A saga of disappointment, discrimination, targeting, othering, otherness… – A review of Pankhuri Sinha’s Anthology “Prison Talkies”

A saga of disappointment, discrimination, targeting, othering, otherness…
 – A review of Pankhuri Sinha’s Anthology “Prison Talkies” by Akanksha Singh

My Green Card was in labor clearance stage, when I dropped it for F1, which was cancelled while I was in India. Have still not been able to seek legal advice on the situation of being fired while being out of the country, during Visa change, but its clearly problematic, if based on a harassment report, filed by a professor who was following the student, and filed the report upon being asked, how was he doing so?
Dr. Andreas Daum had been following me. I still don’t know how.
A huge legal task lies in front of me. This is what happened to me. This is my story. There were many stories in the prison. These poems are about encountering them. They are also about encountering justice, injustice, discrimination, crime, and the systematic construction of both prison and borders. However, any character or event described in the poetry is purely fictional. Any resemblance is coincidental. However, this is not a book about wrongful detention only. It does not argue that prison is a place where just the poor, the weak, and the strong, opponents of regimes, activists, human rights workers are detained. This book strongly agrees with the fact, that crime is real, and so is correction. However, the irony is that, many big criminals totally evade it. They escape prison. As in, not run away, but never get to it. Nevertheless, the prison abounds with criminals, murderers, rapists, people who have committed brutal torture. It certainly is no longer a place, where freedom fighters are spending days, asking for a free voice. But are there not such people? Yes, there are. The prison is the most effective, coercive and deadly weapon in the hands of the state. Prison can kill, it can maim our souls. But to make prison a more humane place, is a very emphatic call of modernity. It is also a call to reduce crime, criminality, without ignoring it, without causing it. It is a call to make states less totalitarian. To divest them of some powers, to decentralize power. In the age of Immigration, and some very strange wars, that is turning many people into refugees, and asylum seekers, it is a plea to not invest powers in certain
citizens, that do not belong to them. That are not theirs. The poems are also an attempt to get over the stigma of prison. To cross over, into that other side, to merge. What the poems actually describe though, is the disappointment, the discrimination, the targeting, the othering, the otherness.

Reading poetry is always pleasurable but when the poems in question are as beautiful as Pankhuri Sinha’s, the joy multiplies. Pankhuri Sinha’s debut poetry collection in English is very aptly titled ‘Prison talkies’ as it tells the tale of a prison and its inmates. The poetess begins the collection with a dedication worth mentioning which captures the essence of the entire book in a few lines. She begins with the lines,
The girl who shared my cell on the night I was detained
by Immigration, May 16th, 2007….”

This anthology is not just a random collection of poems, it tells a story. A disjointed story, no doubt but a story in poems of a girl, Suzannah who is bounded by the shackles of society and patriarchy, a girl who suffers huge torment in the name of justice – her trials and tribulations through the actual physical jail and also the metaphorical one created by society and her attempts to survive despite all odds. As the poetess says in the dedication,
“I remember asking her to hold my hand,
And I remember what that human touch had felt like,
After the handcuffs”

The vagaries of human emotions are rampant in the poems and the survival of faint remains of humanity – like the beckoning morning sun rays that herald the dawn of a new day.

The poems are not arranged in any particular order or chronology but they tell the tale of a girl’s journey (the protagonist - Suzannah) from her peaceful home to wrongful conviction and all that she faced in-between. Every poem is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and the reader is forced to read till the end so as to find the proper place of each piece and view the larger picture.

While most poems like – “Of Prison Darkness”, ”The Sergeants and the Female Ward “,  “The Day Lucy Got a Bail”, ”The Crime Equations in Prison” etc. are dedicated solely to the life and lifestyle of prison inmates, the others talk about a variety of other topics.

The predominant theme in these is the betrayal that the protagonist has suffered at the hands of all those she trusted – her loved ones, the country and above all justice. The loneliness of being in a foreign country surrounded by strangers, the helplessness of losing all rights, the pain at the betrayal of people you trust, the unexpected warmth found even in a prison cell, the pleasure that nature provides no matter where you are – all these and many other hues are imbued in this eclectic collection of poems.

So what if you lived here for years,
Your rights were taken away”

The law structure governing immigrants is a recurring theme in Pankhuri Sinha’s poems. She brings out the pathetic condition of immigrants in foreign countries where they are denied even the most basic human rights. They are treated with the same callousness shown towards criminals and thugs. They do not have a say in this new Global World where their skills are appreciated but their rights are neglected. 
“The thing called justice,
Seemed very far away in the prison,”
For those who have been abandoned to the dark and lonely prison cells, the existence of the term justice is also questionable.
“Of the immigrant infiltrating homes,
The immigrant of color,
Complaining instead,
Of control,
Of Surveillance and of a hijacking,”

The political leaders make tall claims of no racism and equality for all but the truth is far from it. This is depicted very clearly in Pankhuri’s poems where she tries to give voice to the injustice suffered by immigrants.
The poetess talks of the protagonist's prison days and how the sound of the rain or the song of a bird helped distract her and made her forget the hunger pangs and other atrocities of the prison.
A major portion of the poems also deals with the patriarchal system that we are following and how the protagonist was not only demeaned for being an immigrant but also for her crime of being a woman. She has no rights as a woman but must be ruled by her husband. Various references make it clear that she is another victim of society’s unfair treatment of women. Love is just a mirage and underneath it you will find a dominant jailkeeper waiting to bring the wayward wife back on track. In every sphere – not just her domestic life but also her professional life, she finds that males try to assert their authority.
In reading,
Are wanted back,
For I have been doing all explanations,
All chores.”

