Non Fiction by Dr L.Prakash
Slices of freedom
The law of demand and supply is one of the absolutes in life. More plentiful the product, less sought after it is, and vice versa. What is abundant is cheap, what is scarce is precious, but what is unobtainable is priceless. I use the word unobtainable, because only when you don’t have it and don’t have a means of possessing something, does it became invaluable. And to me, at the time of writing this, Freedom is one such commodity.
All of us are born free, live free and die free. But a few of us, loose this freedom for shorter or longer periods. Thus freedom is something, the value or invaluability of which, becomes apparent only when you loose it. Most of us take many things for granted. They are always present with us and we cannot imagine life without them.
Simple things like picking up a phone and calling your near or dear one! Or going into a toilet and shutting the door. (Prison toilets do not have a door. In Chennai Central prison, you protect both your modesty and hydrocele by hiding them behind a plastic bucket), or may be looking up at the sky in the night and gazing at the full moon or stars, or even simpler things like switching on the light when it gets dark. (In prison cells they do not provide for a light or switches inside. If you have to read in the nights, or write stories like this, you have to do it in candle light or an oil wick) or even simpler things like walk to the corner shop to pick up a pack of cigarettes.
Or switch on your favorite channel. (The prison TV shows two channels of Doordarshan on an ancient TV that only works either in mute or in absolutely full volume tearing your ear drums). Going into the toilet and switching on the shower. Going to your fridge and pulling out a bottle of chilled water. (It has been four years since I have had chilled water), or pet your dog. Or hug your daughter or kiss your wife. (No conjugal rights for prisoners facing trial – as per Indian law. Undertrial prisoners languish in prison for over fifteen years in various Indian Prisons) Or even breathe free air!
Like you, four years back, I too did not realize, how pleasurable these activities were, because I got them all free. Prison life changed all that and a little more. Being lucky enough to taste my second slice of freedom while in captivity, I decided to write this small story.
In India, the criminal justice system is administered as per a rule book called the Indian penal code. This was originally formulated by Lord McCauley in 1860 and is followed almost unmodified for the last hundred and forty five years. In addition there is a code of criminal procedure, last updated about thirty five years ago. The Indian penal system runs within the ambit of these two codes and law books. Though ample efforts have been taken to safeguard the rights of a person arrested by the police and prosecuted by the system, all laws perform only as well as they are administered. In the current times, in Tamil Nadu, the police, judiciary and the executive, form the trident that have learnt to victimize a person accused of a crime while staying within the provisions of law books.
Thus, justice in India is not the same for all. A religious leader accused of murder would get a bail in two months. A movie actress accused of hiring killers to finish her estranged lover would be bailed out in two weeks. And international pedophile who sexually abused numerous children would be granted bail and even clandestinely flee from India with the tacit support of the administration.
However a car thief would be denied bail and a cell-phone snatcher retained in prison for eighteen months to complete a trial in which the lower court would award him a sentence for six months. Thus between the time an accused enters the dreaded gates of the prison, till he is either let out on bail or is acquitted or convicted of an offence, he remains an under-trial prisoner. The period spent thus, varies from a few months to a few decades. And it is during this period that the poor accused is denied of his freedom and actually realizes how valuable and invaluable it is.
Once a perpetrator is convicted, then his conduct is governed by prison rules and he becomes eligible for a parole, sooner or later and tastes him freedom. However someone facing trial is in a piquant situation. Once he gets dumped into the prison, he stays there till a decision is made about him one way or the other. In the past, these poor souls went out once or twice a month, when their appearance was required before the courts.
Indian law said that an accused could not be detained for longer than two weeks at a time and each time a magistrate extended a remand, he had to necessarily see the accused. Thus during visit to the courts, the poor prisoners would taste a limited slice of freedom. Though the AR vans that shift the prisoners from the prison to the courts are ancient grilled monsterties, worse than corporation dog vans, yet the prisoners actually look forward to the trips, because they can see the crowd on the streets, smell the diesel fumes, observe the traffic jams and walk on free earth while they are produced before the magistrate. But even his was done away, with the advent of video conferencing. Now this slice of freedom was snatched away too.
