Excerpt from the book, Busted in India, by Mark O’Brien, aka Swami Alok Preetam.
Pune, June 1994
When the heavy wood and iron gates to Yerwada Central Prison (YCP) were shut and locked behind me, I felt so small, so alone and so scared.
I found myself now in a room full of Indian prisoners, all squatting on the floor in rows, and the cops handing the papers that contained all of me, who I now was, over to an officer at a desk. He looked OK actually, decent looking. He asked me the usual questions, which country, which case, why are you doing this business, how much money did you make, etc etc, the questions I’d hear again and again over the next years.
The official reception over, all processed, I was herded outside the inner gate into what was the space between the inner and outer walls of the prison, about 12 metres wide, with a road in the middle. It was here that I was searched, all my belongings opened, by three guards.
I even had to take off my trousers, a humiliation compounded by the laughter of the 100 or so Indians who were already sitting outside in rows. An ugly fat guard with oily eyes (I’d later learn his name was Jibbo and he later became my ‘friend’.) ripped off the seals on my water bottles, tasting each, which pissed me off as I regarded him as being very dirty.
He didn’t understand why I had my own water when it was available from every tap! The toilet paper really confused him, not knowing what it was for, ridiculing me when I acted out wiping my butt. I had some Western cigarette tobacco, which also was unknown, so I had to make a few fags to assure them it was OK, and not charis!
I actually had very little by way of possessions, but was made to feel extravagant, greedy for having so many things! Having to argue for all of my possessions like this was all the harder because I was acting out my [supposed] illness, so my speech was very uncertain, slow, and the laughter of the others made it much harder as well.
It was all pretty degrading, although over time I’d come to realise that dignity was to do with me, and how I was, rather than to do with how I was treated.
I was then told to sit in the lines, introduced to a Nigerian, Samuel, who was asked to help me land, watch over me on my first night, a task he accepted willingly. It was great to be able to speak to a non-Indian, as I have found that Indians’ conversation is rarely interesting, and they generally want to suck from you. Africans, or at least the ones I had met, tended to be mentally more ‘Western’, easier to relate to. He seemed a good guy, relaxed with the whole story. He’d been in prison for just on five years and hadn’t got to trial yet! Oh shit! Oh fuck! That can’t happen to me, it won’t, it can’t! NO! NO! NO!
I was totally freaked out and bewildered in this no man’s land between these two high stone walls, the sunset colouring the sky with a child’s abandon, the beauty of which briefly registered. It was very quiet, clean, fresh air, yet I was full of dread at what awaited me inside. It was all so strange.
The officer then called me over, and appearing quite sympathetic, told me that however I did it, I should get out of this situation as fast as possible, as ‘this is not a good place’. He was young, fit looking, handsome, and seemed quite intelligent. He asked me about my injuries, having in his hand the court order to hospitalise me. I had to hold myself back and be really careful in my answers to his questions, and how I carried myself, as I wanted to keep my performance low key yet convincing.
After a little while all the others were marched inside, and with a guard I followed through the gate into what I’d learn was ‘3 number Circle’. Unlike what I’d later discover about Circles 1 and 2, Circle 3 wasn’t actually a full circle, more like two thirds of one. I walked into an open expanse of dirt, perhaps 80 metres in diameter, across which I had to traverse, defined on one side by the inner wall, stone and three metres high, and by 6 long buildings, barracks, radiating like spokes of half a wheel, the centre of which was the area of open ground I was now crossing. By now it was dark, and as I walked across, a chorus of cries went up, “Mark Francis, 6 kilo charis!” over and over.
Oh fuck it just gets worse and worse! Is there a bottom to all this, or am I gonna fall forever? I’d seen such things in prison movies when someone famous arrives. What a trip! The nightmare just gets deeper.
Then we passed out into open space again, with orderly flower-lined pathways going left and right and straight ahead, the air fragrant with the flowers of the monsoon, trees. On towards a big round building, the prison kitchen I’d later learn, which we skirted, where there were statues, busts, of Gandhi and Shivaji (an Indian freedom fighter hero less famous in the West), some of the more illustrious inmates here in the past, and came across three important looking officers with rows of polished stars on their epaulettes sitting on some chairs chatting.
