119 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, July 25, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri

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"Mitigating their sufferings is our aim"

DESTINY, it appears decides not only who should be a hero but also who must record his deed — that is to say, if Johnson comes, Boswell can’t be far behind. But what happens when, inspired by the hero, the worshipper turns a doer, as happened in the case of Saroj Vasishth? While witnessing Kiran Bedi transform Tihar Jail into Tihar Ashram, Saroj herself became a part of the process and continued the good work in her own area. Wonder, a short film made earlier this year on this recipient of the Red and White Bravery Award concluded with Kiran Bedi herself saying, "There are people (pointing to herself) who win an award and then sit silent. But look at this one. She has won awards and still continues to work relentlessly — is going on and on." Though Saroj’s work is formally supposed to be a project of Delhi Kala Karam (of which she is the general secretary), in actual practice, she is a one-woman institution. No wonder, with the exit of Kiran from Tihar, Saroj shifted her Karam-bhoomi to Kaithu jail, Shimla. What she is doing may not be visible but it has had a tremendous impact: She visits jails to interact with the young convicts and the undertrials so as to ensure that, instead of growing cynical of the anti-social, they retain or regain their humanity. In this battle, her weapons are art and literature in general and theatre in particular. Formerly an announcer with Akashvani, she is a prolific translator who is running a translation bureau, LOGOS. Her publications include a collection of short stories, a novel, a book on her experiences at Tihar Jail (Jaise Kuchh Hua Hi Nahin), and another based on Kiran Bedi’s views (Morcha Dar Morcha).

CHAMAN AHUJA met Vasishth recently in Shimla Excerpts.

What is this Bravery Award and for what act of bravery have you been honoured?

Bravery is usually regarded as an act of extreme courage against a big odd or a big criminal; The Red and White people have broadened this notion to include a relentless fight against the social evils. In choosing me for this honour, they meant to affirm that my interaction with the inmates of the Tihar and Kaithu prisons and my effort to create a radical impact on their psyche signified a courage of high magnitude. Of course, this is not the only award to come my way; similar appreciation came by way of Vijay Gujral Foundation Award, Bhagwan Mahavir Award, Indira Gandhi Priyadarshni Award, and Sanjay Anita Smriti Prize. The money that came with awards lies with Kala Karam in the form of FDs, the interest on which sustains all my activities which are, of course, purely honorary.

This passion at 70 is admirable. But how did this mission start, when and why?

Just by chance. When I had just retired from Akashvani, an impulse prompted me to give Kiran Bedi a ring, to propose the reading of a short story. She agreed and we met. That casual visit turned out to be a life-long pre-occupation. It is possible that my interest is part of some sanskar of mine: My father who owned 42 companies and was known for his philanthropy, once built in Yol Camp near Dharamsala a hall screening films for the benefit of 17,000 Italian prisoners of war after World War II.

What exactly has been your aim in your work in the jails?

When I started my work at Tihar, Kiran told me to look after our most precious treasure of young inmates, aged between 16 and 18, in Ward No 3. Most of them were being tried for murders, some planned, some inadvertent, some attributed. The law treated them alike and the chances were that, in the company of hardened criminals, even the innocent ones might go inhuman. We were keen that they retained their humanity as well as their faith in mankind so that if and when they left the jail, they might lead their lives as good, law-abiding citizens. To begin with, I went with books, but as I talked with those young souls, my compassion grew and gradually turned into the love of a mother. And then suddenly a miracle happened and we discovered the cathartic role of creativity — reading yielded place to the writing of poetry.

That is interesting. How did that happen?

One day when I reached Tihar, Kiran told me that she had decided to punish my ‘sons’ for refusing to have their hair cut. They were to have only one meal, and no TV until they apologised. And apologise, they won’t. On probing, it came out that their refusal was a way of protest. Although the hair-cut was free, the barber expected money and, on the heads of those who refused to pay, he would create ungainly triangles, rectangles, etc. After the exposure led to action against the barber, one of the inmates, Kanhaiya, submitted a 4-page, hand-written apology, a poem Kaash. Being illiterate, Kanhaiya had spoken out his feelings and another inmate had taken it down. This was a great discovery — this potential for poetry, — and we encouraged the young folk to say what they wanted to say and put their writings in a box. The net result was a book of poems written by those sensitive young men.

Did this imply poetic exercises on given themes?

No, it was by no means a class in creative writing. We just encouraged them to open out, to pour out their pent-up emotions. Steaming out the obsessions helps. That has been our strategy all along even otherwise. Having won their confidence, we let them speak out the truth. I have with me the stories of every one, the real stories, not the ones told in the court. They speak to me the way would confide unto their mothers, knowing full well that no mother betrays her children. They have the assurance of my full support to them "Hum hain na tumhare saath". That kind of assurance. That lessens their burden of guilt or the anger against the society. During my sessions with them, they forget for a while their anger or their anguish. The mitigation of the pangs within — that is our real aim. Our theatre activities are also expected to play the same roles, affording scope for self-expression, for escape into entertainment, as also for acquiring insight into the truths of life.

