Natasha went to school in Delhi before moving to Singapore for her Bachelors. She holds a degree in Economics and completed her master's in Psychology from Harvard University. By day, she works as an education consultant and has worked at length with the UN on various assignments. In her other avatar, she writes to feed the soul and is in the process of editing her first novel. Natasha is DWL's representative for Mumbai and runs the DWL Mumbai Readers' Club.
The death sentence has been stayed for the third time. He says his prayers and runs his hands over his face, feeling its freshly shaven contours. The small window in the meeting area lets in a beam of light. Too bright a day to hang anyone, he thinks.
She sits across the wire mesh wearing a smile packed with sympathy. He prefers her other smile, the wide one that bunches her cheeks up and makes her face resemble a strawberry. She starts on the horrors of the prison system and how she is doing everything to expedite his case.
Living to see the morning after saying goodbyes is difficult. The burden of past once again fills his pockets; enters sand-like into the tiny folds and crevices of his skin.
“Jami, we should continue where we left off,” she says.
The mind is a palimpsest and memories are faded scratches. He brings his fingers up to his face to smell his nails. They still contain the metallic odour of gunpowder.
Or so he imagines.
His protégé, now dead (shot on the fringes of the forest), favoured gunpowder over nitrate-explosives. You can play with sulphur and charcoal and control the rate of explosion. Nothing like the element of surprise. A jungle needs its guerrillas, his protégé would joke.
“Did I tell you about Shogi’s sniper training?” he asks, bubbling up from the muddy bottom of his consciousness.
“Not really. You were talking about…” and she pretend-studies her notes although she knows exactly where he had left off, “you talked about Shogi’s parents being forced off their land. Their financial miseries, the suicide…”
He is distracted by a point of light reflecting off her watch. It casts a miniature spotlight on his forearm and he moves to grab it but it disappears.
“Shogi loved the double barrel. The recoil on that is sublime. When you first hold it, you think it’s a plank of wood. Then you fire it, and fall on your ass,” he laughs before succumbing to a rasping cough.
She hurriedly covers her face. Tuberculosis, she must worry.
“Bibi, is this any place for women?”
“I am ok. You were saying, Shogi’s father lost his…”
“Shogi was best. Never underestimated any gun. You gave him a katta or an AK, he respected both. If you want to be a sniper, you have to be that way. Every gun has a unique purpose, like parts of our body. And for a sniper, the gun and body are one. A sniper’s vision does not extend beyond the view finder.”
She sits up and adjusts her dupatta. Impatience. Years of watching people from hidden vantage points allows him to decipher the mood accompanying any action.
“Jami, your charge sheet says you specifically targeted Class II police officers. Those close to the ruling party?”
He feels irritated with her. Journalists. Always draw the line back to parties and politics. But he didn’t choose this path for its politics. The first gun he fired blew life into him, showed him what power was. How you could use it to win what was yours. How you could avenge rampant villainy.
He observes the greedy nib of her pen and decides to tell her about guns.
“Policemen are cowards. Tender meat. This is a ‘job’ for them. One bandit can destroy more than one cop. Know why? Our guns are right next to our groin, and we keep them cocked, ready to fire. Us, ready to die. You can’t win a war if you are in the habit of making evening plans.”
She looks put out, wearing the expression of a diner whose been served the cutlery much before the food. Hunger. He knows it well now. Jail routine can break the strongest of men.
“In here, I have gone soft,” he says, “throw me back in the jungle and I won’t last a day. They’ve succeeded in breaking me.”
“Breaking you? You mean torture?” Her brows knit, accentuating their clean outline.
“You can call it that. A man can endure everything if he learns to endure hunger. In prison, they feed you and feed you. Compulsorily. The entire day is structured around meal times. Three times a day, the same time every day. Bloody habit forming. Now, I get restless if breakfast is delayed. How can a man shoot straight if his focus is nibbled away by thoughts of food?”
She collapses the notepad shut and caps her pen. He notices her hands, the fingers are cheese white and slender, and he stores this image in his head.
Just then, the warden bangs through announcing their time is up. She reminds him that the appeal has been accepted and the hearing will be scheduled soon.
She has a knack for spotting stories when she sees them. The front page carries a photo of a guerrilla leader being led into the court room by a constable, their fingers intertwined. Someone told her that the loving hand-hold is a death grip; any convict trying to break free runs the risk of broken fingers.
Still, she thinks it looks tender, as if the cop and the criminal are on the same side.
It takes some effort to extract a feature out of Ghosh. Effort and cunning. When she tells him about the captured Naxal, Ghosh isn’t enthused.
This guy has state blood on his hands. You know how many jawans he’s killed? This is a non-starter, Ghosh says dismissively. Besides, he’s on death row; he’s no hero in the eyes of the public. Anti-national, they call him.
