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Male prisoners to male guards — Indian women prisoners’ quest for love in courts, hospitals

‘Women, Incarcerated’ lays bare the lived experiences of women in India’s prisons. It shows the collapse and remaking of everyday life.

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There is a strange smell in here…like a dingy basement that has been locked up for years. I cross the dark corridor that leads to a small room, dimly lit with no sunlight. There are thick, long bars on either side of the room separating male prisoners from female. The room is unbearably noisy with men shouting swear words at each other from across the bars and women giggling at them. ‘Hey, look at this new bee!’ shouts a male prisoner, as I make my way towards the far end of the room. All eyes turn towards me as I try to find a familiar face. Just then, Reena, who I had previously interviewed in the prison, comes running towards me… ‘Didi, isn’t this place just like I described you?’ she asks, ‘Men all around you… like lions in a cage,’ she adds, laughing hysterically. ‘Wait…. Do you wish to see a trailer?’ she asks. Before I can respond, Reena looks towards some of the male prisoners and gives them a sly wink. Within no time, around five-six men come flocking towards the bars smiling at her, signalling her to come and talk to them. I start to feel uncomfortable as she makes her way down to these men and notes down one of their barrack numbers on her hand. She comes back, looking proud. ‘This is our love abode Didi…the place where all the action is!’ — First visit to the court lock-up (8 May 2018)

Court visits were one of the most anticipated events for most women prisoners on remand. On the one hand, it evoked hopes for their release; on the other, it also opened up possibilities for meeting men. In fact, eight of the fourteen women I interviewed found their romantic partners during their court visits in the bakshi khana. These visits were treated like celebratory affairs in the prison and involved a range of preparations beforehand. For instance, many women would stitch new clothes in the prison factory days before their scheduled court date, or would borrow clothes from the female guards by paying them money. Others would spend the previous night applying henna to their hands, plucking their eyebrows, or getting facials done from their fellow prisoners. These beautification prisoners. These beautification activities, mostly carried out in secrecy from the prison staff, formed an important means of expression for women’s desire to exercise their autonomy to be with men. As Rani explained:

It is important for us to look our best on the court date …. I know women spend hours on this shit…and the staff thinks we are doing it to attract men there…well, yeah! How else will you get a man’s attention in the first place! I remember being approached by multiple men on days when I have done my hair in a fancy bun or wore that red lipstick of mine. Female prisoners often travelled in the same police van as male prisoners while going to the court, giving them a chance to interact with each other. In the bakshi khana, a common waiting room separated by bars in the middle, these interactions were highly dramatised. Here, men approached women directly by calling out their names, singing songs or whistling. Prison guards were often accomplices in these relationships, allowing men and women to interact freely. Women were often selective about the men they chose. One of the important criteria for this selection was the way men approached them during the court visit. For instance, many women suggested that they only agreed to be in relationships with men who were ‘decent’ in their approach.

Other women also agreed to form relationships with men who went ‘out of their way’ to pursue them. Seema was one such woman who became romantically involved with a male prisoner after he paid off the guards to enter the female section of the court lock-up and knelt down in front of everyone to confess his love. For her, his public confession of love was proof of his seriousness towards this relationship. Some women, however, did not want loud admissions of love, and preferred being approached through letters or other non-verbal means of communication. These women were extremely conscious of their ‘reputation’ in the prison or feared losing their existing ties with their partners outside. Interestingly, these women would not reveal their real names when forming romantic ties with male prisoners, and replied to letters anonymously.

Also Read: ‘Unpleasant eyesores’ – Sleek and modern Bangalore is ashamed of its sex workers

Apart from male prisoners, court visits also offered women an opportunity to form intimate relationships with male guards. As opposed to the prison, which only had female security guards, the bakshi khana mostly had male guards on duty, which gave women ample time for interaction with them. These relationships, women claimed, were mostly initiated through an exchange of ‘special favours’. For instance, Mandeep entered into a romantic relationship with a guard after he started doing small favours for her. He arranged private visits with her family in the bakshi khana, allowed her to make phone calls through his personal phone, and brought her food from the canteen. These favours, she explained, served as a testimony of his ‘love’ for her. Parminder, another female prisoner, also shared her experience of developing a relationship with a prison guard after he offered to pay for her lawyer:

I was really tense that day…the judge had adjourned my hearing and my lawyer was asking for more money…God…it was a tough day and this guard, who kind of knew about my case, offered me help. I was so overwhelmed, you know…my own parents have not done that for me. The next few court visits, we just exchanged glances and nothing really happened. Then one day, when I was in the bakshi khana, he brought me some Chinese food. That was it…I just couldn’t help but feel attracted towards him. The next time, he just held my hand and asked me to be his girl (blushes) and I agreed…. I mean, he had done so much for me already.

Relationships with prison guards were the most coveted among women prisoners as they opened doors for certain ‘privileges’. Women who were married or had children inside prison particularly expressed their preference towards forming these relationships, due to their transient nature and possibility of economic benefits. These women would often ask their lawyers to adjust their court hearings to match the duty hours of the prison guards in the court lock-up in order to spend more time with them. The ease with which these negotiations were made points to the porous nature of prisons, thus marking a shift from it being ‘total’.

Also read: ‘Cops pry kids’ hands from their father’s grasp’: What families of ‘political prisoners’ face

Women who were convicted often resorted to other institutional means to find men. Popular among them were the hospital visits. Many women who were convicted or had delayed court hearings would often pretend to be sick in front of the prison doctor in order to be referred to the government hospital. These visits would give them a chance to interact with the male prisoners and guards travelling in the same prison van as them. As prisoners would be taken in groups of six inside the hospital, women would often be required to stay in the van with men for long periods of time. This gave them ample opportunities to exchange flirtatious words and gestures with each other, or pass ‘love letters’ from their fellow prisoners. Soniya was one such prisoner who met her long-time partner, a prison guard, through one of these hospital visits:

I waited for some time for my husband to return…but I soon realised that I had to look for other options. I was suffering from a heart ailment at that time…it wasn’t that bad, but was enough to get me a hospital visit every week…. I met many men there, but no one really came to my fancy. Until I met this security guard…he was married and all…but he would often hold my hand in the van. It all started from there…then one day he took me to the hospital bathroom and we had a little snuggle. To be honest, that was my best day in prison till date…. It’s been a year now, and I still sometimes go to the hospital to meet him. The other day I acted as if I was suffering from diarrhoea to get a hospital visit (laughs). I know it’s crazy…I have started faking sickness for him.

For women who were imprisoned along with their husbands or family members, hospital visit was a ‘safer’ way to meet new men and allowed for more private interactions. Raima, for instance, preferred to interact with male prisoners or guards during her hospital visits. As she shared most of the court dates with her parents, who were also imprisoned for the same offence, she felt reluctant to initiate any intimate conversations with men in the bakshi khana:

‘I mean, I cannot flirt around with men on my court date…my parents would feel embarrassed…so I often act sick to go to the hospital instead…. it seems less of a public spectacle of your intimate life.’

Women, Incarcerated: Narratives from India edited by Mahua Bandyopadhyay and Rimple Mehta

This excerpt from ‘Women, Incarcerated: Narratives from India’, edited by Mahuya Bandyopadhyay and Rimple Mehta, has been published with permission from Orient Blackswan.

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