“Yes, you can say that…in a way, it all started from over there.”
Standing on top of a hill on Latitude 20°15’, at the edge of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, Ajay Mandavi is looking south. Not towards his family home in Govindpur, or his quarters in Kanker town down below where he works as a taxation official with the state government. He is replaying an image that flashed past his window seat on a train four years ago, more than 1,000 km away.
“My friend and I had gone on a holiday to Kerala and on our train near Shoranur Junction, I looked out of the window and saw people pressing soil into blocks to make bricks,” says the 47-year-old. “That stayed in my head and when I returned to Kanker, I tried that out with some friends. People liked what they saw and started talking about what we were doing with the mooram (red soil). The District Collector came to know about it, called me over, and said, ‘Why don’t you help us in the jail, teach the inmates something that can be useful for their future?’”
And that is how Ajay Mandavi, part babu, part artist, fulltime educator, has ended up changing the lives of nearly 150 Maoists who have passed through his “arts and crafts” class at Kanker District Jail.
“My wish for 2015? That every government office in Chhattisgarh will display at least one piece of work in wood made in our jail. One piece… for example, the entire Vande Mataram etched on wood that we have put together using little blocks… just one piece. It will give a new life to at least 400 people, if you include the families of these boys, and many more to come.”
In PICS: Letters from Latitude 20°15′
Mandavi is a “local boy” — “I am not a Hindu, I am not a Christian, I am a tribal, I am Dravidian” — and he says that’s one reason why the inmates at the jail trust him.
“I started my first class with 15 students. It became 17, then 20, and reached 30 at one point. Then, the jailer gave me a separate ‘campus’, a shed adjoining a cell. Within three months of my first class in June 2010, an inmate who was part of the Maoists’ intelligence wing came up to me and said, ‘Your work is being appreciated outside’.”
Laughing out loud, Mandavi adds, “Of course, I knew that already, otherwise I would have got a ‘warning letter’ by then.”
Humour comes easily to this shy, soft-spoken man even though he has spent all his life in the heart of India’s most dangerous conflict zone.
Soft humour, a kind of mellow pride at how many of his students have reclaimed their lives after “years of brainwashing”, and of course, some sensational stories. Of secret deals, arms smuggling, extreme torture, and of a feared Maoist sharp-shooter who “kindly” warns policemen over a megaphone about his presence before a gunfight begins.
“Here’s one you can publish,” Mandavi says, with a smile. “There was this Maoist boy who was a terror in these parts before I met him in jail. When he was out there, many villagers used to go to him with their complaints. And if he decided that someone was guilty of a serious crime, he would beat him to death with whatever he could lay his hands on. Imagine, hitting someone so much, so hard that they actually die in front of you.”
What happened then? “Art can change the life of any criminal,” Mandavi says.
“He is now out of jail, leading a ‘normal’ life. He has bought a bike, even a tractor. Once, in jail, he told me that he wanted to kill the man who had eloped with his sister. When he last called me, recently, he had just finished lunch at his sister’s house, and was relaxing with his brother-in-law.”
Not all his stories about redemption and renewal in the New Year make you smile, though.
“Another young Maoist started attending my class. I noticed that he used to get these paralytic spasms, and had to be carried around during that period. I slowly gained his confidence and then he told me about the torture. After he was caught, they used to pin him down to the floor, beat him on the backbone,” Mandavi says.
“He was a strong boy, a tribal… his body had recovered but not his mind, and that was the reason for those spasms. I spent a lot of time with him. I then got him to attend a week-long yoga class, drilling the thought into his brain that he would be completely cured after that. He was.”
But then came the most difficult task, says Mandavi. “I asked him how he would treat Maoists, if he was a policeman. He thought for a while, shook his head, and said, ‘Guruji, I would beat them to death’. And so, slowly, I got him to forgive every policeman who tortured him, one by one, everyone. Now he is outside, fresh, free.”
Says a senior jail official on the condition that he not be identified: “What Mandavi does here is very special, he helps these boys build a new life with his art.”
What about Mandavi’s own life as a government employee, now “attached to the jail?” There’s a photo on his mantelpiece of him receiving an award from Pratibha Patil, then the President of India, for his work. What’s that all about?
“Arre, chodiye (Leave it),” he says. Surely, a personal wish for 2015?
“No personal wish,” says Mandavi, whose wife Annu looks after the home and their two children Aakash (15) and Anumeha (13). “I work among troubled people but at home I am trouble-free,” he says.
“I do have a wish for 2015,” says Annu, who greets visitors to their home with a namaste, a pleasant smile and a plate full of warm parathas, all within minutes. “Nothing big, but a small house on the land behind his family home in Govindpur.”
Anumeha, the shy “gudiya” who studies in Class 8 at the Seedling Public School nearby, is a Doraemon fan, like any child her age, and happiest while feeding the small brood of chickens pottering around the small backyard. So what’s her wish for 2015? A long pause and then, softly, she says, “I want a red dress.”
Aakash, a student of Class 9, is in a hostel at the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalalya, nearly half an hour away. “He wants to be a professional shooter so I bought this for him to start with,” says Mandavi, pointing to an air-gun propped up against a wall in the small living room packed with pieces of wood art.
Standing near the door to the kitchen, Annu looks on with a proud smile. “My wife told me one thing which has stayed in my mind,” says Mandavi. “She said never ask people who come to you for help about their past. Don’t make them rewind, take them forward.”