The New Indian Express: Gupshup Goes to Prison

Jails of unjust judgement

A tale about reform, judgement and misunderstandings, the search for Gupshup invites Khalid – and the young reader – into the unique prison system of India.

Published: 04th July 2022 12:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th July 2022 12:29 AM 

Gupshup Goes to Prison (L) is written by Arefa Tehsin
Gupshup Goes to Prison (L) is written by Arefa Tehsin. (Photo| Special Arrangement)

By Sahana Iyer

Express News Service

Second chances are hard to come by in life and unfortunately for some, they remain tainted with the sillage of their mistakes. Such is the fate of the residents of Sanganer’s open jail in Arefa Tehsin’s new book Gupshup Goes to Prison, from whom the protagonist, Khalid, must stay away as per his mother’s instructions.

But when his cat Gupshup scurries and disappears behind the gates of this jail, he has no option but to traverse the forbidden confines with the help of some of its young dwellers, Che, Guevara, and Kodi. A tale about reform, judgement and misunderstandings, the search for Gupshup invites Khalid – and the young reader – into the unique prison system of India, its successes and challenges, and the misunderstood lives of the people living within.

Leaning on reality

Based on its real-life counterpart (Rajasthan has 23 open-air camps), the open jail is a gated community where convicted felons reside with the freedom to move in the city, seek employment and start anew, maybe even raise a family.

“I am from Udaipur and had heard of this concept from my father’s friend’s father, who was a warden at one such facility. I admire the concept because it is the closed prisons that are evil. Imagine spending years with rats and roaches, the stench of overflowing toilets, and some barracks are so crowded that you can’t sit for 15 hours. Villains come out of there (closed prisons), not open prisons,” explains Arefa.

The system is available to applicants from closed prisons who showcase good conduct. They are given residence but employment and food are their responsibility.

Khalid is astounded to find that it is like any other community with working members, schoolgoing children and even a ‘bandi panchayat’ (a prisoners’ panchayat). Despite what he has heard about the place, it welcomes him innocently, until he has to face “Three Zero Two” or the “Cat Collector”.

The character of this “Cat Collector” is certainly an interesting addition to the lore. An outcast in a community of outcasts. His existence and people’s reaction to him is a humble reminder of the follies of human nature; the way one can isolate a member of one’s community despite fighting the same battles in society at large.

Lessons of humanity

While working with a rather outlandish concept to present to children, Arefa’s writing keeps the story light-hearted and simple. Nuanced themes of reform and integration in society are explained without much preaching. One may deem this a challenge, but Arefa loves writing on difficult issues for children, she admits.

“Children are the easiest audience for such issues because they are much more open-minded than adults. Children should be sensitised and not sanitised as they are nowadays. I wanted to put the message across that punishment is needed for acts of crime but forgiveness and integration are needed for reform. At the same time, I wanted to present this in a light-hearted manner so it doesn’t weigh down on them too much,” she informs. And so she does, with much help from Shubhangi Chetan’s illustrations.

The illustrations are in the form of pencil sketches, devoid of any colour. In some ways, they are reminiscent of childhood sketches from drawing classes in school. Despite the lack of opportunity to include colours, Shubhangi made the most of the medium with expressions and design.

“My forte is drawing people. I like interacting, drawing and painting them in watercolours. The fun element (often seen in Duckbill books) was not my forte but I have tried to keep my style with fun expressions. The story is funny but also has emotions that I have tried to capture. I am a traveller and have been to Rajasthan a couple of times so I had the complete essence of the area but I did not have the option to show colour so I focussed on the designs and graphics, the eyes, the block prints,” Shubhangi says.

For her, the concept of an open jail was novel so apart from photographs from the Internet, she also referred to some captures from the actual scenes in Rajasthan, courtesy of her friend. Funnily enough, the illustrator also had to observe cats, who make a continued appearance (thanks to Arefa’s love for animals), in spite of her deep dislike for them. But who knows? Perhaps, she could give them a second chance?

Publisher: Duckbill Books

Pages: 80

Price: Rs.199/-

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