Text used in the various Chapters are excerpts of letters written by Natasha and Devangana to members of Pinjra Tod while they were incarcerated.
A link to the English translation of Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain is given below. We have used a Hindustani translation (published by Nirantar in their "Gender and Education Reader Part II").
It’s close to midnight, G is reading namaaz, the sound of lag ja gaale” playing in a barrack TV somewhere as I write to you wrapped under many blankets, it’s one of N’s favourites, but for me it’s only after the incarceration and the uncertainty of the future , that I have come to grasp this song “shayad phirr is janam me mulaquat ho na ho.” …sigh… Sorry I didnt intend to begin so morbidly. :)
… Also it has been so so nice to get letters from you. I just cannot describe the joy and excitement we feel when we receive a letter. Just by the spring in our feet, people are able to tell that we have received a letter … It’s a little heartbreaking to know how lonely and isolated everyone is feeling and the inability to really share with each other what is in everyone’s hearts. Maybe you guys should write letters to each other :P Maybe the apps can’t really hold the depth of feelings, the enormity of all the sorrow and the piercing loneliness everyone contains in their hearts.
Chapter 1 | Dreaming up Futures
… Basically prison is an extension of the logical end of all the unfreedoms in the society one has been fighting against, everything meant to crush one’s autonomy. But I have seen—even in a place like this which is meant to strip away one’s autonomy and humanity, reduce people to bare life—people still manage to retain some, hiding them in nooks and corners, hiding them from always prying eyes. They still manage to laugh, cry, sing together, form intimacies and friendships, dream about another future. I have also realised the infinite creativity people have, how they transform things, places into something else for survival with dignity.
We had a reading session of the story "Sultana’s Dream", in our barrack one night.
Chapter 2 | हम गुनहगार औरतें (We Sinful Women)
It is women’s defiance collectively that helped one survive “outside,” it is the same that is crucial to surviving “inside,” in jail. Every day I draw strength from the women who have been here for many years; women who have no-one “outside”; [women] who are endlessly waiting through long trials…women who are as much “criminals” as prisoners of structural oppressions. I cannot write about fellow inmates in the letters, but I do have a name for the prison: “Hum Gunahgar Auratein.”
On January 3rd on Savitri bai’s janamdiwas I thought of you all a lot, where we have come, where we are headed and what awaits us. In the evening, a baji sat completing a beautiful painting of Savitribai, taking inspiration from the artwork you had sent. Baji had decided to stop spending her time in jail regretting “Maine socha life me mujhe Kabhi khud ke liye time nahi mila hai, mai jail ka time nayi chizen sikh kar katungi.”
A most extraordinary thing happened in Jail yesterday evening. I had tried to explain to them – – how a rainbow looks like, and what it’s colours are. We only had one broken piece of red crayon with us. So we found the rest of the colours from old newspapers and tore them out to make our rainbow collage. The children were most delighted and curious, but also confused, “par aasman mein itne saare rang kaise ho sakte hain?”, the eldest one kept asking.
And then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it happened, happened yesterday evening. The skies were unusually blue and clear, the evening light soft and teasing, the sun peaking in and out through the clouds, and a very light drizzle. I had a moment of anticipation, but feel scared to hope.
The eldest one screamed, ‘aunty, dekho, RAINBOW!’
So yeah, an actual rainbow in the sky. A magnificent fragment of the arch revealing itself in front of our ward. The children were ablaze with excitement, each of them wanted to be lifted up to get a better view. There was excitement all around, women shouted to one another, to come outside, to be witness.
The delight of the rainbow, the entire rainbow, produced an infectious intensity, there was overwhelming emotion. Some began to fervently pray, some raised their hands and heads into the skies shaking, some cried, some stood and stared and smiled, yet another screamed duas and yelled to the gods, another cursed, some kept blinking their eyes to find and count all seven colours – were they all there? It was the first rainbow for many inmates – “kabhi socha nahi tha Jail mein aake pehli baar dekhungi “. It was of course a first for all the children, as one friend told them, ” This is our ticket to freedom, our path, we must find where it’s end begins”.
There was hope, so much hope, cacophonous impossible hope. Everything seemed suspended for a moment – a joy. I almost felt a melancholy, a defeat, at the rainbow’s inability to fulfil, it’s inevitable betrayal, it’s ephemerality.