In the present times, when an accused enters the prison, he is presented before the video court in the jail premises itself. Thus currently, an Indian undertrial prisoner, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, is an unfortunate person indeed. I too am one such accursed, who shared this misfortune. Come December and I would have completed four years as an undertrial prisoner denied of bail, waiting for the wheels of the judicial system to move at their own slow pace.
Unlike the numerous other less fortunate prisoners who are totally denied freedom of any kind, I have been fortunate to have enjoyed limited freedom on two occasions. The two occasions came close on heels. I had one opportunity to roam on the pavements of Burma Bazaar for half an hour. And today I had a chance to see my house. Though police constables were with me on both occasions, yet these two slices of freedom tasted so delicious that I could not stop myself from writing about them.
The first opportunity came about five months ago. I had completed three and a half years in the prison. Being a prisoner, did not mean that I was totally cut off from civilization. I got the daily newspapers and watched the news on television. I knew about the American invasion on Iraq and the latest Booker Prize winner. I read books and magazines. I wrote stories. And somehow kept myself occupied. What cannot be cured has to be endured. And I could endure it with a smile or a frown. Thus I kept myself away from thoughts of physical freedom, while I let my mind wander unbridled as I drew the national and international landscapes in the fiction I generated. In my mind’s eye I traveled far and wide and flew extensively on the flying carpet of my imagination, but physically I was a cloistered prisoner, though not actually in chains.
The first time it happened, it was a Thursday. In a way all good and bad things have happened to me on a Thursday. I was born on a Thursday, got married on Thursday, failed my only major exam on Thursday, my daughter came to me on a Thursday and I was also arrested on a Thursday. And again it was a Thursday when I was ferried to Chennai Fast Track court to face a trial for which I was serving time as an undertrial prisoner.
In my case, the witnesses were due for examination at 2.30 pm, but as there were other prisoners who would be called during the morning, the dog van left the prison in the morning itself. The van had a total of eight prisoners including me. The Fast Track courts are situated in Chennai collector’s office complex, which is situated bang opposite the Madras Harbor Anchor Gate. The Chennai Central Prison however is about two kilometers south, towards the railway station and situated across the road from the suburban station and the ticketing office.
The drive is through the overcrowded Poonamalee high road, right up to the Beach Road and the van first takes a left and then another left when it actually approaches the collector’s office. The building is seven storied and situated in its own complex with a huge vacant space all around. The open area is dotted by a couple of ancient and huge tamarind and neem trees, and it is under one such tree that the van would be parked. On that day, the police escort party consisted of one police sub inspector, one head constable and eight constables. Once the van found its place, the warrants were sent to the various courts and all prisoners except me were called. The sub inspector remained back in the van, while the others were handcuffed and taken to their respective courts. For a while, the sub inspector continued to hum a song while he looked around vaguely, and I busied myself with a thick paperback. I was suddenly disturbed when the SI spoke softly to me. His question was extremely philosophical and sort of innocent
“Doctor Sir! Do you miss freedom?”
I became silent and thoughtful. He would have guessed that the question had upset me and thus hurriedly corrected himself “I am sorry for having asked you such a stupid question. Of course everyone would miss their freedom.”
I nodded my head and said “You are correct. Freedom is something, the value of which you do not realize unless you loose it. There is no doubt that I miss my physical freedom. But then I am happy that despite imprisonment, I have kept up my mental and intellectual freedom”
A man is a great creator of excuses. If you are not able to eat you dinner, the normal excuse would be – an occasional fast is good for you health. If the girl you fall in love with, refuses to marry you, then the obvious response would be – she is not the right mate for me. In a similar manner, I moved on to a philosophical plane and gave him a short lecture on the importance of freedom of thoughts over body. They can chain my body, but I am proud that they can’t chain my spirits – I declared proudly, though a small corner of my heart was laughing away merrily as it clearly saw through my efforts.
