Colours of the Cage: No holds barred

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Published: December 21, 2014 12:32:28 AM

Colours of the Cage is a funny yet poignant memoir that exposes India’s broken judicial, police and penitentiary systems

Colours of the Cage:
A Prison Memoir
Arun  Ferreira
Pp 164

Arun Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage, a book about his imprisonment in Nagpur Central Jail, Maharashtra, is one of the most honest and no-holds-barred accounts of life in a jail.

In May 2007, Ferreira, a human rights activist, was arrested by the Maharashtra police on charges of being a Naxalite (the charges were later proven false). The book takes the reader through the five years of his imprisonment and implication in case after case. What was to be a book of cartoons that Ferreira drew for his family and infant son from inside the prison becomes a funny yet poignant memoir in the shape of Colours of the Cage, which exposes India’s broken judicial, police and penitentiary systems.

Ferreira documents the minutest details of prison life: the squalid living conditions; lack of edible food, which leads prisoners to hunt and feast on bandicoots, squirrels and rats; slimy prison guards and officials; false arrests; and the weirdly funny practice of re-arresting acquitted political prisoners post their release just to drum up Naxal arrest numbers.

Unvarnished and refreshingly easy to read, Colours of the Cage also tells the ghastly story of custodial torture, which violates every single law in place for protection against it. As per a 1996 judgment passed by the Supreme Court of India, it is mandatory to ensure that those under police custody aren’t tortured. Hence, every 48 hours, Ferreira and his fellow accused would be taken to a government hospital for a check-up, where the police would repeatedly convince doctors not to report the wounds since these were ‘dreaded terrorists’.

Ferreira is a good storyteller, sometimes even making you chuckle. In one instance, an inspector shouts, “Arre, Bajirao ko bulao (call Bajirao)” and in comes a constable with something policemen across Maharashtra fondly call ‘Bajirao’: a narrow belt attached to a wooden handle used to whip the soles of prisoners’ feet—Ferreira writes: “Many (officers) spoke nostalgically of the good old days before the spread of awareness about human rights and prisoner rights.”

Being a prisoner understandably makes one sympathetic to the abuse of other prisoners. In Ferreira’s eyes, too, those behind bars are full of inherent goodness. However, his takeaway that people are motivated to commit a crime because they are ‘compelled by circumstances’ seems naive.

Written in first-person, Colours of the Cage makes you feel as if you are living with Ferreira inside the prison. Though subjected to the worst kind of tortures—from physical to mental depression caused by the isolation enforced upon political prisoners—Ferreira remains stoic and Gandhian in his fight against the system. He even refrains from disclosing names of police officers who tortured him, calling them by-products of a severely-broken prison system that has failed to evolve since the British Raj.

Forty-two years old now, Ferreira, a free man, is studying to become a criminal lawyer.

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