Saturday, September 27, 2008

Romeo Must Live

This is my seventh visit to the Tihar Jail, New Delhi; not as an inmate but as a curator. I am co-curating a project with a Delhi based young curator, Anubhav Nath. Every month we visit Jail Number 5 in Tihar where mainly the young under trials are kept. We take Indian contemporary artists along with us and in March 2009, we will do a huge show in New Delhi with works developed by the artists based on their experience culled from the jail. Every time, in the jail kitchen we eat small portions of rotis that the inmates themselves make for their lunch and dinner. You cannot refuse to eat when they offer you the food. There is a superstition that it is written in your destiny that you should eat jail food at some point of time. If you refuse, you never know, you will have to come back to this confinement, perhaps, not as an artist but as an inmate. In that case who would refuse to share a small portion of roti? To sidetrack any providential curse, we are ready to eat even a full meal cooked there. One of the jail guards who accompanies us during the visits jokingly tells, ‘It is the Prasad of Tihar. You should accept it with reverence.” And we do.

I am not planning to talk more about the jail food. I want to tell you about a particular incident took place in the art class in Tihar. After doing the rounds in barracks where the under trials are left to themselves, after making broken conversations with them, after visiting the de-addiction wards, isolation cells, vocational training unit and the library our tour ends in the art class where the artists talk to those inmates who are interested in art. These boys either copy from picture books, or try to recreate their favorite film stars from memory or try to capture the essence of the nature around them by painting sylvan landscapes. Some guys have a hand and eye for art and many do not. But there is no competition amongst them. They all do their work with a kind of sincerity and vigor that stem from their perennial need to kill the ennui of a confined life.

On my third visit I noticed this boy. Let us call him ‘Raj,’ the ultimate romantic hero’s name Bollywood, who always tells his interest of pursuit, ‘naam to yaad hoga’ (you may remember my name). However, our Raj is far from his filmy counterpart. Sitting cross legged on a carpet spread on the floor, he looks malnourished and eternally troubled. His long limbs and benign face do not show any signs of his past crime/s. He gazes at the image of a girl, which he has just painted with unskilled hands. I found some kind of blankness in his eyes. I felt his gaze penetrating through the paper, crossing the lawn, escaping the eagle eyes of the watchmen, jumping over the high wall and going somewhere else, where he was free like a breeze. I looked at the picture before him. The image did not look like anybody though I could feel that he had done it with a lot of love, care and passion. The contours were so delicately done as if he feared any further pressing of the graphite tip at it would hurt the real girl in his mind.

I go and sit near him and he looks at me with a startle in his body. “You are in love with this girl, friend,” I say with a smile. And he nods his head in approval. Now I am surprised. “Yes, I am in love with this girl,” and he tells me the name of the girl. Let us call her ‘Kiran’. “But how come you are here?” I ask him while scanning his body, looking for the usual evidences seen in the physique of a criminal; scars, burn marks, healed stitch marks etc. His skin is clean and I could not find any traces of crime. I insist him to talk about his life and he tells me the story. And the story of this eighteen year old boy goes like this:

Hailing from a shanty town in North Delhi, Raj was madly in love with Kiran who was his neighbor. Like any other shanty town story goes, Raj was a school drop out and Kiran was still studying in school. Raj’s daily routine involved the escorting of Kiran to school and see her back home. Rest of the time, he spent in doing odd jobs. One day Kiran told him about the villain in her life. Another boy from the same area, who happened to be a friend of Raj, used to stalk her whenever Raj was absent from her vicinity. The day Kiran revealed this to Raj, the villain had teased her in a very bad way. While telling the incident Kiran was in tears and Raj was in fire. As he did not have any other model than the Salman Khan-Shah Rukh Khan characters to emulate, Raj acted as any boy of his age and background was expected to act. He went and challenged the villain, asking him to meet for a ‘duel’ at a remote place in that evening. The villain, who too had no other role model life than Bollywood villains, took the challenge in due valiance. And they did meet in that desolated space in that fateful night. A scuffle ensued and Raj was prepared for any eventualities. Unlike in films, the villain was stronger than Raj. He caught Raj by neck and he was choking. Raj pleaded with the villain but the villain did not heed to his pleas. Finally Raj took out a pocket knife which he had hidden in his waist and stabbed the villain several times.

“I stabbed only to hurt him so that I could escape from his clutches,” Raj told me. But the villain succumbed to the injuries. Raj went into hiding and the police traced him on the very next day. Ever since he is in Tihar. He does not know when he would be free. It could be three years, seven years or life time. His parents come to meet him once in a while.

“Does Kiran come to meet you?” I asked.

“Yes, once in a while.”

“Do you think that she would wait for you till you get out of this shit?”

“I don’t know.” Raj’s fingers moved along the contours of her face. He looked at the image intently and I could see his passion, love, pangs and the longing for being with her.

“Bhaiya…I will wait for two more months as my court case is going on. If they convict me for five years or seven years, I don’t have any hope. But once I come out, I will be a different man. I will join the underworld,” Raj said to me with a lot of determination and I could see his disillusionment with the society and law.

Raj imagines himself as a righteous person as he stood for the rights of his beloved. Going by the cultural make up of a populace also by the popular ideological constructs about man-woman relationship in a society, Raj believes he is right and he is wrongly confined. If the Bollywood heroes could go scot-free after a lot of bloodshed and killing, why should he alone be punished? They too have done all those for their lady loves. Then why why why me only? Raj seems to ask. And his retaliation to an unjust society is to act against it when he can exercise his free will. There is no redemption.

I looked at the girl’s image again. In front of my eyes the image started melting and fading. Raj also might have felt the same as he held the paper tightly in his hands. The artists and officials were busy interacting with other boys. Raj did not give any damn to anybody or anything. He got up, rolled up the paper in his hands and walked off.

Against the setting sun, I could see this wounded and caged boy’s mind roaring like a sea of storms. No art could redeem him. But ironically, all his redemption rested on that one piece of paper with the painted image of Kiran’s face.

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