Translation: Jail inside the Jail: The Last Days of Asgari Begum

This is a translation from a book written by Minakshi Sen who was arrested in the seventies as a Naxalite. Her book, Jailer Bhitor Jail, is about her experience in jail. I have tried to keep the translation as close to the original as possible.

Two bamboo sticks, parallel to each other. A skeletonlike dead human body was tied to them with a thick rope. Two other skeletonlike bodies were carrying the sticks on their shoulders. Their swiftness indicated the lightness of the dead body.

– Where are they taking her?

– They say to the graveyard for bodies that nobody wants. I don’t believe that.

– Why?

– What why? You think those who can make money out of food meant for people will give up the chance to make money out of dead people?

– Well, a skeleton can be sold at a high price.

– That’s what I said. If they don’t sell skeletons, who will?

– If they drop her on some open field under the sun?

– How does it matter? She’s dead.

The dead woman’s body had been like that since a while. Skeleton covered by skin. This skeleton believed, until her death, that she would survive only if she got a little bit of sun.In an Indian jail of the twentieth century she was known as Asgari Begum.

Asgari Begum. Non-criminal lunatic. Locked up, because she was insane. Thanks to a piece of paper signed by a judge, the police got the right to keep her locked up in the jail. Probably because she got out of her house in a fit of insanity. That is the law. Keeping the loonies in jail to maintain peace in the society and curing them with a dose of the ‘healthy system’ in jail.

At an end of the female ward, a three-room section is called Pagalbari – the madhouse. From most part of the female ward you wouldn’t be able to see the place, but there are a lot of stories about it.According to their levels of insanity the crazies are allotted rooms. The craziest ones are put in the same room, put on handcaps and chained to the grills. In another room there are about 200 ‘crazies’, among whom some are half-insane, nearly sane or sane. Some are completely naked, no matter what season. Young, middle-aged, old. Some laugh, some cry, some take a chunk off another inmate, some eat another’s finger.This is how the insane were supposed to get their sanity back. Pagalbari. And this place was home of Asgari Begum when she first entered jail.

We don’t know how crazy she was and which room she was put in. All we know that Begum contracted a Badshahi disease- tuberculosis, for which she was sent to ‘Degree’.

Degree. A few small rooms built by the British. Specially made for special inmates. The rooms have no windows. The upper half of the iron-grill door of each room is covered by walls. Light cannot come in the rooms. Inside the room the air is stagnant. Floors are damp. A narrow channel passes through the rooms to drain out bodily waste so the inmates can be kept in for 24 hours. In 1973, these rooms have the same use. So ‘unruly’ and ‘disposable’ Asgari Begum was sent to Degree. In a winter night screams and groans of a heavy, broken voice aired the information that a new one was in Degree. The next morning during the counting the warder shouted: Degree no.2 – Asgari Begum- NCL! and everybody knew Asgari Begum had come to Degree.

Hence the conversation with a warder:

– Masi, so there’s an Asgari Begum in Degree no.2?

– Yes, why?

– Just asking. What’s happened to her?

– T.B.

– Really, masi? So, is she getting any treatment?

– Yeah, I’m sure she is. Listen I don’t know all this, okay?

– But I’ve never seen a doctor visiting Degree. She hasn’t been taken to the hospital either.

– I don’t know. I’m a warder. I do my duty and then go home. I don’t keep tabs on who’s getting treatment and who’s not.

– Hey masi, crazies get special diet, and T.B. patients’ diet is even better. Milk, butter, eggs, bananas. She gets all those?

– I’m sure she gets all those.

– But we have never seen her getting those. She gets one cooking spoon of daal, rice, curry and boiled peas.

– If you know everything, then why do you ask me?

– No masi, we don’t know everything. Tell us masi, what happens to the food for crazies?

– Ah well, the senior matron takes it all. Whatever’s left the junior matron and permanent warders distribute among themselves. We’re temporary, so we get zero.

– But masi, what do they do with all these things? How much can they eat?

– Idiot, they don’t eat those. They sell them. Everything’s fixed. That’s how matron has so much money. How much d’ya think her salary is?

– Really?

– Don’t ever tell anyone or I’ll lose my job, okay?

– No, no. Masi, why’s she in Degree if she has TB?

– Why? It’s contagious. We have to keep everyone safe. We have to keep her in Degree.

– Okay, but what about her? A healthy person can get sick in Degree, and she’s a TB patient!

– What can we do? We have to keep everyone safe. She’s loony, so why bother so much over her?

So loony Asgari was living in Degree. She would crouch all night from cold, but in the morning she would beg the warders to let her sit in the sun. Sitting in the sun gave her such happiness, she believed she would survive only if she could get to sit in the sun. So some days she could be seen outside in the morning or the afternoon wherever there was a bit of sun. From a distance she looked healthy. The green sari, the dented plate in a hand. Asgari Begum.

