A Janam Within A Janam

When women in India are given a life sentence and often disowned by their families, how do they cope in prison? An inspiring story

It has almost been 10 years, since I first met Malati, or as everyone called her, “Malti”. I was doing a small project on women’s mental health within state institutions for NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) back then and my work included interviewing women with mental disturbance within Yerawada Jail.

The Jailer had allotted Malti to my services, who was cheerful, outspoken, quite educated being a lawyer herself and helpful. She assisted me with my interviews, introduced me to my respondents, documented my interviews, shared her own life story with me with utmost candour and most importantly, described to me the emotional journey of women who were incarcerated, especially ‘lifers’ or those serving a fourteen year manslaughter penal sentence. I was deeply moved by Malti’s intelligence and capacity to understand life with such clarity, depth and compassion. It was a deeply enriching ethnographic experience for me.  By ethnographic, I don’t mean, simply academic, I mean that it was an experience that united both her and me together as parts of and creators of the same experience that we shared with each other very intensely over that brief period, when I looked forward to meeting her everyday in order to see the world through her eyes.

Malti was a ‘lifer’ herself; she had murdered her abusive husband and did not regret it for a minute, since she felt morally justified rather than technically so. However, paradoxically, she still loved him.

She described the prison to me as a ‘life’, a ‘janam’ within a ‘janam’ which was isolated from the period of its beginning to its end from the rest of the life that one lived before one was incarcerated and would hope to live after the incarceration was over, in continuation of the period before, and that too if one were lucky and re-accepted into one’s original family.

Most women were rejected and had to start a chapter 3 of their life in old age and loneliness. Malti believed that lord Rama had lived in prison as well. His 14 years of vanavaas, was nothing but a lifer’s sentence, where he grew into becoming a king internally before formally acquiring that position later in Ayodhya. According to Malti, the 14 years was no co-incidence; lord Rama actually learned the value of kingship through the battle of his ‘sentence’.

Most women were rejected and had to start a chapter 3 of their life in old age and loneliness. Malti believed that lord Rama had lived in prison as well. 

It all started when one day, towards the end of my assignment, Malti showed me a photo of herself from a time maybe just two-three months before the murder event and subsequent arrest. It was a family photograph with husband and children; it was his last photo before he died, she noted to me somewhat wistfully, wiping her eyes. Malti still loved the very man she had hated enough to kill. Trying to distract her from the uncustomary maudlin mood, I playfully commented on how thin she was compared to her portly size now. Pat came the reply. The prison food, peaceful life and clean air had suited Malti’s health a great deal.

The lifer’s sentence did two things to you. It drew you inwards to your own values, while at the same time teaching you renunciation and acceptance of the external reality, however hard that may be in the beginning. Being sentenced was an exercise in meditating on values. A sentence demonstrated the transience of a janam and all attachments that one made in that janam that provided one with a false sense of security and permanence; it is the ultimate form of moh and maya, greed and temptation, Malti said.

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Transience and impermanence was in fact the only truth that a lifer learned…if she learned well. Those who become too attached to emotional investments in prison life and made a nuisance of themselves, were transferred to different jails, their sense of impermanence becoming heightened by their own karma till they learned the lesson of renunciation.

Malti was of the opinion that no external situation could really be that bad. Good and bad was what people made out of it, because they felt addicted to moh-maya. Malti described the prison to me as a small heaven. There was equality here. There was fresh air, decent food, decent clothing, exercise, work and rest. Many women completed their education in jail. The right to education was a fundamental right and so, many women continued studying in jail. There was a beautiful garden that everyone worked hard to maintain and women celebrated all festivals together. In the evenings, they could watch tv or sleep. There was solitude when one wanted and company when one wanted, even though there was overcrowding sometimes.

Many small children below the age of five could spend time with their mothers in the jail according to the law. Playing with these 70 or 80 children was a source of utter delight to everyone. These children ran around happily gaining attention from everyone. The jail was an ideal and beautiful place without all kinds of difficulties and impurities that outside society was so full of.

Even the desire for companionship and love was fulfilled within the prison. One day a person simply leaves a companion behind, who felt like a life long partner, indeed a sister, in such a short time. And time really sped by in the jail. Some women who formed intense bonds with each other in the jail, felt that it was their destiny that had brought them together in the first place and that is why God had made them commit the mistake of a crime.

No external situation was completely bad Malti often explained, however many problems there may be with it. It is the mind that chooses to see only the bad parts or good parts. It is the non-fulfillment of desires and what one ‘wants’ that is a problem. What ‘is’ is never a problem per se only if one were to recognize the beauty of what ‘is’ and this can also be only recognized, when one keeps one’s ego aside. Sometimes what ‘is’ is so much better than what one has wanted. Sometimes we want impossible things. Wanting is free. To accept what is and view it as a blessing or gift is the hardest lesson of life that teaches each one who lives a janam within a janam the true value of acceptance and renunciation. Acceptance and renunciation of maya is the manta of peace, contentment and happiness.

Freedom was only a mental concept. Was any woman ever free in society outside?

