Last week I began my weekly counseling at the prison, by meeting with all the women inmates there. I was told their number is around 59-60, though I do not think that many came to meet me, in the open lawns, where we all met.
It was an unusual scenario for me – to sit and share with the ladies what my ‘job’ or presence in their midst meant. Most could not make sense of the word -counseling. For a moment I thought whether it was all a needless effort. There are a few non profits working among prison inmates, mine may be the third or fourth. I do not have a correct estimate of numbers yet. One of them is running a training program in several vocations- such as beauty culture, tailoring, adult education and even a creche for little children. On the whole the population is not very motivated, at least on a cursory glance.
As I sat there mid a whole lot of women from Haryana (the first time I was seeing so many together myself) I was just wondering in what language and expression to share the purpose of my work. Then I just began talking as we all sat in a gathering of nearly 35-40 women. I explained to them that I was here to share their lives with them and to help them cope better with the challenge of living life in a jail. I cannot imagine a bitter tragedy than imprisonment, and the seemingly futile effort of counseling those there.
Yet, not one to give up easily and wanting to make sense of life everywhere I feel I have to offer courage, the way I was offered courage by life and people in the years of my own suffering and solitude. I always believe that humans can be united in the idea of our shared or otherwise suffering- I have taken this from the Dalai Lama- the mindfulness that we all suffer, and that is the root of our common heritage as living beings.
To see so many people with hearts full of suffering, writ large on their faces is an experience of becoming humble, because you do not approach them with any solutions, nor wisdom, outcomes or legal advice- which they actually need. You just go empty handed, with a heart full of stories and ears willing to hear more. Your humility comes from the knowledge that possibly a whole lot of these in the jail are actually just innocent victims.
I spoke for awhile and then invited the women to say something if they would like to. Most did not, but some said they were trying to understand why I was there and what was the offer from me. Then one, who I find particularly bright and quite clear in her mind, asked me, “Madam I have understood why you will be here. You will hear our stories and may be note them somewhere. But will you keep our stories with yourself or will you do something more?“
I thought may be I would do something later in research or write about the conditions of jails or how difficult it could be to live a life in jails for years altogether. But right now the agenda is only to work together with the women and understand what is happening in their lives. The truth is that nothing is happening- their lives are all frozen for now, and they live removed from the world in an artificial world of the prison, where nobody comes to meet them (barring stray family members when they can make the journey) and they live lives in their mind, missing loved ones, missing lives left outside the jail, lamenting the loss of what life leaches from them everyday.
What will you do with our stories, she asked me insistently. Not once, but many a times. Will you write them down and share them with the world or publish them in a newspaper? Will you write about us and tell the world about our lives here? Will you? Will you not?
I kept quiet for that moment and told her I appreciated her question and may be I would have to think about it. I came away and the question kept floating in front and her fierce, bright, challenging face questioning…till I arrived at a response. This is the response of me the human, the counselor that I find emerging from the recesses of my soul.
I will listen to your stories like a friend, not a judge and possibly witness their transformation, wherever possible help while you go over the difficult passages. I come in support and acknowledgement of your suffering. I am not a lawyer, nor court, nor judge- I am just a human who understands human suffering, and I am here because we all suffer. That is all. I hope to share this with her when I meet her again.