Malik Taj spent ten years in prison, nine of those on death row. A dispute between families over matters of marriage and promises of the hand of women, Malik Taj was framed in revenge by the family of his brother’s wife, who had run away from her home to be with her fiance. The girl’s family arranged the murder, and had charges bought up against Malik Taj in revenge for their humiliation.
He doesn’t want to talk to me. Malik Taj takes Perwaiz aside and I see them standing together in the far corner of the courtyard of the house discussing the matter. I see Perwaiz place his hands on Malik Taj’s shoulders and explain something to him. Malik Taj has his face averted, and is looking at the ground – like a child being convinced of a need to do something he does not want to. Malik Taj was released from death row nearly six years ago, but still fears speaking out about his experience. He does not want anything published that would attract the unwanted attention of the local police or politicians. He had expressed a reluctance to meet with me when we had spoken to him earlier on the phone. Then Perwaiz had convinced him to at allow us to visit him, and to speak to him directly.
We are standing in the courtyard of a house. It’s not his – he did not want us to see where he lived. There are no walls around the courtyard, but a water channel demarcates its boundaries. The house sits along the main road that passes through this small town – the passing cars stir up clouds of dust that seem to fill the courtyard with a perpetual brown fog. Fields of cane – now mostly cut and lying in piles, spread out behind the house itself. There are four other men there – friends he has bought along for protection or moral support? They are sharing a hookah between them. They had not risen from their chairs when we had arrived, an act of intentional hostility, or indifference, I was not sure which.
Malik Taj’s face wears a look of weariness. He stands slightly bent over, nealy leaning against Perwaiz. I am beginning to think that we may have to leave without getting a chance to speak to him. These men – ex-death row prisoners know well the capriciousness of the local police and their helplessness in the face of its vengeance. Fear and a sense of deep insecurity become a way of life for the ex-prisoner. A number of ex-prisoners I have tried to reach simply went into hiding, refusing to return telephone calls or open the doors of their homes when we have came calling. I understand their reactions and their fears. For the poor, the powerful remain a inexplicably vengeful and violent phenomenon.
Eventually I see Perwaiz walking towards me. He is smiling and gestures to me to come forward. Malik Taj and I are finally introduced. He discomfort is written all over him. His doubts about what he has agreed to do can be read in the reluctant handshake, his refusal to meet my eye and the low, hesitant voice with which he asks that I follow him into the house. He leads me towards the interior of the house. He wants to speak away from the public eye. We enter one of the rooms – its dark, cold and barely furnished. There is a wooden bed in a corner, and a couple of grungy plastic chairs. The bare cement walls give the impression of it being used mostly for storage. Perwaiz and I sit on the plastic chairs, while Malik Taj takes a place on the bed.
I know that I will have to keep this interview short and so I get right to what we he seems to be most pre-occupied with. Why so much fear Malik Taj?
We – my three brothers and I, had lands before all this happened to me. Ten years in prison and we lost it all. We have been reduced to day wage laborers. I cannot afford any more trouble.
His body seems to have collapsed on itself and he sits scrunched up, as if trying to wrap himself around himself. The squint in his right eye has worsened – perhaps the stress of this meeting is too much for him at this stage. This is not a man comfortable with the position he finds himself in. He is in doubt about everything he is saying, and concerned that he may be creating problems for himself.
Prison is not a life you want to experience – it is like being buried alive.
He pauses. As if trying to decided what he can really say.
You live day and night with eight or nine men. There isn’t room to stretch your legs, or even find space to sleep. Everything is done in turns – eat, sleep, defecate, it’s all done in turns. You are caged – worse than animals in some many ways.
He pauses again.
They will let you our for 15 minutes in the morning – you are in handcuffs or chains. And then again in the afternoon. It’s not something I want to experience again.
I knew that a murder was used to frame him. His younger brother’s wife had run away from her home and chosen to marry him against her family’s wishes. This had angered the girl’s family who believed that Malik Taj’s brother had convinced her to leave her home and run away with him. The shame had been too much and the girl’s family chose to exact revenge. They killed one of their own – an older relative who according to Malik Taj had often been ill, and filed a murder case against Malik Taj. He was tried, and convicted on the basis of testimony given by two witnesses who swore they saw him carry out the killing.
These are difficult times. We are still going through a very hard time. My father died while I was in prison. My mother died some two years ago. The hardships we faced – all because of this false charge, destroyed this entire family. We are now merely making ends meet.
He bites his lips.
We have been reduced to day laborers.
We sit quietly. His voice trails off and I feel that he is no longer interested in speaking further. And right on cue he says, as he gets up to leave.
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