Detain my body, but you can’t imprison my mind—Rap star Lowkey’s famous lines would suit some of the most creative minds lodged in Kerala jails.
Jailil Mottitta Kathakal (Stories that Budded in the Prison), a collection of short stories penned by 33 inmates of various jails in Kerala, is a milestone in a country which is woefully under-represented in the prison literature genre.
The book, which has been creating ripples in the literary world, was released at the Women’s Jail in Kannur in August. It reflects the trials, tribulations and the pangs of separation, seen through the eyes of those confined within the prison walls. It was compiled from the 60 entries received for a short story competition conducted by Poorna Publications, Kozhikode, in association with the prisons department, for inmates of 52 jails—three central prisons, two open prisons, district jails and special sub-jails.
“The response was overwhelming. So, we are planning to conduct a painting and poetry competition next year,” said Poorna Publications managing director N E Manohar, who published the book.
Piranthu (Madness), by Lissy, an inmate of Women’s Jail, Kannur, won the first prize, while Sayahnathile Virunnukaran (The Guest at Twilight), authored by Suresh Venmani of Poojappura Central Jail, Thiruvananthapuram, came second. In third place was Vidhiyude Balimrigangal (Victims of Fate) by Udheesh R, an inmate of the sub-jail at Mavelikkara.
“The DGP Alexander Jacob has promised to purchase two copies for every jail library,” said Manohar. Around 300 copies were sold out within two days of its release. Moved by the interest shown by the inmates, Manohar also offered to donate 100 other books for the jail libraries. Poorna is also publishing an article on the book in its monthly bulletin.
“Most of the works are autobiographical and the public will empathise with the prisoners,” said Jacob. “This will help in the sale, apart from the quality of the works.”
An interesting development was the change it made in the lives of prisoners. “For Lissy getting the prize was the happiest moment of her life. She has now taken to writing with a passion,” said Sobhana K N, welfare officer of the women’s jail in Kannur.
Lissy’s next short story, Sameerante Maranam (Death of Sameeran), also won the first prize in the literary competition organised by Alaap, a Kannur-based cultural organisation, in September. “We also conducted the competition for inmates across the state,” said K V Manoj, treasurer of Alaap. “There were 140 entries in the short story and poetry competitions. Some of the works were outstanding, and we will hold the competition the next year.”
Earlier also, the literary talent of prisoners came out in the form of books. An anthology of poems chronicled by C R Shaji, an inmate of the Central Prison Poojappura, was published by Aswasa Bhavan, Kottayam, in July. The Bhavan is a rehabilitation centre for prisoners and their dependents who are abandoned by relatives.
The prisons department organises poetry, essay, and short story contests every year, apart from the ones conducted by other organisations. “The contests are well attended, thanks to the state’s high literacy,” said Jacob. “On an average, 250 entries are received every year. We are happy to encourage their literary aspirations. One thing is clear: There are so many persons with amazing talents in our jails. Next year, we will conduct competitions in painting and poetry also.”