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Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a government doctor in Jharkhand. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award for his 2014 novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, and is the author of The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Recently, the Jharkhand government issued Shekhar a notice for a piece he wrote in The Indian Express opposing the new domicile policy announced by the state government in April this year. According to the policy, only those people who have been living in the state or have acquired immovable assets over the last 30 years, or their children, will be considered local residents of the state.

In this short fiction piece, Shekhar tells the story of Joga Paharia, a man who was arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Joga Paharia died on a winter day. He had been in the divisional jail in Pakur for about three years—an undertrial, his case was yet to end, yet to reach final judgment. All undertrial prisoners were kept in this jail; when their trial ended and they were sentenced, they were sent to the central jail in Dumka, some 80 kilometres away.

Joga was fifty…no, sixty…perhaps more than that. He was a small man, just a bag of bones sheathed over by a layer of skin. Very little flesh, a lot of grizzly hair and beard. He looked old when he was arrested by the police three years ago, and, through each of his hearings, Joga only looked older. He did not talk—he was mute when he was arrested, he lived in the jail in silence, he died in silence. No complaint—not a cry, nor a whimper.

It was the day of the Thursday hatia in Gokulpur village of Pakur three years ago. Men and women from the town and nearby areas were at the ground of the Bajar Samiti where the hatia was held. Non-Adivasis, Adivasis, all. The Adivasis included both Santhals and Paharias. While the Santhals came from Pakur and the nearby villages, the Paharias came from the hills. Paharias—those from the hills. That is what the word Paharia means—a person from the Pahar, the hills.

Some Paharias lived in huts, but a number of the Paharias still lived in the hills, in houses built on trees. Their contact with the outside world was minimal. When any gaadisarkaari or otherwise—went into a forest inhabited by the Paharias, the Paharias ran up into their tree houses. They spoke their own language, and it was the only language they knew. Most of them didn’t know Hindi, Bangla or Santhali—the three other languages spoken in the area. Perhaps Joga Paharia knew some Santhali and some Hindi, but there was no way of knowing this.

Joga had just come down to the hatia in Gokulpur. There was a murder at the hatia. Someone shot a man with a pistol. In the commotion that ensued, the real murderer fled. When the police came, they saw Joga near the dead body. They tied him up with a thick rope and took him to the thana.

No one came looking for Joga. And no one was expected to come looking for him. The policemen knew Joga was a Paharia and that he was innocent. They also knew that the Paharias were so averse to coming in contact with the outsiders that they would not come looking for their man. They would stay away, in their tree houses, apparently safe from the outside world.

Joga—dark, thin, and sickly; a threadbare gamchha tied around his waist and a tattered shirt on his torso; his eyes yellow; his dry and grizzly hair making his head look bigger than his body; an idiotic, madman-like look on his face—refused to speak a word. No matter how much they asked him his name and address and what he was doing beside the dead body, he wouldn’t open his mouth. He just stared at the policemen, ate whatever he was given, and went wherever they took him. His name was entered in police files as “Unknown.”

Several days later, to some fellow prisoners—other Paharia men that he had begun to trust—Joga spoke in his language and revealed his name. But he did not let out anything else. Where he came from, his family—nothing. After that short conversation Joga had with his friends, he fell silent again. Days passed. No one came asking for Joga. No report was filed at any of the thanas for a missing Paharia man. Joga’s Paharia friends inside the jail, through visitors who came to meet them, sent messages to Paharia settlements nearly all over the district. Yet, no one came.

The murder case against him drew on. No witness or evidence was found against Joga, but neither was the actual killer caught. Police investigation into who murdered that man at the hatia was going nowhere. But because the system took so much time, and because Joga was not some VIP prisoner, the dates for his hearings kept piling up. Joga was not acquitted, and his stay in the jail lengthened.

Joga did not create any trouble, and took everything with equanimity. Often, prisoners complained of sicknesses—stomach ache, fever, pain in their limbs, enlarged scrotum, vertigo, weakness. There were times when the entire jail would be suffering from loose motion or chicken pox. One problem that nearly all prisoners had was itching—on their bodies, on their crotches, the insides of their thighs, between toes and fingers. This itching could be fungal infection, ringworm, or even scabies— the consequence of having too many people huddled together with not enough sanitary facilities. The jail pharmacist distributed medicines. If the health issues were too severe, the jail doctor came. Some prisoners were genuinely ill. Some others just malingered; they somehow convinced the doctor that they were ill. Then the doctor advised hospitalisation, after which those prisoners would be carried to the sub-divisional hospital under police protection. They would enjoy their brief moment of freedom before they were discharged and sent back to the jail again.

