Sunday, February 15, 2009


The below writeup is from Henk,popularly known as Oochappan  in photography circles.
Henk is a belgian national,who first came to india in 1987. He fell in love with the place so much that every yearfor 3-4 months, he comes to india and spends time taking pictures mainly in tamilnadu  and madurai .I have seen some of the best pictures of tamilnadu through his lenses.His pictures bring out the life and laughters of this place so beautifully.His Jallikkattu  photos are a benchmark for quite a few and his photos have served as a huge source of inspiration and motivation for me particularly due to my area of interest in photography.
The writeup below was written by him during one of his visits to the chennai central jail while it was functioning.
As you might know the jail has been marked for demolition now and the place will be used for the metro rail and other development activities.


January 1998
Report by oochappan

A registered letter of recommendation had announced my arrival. So now I am standing before the main gate of the prison of Madras. The city of Madras, nowadays so called Chennai is with a population of four million habitants the fourth biggest city of India. The prison itself is situated in the centre of the city between the rails of an enormous station-shunting-yard on an enclosure of 13,46 hectare. The building dated from 1837 was inaugurated as a sub jail and grown nowadays into a capacity of 1419 prisoners.

A yellow rickshaw had dropped me at the railway bridge from where a concrete road turned downwards to an open ground yard in front of the main gate. Lucky I had a copy of that registered letter with me that leaded me through two check posts and along queues of waiting visitors. Some were there already from 5 o’clock in the morning.

On the ground yard suffused with hot sunlight there were about ten transfer-vans with their drivers in light-coloured uniform waiting for the next convoy to the high-court. A soldier armed with a bayonet was guarding the main-gate. With the so familiar sound of jingling keys a guard appeared through a small door of the main gate. He was dressed in full state, a red coloured feather on his cap and white tassels on his socks under plus-fours. Yes, they still honour typical English traditions over here. On paper I had to write again my request and with my international driving-license he vanished again behind that small door. In the meanwhile policemen were bringing in two more clients. After they were stripped to skin in the wide open, they were escorted into the prison with their clothes under their arms. Ten o’clock and
26 ºC… the green transfer-vans were dancing in the quivering hot sunlight reflected by the light-coloured sand. I was standing in the shadow of the only tree given some respite. The tassel-man returned, offered me a cigarette and told me to wait. Startled and offering his apologies, he dumped quickly his cigarette hearing that I was a ‘senior officer’. Indeed here in Tamil Nadu you still pay respect for your superiors even your own elder brother by not smoking in their presence.

Finally it got so far. The ‘Superintendent’ invited me for an interview. Hop, through that small door inside. The chillness of the half-dark inner-hall felt refreshing. The prisoners going to court were registered here, one by one, handcuffed and drained away to a waiting-room. By a large stairway leading to the second floor above the hall, we reached his office, looking out over the shaded inner-court. A sturdy, well groomed, in summer-shirt dressed man of forty invited me to a delicious hot cup of tea. Left besides him some monitors showing the inner hall, the surroundings, and the visiting-room and on the right a big ventilator in front of the plan of the prison, hanging against the wall. The prison was a rectangular building with only one entrance. Through the administration-block you reached the cellular-block consisting out of ten units each with an inner-court as big as a football-field, a big kitchen, the carpentry, the wood-storehouse, a workshop for sealing wax and the hospital entirely surrounded by a fire-break-corridor with high walls. The bleached colour of the plan betrayed the authenticity of this document.

“I am also responsible for the eight sub jails here in Chennai “addressing himself towards me shoving aside his last file. “ This prison in fact is a house of custody; as soon as they are convicted they go to prisons outside Madras”. Here he had to run things with only 150 guards for an overpopulation of 2000 prisoners. The visitors are allowed here to bring food for the prisoners. There were some plans to build a second gate special for the daily transfers to the high-court………..
And if I wanted an official visit, he would pass my request on to the governor, but a semi-official visit was also possible. I opted for this last proposal. Also he promised me to bring some official documents about the prison on my next appointment. So we fixed the date that he would have more time. And with a respectful ‘poite wareen’ I left with the feeling I had made my day.

