The central jail was a place for hardcore criminals. It was a place where those who indulged in cruelest of cruel murders were locked away. Dark dingy small rooms that smelled foul, poor food quality, despicable toilet facility, harsh weather conditions, unimaginable living condition – a detrimental combination that can made even the healthiest extremely sick. When Raghav was pushed down the police van, handcuffed, beaten and battered, he was unsure what his crime was. Fifteen years rolled by in the solitary cell. Some prison guards referred to him as the sagacious, others called him mad.
But for Raghav it made no difference. None of the cops, who hurled him into the dingy cell and broke every bone of his fragile body, were still in this facility. Some he heard were transferred to bigger posts. Why they hurt him, he had no idea. He had been loyal for 15 years to the four walls, its mundane routine and back breaking labor. He had grown saner over the last decade and the fighter in him swooned away. He never disobeyed the guards and never got into tiffs with other inmates. Being a no trouble maker, he was the facility warden’s favorite. A balding man in his late thirties, the warden liked Raghav. In one of his routine rounds, he noticed the aging prisoner lying on the cement floor in his solitary cell. The prisoner’s countenance was soaked in despair, no joy, no hope. When his dusty feet and palms that bore deep cracks bled, the warden arranged for doctor and medicines, a privilege for a selected few. The bald man wanted to see some smile on Raghav’s face, something that no one ever saw. He tapped the rusty iron grill that locked the faithful prisoner in.
Raghav lifted his head that rested on his bent elbow. His body that lay folded like a crescent, reluctantly stretched.
“You!” the bald man tapped again. Raghav’s reflexes had started fading ever since the brutal beating by the uniformed men long ago. He didn’t complain.
“So what if cataract has eaten my eyes, there is only misery to see. So what if my eardrums don’t respond, there are only painful wails to hear,” were his famous lines.
“Old man, some news to cheer!” announced the warden.
Cold he sounded, yet his intentions were noble. He wanted to put a smile on Raghav’s face. Small gestures from the unrelated bonded by fetters of compassion. Little did the warden know that the prisoner was of the same age as him. Lack of proper nutrition, human company and bucket of woes had eroded Raghav’s age.
“I’ll recommend you for pardon!”
Raghav looked dazed unable to digest what he was hearing. Two times when he tried to escape, once during a minister’s visit and the other time when a bunch of yoga gurus came to teach them calm their agitated minds. Both the times, he was caught, mercilessly beaten up and locked in solitary confinement. The second time the beating was so severe that the lost his entire front row of teeth. So did he abandon the desire to escape to the free world.
“Pardon?” blinked Raghav.
“Yes. Next month, on Gandhi Jayanti!”
The bald man awaited a Tsunami of joy on the wrinkled face that bore black patches, reminiscent of physical torments.
The prisoner merely looked like an unscripted blank paper.
Raghav was not always like that. These years had made him a stone, emotionless and cold. More because his senses couldn’t grasp the world around him.
“To be free again,” he pondered, “for whom?”
His eyes become moist. The dead and cremated wounds came alive again. It was like someone pierced a red hot iron rod through his heart. Tears of pain rolled down his wrinkled face. He was now weeping like a mad man.
The wounds came alive again. Screams. Shrill screams. Wails of hunger, as the empty stomach was eaten away by digestive juices. The older girl was 8 years, the younger was barely 3 then. The day began with their wails for food. And food there was none. The crops had failed and Raghav owed money to many. He had borrowed to buy saplings and fertilizer. But this time the untimely rains washed away his crops. And what he had at the end of the season was unimaginable debt. The children half naked, hungry and dirty wept again.
“Not a grain in the house! What do I feed you? Ask your father to bring money,” came the usual taunt from inside the straw hut.
It was the usual day. The children will cry for food and gradually collapse into the arms of slumber.
The neighbor committed suicide unable to digest the damage to him crops. He had lost all his investment and his family was left with nothing to eat. Big cars rolled into the village. The minister announced big relief package for farmers affected by the fury of nature. The media highlighted their plight. But the next day, all the focus shifted to the India-Australia match where the nation watched with enthusiasm a proxy war of sorts. And the dead farmer was forgotten under the display of pseudo nationalist fever.
Raghav scratched his head as the past came tumbling forth like a gushing stream joining a lake. What happened to the dead farmer’s wife and children? They lived on alms from the rest of the village, before one fine day their mutilated bodies were found on the railway track. The administration termed it as an unfortunate accident but the entire village was convinced otherwise. The government official demanded a bribe of Rs 10,000 to release the 1 lakh compensation awarded to the bereaved family. The family that lived on alms couldn’t even muster a rupee. Raghav learnt his lesson. He wouldn’t commit suicide like a coward but fight like a warrior. He wanted to be a survivor, who swam over the tides of misfortune.
