The voice rang across the ward like a bell, loud and commanding.
I was taken aback to see it emanate from an old woman whose appearance did not match her voice. Bent with age, she had sunken cheeks, hollowed eyes and partly greying, cropped hair. Her sari was worn above the knees. She had a half-stitched bag beside her that she was working on.
‘Come here! Just for a minute!’ she called again, waving her stick towards me. This confirmed it; she was definitely calling me.
I thought, ‘She could be calling me to thread her needle, but of late, I am having trouble threading needles and am thinking of buying reading glasses . . .’
‘What is the date today?’ she asked, interrupting my thoughts.
‘The twenty-third of November.’
‘How far away is the twenty-sixth of January?’ she asked, as if thinking about something.
‘Two months?’ she sighed deeply. ‘Did you get today’s paper? Is there anything about me in the paper?’
What could there possibly be in the papers about her? A little laughter and also a little sympathy rose within me simultaneously. ‘Nothing,’ I replied.
‘These naughty girls are teasing me. If I am not released on the twenty-sixth of January, I will break their legs. Read the English papers carefully as well; news about my release will be published in the papers,’ she said.
Then it struck me that 26 January is Republic Day and some prisoners are always released that day for their good behaviour. This was what she was asking about.
‘Okay, Chachi. I am also a prisoner like you. But I am like your daughter. So don’t call me madam. Call me beti,’ I said.
‘God bless you, my child! You will go home soon and your husband will kiss you,’ she said, pinching my cheeks and displaying a toothless smile.
The naughty girls who were gathered around her laughed loudly, and I was left red-faced.
‘This old woman is a rangila – a happy-go-lucky person. She blesses everyone like this,’ said Reshmi.
I wondered at the way the old woman threaded the needle with so much ease. She picked up her half-stitched bag and started crooning a song.
This was my first encounter with the old woman. Everyone called her ‘Lathi Budhiya (the old woman with a stick)’. No one knew her real name. Some inmates called her ‘Chachi’. She always called me ‘Madam Beti’. She was reluctant to leave out the ‘madam’.
Every morning, after the lock-up was opened, she went to the school verandah near ward no.1 in the women’s barracks and sat there with her stitching paraphernalia. She bathed, washed and dried her clothes on the stones under the big neem tree.
Whenever she saw me there, she enquired about Republic Day. The day came and went, disappointing her. After that, she began waiting for 15 August, Independence Day.
Sundays were special days for the women prisoners. It was the day designated for the mulaqaat.2 They could meet their relatives who were in jail for half an hour after two in the afternoon. Eighty-five per cent of the inmates had relatives in the prison. So mulaqaat day felt like a celebration of sorts.
Fire was prohibited in the jail, so was cooking. But on Sundays, some inmates took the liberty of making pakodas for their visitors, using their creativity and imagination. They saved the soaked chickpeas they were given for breakfast every day, dried them in the sun and soaked the dried chickpeas again on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, they ground the legumes on the floor with a stone, and made a batter for pakodas. They picked green peppers from the compound, chopped them and put them in this batter. Three bricks became an oven while sundry things like rags, used saline bottles and dry leaves were burnt as fuel. The mustard oil they were given once a week to use as body oil was saved and used for frying. The aluminium plates provided for eating were used as frying pans.
Some inmates would give one or two pakodas to Budhiya. She would wrap them up in a leaf and carefully tie the parcel to the edge of her sari. Then she would start walking with her cane to the designated place for the mulaqaat, singing joyfully. She would always head out for the mulaqaat much earlier than the others. Her age did not allow her to walk fast. By the time all the names of the inmates would be called, she would be there to meet her husband and son. The son would talk to her for five minutes, go to the canteen, buy her one or two jalebis and depart. The two old people would be left with each other to share their feelings and their toothless smiles. Their companionship gave joy to all the inmates and jail personnel as well. At a certain point, she demanded that the sepoy let them meet under the tree, which was half way between our wards and the place designated for mulaqaats. She complained that she could not hear her husband clearly over the din. When the sepoy said he did not have the authority to sanction this, she chided him, saying, ‘Then allow me to go home so that I can talk to him.’ The sepoy retorted that he would have gladly sent her away if only he had the power to do so. ‘Then send the one who has the power. I will ask him,’ replied Budhiya.