The SI seemed to be a little touched and I could see the admiration in his face. A little later, the constables walked back, accompanied by two prisoners, young boys of about twenty. They told the sub inspector that the judge would be pronouncing a judgment in their case and they have been called back at 5.30 pm. I gave a disappointed sigh, when I realized that my whole day would now be wasted. In a few moments, the sub inspector started talking to me and by mid day we had became thick friends. He disappeared for half an hour to have his lunch while I ate the sandwiches that were prepared in the prison for me.
He came back at about 2.00 pm and then we decided to get to my court. The sub inspector had become quite friendly with me, and it was he, who escorted me. We kept talking all the while. The witness deposition took exactly an hour and by 3.45 pm, I was back in the van. The SI was a nice man and was interested in my ideas and philosophies. He was curious to know about my writings. I had written about fifty books in the prison, but had not yet submitted any for publication.
He seemed interested in my writing and I spent the next half an hour, explaining him why I was not making any attempts to contact any publishers as yet. I was extremely confident of my output and explained to him that the most important book is the first book. This is what actually makes or breaks an author. I told the inspector that I wanted a top publisher, possibly from UK to launch my first book. I told him that my stories were so spellbinding that they were certain to be big hits once they reached the reading public. Soon, the other prisoners too returned to the van. Except for the two young men waiting for their judgment, everyone else was through. It was only 4.00 pm and we had at least a couple of hours wait. A little later the court clerk came to the bus and informed that the judgment was still being typed and would be ready by 6.00 pm.
I pulled out a cigarette packet and offered one to the sub inspector. He looked at this watch, smiled at me and nodded to me. He suddenly seemed to have got an idea. He asked me to get out of the van and I followed him. When we were out of the earshot of other prisoners, he came closer and said
“I can not explain the feeling doctor, but I am going to do something which I did not think I was capable of. I am going to allow you taste of freedom!”
I was totally zapped. I looked at his face and saw that he had a benign smile. Very slowly we walked out of the main gate of the collectors office, the sub inspector and I as old friends. I doubted if anyone on the road would recognize me. It would take at least another two hours for the judgment to be pronounced. The sub inspector had decided that we could take a walk in the busy Burma Bazzar.
The first thing that hit me was the noise and smells. It was then that I realized that a prison was indeed a quiet place. And sterile too. I could smell the petrol and diesel exhaust. I could smell the salty breeze beyond the Anchor Gate. I could smell the mounds of sulphur that had been unloaded on the other side. And I could smell female sweat, cheap talcum powder and a whiff of jasmine as a heavily made up rustic belle walked quickly with a six year old daughter in toe. And then I smelt humanity. My ears were gradually saturated with the sounds of honking buses, screeching brakes, fruit vendors selling their wares, two auto fellows cursing each other due to a near miss, the tinkle of a bicycle bell, the blaring stereo from the music shop and a loud wailing of a young girl who had just then been slapped by her mother.
We had entered Burma Bazzar and a juice fellow was pushing a couple of sugarcanes into a contraption with two rotating steel cylinders. With sugarcane, I also smelt the rancid decaying odor of the fruit pulp that had been tossed on the pavement outside. I turned back to look at the wailing child. The mother was a young woman in her early thirties or late twenties. From her dress and attire, she looked lower middle class or lower. She wore a black saree and black blouse. Her voluptuous mammaries strained to exit the tight confines of her second skin blouse, which was only a shade darker then her own complexion.
The little girl who had just then been slapped would not be older than four or five. Despite a severe reprimand from the mother, she was not convinced. Pointing to the battery operated aeroplane, she continued to wail. The sub inspector looked at me and shrugged. Burma Bazaar is a market that sells imported stuff. Smuggled stuff from China, Korea or Singapore. You can buy everything from the latest digital camera or a DVD player to cosmetics and perfumes. The shop outside which this drama was being enacted, was a toy shop. It was crammed full of battery operated toys from Korea and Taiwan.
