Women behind bars

Sanjeev Satgainya


This book is a book of memories of the days that Durga Ghimire, the author spent behind bars for protesting against the Panchayat regime. Ghimire is now the chairperson of Agro-forestry, Basic Health and Cooperatives Nepal (ABC Nepal), an organisation dedicated to women empowerment. Their focus being the prevention of illegal trafficking of women and related problems.

‘Staying Alive: Memories of Women in Prison’ is the saga of the period from 1970 — 72, when Ghimire was imprisoned in the Kathmandu Women’s jail twice and held once in police custody. It vividly explains the political scenario during the despotic Panchayat regime.

Her trauma and turmoil in the jail have been written down in a sensitive way. The lines are powerful and poignant though some drawbacks are quite conspicuous. Some translations of poems and songs sung during her imprisonment do not make as much impact in their English translation as they do in the Nepali language.

The characterisation of insane and mad women in the women’s jail makes one think of the situation of jails in the country. It makes the reader stop to mull over the writings on these women, as each character is very powerfully portrayed. The case studies propel one to think of probable solutions.

The jail, obviously, had a panchayat system of its own. However, as the author describes, it also had its lighter moments. The inmates in the prison entertained themselves with songs and dances or staging dramas.

This book is a must-read for those engaged in women’s empowerment and upliftment.

The author, who was influenced by BP Koirala, includes a quote from the statement that he made in Patna. The statement strongly describes the current political situation — “An individual no more requires a national base for rising up in politics. He does not have to think about international problems. He doesn’t have to think about the economic development of the nation. It is because he now rises in politics only for his own aggrandisement solely depending on flattery and adulation. A widespread, narrow attitude permeated with nothing but selfish motive has made everybody forget the country. That’s how great a misfortune has taken place in the nation.”

Ghimire tried to feed an insane inmate who had not been given food for nearly two consecutive days. Another inmate remarked, “Is it proper to pamper these lunatics in this fashion? It is better to stay away from them. Today or tomorrow you may leave this place, but we will always have to bear the burden of these mad women. Please do not spoil the norm of this place while you are here only for a few days.”

Ghimire got out of prison and went home. Her parents, especially her mother, who was frail and had an ailing heart, asked her to leave politics alone.

“There’s no need to get involved in politics. You’re a daughter, a woman; you have to think of a woman’s prestige. What can women accomplish by going to jail? Many great leaders, men, have achieved nothing by suffering in jail. We educated our sons and daughters with the hope of living to be old peacefully. If we had known earlier what you would be doing, we would have got you married off. We have relatives, friends and neighbours who criticise us. We have to consider our honour,” said her mother. “I do not have a heart problem, my daughter is a problem. If my daughter is released from the prison, I will be cured.”

An amazing story, the book could have done with refinement.