The warden was still waiting for signs of joy.
“Why do you weep, old man? I’ll see that you walk free.”
Raghav was speechless and the warden walked away with a big sigh.
“Raghav!” called out a shrill feminine voice.
He turned around. It was the prisoner from the cell diagonally opposite his.
“You’re a lucky man, Raghav. I heard the warden. Soon you’ll say us all a big good bye.”
Raghav went back to the cement floor and curled back his fragile body on mother Earth. His inadequate ear drums could hear the prisoner in the diagonal cell continue nonchalantly.
“What use of letting you out? No wife, no children. All dead. I haven’t seen my son for last 30 years. They say he is working in a big factory. Why not they let me out instead? Lucky man! Lucky for you who killed …”
There was a pause.
“Why are you in, Raghav? Whom did you kill? Never did you share your tale with us.”
There was something of a yearning in his voice that drew Raghav’s attention. More so he wanted to pour out his anguish, the bitter past that was consuming him gradually. He sat up.
“Even I do not know why I am in here. I do not know why they shot my children like a pair of birds. How can a woman survive when a bullet goes right through a her forehead? I saw it all. I screamed. I pleaded. They asked me to forget it. I said I couldn’t. Then the police came, picked me up, beat me till I was declared mentally unsound. No case, no courts. I am here, I do not know why.”
Inmates in other cells listened to Raghav’s story in all inquisitiveness. Never did he share his basket of woes in public.
“Why they shot your wife?”
“She wouldn’t listen to me. I told her to let it go. She wouldn’t listen to me!”
He broke into vociferous sobs, like a baby who was looking for his mother.
“Who shot her? Why did they?”
“They’re the ruling party’s goons. They call them party workers. Then they brought into our village all criminals locked up in jails, truck loads of them. These men outnumbered us and intimidated us with their sophisticated weapons. They shot at anyone who said a NO!”
“What did they want?”
“What else? Our source of food. Our land. For decades, we tilled the land and fed the country. Today, they want to kill us and set up a chemical plant. Can a chemical plant feed stomachs? Mother earth, the only asset of a farmer. All we know is to grow crops. The crops have failed and we go hungry for days together. But as long as we have the piece of land with us, we have hope. Hope that some day, we can reap a good produce. Some day, I can send my children to school with that money. Some day, I can build a comfortable life for us. But no land, no hope. My wife was adamant. I told her they are hardened criminals. She wouldn’t listen. As the goons razed down our hut, my wife and children lay on the field refusing to budge. One shot in the air, then three shots, three screams. Their bodies quivered as life wedged out of it.”
“Did they take only your land?”
“No! They needed 10,000 acres for the chemical factory. They razed down village after village, sending people homeless. They killed scores of farmers, in cold blood. This was fifteen years ago.”
“And the chemical factory?”
“The construction took place for a year. Then the government changed. The project was abandoned. None of the people who lost their lands received any compensation. It was all eaten up by the party workers. We lost everything, our land, our family, our lives. Many of the villagers became daily wage laborers in cities. Some others took up begging in tourist spots. The remaining no one cares. Yes. No one cares about the poor. No one cares why my land was snatched from me. No one cares if I live or die. No one cares what happened to all the families that lost their source of income.”
Raghav went into grim silence. He didn’t answer any more queries. He sunk back into the ocean of despondency.
2 October. The birthday of the Father of the Nation. The Karma Yogi, who led the nation in its struggle against the imperialist British Raj. One Gandhi was required for over throwing the British. Nothing less than hundred Gandhi are required to eliminate corruption in the nation today. It is easy to weed out an enemy who is an outsider, but when the enemy is within your house, it is next to impossible. The warden tapped at the dingy cell that housed his favorite inmate. Carrying a fresh set of cloths, neatly pressed on this left hand, the warden called out.
“Raghav! Today you can go home, a free man.”
He tapped again. Raghav did not move. His stony eyes stared at the ceiling.
“Old man! Get up. Wear these cloths and walk home.”
No response. He took out large iron keys and inserted it into the rusty old lock. He ambled into the cell. Raghav did not budge. The warden tapped at his shoulder with the tip of his cane. The cold frigid body of Raghav rolled down on the hard cement floor. A small piece of paper clung between his lifeless thumb and pointer finger.
“Send that prisoner in the opposite cell home. He’s waiting to see his son for 30 years!”