It was a sleek model of a Boeing aircraft, that hung from the ceiling with a thin nylon string. The shopkeeper saw the wailing child and once again pressed the button on the underbelly of the aircraft. The propeller fan in front started spinning with a loud sound and the toy aeroplane C started describing circles in the tiny shop. The string was not long enough, for it to fly a very wide arc, but I had to agree that even this little performance was brilliant. No wonder the young girl was tempted.
This demonstration of the toy stimulated her yet once again and she started making a racket. It was clear that she would not leave her mother in peace till she got the toy. It was equally clear that the mother could not, or would not buy the plane and she retaliated with another slap and forcibly dragged the daughter away. The daughter seemed reluctant to follow the mother, but the lady had decided that the young one would not be getting the aeroplane and that was that.
To me, it was obvious, that the hundred and ninety nine rupees for the toy was a little beyond the mother’s budget. The child was forcibly picked up and carried by the mother. The young girl however was still stubborn and kept gazing at the shop and aeroplane through her tear stained eyes. We continued to follow them and the sub inspector looked at me once again. Just then I saw a multicolored paper flutter bye. I bent down and picked it up. It was a glossy advertisement brochure from Merry Brown Chicken with beautiful photos of burgers and fried chicken. I realized that being in prison had even denied such paper sheets and handbills to me. My fingers automatically started working, folding and unfolding the paper. In my previous life I was a devout origamist.
No! don’t get worried and rush to the dictionary. Origami is nothing but the Japanese art of paper folding. Yes the same skills which we use as children to make paper planes. Only that someone who has learnt Origami would make much better planes. The sub inspector did not speak anything and I continued to absorb things around me like a sponge absorbs water. My hands in the meanwhile continued to fold and unfold the brochure from Merry-Brown Chickens. The smile of admiration on the sub inspector’s face told me that the plane model that I had folded was indeed cute. You are not allowed to carry money with you in the prison and thus even if I had wanted, I could not have brought the young girl the battery operated plane. The paper plane would thus have to do.
The girl, on her mother’s shoulder, was now looking towards us. She had stopped weeping but the tears still stuck to her cheek. By now, her face had assumed looks of curiosity as she tried to focus her attention on the paper plane in my hand. I caught her eyes and we exchanged smiles. I gently tossed the plane towards her. It flew in a corkscrew pattern and would have almost hit the mothers back, when the little one darted her hand out and caught it. By now her face creased into tiny smile. Indeed, it is so simple to be a child. We forget our sorrows so soon and find our happiness in simple things like multicolored paper plans.
I felt a gentle touch to my elbow. It was the SI who was looking at his wrist watch. It was 5.15 pm. The other two boys would already be in the court and when they returned, it would not do, to be away from the van. He was very nice and stopped at the juice stall to buy a glass of cane juice for both of us. I was tasting fresh sugarcane juice after about four years and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it tasted like nectar from heavens. We were back in the bus at 5.30, but the others came back only at 6.30. However my heart could not contain its happiness, because close to an hour, I had tasted freedom.
I got my second chance to taste a slice of freedom in exactly two weeks and that too on a Thursday. About ten days after this, on a Monday, I received a slip from the jailor. He told me that I had received summons to the Poonamalee court on the coming Thursday. Initially I was a little worried. The police had fabricated and foisted a lot of cases against me, but I was aware of none in Poonamalee court. Poonamalee was suburban satellite town on the outskirts of Chennai. But when I looked at the summons, I broke out into a sigh of relief. No! The police had not fabricated any additional case on me. These summons were not for a criminal case. They were civil summons for my prescience as a witness. It was an accident insurance case. I had treated a patient many years ago and had to depose about it.
By now I had developed a fairly busy schedule in prison. My working hours stretched to almost fourteen hours and I wrote most of the time. The few days a week, when I had my court appearance, would be fully wasted, denying me of the opportunity to pen my quota of words for that day. Criminal cases, I could not avoid attending, because I was in the prison for that. But I had absolutely no intention of wasting a whole day traveling up to Poonamalee in a rickety dog van and deposing in a case, where I lacked any records and did not have the faintest idea about who the patient was.
