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Comeuppance

By James Tooley

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Near the entrance to the Admissions Block, a senior official in immaculate prison khakis, whose rank I think was Assistant Superintendent (ASP), was waiting for me. There were several jailers nearby, standing with their lathis ready. The ASP was in his thirties and very tall. He stood erect, his face grim. He called me over to him.

As he did this, one of Aditya’s friends was walking by. The ASP made a jokey comment to him, and the young man replied in kind. At this, the official suddenly swerved around, yelling at one of his juniors to get hold of the boy and beat him. The junior did so rather half-heartedly, beating him with his lathi on the backs of his legs, not really wanting to inflict too much pain. This angered the ASP, who marched across and snatched the lathi from his junior. He held the lathi high, and with a wild sweep, he beat the boy hard on his legs, on his shoulders, and finally between his legs, causing the terrified boy to collapse onto the ground, groaning. His crime, I learned, was chewing gum in front of the official.
The ASP then turned back to me. He told me to stand up straight and fold my arms. ‘You’re prisoner, not on holiday,’ he barked. He asked me where I was from and what my ‘crime’ was. I told him England, and that it was to do with foreign currency. ‘You Britishers, all evil,’ he shouted. ‘You took all money from us. Now you are stealing from us again.’ As he spoke to me, I could see Aditya’s friend lying on the ground.
I protested that it was not like that, that I had been funding schools for the poor. That was a mistake. ‘You missionary, stealing our children,’ he said, furiously. In the lead-up to the election, there was a lot of paranoia amongst Hindu nationalists about Christians coming in and funding schools to convert children. It was something he latched on to, and shouted some more vile insults at me. Suddenly, he was distracted by another, convicted prisoner, a wizened old man sitting and minding his own business on the low wall by the compound entrance. The ASP strode over to him and shouted, gesticulating in a calculated manner, raising his arm as if to beat him, as the old man cowered in fear. He then grabbed him by the throat, shouting in his ear, and pushed him onto the ground. Turning to the jailers, he instructed them sharply in Telugu. Then they went across and took turns to beat the old man with their lathis as he lay prostrate in the dirt.

I didn’t know what to do. It was inconceivable that they would let me intervene, but I felt cowardly not doing so. This poor old man was writhing in pain as he was being brutally beaten by three guards, coldly taking turns as they stood around him in a triangle. The ASP was yelling at me again to stand up straight and focus, focus on him. ‘I’m talking to you,’ he said, his voice raised. ‘There’s nothing going on to do with you, evil Britisher.’ After a while, he dismissed me: ‘Now go. We’ll meet again tomorrow.’

I walked off, knowing the beating was still going on, unable to do anything except turn my back. I was crying inside for the poor old man and Aditya’s friend, ashamed of my cowardliness, but also wary that my own manner of walking may be breaking unknown rules and that the ASP could descend on me again at any moment.

I could not get the image of the beatings out of my mind for some time. They woke me every night, for months afterwards, my heart palpitating madly. I flinched every time I saw that sadistic jailer, who had delighted in emphasizing his power and my powerlessness.

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