(Translated from Bangla by Shampa Banerjee)
Is it appropriate to call a prison memoir beautiful? Because I think this one is.
Joya Mitra, a prolific Bangla novelist, poet and translator, was imprisoned as a young woman between 1970-74 because of her involvement with the Naxalite (Maoist) movement in West Bengal. This memoir is not about the politics or the circumstances that put her there. But, unlike Anjum Zamarud Habib’s Prisoner No. 100 (which I reviewed earlier), this omission does not seem like a lack. Habib’s memoir attempted to present the injustices meted to Kashmiris in India without really delving into the necessary politics, whereas Mitra’s memoir is about individual strength and patriarchal injustice, not politics per se.
Compassionate and observant, Killing Days is essentially a series of portraits of Mitra’s fellow prisoners in rural Bengali and Calcutta jails. It explores the sad, tragic, circumstantial and deliberate crimes that put the women in prison, and highlights the injustices of a patriarchal society that forced them there.
The government, existing laws and corrupt prison authorities are noted to be one major cause for the womens’ hardships. For instance, Mitra cites statistics claiming that more political prisoners in independent India have been killed than those imprisoned during the British colonial times (page 95). Laws pertaining to rape (as they existed in the 1970s, when Mitra was incarcerated, as they have changed slightly since) put the onus of proof on the victim, leading to humiliating interrogations where the following types of conversations can be deemed reasonable:
“You claim that this man was forcing himself on you.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I tried, he’s stronger than me.”
“Do you know how to sew?”
“Do you know how to thread a needle?”
“If someone keeps shaking the needle, is it possible to thread it?” (page 135)
Mitra does not fail to note that women are capable of committing heinous crimes, but the underlying despair and sensitivity of her accounts forces the reader to consider the circumstances that made these women into criminals. She does not let them off the hook, so to speak, but does recognise shades of grey. For example, Malati is described as “A half-wit, with an appearance almost bestial in its distortions.” Regularly returning to jail pregnant, she shows extreme love and tenderness towards her children, making it all the more tragic that she returns to jail for killing them. “She is not totally human after all” Mitra states (page 63), begging the question of how she can continue to return to jail pregnant, time after time. In a different case, Mitra describes a woman convicted of killing her daughter-in-law: “In those days, Bengali brides had not yet joined the ranks of easily inflammable objects. When the body of Sabita Dutta was thrown down from a third floor terrace, public outcry forced the police to take action.” (page 59) The strength and beauty here lies in its understatement. Mitra describes the woman’s attempts to befriend her, “from the mistaken notion that I belong[ed] to her club” (page 58), until she realises that Mitra can see through her:
“she would tell me of her innocent sons who loved their mother to distraction, of their wealth, of the ill-fated girl with distinctly unfeminine looks who seduced her second son–the young bride who jumped off the terrace and committed suicide merely to inconvenience the family. Mrs Dutta stopped speaking to me after I asked her exactly how much beating would be required to kill a “manly” young woman five feet seven inches tall.” (page 58)
But no matter what put the women there, they all end up broken: “The women prisoners move about in the courtyard. They look like shattered pieces of humanity–tired, colourless, shorn of all grace or beauty. Presidency Jail is where the dregs of a metropolis are disposed of.” (page 77)