The jailor was nice and agreed to me. He would send a memo. I had no other court appearance on that Thursday and thus had decided to write non stop for as long as I could. It was a thriller about a female don in the Chennai underworld, and ideas were threatening to overflow. I got up early and by 7.30 am was on the table in front of the white register, with a black ball point pen in hand.
I would just have written for about an hour, when one of the prison orderlies came to my block and informed me that my Poonamalee escort was ready. I was aghast. All my plans seemed to be ruined. I distinctly remembered the jailor telling me the previous day that he would send a note to the judge. How come this escort had arrived? But once the escort guards arrived at the prison gates, I could not do anything, but to accompany them. I took just ten minutes to get ready and with Salman Rushdie’s latest novel I walked to the reception.
The first surprise I got, was when I looked at my escorts. They did not belong to the regular AR police. Only two of them had arrived and both belonged to the local police station. One was a head constable and the other was a P.C. The two guards were surprised to see me. They too had been given a passport to escort “one male prisoner”, but as my name was not mentioned, no VIP escort was provided.
I was told that we would take a train and then a bus. I was a little surprised. Normally an escort van, worse than that used by dog pounds would be the vehicle of choice. Very rarely when it was single prisoner, he would be transported in a handcuff and lead chain, by public transport. But I was special class prisoner and thus exempt from hand cuffs. Thus it was indeed surprising that I had been allotted such an escort.
The two guards too were surprised that it was I who was the prisoner. The formalities completed and the summons tallied, the three of us left the prison gates. Chennai Central Prison is next door to Park Town (Poonga Nagar) suburban railway station and the prison compound is separated by just one high prison wall. This wall had a door, guarded by a sentry, which would open into a narrow gavel stretch beyond which were the suburban railway tracks on the ground and the overhead electric cables to the top. The escorts explained that we would take a local train to Saidapet and then a bus to Poonamalee.
We crossed the tracks and came to the other side. A shallow ramp led us to the platform. It was exactly at 9.45 a.m., that the three of us got to the platform. It was a weekday and not the peak hour, and thus the platform was not too busy. It was a strange and heady sensation to be out in the open in presence of free people.
“Local trains come every fifteen minutes and I don’t think that we would have to wait too long for our train” said the head constable. I was however not listening to him because I was in a new world altogether, observing things and savoring my slice of freedom. I had completed a few days less than four years and during this period, the only parts of Madras that I had seen were those lying between the prison and my courts. This was going to be an altogether new journey for me.
The moment we crossed a book stall, I saw all the latest issues of glossy magazines hung on pegs and laid down for display. I was tempted to pick up a couple, but then realized that I did not have any money with me. For a minute I considered borrowing something from the cops but then decided against it. I would ask someone to phone my lawyer from the court and borrow money from him. I would buy the magazines on my return. We took a few steps and located on empty cement beach. I sat in the middle, flanked on either side by my escorts. I just gazed all around, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds and generally savoring each minute of my presence outside the dreaded prison campus. As I looked to the railway tracks, I gave a wide smile. It was indeed strange that I had never traveled by the suburban local train in the city of Chennai. This was going to be my first experience.
I had been living in Chennai for about fifteen years prior to my arrest. It was true that I had spent five or six of these years abroad, during my orthopedic training; but I had lived in the city at least for nine years. It was indeed surprising that during the nine years, I did not have an opportunity to take a public transport even once in my life. I was totally denied of the experience of traveling either by a Pallavan Transport bus or a local suburban electric train. Affluent doctors like me who owned half a dozen latest cars and SUV’s don’t routinely use public transport. My image of a suburban train was that of an overcrowded dirty, stinky, spit and piss soaked, rusty box of iron that would groan under the weight of the immense crowd of humanity. But whatever it was, it would be a new experience and I was all anxious to savor it.