It was time to be locked inside soon, as if almost knowing it, the rainbow faded away. The children became anxious, “aunty, woh kaha gaya?’, ‘Woh kyu chala gaya?’, ‘Kal aayega kya?’, ‘kyun hamesha nahi rehta?” There was a barrage of questions I could barely satisfactorily answer. I didn’t even have an answer to the basic, ‘wo kyun aata hai?’ Why and how does a rainbow come and go, Do you remember?
During “khuli ginti” [the specified time during which prisoners are allowed to access other barracks and the open area within the jail premises] our barrack is a constant centre of activity. The children are always in and out—demanding, bringing joy and frustration—while other inmates are constantly dropping by for some reason or another: someone needs an application to be written; someone wants to learn to read and write (I even teach Hindi sometimes!); someone wants help in composing a love letter or writing cheesy shairi; someone has questions about the legal system, their case, their bail, their lawyer; someone needs a little assurance or a conversation to unburden; someone wants to understand how to book an e-mulaqaat [video calls that prisoners are permitted to have with individuals listed as their contacts]; someone wants me to read them a story, someone needs a canteen samaan [items] list written; someone wants to know how their children can study in college like us. In the process, one ends up traversing, intimately knowing, connecting and bonding with so many lives, so many encounters, streets, desires and dreams, building new friendships and collectivities, new life songs and histories. In the process we have also been given innumerable duas and blessings: “Hum sab se pehle aap log nikal jao mere pyare bache”—[You all should be released before any of us, my sweet children]—women are generous, very generous with their persistent and fervent wishes.
… The beginning of this month has been rather exciting. Jail No. 6, immersed in the preparations for celebrating March 8 :) We had put in an application to mark the day as had been the practice earlier. The hustle and bustle that marked the lead-up to the day produced a nice dynamism here, like things were happening. For those imprisoned for many, many years, a sign of a gradual return to “normalcy,” a breaking of the stasis and monotony that corona had brought even inside prison—maybe the burden of kato-ing [biding] time was to be eased a little.
… Sharing the history of this day with sathis eager to know; the joy of practice sessions as one saw people emerge and transform, create and enter character, fumbling lines to confident dialogue deliveries; working with one another and collectively owning the natak [a play]; learning together the lyrics of “Tod tod ke.” :) … Fatima Sheikh was played by Natata (as the kids lovingly call her), on popular demand.
… At the end of those days, we used to be incredibly exhausted, but it wasn’t the exhaustion that comes from enduring incarceration. It was an invigorating exhaustion that comes from encountering possibilities—a feeling not new, but familiar, that had marked the end of a long day of campaigning; meetings where conversations reached somewhere; night protests! A realisation that had been working its way through over the last months but which found a concrete manifestation for March 8—our work, our dreams can never stop, no matter where they _____ [a word scribbled out by the jail authorities who read the letters] us or what they do to us! They imprisoned us for singing songs, where will they put us when even inside prison songs reverberate? “Shoshan daman ko mitayengi woh toh naya zamana layegi.”
Chapter 3 | Un-caging
… There are of course days when incarceration becomes too much, just your barrack, your ward and the park outside, the visceral physical limits day after day.
… During these days, one of the things that gave me the most strength was singing songs of resistance to myself—the unfinished broken lines that I could remember, singing them repeatedly and endlessly through the long days and nights, sometimes quiveringly, sometimes confidently, sometimes even a bit too loudly for the silent night, as so many memories flashed through, giving strength, giving power, reassuring. Each world felt loaded with so much meaning and so much history. “Niddar, azaad ho jayegi woh to naya zamana layegi” <3 [Fearless and free, they will usher in a new era.]
Chapter 4 | The World Outside
… You know I think it’s much more difficult to be outside in this scenario. While we have to just wait, though excruciating at times, it is just that. But you people must be under so much pressure, handling so many things, taking so many difficult decisions, handling family pressures. While also witnessing the world as we knew it falling apart. Evil forces rising so rapidly and brutally crushing everything we held dear, all hopes for a better future being crushed every day. “Will there be singing in the dark times?”
… It is also giving us immense strength and joy to see the resolute farmers’ protests everywhere, especially to know that at many places it was joined and led by women and students. We looked and looked at the photos in the papers with immense exhilaration … Though of course all the bills were passed with naked disregard of all democratic norms. Maybe now people will be able to see its character more clearly. At least one can hope, though it of course seems quite naive.
