The author explores the society within the prison, and outside it and argues why prisons guarantee nothing, no reforms, and can be very dangerous to life which is without natural light and ventilation.
NEW DELHI: Tarun Tejpal’s latest work, has hit the stands, though I must say it has not set the Ganges on fire. Social media is silent about the tome and some of his adversaries are encouraging editors not to touch the book. Frankly, I am not too worried about it.
Tejpal has a strong message for his readers, it is buried deep in the book and it is silent but surfaces every now and then and makes a significant impression on all of us who have become part of India’s accepted backdrop of life. He is saying one can demand justice in India but not mercy, it is a strong statement and a reflection of the Indian society (read the underbelly).
Through a number of characters in the book, the novelist Tejpal meticulously details the nakedness of a hypocritical society that has engulfed the rich and the famous in India who love their glasshouses, and do not want to step out to accept the nation’s brutal and ugly truth. Time and again Tejpal hammers at the doors of those who matter in India, explaining why the underdog should be heard. It is almost like reading through the New York Times to find out that the number of Blacks and Hispanics in US prisons have increased by over 700% in the last two decades, while the big buck crimes are controlled by the Whites. And no one asks any questions, no one cares.
The Line of Mercy by Harper Collins helps Tejpal find out where this line of mercy is actually drawn and who are those who live on both sides of the fence. The author drops hints, asks questions about possible areas of conflict, and tries hard to take the reader through those conflict zones. Tejpal offers various options where such lines could possibly be drawn. It could be inside an office, or an interrogation chamber at a police station, or inside the brutality of a dark prison, inside the privacy of a bedroom or a blow-hot-blow-cold courtroom or even between two warring families of two lovers. Tejpal continues to ask penetrating questions and expects the readers to draw their own conclusions.
The dashboard for this tome, obviously, is set inside a prison somewhere in India. It is a work of fiction, so no one will search for meanings between the lines, no one will try to find out which prison Tejpal is referring to in the novel. So let’s take a close look at the characters. There are Asambhav and Aranya, ancient lovers, Bichhhoo a triple murderer; Dr Damodar Desai—now referred to as Dr Hagg—whose medications killed two kids. The big boss of the prison, Peter the Fist, whose hands are probably bigger than those of the Great Khali the wrestler, Godwin, the framed innocent and neglected son of a paranoid father and a mother who self immolates herself to escape the wrath of her husband on her intimate parts. And the rest, pimp Barretto, Papa baker, Aslam the bugger-man, who is also the Hariram barber of the jail, Jogen Jabda and Atoum Bumb the dwarf, who once served in a circus. There is a plumber Andha Kanoon, a plumber who beat his wife and her sister to death and almost lost his eyesight in jail. True to his style and passion, Tejpal finds the ubiquitous Hindutva fanatic, Babu and a handful of the rest, Google Baba, Singham the cop, even someone who married his internet love via Skype from jail. He is called Spark Plug. The author finds these extraordinary figures in imprisonment narrating their unique life stories. You dive deep, the uniqueness of their character becomes clear. I wonder whether Tejpal actually witnessed all these characters from close. Life behind bars rarely undergoes any fundamental change. The metal walls often sweat with heat, industrial fans meant to cool the place hardly work.
It is the world Tejpal explores, explores a lot. The author explores the society within the prison, and outside it and argues why prisons guarantee nothing, no reforms, and can be very dangerous to life which is without natural light and ventilation. Throughout the book, Tejpal raises a mirror and pushes for the state to invest more in social services in underserved communities, which could keep people out of prison to begin with. The author is convinced justice is blind but still nurtures hope. How about having one eye open, he asks? And then he writes: “The angel of justice should be principally blind but should keep peering intermittently from under closed eyelids.” Tejpal is saying Indian jails will always be overpopulated with huge crowds of guilty, the presumed guilty, the defenceless who are inherently weak and those who cannot read a line from the pages their lawyers bring in the meeting rooms. This is a world alien to many. The inmates are perfect fodder for the jailor and his men, the cops, and the lawyers and judges in the steamy courtrooms. No one knows what’s true and what’s untrue. Maybe that’s why he writes: “The social contract between humans everywhere is based on the commonwealth of lies. The lies of justice and equality. The lies of nationalism and common purchase.”
Tejpal argues throughout the book how either a nation (read India) is punishing offenders with a severity far in excess of what is considered normal in otherwise similar societies, or it is breeding a far higher level of serious crime, or both.
He wants society to rise, and listen. And act.
A brilliant read.