Comeuppance: My Experiences in an Indian Prison is Tooley’s memoir of the time he spent at Cherlapally Central Jail, Hyderabad, and the harrowing trial proceedings he went through.
One night in March 2014, everything changed for James Tooley, a professor at a reputed British university, an award-winning scholar and a champion of low-cost private education. The Britisher, who was in Hyderabad on a vacation, was arrested by “Mrs Mantra”, deputy superintendent, CID, Hyderabad Police. His crime? Alleged irregularities in the funding of an NGO, Educare Trust, with which he was once associated. He was arrested as part of a “larger conspiracy” based on his association with the NGO, he says. The arrest, however, came after Tooley had already clarified that the NGO had been shut years ago. Comeuppance: My Experiences in an Indian Prison is Tooley’s memoir of the time he spent at Cherlapally Central Jail, Hyderabad, and the harrowing trial proceedings he went through. The author, who left for his country after a 15-week-long trial on bail, brings to light the gaping holes in the Indian judiciary system. In the hands of somebody else, the book would perhaps have become a tool for vendetta, but Tooley rises above the rhetoric, as nowhere in the book can a reader witness any angst or frustration. And this when Comeuppance is a tale of manipulation, exploitation and injustice. If the CID cops made a mockery of his case, the cruelty and barbaric nature of the prison officials added fuel to fire. The bigger tragedy was that some “criminals in uniform”, from both the departments, managed to blindfold the judiciary into making it believe their respective narratives. Mantra, the cop, wanted a fat chunk of cash and was unwilling to back off without getting it. Everyone else in the system knew about her intentions, as “she was quite open about demanding bribes from me, and did not mind doing so in front of her junior colleagues or my lawyers,” Tooley writes. The Brit finds abysmal representation in a series of inattentive and deficient advocates, who prove themselves incapable of navigating the due process. The book, at times, serves as a reminder of what Franz Kafka wrote in his book Der Process (The Trial), now considered amongst seminal modernist literary texts. Josef K, the protagonist of that book, finds himself trapped by legal bureaucratism. He has no clue why he has been arrested or even how to defend himself. A prison guard points out the irony: “(He) admits he doesn’t know the law and at the same time claims he’s innocent.” Kafka’s fictional world finds a modern-day representation in Tooley’s book. But what makes this book stand out is Tooley’s ability to move away from being just a victim. Documenting one’s experience in a prison can often make a writer seek gratification and, to a certain extent, sympathy, but Tooley does no such thing. Amidst all the evil, there was some goodness too, as Tooley recounts. While in prison, he came across many prisoners, also victims of an unaccountable justice system, who showed extraordinary kindness to him. It’s this humanity in the face of adversity that makes this book a worthy read.