Friday, 11 March 2016

My first Visit at the Central prison

My first day at the Central prison  

It was 9th Oct 2015, just few months after I quit my last corporate job. My decision was to take a break from the corporate rut since I felt so stifled in the environment. So my first prison visit for all good reasons ended up becoming a comparative study of experiences of the corporate world vs. the central prison - a journey, which started in this vein ended up with absolutely unexpected revelations.

It all began when I got a call from a theatre colleague, Evan and his excited voice told me that the authorities at the central prison were looking for someone to run their theatre project. It took me back in time, years earlier when my theatre group was planning to organise a show through an NGO, which worked with inmates and their families and another instance when my uncle recommended that our theatre group perform for inmates on India’s Independence Day. But somehow both projects never took off and this idea was stuck at the back of my mind.

I wanted to deal with the visit just like any other meeting and not let my imagination run wild or my perception get blocked with the supposed personification of a prison. However, it was a difficult mental task to keep all my apprehensions and fears at bay. I casually mentioned the visit to few friends but ensured not to inform my family who may have freaked out at the idea of their daughter running away from a plush corporate job to take up project at the central jail instead.

Before I knew it I was on my way to Paranppan Agrahara and what made the journey very familiar was that the new prison facility was right opposite to Electronic City where  the world’s top IT companies thrivewas situated. Moreover, it was 9 am, which meant I was probably driving alongside some of my ex-colleagues.

We had received instructions from the prison authorities to reach by 9:30am as they wouldn’t allow us inside after 9.45am. The same message was sent by SMS. So since we got stuck in traffic on Hosur Road, I called an official who was extremely courteous who said “don’t worry madam, once you reach give me a call”.

Using GPS, we found the building. The exteriors had a certain quality that made it look like a prison - very unlike the glossy glass-decked building on the other side of road.

I had dealt with security in corporate companies before, where guards treat you with incomprehensible distrust while you wait in long queues or on road in the hot sun or in shabby waiting rooms. If you are carrying a laptop, you are subjected to more torture in the name of verification. From your personal ID to your bags, you are checked by grumpy-looking staff while you gaze into a small camera, which takes your photo. Your cars and bikes are checked by rude guards and the entire experience leaves you wondering if you are a criminal and why you deserve this treatment.

These prior experiences had prepared me well and I was expecting to go through a similar or an even more harrowing experience. However, it was a pleasant surprise that the police staff were and courteous, while the security checks were efficient they didn’t not rip us off our self-respect. Due respect was given to the fact that we were the visitors and not under trials or convicts.

We were ushered to the admin block to meet certain officials and then meet with the inmates. Though we had to wait for a long time we were well taken care of; the staff kept us informed about delays in meeting and gave us water and coffee while we stared at the interiors, which resembled any other government office or school. There was a certain style to the curtains with small flower prints, the tables, the way the door partitions were made, the pale yellow color on the walls.

I have to mention one inmate who worked in the admin block who served tea and water to my colleague Evan and me. This guy returned and noticed that Evan hadn’t touched the tea and asked if he would like coffee instead. Evan informed him that he doesn’t drink tea because he is lactose intolerance. During our second visit the same inmate got milk for Evan assuming that he drank only milk and not tea (the inmate of course only spoke Kannada and understood only on English word ‘milk’).

We walked into the superintendent’s cabin while he was signing multiple papers. He spoke to us and shared his thoughts about what the inmates had done previously with theatre. There were a few insights, which thoroughly impressed me:

·         He said “my people are very talented”. It was so wonderful to see and hear the pride in his eyes and voice. I am sure corporates can take inspiration and pride in their employees
·         He was completely updated about every project, which had been done in the past; again a learning for heads of corporates who are sometimes clueless about what happens on the ‘floor’ or beyond one level of their hierarchy chart
·         He looked like he really understood the power of theatre and the arts and was extremely supportive
·         He was very accommodative and open to the various approaches, of course, within the security framework.
Throughout the time we were with him, he constantly interacted with others and signed papers but never got preoccupied and distracted from our discussion. Not once did he scream or raise his voice but you could feel his sense of authority through the way everyone else interacted with him. He was calm, composed and a thorough professional.

I couldn’t stop but compare it to an interview experience I had where a very senior lady during the interview took nonstop calls, kept screaming and shouting at her juniors and peers. She would ask me questions and never heard my answers. What was sad was not whether I got the job or not but how it left me with such a sour experience.  

And then there was a cop who ushered us through a huge gate as we walked down a path with compound walls on either side. The cop informed us that there were approximately 4,500 men inmates and around 500 women. I raised my eyebrows at the ratio. 

Soon we were in the orchestra room, a rejuvenation space. We met the music teacher who enthusiastically welcomed us. He even played ‘Sare Jahan se Accha’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ on the keyboard for us. When I asked them how often he comes to prison to teach, he replied “well I am inmate here and teach music because it’s my passion”. 

The next interaction was with an inmate who was quite old man and who took lot of pride in showing us the karaoke machine (which actually worked unlike in few corporates). He knew how to operate it and even without examining the list he knew the song numbers by heart. He sang a Dr. Rajkumar song from the movie Babrovahana. The resemblance of his voice and original the Rajkumar was uncanny and the best part was the passion he had and smile on his face.

Another cop told us that they have weekly karaoke nights where inmates and staff all sing together. And in my heart I wished more leaders got out of their ivory towers and celebrated with their employees on the floor and broke the glass ceiling. 

By then the inmates with theatre experience had arrived and we all sat in chairs in a circle. We were joined by around 7 of them who had been a part of Kannada theatre over the last two or three years. They spoke about theatre with such passion, which made the connection instant.

A few things left a huge impact on me:
·         They requested that as external faculty we should involve everyone who undergoes the workshop to ensure everyone gets a part in the play. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small or a big role but inclusion was important. They had already learnt that no role is small in the theatre world.
·         They articulated ‘you’ as an external faculty member will come and do as per your ideas and leave; however, we will continue staying together and we don’t want our relations to be strained because of this project. Hats off to the spirit of camaraderie.
·         And there I was thinking, “Will I ever feel such team spirit in the corporate world, which only works by the rule of competition and hypocrite policies that are implemented only as tick mark exercise?”   
The inmates talked dearly about their previous theatre experiences. In fact a few inmates who had been released decided to stay just to complete their commitment to the theatre project. And what’s even more impressive is that the young professionals who want to our join our theatre group find travelling from Kormangala to Indiranagar too much of an effort.
Finally, the superintendent was back and he spoke to each inmate and appreciated their performance.

And after all of this happened, we walked out of the prison, as the traffic and dust from the IT world on the other side took over...


Collaboration- Evan Hasting 
Blogging Idea - Sachit Murthy
Editing Support - Rahul Ahmad 


  1. Beautifully written. The content ofcourse is refreshing like a jail break (pun intended). What choice of words !! I am the new fan of Nandini Rawism !! Well done Evan, Sachit and Rahul. I am stalking you !!

  2. Thanks Srinath, trying to give words to the chaos in my mind & heart & document the experiences theatre is providing me, its a true privilege