Guruji, Heal Thyself
'Tihar's impoverished convicts find prison far more civilised than freedom'
The most interesting author I have met calls himself 'Guruji' Shastri, Girish Chandra Gautam. The apostrophe and comma are a carefully nuanced note of stress, not mangled grammar. Perhaps he needs a delicate pause between his scholarship and present status. He is a convict in Tihar jail No. 2. I did not check the nature of his crime; a certain delicacy is the legitimate due of fellow authors.
Lord Ganesh is seated majestically on the cover of his 'patrika' (journal); the back cover belongs to a cross-legged 'Guruji', sun rays streaking away with pointed force from behind his head. Three rings of rudraksha circle his neck. There is an Om on his raised right palm, and a touch of steel in his eyes. The title is self-explanatory: 'Recognise Yourself Through the Knowledge of Palmistry'. His journal tends towards palms rather than palmistry (long nails denote simplicity, shorts ones intellect) but he must have something going for his art. On page 31, he predicts the future success of his book; and here he is, already being reviewed in INDIA TODAY. That's fame.
It is easy to underestimate the lure of a Guruji. There have been intelligent charlatans in every faith, in every age, who have used religion as their passage towards credibility and thence to popularity. The distance between such popularity and wealth is a short one, whether you wear saffron robes or wear a beard.
The vulnerability of religion as an instrument of manipulation lies, paradoxically, at its core: that it cannot be roped to the moorings of reason. The institutions of faith, whether temple, mosque, gurdwara or church, have been regularly victimised by the interloper, the charlatan, adept at sweeping the masses off their senses by the promise of supernatural reward. The elasticity in the spectrum of belief, and its distance from the laws of conventional behaviour, provides space for characters whose principal purpose is fraud rather than service.
The power of the faith-orator is evident all around us; his phrases offer hope, an experience-proof security blanket against the bitter winds of helplessness, the most common affliction of humankind, or its near relative, hopelessness. But can a religious con find an audience in prison? Prison is, in theory, Dante's hell: abandon hope all ye who enter here. A prison has finality. You know you are in, and a calendar will tell you when you could be out. There are no miracles inside prison walls.
Paradoxically, the majority of Tihar's prisoners abandoned hope long before they crossed its intimidating doors. Tihar is a stigma upon India, not because of recent high-profile guests, but because of its stream of regular inmates: 92 per cent are from below the poverty line. More than 40 per cent are totally illiterate. The majority of those between 18 and 21 arrive without a single possession, even a set of clothes. They have never used a proper toilet. These are street children long abandoned by family and nation; the children of Delhi we trained our eyes to ignore while driving past in cars, the detritus of a ravenous metropolis ingesting chunks of national wealth to satisfy its insatiable appetite for development. The poor were not born criminal. Life has given most of them little option.
The irony of course is that Tihar's impoverished convicts find prison far more civilised than freedom. There is the certainty of food and the possibility of work. The soft-spoken Neeraj Kumar, Director General, Prisons, has upscaled a remarkable programme of reform in Tihar that seeks to ease crime by softening the criminal. Tihar produces exquisite linen shirts (I am wearing one as I write) and a range of products whose quality is controlled by professional consultants. But Tihar is as distant from the rest of Indian prisons as Delhi is superior to the rest of India.
The European Karl Marx thought religion was the opium of the masses. In caste-ridden India, for centuries, opium was the religion of the masses. The Gurujis of today have found a wonder drug: they sell both, in a single mixture.