A Conversation With Umar Khalid That Burned Me

Umar Khalid in Karkardooma court/UMAR KHALID'S FRIENDS

The time allotted for the weekly video call in Tihar Central Jail is just fifteen minutes. And you don’t talk about the weather with such time constraints. Or do you? How about when the country’s north is entrapped in a heat wave that has started to hunt lives?

When the dry, deforested, deserted planet and its toxified climate are hitting back at us with one of the most morbid and cruel heat waves, then weather does become a pertinent issue of conversation, even concern.

I inquired about the heat situation inside the prison from Umar, with the same helplessness and apprehension as I had inquired about the COVID situation two years ago.

He grinned as usual. “I have never faced anything like this,” he said, almost chuckling. His grin becomes intolerable in such situations. I get angry, and he seems to enjoy that.

“No, seriously. This is my fourth summer in prison, but the heat this time is unbearable. I have never witnessed anything like this in my life. In fact, older inmates say they haven’t ever experienced such heat wave,” he said.

If you are still reading this and wondering who I am or who I am talking to, it really doesn’t matter.

This is about the prison conditions of Tihar in Delhi and the heat wave that is severely affecting young and old inmates.

The convicts, the undertrials, the implicated, or the falsely accused ones are all languishing right now in the heat, along with their unfreedom. It’s the same cruel condition that is slowly burning lives within prison walls.

Just for your information, I was talking to Umar Khalid, my soulmate, who has been lodged in Tihar since 2020. Umar was implicated by the Delhi police as a mastermind of the Delhi riots and booked in two cases related to the riots. In one case, he was not only given bail but was eventually discharged. Judges who have heard the other case under the most draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) refuse to grant him and many of his other co-accused bail. However, the trial of this case has not even commenced after four years.

Umar continued, “Since our cells are open in front with bars, waves of hot wind keep whiplashing inside. We try to put up sheets and cover the bars, but that’s hardly a cover. And you expect the heat in the daytime, but at night, when the weather doesn’t change even after sundown, it almost feels like a betrayal.”

And he grinned again.

“The ceiling is so high that the fan almost has a perfunctory presence. And they don’t allow us to use coolers. They let us use blankets and quilts in winter but no coolers in the summer. Not even in this heat. But then the Great Indian Jugaad happens. I keep sprinkling water on the sheet that hangs on the bars, on my bed, on the floor, literally everywhere. My chakki (cell) often becomes wet and muddy. But the water dries up quickly. Much quicker than you can imagine. But the water therapy sometimes runs dry when there is a water crisis.”, he casually added.

I now tread the most uncomfortable part of the conversation.

“Are people falling sick?”

“Yes”, he said, “people around me are falling sick. They are suffering from various ailments, especially older people. One person also died. An old man. He dropped dead, possibly because of the heat, I am not sure. No one is. But everyone suspects it’s the heat that killed him.”

I can feel my anxiety rising, but I try to calm down.

“Are you alright? Do you feel any discomfort?”

“I was feeling cramps in my legs yesterday. All of us are drowsy throughout the day because we hardly get any sleep these days. That’s all for now,” he said calmly.

“Umar, please keep drinking plenty of water, but also go to the OPD and tell the doctor about these cramps. Your sodium-potassium levels might have gotten imbalanced.”

I try to hide my panic (and my anger, my frustration and helplessness) yet again. “You need to see a doctor and also get on record your discomforts.”

“This heat is indeed unprecedented,” I said. “I had read on the news that bats were dropping dead from trees.”

“Yes, earlier, there used to be a lot of birds that came to our prison premises. The early mornings were filled with their chirpings. Birds hardly come these days, since the heat wave started. I wonder what has happened to them,”  he said.

Courtesy: Article 14



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