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Jailhouse dreams soar above high walls

By Sahil Makkar, IANS

New Delhi : Their lives are constricted by the high walls and iron bars, but their dreams soar high. Unfettered by their surroundings, the children in the kindergarten inside the capital’s Tihar Jail dream of being doctors, cricketers and policepersons.

While their mothers serve jail time for various crimes ranging from murder to petty theft, the tiny kindergarten in Tihar is where 61 children – 26 boys and 35 girls – get their first lessons in life. Learning their ABCs, how to wield a pen on paper, a bat on the field and how to think big.

Running around the spacious crèche full of books and toys and painted a sunshine yellow with its walls plastered with paintings by the children is a young six-year-old boy, who was born in jail to a mother charged with murder. She is undergoing life imprisonment.

He holds his bat and introduces himself: “Uncle I am Sachin.” When the visitor looks confused, a jail official adds helpfully: “He means Sachin Tendulkar. He insists on everyone addressing him by the name and watches all the matches on television inside his mother’s cell.”

The young boy wants visitors to play cricket with him, and when some oblige, the day lights up.

Also in the big room is a three-year-old girl who has splashed paint on her frock and pullover, the blue reflecting in her soulful eyes.

“My mummy tells me stories related to doctors. She says I will become a doctor when I grow up,” she stammers.

But her five-year-old friend has no such inhibitions. “Mai policewala banuga aur sab ki pitai karunga (I will become a policeman and beat up everybody),” screams the son of an undertrial who is in jail on charges of cheating and theft.

Holding toys tightly close to their chests and dressed in yellow uniforms are many other children biding their time till they are six and sent to a boarding school in nearby Noida with the help of various NGOs.

They chatter happily, unaware of the abnormality of their lives. What they hate is spending so much time away from their mothers, who work for eight hours a day weaving, tailoring and making envelopes and candles. The unskilled women labourers get Rs.40 (nearly $1), the semiskilled Rs.44 and the trained Rs.50 for an entire day’s work.

According to jail spokesperson Sunil Gupta, the children stay with their mothers and are only allowed to come out when the cell gates open at 7 a.m. Their mothers leave them at the crèche after breakfast.

“We have made special arrangement for the children’s food. They are given milk and butter. Every aspect of their health is taken care of and jail doctors regularly monitor them,” Gupta told IANS.

Jail officials say two inmate teachers hold lessons and then leave the children to play. Their mothers meet the children after their eight-hour jail job.

The day might go well, but the discontent runs deep.

A young undertrial would like her daughter to stay with her husband or relatives. But her rickshaw puller husband is an alcoholic and her relatives are not ready to keep the child.

“My daughter doesn’t even know it is a prison. She thinks it’s her house and now she is so familiar with things here,” says the mother.

Another undertrial says her two-year-old daughter is a source of strength and succour. “I draw inspiration to live more from my daughter when I see her face every morning.”

Says jail superintendent Swatantar Pahawa: “We encourage children to at least take up one hobby. They are as talented as those in the outside world.”

Tihar Jail, housing more than 11,000 men and 500 women, is India’s largest jail and one of Asia’s biggest. It is a world within walls and for the children inside those walls the only home they know. The only place, good or bad, for them to nurture their dreams.