But she is not interested in the rebel’s cause. The story will be about the rebel—this Jami, whose appeal for life sentence has been rejected for the second time! The man who will be sentenced to death for the third time—how kind is that? Her brain is ticking. If told right, the guerilla becomes the victim. A victim of a broken judicial system, which is the real bad guy in all this. Everyone loves a good anti-hero, especially when pitted against the State and he can’t be hanged without a story, she decides. To test the waters, she tweets about Jami. “The man who got the death penalty – twice!” Ghosh’s public shows interest and the editor succumbs.
The initial research gets her nowhere. All web pieces have been sourced from one or two host sites. She dials a source in Vijayanahalli, where Jami was captured. He’s a legend here. It’s easier if you come down and talk to the locals.
Ghosh is always discouraging her from traveling to remote areas. He doesn’t want a raped journalist on his hands.
“Take Sid,” he says.
“I can’t work around Sid’s schedule. This is my feature. I’ll manage it.” Her mother had dispatched stories from the battlefront in ’65. Yet every generation of women has to prove again the same point to the men of their generation.
The village is crushingly impoverished. Mothers feed their children starch dissolved in water and men sit squinting, their arms and legs atrophying from lack of work. Most families are reluctant to talk about Jami. Since his capture, most of his accomplices have met their end. One evening, she is ushered into the antechamber of a temple. In the dark, she discerns two milky white eyes. A man holds up the lamp to his obsidian face.
“We will get him released,” he says in a guttural tone.
But he demands to know her intentions. This is the part she is good at. The story of your community must be told, she lies. Can’t tell him instead that it’s been a dry spell for her and only sensation can vault her into the big league. His lamp-lit eyes hold her gaze. Just then the blasted phone goes off. It is Ghosh. If she doesn’t answer, he will panic. But the moment is shredded. The man rises and tells her to return in a few days. “Who are you?” she asks.
The next day he is shot on the fringes of the forest. The altercation raises alert levels in the village and Ghosh orders immediate evacuation. She should feel kindly toward him; most editors will throw a journalist into a viper pit if that is where the story is.
She returns to learn that Sid is away covering border violence in Arunachal. No point launching off on Ghosh. Time to take it up a notch. Female journalists have a unique advantage when it comes to jails. A few permits and an air of impenetrable modesty is all one needs to get in and slip under the radar of constables and wardens.
But the appointment with Jami is jinxed. The NOC from the Home Ministry gets delayed and the warden keeps stalling her. Six months on, Ghosh has lost his patience. He wants the report shelved. They’ve set the execution date, he barks. It’s the third time and this one will go through. Get his last words if you like and we’ll wrap it up with an op-ed.
Over the weeks she builds up content to work with. Most information comes from only two meetings with Jami that have happened since she’s gotten on this case. She must now fashion a forest fire out of kindling. Every night she puts on a caffeine drip and adds contours to a story about a young boy, the brightest in class and son of honest parents, who became a booming terror in the government’s gut. In their second meeting Jami talked about the destruction of his house which led to the death of his father. She editorializes liberally.
District officials released drunk elephants to trample the huts of tribes living in the forest. Families lost all they owned, she writes. It could as easily have been true and it’s a nice touch—rustic and novel. Ghosh is happy with the initial copy but insists on having Shogi’s story in the amplification. Problem. Jami never finished Shogi’s story and getting an audience with a to-be-executed inmate is impossible. She works the prison HQ and is rebuffed each time. The warden refuses to meet her eye, making it impossible to grease him. Time is an advancing tide and the sand castle of work built over nine months sits on the shore. Can she fabricate Shogi’s story entirely? Shogi is dead and Jami to be hanged soon.
The drinks at night get stiffer as she contemplates how to conclude this tale of disenfranchisement and death. The morning sun brings with it a miracle. The execution has been stayed for the third time. She rubs her eyes and stifles a yawn. It is time to meet the survivor.
Barrack 3 is his estate. Nothing crosses him here. A good warden knows how to shut prisoners up. An excellent warden knows how to make them talk. He manages men by limiting all freedoms. Meal times are the best place to assert authority. Some inmates will claim the utensils are soiled and need to be rinsed before food is served in them. He strictly forbids it. You cannot trust criminals with objects in their hand. Over time, they learn to eat food that gets mixed up in the dried leftovers of the man who ate before them. What they are eating is actually their ego.
A jail is a sleeping beast, and Barrack 3 its beating heart. This is where they put the serial killers, the rapists and the terrorists. Jami has been here six years and shaved thrice in preparation for death by hanging. The execution has been stayed for the third time. Surprising. Jami looks too mild and scrawny to wield influence outside but it is evident Jami has friends. That journalist being one. She turned up several months ago when Jami’s second appeal against the sentence was rejected. He stalled her for a few months—this is a prison, not a museum—but she remained dogged. Now he allows her, although sparingly. Journos can’t come and go as they like, that too a woman. And when inmates get close to journos, they start to talk. That cannot be borne. Besides, he hates journalists who turn up to get stories out of inmates. Self-righteous pricks trying to make martyrs out of miscreants.