The public address system announced in cultured Tamil that the 10.03 to Tambaram would arrive shortly on platform number one. The red LED display hanging a little ahead showed the time at 10.01. The constable beside me looked at the railway tracks which took a gentle curve towards the rear of Madras Medical College. I too joined him and we could see the main engine approaching from a great distance.
The first surprise I got was that the train was not crowded at all. It stopped with a comportment just opposite to our cement bench. The cops got up and so did I. I got the second shock when I actually entered the compartment. It was so new, so polished, so clean, and so attractive that it would beat the mass rapid transport system of Singapore. The seats were cushioned. The loupes hanging from the roof bars were shiny plastic. Only about a dozen people occupied the compartment that could otherwise occupy about a hundred. The empty window seat was inviting. The constable sat beside me, while the head constable sat opposite to me.
Exactly after a minute, the public address system announced the departure, and the train started with a shudder and screech. The train moved really fast and I counted the stations as we crossed them Egmore, Mambalam, Kodambakkam; each with a different crowd, different sounds, different smells, generally similar and yet each so different. Vendors of jasmine flowers, the book shops, the tea stalls, the refreshment stall with hot vadais being fried in a huge wok, well dressed women, shabbily dressed men, vagabonds, beggars lepers, socialites, college students, clerks, housewives, and railway employees.
I willed my time to slow down. I attempted to expand my conscious. I suggested my olfactory, auditory, visual, tactile and general conscious to expand outwards and multiply its sensitivity. I wanted to absorb the maximum in the limited time available to me. Finally, the train stopped at Saidapet station and we got down. We had to take crowded overbridge to walk out to the Mount Road and it was 10.40 when we came to the bus stand outside Saidapet suburban railway station. A P.T.C. bus drove by, and it had about a dozen passengers hanging from the foot-board. This was not the type of transport that I would like to take on my next leg.
“I expect my lawyer at the court. If you pay for the auto ride, I will return your money in the court. I will also give you some tips” I said hesitantly.
The mention of tips produced a sparkle in the head constable’s eyes. The two had a whispered conversation and it was clear that they too decided that travel by an auto would be a lot safer than a big a crowded bus. A hand was waved, a three wheeler screeched to a halt and we got in.
The drive to Poonamalee took about an hour and I was like Alice in wonderland gazing at the things outside. It was clear that Chennai had developed exponentially and algebraically, both horizontally and vertically. New overbridges, new flyovers, high rise buildings, flats, the works. The auto took the Mount Poonamalee Road beyond the Nehru Statue. This road, which was an undeveloped wilderness, was now almost a busy city thoroughfare. And then suddenly it hit me. At Poonamalee, we would reach the High Road. The Poonamalee High Road led straight to Chennai Central Prison. Thus if we took an auto for our return, we could get back in about an hour and a half. I would be able to see that road too.
There were two reasons that impelled me to think along these lines. For one, Poonamalee High Road was my turf. This was the road I traveled many times a day in my earlier life. My house was in Nerkundram and hospital in Anna Nagar. The five kilometer stretch between them was an area over which I would have driven thousands of times. The second reason, which was lurking in the back of my mind, was a temptation. I knew that it was simply impossible, but there was no bar on wishing!
I wished that the two cops with me were generous enough to allow me to stop at my house on our way back. Nothing would give me a greater pleasure than looking at my house. In all probability, it would be locked. It was also likely that it would be totally abandoned. The last time I had been there was three years, eleven months, and two days back. Suddenly I was seized by the uncontrollable urge to visit my bungalow. But some how, I was tongue tied and not able to summon the courage to make a proposition to the cops beside me. The premises of Poonamalee Court were visible at a distance and the auto slowed down. It then took a left turn.
The court work was nothing dramatic. I had reattached an almost detached lower limb, caught between the bumpers and a wheel of a truck. The vascular chap had done the plumping while I had done the hardware. I remembered the patient well because it was a complex situation and I had used a new design of external fixator on him. The only thing I had to depose was that I had treated the patient and but for timely surgical intervention he would have lost his leg. However the judge was not on his seat and it was 1.00 pm when the case was called. I found my lawyer from whom I collected a thousand rupees. While we waited, I handed five hundred to the head constable and told him that if it was all right by him, we would take an auto straight to the prison. I did not tell him that I had plans of seeing my house.
