The mother’s heart-breaking lament might have made even the prison walls weep. She cried out loud shaking her head, as she slowly crumbled down to the cold cement floor. Repeatedly asking Gods she worshiped every day, asking everyone who was watching this in utter shock, “Tell me why would I need to go out now? For what?”
This was one story that Mary Retna Bai, now 75, the first superintendent of Kerala’s first women's prison, recalled when 'Yentha' caught up with her.
Mary has several such stories to narrate about her inmates. Stories and memories, happy and bitter. Mary continued.
“The very purpose of that inmate’s life, her dear son, was no more. In fact it was to feed her bedridden son that she started selling small quantities of locally-made liquor. Unable to go out and work, she found an easy way to earn some money. This eventually put her behind bars. She now had no mouth to feed, and she saw no purpose to go out of the prison now. Seeing her crumble like a mud figurine moistened everyone's eyes. She was not a hardened criminal. She was a victim of her circumstances,” Mary recalled.
Like hers, according to Mary, there are thousands of such stories, stranger than fiction. These people, like it or not, also make up this society in which we live. Most times we are unaware of the plights these people are subjected to. Mary was one person who was able to talk about these people, who had a first-hand experience of these situations. It was unusual, especially in the 80s and 90s for a woman to run a correctional institution.
Retna Bai talked about herself and how she became the first superintendent of first women's prison in Kerala, one of its kind in India.
Mary’s original name was meant to be just Mary. But her father, a school teacher, added two more names to that as his gratitude towards two sisters, Retna and Bai, who took care of her as an infant. Originally coming from a small village near Thiruvalla, she fondly remembers her childhood in Kuttanaad, the land of backwaters.
“During those times in the 40s, having a job literally meant putting food on the table, or shall I say on the plate as most people didn't use or have formal dining tables at that time, ” she said smiling. Mary did her studies at CMS school, Syrian Christian School Seminary and Marthoma college, Thiruvalla.
Both Mary and her younger brother had a very
happy childhood until her father lost his job. Apparently he stood
against the injustice of the school management and he paid it with his
job. A very strong willed man and a gentleman to the core, he was
someone who influenced Mary the most.
“At the age of 21 the second phase of my life
started when I came to Trivandrum with a job at the head office of
Inspector General of Jails, now Prisons,” she said. Later on as a part
of jail modernization, it was decided to start a women's prison to be
run by only women except security staff. “Based on seniority and
physical fitness I was appointed as the first superintendent of Kerala’s
first women's prison, which was started on 18th December 1989, at a
place called Thozhukal, Neyyatyinkara, in Trivandrum.
"It was an eventful period, lasting about six years, with some very high profile cases going on including the espionage case in which foreigners were involved. It was front page news in every newspaper at that time. Even though they were brought in for a very short period of time it was a tense time for all of us. Inmates included talented artists, serving three months to even life imprisonment. If I narrate all those events, it could easily be converted into a book,” recalled a visibly animated former jail superintendent.
Mary has since become a Trivandrum resident. Her children are married and settled while she is enjoying a peaceful retired life. According to her, circumstances, poverty and ignorance are the reasons that force people to take actions which put them behind bars.
Sometimes children of jail inmates are the worst affected. However there are people who take care of inmates’ children and give them guidance and education like 'Snehatheeram', run by Jacob and Aleena Mathew. For most inmates the future looks blank, dull and uncertain. Institutions like these are a silver lining on the otherwise dark and lonely cloud.
From her times jails have improved by leaps and bounds says Mary. Living conditions of inmates over the past years have become quite comfortable. Indoor games, good libraries, literacy programs, training programs for their rehabilitation - all of these are going on well. But Mary says that we need to keep up the good work. “Even though they are behind bars for reasons sometimes beyond our grasp, they are still a part of society in which we live,” she concluded.
Life goes on as usual outside these walls. Life goes on as usual inside these walls too. Most times the ones inside pose a lesser threat to society than those who are outside.