Joga did not pretend to be sick. One day, he really fell sick. His body was burning, but he just lay there in his corner in his ward. He did not groan, he did move his limbs. He did not even shut his eyes. He just lay there, staring at a faraway point on the opposite wall. His fellow inmates found him lying like that and realised that he had fever. They tried asking him how he felt, but Joga did not say a word. The pharmacist tried talking to him—nothing. Fortunately, it turned out to be a plain fever. Three days of paracetamol tablets, and Joga was fine again.

Joga was not religious. He did not pray, he did not have a pet superstition, no one heard him complain to any God. If there was a puja in the jail, all prisoners were given prasad of laddoo, fruits and chura. Joga was given prasad too, and he ate it. If someone put a tilak of sindoor on his forehead, he was fine with it. There were prisoners of all faiths in the jail—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, animist Santhals. Within those tall fences of the prison, through its bleak walls and corridors, nearly every prisoner found at least one reason to celebrate, one reason to be happy. No one knew what was in store for them tomorrow. So, by themselves, the prisoners tried to be happy. Their religions, their faiths gave them the reason, and also the means. Festivals were taken very seriously in the jail. Even the authorities understood this. Everyday there would be rows of visitors lined up at the jail, but during the festivals the number would multiply.

The area in which the prisoners stood to talk to their visitors was a narrow corridor. One wall of this corridor had large windows that opened towards the outside—the freedom side. But these windows had strong iron bars and also strong iron mesh covering them. On the opposite side of these windows, beyond the iron bars, towards the freedom side, was an empty space, about eight to ten feet wide. This space was bordered by iron bars and no one was allowed in this space. In the narrow corridor, leaning on the iron bars and mesh on the windows, stood the prisoners. On the other side of the 8-10-feet wide empty space, leaning on the iron bars, stood the visitors. And that is how they communicated, the prisoners with the visitors, shouting at the top of their voices, trying to make themselves heard over the voices of 20 others like them. It was a babel: Hindi, Santhali, Bangla. A jail was a world in itself, a small world. If not a world then, at least, a country, a village.

Nearly every prisoner had a visitor, except Joga. Other prisoners wondered, the jail authorities wondered, if Joga had anyone outside, if he really belonged to this place, this district; if he really wasn’t a madman who had escaped from somewhere and ended up in jail. For a long time, after he revealed his name, Joga’s fellow prisoners and the police tried talking to him, to find out. After a month or so, they lost patience. They just remained careful and checked if he was alright, because Joga was such that he would shit in his clothes, unable to move, and, yet, would not tell anyone, not ask for help, not even whine in agony or discomfort.

No matter the day, the serene, unruffled, undisturbed, totally indifferent look on Joga’s face did not change. He was neither happy nor sad. He did not need a God to open up to. Some prisoners cried about their situation, some screamed their innocence at the top of their voices and claimed that they would be out of the jail soon. Others realised the crimes they had committed and felt guilty. Joga had neither the contrition of being guilty nor the indignation of having being called guilty for no reason. He slept, woke up and walked through the day with the same calmness. He slept at the same time each night and woke up at the same time every morning. The prisoners were given duties—to sweep and wash their wards, to cook in the kitchen, to weed and garden. Joga did whatever he was told. He swept the corridor when asked to. He pulled weeds from the garden and grew tomatoes and radish in it. He was praised for his hard and neat work. Yet, he did not acknowledge any word of kindness or praise. Earlier, Joga did not know how to knead atta to make rotis. His fellow prisoners taught him, and he learnt quickly. Some prisoners, even the jail authorities, joked that they would do anything to find that calmness, that serenity that Joga had.

One way or another, Joga’s case dragged on. The police had been unable to nab the real culprit. Some more pressing cases came up just on the days of Joga’s hearing. Two years passed, with Joga waiting for justice.