One day we got to talk to her in a December morning. She was lying under a Nim tree in the sun. Her body was round and healthy. Looking at her one would realise that she would survive long against the disease. She was incredibly dirty, so was her sari, but the colour of the sari is still identifiable. Green.She had a round face. Her gaze wasn’t aimless as most crazies. She looked at us and, unfortunately, talked to us.

One of the things the ward authority had forbidden the inmates to do was talk to us. And yet, in front of the warders, Asgari talked to us.She talked a bit much in broken hindi and bengali. There was no sign of insanity in her speech. Maybe she was among those who have occasional bouts of craziness.While talking, she did a dangerous thing. She ranted about the ward-in-charge matron and towards the end she started shouting curses aimed at the matron. What she said was: she had a few gold ornaments. When she was put in jail nobody noticed those, probably because she was insane. Then she became a bit normal and since then she kept watch on her ornaments. One day matron noticed those and took them off with the help of some of her loyal inmates. She told Asgari there was nothing to worry as the ornaments were safe with her, Asgari would get them back when she left the jail. Otherwise other crazies might ruin those ornaments. Asgari didn’t feel secure about this settlement, those ornaments were all she had. So a few days later she asked the matron about her ornaments. The matron denied ever taking them and got angry. When Asgari kicked up a row, some of the matron’s loyal inmates beat her up and warned her never to bring the topic up or she would be dead. Asgari’s complaint was the matron didn’t send her for treatment or give her enough food because after stealing her ornaments the matron didn’t want her to live. Whether there was a way to get those ornaments back – that was her question.

There was no way to make her understand. According to the rules, before someone gets in jail s/he is searched under the watch of the ‘discipline officer’. A list is made of the belongings and the belongings are kept with the officer. When the person is released the belongings are returned according to the list. But many of the inmates are illiterate. They don’t know what’s written in the list. And if avoiding the discipline officer’s eyes someone manages to get money or valuables inside the jail, then according to the rule it’s illegal and anyone can take those things away. The existence of those things are not recorded so the discipline officer would rather deny it than admit not doing the job well.So there was no way Asgari could get her things back. Complaining to the jailer super might have serious consequences.Traditionally, the matron is the almighty god of the female ward. Asgari could get murdered without any witnesses. She was crazy, plus a T.B. patient. She could die any time. Didn’t she know all this? Didn’t she know that it was forbidden for her to talk to us? And complaining about the matron?

But we didn’t hear anything all day. During the evening counting, the warder shouted: Degree no.2 – Asgari Begum – … A normal heavy voice replied, ‘Present.’

– What, they didn’t say anything to her?

– The matron will never forgive her.

– I think the warders didn’t complain to the matron. She’s crazy, moreover a TB patient. Maybe they felt sorry for her?

– Maybe, they’re humans too.

– But …

Since then Asgari was never seen outside. The sun would rise and set, but Asgari was never to be found on the jailyard. Only when the chill of the winter would become piercing, a broken heavy groaning and cursing voice would signal her existence.

Then came the sunday. The wash day. Water was boiling in a huge cauldron, and clothes were heaped near it. The ones who gave their only dress were trying to cover themselves with rags. The sun was burning above the jailyard on which the half naked inmates were trying to warm themselves in the winter.

Suddenly the whole ward woke up with a jolt. Among the crowd of about a hundred people a chaos ensued. Two minutes passed like this. Then everything fell suddenly quiet, as if those who had shouted in fear became silent with another fear.A few sharp, cackling voices broke the silence – “Catch her — hit her — the mad woman — ” The source of the sound were a few women chasing a human skeleton. A living skeleton covered by skin. Long, thin arms stretched into the sky with fingers spread. Her hair formed three thick knots that fell on her shoulders.We understood that the cause of the panic in the ward was the hideous appearance of this skeleton. And the cause of their silence at the very next moment was these women running after the skeleton. The skeleton ran unsteadily, but fast. She was completely naked except a bit of the familiar green cloth tied around her waist. Asgari Begum.

Ten inmates, loyal to the matron, were chasing her. The matron gave these women good food, good clothes, good beds, some money and other things. In exchange, they served for the matron. Extremely cruel, they were the inmate-controlling group of the matron. We heard, Asgari pushed one of these women to the ground and forced her way out of Degree. These inmates controlled the other inmates, so they couldn’t let an ordinary inmate get away with hitting them, especially when the matron was egging them on. In white sari, the mother of a ten year old girl, the matron was commanding the group – “Catch her – quick – hit her.” Within a few minutes the group brought Asgari in front of Degree, beating her. From a distance we could distinctly hear her say, “I didn’t want anything! All I wanted was to sit in the sun! Even that you wouldn’t let me?”

Later another inmate like Asgari who became sane from insane told us that after a month when the Degree room was unlocked for cleaning Asgari ran out of it pushing a warder and a helper woman. Every second of this one month she was locked up in the damp, dark, cold room.Yet she believed she would survive only if she got a little bit of sun.

And finally one day, on the shoulders of two people the dead skeleton of Asgari Begum went out of the ward, under the bright sun.

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