But what about freedom I had asked? What freedom, was her question made in return to mine. Freedom was only a mental concept. Was any woman ever free in society outside? Society outside involved bondage and slavery to an extent that was much greater than can be imagined in comparison to life spent in jail. One’s freedom was severely curtailed in all aspects within the outside world; there was competition and hierarchy and a daily battle with money, work, safety and relationships that were unending and thankless. It was only in jail, that one could find real freedom from the bondage and slavery of society that turned one’s existence into one large cycle of thankless labour till one went to the grave.

The jail was beautiful on the other hand. Here everyone was equal. The only problem one could possibly run into concerned the lack of sexual love. But what was the guarantee of finding that in the society outside? Could one find it, as if magically, only if one were free? And could one find it only with a man? Did one need biological children to experience motherhood? Some women formed sexual relationships with each other even within the jail and looked after and played with so many little ones staying with their mothers.

It was a matter of accepting what was given to you and making the best out of it. In the jail, one could live without politics and still survive. In the outside world survival was impossible without politics. In the outside world even sexual love between husband and wife could became exploitative and power-ridden. The jail was the garden of meditation that could help inmates transcend moh-maya and gain renunciation over the control of external circumstances on their life. There was no reality to either happiness or sadness but as reactions to one’s desire and greed. Coming to a jail was a golden spiritual opportunity.

Malti described emotional phases in a lifer’s sentence. In the initial period, especially if the inmate was sentenced by a far flung sessions court (far from the high court) the lifer would spend all her time concentrating on and yearning for the outside world. She would put all her energy into letter writing and feel angry and betrayed if her letters were not answered. She would feel stigmatized because her context would still be the parochial outside world where she wanted to regain her position and power. She would make many frenzied phone calls to everyone she knew and wait for their ‘visits’. She would apply to the high court and supreme court. She would not engage too much with the other inmates because she would be in denial of her sentence.

It was extremely difficult and painful for a prisoner to suddenly face the finality of a 14 year sentence. She could accept it only little by little and gradually.

It was extremely difficult and painful for a prisoner to suddenly face the finality of a 14 year sentence. She could accept it only little by little and gradually. One typically saw such women standing near the inside the walls of the jail, touching it, looking up and thinking about their new bondage. Their hopes would rise high and plummet with a crash like waves and this played havoc with their health and emotional condition. They were withdrawn, depressed and aggressive. They were in a situation of shock and denial.

In a year or two they settled down to the new life. They made new friends and also tried to help new inmates. They dedicated themselves to some work, adopted a particular friend, whom they could protect and take under their wing. They formed groups and adapted to a social world within the jail that was just a replica of the world outside. It was only towards the end of their sentence, as the anxiety about having to re-enter the outside world and feeling inequipped for it after so many years of losing touch with it, that they would begin to undergo fresh turmoil of losing their relationships and bonds made in the jail, afresh. They are willing to even commit a second crime that would allow them to stay on; they became desperate and emotional; many women tried to commit suicide during this time.

Now they would cling on to the same walls refusing to let go, screaming undying love for everything within the jail. They faced the real fear of the outside world and that would again bondage them into slavery…and this time with the added burden of the moral stigma. They begin to deal with their janam within a janam and they face the death of their second janam. Sometimes it is too painful for them to face their own powerlessness within the given situation, which they simply had to passively accept. They did strange things as the time for release drew near, in order to gain some power over it…like trying to run away just one week before their release date.

It was very daunting for me to understand and participate in the extreme intensity to the lives of these women leading a janam within janam and undergoing so many phases of depression. It felt like a terrible burden. Malti and I often discussed the potency of memory itself and it is with her in mind that I often said that if there were truely a God, and if he were really to be all merciful, its proof would lie in the lack of any memory within a new born’s life, either of her past life or death…that preceded the new birth.  This lack of memory helped her to live and hope again. But the terrible burden of a janam within janam, with full memory of the social death it involved and that too twice over, threatened to unhinge even my sanity temporarily.

I received a phone call from Malti last Sunday and it made me write her story today. She had traced my number from an online telephone listing after having gone through many people of the same name. She had been released from jail two years back and worked now in a small office in Barshi. She told me she still wanted to help under trial cases languishing in jails across the country. They remain incarcerated for much longer than their actual sentence sometimes.

Who takes responsibility for the years lost in their lives and all the relationships that are broken during this time? The state? It is only acceptance of their fate that allows women to maintain their sanity, looking for meanings where none exist. Life itself is a voyage, every destination being just a step in the larger journey. I agreed, somewhat stunned by her sudden call and the force of her voice. It rung in my ears and I had the feeling that I too had traveled a circle of life, a janam along with Malti, our phone conversation completing the ring of nameless journeys, where no destination was really home and every place that now had to be engaged with, was through a mental state of being at home…being in acceptance without fighting – renouncing one’s desires in every external condition. I still battled with the idea of renunciation, even though it stared me in the face.

This is dedicated to Malti and the spirit and compassion with which she understood janam.


About the Author


Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in India, currently living with her husband in Germany. read more...

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