Prison diaries

The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail | Chetan Mahajan

Chetan Mahajan’s literary activities started in the least propitious of circumstances—inside a lock-up of Bokaro Jail in Jharkhand.

In 2012, Mahajan, currently employed with HCL Learning, was only three months into his job with Everonn, a Chennai-based IIT coaching chain, when he was accused of fraud and arrested under Sections 34, 406 and 420 of the Indian Penal Code. The company, which had been in dire straits financially for a while, got into a deeper mess when some of its teachers defected to its rivals. The parents of the students studying at Everonn demanded a refund of fees. When the company could not reimburse them instantly, Mahajan, who was heading the operations in Bokaro, had to face the music.

Arrested towards the end of the year, during the peak of the festive season, he had to wait for weeks before his case came up for hearing and he got bail. The long days of detention, although unbearably hard at first for this US-educated MBA, became meaningful in retrospect, especially when he started keeping a prison diary, recording and analysing his experience of being held in custody.

In spite of its edgy title, The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail is an unremarkable record of the days spent in the company of men who have been accused of petty or pernicious crimes. Expectedly, the Gurgaon-based Mahajan, who describes himself as a 42-year-old “overgrown yuppie", was appalled by the lack of hygiene and the generally inedible food in jail. But soon enough he discovered ways of circumventing the rules—the not-so-secret channels with the outside world that could get financially solvent convicts access to cigarettes, alcohol, mobile phones, Internet, even an iPod.

The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail: Penguin, 216 pages, Rs 250
The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail: Penguin, 216 pages, Rs 250

If Mahajan’s tone throughout the narrative is restrained, even exceptionally patient, his distress at the time of his incarceration was understandably intense. But instead of giving in to despair, he decided to sustain himself with a regime of reading, writing and daily exercise (both Mahajan and his wife are avid runners who participate in marathons).

The handful of cellmates who gave him company and comfort during the period are also brought alive with their individual quirks and stories. Instead of giving in to the easy temptation of demonizing these men, accused of a range of crimes—from killing their wives for dowry to rape, felony and homicide—Mahajan engages with the social and cultural circumstances that may have spurred them on. Though he never defends or rationalizes their crime, Mahajan does manage to convey the layers of complexity that lie beneath the surface of cases that may appear straightforward, without a shadow of doubt regarding the offender.

The larger, and perhaps most poignant, point that Mahajan’s account makes pertains to the troubled premises of the judiciary in India, where cases are deferred and delayed without end, and in many instances, never properly debated in a court of law. Writing about Raju, who was accused of rape and murder, Mahajan points out, quite rightly, that “The question here is not whether or not Raju is guilty, but that even guilty people are entitled to a defence."

In a country where the majoirty of people languishing in prisons is supposed to be undertrials, the sentiment is bound to ring painfully true.

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