The undertrial inmates had their own way of allocating space to the other inmates, depending on their reputation. Those at the lower rung of the barrack’s social ladder received barely enough space to sleep. Relative luxury was accorded to those who were higher in the hierarchy of power. One of the women had pointed me towards a corner. “That is your area,” she said. “Stay within your limit.”
At 5.30 pm, dinner was served inside the barracks. On my aluminium plate, I had two chapattis, dal and some vegetables. Strands of black hair floated in the watery dal. I put the plate aside and wept again. Pangs of pain cramped my stomach. I had hardly eaten since my arrest. I felt weak and exhausted, but I could not bring myself to eat the food I had been served. An African undertrial, who had been observing me from a distance, sensed my predicament.
“You are the journalist, aren’t you?” she said.
“Did you commit the murder?”
“No,” I said, as if it meant anything. “No,” I emphasised.
“I know,” she said. “You’re a good person.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
I shook my head. She stared at me, reached inside her pockets and pulled out a coarse piece of bread.
“Eat,” she said. “Eat it.”
I took the piece of bread from her hands. Soon she sensed a prison guard approaching and rushed back to her place. Her kindness felt nice. But I just did not have the appetite.
The barracks were locked down at 6 pm, a procedure that was known as bandi. Huge, black, iron locks were put on all doors at that time. Doors too were made of iron rods, which allowed inmates to speak to those on the other side.
As I wiped the tears off my cheeks, a woman in her thirties, sitting diagonally opposite, watched me intently. She wore a blue track pant and white T-shirt. Her hair was tied in a neat bun, clasped with a black hair clip. A thick, red tilak ran through the middle of her forehead. Pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses were hung from the iron rods behind her. The most prominent one was that of Goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil. The woman occupied three times the space that the other inmates had. She summoned me to her temple-like corner and introduced herself as Paromita Chakraborty.
“Aren’t you Jigna Vora?” she asked, in fluent English.
I shivered at the baritone of her voice and replied hesitantly, “Y-Y-Yes.”
Paromita stared right into my eyes, measuring me perhaps. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. She turned around and pulled out an open packet of potato wafers.
“Eat,” she said.
I hesitated, but the intensity of her glare made me pick up one wafer and put it in my mouth. The wafer crunched loudly under my teeth.
“Tea?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “Go back to your place.”
I did what I was told. At around 8.30 p.m., the inmates prepared to sleep, as the television in the barrack wasn’t working. They bundled their extra clothes into their dupattas to use as a pillow, and I copied them. I could hear the chatter, most of them discussing their court hearings. I thought about my son and wept.
Another inmate slept next to me, close enough that if I didn’t turn over very carefully in my sleep, I might land on top of her. She smelt much like the mouldy barrack. I wondered if I would stink the same way if I had to spend more days here. I yearned to relieve myself, but I resisted, not wanting to witness the sight of a dirty toilet. I stood up and paced along the little space by the walls. An inmate pulled her blanket off her face.
“Go sleep, whore,” she said. “Why are you disturbing all of us?”
I raised my little finger, indicating that I needed to use the bathroom. The inmate contorted her face in irritation and pointed towards the toilet.
Finally giving up, I walked through the narrow passage, past blue drums that stored water for daily use. Four Indian-style toilets, each of them equally dirty and stained, awaited me. I held my breath and entered through a door that only covered my torso once I planted my soles on the footrest. My head and the other end of my body were completely exposed. I prayed for some privacy.
I returned to my place and lay down at my designated space. The lights, I learnt, were never turned off. As a rule, they are switched on, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As I lay there under the lights, I knew what having my own space meant. To own a single bed in a small flat in suburban Mumbai. I remembered the tantrums I would throw if my grandmother would accidentally switch on the light while I was sleeping. Here, I couldn’t do a thing about it. With the hard floor under my back, I spent most of the night staring at the ceiling and thinking about my son.
I had just fallen asleep when a sudden commotion woke me up. It was 5.30 a.m., time to wake up so that the jail officials could do a headcount. Each inmate was paired with another accused of a similar crime and asked to sit in the centre of the barrack. The gravity of the crime decided the order. Accused chain snatchers, pickpockets, robbers and murderers – all sat in order. I sat alone.
I was the only one booked under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) that the government had formed to combat organised crime and terrorism. I looked down as the inmates stared and chattered.
“Is she a terrorist? Is she from the underworld?”
Excerpted with permission from Behind Bars in Byculla: My Days in Prison, Jigna Vora, Blue Salt, Penguin India.