understand.

Sharma’s unit of time is based on the presumption that each man is allotted 100 years in his lifetime, which means 36,500 days in total. According to him, god gives man a rupee per day to spend, and Sharma’s strategy was just to plan how to spend that one rupee.

That’s all he had to do, spend a rupee, and that’s what he carefully mapped out every morning in captivity. “This really helped me avoid depression,” he said. “If you don’t prepare for it, then you die every moment you spend there.”

When Sushil arrived in Tihar towards the end of July 1995, Kiran Bedi had recently finished her tenure in May. Her Magsaysay award-winning work – introducing Vipassana, yoga and educational courses for inmates in Tihar – is personified in Sushil Sharma who took one course after another, including computer science. Without that, he said, he wouldn’t have the coping mechanism to survive.

“They wake you up between 5.30 and 6 a.m. with abuses – Khare ho jao, oye, bahar aao (stand up, come out) – so that they can take the roll call. It’s a terrible beginning to the day. After you have been marked, a line of 200 people is formed for the 10 toilets.” As a Brahmin, he showered every time he used the toilet, and so in winter, it was brutal.

“From morning till lights out it is a battle, and free will is taken away, can’t even talk of own volition,” he said.

While he struggled to cope with this, he was constantly told by others how much tougher it was just a few years ago. For instance, before Kiran Bedi’s diktat banning smoking in jail, the cells would be full of men aggrieved with coughing fits. “The jail guards told me, they’d find it difficult to open the locks in the morning because the area outside the cells would be full of phlegm and spit.”

There was still smoking now, but it was surreptitious and invited penalties of no family visits for a month or more or no letters. That wasn’t really a deterrent; people would use carriers or “godrejs” to transport contraband items like cigarettes. The term “godrej” was used for those who would transport illicit items by stuffing it inside their anal cavity.

The cost of hiring a godrej was not too much, sometimes even just a few cigarettes was enough. As a non-smoker, Sushil had no tolerance for such means. “Do you know that in America, they have full cavity search every time somebody comes back inside prison? That means they’d make them bend forward naked, and search every cavity. If they had that here, we wouldn’t have any such problem and things would be much cleaner.”

From the comfort of an upcoming politician’s life in Delhi to indefinite incarceration was too much for Sushil to accept and he toyed with the idea of suicide.

The idea consumed him in his initial days in jail till he met a Delhi Development Authority (DDA) officer who was in Tihar implicated in a dowry case. The officer’s entire family, including his daughter, were in jail, and their home had also been sealed, after their daughter-in- law had made allegations against them. Seeing someone worse off than him, Sushil heard him out.

The officer offered him only one piece of advice – chant the Gayatri Mantra. He told him he’d heard that if this sacred Hindu prayer was repeated 1.25 crore times, then the gods would hear his prayers. “I took to it fervently, counting 40 malas with 108 beads. This took me around three hours daily.” Taking care of three hours of a day took a huge burden off his shoulders, and it gave a kind of objective to his life behind bars.

The other activities worked themselves around it. He’d wake up, do his puja, do yoga, then have breakfast of tea and biscuits. When Sushil was in solitary confinement, he’d also spend time cleaning his toilet. The day would then go in planning court visits, which would entail all those with court appointments being taken in a jail vehicle and then spending the day in the courtroom lockup till their turn came. Then everyone would come back to the jail complex together.

After that, those that were employed would do their tasks. Sushil first took computer lessons and then was employed to teach it for a daily wage of 90 rupees, which was then credited to his PP or Prisoner’s Personal account. The PP account could earlier be used to obtain coupons with which prisoners could buy snacks from the canteen or other provisions like toiletries, but now it works as a smart card.

Sushil, for instance, would skip most of the jail meals and have a mid-morning snack like a parantha at the canteen. That explained his considerable girth. “I’m trying to lose weight now,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t like to walk around for exercise as you’d have to waste time talking to a lot of useless people. So, I improvised. I would take my bucket of water and keep lifting weights with it.”

In between working with others, he’d keep writing his own notes and printing it all out. These notes were like his mission statements which he kept next to his bed at night – “I’d wake up some nights and just start writing. You never have complete darkness in jail, so when you couldn’t sleep, you do this.”

Sharma spent considerable time describing these notes in detail to me. They were his theories on various themes – love and child rearing and sometimes political issues like the Lok Pal Bill. The one on marriage seemed completely inspired by his own circumstances.

His big idea was to start a diploma course for couples planning to get married.

The course would be of three months’ duration and taught by a psychologist. “It will have everything in the course, it will teach the girl how to deal with her mother-in-law, teach the boy how to handle a girl’s family and how he will now have two sets of parents. And also teach the boy that instead of just loving his wife, he should respect her.” I asked him what was wrong in loving one’s wife. “Problem is that when a husband loves the wife, then, because of the physical intimacy, it leads to high expectations. A man should love his children and just respect the wife.”

In a way it was the story of Raja Bharat Hari yet again – the consequences of what he saw as too much love, leading to too much rage after being disappointed. “That’s what my Art of Living course taught me,” he said, “expectations kill marriage.” The strangest aspect is that these ideas of love and marriage are mirrored even in the Supreme Court Chief Justice Sathasivam’s 2013 order commuting Sushil Sharma’s death sentence to life.

The order says that Sharma “was deeply in love with the deceased (Naina) knowing full well that the deceased was very close to Matloob Karim. He married her hoping that the deceased would settle down with him and lead a happy life.” At another place, the order says, “Despite knowing her intimate relations with Matloob Karim, he did not turn her out of the house. He only restricted her movements as he wanted to stop her from her wayward ways.”

The order goes on to conclude: “It appears that the appellant was extremely possessive of the deceased...the appellant (Sushil) suspected her fidelity and the murder was the result of this possessiveness” and was not an offence against society.

Excerpted with permission from Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous, Sunetra Choudhury, Roli Books.

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