Prison diaries: Life behind bars
Reviewed by B. L. chakoo 

Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir
by Arun Ferreira. Aleph.
Pages 176. Rs 295

Sometime in 1984 when I was at Warwick University, UK, a friend of mine spoke to me about the police atrocities on innocent people in the 1984 riots of Punjab. Many impoverished peasants and educated people who wanted to be good citizens for no fault of theirs were suspected to be ‘terrorists’ espousing a new radical theology of unwavering devotion to the formation of Khalistan. They were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Some young men who were allegedly regarded as hard-core terrorists were mercilessly subjected to the medieval torture technique. They were tied to the wooden shafts with their hands above their heads, and were lashed on their backs by short-handled whips whose leather tendrils were tipped with iron particles and animal bones. As each lash was inflicted, the leather strips were lacerating the skin and muscles, even as the iron and bone were creating deep bruises. This kind of medieval-style form of torture, lashing, and humiliation had a specific purpose.

Colours of the Cage is a must-read prison memoir, in which the writer succeeds in investing a similar kind of unsentimental story of custodial torture with fresh anguish. Stimulating, analytical and backed by empirical evidence, the book is a powerful précis of a harrowing account of life in Maharashtra’s horrific prisons. It faithfully views Ferreira’s years of imprisonment on spurious cases and his scaring tortures: ‘My arms were tied to a window grill high above the ground while two policemen stood on outstretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor.’ This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving visible injuries.

It is edifying to see in all the chapters of the book a clear demonstration of Ferreira’s worth, both as a fighter and a writer. A graduate from the prestigious St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and a human rights activist with eminently capable imagination, Ferreira was, in May 2007, arrested by the Nagpur police on charges of being ‘a dreaded Naxalite,’ even though there was ‘nothing official’ about his detention. The police (probably with some purpose) thought him to be the chief of propaganda and communications of the Maoist party, ‘a wily operative who had an easy familiarity with technology.’ It had come to this conclusion because he had "a pen drive in his pocket when they arrested him.’ In the months after his arrest, he was charged with more alleged crimes of criminal conspiracy, murder, unrestrained revelry, possession of arms, and was, ironically enough, believed to be the greatest threat to ‘India’s internal security.’ He was then incarcerated in the Nagpur Central Jail.

Stimulating, analytical and backed by empirical evidence, Colours of the Cage is a powerful précis of a harrowing account of life in Maharashtra’s prisons. The book gives an account of the author’s years of imprisonment and his scaring tortures

Ferreira has a vexatious story, and deals with it courageously, without disputing the conventional wisdom but looking at everything with honesty and due care. Without being heavy, the story has much detail; it is up to, and occasionally ahead of the progress of a prison memoir. It registers efficiently Ferreira’s college times, and records, with modest conviction, not only the activities of the All India Revolutionary Students’ Federation, which centred on ‘the struggle for a democratic, scientific and egalitarian educational system,’ but also gives a detailed account of his experience with Indian society which, ‘was fractured by class and caste and riddles with innumerable contradictions.’

As we proceed, Ferreira seems to grow more and more interesting, not only because of additional information about his heart-stopping tortures and beatings and about the huge backlog of cases in the courts, but because a certain conformity to deep and unlawful and undemocratic patterns in prison and social life is being made more evident. The informative pieces assembled here are vibrant with optimistic responsibility. These also seem to produce all the suspense and drama of a popular thriller.

In brief, the impression left is that Ferreira is an excellent revolutionary company and that here is a book which anyone might enjoy picking up from time to time, simply to see the spectacle of a fine and astonishing will power at work.