“And the declaration of my lover,
My now husband,
As boss,
And the reason of all happenings,
In my life”

The protagonist finds herself disillusioned with all the lies that have been told to her over and over again. Her dreams have been lost – shattered by the injustice that she – as a  woman and as an immigrant suffers and she is fighting to stay alive – to carry on.
“Exhausted dreams,
Finished moments,
Unmaterialized plans,
Of years robbed,
Of lies told,
Of ongoing misdirections.”

“The morning gone,
All mornings gone.
There remains a promise.
A promise made years and years ago”

 You cannot help but sympathize with the protagonist as she recounts the tale of how she had built a safe haven, only to have it smashed in a heartbeat.

“The music that was,
It had taken so long to build it,
Years together,
Of building things”
“Hearing it loud and clear,
Its over,
Your chance to conceive,
As the rain pours outside,
In the beautiful garden,
And over the cross of the church,
A sight most tranquil,
The church building seen from the kitchen sink,
As tranquil as an unknown prayer.
As healing as prayers chanted in incomprehensible words.”

The pain of a mother, a woman and a human being all are very poignantly described in the poems of Pankhuri Sinha. My favourite poem talks about how a woman is wronged and mistreated for having a voice, for having the misconception that she is human. She is a victim and she cannot even prove it, because it is her destiny.
Do nothing,
Just make babies,
And raise them,
Make lunch boxes,
Send them to school,
The noblest job on earth.
Taken away,
From some,
Very cleverly,
May we file a report?
But of what kind?
How do we gather evidence?
Against that very clever crime?
Being committed in bits and pieces,
So small,
We can’t pick the particles?
We just know,
Its happening,
This minute.

And finally her mistreatment in the name of law and justice. The protagonist is faced with lurid interrogations with no respect for her rights or privacy as she is tried for her crime of being an illegal immigrant. Questions arise and she is left speechless with the bold claims that are made about private moments of her life. She is the object of spying, of injustice – all in the name of justice. She has tried to unmask the unjust ways in which justice is implemented.
“To my knowledge,
To the best of my knowledge,
In front of my life,
Right in front of my eyes,
An entire life stolen,
In front of my blank stare,
My wide open eyes.”

But the protagonist does not lose hope despite countless setbacks. She has the power to appreciate the beauty of the rain and the sun even in these dark moments. She tells us that she hasn't abandoned hope and she is still fighting. Kind words and solidarity are still to be found even amongst the darkest prison cells.
While the life-story of Suzannah is interspersed in the collection, the majority of the poems deal with the life of a prisoner. The way prisoners are treated, their routine, their lifestyle, their hopes, their  trails and give voice to not just the narrator’s pain but of all those prison inmates, innocent or guilty, who have been locked away for good.
Pankhuri Sinha has written a poignant tale through  poetry. Her poetic form also deserves mention as she has used all tools in her arsenal to make the poems more beautiful and detailed. Her writing style is varied and while some poems are written in blank verse, the others can be attributed to concrete poetry. She has not only used words but geometric patterns to lend force to those words. Her poems, “Trusting the system” and “The unlived moments” are best examples of this.
Pankhuri has used imagery to colour her tales and the reader is transported to the prison as he reads her vivid accounts.  
Her story has found a voice through these poems. The anthology is a must read for everyone who wishes to live one more life – this one in a prison. Poetry aficionados will find that putting this anthology down without crying at least once is almost impossible.

Pankhuri Sinha
DATE OF BIRTH          
18th June 1975
·        Incomplete Phd, History, from University of Calgary, 2012
·        M.A. History, SUNY Buffalo, 200
·        P.G. Diploma:  Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication, Pune, India, 1998
·        B.A., History Honors, Indraprastha College, Delhi University, 1996
·        ‘Koi-bhi-Din’ and ‘Kissa-e-Kohinoor’, two books, both collections of literary stories published in 2005 and 2008, by Gyanpith, a reputed name in Hindi literary publishing.
·        Prison Talkies, a collection of poems, published by Xlibris, Indiana, July 2013
·        ‘Dear Suzannah’, second collection of poems soon to be published by     Xlibris, Indiana
·        Collection of poems in Hindi, soon to be published
·        Poetries and Stories published in widely circulated Hindi literary magazines and web magazines in India, Yuddharat Aam Adami, Hans, Vagarth, Naya Gyanoday, Kathadesh, Hastakshep, Janjwar, Hindi Chetna, Kathakrama, Pahal, Saakshatkaar, Vasudha, Bela, Sara Sach, Lamhi, Shabdankan, Sitab Diyara, Likho Yahan Wahan, Nai Ebarat, Pehli Baar, Purvai London, Purvai India, Anunaad, Sahitya Darshan, Sahitya Ragini and many others                       
·        Chitra Kumar Shailesh Matiyani Award for the first collection of stories in 2008
·        Script writing for the documentary film Cobra: God at Mercy, which received the best UGC film award 1998
·        Girija Kumar Mathur Smriti Puraskaar, for poetry in 1995
·        Fall 2008 Dean’s Entrance Scholarship, University of Calgary
·        Rajeev Gandhi Excellence Award for creative writing in Hindi, June 2013
·        And many other prestigious awards
A-- 204, Prakriti Apartments, Sector 6, Plot 26, Dwarka, New Delhi 110075


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