Saroj Vasishth: The ‘Mom’ of Himachal jail inmates


By: Surekha Dhaleta

saroj-vasishth.jpgAnyone would mistake this elderly lady to be one of the ‘spiritual Gurus’ – frail framed, adorning three/four rudraksh malas, many necklaces, numerous rings… and many more ornaments. An intriguing question about her jewellery, sets her rolling. “This is my way of enjoying life,” she tells HimVani.

Defying the age barriers and infirmities of old age, expressing such a vivacity and exuberance at the age of 75 makes this lady worth knowing. She is Saroj Vasishth, the ‘Mom’ to many a jail inmates in Kaithu, Kanda/Ghanahati (Shimla) in Himachal Pradesh and Tihar (Delhi). And that is a sobriquet, she earned, while on her first visit to Tihar – where she was addressed as (Mom) by one of the inmates – while working as a reformer and a storyteller. Now, she’s ‘Mom’ for all, irrespective of the places she goes to.

Besides being a volunteer with the Rangmanch of these numerous jails, she is also a well-known theatre critic, creative writer, translator, and former announcer with the AIR, NewDelhi.

A skilful raconteur that she is, just helps her break the ice with the inmates. “Kaise ana hua?,” is the usual query she poses them. Her intimacy with them has helped her come up with Kshitij Ke Uss Paar Hashiye Par Latka Bhavishya: Himachal Pradesh Ke Karavason Ae Nikli Kavitain, an anthology of compositions of prisoners lodged in various jails of Himachal.

Kshitij Ke… is a result of various workshops organised across different jails of Himachal. Prior to moving to Shimla in 1996, she was actively involved with Tihar jail in Delhi, since 1993, where she worked as a storyteller and a theatre co-ordinator. She has brought out three collections of her poems by inmates in Tihar. This is the first collection from Himachal. This collection entails a variety of poems by prisoners expressing their experiences, their vivid imaginations, recollection of their past etc.

The thought of bringing out a collection of poems by prisoners occurred to her when in 1993-94, she came across a poem expressed by an illiterate inmate of Tihar, Kanahiya. The poem, Kaash actuated Vasishth to collect poems by inmates, and since then she has been organising literary and theatre workshops in various jails to hone the skills of the inmates.

She started working with 400 young inmates (14-16 years) lodged in Jail No-3 (Moonda jail) in Tihar, and founded the Delhi Kala Karam, a Tihar jail project in the field of art, literature and theatre. The project has been extended to the jails of Himachal Pradesh. She has set up 22 libraries in Tihar jail and also has set up libraries in Kaithu and Kanda/Ghanahati jails of Shimla.

“It is just an attempt to foster their creativity,” she says, adding, “an attempt to nurture the tender delicate in them, and to share their loneliness and isolation. Hard core criminals are often given solitary confinements, so this provides them a space for their self disclosure. It’s an attempt to rehabilitate them after infusing in them a spirit of optimism, so that they can come over feelings of despair and nihilism.”

Amla Rai, Jenab Chandel, Shekhar Bhattacharya, theatre artists from Shimla; Shushil Tanwar (Ashadeep) and many more have been her constant companions in Shimla, who have been instrumental in organising theatre workshops, poetry recitals and promoting literary and cultural activities in jails of Himachal.

But what prompted her to take up the work in these jails? “Kiran Bedi! I was just impressed by her work,” she elucidates.

Literature, has been her “passion since childhood”. She is a theatre critic for New Wave and Sanchetna. Some of the stories written by her, which have won acclaim include Apne Karavas (a short story collection, 1982), Main Hoon Na (novel, 1996), Abhivyanjana, Morcha Dar Morcha, 1998, work based on Kiran Bedi’s thoughts and ideas. Besides this, she has compiled and edited an anthology of short stories and poems by eminent writers of Himachal, J&K and Delhi on Kargil War. She is proficient in Japanese and has translated many works of Japanese scholars. Some of her translation works include Hazar Saras, I Dare, Who Walks With Me, Kala November, The Carnage, The Catch and Japan Shitya Ki Jhalak. She has also translated Hindi works of eminent Himachali writer, S R Harnot and 14 Himachali short stories by Naresh Pandit.

She has been conferred with various awards for her endeavour of promoting literature and cultural activities in jails. Some of these include the Vijaya Gujral Foundation award, India Vision Foundation Award, Sixth Red and White Bravery Award, Himotkarsh award for National Integration and exemplary Social Service in various HP prisons, HP Governor’s award for voluntary work in HP jails and many more.

Though she has faced resistance at times but her optimistic spirit keeps her going. On asked what keeps her going at this age, she simply responds, “This is a trait, I’ve inherited from my father. He taught me the mantra of being positive in life and keep on going unfettered whatever be the circumstances.”

On being asked about her future plans, she says that she has this inordinate desire to keep on working for the inmates lodged in prisons of Himachal, especially for the women inmates. Besides doing creative work with them, she wants to impart some income generating skills to them so that they can eke out a living after being released.

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