Excerpt from Tales of a Road Junky
[In 1999, an old friend called me up and let me know his girlfriend had been caught smuggling charas in the Delhi airport and was now stuck in jail facing ten years. I agreed to let him fly me out there to meet the lawyer and visit her in jail.]
…The next morning I woke early and went to the German Bakery to buy 8 cinnamon rolls, 6 cheese croissants and 3 big slices of chocolate cake. I figured there probably wasn’t a bakery at Tihar Jail.
At this chilly hour Pahar Ganj was still quiet. Litter burned here and there and men in woolly hats were gathering about in small groups drinking chai. A couple of the bicycle rickshaw guys were asleep with their feet propped up on the handlebars and I wondered if they ever fell off during the night. One of them was already awake and even at this cold hour he was taking a shower in the street. He stood in his underpants next to a bucket of water and, with a bar of soap in one hand and a beaker in the other, he washed himself without any inhibition.
Mangy dogs nervously sniffed piles of rubbish and their jumpy gait suggested that they expected a stone in the back of the head at any given moment. The lowly animals, like the lowly castes, knew their place in life and stayed there. But your status in India also depended on how you carried yourself. Like the cow meditating in the middle of the road impervious to the bleating horn of the truck behind.
The flickering blue jinns of kerosene stoves fried omelettes on street stalls and the boiled pots of sickly sweet chai gave me toothache just by looking at them. A boy walked past pulling a cart of bananas and copper scales with iron kilogram weights. I bought a couple of bananas to feed to the cows.
The notorious auto-rickshaw wallahs were huddled around their vehicles that doubled up as their beds for the night. They were parked up together and constituted their own little gang on this street. Lowly and powerless elsewhere in the city, here they had their piece of territory marked out.
“How much to Tihar Jail?” I asked. One raised his eyes to the sky in search of a price and replied with a waggle of the head.
“I’ll give you 50.” He looked away and I walked onto the next rickshaw a few metres further up.
“I’ll give you 60 rupees to Tihar Jail.” He was a little slower to refuse and so I moved onto the next one and settled on 70. It was the only way to find out the price when going somewhere new.
Any remaining doubts I had about the fare evaporated as we fought for 45 minutes through Delhi’s morning traffic. A motorised rickshaw is essentially 3 wheels, a lawnmower engine and a leather cushion, protected by a canvas wrapped around aluminium poles. In a bad mood you could probably crush the whole thing with your bare hands in about five minutes. They nip along at a mean rate but in the event of a crash the smart money isn’t on you.
We zipped in and out of the traffic with chaotic abandon but when we were stuck in a jam the driver seemed oblivious to the buses next to us. Their exhaust pipes on the side filled the rickshaw with black smoke and we only shunted forwards when I bellowed in his ear.
The walls of the jail now appeared along the side of the road, grey concrete rising high and topped with barbed wire. Wild hemp plants grew all along the sides below. It was too early in the morning for irony though and I was feeling nervous as the prison gates came into view.
I walked through the entrance and was ignored by the guards. I followed the drift of people towards an office where I lined up to sign my name in the visitor’s book. It was 9am. Soon after the list was closed and we were told to return at 1pm to see the prisoners. For a 20 minute visit.
I spent the next few hours in the grim jail canteen sat on a metal bench at a metal table slurping queasy cups of chai and scribbling notes. Sleazy cops wandered in and out, cracking jokes and in the pit of my stomach I imagined a team of police investigators would jump on me at any moment.
But no one seemed to even register my presence and I eventually realised that the whole affair would be the usual Indian theatre. By midday I was already lining up and remembered Don’s warnings about the restrictions on gifts for the prisoners.
No plastic bags. Apparently some years ago someone had managed to manufacture a key from scrunched up polythene and tried to escape. The locks were made in India after all.
No sweets. There had been a famous escape where a prisoner had persuaded the guards to eat some drugged biscuits. Thereafter it was prohibited for anyone in the entire jail to have a sweet tooth.
Best of all though; no bananas. Some moral authority had gotten the idea that the female inmates were using them for immoral purposes…
The queue began to form in true Indian style. People edged closer to share the oxygen of the person in front and then began to vaguely push, seeing only their destination and none of the people in the way. The pressure of heads and shoulders put me off-balance and so finally I took to leaning back on them at a 30 degree incline.
The gate of the visiting chambers opened and we moved forwards like a starving mob at a bread line. The guards at the gate shook us down and confiscated the bottle of shampoo and conditioner I had brought. Luckily I’d put the tampons in my inside coat pocket and as the crowd surged behind me they missed those.
All at once I was standing at the corner of a right angle of two dark corridors. Before me were three wire fences and I could dimly see people on the other side.
“Tom! Tom! Here!” I squinted and could just about make out a white skinned girl on the other side. While I hesitated, people squeezed past and around me like I wasn’t there. I looked around for the door to the visiting room where we’d be able to sit down at a table and discuss the situation.
“Natasha! Where can we talk?”
“Here! You have to fight for your place at the fence – these people are animals!”
Oh. I picked my way up one of the corridors while Natasha followed a parallel course on the other side. It became quickly apparent that no quarter would be given, only taken and so I kicked, pushed and elbowed people out of the way to get a place at the fence. No one thought anything of it.
“Where’s Clive?” Natasha shouted. “I want Clive, not you. Where is he? I have to get out of here!”
“Listen, Clive is in Europe, getting money together and-“
“There is no God in here! There is no God in here!” she screamed, banging her head against the chicken wire.
“Shut the fuck up!” I yelled and she looked up at me in shock. “Clive is working 24 hours round the clock for you. You’re coming out. He’ll never give up. You understand?”
Natasha stared at me, crying; half in despair and half in happiness that her lover had not forgotten her. Finally words welled to the surface again.
“We sleep on concrete floors here, Tom. And it’s so cold. There are six women in my cell and two of them are complete bitches. The food is impossible to eat and I’m going to be here for ten fucking years. Oh God!”
“Easy, easy. Next time I’ll bring blankets and some books in Russian. Tell me what you need and I’ll get it.”
“I need money, too.” she said. “I have debts here.”
Sure. If she needed money she could have it. Clive wanted her to lack for nothing. 5000 rupees ($120) seemed like a lot but I didn’t think about it much at the time. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the warden on duty.
“Time finish.” he told me with a shark’s smile.
“One minute more, please. ji, she is my sister, ji.” he smiled at my obsequious display and left us alone.
We confirmed which lawyer we’d use and we had just began to speculate on the possibilities of escape when I noticed an Indian with an educated face leaning silently against the fence to my right. We started chatting about the best way to make a good lentil curry until he moved away.
People kept pushing for space and more than once I had to elbow someone away. Lights flickered overhead but cast no illumination and the chaos was further augmented by a bell overhead that rang for no particular purpose.
“They do that just so that we can’t hear each other.” Natasha scowled.
It was time to pass the presents through. Two guards checked what I had brought and slid it all down a metal chute. They passed everything through except for the chocolate cake.
“Sweet not allowed!” they told me gleefully and began stuffing the cake into their mouths. Natasha passed me a letter for Clive and a moment later I was back outside, sweating in the afternoon sun.
I walked out of the jail, stoned; the 20 minutes of that corridor rattling around in my head. A rickshaw carried me back to my hotel and for the rest of the day I heard inside my head the sound of Natasha screaming there’s no God in here.