As we waited, my mind suddenly went back to my house. A house is what each of us works for, almost all our lives. Someone had said that you should build your house before you are forty. Very fortunately I had build mine in my thirty ninth year. Nerkundram in those times was just outside the town and one of my patients had told me that an eighteen thousand square feet plot was available in a nice location. Just two hundred yards away from Poonamalee High Road. Close enough and yet not too close. I had seen the place, approved if it, and asked my wife to take a look. She too approved of it and agreed that this would be a lovely site to construct our “home sweet home”. The usual visits to architects and consultants was started, a few of them inspected the place and a few submitted plans. The house building fever had gripped me and things had started happening.
There was a small problem though. The whole plot was about two feet below road level. In the rear it tapered down so that it was almost four feet below. It was apparent that the low lying areas would be flooded during monsoon and a major refilling operation would be needed. That is when I had an idea. Basement! If we built a basement, the excavated mud would be spread around to raise the ground level. In addition we would get extra space. The house was thus built over two subterranean structures one was a basement car garage and a drivers room. The other was an indoor swimming pool.
I did not hurry to construct the house but I spared no expense to make it the best I could. Fancy marble and granite from Rajasthan. Yale locks from England. Seasoned teak for doors and windows. Designer tiles, deko furniture. You name it and I had it. A home theatre, a baby’s room, a huge master bedroom. Vast living and dinning areas, a guest room, a room for my parents, a library, a bar, an atrium an indoor garden and the works. The house was built, we moved in, and six years later I was arrested.
It was too humiliating for my wife to be branded as a pornographers wife and she walked away taking our daughter with her. And the last I had seen of my house was three years, eleven months and two days ago. If I could persuade the constables to detour via our house then it would be absolutely divine. I decided to build up courage and make the proposition. The extra five hundred rupees in my pocket would act as the appropriate incentive.
Yes! I was missing my house. The area was adequate and I was an avid gardener. I had thus planted exotic Cycus, high breed Imam pasand mango, Kerala jackfruit, Nagaland bamboo, Ashoka, hibiscus, anthuriam, bogonvila and oranges. The last named had it was own history. I had got the plants from a nursery in Nagpur-India’s orange capital. The plants of had flown from Nagpur to Mumbai and then Chennai.
It was about five years ago that I had planted the oranges and they might even have started yielding now. I suddenly remembered Fenny, the three month old boxer bitch that was left behind. I knew not, if my estranged wife had taken the bitch to her parent’s place or left it behind. And in four years, Fenny would really have grown up! I had seen her parents and they were immense dogs indeed.
The court clerk called me and I was suddenly shaken from my reverie. The judge had taken his seat and I was called to depose as a witness. It took about ten minutes and by 2.15 we were free. The two escorts agreed that it would be quicker to take an auto straight to the prison
“Well! Not actually straight. I wonder if we could stop for a few moment on the way. I don’t want to make a detour or something. I just want to look at my house. I don’t think that there would be anyone at home. I just want to see the house. I wont to take more than a few minutes.”
Now that it was in the out, I sighed I had finally been able to blurt it out. It was now up to them whether they accepted or not. I added
“I have another five hundred with me. I only want o buy a pack of cigarettes. I would give you the rest of the money. And please believe me, I wont take longer than ten minutes”
Again the two cops had a whispered conversation. The head constable then said
“It is a big risk that we are taking but then sir, please understand that we are nor doing it for money. You are such a famous doctor. We are doing this to make you happy!”
The thirty-two carat smile on my face would have told the world that I was at that moment really very happy! We hailed a passing auto and he wanted a hundred and fifty rupees to the central station. This was almost double the charge. If two cops in uniform could be fleeced like this, god alone could save the poor average commuter. Once again the three of us got in, I was in the middle flanked by a cop on either side. But once we started, if became clear that it would take a lot longer than our original estimate of a hour and a half. The traffic was so heavy that our auto could only move at a snail’s pace. I was surprised to see that every third vehicle was a truck or lorry loaded with transparent cans of potable drinking water. Chennai, the coastal city was facing a severe drinking water shortage.
