By: Bhawani Negi
Saroj Vasishth, a noted theatre critic and a social activist, has reformed many lives in the closed walls of the jail. She has moved beyond the edges of daily life to serve felons of the civilized society. It was her love for every creation of God, patience and hard work that made her to bring about a change inside the dark cells.
Saroj graduated from Marinda House in 1952. After finishing studies, she got married and was having a happy life with kids, followed by a satisfying job at AIR, Delhi. However, the turning point in her life came when her youngest son at the age of 18 suffered a kidney failure and underwent a transplant. Saroj says, “The event gave me a sense of direction and change is visible. Now I am doing what I always wanted to.” She believes that the best in her came by reaching out to people of the lesser God.
She tells that she was inspired by Kiran Bedi, the then IG (Prisons), Delhi, who was reforming the prison culture at Tihar Jail. Saroj started in Tihar Jail by volunteering as a story-teller to achieve reformation in jail-inmates. Storytelling was soon followed by donation of books and stationery for setting up a library in Tihar jail with support from friends. For a long time she was associated with the jail reforms at Tihar Jail and later shifted to Shimla to keep her association continued with jail inmates. Her project of reforming jail inmates in Himachal was supported by Delhi-based NGO Delhi Kala Karam. After Kaithu and Kanda jail, the project has spread out to other jails at Chamba, Nahan, Bilaspur and Dharamshala.
She explains that literary expression of the inmates was brought out through workshops and poetry writing. She adds, “The basic idea was not only to spread literacy and to add some sense in the life of these jail-inmates, but also to reduce their pain and agony through literature and theatre.” Recently a 30-day theatre workshop, under the aegis of Delhi Kala Karam, funded by National School of Drama, was organized in Kaithu jail for jail inmates under the direction of noted theatre critic Amla Rai. The workshop was followed by successful staging of play “Muawajey” (compensations) that witnessed participation of the inmates.
Her voluntary work for the inmates has brought many laurels aboard in her social life. She has been awarded Indira Gandhi Priyadarshni Award, Sixth Red and White Bravery Award and Himotkarsh award and many more for her efforts to reform prisoners. She was also felicitated for the jail project by India Vision Foundation, which is run by Kiran Bedi, in September last year.
She has authored Apne-Apne Karavas, Aise Jaise Kuch Hua Hi Nahin – books focusing on Tihar inmates’ life. These books try to bring out the pain and agony of those behind the bars. Recently, she came out with “Zindani” compilation of short stories which narrates how mothers are prisoners of their sons (children). She has also released collection of three Hindi poems each by Tihar jail inmates and inmates of prison in Himachal.
Besides, her original works, she has also translated various works in Hindi, which includes Snow Country and Hazar Saras by Noble Prize winner Yasunari Kawabatta and The Catch by Nobel prize winner Kenzaburo Oe. She is currently working on her book “Araaif”, which proposes an imaginary transit place for reformed prisoners, where the fate is decided by God on whether the prisoner should be sent to heaven or hell.
She acknowledges her husband Satish Vasishth as her biggest strength in life. She candidly tells at the age of 76 yrs, “My husband has been supportive in whatever I do and that keeps me going.”