Cityscapes

At an all-women petrol pump in Hyderabad, ex-cons get to kick-start a new life

‘They’ve served a prison sentence already – real reformation begins once they’re outside.’

Once he was done refilling the fuel tank of his two-wheeler, a customer at the newly opened gas station in Chanchalguda, Hyderabad, demanded a bill. The problem was, he wanted to be billed for an inflated amount, so he could claim greater travel expenses from his employer.

“Why are you making such a big deal about this?” the customer asked the woman at the billing counter, as she stared at him, refusing to budge.

The man continued to shout. He was holding up a queue. Unobserved, a policewoman appeared at the spot.

The woman at the counter, Raziya Sultana*, greeted the officer with a familiar nod.

“Take the bill or kindly leave,” said Basheera Begum, the superintendent of Special Prison for Women in Chanchalguda, to the customer. Her voice had the firmness of someone accustomed to dealing with delinquency.

“Anyone who tries to mess with our women will be dealt with strongly,” she announced to the queue. “What they did and why they did is a thing of past. They have served the prison sentence for it. The real reformation starts once they have been released and we are here to make it easy for them.”

A view of the all-women fuel station. Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz
A view of the all-women fuel station. Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz

Sultana and 24 other women – a mixed group of former prison inmates and undertrials – have been working at Chanchalguda’s women-only petrol station since June 23. An initiative of the Prisons and Correctional Services of Telangana state, the station is an attempt to provide employment to as many women undertrials and former prisoners as possible.

For now, two police constables and a sub-inspector have been posted at the petrol pump for security.

“Most customers behave well,” said J Hanumantha, one of the two constables. “But, once in a while, someone tries to engage unnecessarily. Our job is to intervene and ensure that nobody talks to the women in a derogatory manner.”

Unsolicited advice

The next customer at the billing queue, fascinated by all that he had witnessed, tried to make small talk with Sultana. As he simpered about the value of good deeds and hard work, Sultana cut him short and asked, “Kitne ka dalun?” How much petrol do you need?

Sultana completed her prison sentence at the beginning of 2016. In the past year, she has suffered enough well-meaning people trying to sermonise on the value of honesty, telling her how to lead the rest of her life. She already knows this – she has no intention of being “stuck to the past”, as people never tire of repeating.

Sultana, her younger brother and mother were convicted in a dowry harassment case. She served a total of five-and-a-half years in jail, 13 months out of which were in Chanchalguda prison and the rest in a district prison. Sometime during the sentence, Sultana’s husband left her – she said it was because he paid too much attention to what people said.

In prison, she learnt to bake, sew and weave. Once her sentence was over, Sultana also received a sewing machine from the prison authorities. But there was never enough work to pay the bills.

“Prior to this, I was tailoring from home, but I can still say that this is the most well-paying and respectable job I have ever had,” Sultana said, as she took a break from the billing counter. “My mother and youngest son are happy because we can lead a peaceful life. One day, my husband and other children will come back too.”

Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz
Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz

Sultana has the plans and anxieties of any single mother. “I plan to shift my youngest son to Hyderabad and enrol him in a good school,” she said. “I will have to start saving soon for emergencies. If my other two children come back, I will have to plan something for them also. I will stay in Hyderabad and go to my village once a month.”

Judgement-free zone

Five of the women working at the petrol pump are from different districts of Telangana and are currently living in a temporary accommodation provided by the Department of Prisons.

“We are trying to find affordable accommodation for the women,” Begum said. “The stigma against former prisoners reveals itself in several forms. But the thing that affects them the most is when people deny them jobs or homes.”

Bindu*, a resident of Hyderabad, was convicted with her son for a case of acid attack, for which they served a sentence of six years each. Once she came out of prison, she wanted to get a job to support her family of seven, perhaps shift them to a larger house in a different neighbourhood. Bindu is too old to stand for long hours, but she and another former inmate work at the products counter at the petrol station, which is also run by the Chanchalguda prison.

“I have a chair to sit on when there is no customer at the counter,” Bindu said. “My job is to deposit money from all the sales at end of the day, maintain an account of the products sold, and get the invoice signed by the officer every day. I can read and write Hindi, so it is an easy job.”

Unlike some of the others, Bindu did not have to worry about educating her children, but she needed the money because “old age brings ailments”.

Superintendent Basheera Begum explaining to a customer that money is to be paid before petrol is refilled. Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz
Superintendent Basheera Begum explaining to a customer that money is to be paid before petrol is refilled. Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz

Women who have served their term at prison appear relatively more relaxed compared to the undertrials, who tread more carefully.

“First money, then petrol sir,” Bhagyashree insisted, as she spoke to a customer. That’s what the officers had taught her to say, and she was going to stick to the rules. Born in Hyderabad’s Dhoolpet area, Bhayashree is an undertrial and had spent only two days in prison. Her husband had died of cancer over a decade ago and since then, she had raised her three daughters by producing and selling Gudumba or illicit liquor.

“After the crackdown on Gudumba, I continued selling it illegally and was arrested,” she said. “Most of my caste members either sold Gudumba or made Ganesh idols. I never learned how to make idols, and I can’t take up other work in the area I live in because women are allowed to do only certain kind of jobs.”

Bhagyashree said she eventually wants to have a different life – but only once her youngest daughter completes her graduation. For now, the job at the gas station helps pay her bills and the legal fee to fight her ongoing case.

Planning for a future

The women working at the petrol pump make Rs 12,000 a month and if things work according to the way the prison’s authorities have planned, the women will soon have a provident fund account too.

“Most of those who end up at prisons are already victims of circumstances,” said VK Singh, director general of prisons and correctional services, Telangana. “The system shouldn’t work in a way to isolate them and their families even more. There needs to be some way to end the chain of events in the lives of these people. There should be a better nurturing environment for the future generations of these families and employment is one way to provide it.”

Singh is awaiting government permission to provide more job opportunities – to former prisoners (more of whom are queuing up outside his office every day), undertrials and even those currently serving time. A prison for men near Chanchalguda regularly allows male prisoners to work outside the prison (under observation) – and Singh hopes this will be possible for the women soon too.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.