A fearless woman, she argued with everyone, including the jail superintendent and the judge. She demanded that they send her home. But they refused, saying it was not in their jurisdiction. People used to say that she was ‘barkarar’, nobody knew what that meant. I did not understand the word as I did not know Hindi well. Finally, Sunita, the educated one, told me that the old woman, her husband, and her son had all been given life sentences in the lower court. The high court had also upheld it. That is what ‘barkarar’ means, she said. The lower court’s decision would hold as the high court had upheld it. Now, only the Supreme Court had the power to release her.
One day, Budhiya pleaded with me, ‘Madam Beti, you have helped many people. If you put in a word for me, I can go home. Please have mercy on this old woman.’ I pitied her for her innocence. I was only a political prisoner, not a lawyer. I didn’t know anything about law. What could I do except write petitions?
‘Your husband is here. Your son is also here. Why do you want to go home?’ asked Rinku, who was sitting there.
‘Don’t I have other children? And granddaughters and grandsons? I wish to see them and spend my last days with them. I don’t want to die in this jail. I want to breathe my last at home.’ She began to sob. How could I console her?
‘Didn’t you think of all this when you killed your daughter-in-law?’ Rinku asked.
‘Did I kill my daughter-in-law? God is witness. He knows everything. He is the one to punish criminals. If I had killed her, God would have broken my head. God will certainly punish the people who jailed me,’ the old woman said angrily, pointing towards the sky. Afterwards, she mumbled something in a choked voice, which I could not understand. What I did understand was that she had endured her punishment for a long time. I had no words to describe her agony.
By that time, I had spent three Republic Days and three Independence Days in jail. It was such a pity that she was clinging to life only with the strong desire to die at home among her kin. Later, I came to know about her health issues. She had tuberculosis and her uterus had prolapsed. She had to tie a cloth like a diaper between her legs to push it back. The doctor who would occasionally visit the prisoners, examined her and said that she could not help because the old woman would not be able to withstand surgery at this age. I was shocked to find out how the prolapse had occurred. Right after she had delivered her youngest child, her husband had kicked her in the abdomen during a domestic fight, causing this damage. She badly needed surgery to set it right. But she refused it outright. This was not because there was no money. She refused surgery because she wanted to punish him by letting her uterus hang so that he could never make love to her. This was her rebellion. I was aghast upon learning this.
Was it the height of foolishness or the revenge of a helpless woman? How could she speak so amiably with that man after all the insult and injury he had inflicted on her? How could she crack jokes with him? Laugh with him? I could not understand her. But my affection for her grew with each passing day.
Whenever an officer visited the prison, we would petition for her release, explaining her ordeal. Every officer promised to help her but nothing happened.
Once, after my fourth Republic Day in jail, the old man did not turn up to meet Budhiya on the day of the mulaqaat. We soon found out that he had been hospitalized. She was overwhelmed with sorrow. She used to wait for him every Sunday in vain. Meanwhile, her son had been released upon the completion of his jail term.
When the lower court sentenced all three of them, the old people were out on bail for some time, but their son was not. After the high court upheld their sentence of ten years, the old couple was sent to jail again. The son’s term had ended because he had stayed in prison continuously. The old couple was yet to complete their term. ‘Don’t forget me, son!’ the old woman sobbed when he was going home.
We received news that the old man was seriously sick and had to be transferred to a hospital. In a few days, she was summoned to the office and taken in a wheelchair, where the old man’s body was handed over to his family. Budhiya’s grief was boundless.
‘Oh mother! Send me home! Let me live until I go home!’ she cried, looking up at the sky, addressing her dead mother. Our stomachs churned at this. We were not able to eat a morsel of food that day. I used to sit with her for some time every day, pleading with her or chiding her so that she would eat something. But I had no words to console her.
She asked me to write a petition on her behalf to the jail authorities demanding that they perform the tenth-day rites of the old man and give her a white sari and brass bangles. Her son bought the things needed for the ritual on the ninth day. But she demanded that the jailor provide the things and get the ritual conducted.
I went over to her in the evening. She had bathed, put on the white sari, eaten some food and lain down under the neem tree. She was talking to herself, waving her hands at the sky. ‘Look, Madam Beti! See what this old fellow has done! No sooner did I lie down than he came into my dreams, wearing white clothes. You know what he said? He said, “You did everything perfectly, but you could have made some fried potatoes.” And then he threw a stone at me. Look at this,’ she said, holding up a pebble.
‘It could have been a crow,’ I said.