I read a brief profile of a young girl in the newspaper who is accompanying her parents in the protests as she also identifies herself as a farmer. She participates in the protests during the night. It just filled my heart and I was almost in tears. I really want to meet her one day. Every day we await the newspapers as we have never done before and look at every picture almost ten times.
… Another life so brutally throttled at the altar of the structures of caste and patriarchy in Hathras. We have been painfully following all the news. All the structures of power still bent on depriving her and her family of all dignity even in death. But it is again so heartening to see all the protests, so many people speaking up, coming out on the streets. I keep wondering about all the things we would be doing right now. I am sure you all are doing all that, writing stuff, making posters. I naively keep looking for one of you in the photos of all the protests happening across our country. Anyway, it all fills us with hope and some solace to see some challenge to this brutal regime.
… Sometimes I really feel/wonder if in these abysmal times, it’s probably easier to be “inside” than “outside,”—the “outside” produces the burden and responsibility of action, of doing, which at the current juncture seems a more mammoth and overwhelming work than ever before. I keep drawing blanks thinking of how I would cope if I was in your place. Inside jail, our only political task is to wait and endure; to not lose one’s mind in this excruciating confrontation with time and keep the mind and body alive; to not let the oppressors succeed in breaking our spirits and dreams… I cannot even imagine what must you have gone through and are still going through, especially as this lockdown has deprived the warmth and reassurance of being together, holding and hugging each other. In a way, everyone is locked up in a prison of a kind.
Chapter 5 | Songs of Solidarity
As the days and months roll by, one comes to gradually realise that the jail after all is really not such an exceptional place. It is just an extension of all the oppressions that define this brutal world—maybe it’s quite an intense version of it, but even that I am not fully sure of. Just like a factory, a plantation, a hostel—it is yet another space that imprisons the working classes, imprisons women. When a jail staff instructs you not to go here or there, it’s not extraordinary—women are always told by fathers, husbands, lovers to not go here or there. At least in jail, the exercise of power is clear and transparent, unlike in the case of family and society where there is all the paraphernalia of “love,” “honour” etc.
… This criminal justice system wrongs and destroys so many lives, so many poor and working-class women languishing here, falsely framed and implicated; families, homes, futures shattered, but still surviving, somehow—almost a miracle! A common refrain that women quote here, “Police rassi ko saap bana sakti hai.” [The police can turn a rope into a snake.]
We probably need to give up or rework the category of “political prisoners”—a political prisoner is no exception; most gunahgar auratein, incarcerated and brutalised, their lives and relationships torn apart, with very little besides an abyss of endless waiting confronting them under a legal system impossibly difficult to comprehend or access from their locations - they are all political prisoners!
… A memory of that baji from the sit-in protest outside the Jafrabad metro station who had remarked, laughing infectiously, slightly teary-eyed, “Jabse aankh khuli hai, bas ghar ki char diwari Delhi hai. Aaj raat teen baje sadak meh khadi hoon, woh kar rahi hoon jo kabhi bhi nahi socha tha karungi!” [“Since my eyes have opened, Delhi has become the four walls of my house. I am sitting on the road at 3 in the night, doing what I never thought I would do.”]
… The unknown awaits us. We will have to embrace it with all the courage we can muster together, open ourselves to new beginnings and the harshest of challenges. A new reality that has arrived too soon, too suddenly, it’s incredibly daunting and scary, but I believe we are together slowly learning to navigate and inhabit it. What can we do but move forward, learning from history of the world and our own—to equip ourselves to handle what is unfolding and awaits, it is also a graver responsibility.
… One evening, a slightly low one, staring at the dramatic clouds for some solace, one of the little kids lying beside me asks, “Devangana, aasman kaha se aata hai?” [Devangana, where does the sky come from?] His next question stunned me even more, “Aasman ghar se aaya hai kya?” [Has the sky come from home?] He has grown up here, has learnt to feel that excitement for home, that longing for ghar that everyone leaves for.
Thankyou for sending news of the Jupiter Saturn conjunction, it was beautiful to witness then in the night sky, just before lockup time, just as the calm reddish moon rise emerging from our favourite tree in jail, the last day of this bizarre year- “chand ghadiyaan yahin hain jo azaad hain…”
Not that I had any doubts about it after all these months, and despite the intense repression and constant fear of more, we are still holding through; that the little naiyya [boat] is still afloat and sailing is a testimony to our collective ability to survive and endure, it must be acknowledged for the possibilities it holds in itself.
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