My Childhood in a Prison Cell

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My Childhood in a Prison Cell

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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n a bright Monday morning, I meet the chirpy Karishma, soon after she just steps out of jail, eager to begin her 200-metre trek to school in Bahraich’s Kotwali area. As we walk, she intermittently reads out the hoardings lining the road, full of questions for Asha, the constable in charge of taking her to school every day. Karishma is a regular, chatty six-year-old and nothing about her mannerisms indicate that she’s been brought up in a prison.

Karishma lives with her mother, Anita, and 70 other women inmates, under trial for everything from theft to murder, in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich District Jail. Anita comes from the tiny Rukum village in Nepal’s Musikot district and she was arrested four years ago on a Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances charge. Bahraich lies along the porous Indo-Nepal border and is a notorious drug-running centre. Charas and heroin are smuggled into Bahraich over the border, usually by poor rural women with no real prospects, and from this dusty north-western UP town, the contraband makes its way to bigger cities like Lucknow and Patna.

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Since the Seema Sashastra Bal started a serious crackdown on women mules, people like Anita have routinely been rounded up. The slow march of the judicial system ensures that they await their trials for years on end. And caught in the crosshairs, in a catch-22 situation, are children like Karishma – deserving a “normal” upbringing, but too young to be left without their mothers.

As we walk, Karishma tells me about Asha Didi and how the inmates are scared of her. I sense Asha is an important figure in Karishma’s life. About two months ago, it seems Asha screamed at a prisoner in front of Karishma, leaving the child very disturbed. “I think she was slightly traumatised,” Asha tells me, “because she would remain silent on our walk to school; she refused to hold my hand.” This lasted for more than a week, before Asha got her chance to explain the way jail works and become Karishma’s friend again. Now, every time Karishma sees that inmate, she warns him, “Zyada badmaashi nahi karna.”

This small incident is perhaps only one of the million ways that the reality of living in jail brushes up against Karishma’s life. Otherwise she lives like every other child with a set schedule for school, tuition, meals, and naptime, surrounded by a host of people who care for her. And Asha definitely seems like one of them.

Asha is a short woman with a formidable demeanour. When I try engaging with her, her answers are short and snappy, but she answers Karishma’s questions with love. She plays the role of the strict but loving aunt, who is constantly telling her right from wrong and warning her about things that can harm her. Her official responsibility is only to ferry Karishma to and fro from school, but she wants to do much more. She wants to bring her food from home and take her on outings, but she cannot risk her job.

Pandey is very fond of Karishma. The six-feet tall dark cop is always on his toes for her. He is the indulgent father Karishma has never had.

The outside world for children like Karishma is an unknown entity. In a recent article on the subject of children who grow up in prisons, the case of the three-year-old Munna was mentioned. “The boy recognises his mother as ammi and other women inmates as khala but is a stranger to almost everything about the world outside.” His mother recalled that during her recent court visit he was really startled – he had seen a dog for the first time.

Karishma undoubtedly also lives without exposure to many things that most children are familiar with – entertainment like movies or social constructs like friendship. She did have some friends within the walls of the prison. Until six months ago, three other children were serving sentences in Bahraich jail along with their mothers. Karishma was particularly close to Radhika, whose mother Sunita was transferred to Gorakhpur jail a few months ago; the others left after their mothers completed their sentences. Now, only Karishma remains with Asha Didi and jail superintendent Lalit Mohan Pandey as her only friends.

Pandey is very fond of Karishma. The six-feet tall dark cop is always on his toes for her. He is the indulgent father Karishma has never had. He tries to keep her happy in every possible way and takes care of everything that she needs, from toys to clothes and everything in between. He keeps a check on her educational progress and talks to her mother and tutor about it. Karishma’s tutor is an inmate called Nasrin, who is a graduate and sits with her every day for homework and revision. Along with Asha, Pandey, Nasrin, and her mother, Karishma’s retinue in jail also includes a cook, an undertrial specifically assigned the chore of preparing her breakfast and tiffin. It is an unusual family set up, but it seems to be working well for Karishma. Although it may come to an end soon.

Karishma will turn seven this April. The law dictates that a child is allowed to stay in prison with her mother only until the age of six. Karishma has been under the radar of the Child Welfare Committee but it won’t last long. The law dictates that the child must be handed over to the family and relatives, but Anita is adamant that Karishma will not go back to her father. Child trafficking is common in her village and she is scared that her father won’t be vigilant enough to prevent Karishma from being trapped in the trade. Her only option is to be sent to a child welfare home in Gondi, where she will be allowed to visit her mother twice a week.

Everyone at Bahraich District Jail dreads the day Karishma has to leave her unusual home. Pandey, who is most attached to her, is trying to find a way to get her to stay with her mother and the people who love her, but he may not be successful. The system is bureaucratic and Karishma is only one name in the 1,317 children across India, who find themselves in this predicament.

But the future is not on Karishma’s mind today. As we reach school, Karishma can only talk about her birthday party. She has been told that if she sticks to her timetable and is a good girl, she will get a party. Her last birthday in jail will be celebrated with cake, samosas, and Uncle Pandey will probably get her what she’s been secretly praying for — a pair of brand new goggles.

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