‘I know his ways. There is not even a single bird on the tree. It is him,’ insisted Budhiya. ‘The old man must be craving fried potatoes. Please get me some potatoes, I will give you money.’ Budhiya tried to untie the knot at the edge of her sari, to give me money.
I refused the money as my eyes filled with tears, blurring my vision.
One day, she summoned me.
‘I want to talk to the jailor. Please ask him to come here,’ she said.
‘Shall I take you to his office?’ I asked
‘No, he should come here, he will come if you ask him,’ she replied, firmly.
‘He won’t come if I alone call him, we should all ask him together.’ I gathered all the inmates and we decided to boycott all food, from tea in the morning to dinner at night, until the jailor visited us. The jailor grasped the sense of unrest in the charged atmosphere and agreed to come, on the condition that we all ate our breakfast before he arrived. This was his way of establishing his authority. We agreed and he came as he promised. Budhiya stood before the jailor with her cane, her old body bent over in half, her torso almost at right angles with her frail legs. With one hand on her waist, she looked straight into the jailor’s eyes.
‘Ask him for whatever you want. He will give it,’ said Seetha.
The jailor was about to open his mouth to say something but was interrupted by Budhiya.
‘Why have you not been jailed yet?’ She shot the question at him in a stentorian voice, her face red with rage.
It took a little time for the jailor to understand what she was asking. He was stunned.
‘Why were you not arrested when my man died in jail? That is what I want to know,’ Budhiya demanded.
‘Great! As if I killed him!’ retorted the jailor, in a sarcastic tone.
‘Then why did you put me in jail? Did I kill my daughter-in-law? You jailed me, my son and my husband because my daughter-in-law died in my house. My husband died here in this jail. So you and your doctor must be put in jail. You jailed all of us, believing my daughter-in-law’s people. Nobody believed in our innocence. Now I say that your doctor killed my husband with an injection directed by you. What is your answer? Why are you not in jail on my complaint?’ She was holding her stick like a sword, looking at him straight in the eye.
‘Hey! Am I not in jail too?’ he said in an attempt to lighten the mood as he had no answer to her question.
‘You are not in jail. You are in the chair. You should be behind bars, eat what we eat, feel as disturbed as we do – that is what your law says. Why should there be separate laws for us? If it is not so, give my man back to me. If you say that you have no power to bring him back, then send me home.’
The jailor had had enough. ‘Send her back to the ward,’ he said to the jamadarin.
‘What is wrong with her words? You have separate laws for the rich and the poor,’ said an inmate.
‘What happened to your recommendations for her release?’ I was also angry. ‘Don’t you have the responsibility of writing to the Inspector General about her old age and poor health? Don’t you have the responsibility to help her to go to the Supreme Court?’ When I said this, every one supported me.
‘First, you go and do that, sir,’ said Budhiya, waving her stick before the jailor’s face.
After this incident, Budhiya’s son got a petition written with the help of a lawyer and gave it to his mother along with a letter addressed to me. Budhiya handed them over to me. Her son had written that he would do whatever possible for him to get his mother out of jail and the rest was my duty. I talked to the jailor and made him send the petition to the Supreme Court as a jail appeal.
From that day on, whenever I met her, she would ask me, ‘Beti! Have any papers arrived from Delhi?’
Meanwhile, I was granted bail. My fellow inmates were sad and teary-eyed at the news. I hesitated to tell the old woman that I was leaving. But she laughed happily, patted my head, and said, ‘Be happy, Madam Beti. God bless you.’
As my husband was still in jail, I went back the next month to meet him. I reached Hazaribagh by mid-noon. The sepoy at the gate said, ‘Had you come in the morning, you would have met Budhiya. She was released and left for home only this morning. She fought even with Yama to die at home, among her people.’
My mother had died of a heart attack soon after I was jailed. My sister had given me one of her saris after I was released. I had brought this sari for Budhiya.
The sari, my mother’s memory, remains with me, just like my memories of Budhiya.
Published by Ratna Books, B Anuradha’s Prison Notes of a Woman Activist is a luminous account of jail from the pen of a sensitive young woman who draws deeply moving sketches of women who sometimes do not even know why they are in prison. Anuradha’s stories move from children who are born in prison, with no idea of the world outside their walls – not even knowing what the moon looks like except on television – to old women bent with age serving life sentences and longing for release before they die so that they can die at home.
‘Lathi Budhiya’, translated into English by P Sathyavathi, is one of the stories from the book. Shared here with permission from the publisher.