Mercy is to be evoked, not demanded

As the author explains: “Everywhere, the social contract between humans is based on the community of lies. The lies of justice and equality. The lies of nationalism and common buying. The lies that guarantee that our prisons will always be overcrowded with the guilty and the presumed guilty, the weak and the helpless, the illiterate and the barely literate, the crackpots and the drug addicts – fodder for the police, the guards, the lawyers and judges. But where this book stands out for its solitary splendor is in its practical contribution to Indian penology – the study of crime and punishment and the management of prisons. What Tejpal focuses on, however, is not the hardware but the software: not the administrative details of prison management, but the psychology and pathology that drives all who live within its fetid walls. For prison is a world alien to most of us, hidden from our refined sensibilities. Tejpal exposes it to us from top to bottom, as no law commission or parliamentary commission has ever done. It is a singular achievement which, to my knowledge, has no equivalent in Indian script, English or any other language.

Through the phenomenal distribution of characters, we learn about the caste system in prisons, hierarchies based not on the Vedas but on the heinousness of the crime, the length of incarceration, the propensity for violence, the complicity with The jailers. We learn the code of omerta and the protocols of violence. We learn how, even in this chasm of discouragement, there can be renewed hope, love, religion. We see how the stoicism of Hindu philosophy can be relevant here when all other beliefs are broken. The rules that govern the outside world also apply here, with the added sanction of violence permitted.

There are fixers here, smuggling, pornography, bribery, beatings, despair, the paradoxical abandonment of hope as well as the constant search for it in every letter that arrives, Whatsapp message , a delayed bail hearing. You can ask for justice here, the author says, but you cannot ask for mercy. You have to learn to talk about it. You have to find out for yourself where the mercy line is drawn, and then trust that you are on the right side.

Tejpal’s ideas are as incisive as they are eclectic, as he delves into the pathology of justice, religions, communalism, marriage, political posturing, and the many other legal fictions that surround us. His insights into the labyrinthine corridors of human character, individual and collective, are profound and illuminating. But they don’t engender hope. If this book had a subtitle, it would be: Homo homini lupis est – Man is a wolf to man.

(The author is a retired IAS officer. Taken from his blog ‘View from Greater Kailash’)

(This was first published in the National Herald on Sunday)

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