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Prison Tales

 Leaders and Pickpockets


 As someone has said coffee connects us in so many ways, so did the hubble-bubble connect generation ahead of us in our childhood.  Those days’ many tailor shops in our downtown, were no less than the fashionable Coffee House, on the Residency Road were wits, poets and “politicians”  met in the morning to enjoy hot cups of coffee and talk politics- of course pooh-poohing the resistance movement used to be best of their pastime.

In and around our locality many tailor shops just before the dusk started filling up with clouds of smoke coming out of the hubble-bubble and buzzed with wide-ranging political discussions, from cold war politics to Soviet Russia’s veto in the United Nations. One, of the tailor shops, were from our family got clothes made, was the best haunt for the resistance workers- some of them had been jailed many times since the early thirties, some had suffered long incarcerations after 1947  and 1953. Nonetheless, all of them had their bunch of prison stories to share with those sitting in the shop and enjoying puffs of smoke amidst musical sounds coming out of engraved copper ‘Jajeer’.  Talking about their atrocious times behind the high walls, some told their stories as painfully and eloquently as immortalised by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mahmoud Darwish. And for changing the sombre mood, some flavoured them with spicy jokes about political detainees and inmates.

During the winter vacations, one of my best pastimes was visiting our Tailors shop in the ground floor of his two-story modest house for getting my putto pheran, and pair flannel shirts and pyjamas stiched – that used to be the dress of all native children during winters.  From the day of giving a measurement for the clothes to tailor keeping our winter dress ready my siblings and I frequented his shop many times.  I loved sitting in the shop, watching young apprentices making buttonholes with small needles and stitching buttons and listening to the loud arguments and counter-arguments of the political workers and other elders on the political situation. Most of the discussions went over my head. Nonetheless, it was stories about the jail life by some senior political workers, more particularly stories about the burglars (Saani-Tchor) and pickpockets (Chanda-Tchor)  that attracted my attention the most.

That, one superintendent of jail set free some notorious burglars at the fall of night, and after committing thefts, they returned to the prison in wee hours before the barracks were unlatched, and the burglars shared the booty with the superintended and other top jail staff’. These stories stunned me the most and made me believe what Foucault has said, ‘prison is a recruitment centre for the army of crime.’ Nevertheless,   lots of other stories that these workers of the resistance movement shared made me believe ‘prisons are a socialist paradise were equality prevails.’ Strangest of all the stories were about engaging criminals serving life imprisonment,  burglars and pickpockets as Khid’maate ( personal attendants)  and cooks of the top and middle-rung leaders of the Plebiscite Front and other organisations that were part of the resistance movement in the mid-fifties and the sixties. For their proficiency in cooking some known burglars, like Qadir Chahan and Mohammad Gama and pickpockets like Rehman and Gaffara were asked for from the  Central Jail by top leaders detained in special jail or sub-jails. For their being in and out of prison, the Srinagar  Central Jail was a second home for these criminals, and serving as Khid’maate one or other top resistance leader had become a badge of honour for them- and they bragged about it.  

These criminals (Khid’maate) in the company of these leaders were not reformed, but as the Kashmiri adage goes, if you sit on a blacksmith’s shop a spark is bound to touch you, they had got acquainted with nuances of Kashmir politics and could eloquently talk about it. But, for the social stigma, they could pass as intelligent political workers.  During, our days at the campus, one of the burglars (reformed) who had served as Khidmat had opened a tea shop outside the headquarters of a resistance organisation besides having come up as an important centre of informed political discussions; it also had become the hub of student politics.   

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