Meal for One

I woke up to a screeching sound of the jail bars opening. The warden crouched onto the ground and slid a steel plate with some stale chapatis and watery yellow daal towards me. I looked at it skeptically. “Eat, you snobbish girl!”, she said. “I don’t want it” I replied and turned my head towards the wall. I knew I must have really angered her as I could feel her gaze burn down upon me. She was a tall, well-built woman in a Khakhi uniform with a gun on her waist-band, and a demeanor menacing enough to frighten the strongest. Yet here I was, a 21 year old flower-child, trying to change the status quo, but instead managed to land up in a jail cell. The warden grunted and left me by myself. My head started to spin again and I went back to sleep.

Just as I was about to fall asleep, it all came back to me in a flashback- the protestors, the burning cars, the police, the blood… the horror! My friends and I had decided to join the protest against the government’s decision to build 3 gigantic dams on Krishna, Godavari and Mahanadi. On one hand, when this decision was being touted as a major development step for the country by the media houses and the government, there were those up in arms preparing for a battle to be fought. The construction of these dams would lead to the irrigation systems for over 30,000 individual crop fields to be dismantled and uproot acres of vegetation along the way. This was the worst nightmare for small farmers who did not have any agency to fight the Government and its lobbies.

I headed the “Social Impact Cell” of our college and joined the rally with the other members at Mandi House in the morning. Never in my life would have I imagined that the turn of events would lead me to this place.

I was woken up again by the sound of rattling jail bars. I was half expecting to see the warden’s face glaring at me as I opened my eyes but this time it was a different warden. She had a gun on her waistband as well but her built was leaner and her glare, softer. “Why didn’t you eat?” She asked pointing at the steel plate kept before me. “I don’t want to”, I replied back.

“You are an antinational. You should be glad you are being fed!” She snapped.

“Antinational?” I asked confused. “How am I an antinational, didi?”

“We were told that you were caught in the procession against the government. Heard that you put up a fight even though your peers left. What is this hatred you have towards our nation? Who has brainwashed you at such a young age?”

I didn’t know where to begin answering those questions. “Didi, this food on my plate, how am I supposed to eat even a single morsel of it when my brothers who worked day in, day out on their land to put this daal and roti on my plate, are distressed beyond words? You say I am an antinational because I don’t support big dams, but who is there to support the farmers whose livelihood will be destroyed as a sacrifice in the name of development? Everyone wants big dams because they will bring water to the city for our swimming pools. What about those paddy fields whose death the farmers will be mourning? If fighting for my country’s invisible heroes makes me an anti-national, so be it!”

The warden gave me a long hard look, as if she was partly trying to gauge the authenticity of what I just said, and partly trying to recover from it. “Eat the food”, she said and walked out without giving me another glance.

An hour later, the same warden came back in with a file in her hand. “You have been released as there isn’t any concrete evidence of your involvement in the procession.” My ears couldn’t believe what they just heard. I decided to do slip on my shoes and run before they changed their minds, but warden told me to stop. Was this a joke?

“Eat the food before you leave. You need strength in your bones to fight for your brothers. Plus it might just take a couple of more visits here before you achieve your goal, so you might as well get used to the food.” She gave me half a smile and left with the jail door open for me to leave. That’s how I had my first meal in jail.

  • Priyamvada Grover
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