Portrait of a Prisoner
_ Episode Central Prison _
Portrait of a PrisonerMixed Media on Canvas. 79,5 x 69,5cm. 2009.
An Important Note
The following discourse about our artwork: Shantaram, is not an assessment of the book or the author and least of all a discussion concerning the factual or fictional aspects of the novel: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. For more details read my Blog: Shantaram in context of an artwork . That said we can proceed with my appraisal of my artwork and one of its main sources of inspiration, the scene inside a Mumbai prison as depicted in: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, 2003 _ an account of the social structure and behavioral psychology and sociology of a prison rendered as a hard-chore visceral literature that ever was!
There is no dearth of narratives concerning experiences gained, the tortures undergone and the humiliations suffered by men and women of all ages and from all walks of life and almost all epochs of history as inmates of prisons. In fact many writers took to writing during their prolonged periods of confinement. Accounts varying from those interned because of their controversial political or social ideas, to those incarcerated and tortured for their religious and political views, to those enslaved or imprisoned as POW and to those jailed for petty or horrible crimes, from antique and middle ages to the modern times are all available in print and often reprinted in many countries. In fact in certain places some of these narratives belong to folk literature, even if rarely commented upon in the mass media. The general attitude exhibited by the McLuhan media here is congenial to the one displayed toward the victim of a crime i.e., apathy! The sensational and the lucrative selling story or more specifically the catchy glossy headline, often deals with the criminal at the time of crime and less or not at all with the victim or for that matter the criminal after his/her imprisonment. Some of these accounts make you skeptical of the self-proclaimed self-flattering title evident in the biological nomenclature: Homo sapiens. Less the wise, more the trickster and opportunist and still more a morbid pathological sadist, ferociously amazonoid-paranoid and revengeful he (and even she) appears to one who is engrossed in such readings. Not always for the faint hearted and certainly not for our children's school history books! You really assume this title with the property Wise must have sprung from the fertile imagination of a straight bourgeoisie middle class man, secure in his world or out of some innate human hope for mankind. Most of these narratives are intense personal experiences only slightly modified by neural network of the cortex and exude mostly Bile & Spleen.
Since my teenage years, when I too devoured a few thrillers, melodramas and bestsellers I have hardly ever touched this genre. But a friend of mine coming from a visit to India, recommended and gave me this book to read, soon after its first publication (Scribe; 2003). As I flipped through the pages for a preliminary assessment, I really did get tangled up in the narrative. And had to finish it, as is customary for such genre in few sittings with short breaks.
One does feel the depicted scenes, in tune with the bare-bones melodramatic spirit of the book, are exaggerated and amplified without, and this must be emphasized any trace of vulgarity or facetiousness or any premeditated attempt toward the grotesque. A sort of unadorned matter-of-fact but nevertheless melodramatic tone permeates this account. But don't get fooled, in between there do appear some reflections on the incidents happening that makes you wonder, if it is work of multiple authors. But nevertheless there is a consistency that does permeate throughout this fast paced narration! A thriller per se! How different from Rushdie's: Midnight Children. The latter reads like a thriller too and is incredibly fast paced, but it is without doubt literature through and through, no thriller. This one at first glance is a thriller, one would assume made specially for Hollywood or even Bollywood and all those McLuhan consumers. Its message that universal modern catechism: No message! Which is like saying, that the actions depicted and the drama unfolding itself is the message and not the framework or the plot, which do not exist in the traditional sense. Most of the characters handle either because of their inner convictions or through expediency and less because of any consistently upheld ideologies. That way it is an absolutely one dimensional earthly or rather unearthly down-to-earth urban narrative. This puts the author a little apart from other masters of the genre. No doubt intentional and succinct the impression evoked sometimes is as archaic as you can get. The author seems to be well versed in the ancient epic literature of mankind, ranging from Gilgamesh epic to more modern thrillers. And the result is well a great work of art, that has the potential to penetrate through one's mind and guts with equal ease and with a mind boggling not-mediated directness.
What fascinated me is its almost naked without many superego-genuflections and verbal adornments the absolutely visceral account of life (sic!) in a Mumbai prison. This borders on a great literature of a specifically unique genre, that is more than just a thriller. In fact especially due to its lack of any literary epidermal layers and coatings, that generally accompany social dramas and in its intense bile and bones rendering of the scenes and actions, probably unrivaled in literature dealing with prison life, and its fast paced action sequences that pass doubtlessly well with thriller genre and the gut feelings that are breathlessly featured throughout this episode, the narrative succeeds in a sort of archaic sublime way to evoke brilliantly a life-like atmosphere. One may therefore without too much exaggeration claim, that this part of the narrative, the inspiration behind and the subject of our artwork could well be considered as a literary masterpiece!