He does admire Jami, though, and wants to help. Gossip in jail spreads faster than lice and it is said Jami shot five policemen before being captured. “I have always had the thirst to kill,” Jami told him during tea once. He had clapped Jami on the back and said, “then, you will be reborn as a lion.” Tea time chats allow inmates to blow off steam. He listens occasionally and sermonises often.
Before he became a warden, as an inmate he studied the Bhagvad Gita.
“The Gita says he who eats without producing is a thief.” This quells the grumbling among inmates bent over cauldrons filled with lentil. Jami challenges him sometimes. The Gita talks of dharma, one’s duty. A farmer’s duty is to protect his land. But he gets thrown into jail for doing that? He enjoys sparring with Jami whose eyes are balls of barbed wire. Jami has been in his prison for six years. The first time the execution date was set, he felt a pinch. Many lawyers came and went in the days that passed. He allowed them through, even serving them tea. The first appeal against the death sentence was accepted but eventually struck down. This happened one more time. When the third date was set, and now the execution stayed, he realises what is going on. Lawyers and journalists are winning headlines while Jami grows dim, evaporating with every passing day. Lately he has started to pass Jami some charas. If he can get Jami’s story out of him before the man blows a fuse, he can sell it to the lady journalist.
Weeks go by. On a cold morning, the Dainik Bhaskar carries a story about abusive land grabbing by the State and the condition of poor tribals. Over the days, more papers pick up this beat. Inmates spew congratulations every time Jami’s picture comes in the papers but he feels nervous. The spotlight on Jami can draw attention to his barrack. The last thing he wants is human rights activists showing up to inspect conditions or interview under trials. He also notices changes in Jami’s behaviour. One night Jami clambers up the prison bars and dangles from them as if on a tree. Jami refuses to lower himself, holding tight using the power of his arms. Or the power of intention. Who can say?
The next morning, the lady is back with a permit to see Jami, her white teeth flashing in an immodest smile. We’ve done it, she says. It is all she tells him before Jami appears. He leaves the waiting room. When Jami comes out, a cloudiness has come over his face.
“Bad news?” he asks.
“You get what you deserve,” Jami says, “not what you desire.”
The third appeal has been successful and the death sentence commuted to life. The barrack celebrates at night with Jami seated in the center. Jami’s a real hero now, which means the warden’s prison will be of interest to the prying public. He starts to watch Jami closely, and runs a tighter ship. No visitors, definitely no journalists. Emboldened by the life sentence, Jami returns to his guerilla ways and is defiant at mealtimes, rallying other inmates. Jami talks of injustice and oppression in the jail. He watches as Jami’s power grows. Any man with a cause is dangerous, free or imprisoned. But a warden must play this carefully.
Instead of crushing Jami, he lets him flourish. He gives him access to books, writing materials. Even access to outsiders if necessary. You’re here for life now, my friend, he tells Jami. I want to make this a home for you. Jami writes to the journalist—come see the conditions we live in. Write our stories. There are reformed criminals in here—real men.
No one responds. The public’s eyeballs have jumped on to something else. He watches as defeat dawns slowly on Jami, disease-like. There is a system, my friend, he says to Jami. And it’s even bigger than god. We are only men.
Over months, Jami grows sullen. Picks fights with his cell-mate. It’s small things now; who spat in his corner, the drops of lentil that splash on him every time the server thunks the ladle on his plate, the damp smudge of sweat on a cigarette passed to him. The warden watches carefully as Jami worsens.
One year on, the journalist is back, requesting a meeting. A Maoist leader has been captured and she’d like to do a follow up with Jami. He must play this carefully. Jami has become radioactive and the journalist seems to hold a genuine interest in these kinds of stories. He must find a way to kill two birds with one stone.
He tells Jami the journalist will be visiting. Jami’s pupils flood with light when he says that. She will come in a week, he tells Jami. That should be enough time, he thinks silently. A minute is a light year for Jami, who bides the time making speeches to himself in his cell. Justice is justice, for land or for the right to a clean toilet. The impunity of this jail must be challenged, Jami says out loud. The week snails by.
On the appointed day, the warden calls Jami and tells him the journalist canceled her visit. New leads found on the 26/11 conspiracy, he says. That story will go on for days, but despair not, my friend, I’m sure she will be back when something moves on the Maoist leader.
That night, Jami eats little and says, “Shogi loved gunpowder because it burns slowly. If only he knew what that feels like.” The iron is hot. He approaches Jami. Doctors suspect TB in your cellmate. I’m moving you to the solitary cell tonight. He knows what happens when you leave a screaming heart inside a silent cell.
The next morning Jami is found hanging from the cell. The press now swarms outside shouting questions at a thick iron door. How did the inmate get access to the string? Where was the night watcher? We hear he was alone in his cell?
He feels no pity. A rebel can meet only one end. Many details emerge in due course. Suicide, it is concluded. The journalist turns up too and writes an obituary. “An enemy of the system or a victim?” she titles it.
The obituary concludes by saying that though the jailer refused to confirm this detail, when Jami’s body was found, many inmates claim they saw one word scratched into his arm: Singha. Lion.