“Hello, what is your good name?”
“Why are you in our country?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Where are you going?”
“What is your problem?”
“You don’t look sick. OK, you may go.”
Which I did, realising by the relaxation in the guard escorting me when we moved off that they made him nervous too. Walking along the road lined with flowers was very surreal somehow, as it was my first taste of darkness in two weeks, of night, of space, of calm, the tuberoses growing beside the path fragrant in the night air. It was very soothing for my spirit.
By now I was starting to feel like a ‘bad machine’ whenever I was interviewed like that and was happy to move on. We proceeded down the tree- and flowerbed-lined road, and entered the hospital compound, all neat and orderly in the way of Indian officialdom. We arrived at the ‘1 number ward’, my destination, and after much yelling and hollering the door was opened by the strangest looking person I’d ever seen, a vision from Midnight Express. He was the warden, a longer serving prisoner in charge of the ward.
He had a white cloth wrapped around his head, tied on top in a bow, as though it was holding his jaw closed which I discovered was exactly its purpose. He was wearing a white singlet, and I could see that his whole upper body was covered in scars, thick pink shiny ones. He grunted and yelled, me having no idea what he was saying, and after some moments showed me to an empty bed. His speech sounded like a wounded animal, and it was the next day before I understood why.
I learned that he’d had cancer of the jaw, and his jaw had been removed. Over the years attempts had been made to graft a rib to make a new jaw, hence all the scars. He was often going off for surgery as each attempt would fail.
Apparently, the surgeons would disconnect one end of a rib, wanting to maintain the blood flow, and the other end would be hooked up to another rib already in place in the mouth, fashioned into a rudimentary jaw, in the hope it would take, in the same way I guess a gardener hopes a grafted rose will take. Apparently, he’d be sitting in his bed for weeks with another of his ribs running from his chest to his mouth, bandaged up at either end. Experimental surgery, and also keeping him alive.
It’s a strange place, India. I could see how difficult this was for him, how frustrating, to have all this stuff happening but not working.
There was much excited chatter as I was shown to a bed, unpacked my things into the cabinet provided. I felt like I was in a five-star hotel, it felt so luxurious! Clean floors, painted walls! A bed! I lay on the bed, smoking, pondering this latest turn of events, enjoying the feel of the mattress. I was in a high-ceilinged room about 40 by 6 meters, with ten beds along each side, and between each bed someone sleeping on the floor.
I was up the end closest to the toilets, where it seemed the really sick ones were, the smelly ones, the poor low-caste ones who lay on the floor in their shit-stained blankets, gazing dully around. It was also a bit darker up that end, there being only a single light bulb. While everyone was interested in me, watching everything I did, I was left alone, and soon I drifted off into a deep and exhausted sleep.
I woke in the morning to much loud banging and shouting as the barrack was unlocked and the guards came to count everybody. Count over, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.
I woke some time later to find someone sitting on my bed with a big smile, speaking to me. Totally disoriented, it took me some moments to remember where I was and to understand that this very animated person was speaking English. So I met Matwala, an Italian sannyasin who’d been there for three and a half years, and whose backyard, if I was to believe him, virtual fief, the hospital with all its various compounds was. He held my hand and told me he’d take care of me.
Illustration Osho News
For the digital version of the book, send AU$20 by PayPal to alok at byronpublications.com and then send an email to the same address – alok at byronpublications.com – letting Alok know who it is that paid.
Read Carolyn Boniface’s review, Busted in India
Australian-born Alok Preetam (aka Mark O’Brien) took sannyas in 1982 in Fremantle, Western Australia. Three of his sisters, Mary, Ann, and Geni took sannyas in Pune 1. Taught tennis in Pune from 1992 to 1994. Wrote for and published Here & Now Magazine from 1999 to 2007, Byron Body & Soul Guide from 1999 to present and Kindred Magazine (Byronchild) from 2001 to 2009. Publishes balifoodandfun.com since living on Bali, Indonesia from 2012 to present. Connect via Facebook