Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage / Minds innocent and quiet take / That for an hermitage. 17th-century English poet Richard Lovelace from his poem To Althea, from Prison.
My heart goes out to the well-known human rights activist, Gautam Navlakha. I shan’t go into the whys and wherefores or the rights and wrongs pertaining to the justification or otherwise of his confinement in a prison in Mumbai, where he is holed up in a high security cell. Let the lawyers and the judges break their heads over matters that go over my head. That is not part of the mandate I have set for myself in setting out to pen this piece. Reports tell us that he is allowed a 30-minute constitutional ‘in the open space’ and must clean his own cell. So far so bad, but it gets worse and this is where my heart does its bleeding act. Mr. Navlakha has been denied, on the face of it a most reasonable request for a copy to savour of one of master humourist P.G. Wodehouse’s books, evidently from the Jeeves-Wooster canon. That went through my heart like a flaming arrow.
Now anyone who knows me even remotely or have read some of my weekly outpourings, will surely be aware that I am more than an avid Wodehouse fan. During my callow, wet-behind-the-ears phase of writing, I would unabashedly imitate the great man. Like any avowed fan, I would read many of his books over and over again (and still do), sitting quietly somewhere and chortling uncontrollably to myself while the rest of the household or fellow passengers on a train or flight, would conclude that I have become discombobulated, disoriented or even slightly demented. The more perceptive, bless them, will turn to me and say, ‘Another Wodehouse fan, I see. Which one is it?’ There’s a man after my own heart. Any Wodehouse devotee will relate, word for word, to what I have just said.
Under the circumstance, it should come as no surprise that I was shocked to the core on learning of this insane refusal, on the part of the jail authorities, to allow this incarcerated activist his daily fix of Bertie Wooster’s imbroglios while his personal gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, pours oil over troubled waters. All Mr. Navlakha wanted was some respite from the gloom of his darkened cell, and who better to provide that relief than Wodehouse? To add to the ridiculousness of the prison authorities’ position, we learn that the Maharashtra government argued that this request by Mr. Navlakha for a Wodehouse novel happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it was the postal department that viewed this request as a ‘security risk.’ Thus, a case was made out that it was not the jailers who had anything against Wodehouse, but the postal department. A wag noted that neither our jail wardens nor the boffins at the post office would be able to tell a Wodehouse tome from a hole in the ground. The matter was laughable, only no one was laughing. Certainly not Gautam Navlakha. As the court asked the prison administration tersely, ‘Why was he not given the book? Is humour banished from jail?’ That’s telling them. On being told that there are only 2800 books in the jail library, the court observed pithily if ungrammatically, ‘That is very less.’ However, they went on to add that something should be done, and right speedily, to obtain more books of greater variety to keep the feast of reason and flow of soul in good order. Those are not their exact words of course, but you get the idea. They did conclude, in that admonishing tone which judges tend to adopt, that access to books is an important step towards the reformation of cell inmates. Well said, Your Honours. Bravo!
This strange plight of Mr. Navlakha’s set me thinking. What if I decided, one fine day, to stick a knife into someone I could not stand the sight of? Then, like Dostoevsky’s anti-hero in Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who takes an axe to a corrupt, elderly lady pawnbroker’s head, resulting in a messy, gory murder. Having done his dread deed, consumed with guilt and remorse, he walks into the nearest police station and confesses. It takes all sorts. The punishment? Nothing short of a lifer. There is much stuff about subsequent redemption in an existential kind of way, and you can expect Russian authors to go on forever wallowing in that vein. Dostoevsky was no exception. Putting myself in Raskolnikov’s position, I visualised sitting in a cell and wondering, between the daily plate of cold gruel, liberally sprinkled with crawling insects, with some friendly bandicoots scurrying around for company, and only a mugful of turbid water to slake my thirst. Not a very pleasant situation, I grant you, but surely nothing a good, cheerful book can’t set right. So, at the appointed hour, one of the reprieved prisoners (for good behaviour) who has been given library duty, wheels into the cell corridors with his trolley full of books. He is whistling a happy tune from some obscure Hindi film I am unable to recognise.
‘Good morning,’ this cheerful dispenser of books greets me. ‘Any particular book you fancy reading over the next few days? Has to be returned inside a week mind you, otherwise your sentence will be increased proportionately by a week.’
‘Ha, ha. Very funny. You mean they will keep my body in the cell for another week after I die? I am here for life, you know.’
‘Just kidding. Where’s your sense of humour? Speaking of humour, any funny books you want to borrow? I can give you Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, if you wish.’ He was beside himself, laughing.
‘You are in fine form this morning, aren’t you? Look, my convict librarian friend, I am in no frame of mind for black humour. In Cold Blood indeed! How about good old P.G. Wodehouse? Have you any of his books in that miserable trolley of yours?’
‘Sorry mate, Wodehouse is banned in this prison. No can do.’
I was flabbergasted. ‘Why, for heaven’s sake? Because the authorities are worried that I might laugh myself to death? I see you have Enid Blyton’s Noddy in Toyland, A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and an illustrated comic book of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I didn’t know we have convicts under the age of ten serving extended sentences here. Come on, fish out Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. I have read it only twenty-five times. Dying for another go at it.’
‘You are a glutton for punishment. I am sorry mate, but the big nobs at the office think Wodehouse is a pernicious influence,’ he said rather pompously.
‘Where did you learn words like that? Pernicious? I can see you’ve been reading too many Noddy books.’ I was feeling quite sardonic. Prison can do that to one.
My mobile librarian found his voice again. ‘Look, I do not know or understand the details. Come to that, I do not even know why people think this author is funny. Can’t understand a word he writes, but each to his own. However, I did read somewhere that Wodehouse once made some controversial broadcasts on behalf of the Nazis when he was under house arrest somewhere in France during the Second World War. That led to him being virtually blackballed in his home country, England, and he went and settled down in America. That is the story they tell about this funny man.’
I was beginning to get exasperated. ‘I am very impressed by your knowledge, but my good man, what has all that got to do with my wanting to read his book in prison. His works are not banned in India. In fact, my information is that there are more Wodehouse readers in India than anywhere else in the world, including the United Kingdom. Can you pass that on to your bosses?’
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a while and said, ‘Tell you what, I’ll slip through the bars a copy of R.K. Laxman’s cartoons. They are pretty funny. Even if the courts decide to hear your appeal, the prison management will have to get a budget approval for buying some new Wodehouse books through Amazon, Flipkart or whoever. That is going to take time. Plenty of papers to be signed in triplicate and all that bureaucracy stuff. For the moment have some fun with R.K Laxman, and I’ll see what I can do next week about Wodehouse.’
I sighed resignedly and said, ‘OK, I’ll take the Laxman, and while you’re about it, give me that Charlie Brown and Peanuts hardbound volume, plus two of those Amar Chitra Katha comics on the Ramayana and Mahabharat.’
‘Coming up right away Sir, and you can keep them all for an extra week on the one ticket. Only don’t tell anyone.’ And off he went, humming a tune I recognised from that old Raj Kapoor blockbuster, Sangam. Jolly jailer.