In this prison, ‘the Reader’ is adding a happy chapter in inmates’ lives

In this prison, ‘the Reader’ is adding a happy chapter in inmates’ lives
Alemla Longchari explains meaning of stories and poems to prisoners
+100%-

DIMAPUR, July 21: There is pin-drop silence as Alemla Longchar slowly recites the poem ‘Mother’s Lap’, letting the 40 people in the chapel absorb every word, every emotion. This could have been a classroom anywhere, but in Dimapur this is the district jail and the audience comprises inmates ranging from those in their early 20s to prisoners in their late 50s.
It is indeed a real-life twist to the plot of 2008 Oscar-winning movie ‘The Reader’, where Hanna Schmitz – played by Kate Winslet – learns to read and write in prison with the help of a jail library and tapes from her ‘reader’ friend, an advocate. In this jail in Nagaland, Longchar – with the help of three lawyers and an NGO that sends books from metros like Delhi and Bengaluru – reads out to inmates twice a week and has motivated several prisoners to become literate and others to grow fond of books.
The prison housing about 80 inmates has a small library with about 200 books and magazines. The library was set up last year by Delhi-based NGO Sarvahitey. “We collect second-hand books from people in cities like Delhi and Bengaluru and set up libraries in far-flung areas of states like Sikkim, Jharkhand, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh where people don’t have access to books,” says Prem Prakash, managing trustee of Sarvahitey. For the library project in Dimapur district jail and in other rural areas of Nagaland, Prakash joined hands with members of legal firm KAL Group.
The jail library in Dimapur – the commercial capital of Nagaland – didn’t find many takers initially. But with Longchar’s twice-aweek reading sessions, more and more inmates are making use of the small library and demanding books of their interest.
“The reading sessions have encouraged many unlettered inmates to learn to read and write with help from educated prisoners,” says Limasenla Longkumer, a lawyer and one of the founding members of the KAL Group. “The educated inmates have taken the lead and are teaching their fellow inmates. What’s most encouraging is the request for alphabet books from illiterate inmates,” she says.
A writing board in the chapel with English alphabets scribbled on it bear testimony to the efforts.
The success of this project has caught the notice of officials elsewhere too. “We have received requests to set up such libraries from jails in Mon district of Nagaland and also from Mizoram,” says Esther K Aye, KAL Group co-founder who is involved in the initiative.
After the poem, Longchar reads out a story from Aesop’s Fables and explains to the inmates in Nagamese – a pidgin language used as lingua france in Nagaland. There are bursts of laughter as she narrates the story of a frog that tries to imitate a large ox and bursts itself, comparing such copying to hairstyles and bravado in contemporary society. There’s laughter in the room.
“We have brought drawing books for you today. Pick them up from the library,” says Longkumer, after Longchar is through with her reading for the day. She asks if anyone needs any particular book, which they will bring on their subsequent visits. Not much prodding is needed. Michel stands up and requests for books on music and bands. “I can read some Hindi but now I am taking lessons and learning English too,” he says.
The reading session ends with a prayer of thanks by Longchar in which books find a special mention.
Yisufi Sharu, the jailor, says she is observing a positive behavioural change among the inmates because of the library project.
“The demand of books by inmates shows their interest,” she adds. “With the library, we are utilising our time in a constructive way,” says Samuel, one of the inmates.
Longchar calls the library “an oasis in a desert”. It isn’t just a library, it’s also a counselling room of sorts, she says. “They open up about their present situation, the grief of being split from their families. Some have been abandoned by their families and no one visits them,” says Longchar. In one of such encounters in the library, she also found that some HIV+ inmates were being stigmatised by fellow prisoners. “We then held a special session to tackle the discrimination associated with HIV-AIDS,” adds Longchar. Sarvahitaye has also introduced a computer in the library, which it hopes to use in training the inmates in basic computing skills.
And running the library is head inmate Akham’s responsibility. “Eight to nine people come daily and get books issued for a week,” he says, pointing to the register he maintains. Akham will taste freedom next year after his 14-year term comes to an end. Most prisoners will, eventually, lead a life beyond bars, but the reader has ‘booked’ them for life.
*Only the first name of inmates have been used to conceal their identity though no such request has been made by them (TNN)