For the rest of my life, Tihar, South Asia’s largest prison, will be associated with the colour pink. To see policemen training their rifles from ashes-of-roses-coloured conical towers is absurd, and yet that colour soothed my nerves, which were somewhat frayed at the prospect of going on a jail tour.
My destination was Jail No. 6 and accompanying me were photographers Renuka Puri and Amba Batra Bakshi, co-author of In Custody: Women in Tihar. Puri has been a visitor to the complex since 1998, while Batra spent 10-12 hours every week for a year (2003-2004) at the jail to research the book.
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Anand Prakash, the head constable and the man with the keys to all the outer locks, ushered us in through the mini door built in the outer gate, and towards the body-search enclosure. A woman constable frisked us and our wrists were stamped before we were allowed inside the jail, which houses 456 women and 51 children.
As I stepped beyond the second iron gate, I saw an inmate— a middle-aged woman in a cotton salwar-kameez, holding a red umbrella and two mannequin busts with blonde and brunette wigs. “She must work at the beauty parlour,” explained Bakshi as the woman sauntered past. Last year, Habib’s Hair Academy set up a training centre at the jail and many of the inmates have been encouraged to take courses in beauty parlour management and hairstyling. “Even four years ago, even when there was no academy, women used to throng the parlour, especially before festivals such as karva chauth, to dye their hair with henna or burgundy-coloured hair dye,” says Bakshi, who has got a pedicure here herself.
The lawns and the hedges between each of the 18 wards of this jail are trimmed neatly. Inmates stroll casually through the long corridors of the wards. There are no uniforms and I catch glimpses of women in salwar-kameez, trousers, spaghetti tops, capris, shirts and skirts behind the gates with metal rods. The wards are narrow, long rooms with multiple windows with grills. There are coolers in all the common areas, such as the weaving and sewing rooms and in the children’s playroom. “Every woman is allowed to personalize the wall behind her bed and keep her possessions close by,” explains Puri, “but children spend mornings in the crèche and then sleep with their mothers in the cell.”
As we walked towards the crèche, next to the sewing and weaving rooms, colourful swings, slides and a mini merry-go-round came into view. In a large hall, children under the age of five were having lunch—rice, dal and rotis. Unlike their mothers, they were in uniform—cherry red skirts or shorts with white and red checked shirts. They waved happily at us, keen to know why we were visiting.
The commotion brought Stella, a tall Nigerian inmate, out of the adjoining playroom. Happy to see Puri, she took her around, pointing out the improvements at the crèche. “The children love her and call her Stella ma,” Puri tells me later.
The idea for a series of photographs inside the women’s cell came to Puri after an assignment on a computer literacy programme for Tihar inmates for The Indian Express in the late 1990s. “I was struck by how clean the space was and how totally unlike what we imagine prison to be like,” she says.
Initially Puri shot images for a group show by women photographers held in 1999. After the show, Roli Books commissioned her to do a book on the same topic, and in 2002, she decided to rope in Bakshi, a colleague at the time, to co-author the book. For the first couple of months that Bakshi visited Jail No. 6, she would spend time making small talk with inmates. “I spent time at the crèche or in the weaving or sewing rooms, and would talk to the women who wanted to talk to me.” As she became friendlier with the women, they would talk to her about their life before prison, the crimes they were charged with, and how their cases were progressing.
In 2005, the manuscript was ready and Bakshi moved to Bangalore. She was visiting the jail after four years. Puri still visits occasionally.
In Custody: Women in Tihar was published recently and has 98 images.