Since no one came to see Joga in those two years and his whereabouts could not be found, the prisoners and the police took care of him. He wore clothes that the police and other prisoners gave him. Old shirts, trousers, shorts, lungi, dhoti, sweater, shawl, blankets—all old but wearable. His own shirt and gamchha had turned to tatters and were long gone. The jail barber trimmed his hair and shaved his beard. The Joga who was arrested for murder two years ago looked like a madman. Joga, the prisoner, looked smart, tidy. That Joga, who was found by the police in a suspicious position near a murdered man in a hatia two years ago, was a bony old man. This Joga, the undertrial, looked many notches healthier, if not completely healthy. If anyone came to see Joga now, the jail staff wondered, would they recognise him? Who would come?—the staff answered their own question: his family must have taken him for dead.

During his third year in jail, Joga actually died. It was a cold month, and he had been sick for some time. It was not that stray fever like earlier, nor a regular case of loose motion or itching or weakness. This time, Joga’s illness was serious, and, for the first time, he himself had shown signs of it. Old and weak that he was, he had started refusing food for some days. The prisoners told him to eat, the police told him to eat, but they knew he wouldn’t. He just remained silent. Yet, he was calm. His face was calm.

A doctor came to see Joga in jail. He advised that Joga be taken to a hospital immediately. By the time the jail ambulance got Joga to the hospital, he was already dead. Dead, his eyelids shut, Joga looked even calmer, as if deep in sleep. Even in his last days, Joga did not say anything. All anyone in the jail knew was that his name was Joga, and he was a Paharia.

The jail became a sadder place after Joga’s death. Many prisoners cried for him. The eyes of some police, too, turned moist. Joga had come to mean so much to the jail staff that when someone suggested that it was the responsibility of the jail to hand over his dead body to his family, everyone readily agreed. They knew that it was a terribly difficult job—for they didn’t even know if Joga was his real name. In the police records, Joga was still mentioned as “Unknown,” a perfectly lawaris aadmi. The families of Joga’s fellow Paharia prisoners had not been able to find his family. But they were mere villagers, with limited means. How much could they do for a person they had not even seen?

Some contacts suggested that Joga might be from the Littipara area as most of the Paharias who came to the hatia in Pakur came from there. So, the jail staff decided to start for Littipara, some 30 kilometres away. The police was determined—maybe as a mark of respect to Joga, or as compensation for wrongly arresting him and for the justice he was denied, or simply to complete their duty. The morning after his death, in the jail jeep, some sipahis and orderlies set off for Littipara, with Joga’s corpse.

On reaching Littipara, they asked after a settlement of Paharias and drove their jeep through a stony track up a hill. A couple of hours later, there, in the dense forest of sal trees and vines running wild, where it wasn’t possible to drive the jeep anymore, where one could only walk to climb the hill, they called the residents of a Paharia settlement and asked them—in some Hindi and some sign language—if someone from amongst them had gone missing three years ago. After murmuring among themselves, some Paharias who could speak Hindi replied. Yes, they said, an old man had gone missing three years ago. That he had gone to the hatia at Pakur and had not returned.

Why didn’t you all go looking for him? Surprised, the policemen asked the Paharias.

We thought he was dead, the Paharias said, with the same calmness that Joga had on his face as long as he had been alive. Whenever someone doesn’t return, we take him to be dead.

The policemen were filled with pity and some strange emotion they couldn’t exactly name. They just asked the Paharias to follow them till their jeep because they had brought a person they needed to identify.

Hesitant, some Paharia men followed them.

Don’t worry, the policemen assured the Paharias. We won’t harm you. We have brought a dead man. If he belongs to you all, we will hand him over and leave.

Joga. The Paharias identified the dead body. Yes, the policemen came to know, his name was indeed Joga. He was no longer “Unknown.”

The policemen were surprised to see that there was no sorrow on the faces of the Paharias, no appearance of a sense of the loss of someone from their village, their midst. There was no crying, no sobbing, no screaming, no tearing of hair, no breast-beating. There was only a certain dignity with which the Paharia men lifted Joga’s dead body out of the police jeep and placed him on the ground. The equanimity with which Joga had spent three years in jail was repeated in the way his dead body was accepted by his people.

The policemen were unable to say anything else. They returned to Pakur thinking if this was a task they should have done three years ago.