Succinct, to the point and bereft of a prosaic adornment it is more ferocious than even the accounts related to the Mafia, Nazi concentration camps or the torture halls and instruments of the middle ages. In this part of the narrative Shantaram brings us suddenly to much more primitive and archaic level of awareness. There is hardly any physical torture that way taking place here, but the degradation of the Self is nevertheless reduced to the Himalayan heights. And the tactics of survival at all costs displayed by the characters probably more basic and urtümlich (ancient, basic, archaic, original, fundamental, primitive) than those one knows from past. Unlike the actors in most of the historically famous accounts, the inmates here are not suffering for their religious views, their ideas, or as a result of some political intrigue or because of their contorted Mafioso allegiances and rivalry _ things that sometimes do make the pain more bearable or as in religious cases even succeed in partly or fully mitigating the suffering, the men here are however fighting for basic survival, both inside and outside the prison. Their behaviors exhibit a methodology which one could easily visualize, perhaps wrongly I believe happening during a specific stage in human and cultural development, as we had clubs to blast each others skulls but as yet no language to say: "Good morning stranger. My name is... "
Reduced to the basics of the basics, this part of the narrative reveals that hidden visceral part of ours, our biological and cultural heritage that outwardly modern times seem to have coated with so many layers of plastic and is wont to display to us conspicuously in a paracetamol polished and petrol-perfumed packaging.
This however one must admit is through and through a western perspective. I have myself spent about three years intermittently in Mumbai. And I experienced it in way denied to the one who does not speak the local language or does not share the cultural roots of the Indian Civilization. And herein I can understand what Gandhi only understood after having lived some time in South Africa _ this one undeniable fact that the indifference the Indians exhibit toward pain and suffering and by and large toward by other peoples taken-for-granted basic amenities of life is not universal phenomenon and rather very specific to India. A culturally inherited and rather unique attribute of Indians. However unlike western thinkers and alienated Indians I do not see this unique attribute as a predominantly cultural liability but actually a great asset if properly cultivated, but more of that in its proper place, in an forthcoming article where I will be comparing India with Germany. This indifference is the karmic acceptance of the fate one might say and has re-channeled the dynamics of the local population into other spheres of life imbued with specifically for the purposes created new meanings and sense of purpose in the individuals life. Indians are even in extreme poverty generally a smiling people! This should be brought home to everyone. To the modern Indian Magnates, who are willing to exchange that curing cathartic smile for golf and the frowns of their pet hounds and the assets accumulated and displayed within confines of a usually downright boring nuclear family life. To the Capitalist and the Marxist both! Socialist tend to see it as liability generally even more than the capitalist. That is why I well believe that Gandhi understood it, fully and Nehru only partly. Gregory as one of the few western writers seems to have got a glimpse of it and apparently fallen slightly in love with it.
Of course it is a a cultural liability too. In the narrative I am discussing here, it is this very indifference that surges to the surface, manifested at its worst in the Indian man's indifference to the fate of its outcasts! These characters, the prison inmates in the narrative are utterly helpless, no resources except for those from almost equally handicapped (their relatives and friends). There exist no socially powerful institutions and organizations to lend them support. Even the holy men do not visit them, since there is no food or alms they will get here. There is hardly anyone to ask for help, Over them a permanent layer of policemen and officers which acts as an impermeable shield to cut them of from everything in the world. Nothing, absolutely nothing not even the president can penetrate this layer, except one thing that they do not posses. Hard Cash! Yes they accept their fate, some of them may be even completely innocent and free of guilt. But they all accept what their Karma (or the whims of the overly fat well nourished police officer or an ordinary policeman) has ordained and as such make a class of their own in the urban jungle of the metropolis. They are the untouchables for even the untouchables in the Bollywood nights of Bombay.
But who to blame? This book and other resources do not paint a rosy picture of the prisons in Australia either, a nation which has no dearth of governmental and social institutions and NGO's. Somewhat similar is the scenario in other industrial countries. Generally many of the trespasses of the officers in charge go unnoticed or not examined and punished with full rigor. Juvenile crimes and trespasses are punished with same vigor as those from adults, the youngsters are put cells with hard chore criminals.
The narrative in the book makes this neglected aspect of a crucial social institution very down to earth and accessible to persons, who may not otherwise hear about it. Although no fan of thrillers, I could not help noticing as I read this book, that it possess all that stuff that Hollywood or Bollywood yearns for. All the ingredients and spices that thrillers generally need. It is no surprise to hear that Hollywood is filming it and hopefully such secondary scenes in the narrative as the one we have discussed here are not neglected or passed over. In fact a good screenplay could eventually act as a catalyst for much needed reforms here and that too on a global scale. Although I hardly ever watch the movies anymore, who knows I may watch this one. But I fear I may be disappointed, which is a prejudice against film makers of our decade in general. This film seems to have already changed the directors. Hope Ms. Nair gets all the support she may need. The choice for her could be a considered as the result less of the horse trading but more because of some deep unfathomable twist of fate, that may reveal the essence of this book, behind the outer wall of a tough thriller writer there resides a philosopher of social life. And the choice of the director will no doubt bring that aspect rather than the outer thriller form to surface, hopefully!
Finally back to our picture. It was to great extent inspired by this scene in the book. The window on the side in that little shimmer of hope that kept Shantaram alive in this abysmal chasm. The folds amidst which the portrait is held represent a curtain rather the prison bars, an impermeable opaque cover that blocks the light and enlightenment and that invariably always manages to stifle in the bud any emerging cries of: Eureka!