Sabarmati Central Jail, spread over 68 acres of land, houses more than 3,000 inmates, both big and small. The ones sentenced by court give up their personal clothes and dress in prison uniforms; they aren’t allowed food from home and eat what is cooked in the jail’s kitchen. Such luxuries are only afforded to those awaiting sentencing. Both kinds of prisoners are kept in different barracks, dividing Sabarmati jail into two. The new jail was constructed as the number of inmates rose. It has several safety issues, unlike the older jail that was constructed by the British.
Mohammed and his eight companions were not sentenced by a court, but since the allegations they were facing were very serious, they were kept with other hardcore criminals within the strong walls of the old jail. While they wore their own clothes, the jail superintendent had rejected their request for outside food because of the seriousness of their case.
They ate the food prepared in the jail kitchen.
The jail had a large veranda in the middle and an open-air theatre, too, and the smells from the kitchen were unmistakable to anyone passing by. Every morning and every evening, 9,000 rotis were prepared. Each inmate got three, served with vegetables and dal—with rice in the afternoon and khichdi in the evening. The inmates themselves were responsible for preparing this simple fare.
In their first month in the jail, except for Yusuf and Parvez, Mohammed and their other companions didn’t take to the jail food, though they were aware this was no picnic. The food was cooked Gujarati style, which the first two were familiar with despite being Muslims.
The inmates always wanted work in the kitchen. Cooking for 3,000 people 365 days of the year, there were frequent ups and downs in the levels of salt and spices, but when the rest of the inmates had been served, those working in the kitchen could add what they could to improve their meal. The guards were aware of this, but they let it pass since many of the inmates had been in for a long time.
At 10 in the morning, a handcart entered 200 Kholi, and, just like every morning, the inmates stood in line, steel plates and bowls in hand. The government had upgraded their utensils from the earlier aluminium ones. That day, they were being served potato and brinjal sabzi, rotis, dal and rice. Each was given his usual amount. The one who had problems the most with this kind of food were Abu and Riyaz, who were used to having rice but not the bowlful they got in jail. But they too stood in line and took what was given.
They went back inside the barracks and sat to eat with Mohammed and the others. All eight had their meals together, morning and evening. Abu and Riyaz put one roti each into the plates of the other six—Mohammed, Yunus, Chand, Danish, Yusuf and Parvez—who would then give their share of rice to them. This had been going on for eight years. After each exchange, their faces would light up. Yusuf often joked about the day of hanging: When the court would ask him for his last wish, he’d say, “I want to eat rice.” They all cracked up laughing. Replying quickly to Yusuf, both rice-eaters would say, “Batke, if you don’t know the difference between a Madrasi and a Mallu, don’t talk.” Abu and Riyaz, both from Kerala, would get angry every time someone called them “Madrasi,” as if someone had abused them. They all had something going on inside, but their faces, their expressions indicated everything was alright.
When two eat the rice served to six, what can one expect? Abu and Riyaz would start to feel sleepy within half an hour of eating. All the inmates were supposed to return to their barracks by noon. The warden would do a headcount to check if any had been left outside before closing the barracks. In jail parlance, it was called bapor bandi—afternoon closure. The inmates were to stay in their barracks from 12pm to 3pm. Those who worked at the Jail Udhyog were sent on their departments.
Once the rest were inside, the jail would teem with monkeys and cats. While making rotis for 3,000 inmates, it was common for several to remain uncooked. The inmates would break off the uncooked edges and leave it at the corner of their ward; they knew that what was uncooked food for some was a meal for others.
The monkeys and cats would eat those raw bits left for them. None stopped them crossing over the high walls of this jail. Riyaz often stood near the iron grills of his barracks to look at the cats. He had one back home in Kerala, a very fat one he called Ammamma—grandmother.
Riyaz was from a well-to-do family. His father had a successful coconut farm and he had graduated in agriculture studies. After watching videos of the 2002 communal clashes, he had a feeling of desperation thinking how his community had been the subject of such atrocities.
He was introduced to Mohammed back then, a lawyer and the secretary of an organization called Islamic Rights. In fact, the two had met at a function held by Islamic Rights in Hyderabad about 10 years before, and had remained in touch through email and text messages ever since.
To be continued...
This is the fourth part of the serialized novel 'Deewal' based on the Sabarmati jailbreak attempt, written by Prashant Dayal, the editor of MeraNews.com.