Two weeks after the superintendent was in full uniform because he had some high visit: the inspector! Both of them were wearing all their badges like colourful pictograms competing to each other. Being rather busy he redirected me to his assistant deputy. This one fired a series of questions to me, assisted by the psychologist as an interpreter. And as it suites to each Tamil he started with the familiar ‘What’s your name, your country, your salary …?’
So I learned that his salary of around ten thousand rupees was not so bad if you multiply it by seven, the difference of life standard to my country. Informing about the working system in our prison, the psychologist wrote this accurately in his notebook. He appointed a guard to accompany me to the cellular blocks.

Leaving the main-gate, we arrived at a small shaded inner court of the administrative section. In the right corner prisoners were shouting at their visiting family members through a double-meshed grille. Once in fourteen days, they can visit their imprisoned-relatives. A decent control on the visitors is non-existing since most of them even got an identity-card.
The second gate led to a large sandy square with a few trees. There was no escape from the hot burning sun anymore. Next to the guarded gate there was the prison dress changing room. New clients were here also provided with a straw sleeping mat and a pillow filled with coco-fibre. No prison clothes: non-convicted has to wear their civil clothes. Compared to city of Madras the square looked amazingly clean. Minors had to maintain this, informed my accompanist in broken English. And the minors resided in the block at the right of the square on the first floor. In the right corner there was a section exclusive for the foreigners. Crossing the square to the kitchen, some prisoners were strolling here and there. They were allowed to walk around freely in their block from 6 in the morning till 8 at night, and then they were locked up in their cells. As the only white man, I attracted a lot of attention. With their black mugs and white glistering eyes they stared at me. Most of them were wearing a traditional lungi, a loin-cloth in variegated Madras-design and walked in bare feet in the hot burning sand. Their black skin glimmered as silk in the sun.
In the centre of the kitchen a huge steam-boiler was held under pressure with firewood day and night like it was to going to explode at any moment. Rusty pipes connected big hinging steam kettles to it. In it they steamed the Tamarind-rice, the base of all South-Indian dishes together with dal, a sort of soup cooked from vegetables, spices and a lot of chilly peppers. The cooked rice was brought to another hall, turned over on big tables and pressed into a bowl, the size of one portion of a person. A swift English talking prisoner working here as a cook told me he earned six rupees a day the price of six cigarettes. Gladly he took over the task of my accompanying-guard as an interpreter and he was allowed to let rest his work for a while. As soon as we left the kitchen, hasty he explained that he was imprisoned innocent… where did I hear that before…aren’t we all ? On the other hand Madras-police is feared. Recently a newspaper article mentioned two dead bodies of fourteen-year-old boys dumped at a river after two weeks of detention in the police-quarters!
The Tamil-language was the main course in the prison school for fifty percent of the population, still illiterate. The dreary hospital situated on the first floor of another building sheltered only four patients in a sick-ward of twenty-two beds. About two hundred and three patients were lodged in hospitals outside the prison like the nurse told me. Those were of course in a far more bad shape mentally or physically.
Finally we went to one of the blocks of the so-called dangerous criminals. Behind the grille we reached a vast rectangular square surrounded by all the cells in two floors. Each cell housed usually three accused. The cells were rather obscure. The straw sleeping mats were unrolled on the ground, next to it one bucket and their personal belongings were all spread on the rest of the floor. No trace of a table or a chair cause the life of an average Tamilien takes place on the ground, here a concrete one. At least it was chilly, so most of the prisoners preferred to chat with their fellow-prisoners in their cool cells. On one side of the square they could find some relief in all the latrines. The whole bloc counted about two hundred prisoners guarded by one warder standing in the shadow of the only tree with a bamboo stick under the arm. Against all odds the atmosphere seemed rather calm and peacefully. Recalling the superintended that murder was the prime rate of crime it didn’t show here in the least.

We concluded our tour by the fire-break-corridor following the outside walls. On top of these walls high-tension cables had to prevent any escape at night. At the same time these corridors gathered all the open sewer-pipes and that you could tell by the dreadful smell hanging here. In the shadow of the corners a ward standing there all day controlled the corridor. Almost no attempts to escape were made here, last year even none! Reaching the entrance I gave the cook-interpreter my last two cigarettes by the approval of my accompanied-guard. Others hold out hands were whistled back.

Back into the noisy and smelly turmoil of Madras an ox-carriage held up all traffic, tired of climbing up the bridge in the hot burning sun. The top of my head was sunburned…….

PS : You can catch some of my photos of central jail here .

1 Comment:

newspaanai said...

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