What is your own background in theatre?

For that we must go back to 1942 when my school teachers in Lahore, Sheila Bhatia and Sneh Sanyal, cast me in play about the famine in Bengal. Because of my lizard-like constitution I was stripped naked and made to lead a group of starving beggars. Thus initiated,I started seeing plays in Lahore and later, when we moved to Delhi, my father would take me to see the plays byPrithvi Raj,Shakespearena, etc. After my father’s death, for three years, I worked as Joint Secretary of Bhartiya Natya Sangh where my job was to look after Natya Forum, which meant organising weekly interface with theatre celebrities. Kamala Chottopadhyaya trained me in her own way by making me read a lot of books on theatre. That helped me a lot when, for many years, I did theatre reviewing for Deccan Herald, Thought New Wave, etc. No I was never a director of plays. Nor did I do much of acting. In 1964, I did act in Yatrik’s Seven Year Itch but soon I got lost in my job with Akashvani. That possibly explains why my role in the jail theatre is not of a creative kind. I am not a director but only a facilitator. I select or invite plays, initiate the inmates into the theatre arts, given them books to read, and make them discuss those books.

What kind of theatre activity do you have in jails?

Now and then we invite plays from outside — say, plays picked from the Sahitya Kala Parishad’s annual festival of Ten Best Plays. The criterion in selecting is not so much the theatrical or experimental aspect as the contents — somethings that would sensitise or humanise the inmates through a meaningful experience. There are also plays done by the inmates under the direction of some competent director or an NSD graduate, or even by some inmate with some experience in the field.For example, once we had in our midst Vijay, the Vidur in the serial Shri Krishna, who had landed in the jail after quarrelling with his father. The plays presented invariably have something to do with the law, with the process of justice or the aberrations therein; these can also be pure comedies or satires on the political system. The big idea is to raise some thought-provoking questions. For example, will the system ever change, and how?

Could you tell me something more specific about these plays?

In Tihar, an NSD graduate, Mithlesh Rai, had directed Kadwa Sach which underlined how circumstances might make one a criminal. An undertrial, Suresh Kumar, himself wrote a play called Muqqadama. One Captain Sunil Sharma, charged under Section 420, did Gandhi with an international cast: the non-Indian characters were played by the foreign undertrials. Mithlesh’s friend, Adil Hussain, prepared Ramlila. Then a workshop involving about 100 inmates yielded two satirical comedies — Bhartendu’s Andher Nagri and Sharad Chauhan’s Mera Desh Mahan. Once we had Shaheed Bhagat Singh when we came to acquire the rehearsal space called Kutir. The other Tihar plays that I can recall were comedies like Qissa Shadi Ka Annewala Kal and political plays like Mister Neta and Hirankashyap Ka Murder. In Tihar, we had a fuller schedule because inDelhi the advantage lay in having ready-made productions and trained theatre artists keen to gain experience through work.

Do you mean to say that involvement in theatre in Himachal jails is marginal?

No exactly marginal but not always as much as one would wish. For some years when Amala Rai was here, we had a lot of theatre.We had the shows of her Court Martial and Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya. She also directed Azad Hindustan written by some law students who had landed in our midst on the charge of political murder. Then we staged Umrao Jaan, Janpath Kiss and Hamare Daur Mein. Besides two of Manto’s unpublished plays — Maujdeen Ki Rihai and Commission we did Sarveshwar Dayal Sexena’s Havalat, all related to prison police etc. In doing Ramesh Upadhyaya’s Laat Sahib Ki Rasoi, we substituted Rajiv Gandhi’s regime by the British Raj, but we retained the overall attack on the system. Anyway, in Kaithu jail, we have been having many workshops of different natures. For example, based on Khushwant Singh’s Science Vs Miracle, we had a workshop in which trained person exploded myths of how bhabuti may be produced from nowhere, and how a sword might appear to pierce a tongue. Then we had a yoga workshop. These days we are having a workshop on Pranic healing. The idea is to enrich the personalities of the inmates so that, when they go out, they may lead a better life. That is why we make available lots and lots of reading material. There is hardly any published Indian play which is not available with us. Then we see to it that every inmate gets the newspaper of his choice, whatever the language. In this respect, we have received bagfuls of material from Khushwant Singh, Maheep Singh, Hind Pocket Books, Vikas, Asha Deep, Raj Kamal, etc.

How would you compare the work in the Himachal jails with that in Tihar Jail?

Well, certainly Kiran Bedi did a lot of good work, but she was not allowed to pursue her mission to completion. Anyway, her pioneering work inspired others and one could say that the work being done in Himachal is, in a way, an attempt to take up from where she left. Do you know that in a certain Himachal jail, every day, at about 9 a.m., 32 prisoners go out into the town to do their respective work as tailors, cobblers, carpenters, or whatever, and are back in their cells at 5 p.m.? In another jail, the family of a prisoner may be permitted to stay within the jail for a night. That keeps the family united.Back

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