And then I saw it. A huge movie poster. That was Balamurali theatre, which was situated on the main Poonamalee High Road, opposite the turning that led to my house. I asked the auto fellow to take a right. The cops, who had initially agreed to my request suddenly seemed to develop cold feet. They hesitated for a moment but before they could countermand my orders and ask the auto fellow to drive straight on, he had taken a right into the street, at the end if which my house was situated. The cops shrugged. Having come this far, let the doctor have his bit of happiness. They seemed to silently tell each other.
In moments we were near the huge grill gate to the bungalow. A mobile cart with the local Istriwallah – iron man was at this usual place. He gave a smile when he saw my face. The auto stopped but the cops suddenly panicked. If neighbours came out and saw me, their jobs would be in jeopardy.
“Who is looking after the house” I asked.
The istri fellow said, “Iyah it is Shantakumar. Wait for a minute. I will open the gate”
The huge iron gates swung open. The auto fellow drove in and the istri fellow closed the gate behind us. The cops sighed in relief.
The auto entered the winding path and parked dose to the foyer. I peeked out and gave a smile. Four years later, the house still stood as new and proud as I had last seen it. The lawn was all gone, its Korean undulations replaced by wild grass. A part of the compound wall had collapsed. The garden looked shabby and ill maintained, but the rest of it was tip top. The basement garage however had two feet of a water. Shantakumar, my old servant, came running. And an immense boxer dog followed him.
The huge dog stopped a few feet away from the auto, gazing at me with curious eyes, her large pink tongue hanging out dribbling saliva. Yes it was a she, because as she came closer, I recognizer that she was a bitch. I looked to Shantakumar and asked “Fenny?” The tiny stub tail started wagging furiously as she recognized her name. The cute three month old, clumsy little pup I had left behind was this.
“Fenny darling! Come to daddy!” I whispered and she jumped on my thigh and started licking my palm as I stroked the underside of her jaw and back of her ear. She started moaning, squeaking, and yelping with joy, to such an extent that not satisfied with wagging her tail, she was swaying her whole pelvis. Nevertheless in her attempt to pounce in, she had almost climbed over the head constable beside me who was absolutely petrified. My assurances that Fenny was the dumbest and gentlest of the dogs failed to convince him. I pushed Fenny out but she was not happy. She came on the other side.
Four years later, she still recognized her master! The cops had become a little fidgety and asked the auto fellow to turn around. I peeked out. The Imam pasand mango tree was full of flowers. The jack fruit tree had a few prickly, orange sized, green jack fruits. The bamboo had clumped like a grove. The Ashoka and weeping willow had grown immense. And then I saw the oranges. The orange tree was leaden with fruits. At least fifty of them all full sized. The eight foot tall tree almost bent down with the weight of the oranges.
“Shantakumar! Pluck me an orange!” I said
He rushed in and came out with a basket with about forty oranges. He had plucked them a few days ago and was waiting for them to ripen. “Not these. Just pluck one for me from the tree!”
He ran to the shrub and plucked out a big specimen. I wiped a tear and looked to the constable “Come lets go!”
The hand pedal was pulled, the auto started, and slowly made its way to the gate. Fenny followed the auto right to the gate and if Shantakumar had not held her collar, I am sure she would have run behind the auto, all the way to the prison. The journey beyond passed almost as fast as it had slowed down my onward journey.
The next thing I remember was walking into my prison block tossing a big green orange from hand to hand. I had forgotten the Rushdie book in the auto. The orange took four days to ripen and when opened, yielded eleven slices. My block contained ten occupants including me. Nine of my colleagues got a “Cholai” each while I had two. I must confess that all my life, I had not tasted orange sweeter than this. It was not just delicious orange that I had bit my teeth into. After all, was it not a slice of freedom itself?
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